Few places in Italy remain undiscovered, but the tiny region of Friuli Venezia Giulia – known simply as Friuli – is a treasure trove of historic and artistic gems. You may find your first visit surprising, as there’s so much to explore and it’s so easy to fall under the spell of this unspoilt landscape. Tucked away in the northeast at Italy’s borders with Austria and Slovenia, Friuli boasts enchanting scenery of staggering contrasts. The snow-capped Dolomites and Julian Alps dominate the north, while fertile plains and manicured vineyards sweep across the centre and south in emerald waves to meet the rugged Adriatic coast.
As a border region, Friuli has a complex and fascinating history: it began with the Romans in Aquileia, then Cividale rose to prominence as the capital of a Lombard dukedom, and the Venetians took control of Udine. However, it was the Habsburgs who had the greatest influence, with Trieste being a jewel in the crown of the Austro-Hungarian empire until it was ceded to Italy in 1918. Gorizia is a fascinating and unique border town once divided from Slovenia’s Nova Gorica – meaning ‘new Gorizia’ – with medieval arcades and Baroque palaces.
Then there’s the extraordinary collection of art: peppered throughout the towns of Friuli are historic highlights from virtually every period of Italian art and architecture, from Roman ruins and early medieval churches, to dazzling Byzantine frescoes and Renaissance treasures.
Gastronomically, the region offers a variety of flavours which reflect neighbouring influences, such as polenta from the Veneto, soups and dumplings from Central Europe, and interpretations of Austrian desserts. Friuli is perhaps best-known for its outstanding wines, particularly the white varietals, and there are plenty of tantalising dishes to sample: the dry-cured ham of San Daniele, frico or savoury crisps made with creamy Montasio cheese, and gnocchi with cherries or plums!
The base for our engaging tour is Udine, an affluent provincial city whose grand historic centre features Roman columns, Grecian statues and Venetian archways. We discover the legacies of Caesar, Charlemagne and the dukes of Lombard in the charming towns of Cividale and Aquileia, and admire Trieste’s splendid Habsburg heritage, art and architecture. We enjoy a coastal drive to Miramare, where we visit the magnificent castle built for Austrian Archduke Maximilian.
One of the delights of this less-visited – but no less wonderful – region is the absence of crowds often associated with other parts of Italy. This means you can truly take your time to savour Friuli’s very many treasures, and the locals are so friendly and welcoming, you’ll soon feel right at home.