Don’t expect to (only) speak Italian. Trieste, right on Italy’s border with Slovenia, has changed hands several times in its 2,000-year history. It’s been an Austrian Habsburg port, the site of a Napoleonic occupation, and even, briefly, an independent city-state. Both Slovene and Italian are widely spoken, and in Karst villages outside Trieste, you may find native Slovene speakers. But triestinà—the city’s wildly inventive cosmopolitan dialect, influenced by the city’s many conquerors—is a language in itself. Here, you don’t “accendere una sigaretta,” as in traditional Italian, but “impizar un’ spagnoletto.” As a half-Italian, half-American with an astoundingly confused cultural background, I find that Trieste’s gleeful polyphony feels like home. I first came to Trieste in 2010 for a travel story, then to cover the Triestine independence movement then, increasingly, almost by accident, because wherever I was going in Central Europe or Northern Italy, it seemed that Trieste—a bus or train ride away from so many other capitals—kept calling me back.
Don’t be put off by first impressions. Trieste’s historic center is almost ostentatiously grand, with snowy imperial Austrian buildings and the art nouveau borsa (stock exchange), but the area around the train station (which is also where airport buses drop off passengers) is singularly unprepossessing. Faded 19th-century houses, vertiginous traffic (there’s a dimly lit, ostensibly safe underpass) and a proliferation of discount clothing stores make the walk between Trieste’s railway station and its Old Town one of the least auspicious in Italy. (Many of the city’s cheaper hostels and B&Bs are here, and some, popular with groups of single men seeking work in the port, are seedier than others.) But 10 minutes on foot into the city center and you’re sipping cocktails on the waterfront.