It was two months since my heart operation; 1 ½ months after I returned from South Africa. I got a phone call from someone I did not know and who seemed to know me solely by reputation. What are you doing next week he inquired? “Why teaching and running a wine event,” I answered. “Would you like to go to Friuli, Italy, stay at a castle and eat, drink and tour for six days? And by the way, we need your answer by tomorrow.” I asked my partners to cover the wine tasting; arranged for the administrative assistant at the college to supervise my class and voila, I was off to Italy! Delta has a non-stop from JFK to Venice. From there it was a little over an hour before I arrived at Castello di Spessa, my home for five nights.
The full name of the region is Friuli Venezia Giulia. It is tucked away in the northeastern corner of Italy with Austria to the north, Slovenia to the east and the Adriatic Sea to the south. It is unknown, even to many Italians, which is great if you are seeking a new adventure and not a lot of other tourists. You will find snow-capped mountains, sandy beaches, Roman ruins, 200 castles, palaces converted to hotels, fishing villages and very friendly, unaffected people. Almost half of Friuli (using the shortened version is a lot less confusing to Americans since many assume Venezia or Venice is part of the region, and it is not) is occupied by mountains including part of the Alps.
It has less than 1 ¼ million inhabitants with the largest cities being Udine, with almost 100,000 population, and the regional capitol Trieste, with about 250,000 people. It ranks 17th among the 20 regions in size. The must see in Udine are the works of the great 18th century painter Giambattista Tiepolo exhibited throughout the town, especially at the Palazzo Patriarcale, which houses the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art and many of his frescos. Other short trips we made were to Gorizia and its 11th Century castle; Cormons, the main town of the Collio wine area and Cividale, founded around 50 BC by Julius Caesar.
The Miramare Castle in Trieste was built by the 19th Century Hapsburg Prince, Maximilian, but before he could complete it his older brother Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph sent him to Mexico where he became Emperor and was subsequently assassinated. Now a museum and a superb example of a 19th Century European royal residence it is one of the most visited state-owned museums in all of Italy. It wasn’t until 1954 that Trieste was reunited with Italy and became the capitol of Friuli in 1963. The surrounding park is large and quite beautiful. I sat outside and relaxed taking in the enchanting views of the Gulf of Trieste.
In 181 BC the Romans founded Aquileia whose ruins have been meticulously restored and are the most important archaeological sites in northern Italy. At one time it had more than 100,000 inhabitants and served as a bastion against the marauding Gauls. The Basilica of Aquileia, built in 313 AD, has preserved Western Europe’s finest early Christian mosaics with its 700 square-yard polychrome floor that was re-discovered in 1910. The Byzantine frescos in the crypt and the Archaeological Museums are other treasure troves. Attila the Hun forced that fortified town’s inhabitants to seek refuge by founding the town of Grado on an island in the lagoon (think Venice) while Trieste became the gateway to the East. Time seems to have forgotten the ancient fishing village of Grado while next door is a state-of-the-art beach resort and spa center with the sea water from the Adriatic used for thermal cures. The Isle of Grado (since 1936 connected by a bridge) was the early 20th Century summer resort for Hapsburg and mid European aristocracy. Then there were “visits” from the Lombard’s, Charlemagne, Austrian Hapsburgs, and Napoleon, who did seem to get around. The Venetian Republic conquered Friuli in 1420 (hence the name) and finally, in 1866 most of Friuli was annexed to the Italian Kingdom. We are up to the two World Wars, most of which was fought in this area, and more swapping of territory. Trieste was temporarily awarded to Yugoslavia in recognition of its fight against the Germans in World War II. Finally, in 1963 Friuli Venezia Giulia was established as a region of Italy, but with many of the customs and languages of their Austrian and Slavic ancestors still preserved. If you are still with me you have come to the conclusion that Friuli is a mixed bag of cultures and languages which are what intrigued me about the area.
A short primer on the wine and food of Friuli: More than 60% of its wine production is white with Collio, Collio Orientall del Friuli, Friuli Grave and Friuli Isonzo four of the better known of the nine DOC zones (denominazione di origine controllata, similar to the French AOC laws). There is also one DOCG Ramandolo (the G stands for garantia or guaranteed, the highest level.) The Friulian style in whites favor the fresh, fruity and delicate style with very little wood aging and includes Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay. The reds have been traditionally light and fruity, best consumed within a few years of the harvest. Those include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a local favorite Refosco. But that is also changing, as many wineries now favor the depth and complexity that occurs with blending and oak aging Friuli, with its union of three culinary traditions (the Austrian, the Venetian and the Slav) is home to local favorites such as: San Daniele prosciutto and frico (cheese cooked with potatoes and onions) often served as antipasto. First courses include: Gnocchi and risotto along with Iota, a bean, potato and sauerkraut soup of Austrian origins. Main courses I enjoyed during my visit included: fresh seafood from the Adriatic and meat and game from the interior. Most meals included polenta, made from maize (think grits) and fresh produce. I guess most Americans are used to processed and zapped foods, myself included, so the natural bread, fresh vegetables and fruits led to my gaining more weight on this trip than any other I have taken in the past few years. I couldn’t resist the strudels and gubana, a cake filled with dry fruits, raisins and grappa. The cake was the only item I took home with me, besides wine.
My home for 5 nights was the restored 18th Century castle/hotel Castello di Spessa that was built on the remains if a 13th Century building. (Spessa is derived from the Latin “spissu” meaning thick, referring to the woods originally encircling the area). Situated on a hill in Capriva del Friuli, it is an hour plus from the Venice airport and a ½ hour from the Trieste airport. The castle is surrounded by a 18 hole golf course and clubhouse, a soon to open spa, the vineyards of the Castello and its wine cellar. Less than ¼ mile down the road is the La Tavernatta al Castello with 10 rooms and a restaurant. A few miles away is his other winery La Boatina, with its 5 rooms and a restaurant. Loretto Pali, the owner, is in the children’s furniture business and has been coming to the US for over 30 years selling his wares. He purchased the Castello in 1981 and began restoring it using art, antiques and furniture from the 17th and 18th Centuries. There is a reception room, banquet rooms, a chapel, conference rooms and a small museum, with the capability to seat 150 for dinner. Giacomo Casanova was a guest here for three months in 1773 and Mr. Pali has named one of his red wines Casanova. There are now 9 rooms with 6 more being added this year. While constructing the wine cellar he found an underground bunker used by the Germans and the Americans during World War II that he has converted into a barrel storage room.
Why don’t American’s know more about Friuli? Perhaps there are just too many other regions in Italy that they know and have read about. The food and wine is great; the prices very reasonable; Delta flies non-stop from JFK to Venice; the historical sites rival anywhere in Italy; the roads are good; there are very few Americans yet English is spoken everywhere; you can visit Nova Gorica Slovenia which is less than ½ hour away and try your hand at games of chance at the many casinos; the sea is less than an hour’s drive.