Friuli-Venezia Giulia is Italy’s north easternmost region. It covers an area of 3,033 square miles, making it the fifth smallest region of the country. But since last year, it has become the largest province in Italy. That’s right – the entire region is now one large province. Previously, four provinces had constituted Friuli-Venezia Giulia – Gorizia, Pordenone, Trieste and Udine; however, on September 30, 2017, these provinces were disbanded, creating one province for the entire region. It borders Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east. To the south it faces the Adriatic Sea and to the west its internal border is with the Veneto region. The region has long been described as an area of contrasts and spans a wide variety of climates and landscapes, from the beautiful coastal weather in the south, to Alpine weather in the Dolomites of the mountainous north. To avoid confusion, we will simply refer to the area as the region.
The region is known for its winter skiing destinations in Monte Zoncolan, Tarvisio, Sella Nevea, Forni di Sopra and Piancavallo; while the fine weather attracts tourists to Grado, Monfalcone and Trieste. From its boundary with Veneto up to Monfalcone, the coast is trimmed with lagoons and has long sandy beaches, with several tourist resorts such as the famous Lignano Sabbiadoro.
Away from the Dolomites and the coast, the alpine foothills of the Friuli contain outstanding white wine producing estates and although vineyard names such as Radikon and Zidarich hardly sound Italian, the vineyards in the area are undeniably and authentically Italian.
In ancient times, modern Friuli-Venezia Giulia was located within Regio X Venetia et Histria and traces of its Roman past are still visible. The city of Aquileia, founded in 181 BC, served as the capitol of the region. One of its glimmering jewels, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is rich in vestiges of the ancient past, from the forum to the ruins of the river port and the basilica. In addition to containing the most important examples of early Christian art, Aquileia is believed to be the largest Roman city yet to be excavated.
During the middle ages, two of the cities of the region were already established and independent city-states, Gorizia and Trieste, which later fell under Austrian rule. Friuli became a Venetian territory in 1420. Pordenone was added a century later, but in 1797, Venetian domination came to an end and Friuli was ceded to Austria. Trieste began to emerge as a crossroads port for central Europe. Its importance as a port remains strong to this day.
During the First World War, the region was within the main theater of operations and suffered serious damage and loss of life. Redrawing borders after the war also created hostility and conflict. It was after the Second World War that Trieste was finally ceded back to Italy.
The economy of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is one of the most developed in the country. Its core is based on small and medium-sized companies that specialize in farming, high-quality tourism and a significant amount of exported goods. In the hilltop town of San Daniele del Friuli, you will find excellent prosciutto, although it is still a distant second to the revered status of Prosciutto di Parma. Up until the 1960s, it was made from black Friulian pigs, but so popular was the product that the pigs nearly became extinct. The product is less salty and slightly sweeter than its more famous rival, but that doesn’t stop the town’s people from celebrating at the end of each June with a festival called Aria di Festa (this year June 22-25), when Prosciutto di San Daniele is celebrated for four days and many factories open up their doors for visits and tastings.
Maniago, formerly located in the Province of Pordenone, is renowned for its production of steel blades which are used by many of the largest producers of knives, scissors and shears. Set in the stunning foothills the Italian Alps, the town is literally on the cutting edge of the industry with extremely high quality steel and cutlery. Not far away is Brugnera, where some of the finest Italian furniture makers have their factories and production facilities. The area is particularly well known for the artistry of its carved furniture pieces. Local craftsmanship within different industries manufacture products of the highest quality, including textiles, wooden sculptures, artistic ceramics, mosaic tile, wrought iron and stringed instruments.
Although small in size, Friuli-Venezia Giulia has always been ‘in the center of Europe’ and has played an important role in connecting Italy and the Mediterranean to central and eastern Europe with an extensive network of highways and railways, while the shipyards of Fincantieri in Monfalcone, build some of the largest cruise ships in the world. Fincantieri, headquartered in Trieste is the largest shipbuilder in Europe and the fourth largest in the world.
The impressive Carso plateau is a limestone plateau region, a slender ledge that reaches down the north-eastern coast of the Adriatic from Monfalcone to Trieste. The windswept rocks and soil erosion have created more than 2,000 caves. The curious Timavo River flows from Slovenia above ground and then underground in Italy for 20 miles, to finally emerge near its outlet into the Adriatic Sea, with a volume 25 times as great than when it disappears underground. Even more extraordinary is the Grotta Gigante, the largest cave in the world that is open to the public. It is 350 feet deep, almost 700 feet wide and is large enough to hold St. Peter’s Basilica!
The city of Trieste conceals innumerable beauties – old cafés, neoclassical buildings along the Grand Canal and other monuments revealing the fascination of this central European city and its glorious past. Do not miss Castello di Miramare, which has a commanding presence on the Gulf of Trieste. It is new, at least as far as castles go, built in the 1860s by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Hapsburg for his wife, Carlota. The castle is believed to be cursed because of the ill fate befalling the couple. They left Trieste to become Emperor Maximilian I and Empress Carlota of Mexico in 1864 at the urging of Napoleon III. After the French withdrew their support, Maximillian’s position became precarious. He was arrested and sentenced to death in 1867. Carlota returned to Europe, but was never the same. Despondent over the death of her husband, she went mad and lived an anguished existence for another half century.
Despite the curse, it is safe to make a day trip to Castello di Miramare and visit the 20 or so rooms still filled with the original furnishing of Maximilian and Carlota. The sizable botanical gardens, 54 acres, provide a beautiful setting and are well worth a walk though following a tour of the castle.
Other destinations in the region include the cosmopolitan Gorizia, with its medieval castle that recalls centuries of history. It is on the border with Slovakia and you might even stroll across the border while shopping without even realizing it. Udine is no less charming. It also boasts an ancient castle, plus the precious works of artist Giambattista Tiepolo. It may be a region of contrasts, but for those who seek a fascinating experience, the more you look into Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the more appealing it is!