Rearranging his grip on the heavy rifle lazing in his arms, the teenaged guard gazed at me with undisguised boredom. It was his job to defend the last dividing wall in mainland Europe, splitting the tiny town of Gorizia in two – one half in Italy, the other in Slovenia. But this was in 2004, several months before the wall (really just a glorified fence) was finally demolished. Today I’m in Gorizia again, and where once the sight of a young soldier’s gun gave me a jolt of fear and an ugly metal mesh kept me firmly out of Slovenia, there is now just a rather stylish steel plaque embedded in the piazza cobblestones, marking the international border. I stroll blithely across it.
A few feet away stands the town’s grand Austro-Hungarian-style railway station. Four different flags have flown over it in the last hundred years. Gorizia was in Austria before WWI gave it to Italy, then WWII split the town and this piazza in two – one side Italian, the other communist Yugoslavian. Today the railway station finds itself in Slovenia, and as I potter round its echoing halls I note the dual-language signs. ‘Odprto’ vies with ‘aperto’ to announce the opening time of the little shop; ‘zaprto’ and ‘chiuso’ compete to tell me when it closes.
Back on the Italian side of town, I explore Gorizia’s spotless, tranquil streets and admire its colourful buildings – delicate Venetian spires, exotic onion domes, Alpine windowboxes. I climb a leafy rise to the town’s tiny castle, ducking beneath a Venetian lion of St. Mark to gaze across into the clean, green hills of Slovenia. Then down to lunch, attended by waitresses clad à la Snow White in dirndls and Tyrolean skirts. It’s hard to keep up in a town like this. It’s a kaleidoscope of three cultures, clicking into a new one at every turn. But in this regard little Gorizia is just a microcosm of Friuli-Venezia Giulia itself. This whole region is Italy’s most delightfully mixed-up corner.
Even as a well-travelled italophile, you’re unlikely to be familiar with Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Or if you’ve heard the name, you might not have a mental picture of the place. Think leafy and gentle. Think fresh air, green hills, clear mountain streams and orderly little towns. The region is best-known to Austrians, for whom its golden beaches serve as the nearest coastline. And the whole region was for centuries, of course, part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Is it a lingering Teutonic instinct for order, to peddle stereotypes for a moment, that keeps Friuli-Venezia Giulia so scrubbed and tidy? The region seems to have an almost magical immunity to litter, graffiti or urban mess of any kind. Actually, like most things, it comes down to wealth. Friuli-Venezia Giulia is a semi-autonomous region within Italy (like Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige and Valle d’Aosta). This means that all the taxes paid by its citizens go directly to regional government, rather than to the national government in Rome where they would then be spent across the whole country. Friuli-Venezia Giulia taxes are spent only in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, making it almost seem like an independent country. With all its prosperity staying at home, keeping the place spotlessly clean is an affordable luxury.
A dozen miles from Gorizia, I arrive at the little paradise of Cividale del Friuli. A tall medieval bridge crosses a crystal-clear river, in whose gliding pale-turquoise depths big fish lazily wag their tails. Beside it, perfect homes and inviting shops sit on breathtakingly clean and well-kept streets. In the central piazza, I watch the lucky residents of this sleepy little heaven in the hills – children playing happily around a central fountain, riding bicycles and lapping ice creams; adoring parents watching from the edges while chatting with their neighbours. Is this place for real? Or are all these people actors, in a freshly-built stage set?
The town was founded by Julius Caesar, of all people. As ‘The little city of Julius Caesar’s forum’, it spawned the name of the whole Friuli region. ‘Friuli’ is a much-timeworn rendering of ‘Forum Julius’. Think F’r’m Iulius to F’r’iulius to F’r’iuli. The town’s other historical distinction is as the first place in Italy settled by the Lombards, or Longobards – those mysterious 6th-century invaders from Germanic lands. I visit a wonderful museum full of their artefacts – large stone objects beautifully carved with biblical scenes and allegorical symbols. The faces are always striking, with piercing, almost confrontational eyes and small downturned mouths. Every figure looks straight at you, never at each other. The effect is as if the Lombards themselves are solemnly beseeching you from the past, alarmed by the huge amount of intervening time, and commanding “Remember us. Remember us.”
The next day I explore the little city of Udine (‘Oo-dee-nay’). It’s another civilized charmer, with jolly bits of architecture dotted about. Contented folk sprawl at its many cafés, and bicycles spool serenely past. The town’s chief claim to fame is its fabulous wealth of paintings by Tiepolo – both father and son (1696-1770 and 1727-1804). I start in the cathedral, where side chapels sport airy, pastel-coloured frescoes by Gianbattista Tiepolo, the father. Winged figures balloon prettily up to heaven, and trompe l’œil effects make you question the reality of apparent pilasters and ledges. Cheekily, one of the angels has a 3-D wing-tip made out of plaster, to better stand out against a ridge of real masonry. I spot similar audacity later in the Palazzo Arcivescovile, where a plaster fist punches out of a ceiling fresco, breaking the boundary between painted scene and real space.
The Oratorio della Purità, an otherwise architecturally plain and restful little church, is awash with stunning work by both Tiepolos. Giddy frescoes in bright colours reel across the ceiling, while the walls sport delicate monochrome paintings with gilt backgrounds – sepia and white figures with kind-hearted faces, their lyrical softness made wonderfully bold against the solid gold skies.
Twenty miles away I come to Aquileia, once a major Roman city and now one of the most important archaeological sites in Italy. Here I pad around the cathedral-sized Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, gawping at 700 square metres of early-Christian mosaics. They form a vast wonderland of fish and animals, criss-crossed by perspex walkways. I’m most touched by an octopus with big baby eyes, and a naively drawn jellyfish – whose simple shape is like an open umbrella viewed from above. There are leaping deer too, and endless lustrous birds. A 1,700-year-old menagerie, wrought in tiny tesserae.
Inspired by Aquileia’s mosaics, I make a beeline for Spilimbergo and its Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli, or Friuli School of Mosaics – the first and only truly professional mosaic school in the world. I join a little tour group and we’re led down corridors festooned with mosaics in all styles ancient and modern. We peek into workrooms where students callous their fingertips and fritz their vision on bright, intricate creations, and we’re let free to roam a museum full of mesmerising mosaic objects. The whole place is as energizing as a triple espresso. By the time we leave, steeped in so much colour and creativity, we’re all babbling with excitement.
I drive for twenty minute to Pordonone, Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s second largest city after Trieste. Pristine, orderly roads lead me towards the centre, where I park outside and join the happy cyclists and pedestrians into the lovely heart of town. Here super-slender towers recall the Veneto, their exotic tips suggest the Slavic world, and stout brown windowboxes fizzing with flowers hint at Austria. I spot one amazing hybridized townhouse, where the stone window-frames are classic Venetian – tall and narrow with decorative arched tops – but the whole facade is painted like an Alpine country house, in a rustic stencil-style with crude colours.
Surrounded by their mad mixed architecture, the good people of Pordenone are busily enjoying the early evening. They sociably fill the streets, strolling with companions past glossy shops or standing chatting in huge shifting groups like giant outdoor cocktail parties. How casually, effortlessly happy they look. And who could fail to understand their contentment, living in a many-blessed region such as this one? Like the Romans and Lombards and Austro-Hungarians before me, I find I’m smitten with Friuli-Venezia Giulia. And I haven’t even seen the sunny coast yet, or reached delicious Trieste...
©Fleur Kinson 2011