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It is a city that has preserved its historical spaces, it is the city of Zeno, Emilio, Alfonso and Angiolina and the other characters of Trieste's literature. We can still imagine them in our company as we enter a café or theatre, wander through the streets and squares, venture into the Carso plateau or put out to sea.

Backed by the green and white cliffs of a limestone plateau and facing the blue Adriatic, Trieste has a potentially idyllic setting; close up, however, the place reveals uninviting water and an atmosphere of run-down haughtiness. Grass is pushing up from the concrete in its main squares, and the canal, clustered with open-air cafés, is little more than a sad reminder of the city's lovelier neighbour Venice. The city itself is rather strange: a capitalist creation built to play a role that no longer exists, though like so many ports in Europe, the seediness that long prevailed is now giving way to a nascent optimism. Trieste was Tergeste to the Romans, who captured it in 178 BC, but although signs of their occupancy are scattered throughout the city (the theatre off Corso Italia, for instance, and the arch by Piazza Barbacan), what strikes you straightaway is its modernity.

With the exception of the castle and cathedral of San Giusto, and the tiny medieval quarter below, the city's whole pre-nineteenth-century history seems dim and vague beside the massive Neo-classical architecture of the Borgo Teresiano - the name given to the modern city centre, after Empress Maria Theresa (1740-80), who initiated the development.

Lying on the political and ethnic fault-line between the Latin and Slavic worlds, Trieste has long been a city of political extremes. In the nineteenth century it was a hotbed of irredentismo - an Italian nationalist movement to "redeem" the Austrian lands of Trieste, Istria and the Trentino. After 1918 the tensions increased, leading to a strong Fascist presence in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Yugoslavia and the Allies fought over Trieste until 1954, when the city and a connecting strip of coast were secured for Italy, though a definitive border settlement was not reached until 1975. Tito kept the Istrian peninsula, whose fearful Italian population emigrated in huge numbers: Fiume (Rijeka), for example, lost 58,000 of its 60,000 Italians.

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