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Polyglot ports and past empires
Friuli-Venezia Giulia is found where the Italian Alps end and the Adriatic begins. The compact area allows hikers to sunbathe on sandy beaches after a morning in the mountains and spelunkers to explore cave networks and swim in underground rivers. Wine enthusiasts enjoy the countryside, which offers some of the best varieties and historic wine routes in Italy. As it offers so many opportunities and resources, it was a much sought-after area. Its strategic location was a stronghold first for the Romans – its ancient city of Aquileia was built as a military colony in 181 B.C. – and later for the Austro-Hungarians who established their main port there. Its liminal position on the borders with Slovenia and Austria enabled it to develop as a unique mélange of cultures with its own traditions, architecture and blend of Mediterranean and Mitteleuropean cuisine. The lesser known region intrigues and inspires. Begin in Trieste, the captivating city where James Joyce declared he would leave his soul.
Atop a hill in the Collio wine region, the 12th century estate hosted the notoriously lovesick lover Giacomo Casanova in 1773. Legend divulges that Casanova adored the wines in the castle’s cellars (almost as much as he loved his women) and spent some time imbibing in the rooms carved into the stone below the residence. The cellars are bi-level, with the one closest to the surface dating back to the Middle Ages. The second, deeper one, was made in 1939 as a bunker for the Germans, though later used by the Americans towards the end of the Second World War. The castle cellars now store the homonymous wines that visitors are drawn to taste. The estate also includes a garden of century-old trees, statues and a series of 10 hammered iron plaques displaying the words of Casanova on women, love and friendship.
The 19th century castle on the Gulf of Trieste was built by Archduke Maximilian, of the House of Habsurg, who later became Emperor of Mexico. The Austrian also served as Commander in Chief of the Imperial Navy, which explains why he positioned his residence facing the sea and styled his bedroom and office as a replica of the fregate Novara warship he used to circumnavigate the world in 1857-1859. The rooms feature original furnishings and the grounds surrounding the castle include stables, a park complete with a swan lake, lotus pond, rare and imported trees. The castelletto (or “small castle“) has a facade modelled after the main house’s, which incorporate the Aztec eagle.
The residence of the last Doge of Venice, the 16th century villa was home to the aristocratic Manin family, until he was forced to abdicate, dissolve the Venetian Republic and let Napoleon’s troops move in. The French ruler, well-accustomed to living in opulence, stayed there with his wife, Josephine, for just one night in August of 1797. After the experience he famously declared that it was, “too big for a count and too small for a king”, thereby abondoning the white, symmetrical palace with mythological frescoes, Murano-crafted chandeliers and mustard colored window shades to fall into disrepair. The region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia owns the property today and has restored the building to its former glory, opening its doors and its gardens to the public with its host of exhibitions and events.
Legend has it that the lords of Spilimbergo hid their wealth in a tunnel under the castle; though never found, visitors can admire myriad treasures decorating its historic city center. The Gothic cathedral and Palazzo Dipinto (Painted Palace) are noted for their beauty, but Spilimbergo is best known for its expert mosaic works. A school training students in the traditional methods of mixing, “baking” and making masterpieces was founded there in 1922. Tours can enter the school and see the artists at work, creating mosaics that incorporate styles from Rome, Byantium, Venice and Aquileia. Once completed, the mosaics are then sent to be displayed all over the world.
Muggia lies on the Gulf of Trieste, just before the border to Slovenia. The picturesque fishing town, its cuisine and its dialect was greatly influenced by Venetian culture, as it was held its powerful neighbor’s rule for centuries. When walking from its harbour through its narrow, winding streets, visitors can spot its coat of arms with St. Mark’s lion, a closed book and a sword on the town hall’s façade. The image symbolized the imminent danger the border town felt.
The coastline trail connecting Sistiana to Duino is a scenic walk so beautiful that the poet who lent the path his named stated that, “being here is splendid.” The Castle of Duino, which can be viewed as one hikes the two kilometre trail, is where the poet was welcomed as a guest for an extended period, allowing him time to reflect on the area and use it as inspiration for his writings. The area along the Gulf of Trieste is now protected as a part of the Falesie di Duino Nature Reserve. Military stations and bunkers from both World Wars have been transformed into visitor-friendly areas for picnics and pondering.
Near the village of Sgonico in the province of Trieste is the world’s biggest, publicly accessible (according to The Guiness Book of World Records, 1995) cave system aptly called the “Grotta Gigante.” With a dimension of 280 meters x 114 meters x 76 meters, St. Peter’s Basilica could squeeze inside it. With dripping stalactites and ascending stalagmites illuminated by soft, amber-colored lights, the magical atmosphere makes for an unforgettable experience. The visitor center welcomes guests and provides information about the formation of the caves and their discovery in 1840. From there, the guides will escort each group along the walkway designed to allow access for all people into the underground world.
The Karst Plateau in the Province of Trieste offers more than just jaw-dropping panoramas: it has osmizzas! Osmizzas are essentially private homes that transform themselves into make-shift wine taverns serving locally sourced sausage, cheese and produce alongside some really great wine. The authentic, rural homes are only open for 8 days at a time (or multiples of 8, such as 16 or 24), as “osmec” is the Slovenian word for the number 8. Maria Therese of Austria began the tradition over 200 years ago not for environmental reasons, but as a way to repress the local farmers who were incited to riot after high taxes were levied on sales. The Empress allowed local food to be sold tax free for a limited time. And so the original “pop up” store was born. Just look for the red “frasca” signs to guide you to the open taverns.
Cormòns lies at the crossroads of the Italian, Slovenian and Austrian cultures. At the nexus of intermingling traditions, the unique inevitably emerges. The people of the Collio hills have chosen music as an avenue to express how they reflect on boundaries, both the geographical and the personal. As the malleable genre of jazz lies beyond defined limits, it is a fitting choice for the 20 year old festival. Drawing on the music that arose from the hot, tense times of the American South – where musicians found a distinct style to voice the often bitter experiences of their melting pot – the sound spread like wild fire, quickly hopping over the Atlantic and striking a chord with interwar Europe. Jazz is characterized by qualities that are readily embraced by communities struggling to survive and revitalize themselves after hard times. Spontaneity, improvisation, the integration of new instruments, notes and rhythms, fixed rules bent and shaped at will to allow honesty to escape from the soul. The Jazz and Wine of Peace Festival is Cormòns gives space to this form and aptly ends each concert in a toast with local wines. The event encompasses opportunities for visitors to meet the artists, cycle historical routes through vineyards, enjoy apertifs with locals, view screenings and do photo workshops.
With a tradition of Mardi Gras celebrations dating back to 1420, Muggia has organized an array of events for Carnival week for more than 600 years. Some of the main attractions are the “Bull Hunt”, street theater shows, a parade of floats, the “Andar o Ovi” (“Begging for Eggs”) game and the “Ballo della Verdura” (the “Vegetable Dance”, which includes choreography with men and women wearing wreaths and carrying golden branches and oranges). What makes this variation of Carnival unique is that no face masks are used. There is no hiding, there are no alternate identities. The eloquent festivities in Muggia serve as an means to show oneself unabashedly and be accepted by the public.
On the hills where Alpine air mingles with the Adriatic sea breeze, a heralded prosciutto is made, aged and celebrated. At the “Aria di Festa” Ham Festival in San Daniele locals and visitors come together to share some of the best ham in the world, in the city where it is produced. For three days each June the old town sets up stands in its streets and squares for tastings and organizes a shuttle bus service to the nearby prosciuttuffici ham factories, which open their doors so the public can explore the history, traditions and ingredients that go in to making the unique food. The festival underscores the way food brings people together and extends the moments of merriment to events, cooking demonstrations and concerts to continue the fun and feasting.
The 800 year old festival of Perdòn di Barbana is celebrated on the first Sunday of July every year in Grado. The event begins in the early morning with prayer and celebration at the Basilica of St. Euphemia. The statue of the “Our Lady of Angels” is carried out on the soldiers of six men, who carry the Madonna to the port where a decorated boat awaits to take it across the lagoon to the island of Barbana. The statue is then carried from the harbor up to the church to for a mass and music from the town band, before it returns the way it came. The procession of boats, decorated with flowers and flags, is a votive ritual that originated as a celebration of the end of the plague in 1237.
The unique festival is one of the oldest in Europe. For nearly 750 years the Sagra degli Osei has celebrated an rivaled passion for birds and fascination with their migratory patterns. Located in Sacile, a tiny town that lies on the path of some of the greatest seasonal movements of birds, it was a natural selection for what was once a market that slowly transformed into a showcase of the most beautiful species and their songs. The event takes place each year on the first Sunday after Assumption Day (August 15). Originally the market gave local song bird-breeders and bird cage craftsmen the opportunity to sell their goods; today visitors can also find a selection of produce and wines, so ornithologists and those curious to see the one-of-a-kind event can fully enjoy everything the area has to offer.
An area inhabited since Neolithic times, the fascinating city of Udine is layered with numerous sites of cultural and historic importance. Its history begins with the remarkable legend of Attila, the leader of the Huns, who forced his soldiers carry soil in their helmets to create a hill for their quarters on the otherwise flat terrain. Its tumultuous history endured 400 years of Venetian rule, an earthquake, a plague, a quick French take over and then the Habsburgs. During World War I the city served as the seat for the Italian High Command and was referred to as the “War Capital”, before it was occupied by the Germans until the end of World War II. The main square, Piazza della Libertà, is a fantastic place to start the tour.
From Udine, Cividale del Friuli makes for the next natural stop. The UNESCO recognized city was founded by Julius Cesar and became the Lombard capital of the Friuli region. Its impressive “Devil’s Bridge”, the Ponte del Diavolo, leads to the small Church of Saint Martin on the other side of the Natisone river. Many legends recount how the bridge got its name and a guide will reveal some of the most intriguing ones. The tour of the city of angels and demons includes a visit to the cathedral, where the retable of Pellegrinus II is inscribed in Latin. 250 years before Gutenberg invented the movable type, the writing on this altarpiece was made using individual letter punches.
The tour concludes with a stop in San Daniele, where the famous prosciutto crudo ham is made. A visit to a ham producer, complete with a tasting, is a fantastic way to end the day.
Dominating the Mediterranean as one of the greatest cities in the Roman Empire, Aquileia arose as a formidable boundary against the Barbarians in 181 B.C. Known at the time as the “Second Rome”, it served as an important military outpost and center for trade along the River Natissa. It later became the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and functioned as a base for Christian Central Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, the city and its ruins – complete with some marvelous floor mosaics – is spellbinding.
Grado lies 10 kilometers south of Aquileia. The island on the lagoon has 3 kilometers of south-facing beaches and a unique microclimate that guarantees constant sun, earning it the nickname, “L'Isola del Sole” ("The Sunny Island"). It is possible to do a boat ride in its waters and view the area and its fisherman from afar.
Gorizia is nestled in the breath-taking countryside, along the Isonzo river, on the border with Slovenia. In the early nineteenth century it was referred to as the “Austrian Nice”, as many nobles summered there, as did the Bourbon family when it was deposed in 1830. The location of the city is fascinating, as it represents both a division of geographical areas and a convergence of cultures. When new boundaries were drawn after World War II, the old town of Gorizia remained in Italy, while the majority of its territory and its train station was annexed to Yugoslavia, where a new, twin town, Nova Gorica, developed. Istrian Italians settled in Gorizia and though during the Cold War the area was often compared to Berlin, Italy and Yugoslavia maintained a positive relationship regarding the city and shared cultural and sporting events that were hosted there. When Yugoslavia was dissolved, the border remained intact, though it became a part of modern-day Slovenia. In 2011 the two cities joined with a third, Šempeter-Vrtojba, to create a trans-border metropolitan conurbation.
The atmosphere in the area is decidedly central European and includes one of the best wine regions you have probably never heard of. In the hills west of Gorizia, in a setting reminiscent of Tuscany, high-quality wines from beautiful vineyards entice visitors to come and explore this gem off-the-beaten path.