By Jim Ferri
It may be hard to believe, but there are still fantastic, beautiful places in Italy that aren’t overrun with travelers.
Some of them, in fact, aren’t far from popular tourist areas, which make them an excellent add-on to a trip.
One example is the province of Friuli Venezia Giulia, northeast of Venice. It has beautiful scenery, fascinating historical sites, and incredible food and wines. In fact, the food and wines are so special The New York Times named the province “Italy’s secret garden.”
The only thing missing are the tour buses.
Snuggled between the serene Adriatic and the rugged Dolomites, Friuli Venezia Giulia forms Italy’s eastern border with Slovenian and part of its northern border with Austria. It was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which accounts for its slight Austrian flavor, especially in its architecture and coffee-culture. Nevertheless, it firmly remains deliziosamente Italiano.
Since it’s been overshadowed by Venice and Tuscany, relatively few travelers have ever visited the area. I’m guilty also since I’ve always rushed through en route elsewhere, making a mental note to return to explore it someday.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend a few days in the region. And it yielded more than a few surprises.
From Mountains to the Plains
Traveling up from Venice, my visit to Friuli Venezia Giulia began in the Friulian Dolomites, part of the mountain range on Italy’s northern border. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s a beautiful, relatively untouched wilderness region, popular with hikers and climbers, with trails that connect a series of rustic chalets. In the winter it’s a favorite with cross-country skiers.
From the mountains we headed down to the plains, setting our sights on Udine, an ancient city in the middle of the province. Having seen the Austrian-German influence on the building styles in the mountain towns, I was surprised by the architecture of Udine.
First and foremost was its Loggia del Lionello – called “the most beautiful Venetian square on the mainland” – on the city’s beautiful Piazza della Libertà, the oldest square in the town. Built in Venetian Gothic style soon after the Venetians conquered the city, it stands across from another architectural gem, the Torre dell’Orologio, a picturesque 16th-century clock tower.
If you walk up Piazzale del Castello, the side street next to the tower, you’ll find the city’s 16th-century castle (now a museum) and also be rewarded with a nice panorama of the city. Back down below, you’ll see works by works by Giambattista Tiepolo in the city’s Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata. More spectacular, however, are the Tiepolo frescos in the Palazzo Arcivescovile, the nearby Diocesan Museum.
Leave some time to wander around the picturesque streets back down near the Loggia, such as Via Daniele Manin leading to Port Manin, the old city gate. And before you leave, visit the comfortable Caffé Contarena adjacent to the Loggia, for a coffee or glass of wine. Popular with locals, its beautiful interior, complete with soaring ceilings and gold leaf, is reminiscent of the coffeehouse culture of Vienna.
After a coffee in the Caffé, our small group set off for a late lunch at the Ristorante La Taverna in Colloredo di Monet Albano, a small town about a half-hour outside Udine. A highly rated restaurant, it’s well worth the detour. If you visit in the warm weather, request a table on the terrace overlooking the countryside.
The Golden Island and Its Great Lagoon
Grado, known to the Italians as the “Golden Isle,” is on an Adriatic peninsula between Venice and Trieste, the principal city of Friuli Venezia Giulia. It’s a handsome, Venetian-style seaside town with a pedestrian zone in the old town that is chockablock with restaurants and cafés spilling over into its streets, alleyways and little town squares.
The Romans came to Grado from historic Aquileia, via a road now covered by the sea. Centuries later they were followed by Hapsburg aristocracy who traveled from Vienna to bathe on Grado’s long, sandy beaches. As are today’s travelers, they were likely attracted as much by the local seafood and regional wines as they were by the sea.
Grado is also famous for its lagoon, a wetland area of numerous islets teaming with birdlife and split by canals and little streams. Some of its tiny islands still have casoni, the old fisherman houses, and one has a small seafood restaurant, Ai Fiuri de Tapo.
On a hired boat we traveled out to it for a large, fresh seafood lunch. We dined on long narrow wood tables under the trees and were served by the owner, a ruddy-faced fisherman who looked as if he had been brought there by central casting. It was a delightful afternoon, both at the restaurant and while cruising the lagoon.
Friuli Venezia Giulia’s Historical Aquileia
Later that day we made the short drive to Aquileia, a historic city both in the Roman Empire and in the Christianizing of Northern and Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, its small size belies its importance in Roman times, as evidenced by the remains of villas, temples, and markets scattered about the present-day town.
Aquileia’s primary attraction, however, is not the Roman ruins (although I wish we had the time to explore them a bit) but its magnificent basilica. It is home to some of the most ornate floor mosaics in Europe, if not the world, which cover a large area of the nave and the crypt. The mosaics – in fact, the entire basilica – is incredibly beautiful.
Further eastward you find that Trieste is a very different Italian city.
You see that immediately in its architecture, which is more central European than southern, and in its café society and coffee culture inherited from the Viennese. It is, in fact, the leading coffee importing/roasting city in Europe and home to European coffee giant Illy Caffè.
You can trace the city’s cultural identity back to the time when the city was a free port in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which attracted numerous nationalities. They remained, and today the city is a meld of Italian, Austrian, Slovenian, Croatian, Yiddish, and more, sprinkled in the urban mix.
With such an international mix it’s little wonder the city counts a Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Lutheran Evangelical, Swiss Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and a Synagogue among its religious sanctums. And it all works well, visually and otherwise, making Trieste the most cosmopolitan city in Italy.
It’s also fascinating, comfortable, and an easy city to walk about. In its Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia, the largest sea-facing square in Europe, the Venetian influence is quite apparent, from the waiters serving patrons at the awning-covered outdoor cafés, right down to Harry’s Bar. Just a few hundred feet away the Canale Grande reaches several blocks into the city, soothing canal-side café patrons with beautiful views.
If you’re looking for more wonderful views, visit Castello di Miramare, the castle of Maximilian I outside the city. And, of course, there are those beautiful Friulian Dolomites.