Our road trip in Friuli Venezia Giulia came suddenly, after we decided to cancel our trip to Turkey. My Italian-American origins are from a small town in Friuli and I’d always imagined visiting with my dad, maybe heading to the no-name towns he somehow found to visit unknown relatives.
Things change though and trip plans change. The best way to handle it is to go with it, and completely enjoy it in the process! Though I won’t ever be able to make that trip with my dad, I’ve learned enough from him to not let that stop me from having fun. Thanks to my dad’s incredibly easy and outgoing outlook on life, I was able to thoroughly enjoy our long weekend in this totally unique corner of Italy.
Friuli (as it’s often called for short) is a fascinating region unlike any other I’ve seen in Italy. While Umbria and Tuscany are like two sisters hugging, Friuli Venezia Giulia stands on its own, proud, strong and regal.
Friuli truly does stand on its own, in a way. It’s one of five of Italy’s autonomous regions, enjoying a plethora of benefits both from being a part of Italy and from being slightly independent. In fact, life still has a workplace rhythm (no crowds of young people with nothing to do mid-day on a Tuesday) and the sharp dressing matches the designer shops lining the streets. With one of the most developed economies in the country, based largely on small and middle-sized companies, it seems the crisis hasn’t hit here as hard as in some areas of Italy. A rarity, since Friuli Venezia Giulia has suffered more than its fair share of crisis.
The region has always enjoyed relative wealth, as a major transport route from east to west and one of the only access points to the sea for major European countries such as Austria and Slovenia, but with the popularity came war. The region has suffered through wars with the Lombards, the Romans, the independent Republic of Venice and the Austrians. Not to mention that some of the worst and bloodiest battles of WWI were fought there. Multiple earthquakes have razed cities, the last one in the 1970s and Trieste’s concentration camp – the only concentration camp that has ever existed in Italy – is standing proof of the terrible hardships the region’s large Jewish community has suffered.
Today the dual-language signs, dual-cultured people and heavy Austrian influence make crossing into the region feel like stepping into a new country. One that largely resembles Italy, but with an exotic flair. Friuli has always been a part of Europe’s center – right between the East and the West – and has long served as a mediator between the two. The truth is, like most of Italy, Friulia Venezia Giulia hasn’t always been united. For some time the southern part was ruled by the Republic of Venice (hence the Venezia nominative, the other part comes from Julius Caesar and the Roman Forum Iulii), Pordonone on the border was controlled by the Austrians and Gorizia and Trieste were declared independent city-states. The differences between the cities can still be felt.
By far the best way to explore the region and each of its unique towns is with a road trip! Preferably with friends.
With just one weekend, there was no way to see the entire region, but we were committed to seeing, and eating, our way through as much of Friuli as possible. We based ourselves in a lovely agriturismo in near Udine and took day trips (some quite long) to explore. Stops included Udine, Cividale del Friuli, Palmanova, Trieste and a trip over the border into Slovenia to visit the museum entirely dedicated to World War I and the infamous Italian Battle of Caporetto. (It was such a failure, that even today Italians have a saying of “pulling a Caporetto” when you do something stupid that fails or goes really badly). Other stops along the way and back were in Veneto, and so saved for another post!
Cividale del Friuli
After checking in to our adorable agriturismo, we wanted to drive to nearby Udine to see a major site right away, but the owner steered us against it. He said that there’s a lot of traffic, little parking and recommended instead even closer Cividale del Friuli. Not having set plans and being highly susceptible to peer pressure, we decided to take his word for it. Cividale del Friuli is a tiny but historically important town right on the border with Slovenia. The town was founded in 53 BC by Julius Caesar, as it was the perfect stronghold to defend the northeast border. It later became the first capital of the Lombard Dukedom. The town’s not really a siren call for tourists, but it does bring in international visitors, visitors from Udine or any who happen to know the history and UNESCO World Heritage status of the town center. Or, of course, any who have been pushed there for dinner!
Walking into the town at dusk I was hit by how remarkably beautiful it was. Dominating our walk was the massively tall bridge, Ponte del Diavolo, or Devil’s Bridge, which splits the town in two. The entire ravine was lit up in blues and grays as we looked on from above. The twilight scene, with barely any light bouncing off the jagged rocks of the Alps was too beautiful not to explore more, so we took a rock staircase from the bridge straight down to the ravine, before scurrying off to dinner. You can get much more info on what to see and do in Cividale del Friuli with this piece from Italy Magazine.
Of course being the hungry traveler that I am, what we remember most was the frico, a dish of melted Montasio cheese served as an appetizer or even without shame as a main meal, often with potatoes or polenta. Delicious!
Castello di Duino
Our first full day was dedicated to Trieste and the sights surrounding it. We wanted to be sure to have time to visit this city more than any others, and decided to go first in case we needed a second day. The truth is, you could have a whole weekend in Trieste and it wouldn’t be enough, but we were satisfied with what we saw for this particular road trip. After all, second visits are often even more fruitful than first.
Along the way was Castello di Duino, a 14th century fort perched on the cliffs of the Gulf of Trieste, and the 11th-century ruins of the original castle located nearby.
The most interesting aspects of the castle are the inspiration it gave to poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who eventually wrote ten elegies about the location (Twain was also a guest), and the castle’s history as a bunker during WWII. Oh, and the fact that to this day the castle is still owned by a duke: the Duke of Castel Duino, Prince Carlo Alessandro della Torre e Tasso. (How’s that for a name, huh?) He’s the great grandson of the early 19th-century owners of this place. You can see memorabilia from the family scattered throughout the place.
To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend a stop here unless you are a huge history buff or else have more than enough time to dawdle. Tickets cost 8 euro and even more if you want to see the ruins of the original castle, which are just that, ruined, and in retrospect I would have liked more time in Trieste. When you just have one day to visit Trieste, it’s silly to “waste” it at multiple other stops (like we did.) Go to visit the underground WWII bunker or take pictures of the intimidating Adriatic coastline in all of its silvers and blues.
Castello Miramare, on the other hand, was quite luxurious. A 5 euro ticket for non-EU members gives you access to explore the quite-modern-for-a-19th-century-castle rooms as well as the grounds surrounding it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, visit one palazzo reale and you’ve seen most of them. You’re paying the dead money to view their wealth. That said, sometimes it can be quite impressive. My favorite aspect of Miramare was the different sets of dining rooms for winter and summer, based on the light and heat, and the truly unique architecture, which seemed more foreign than not.
The castle was built in 1856 for Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium. Located literally right against a man-made sea wall, the palace sits on 54 acres of land designed mostly by the archduke. It’s a beautiful landscape. Later, Maximilian visited Mexico and went a little crazy, declaring himself Emperor of the Second Mexican Empire and his wife as Empress Carlota of Mexico. (Perhaps the reason the Italian-Austrian castle has a Spanish name). Unfortunately Maximilian was captured and executed just two years after declaring himself emperor, causing his wife to have an emotional collapse and be declared insane.
Don’t you just love the history of old European rulers?!
Despite my extremely limited time in the city (unfortunately), I was completely blown away by Trieste. The atmosphere was different. It’s not completely Italian, nor Slovenian, nor Austrian. The people were calm and efficient at the same time. The roads were clean. The architecture magnificent. Since World War II the city technically falls under the Italian state, but mentally and emotionally it is not so simple. Many people want to make it a free state, as argued in this beautiful article about the city, though it does already enjoy many benefits as part of an autonomous region. The city has its own nebulous culture – a mix of all three yet none of them fully.
Apparently, I’m not the only one attracted by the city’s charm. Italo Svevo, James Joyce and Sigmund Freud all called the city home, not to mention dozens of different nations and kingdoms over the years. With limited time we headed straight for Piazza Unità dell’Italia (an ironic name in a city like Trieste.) The biggest piazza in all of Italy and the only sea-facing piazza, it’s hard to express just how massive and unique it is. To take it all in, we instantly sat for drinks, ordering of course the local favorite and best, a delicious Spritz. We discussed the Risiera di San Sabba concentration camp we had just visited and the harsh history that Trieste has endured. Read my post for Walks of Italy’s blog with a full guide of what to see, do and eat while in Trieste here!
[Pit stop in Slovenia]
On Saturday we crossed the border into Slovenia to visit a museum dedicated almost entirely to the Battle of Caporetto, The Kobarid Museum. We followed the ever-changing colors of the Isonzo river and were immediately transported out of the overdevelopment of Italy and into the countryside of Slovenia. Of course Slovenia is not Friuli Venezia Giulia, but the truth is that the border has been so porous over the area’s history, that the Slovenian border towns are more Italian than not, and the opposite is true for Italian border towns with Slovenia. That, and the museum was wonderfully set up, with an introduction video for those of us (guilty) who know very little about World War I and nothing abut the Battle of Caporetto. The town we stopped in was a ghost town, so after getting lost among sheep fields and stopping for a closer look at the Isonzo river, we stopped at a quite-popular road side stand in the middle of (seemingly) nowhere and enjoyed a hearty, unhealthy feast before heading back into Italy.
We made it into Udine Saturday afternoon and after praying to San Pancrazio for parking – “San Pancrazio, trovaci spazio!” – we headed into the city. Udine seems to be a rich little city, modest behind its crumbling façades. The streets were jammed packed with Italians on their daily passeggiata, eyeing new designs in clothing stores and eyeing each other’s outfits as they passed. Families, small dogs, strollers and couples abounded and every one seemed to be having a great time, all under the white-gray light of a cloudy dusk and the faded colors of the once-bright buildings, by now a signature of Udine.
Here we didn’t do any traditional sightseeing per say. We visited the Duomo but decided to attend mass in a smaller church nearby. We didn’t climb the million steps to the top to tour the castle or fortress or church that was up there, instead we enjoyed the imposing statues and the teenagers flirting underneath them. A mass and an ice cream later and we were on the way back to our hotel, giving Marco and I just enough time for a quick run in the surrounding fields before our sure-to-be massive feast awaiting us at the agriturismo that night.
The problem with weekend road trips is that they always come to an end. There are never enough days. On the way home we had two stops planned: one for lunch in Soave, a town in Veneto, conveniently at our routes halfway point (you may have heard of the wine) and the other, first, at Palmanova in Friuli. Palmanova is a star-shaped fortress built in the 17th century to protect against eastern invaders. Actually, the earth surrounding the city is shaped like a star – there are deep trenches dug to protect it, while the city itself is a quite-complicated nonagon. Confused? It makes more sense if you see it, but only a little.
Like I said in my post on Palmanova, it’s not a town that you’d drive all the way to Friuli just to see, but it is an incredibly unique Italian town and a physical way to understand more about the region’s war-torn history and the lengths some would go to protect the land. After all, some in Friuli, in a certain sense, are still fighting to protect the land economically, physically, culturally and in memory.
Friuli Venezia Giulia is a region of contradictions. The land is rich and the stories that accompany the land are even richer. Our road trip was a deep dive into the region’s food and culture, but as is often the case when you begin to learn about a subject, the more you know, the more you realize you’ve only begun to dip your toes.
Have you visited Friuli Venezia Giulia? What did you think? What did you learn? I’m so inspired by this region’s stories that it overwhelms my own. I’d be happy to read yours!
You may also like:
The reason we ended up in Friuli in the first place
The cross-cultural food in Friuli Venezia Giulia
Palmanova, Italy’s town with the most fantasia
Italy’s only concentration camp nobody knows about.