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Patrons drink in the history of Caffè San Marco in Trieste, Italy. (Photograph by Massimo Caregnato)

Savoring Italy’s Caffè Capital: Trieste

At dusk in this northeastern Italian city, everything turns pink.

The water of the Grand Canal, flowing inland from the Adriatic Sea toward a waterfront statue of James Joyce, reflects the slanting light. The white Habsburg facades, remnants of Trieste’s former glory as an Austro-Hungarian port, blush in the hazy sun.

Men in suits and flat caps gather along the docks of the canal, where elegant women in furs leash greyhounds. The hour for caffè—Trieste is home to the famous coffee roasting company Illy, after all—slides seamlessly into the time for aperitivo: wine, and small plates like thick bread topped with local cheese.

Elsewhere in Italy, locals down espresso on the go, but Trieste is a city for lingerers. The ornate, wood-paneled “grand cafés” here honor the legacy of Vienna, not Rome. Though the city has a complicated history—it belonged to Italy, Austria, Germany during World War II, Yugoslavia, and finally Italy again.

Trieste is particularly proud of its literary legacy. James Joyce finished writing Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in this city; novelist and Trieste native Italo Svevo was a regular at the century-old Caffè San Marco—adorned with frescoed muses and bronze-painted coffee leaves—where today a man in a sweater-vest scribbles on his companion’s manuscript with a red pen. Here, many of the senior professors at the city’s university have their own tables reserved.

Coffee in Trieste has a language of its own: You order not espresso but nero, not cappuccino but a capo in tazza grande. Those not looking for caffeinated cups ask for a deca.

I should leave to catch my train; instead, I order another drink. In Trieste, I have learned, there is seldom any rush.

This piece, written by Tara Isabella Burton (on Twitter at @NotoriousTIB), first appeared in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. 

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