On hearing the name “Friuli-Venezia Giulia“, most people will react in precisely the same way as I did upon hearing it for the first time back in 2016. Namely, “where the heck is that?!”. Because when Italy springs to mind, it is the leaning tower of Pisa, the Roman Colosseum and the luxury brands of Milan that first fill everyone with longing and admiration for classic Italian culture. In the birthplace of Gucci, Ferrari and Chiara Ferragni, this small, undiscovered North-Easterly region goes unnoticed, with its hearty, Germanic food and its almost Slavic regional language. It is exactly this, however – the unashamed simplicity, and unabashed patriotism of everyone who lives there – that caused me to fall in love with Friuli-Venezia Giulia (or FVG, as it is commonly known) all those years ago. Read on for some of the Friulian cities and towns that will always hold a place in my heart.
For anyone who knows the region, it would be almost blasphemous to start this article with any other city. Udine is often thought to be the heart of Friulian culture, its province the birthplace of the “friulano” language, and the region’s most famous dish “frico” – essentially, a plate of fried Montasio cheese served with polenta.
Wandering around Udine will give you the strange sensation of being in Venice: but without the water. Its architecture is as mixed as its history – having belonged to the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, the entire region’s architecture finds itself within this slightly weird but uniquely beautiful bubble. Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Dolomites, this small university city is the epitome of Friulian culture. The people are friendly, and extremely close-knit: the sense of community here is something remarkable, and something I greatly appreciated whilst living there. People are welcoming and loving; oh, and not afraid of a drink or two. Friuli is one of Italy’s largest producers of wine, and this is milked as much as possible amongst tourists and locals alike. These can all be sampled at the city’s main hub, Piazza San Giacomo, with its large variety of traditional bars and restaurants open until late.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay within the city centre, there actually aren’t many options. Both the Astoria and the Ambassador Palace hotels are stunning, and centrally located. For something more traditional, try an “agriturismo” further away from the city’s historic centre. These farms-turned-B&Bs can only be found in Italy, and are the perfect way to sample traditional cuisine and befriend some of the locals.
Perhaps Udine’s most famous event is its yearly Friuli DOC, a food and drink festival with stall scattered across the city. Originally launched in 1995 to celebrate Friulian culture, Friuli DOC is recognised internationally as being one of the most important agricultural events within Europe. There is also PLENTY of wine – a factor that has had me coming back to Udine for this festival every year since I left.
One of the many factors that makes Friuli-Venezia Giulia so unique is its landscape. Whilst travelling 37km to the North of Udine will take you into the mountains, a 45km drive south of Udine will bring you to Grado, one of the region’s seaside resorts. Slightly more relaxed than its youthful, party-filled counterpart Lignano, Grado is a popular favourite with families and couples for its quaint town centre, delicious seafood, and stunning sunsets (see above). It is also well-known for its cycling routes, which lead to many of the main towns and cities throughout the region.
While there are plenty of AirBnbs and apartments available, if hotels are more your thing I’d recommend the Laguna Palace Hotel, whose bedroom views are to-die-for. For dinner, make sure you stop off in the renowned Trattoria de Toni for some freshly-caught fish dishes.
Despite being a particularly seasonal town, Grado is beautiful also during the winter, where you can walk around the promenade and stop for a coffee along the way.
Used by many as a stop-off on the journey from Udine to Grado, Aquileia has one of the oldest and most interesting histories of any Friulian city. Its town centre is an ancient Roman city, headlined by the ruins of a beautiful basilica, which serves as one of the main archaeological sites of Northern Italy. Although Aquileia is tiny today, with almost 3,500 inhabitants, it was once one of the world’s largest cities in 2nd Century AD, with 100,000 inhabitants.
Whilst most people who visit Aquileia will stop only to see the ruins, one of its most unusual features is the canal which leads directly out onto the Laguna connecting Friuli with Veneto, and eventually leading to Venice itself. In this Laguna are dozens of tiny islands, each with a single occupied house (see above), where the people who live there travel only by boat onto the mainland. Makes you feel lazy for getting the bus 0.5miles to the nearest Tesco, right?
San Daniele, to put it quite simply, is mainly famous for one thing and one thing only: PROSCIUTTO. San Daniele ham is known and loved around the world, and comes from this humble Friulian town; in fact, if you Google Image search “San Daniele”, you have to scroll through four rows of ham just to find one photo of the city itself. Nestled in amongst the winding, white-brick streets are restaurants with what some may consider a limited menu – I, for one, think that the quality of the meat really speaks for itself. NEVER did a mere ham sandwich taste so good. To help you burn off all of this meat, San Daniele is set atop a very steep set of hills, with this striking, crisp-white church found right at the top. And then, to help you put all the weight back on again, San Daniele is also home to one of Friuli’s best-known artisan chocolate shops, Adelia di Fant. Not for the faint-hearted or the small-stomached.
Just under 10km from the Slovenian border, Cividale del Friuli is, for me, one of the most picturesque towns in the region. Surrounded by the bluest water you can imagine, Cividale is a tiny town packed with its own culture and traditions. It is probably most famous for its grappa-fuelled desserts, “gubana” and “strucchi”, which are traditionally eaten around Christmas. A far cry from the Mediterranean feel of Grado, Cividale has a much more Eastern-European feel in both its architecture and in its atmosphere, with the mountains clearly visible from all angles.
One of your first ports of call in this pint-sized city should be the Ponte del Diavolo, which bridges the Natisone river. The bridge was blown up during the battle in Caporetto (Kobarid) in 1917, and is surrounded by many legends which have influenced its name. The Town Hall – just across the bridge – is impressive in its unusual red stone architecture, and marks the centre of the town.
During the summer months, the banks of the Natisone river are used as beaches – if you can brave the ice-cold mountain water that runs through the city!
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