For me, one of the downsides to the pandemic was the narrowing of our horizons, so the strong signs that we’re getting back on track in terms of exploring the world again is brilliant news for all of us.
I’ve just managed to squeeze in a wonderful few months in Europe, catching up with friends and family, before I return to Australia for three months to run our hiking holidays there. After that, it will be all-systems go in May for a long-awaited and hotly anticipated summer season in Italy.
One of the Italian regions I’m so looking forward to returning to is Friuli-Venezia Giulia which, despite its location just a couple of hours from Venice, has consistently remained firmly off the tourist trail.
Set in the far northeast of the country, bordering Slovenia, Austria and the Adriatic Sea, this unique region is beautiful and fascinating in equal measure. If you like the idea of discovering a ‘new’ region of Italy, this is uncrowded Italy at its best, from its elegant piazzas and mountain peaks to its historical buildings and Venetian charm.
If you’re wondering what happens when you combine Venetian influences with Austrian and Germanic traditions, you’ll certainly find out here. In place of the ‘prop up the bar’ Italian café style, lingering over a cappuccino and a slice of Sachertorte at the table is very much the norm in Trieste’s distinctly Viennese café culture.
Italian influences also appear in the form of world-renowned hams from San Daniele del Friuli, risotto and home-made ravioli with asparagus and magnificent Montasio cheese, but there are also plenty of potato dumplings, Germanic cabbage soup and strudel. Perhaps the best blend of the two cultures is in the form of ‘strucchi’, soft pastry rolls filled with nuts and grappa-soaked raisins.
If that’s whetted your appetite, just wait till you try the wine! The Collio hills, set on the border of Slovenia between the Julian Alps and the Adriatic, is a remarkable wine region which has been significantly shaped by the cross-border culture.
Head into the vine-draped hills to the town of Cormòns, in the heart of Collio, where you’ll find local wine producers ready to welcome you with open arms to try their outstanding white wines as well as some interesting reds.
So what else makes this one of Italy’s most fascinating regions? Well, in addition to being one of the country’s least populated regions, it ticks just about every box for nature lovers and provides some fabulous walking opportunities.
Framed by the Dolomites to the west and the pine-covered Julian Alps to the east, the landscape takes in mountain trails, forested valleys, rivers and, in June, high alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers.
Its mix of cultures adds an extra layer of interest to the region. In Udine, amidst the maze of tiny piazzas, the Gothic Duomo and much of the treasured art, you’re most definitely in Italy.
In Trieste, however, Greek and Serbian Orthodox and Helvetic Evangelist churches sit alongside one of Europe’s largest synagogues and you’ll find antique shops lining the narrow lanes that once made up the Jewish Ghetto. Meanwhile, visit Gorizia, Pordenone and Aquileia and you’ll find medieval castles, cathedrals and palaces, and ancient Roman ruins.
The region also has its share of literary connections. While you may not be familiar with the works of the great Italian writers Italo Svevo and Umberto Saba who were born in Trieste, you may be interested to learn that James Joyce spent many years here.
Meanwhile, just over the border in Slovenia, Ernest Hemingway fans will recognise the town of Kobarid and the surrounding limestone hills as the setting for his A Farewell to Arms. The town’s war museum is a must for anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the area and the First World War Battle of Kobarid, as is the Franja Partisan Hospital in the Pasica Gorge.
Have you ever visited Friuli-Venezia Giulia? What’s on your bucket list for 2022? Are you tempted to discover new areas or are you planning to return to an old favourite?