Friuli-Venezia Julia is an Italian province little frequented by American tourists. This is unfortunate because there is much to see in this area of northeastern Italy tucked between the Veneto (including Venice) and the borders of two other countries, Austria and Slovenia.
The name may require some explanation: “Friuli” is the area around the provincial capital of Udine populated mostly by Friulians, many of whom still speak their ancient language; “Venezia” refers to Venice, which long exerted political control over this area to the northeast of La Serenissima; “Giulia”, finally, nods to the Julian Alps which rise up in the northern reaches of the province.
Field Hospital in the Karst. Note communications trench.
My trip to FVG focused primarily on a tour of World War I battle sites, where, between 1915-18, trench warfare resulted in horrific carnage among both Austrian and Italian troops.
Although Austria-Hungary and Italy fought all along their shared alpine border, including the provinces of Trentino-Adige and the Veneto, in the popular mind "Italian Front" is largely synonymous with the killing fields along valleys of the Piave, Tagliamento and Isonzo. These rivers course seaward from the Alps down through the plains and karstlands of Fruili-Venezia Julia.
Italian Front trench on the Carso Isontino.
Oddly enough neither Venice nor Trieste, the major cities of the region, suffered significant damage in the Great War. Vital ports on the Adriatic, they were well protected by naval forces (Italian for Venice; Austrian for Trieste).
But up the river valleys within twenty miles of either city raged battles which were among the deadliest, and ultimately fruitless, of recorded history.
The Isonzo River Valley at the heart of the Italian front.
Ernest Hemingway's novel "A Farewell to Arms" caught the feeling of disillusionment which permeated the Isonzo campaigns. In 1918 Hemingway himself had been wounded by shrapnel after serving just a few days as an ambulance corps non-combatant.
His novel sets the action a year earlier, in the autumn of 1917, focusing on the calamitous Italian defeat along the Isonzo River at Caporetto.
Display at the Museo della
Grande Guerra in Gorizia.
This Austrian break-through north of Gorizia all but took Italy out of the War. Its troops thrown back westward to the Piave, Italy reacted by changing governments, firing its military commander, General Cadorno, and appealing for aid from its western allies.
Within a year the Italians had managed to regroup and, with help from British and French forces, claimed a decisive military victory along the Piave at Vittorio Veneto. Soon thereafter an exhausted Germany and Austria sued for peace. An armistice was signed in November, 1918.
Although the entire province of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is an open air theatre of the Great War, the area around Gorizia represents center stage. Two major war museums focus on the bloody Isonzo campaigns of 1915-17.
The splendid Caporetto Museum sits some twenty miles north of Gorizia in the town Slovenians call Kobarid. Here large, detailed reliefs of the river and surrounding mountains vividly portray the 1917 Caporetto campaign, the 12th Battle of the Isonzo.
The Borgo Castello in Gorizia.
In Gorizia itself the complex at Borgo Castello houses the Museo della Grande Guerra, which presents a thorough-going and commendably impartial history of the prolonged 3 1/2 year Isonzo conflict.
No war-related visit to region would be complete without a walking tour of the Carso Isontino battlefields around Monte San Michele. Exploring the Isonzo karst provides telling evidence of why this landscape proved so deadly to combatants--bombs exploding in the rocky terrain produced hundreds of flying splinters which literally tore up anyone in the vicinity. The war memorial cemeteries at Redipuglia and Oslavia number their dead in the hundreds of thousands.
Hiking the rocky Karst landscape.
Even today the average Italian maintains a sardonic attitude towards Italy's role in both World Wars. The well-kept museums, monuments and cemeteries from Rovereto in Trentino-Alto Adige eastward through the mountains at Asiago, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Monte Grappa, Vittorio Veneto and Gorizia are testimony to his recognition of the suffering that occurred along the Italian Front of World War I.
Battlefield on the Carso Isontino.
On the other hand he readily voices contempt for the politicians and military leaders, including Mussolini, who conspired to bring down disaster upon Italy in two wars between 1915 and 1945.
He nods in empathy with Giuseppe Ungaretti, the great Italian poet who himself fought in the trenches near the town of San Martino Del Carso:
Of these houses
but fragments of memory
Of all who
would talk with me
not one remains
But in my heart
no one’s cross is missing
My heart is
the most tormented country of all.
Ungaretti's famous war
poem at the memorial of
San Martino del Carso.
Of course there is more than the memory of war in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a crossroads of three cultures: Italian, Austrian and Slovenian. For centuries Gorizia and nearby Trieste were important trade centers of the “Kustenland” (coastland), a southern outpost of the Hapsburg Empire.
Although nationalist movements in Italy and the Balkans would eventually help dismantle the Empire, today these cities remain Italo-Slovene in population with a cultural tradition distinctly Austrian.
Rivers of the Italian Front, from west
to east the Piave, Tagliamento and
Isonzo, plus the lagoons of
Venice at lower left.
After World War II, Gorizia (pop. 36,000) was not only multi-cultural but multi-national.
A divided city, the western zone was part of Italy while eastern neighborhoods fell within communist Yugoslavia. Border controls became part of everyday life, with a high iron fence intersecting a no-man’s land across the city’s Piazza Transalpina.
Where once rose Gorizia’s version of the Berlin Wall, today it is possible to stride across the Piazza with one foot in Italy, the other in Slovenia. There remain no checkpoints controlling pedestrian or road traffic between two countries of the European Union.
Predictably, dining in FVG becomes a multi-cultural experience.
Hapsburg era cafe in Trieste.
Note water served with coffee,
a typical Viennese touch.
Slovenian cuisine, with its shashliks, fruit sauces and nutty pastries, commands a place at the table with a rich mix of Italian and Austrian fare. The Collio vineyards on nearby hillsides produce dry white wines prized throughout Europe.
A number of country inns feature "Cucina Carso", utilizing cheeses, produce and wines native to the karst. Salumi (cured meats), roast pork and game combine delectably with pastas, rice and local mushrooms. A fine example is Locanda Devetak, a family-run restaurant in the hills behind the once bloody battleground of San Michele del Carso.
Wines of the Collio vineyards are world famous.
In Gorizia itself, excellent regional fare and a selection of Collio wines are offered at traditional restaurants like Trattoria alla Luna. You will be given the opportunity to top off your stick-to-the-ribs ravioli with some of the popular brandies like slivovitz (Slovenian) or grappa (Italian).
A four star hotel in Gorizia harkens back to the Hapsburg era, when resorts scattered along the Kustenland were much frequented by well-to-do Austrians in search of mild winter weather.
Rocca Bernarda, a Collio vineyard villa near Gorizia.
Grand Hotel Entourage is so named for its brief service as court-in-exile to King Charles X of France. A year after his arrival at Gorizia in 1835 the deposed Bourbon monarch died of cholera. He is interred at the Church of the Annunciation of Our Lady within a Franciscan monastery now in Slovenia.
The hotel is centrally located in the 16th century Strassoldo Palace recently restored to its former elegance with park land and rose garden.
World War I memorial at Oslavia.
In ancient vaults which date to 1481 the hotel's Avenanti Restaurant, named for the resident chef, features seafood prepared with fresh local produce and a variety of regional wines.
More information about Gorizia and the province of Friuli-Venezia Giulia can be found at the following websites:
— Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Jetsetters Magazine European Editor. Photos courtesy of Turismo Friuli-Venezia Giulia.