Perhaps it was the centenary of the Great War, but I spent most of 2014 immersed in the history of central Europe: the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottomans, the Balkans and the fluid borderline states that changed the shape of modern Europe.
Everyone from the Romans to Napoleon has staked a claim to this area
Most intriguing was the north-eastern slice of Italy, the region of Friuli, rimmed to the north by the Julian Alps and butting up against Austria, Croatia and Slovenia. It is very different from its flashy neighbor Venice to the west. In fact, it doesn’t feel typically Italian but then the region only joined the Republic in 1918 and the language here was German for hundreds of years. The mood is agreeably austere and self-contained with a strong cosmopolitan mix and the people, language, landscape, food and wines are quite distinct from Italian stereotypes.
Everyone from the Romans to Napoleon has staked a claim to this area, leaving a cultural legacy that includes handsome Renaissance cities, medieval castles, Gothic cathedrals and picturesque towns perched on hillsides. The huge site at Aquileia charts the earlier Roman occupation with magnificent mosaics, basilica, open-air forum, extensive ruins and National Archaeological Museum.
At the southern tip of the region is Trieste, the Habsburg Imperial port and gateway to the Adriatic, a city teeming with different nationalities and religions, where writers James Joyce, Italo Svevo and Gabrielle d’Annnunzio rubbed shoulders as well as revolutionaries and royalty. The victorious Allies made Trieste a Free Port in 1945 and it finally joined the Italian Republic in 1954. The city that marked the southern end of the Iron Curtain is now home to Illy Caffe and a wealth of contemporary art. I was determined to go.
Fly into Trieste on Ryanair and don’t believe the stories about how awful it is
You won’t find many British people visiting Friuli – we prefer Tuscany and the urban pleasures of Florence, Venice and Rome – so I felt like a genuine explorer. And I was lucky. My friends Russell and Rachel have relocated to the region and were brilliant guides, making introductions, uncovering secrets and sharing their enthusiasm. But it’s not impossible to make your own way – despite a serious lack of guidebooks to the area. Here are my suggestions.
Fly into Trieste on Ryanair and don’t believe the stories about how awful it is. It’s fine – efficient, punctual and polite. There are cheap taxis and an easy bus route into Trieste or you can hire a car and head into Friuli itself. There is also an excellent train service throughout the region – hurrah for Mussolini.
We stayed in Casa delle Rose, a 16th century villa in the grounds of the Castello di Brazzà, home for a thousand years to an eminent family that includes such a broad mix of high-achievers and eccentrics that it sounds like a spoof. What do you make of a family tree that includes a Roman Emperor, the explorer who founded the African country Congo Brazzaville (the clue is in the name), the American philanthropist Cora Slocomb, Grand Admiral Tirpitz of the German Imperial Navy, two Doges of Venice, General Alessandro Pirzio-Biroli who served in the Abyssinia, Greek and Montenegro campaigns, and his daughter Eugenia who founded a city in Chile?
Not surprisingly, there’s a family museum in the grounds but I was more taken with the villa itself with a huge salon and galleried sitting room as well as cosy rooms for games and TV. In the grounds there are tennis courts and two swimming pools as well as a multitude of rose bushes that give the house its name. The views are spectacular, over the lush countryside towards the alps with dazzling snowy tops almost all year round.
The house is ideal for a private party as it sleeps up to 22 with eight double rooms and a dormitory for six, and it’s perfectly placed as a centre for exploring. If you hire a car, just point in any direction and find glorious towns and ravishing countryside that will be mercifully tourist-free.
Gorizia is a region and a city right on the cusp of Italy and Slovenia with stately villas, onion-shaped domes and tree-lined avenues. The Palazzo Lantieri was built as a fortress in the 14th century to guard the town’s south-west entrance but today it is a grand family home for Carolina Lantieri and her five children and visitors who can stay in the rooms and apartments. Historical interiors include the Frescoed room, magnificent paintings, furniture and costumes as well as the splendid Persian-style park but there are also site-specific art installations by Jan Fabre and Michelangelo Pistoletto as well as significant modern Italian artists.
Cool cocktail bars sit alongside traditional restaurants serving hearty Italian dishes of antipasti, gnocchi, beef tagliata and buckets of delicious Friulian wine
Udine is a must. This fine Renaissance city is a beautiful arrangement of elegant squares and palazzos, charming streets and atmospheric corners, full of history and vivacious modern life. Cool cocktail bars sit alongside traditional restaurants serving hearty Italian dishes of antipasti, gnocchi, beef tagliata and buckets of delicious Friulian wine. The locals are very proud of their wine makers concentrated in the Collio region and finally being recognized by the international wine world. The golden whites are based on the Ribolla Gialla grape with its compelling aromas and flavours that work very well with food, and the Friuliano grape that makes a woodland-fresh white served everywhere as an aperitif.
To explore the world of Friulian wine, opt for a spot of agri-tourismo at Alessandra Felluga’s enchanting wine estate, Il Castello di Buttrio, in the Colli Orientali hills not far from Udine. Alessandra is part of the region’s most eminent wine-making family, but she also has a talent for interior decoration and hospitality. She has turned the old farmhouse Tra Le Vigne into a romantic hideaway amongst the vineyards, full of antiques and comfortable furniture, floaty fabrics, soft light and flowers – inside and out. Eat at the rustic Locanda al Castello di Buttrio or arrange a private tasting at the cellars to educate your palate to the wines of this distinctive region.
With its handsome buildings, colonnades and open squares facing the sea, Trieste is one of the best cities for just chilling out with an aperitif or super strong coffee and watching the well-dressed world go by.
The Revoltella museum was founded by a wealthy local merchant with a passion for all things modern (he financed the Suez Canal)
As well as posh shopping there’s a wealth of antique and vintage shops, flea markets and museums that range from ambitious contemporary art to creaky medieval suits of armour. The Revoltella museum was founded by a wealthy local merchant with a passion for all things modern (he financed the Suez Canal). The Morpurgo occupies a palazzo and perfectly captures the interiors and home life of an affluent banking family while the Sartorio houses the collections of another Triestine dynasty with a penchant for fine art. It houses one of the world’s most important collections of Tiepolo drawings and Venetian paintings. There’s the Maritime museum and the Trieste Aquarium, Botanical Gardens and museums dedicated to Oriental art, the theatre, the Risorgimento and James Joyce.
If you’re energetic, climb up to San Giusto castle for magnificent views across the bay from the ramparts. Check out the Roman amphitheatre weirdly right in the centre of town or take the bus a short distance along the coast to the Miramare castle, a 19th century folly built by the doomed Habsburg Prince Maximilian who was briefly – and absurdly – Emperor of Mexico before being mown down by the unenthusiastic populace.
Food in Trieste reflects the swirling mix of cultures and tastes, a mix of Italian, Austrian and Balkan. I loved the locally caught seafood, salt cod with polenta and regional goodies like San Daniele ham and mountain cheese but at another time the sausages with sauerkraut or vast Viennese-style desserts are irresistible. There are traditional trattorias for genteel locals and edgy wine bars serving ambitious food in tiny portions for local hipsters.
Because you rarely hear English voices, Trieste, and Friuli in general, feels wonderfully foreign and exotic, a rare treat in Europe today. Go before they ruin it. C
Jennifer Sharp’s suggested reading list:
Danubia: a history of Hapsburg Europe by Simon Winder
1913: the Year before the Storm by Florian Illies
The Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklós Bánffy
Along The Enchanted Way by William Blacker
The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers by Mischa Glenny
Lords of the Horizons: a History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin
The Pike: Gabriele d.Annunzio: Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett