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.
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 (now known as Friulano) or Sauvignon Vert is the most widely planted grape variety – pale in colour, it is usually drunk young and makes a perfect aperitif. 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.
Bordered by the Tagliamento in the west and the Isonzo in the east, the triangle of flatlands west of Trieste and south of Udine seems unpromising territory for a visitor – mile upon mile of maize fields, streams, market gardens and newish villages. Yet Aquileia was once the Roman capital of Friuli and is the most important archeological site in northern Italy. These unremarkable fields have yielded a wealth of Roman remains, while the glorious basilica here ranks among the most important monuments of early Christendom.
Some 45km west of Trieste, Aquileia was established as a Roman colony in 181 BC, its location at the eastern edge of the Venetian plain – on the bank of a navigable river a few kilometres from the sea – being ideal for defensive and trading purposes. It became the nexus for all Rome’s dealings with points east and north, and by 10 BC, when the Emperor Augustus received Herod the Great here, Aquileia was the fourth most important city in Italy, after Rome, Milan and Capua. In 314 AD the Patriarchate of Aquileia was founded, and under the first patriarch, Theodore, a great basilica was built. Sacked by Attila in 452 and again by the Lombards in 568, Aquileia lost the patriarchate to Grado, which was protected from invasion by its lagoons. Aquileia regained its primacy in the early eleventh century under Patriarch Poppo, who rebuilt the basilica and erected the campanile, a landmark for miles around. But regional power inevitably passed to Venice, and in 1751 Aquileia lost its patriarchate for the last time, to Udine. The sea has long since retreated, the River Natissa reduced to a reed-clogged stream, and Aquileia is now a quiet little town of 3500 people.
Some 11km south of Aquileia, isolated among lagoons, is the ancient island-town of Grado, through which Aquileia once traded with Syria, Cyprus, Arabia and Asia Minor. Grado enjoyed its heyday under the Austrians who developed it as a health resort due to the presence of curative sand and waters – and there's still a spa here today. Grado’s historic centre has three early Christian buildings, grouped close together in the heart of a miniature network of old streets. It's also one of the best places in the northern Adriatic for relaxing on the beach; the water is safe, warm as a bath and shallow – indeed, the town's name comes from the gentle angle of its shore. The free beaches are at the eastern and western ends. Alternatively, you can take a boat trip round Grado's lagoon to explore some of its many islands.
Covering approximately ninety square kilometres, the Laguna di Grado is home to a myriad of canals and islands that can be visited by boat. The islands were once inhabited for months at a time by fishermen who travelled to Grado on Saturdays to stock up on supplies, and the lagoon is dotted with their casoni, traditional houses built with mud and reeds. After World War I most migrated to the city, and only three or four families live in the lagoon today, though a number of fishermen have kept their casoni and use them as second homes.
As with other towns in this region, the tranquillity of present-day Gorzia – virtually midway along the Trieste–Udine rail line – belies its turbulent past. The castle that dominates the old centre was the power base of the dukes of Gorizia, who ruled the area for four centuries. After their eclipse, Venice briefly ruled the town at the start of the sixteenth century, before the Habsburgs took over. It was controlled from Vienna until August 8, 1916, when the Italian army occupied it. The border settlement after World War II literally split houses in Gorizia down the middle. Italy kept the town proper, but lost its eastern perimeter to what was then Yugoslavia, where the new regime resolved to build its own Gorizia: Nova Gorica – New Gorizia – is the result.
The town’s appearance is distinctly Central European, stamped with the authority of Empress Maria Theresa. Numerous parks and gardens – thriving in the area’s mild climate – further enhance the fin-de-siècle atmosphere. It’s a major shopping town for Slovenes, which explains the large number of electrical, clothes and food shops, and the cafés and restaurants.
Some 17km east of Udine, Cividale del Friuli is a well-preserved medieval gem and one of the most beautiful towns in the area. Visitors are drawn to its dramatic setting, perched over the Natisone River, and to its art treasures. The town has ancient roots, having been founded in 50 BC by Julius Caesar at the picturesque point where the Natisone River valley opens into the plain. In the sixth century AD it became the capital of the first Lombard duchy and in the eighth century the Patriarch of Aquileia moved here, inaugurating Cividale’s most prosperous period. It has been the main commercial centre of the Natisone Valley for two hundred years. Strolling around town is a pleasure, the pace of life leisurely and unhurried, with the historic centre lying between the train and coach stations, within the oval ring bisected by Via Carlo Alberto and Corso Mazzini.