Travels & Traditions: Trieste, Italy - #113

The city of Trieste sits on the shore of the Adriatic Sea in the northeast corner of Italy.  It’s an Italian city that speaks Italian and eats pasta, but it was part of the Austrian Empire for hundreds of years so it also speaks German and eats sauerkraut. Trieste is a  monument to freedom of religion. A center for music from Puccini to pop. It has a two-thousand-year-old history of great theater, in dozens of different forms.  It’s home to one of the most romantic castles in Italy and the largest grotto in the world.  The city’s Italian heritage makes it romantic, but its Austrian heritage makes you show up on time for your kiss.  Interesting contrasts!  So join me, Burt Wolf, for TRAVELS & TRADITIONS  in Trieste, Italy.  

To the west of the city is the sea, and for the past four thousand years the sea has controlled Trieste’s destiny. Trieste is the most northern port on the Adriatic Sea, and that has made it one of the most important trading centers in Europe.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Sugar and spice and everything nice came up from the Mediterranean and went on to central Europe. The goods from central Europe came down and went out to the ports of the Mediterranean and Africa.

The first people to live in the area that became the city of Trieste settled here about four thousand years ago. They built a walled town on the top of what is now called San Giusto Hill.

About fifty years before the birth of Christ, the ancient Romans took over and eventually built a temple. When Christianity replaced the Paganism of the Romans, the Cathedral of San Giusto was built on top of the Roman temple. Some parts of the cathedral were actually built out of the Roman temple. The door jambs of the main entrance are Roman sculptures cleverly recycled.  Throughout the structure you can see Roman columns and supports that the cathedral builders reused. The present cathedral was constructed during the 1300s, when two churches that stood next to each other were combined. The facing side walls were taken down, and the buildings connected by a new central aisle covered by a ceiling that looks like the keel of a ship, and was probably made by carpenters who were normally working as shipbuilders. There are two beautiful Byzantine-style mosaics from the 1100s which are not easy to see until you place a coin in a box that turns on the spotlights.  Interesting symbolism -- contribute to the church and become enlightened.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): For three hundred years starting in the 13th Century, Trieste was in constant competition with Venice. Trieste had the better port but Venice had the better army.  In order to protect itself from the Venetians, Trieste placed itself under the protection of the kings of Austria.  One of those kings, Charles VI, in 1719 declared Trieste a free-port.  And that’s when things got to be fun. When his daughter Maria Theresa took the throne, she not only continued the policy of  having it a free-port, but in order to attract merchants from all over the world, she guaranteed social equality and religious freedom.

As soon as there were one hundred families sharing the same religion, they were allowed to build their own house of worship. Today the result of this liberal policy can be seen all over Trieste.

The Church of San Spiridione was built in the Byzantine style by the Serbian community. As with all Christian Orthodox churches, the interior is dominated by icons. The structure known as the iconostasis divides the space available to human beings from the space devoted to the divine. Majestic doors allow only the priests to move between the two worlds. The silver- and gold-covered icons depict life on the other side. 

The church of Saint Antonio Nuovo was built in the neoclassic style, which looks back to the architecture of ancient Greek temples. It’s the largest Catholic church in Trieste.

The Evangelical Church was built for the Lutheran community in the Gothic style:  sharp spires... arched windows. It was designed to remind the worshipers of their northern European history.

Trieste is also the home of the second largest synagogue in Europe. Its look is characteristic of Syrian architecture, which is where the original members of the community came from.  The Jewish population of Trieste first established itself here during the 12th Century.

These houses of worship stand as testimony to Maria Theresa’s understanding of religious freedom. She knew that freedom of worship was essential for a society whose economic base was international trade. 

Besides introducing religious freedom, Maria Theresa also directed the city’s architectural renaissance. The area which is now called the Theresian Quarter is an elegant example of 18th Century city planning.  The streets are placed at right angles. Rectangular squares open the space. Canals were cut into the heart of the quarter, making it easier for merchant ships to unload their goods directly into the import houses. The Grand Canal is an excellent example of the form.  By the end of the 1800s the city was so wealthy and so deeply involved in international trade that it was to a great extent Trieste’s labor force and Trieste’s money that built the Suez Canal. 

The Theresian Quarter is also home to one of Trieste’s most unusual shops. Its owner is Primo Rovis, who was one of the most important coffee traders in the world. His hobby is collecting minerals and fossils, which are offered for sale in his store. I asked Primo what fascinated him about these stones and his answer was quite interesting. He said that when we think of nature we usually think about trees and flowers and animals... things that are easy to see. Minerals and fossils are extraordinary examples of nature, but you must dig them out. He likes searching for beauty.

A few blocks south of the Theresian Quarter is The Piazza Unita D’Italia. It was once part of an ancient Roman harbor. Over the centuries it silted up and eventually became one of the largest and most impressive plazas in Europe. At the top of the square the City Hall looks out to the sea.  On the north side is one of the town’s oldest cafes. On the south side is the city’s most historic hotel, the Grand Hotel Duchi D’Aosta. The hotel’s design is meant to give guests the feeling that they are staying in the home of a well-to-do family. 

The original hotel on this site was built in the 1300s and was right on the sea. It was put up to offer a hospitable resting place for merchants arriving on trading vessels, and there’s been a hotel on this site ever since.  In 1805 the cafe on the ground floor became the first gastronomic establishment in Trieste to be open twenty-four hours a day. The citizens of Trieste wanted a place where they could party as long as they liked. Today the area is known as Harry’s Grill.  The bar was designed by the same architect who put up Harry’s Bar in Venice.  The Winter Garden that faces out on the plaza is heated in the winter months, but opens up to the Piazza during the spring and summer.   Across the street is the hotel’s wine cellar. It contains over 30,000 bottles (just in case everybody gets thirsty at the same time).  

The hotel Duchi is presently owned and run by the Benvenuti family. Their insistence on 21st Century technology beneath the hotel’s classical surface is very much the influence of the Austrian tradition. High-touch and high-tech:  the ongoing story of Trieste.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Keeping the city a free-port and guaranteeing religious freedom were very important.  But Maria Theresa’s most unusual effort was integrating the old aristocracy with the new merchants. The counts had the titles but the merchants had the money and money counted.  The question was, how are you going to get these two groups together?  The aristocracy wouldn’t allow the merchants into their homes, and they certainly wouldn’t go to the homes of the merchants.  But it was okay for the children of the aristocracy to meet the children of the merchants in a cafe, and eventually marry the money. Good plan. The dukes got the dough, the countesses got the cash, and the city got some great cafes, some of which are still open. 

Experts consider Trieste to be the world epicenter for great coffee. The Arab world knew about coffee since the 900s. But it only arrived in Europe during the 1600s. The Austrian capital of Vienna became famous for its coffee drinking, but it was the port of Trieste that became famous for bringing the best coffee beans to Vienna. And Trieste is still a center for fine coffee production. A perfect place to look at Trieste’s balancing and blending between the traditions of Italy and those of the Austrian Empire is a coffee company called Illy Caffe. 

 BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The founder of the firm was Francesco Illy, an accountant who had been drafted into the Austrian army during the First World War, and stationed in Trieste.  At the end of the war he decided to stay on here and go into the coffee business. In 1935 his analytical mind led him to the development of the first automatic espresso machine that used compressed air instead of steam. And that was a big deal, because up to that point most of the coffee in Europe had been made by boiling water and coffee together and holding it in a huge urn.  Very often when you got your coffee, it had been sitting in that urn for hours. 

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Italy introduced  the idea of made-to-order coffee and called it “espresso.” The word “espresso” means fast, as in “Federal Espresso.” But in terms of coffee it means “a single cup made for you when you order it.” In the beginning espresso was only made in coffeehouses.  Unfortunately, the early machines used steam, which extracted negative elements from the beans.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Francesco’s system was able to use water at a lower temperature that extracted only the best flavor elements. Just for the record, the ideal temperature for brewing coffee is between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit.  

Francesco also came up with a pressurized packing system that helped keep the coffee fresh. These days Illy makes their own special cans... puts in the coffee... takes out the air... and replaces it with inert gas under pressure, which keeps the flavor in the coffee.

At the end of the Second World War, the company was taken over by Francesco’s son Ernesto. Ernesto is one of the leading chemists in Italy and his passion is the science of coffee. He knew that he could make a great cup of espresso, but he wanted to understand the scientific principles that caused the flavor. And he wanted to be able to calibrate those principles so he could produce the same level of excellence every time. The Italian passion for a sensual experience coupled with the Austrian desire for control. 

The traditional system used for purchasing of beans by a coffee roasting company consists of receiving a small sample batch of beans, roasting them, and taste-testing. If you like what you taste in the sample, you order a larger quantity. 

When the shipment arrives from the coffee-growing country, you taste again to make sure that the shipment matches the original sample. Problem is, you are relying on your taste memory of the original sample and a series of tasting notes that you made weeks ago. You try to control as many variables as possible, but it’s difficult and not very scientific. From moment to moment things can affect your sense of taste. 

So Dr.Illy built a multimillion dollar lab and is figuring out how to get DNA fingerprints from coffee beans. They still taste-test the samples, but now they also make a chemical fingerprint for the beans they like. When the main shipment arrives, they take another fingerprint of the beans to make sure that the beans they got are the same as the beans they ordered.

DR. ERNESTO ILLY:  Espresso, contrary to regular coffee, is mainly olfaction; maybe sixty percent is the nose, and only forty percent is the taste.  In regular coffee you have eighty percent taste and only twenty percent olfaction, if the coffee is freshly-brewed.  So the slightest defect is perceivable.  We are trying to understand the complexity of the coffee flavor, which is a cocktail of many hundred components.  And not all the components have the same contribution.  Some are excellent, and they are beautiful, and some are negative, and they are stinking, and they destroy the pleasure.  So we are looking to understand the good components.  So we go back to the green coffee bean, and then we hope to be able to correlate this information with the genetic structure of the plant.  Because if something is in a bean, it has been expressed by a gene that is in the DNA of the plant.  We will be able to understand the excellence of a cup by looking to the DNA and say, “Oh -- the DNA has this and this and this gene, that are the genes of the high quality.”  And so you will have wonderful coffee from the very beginning, on the bean.

Until recently the only way to make a proper cup of espresso was to buy the best beans from a top-quality roasting company... grind them...  carefully measure them into the machine... pat the coffee down with the proper pressure... and send the water through.   For a second cup you cleaned the holder and started the entire process again.  Not the easiest procedure.  Not always done properly by the people behind the counter. And definitely not something that the average person is willing to do at home on a daily basis.  So Illy developed and shared with a number of other coffee companies and coffee machine manufacturers a new way to make espresso. 

ANDREA ILLY / CEO:  Here is the Easy Serving Espresso.  It’s a system made out of pre-ground coffee, already tamped, right dosing [amount of coffee].  And you have just to insert into the machine, and you have your coffee.  It’s as simple as this.  So what happens?  The espresso, which is the quintessential of coffee, and probably the most difficult way to prepare coffee suddenly becomes the easiest way to prepare coffee.  Look at that.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Every day over three million cups of Illy Caffe are served in over sixty different countries. Just another example of Trieste continuing its four thousand year history of international trading. 

The people of Trieste, like almost everyone in Italy and increasing numbers of people all over the world, use espresso as a restful break throughout the day, but they also use it to mark the end of a meal. The food in Trieste, like everything else in this city, is a blend of Italian and Austro-Hungarian influences. The most traditional type of eatery is called a “buffet.” Buffet Da Pepi is a good example. At first it looks like the neighborhood restaurants of Italy, but in Trieste they offer ham baked in a bread crust, hot sausages and sauerkraut. Clearly the influence of Austria.

The next step up is called a Birreria, which translates as “a place to drink beer,” but most of them also serve the traditional foods of Trieste. This is the Birreria Forst... good goulash with bread dumplings, sauerkraut, frankfurters, sacher torte, and apple strudel. Not quite the menu you would expect in a restaurant serving the historic foods of an Italian city. 

If you’re interested in views to dine by, the restaurant at the Hotel Riviera & Maximilian’s is a good spot.  About ten minutes’ drive out of town, it hangs over the only private beach on the coast and offers not only great views but some excellent Triestini food. 

We started with ham that had been baked in a crust of bread... ham that had been smoked... a mild local cheese... and frico, which is a pancake made from cheese, onions and potatoes.  Slices of each of those were served together.  Next was jute, a soup that truly illustrates the marriage between the gastronomic traditions of Austria and Italy. The base is made with beans -- very Italian, but the second major ingredient is sauerkraut.  Other first courses -- pasta with scampi and rice with shrimp.  Trieste is a major seaport, so it’s only natural that second courses start with an extraordinary selection of local fish and shellfish.  Meat dishes feature stinko, which is roasted shinbone of pork with pan-roasted potatoes. The Triestini also love fresh sausages served with grilled vegetables.  A favorite side dish is made from baked potatoes and onions.  There are also three traditional breads. One is a coil of dough filled with nuts, raisins, and chocolate. The second is a dry yeast bread made with lots of eggs, and the third is packed with nuts, raisins and cinnamon.  And of course, espresso at the end.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Coffee appears to stimulate the most creative and artistic parts of the human brain, which may be the reason that Trieste has such a distinguished cultural history. The citizens of this city have a greater dedication to music and theater than any other city in Italy.

This is the city’s Opera House, named after Verdi who for a while lived in Trieste and composed two operas for this theater. The building inherited a theatrical tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. The opera’s history may be old but its technology is up-to-date. The counter of the ticket office contains a computer screen that shows you the seating plan.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The purple indicates annual subscriptions, which will give you a pretty good idea of how devoted the people of Trieste are to their opera.  The white ones have also been taken, and the only ones that are available are the green ones, except for that one, which is about to become my seat.  And the whole system is on the Web, so you can purchase your ticket from just about anywhere in the world.

The most popular theater in Trieste is the Rossetti. It has been used for the presentation of opera, variety shows, the circus, boxing, wrestling, political rallies, which were sometimes difficult to tell from the wrestling and the first showing of a motion picture in Trieste. Stefano Curti is the director of communications.

STEFANO CURTI:  We host a variety of shows that go from drama to plays and musicals and pop concerts.  We work a lot with young people; we have a production of “Pinocchio” made by students aged nine to eleven, and this is in rehearsal now.  Over a third of our audience is under twenty-six, which is absolutely remarkable, if you think that -- We always think that the theatre is in crisis; in this city we have over three thousand students coming to the theatre every week to see the shows that arrive over here.  Tonight we have a pop concert, and it’s a concert from an artist from Venice, Patty Pravo.  She was a very popular artist in the 70s, and she enjoyed a remarkable comeback last year at the San Remo Festival, and we’re gonna have a sold-out night tonight.

We have the home of a very important puppet company, Piccoli di Podrecca, who were a world-famous puppet company in the 40s and 50s.  They travelled all over the world, and they stayed on Broadway for over a year.  And we now have a course for young people, trying to learn the art of making a puppet, of building a puppet.

Before the cultural forces representing Austrian and Italian traditions gave Trieste its social form, there were geographic elements that gave Trieste its physical form. This is the Grotta Gigante, and it is one of the largest caves in the world. Many of the caves near Trieste were inhabited by people coming to this area in prehistoric times and that was probably the case for the higher levels of the grotta. These are the caves of the cavemen.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): This is the largest cavity in the world with a domed vault. St. Peter’s Basilica could actually fit in here.

The grotta has been listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest cave available to tourists. The two white plastic tubes in the center of the grotta are part of a scientific experiment that is measuring the tides of the earth. It appears that it is not only the sea which rises and falls with the movement of the moon. The earth also expands and contracts with the lunar pull and that pulse is being studied here.   

The Grotta Gigante is one of Trieste’s favorite geographic structures; the castle at Miramare is one of its favorite historical structures. It’s situated on a picturesque point that stretches out into the Adriatic Sea.  The design was taken from the English and Norman castles of the late Renaissance. It’s surrounded by acres of beautifully landscaped gardens. It was built in the middle of the 1800s for Maximillian of Hapsburg, the Archduke of Austria. Maximilian was married to Princess Charlotte, the daughter of King Leopold of Belgium. They were the leading aristocratic lovebirds of the time and represented romantic bliss, but only for a brief period.  In 1864 Maximilian left Trieste to become Emperor of Mexico. Three years later he was executed by Benito Juarez. Charlotte went insane.  A story of tragic love, and one that has touched the hearts of the people of Trieste.  And Trieste has touched me.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The romance of the Italians balancing against the structuralism of the Austrians. Passion and punctuality -- and the best espresso in the world. What else could you ask for? I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief visit to Trieste, and I hope you will join me next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I’m Burt Wolf.