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.