Established only in 1963 and given special status as one of Italy’s five semi-autonomous regions, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is odd, even in its name (Friuli is a corruption of the ancient name for modern-day Cividale, Foro Iulii “Forum of Julius”, while Venezia Giulia “Julian Venetia” also references the area’s abiding association with Caesar). Bordering Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east, it has always been a major bone of contention among rival powers. Today, Slavic, Germanic and Italian populations all call it home and are fiercely proud of their local language, Friulano (a Romance language related to Swiss Romansch and Ladin). The area’s landscapes are equally varied with one-half alps, about one-third limestone plateaux (carso) and the rest alluvial and gravel plains sloping down to the Adriatic.
The cities and towns here are as wildly dissimilar as one might expect. Trieste, the capital, is an urbanely elegant Habsburg creation, built by Austria to showcase the empire’s only port. In spirit and appearance it is essentially Central European, a character it shares with Gorizia, to the north, though the latter has an even more Slavic flavour, and in fact straddles the border with Slovenia. Both cities benefit from castles looming on a central hilltop, affording memorable views, and provide access to walkabouts in the Carso – the windswept, limestone plateau that extends eastwards into Slovenia – while Trieste also boasts its very own riviera, complete with attractive beach resorts. A little further west, Udine’s architecture and art collections evoke Venice at its grandest, while UNESCO-listed Cividale del Friuli preserves a picturesque historic centre perched over the aquamarine Natisone River. The archeologically minded, however, head straight to Aquileia and the ruins of the Roman capital of Friuli, with its impressive basilica and huge paleo-Christian floor mosaic. From here it’s south to the lagoon resort of Grado, which conceals a beautiful, early Christian centre surrounded by beach hotels.
Historically, what unites the region is its perennial role as a link between the Mediterranean and Central Europe. It has been repeatedly overrun from east and west and north, by the Romans, Huns, Goths, Lombards, Nazis and even the Cossacks. By turns, it has been lorded over by the Venetian Republic, Napoleonic France and the Austrian Empire. More recently, the area witnessed some of the most savage fighting of World War I, and World War II saw Fascism become especially virulent in Trieste, site of one of Italy’s two death camps.
Today, right-wing and xenophobic tendencies are still strong. While most Friulani certainly want Italian nationality, the sociopolitical baggage of Rome and the south strike many as a drag. Currently, economic anxiety and general malaise about Italy’s direction have resulted in something of a conservative resurgence.Read More
Regional food and wine
Regional food and wine
Food in Friuli-Venezia Giulia reflects its cultural eclecticism, with the legacy of the Austro-Hungarian era always present. The food tends to be hearty and uncomplicated, from thick soups to warming stews, such as the ubiquitous goulash. This is the home of prosciutto, the best of which comes from San Daniele, and you will be offered plates of affettati or home-cured meats as part of a meal or to accompany a glass of wine. Pasta and gnocchi come with a Friulian twist, sweet and salty flavours combined; try cialzons, a pasta filled with spinach, chocolate, raisins and nutmeg. Jota is the local soup, a bean and sauerkraut combination with the possible addition of pork or sausage, good on a cold day. Friuli’s signature dish is frico, a type of potato cake; potato and Montasio cheese grated together, fried until golden brown and served up with polenta. Another speciality is brovada, made from wine-fermented turnips and served with sausage. Desserts tend towards cakes and pastries, usually filled with nuts, dried fruit and alcohol – look out for presnitz, strukliji and gubana. The Austrian influence makes itself felt in the form of strudel, filled with fruit or ricotta cheese.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia is Italy’s third most important quality wine region, after Piedmont and Tuscany, and has long been acclaimed for its fragrant, elegant whites. The two premium regions are the Collio and the Colli Orientali del Friuli, hilly zones sharing a border with Slovenia. Tocai or Sauvignon Vert is the most widely planted grape variety and the white wine you will generally be offered; pale in colour it is usually drunk young and makes a perfect aperitif. In 2007 Tocai underwent a name change, due to a long-running legal battle with Hungary, and is now simply called Friulano. Although the region is better known for its whites, the reputation of its red varietals and blends is catching up fast. Top reds include Cabernet Franc, Refosco or Terrano as it called around Trieste, and best of all, the obscure Schioppettino. Last but not least is the cult dessert wine Picolit, produced in very small quantities and commanding high prices.