An Italian town is in a remarkable state of limbo

In the hills beyond Trieste, Italy, lies a curious world stuck between two cultures, where unique rural taverns run as they did a century ago. 
An Italian town is in a remarkable state of limbo

Photography by Colin Dutton

“You’re going to walk out of here crooked,” says my friend Michelle—not an outlandish statement, except it’s 10:30 in the morning. We’re the only sober people at Gruden Stanislav, a sparsely decorated, wood-beamed osmiza (or tavern) on the hilly and—as I would find out—oddly unique northeastern fringe of Italy. A fire crackles in the stone fireplace as an old man drinks from a carafe of cherry-sour teran wine (a regional specialty), leaving red circles on the plastic checkered tablecloth.

Though we’re in Italy, the menu, a computer printout unceremoniously thumb-tacked to the wall, is mostly in Slovene, and advertises Slovenian fare: home-cured ham and salami, sharp local cheese, homemade wine. The tavern is set in the highlands of what locals call the Carso (known in Slovene as Kras), named for the bone-white limestone plateau that elevates this network of hills and villages above the Adriatic coastline, a 20-minute drive from the regional capital of Trieste, on the Italian side of the border with Slovenia.

As a veteran traveler of Italy, this corner of the country had long fascinated me. To get to know it, my strategy is to walk the pine-thick Carso woods from town to town on footpaths and scenic roads. My companion, Michelle Kling, is from Duino, just north of Trieste, and founder of an NGO spearheading, among other projects, a “Made in Trieste” initiative to sell local products.

The Carso is a beguiling cultural and geographical hybrid: A 165-square-mile stretch of rugged land, it is neither fully mountainous nor coastal, neither wholly Italian nor Balkan (Trieste and its surroundings were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). It contains a dozen or so highland villages, each with about a thousand people. The villages are predominantly Slovene-speaking, and their folk rituals, such as “Karst Marriages”—a collective celebration of the weddings between villagers that year—are rooted in Slovene rather than Italian customs. The Adriatic is visible from most high points, yet the traditional wooden karst houses, built around courtyards and wells, evoke the Central European world of the Habsburgs.

Nothing is more typical of the Carso than the osmiza, such as the one in which we’re drinking—informal gathering places that are often equal parts bar and small-scale farm. Variously spelled osmizza and osmica, in keeping with the linguistic polyphony of the region, and dating back to the days of the 19th-century Austro-Hungarian Empire, the osmiza, or “eight-place,” historically represented a chance for peasants to sell their homemade goods—cheese, wine, cured meats, jams—tax-free. Each osmiza (every village in the Carso has three or four, usually family-owned) was limited to eight days’ opening a year, in order to avoid ruinous competition among proprietors. An opening would be announced by a garland of ivy over an osmiza’s sign.

Little has changed in these highlands. While osmize are now open more than eight days a year, their hours remain limited; their tax-free status is contingent on selling exclusively unheated, homemade products, and they still hang ivy to show who’s open for business. Though some have been transformed into agriturismos and sell regional hot food like goulash or Triestine bean-and-kraut soup, locals still informally refer to them by the same name.

Here at Gruden Stanislav—in a stone courtyard on the outskirts of the coastal village of Duino—none of the morning visitors seem particularly sober. An old man grunts into what must be his third or fourth glass of teran, while seemingly reading the same page of the newspaper over and over. Sometimes, the proprietress Alma Stanislav tells me, the osmiza has to close early. She shrugs. “When the wine runs out, that’s it!”

She hands me a hard-boiled egg, along with a six-month-old cheese and piquant slices of salami. “You’re going to need that,” Michelle says. We will, at least, have to keep some of our wits about us. Our plan is to walk from Malchina to Rupen, a journey of between 10 and 15 miles, along pathways still traveled on horseback—not the most challenging hike ever, but a substantial one. And yet, on this crisp winter afternoon, it is the warm osmize, with their fireplaces and coal stoves, that seem most appealing.

During our highly punctuated trek, we end up consuming several eggs, platters of salami seasoned with peppercorn and a few carafes of house wines. We hike along acorn-dotted footpaths, through pale meadows and dense thickets, past vineyards and villages, barns and cowsheds. We stop at the ruins of the Monrupino sanctuary, a 16th-century church on the site of an older fortress at which—so local legend has it—inhabitants sought shelter from the Turks.

When we reach the village of Prosecco we take the advice of one of the osmiza owners and detour onto the Via Napoleonica, a mile-and-a-half-long footpath to the Triestine suburb of Opicina, where the British explorer and travel writer Richard Francis Burton first translated A Thousand and One Nights in a local sanatorium.

The narrow road, cut straight into the limestone, makes a stark border between mountain town and the coast. On my left, pines dot the hills. On my right, limestone cliffs plunge wildly toward the sea. The bora—the harsh northeasterly wind that gives the climate its stark beauty—keeps raging.

Despite the appeal here, it is always a pleasure to find ourselves before a fire, or an old electric pellet stove, surrounded by local characters. Each osmiza I visit has its own distinct character: the picturesque rusticity of Stanislav, in Samatorza; the ramshackle feel of Pahor Luciana, in Medeazza, outside of which pigs snuffle in the dirt. We see few foreign tourists—osmize largely serve locals, as well as weekenders or day-trippers from Trieste. I drink more hearty teran wine, followed by lemony white malvasia, then, for dessert, a deceptively sweet liqueur: a mix of wine, rum and vanilla extract. I begin to see what Michelle meant by “crooked.”

No osmiza, perhaps, has the raucous charm to match Franz Fabec’s, located in the village of Malchina. I’d met Fabec earlier, as I was staying at his guesthouse. I’d been the only visitor in the typical 19th-century timber farmhouse overlooking fir forests. Fabec, who is theatrically gruff (people’s mannerisms here run more Slavic than Italian), seemed surprised to find a tourist here at all. “It will be cold,” he said, without expression, and turned on the boiler, adding that it would take a good while to warm up.

By the time Michelle and I get to Fabec’s osmiza, I am exhausted. Four eggs and several miles walking have done little to mitigate the effects of the wine Michelle has insisted I drink at every stop on our hike. Once there, I try to ask for a coffee, water, something light. Maybe a salad? Fabec laughs in my face. It is the first time I’ve seen him smile.

Finally, finally, we agree on a wine spritz. More plates come out: spicy salami, rustic bread. A group of men in their 70s—woodcutters—are loudly speculating on where Michelle and I are from. Their distinctive Triestinà dialect reflects the region’s cultural diversity, blending Italian with loanwords from Slovene and Greek. They sing “Wind in the Water” to us. They buy us salami, even though we have a plate of our own. They insist we take more wine. A man called Mauro makes a chivalrous show of kissing my hand.

Fabec sighs. “There are people,” he says, “They come to my establishment when it opens at nine and they stay until midnight.” But the booze is a means to an end. The osmize, he says, are about community. Though the towns of the Carso are slowly dwindling in size—as workers commute into Udine or Trieste, and younger people seek opportunities outside the region—these simple taverns provide a precious glimpse into an older way of life: slow, slightly strange, endlessly convivial.

Fabec looks at the singing woodcutters and shrugs. “You see?” he says, “This is what we do in the Carso.”


IF YOU GO

Though not heavily touristed, the Carso region is well-suited for travel

Getting In

From Venice, it’s a two-hour train ride to Trieste, and a quick half-hour bus (#51) to the village of Duino, a good starting point for any osmiza trail.

Getting Around

Strolling from village to village is easy enough (rarely more than 30 minutes). And the number 44 bus from Trieste serves most villages including Duino, Malchina and Prosecco.

Finding Osmize

It’s a safe bet that four or five osmize will be open in the Carso at any given time. Osmize.com has a calendar and contact information.

Where to Stay

In Duino, the family-run Porto del Bivio offers a warm atmosphere a 10-minute walk from the waterfront. For a more rustic stay, try Franz Fabec’s Klarceva guesthouse in the hamlet of Ceroglie.