The Strange And Splendid Carso Region, Italy

The old man with the guitar wanted to know if I was married. We had nodded at each other across the courtyard of an outdoor tavern for the past few hours, as the waitress brought out first one jug and then another of house-made Malvasia wine. The strings of his guitar blended with the lowing of cows, the oinking of the odd pig, the neighs of pastured horses. The man and his friends had been singing folk songs—Italian, Slovene, those native to this hinterland in north-eastern Italy—since long before sunset. In this hamlet, where my phone regularly picked up Slovenian cell service, language tended to be a mutable thing. I explained, to the old man’s consternation, that I wasn’t available and introduced him to my fiancé standing beside me. He wiped a mock tear. He played a sad Italian song about love: lost and forgotten. His friends crooned along. They wiped mock tears, too. We were in Ivan Pernarcich’s “osmiza”—the local word for tavern—in the town of Visogliano, part of a region known as the Carso. Named for its limestone, Adriatic-facing cliffs, the region was once part of imperial Austria-Hungary. Most of the smaller Carso towns are now Slovene-speaking. The nearest city, the Italian port of Trieste, has at various points in its history been Austrian, Italian, Slavic and even independent. (As a result, Trieste has a dialect so distinctively eclectic, it’s said to have shaped long-time resident James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.”)

Grignano Marina, Francesco Lastrucci, The Wall Street Journal

Folk histories of this place are often delightfully contradictory, but when it comes to the osmize, at least, there’s a consensus. The original eight-day taverns, as their name translates, existed by imperial decree. Agrarian peasants, most of whom lived on subsistence farming, each had eight days—spread out over the year to avoid competition—to sell their excess wares. Today, most osmize are open a few weeks a year but retain special status. As long as osmize sell only products made on site—sharp Istrian cheese, say, or chocolaty Teran wine—these cash-only businesses can operate tax-free. And operate they do, creating one of Italy’s most unlikely culinary attractions: a network of boisterous Central European-style taverns, interspersed with Habsburg-era castles and woodland walking paths, just a few miles from the Adriatic coastline. Although you can typically find several osmize per village in the Carso, only one is open at any given time. To find an open osmiza, by foot or car, search for one bearing a sign featuring a crown of laurel leaves (less poetically, there’s also a website). By day, these osmize double as community centres for the largely elderly population that still lives in the countryside: Men play cards or gossip, and feast on the staggeringly cheap platters of house-made meats and cheeses (20 euros easily garner more than four can eat) and jugs of local wine.

Osmiza Beltram Skupek Alenka, Francesco Lastrucci, The Wall Street Journal

The best place for visitors to headquarter is the town of Duino, from which you can both hike uphill into the Carso proper and downhill to the sea. The town is best known for its sprawling, still-occupied 14th-century castle, where German poet Rainer Maria Rilke composed his Duino Elegies. The commemorative Rilke path, a mile-long cliff-side hike designed to replicate the poet’s inspiration, is among Italy’s most beautiful walks. Its two seaside restaurants (owned by the same family) offer ideal opportunities to people-watch. A few miles further south lies the even more splendid palace of Miramare. At one point in the 1860s, Miramare was the imperial seat of the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian, younger brother to the Kaiser Franz-Joseph, who tried and failed to establish a Habsburg dynasty in Mexico. Unlike Italy’s more famous tourist sites, the Carso’s castles are reverentially hushed. When I visited in February, both were empty of tourists—at times, wandering the Miramare castle gardens, I felt like something between an intruder and a ghost. Between countries, between centuries, between languages, the Carso is the ultimate crossroads—a place where you can have Viennese sachertorte for breakfast at Miramare and, a few hours later, eat a seafood lunch, complete with aperol spritz, on Duino’s waterfront, before heading inland for goulash at a gostilna, or Slovene-style restaurant, for dinner.

Miramare Castle, Francesco Lastrucci, The Wall Street Journal

The best way to enjoy the Carso countryside is to intersperse cultural visits with a sampling of as many osmize as possible: equal parts wine-tasting and local folk-music concert. If you’re hardy, go by foot: the hiking trails between the different Carso villages are reasonably well signposted. The sea views from the Via Napoleonica—cut into the cliff limestone by Napoleon’s incoming soldiers—legitimately astounded me. Each osmiza, from the elegant to the ramshackle, has its own distinct character. When we visited Osmiza Tavčar Renzo in Repengrande, for example, the owner took over the narrow dining room to play a song on the accordion. At the more sedate Pertot Gabriel in Aurisina, located in a 19th-century courtyard, most people seemed to have brought their dogs. At the sleek Osmiza Zidarich, in Prepotto, the population skewed about 50 years younger: the hillside balcony was dominated by Triestine hipsters in search of a bucolic Sunday brunch. At more upscale osmize like these, the wine comes in specially labelled bottles, not unmarked cups (and, likewise, it tends to flow a little less freely). The hillside views—and the wine—were phenomenal. But I felt a welcome sense of homecoming at the far more rustic Medeazza’s Azienda Agricola Pernarcich Paolo, an hourlong hike from Duino. Technically a farm-restaurant, it isn’t an osmiza proper, since it also serves hot food, but locals call it an osmiza anyway. There, the proprietress greeted us with prosecco, stewed meats and quintessentially Triestine strucolo, a strudel-like pastry. Our companion, Michelle Kling, a Duino local, breathed a sigh of relief. “Now this,” she exclaimed, “is an osmiza.”

Osmiza Pertot Gabriel, Francesco Lastrucci, The Wall Street Journal

THE LOWDOWN / Navigating the Carso

GETTING THERE: While the nearest airport to the Carso is the regional airport right outside Trieste, most international flights go through Venice Airport, about a 90-minute drive from Duino. While renting a car isn’t absolutely necessary—regular intercity buses run to and from Trieste from all major airports, and the slow-moving suburban Trieste bus line #44 stops at nearly every village in the Carso—it’s far more convenient for visiting osmize, as long as you have at least one designated driver. While most osmize are only open a few weeks a year, there’s always at least three or so open at any given time in low season, and easily twice that in the summer months. Check out osmize.com/calendario for the most up-to-date listings on osmize openings throughout the year.

STAYING THERE: The most beautiful—and historically rich—town in the area is easily Duino, located handily between the hill towns of the Carso and the Adriatic Sea. Inexpensive bed-and-breakfasts abound; B&B Porto del Bivio, run by a brother-and-sister team (and highly affable Jack Russell terrier) is among the best (from about $56 a night, 39-339-286-4170). If you’re looking for more luxurious accommodations, the grand Hotel Riveria & Maximilians—located near the Miramare Castle—evokes Austro-Hungarian hauteur (from about $190 a night, hotelrivieraemaximilian.com).

Credit: Tara Isabella Burton for The Wall Street Journal, 20 June 2019.