These days cities are awash with coffee shops, brew bars, specialty coffee houses and the likes, many of which function as so-called ‘coffices’, spaces where people engage in all sorts of mostly laptop based work alongside their espressos, flat whites and chatter. It would be pretty hypocritical of me to complain of such places though, since I am a faithful patron of many, yet in my heart of hearts I have always longed for an establishment which harks back to the old days of imperial coffee consumption and of which Budapest unfortunately has none.
Several coffee houses have attempted to recreate the atmosphere of those halcyon days of caffeination, but the break in tradition remains painfully obvious. These places do not continue a lifestyle as much as reconstruct an idea of said lifestyle- which is a nice postmodern endeavour, but not the thing I’ve been looking for.
The thing I’ve been looking for can however be found in Trieste- now a bustling city in Italy’s North, but once, of course, the major Mediterranean port of the Habsburg Empire and as such the point where coffee entered the bloodstream of the giant state. The fact that Trieste is still enamoured with the black liquid is vastly evident from the number and diversity of establishments offering it- and also by the quality of the end product.
Some places do however stand out even in such sea of excellence, and Caffé San Marco on via Cesare Battisti 18 is one of them. (Don’t be confused by the silly Italian numbering, at 18 you will find something akin to an appliance store but next to it, under a rather unassuming guise is 18A, and inside it Caffé San Marco.) Its history started in the fateful year 1914 and still in the bosom of the Empire- albeit one of its main activities was hosting pro-Italian irredentists, for which it was duly closed the next year. It later gained a new lease of life in the now nominally Italian but culturally still very diverse city and in both periods served as the ‘coffice’ of some ‘modest’ literary figures such as Italo Svevo, Umberto Saba and James Joyce.
Joyce had auto-exiled himself on the continent and had sought a teaching job in Zürich, but was finally offered employment in Trieste. Here he penned most of the short stories which were to be collected as Dubliners, and befriended one of his students, Ettore Schmitz, better known as Italo Svevo, who served as an inspiration for Ulysses’ Leopold Bloom and whose works Joyce enthusiastically promoted when the Italian literary establishment initially failed to grasp their value.
Inhabitation by writers is however not only a thing of the past for Caffé San Marco: in 2013, when the building’s owner, insurance company Assicurazioni Generali, threatened to close the place and reallocate the space for more lucrative undertakings, whatever those meant, the campaign to preserve it was led by Trieste based writer and translator Claudio Magris, who often works from the San Marco.
Thankfully the campaign proved successful, and Caffé San Marco continues to serve the citizens of Trieste, for unlike many famed locales, the San Marco is not a tourist trap with expensive cakes but a real coffee house, with pleasant woodwork and many mirrors, neighbourhood regulars storming in for a quick shot of espresso at the bar, groups of elderly ladies out for a chat, solitary poker faced readers, students toiling over assignments or artists brainstorming over projects. One of its wings hosts a bookstore and the entrance area is plastered with posters advertising upcoming events. And if anyone had a doubt about it, the coffee is excellent too- no fussy concoctions, no matcha latte and pumpkin spice frappucinos, just the Italian trinity of espresso, cappuccino and caffé latte- old world charm for the present and hopefully for the future too.