Piazza dell’Unita is the beating Austro-Hungarian heart of Trieste.
Here, the Grand Cafés – Harry’s Bar (not to be confused with the one in Venice) and the 19th-century Caffe degli Specchi, all wood-paneled countertops and gilded-mirror walls – face out onto the most striking element of the piazza: where it stops.
On three sides, the Piazza is all imperial-looking Habsburgian municipal buildings – white, grand, and impressive. But the fourth side, the most impressive of all, contains nothing: the piazza simply vanishes into the Adriatic Sea that laps at the marbled pavement. It’s the place where Trieste meets the rest of the world – and where all Triestines meet.
Sitting with the sea breeze blowing in, my companion Francesca attempts to explain the history of the most famous cocktail of Trieste: the Hugo. This mix of elderflower cordial, sparkling wine, fresh mint and berries is named after a bartender called Hugo, says her friend but Francesca denies this. “It comes from Yugo,” she says. “It’s named for Yugoslavia.” Slovenian Istria is, after all, just a 20-minute drive over the border, Croatia just a few miles further.
It’s a typically Triestine origin story. Here, by virtue of the city’s strategic position near Austria, the Balkans and the sea, national identity is never truly fixed. Viennese coffee can be ordered alongside Balkan burek alongside spaghetti alla vongole. The Italian dialect blends Germanic and Slovenian influences.
Later, we enjoy the passagiata. This all-but-ceremonial walk governs town rhythms and takes locals from the winding Medieval old town, the faded boulevards around the station and the lively modern student enclaves near San Marco Café. Like a river running downstream, they settle on Piazza dell’Unita to drink Hugos aromatic with elderflower and pick at the salty crostini brought with the apertivo. And, above all things, they look out at the sea.