By Ed Boitano
Friuli Venezia Giulia region in Italy is delightful London, Paris, Berlin and Udine. Yes, Udine. And let’s not forget about Grado, Aquileia and Trieste, most definitely Trieste. This is the Friuli Venezia Giulia region of Italy, spread across the far northeastern corner of the country. I first read about this stunning region of diverse landscapes, languages and cultures more than 15 years ago and swore that someday I would see it for myself. Recently, I did.
Overlooking the Adriatic Sea, bordering Austria, Slovenia and Italy’s Veneto region, this enchanting, little-known area is poised to become one of Italy’s hottest travel destinations. Friuli Venezia Giulia also constitutes a new backdoor to Italy concept: Just fly to Venice, visit the sights and battle the crowds, then hop in a car or bus. Within an hour you will be immersed in a world of pristine vineyards, charming villages and farms, lakes, lagoons and rivers, world-class beach resorts, Roman ruins and historical cities, all with the towering Dolomites as a backdrop.
It’s the type of region where you can go skiing in the mountains and enjoy a seafood meal on the Adriatic in a single day. Perhaps you may want to stop for a glass of wine in the central plateau’s Wine and Dine route, Italy’s third-largest wine-producing region.
Multiculturalism is reflected and respected with four official regional languages: Italian, Slovenian, German and Friuli, a language courtesy of the Carnics, a Celtic population who remained in the Carnic Alps dating back to the time of the Romans. Friuli Venezia Giulia not only embraces all forms of ethnicity; it is defined by it. I liked that a lot, particularly with the current trend in the United States to have a disdain for any form of cultural diversity and identity. This seemingly untouched piece of paradise offers an authentic form of travel, devoid of hordes of tourists and sometimes cynical merchants that dominate many of Italy’s more famous attractions.
If you smell the coffee, you must be in Trieste. The most international city of Friuli Venezia Giulia, this endearing regional capital evokes the ambiance of Vienna’s coffee culture of the past, while serving as a seaside salon today.
This should come as no surprise because Trieste was once part of the Habsburg Empire, giving the landlocked Austro-Hungarians a precious piece of the Adriatic for commercial transport. Sitting at the base of the Karst Plateau, almost entirely surrounded by Slovenia, the city is isolated from the rest of the Italian peninsula. It became home to literary giants, including Dublin ex-pat James Joyce.
Like many cities of the region, Trieste evokes a blend of its romantic past and today’s sense of cosmopolitanism. Sidewalk cafes line the idyllic main square, the Piazza Unita’ d’Italia, which opens to the cool breezes of the sea. Trieste is a compact city, with its history, literary traditions and art; and a seamless fusion of Roman, medieval and Habsburg architectural styles, all easily accessible on foot.
A Roman amphitheater (circa B.C.) is at the foot of the San Guisto Hill in the heart of Old Town. Once buried under modern buildings, it was uncovered by archeologists in the 1930s, and is one of the remaining 230 amphitheatres scattered across the former Roman Empire. For lovers of decorum luxury, the Miramare Castle, compliments of Habsburg Archduke Maximilian – later short-lived emperor of Mexico until assassination – sits on a bluff, overlooking the sea. At the end of Parco della Rimembranza (Memory Park) is the Monument to the Fallen Soldiers of Trieste, which pays homage to the war dead of the Great War. The Battle of Caporetto, considered the most treacherous battle, took place in the mountains outside the city. In the successful Austrian and German advance, more than 600,000 war-weary Italian soldiers died, deserted or surrendered in the bitter mountain warfare. The battle was described by Ernest Hemingway in his masterpiece A Farewell to Arms, based on his experiences when he was an 18-year-old ambulance driver in Italy for the Red Cross.
The Friulian Dolomites: A UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Friulian Dolomites stand proudly at a towering 7,122 feet in the far western mountain area of Friuli Venezia Giulia. Its symbol is Campanile di Val Montanaia, an isolated rock pinnacle on the summit that looks like a bell tower. Readers note: Only the fittest climbers would challenge an ascent to the peak, but iconic images of the tower, surrounded by spectacular karst formations, can be easily photographed from lower trails. Attractions include well-kept forested paths and trails, meadows, glacial rivers, brilliant green lakes, caves and dramatic limestone topography.
Grado: The Lagoon City
Grado continues to be a resort destination for German and Austrian families to cool off their central European heels. Located in the Adriatic’s northernmost lagoon, it was once a holistic retreat for the Habsburg aristocracy who used the seaside thermal springs and curative gray sand for therapeutic treatments.
Grado is spread across a narrow island, backed by wide open beaches on one side, and lagoons with a series of small islands on the other. In the middle, there is a rustic Venetian-style ancient town center where one can stroll through calli (narrow alleyways), which open to squares with basilicas, fishermen’s houses and seafood restaurants. Looking out at the lagoon’s marshes, reeds and petite islands, you can almost imagine what Venice once looked like before there was even a thought of building a city. A boat tour of the lagoon is essential – traditional coastal life is on display with modest island fishermen housing known as casoni, characterized by their straw roofs. Many casoni are now boarded-up with the glory days of fishing for a living almost gone, but you can still enjoy the rewards of the sea with the freshest of seafood served in one of the small island’s very authentic restaurants.
Aquileia: A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Colonized by the Romans in 181 B.C., Aquileia was once the second-largest city in the empire with a population of 100,000. Initially intended as a military center to stave off barbarians invasions, its position on the edge of the Adriatic’s lagoons led to its rapid growth as a commercial center, making it one of the wealthiest cities of the early Roman Empire. The city was leveled by Attila’s Huns in 452 A.D., resulting in its citizens escaping to the southwest, eventually establishing Grado and Venice.
In the early Middle Ages, a much-smaller town emerged, and with the construction of the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, it became the largest Christian diocese in Europe. Most of the city still lies unexcavated beneath fields, containing the world’s greatest archaeological reserve of its kind. The patriarchal basilica played a key role in the evangelization of central Europe with its remarkable floor mosaics, the oldest in Christendom. Throughout history, the average person could neither read nor write. Mosaics, stained-glass windows and statues were not only beautiful works of art, but also illustrated important biblical passages people could understand.
Udine has been inhabited since the Neolithic age and is recognized as the most historical capital of the region. Attila built a hill and square-shaped tower in Udine when besieging Roman Aquileia. According to legend, he instructed his soldiers to transport soil in their helmets and shields.
Today the city and provincial capital dominates Friuli Venezia Giulia’s inland plains and alpine peaks, offering a unique taste of history: a ring road surrounds a stunning and compact pedestrian-only medieval center, complete with Roman columns, Venetian arches and Grecian statues. Udine is renowned for its regional food: Prosciutto di San Daniele (like Prosciutto di Parma, but less robust and more sublime), white asparagus, and Montasio – a creamy, unpasteurized mountain cheese. It is considered the gastronomic capital of Friuli. Among this thriving cityscape is a plethora of local bars and sidewalk cafes where one can bask in the city’s wonders. The countryside is marked with numerous villas, towers, abbeys and castles.
For further information about Friuli Venezia Gulia, visit italia.it/en/discover-italy/friuli-venezia-giulia.html.
The Friulian Dolomites reach 7,122 feet in the far western mountain area of Friuli Venezia Giulia. (Photo by Mario Venin)