I awoke early to catch the 8:00am bus to Marano Lagunare, a small fishing village located along Friuli’s southern coast between Grado and Lignano. The trip took just over an hour from Udine, which gave me several hours to explore before lunchtime. The smell of salt air and freshly caught fish greeted me as I arrived at the harbor. Houses of robin’s egg blue, salmon pink, and sunflower yellow lined the narrow streets of the town’s old center, while boats of blue and white sat docked along the canals. As I ventured south along the water’s edge, however, the pastel colors vanished, revealing a less attractive, though perhaps more authentic, scene: fishing boats crusted with mud, rusty cranes, garbage-filled dumpsters, and backhoes hauling buckets of dirt.
I circled back toward town, passing through a nondescript residential section on my way to the Riserva Naturale Valle Canal Novo, a protected nature reserve encompassing the marshy wetlands that surround Marano Lagunare. Unfortunately, the visitor’s center happened to be closed that day, so there were no guided tours. But it was possible to enter the park via a wooden footbridge that extended over the water into the dense thicket of reeds, home to countless forms of native wildlife.
Though it was only 11:00am, the intense July heat was beginning to tire me out. I returned to the central piazza and found a shady bench in full view of the Torre Millenaria. For over an hour I sat there, watching the comings and goings of village life—elderly couples out for a stroll, women pulling shopping carts of groceries, children frolicking around the tower steps.
For lunch, I headed to Trattoria Alla Laguna (a.k.a. Vedova Raddi), located in a three-story building of rust red stucco overlooking the harbor. I started with the frutti di mare gratinati, a plate of mussels and scallops baked in their shells with a bread crumb topping. Next, I was excited to try their signature dish, risotto alla Maranese, but was disappointed to read on the menu that they required a minimum of two persons for the order. From past experience, I knew that this was not uncommon. Nevertheless, I explained that I was writing a cookbook on Friulian cuisine and asked politely if it might be possible to have a single portion of the dish. The owner graciously acquiesced—and the risotto was delicious! Served with calamari, shrimp, mussels, and local wedge shell clams called telline, the risotto was prepared al dente in a perfectly soupy fish stock that tasted of the ocean.
Between courses, the owner came over to chat. He explained that all his seafood was locally caught in the lagoon and, strangely, that many Americans would come to visit each year around Easter. I imagined that “many” may have been a relative term, given the few Americans I had ever encountered in Friuli—and since Marano Lagunare was not at the time listed in any of my English-language guidebooks.
Shortly, the owner returned with a huge guestbook for me to sign. He revealed that the book was for his “famous” guests and pointed to one signature in particular by a dignitary from Iran (I never quite caught exactly who he was). The owner went on to boast that when he was a child, and his father ran the restaurant, Ernest Hemingway dined there quite often. I felt honored, though somewhat baffled, that he had requested my autograph, too.
After lunch, my plan was to take the boat to Lignano Sabbiadoro, the region’s largest beach resort. It was a pleasant 40-minute ride across the lagoon, sunny but with a cool breeze floating over the water. In the distance, scattered amid the marshes, were tiny, thatched fisherman’s huts called casoni.
Compared to Marano Lagunare, Lignano was huge. I only had an hour before my return bus to Udine, so I didn’t get to explore the resort town as fully as I would have liked. The beach itself was approximately five miles long and serviced by more than forty bathing houses, all renting umbrellas and lounge chairs to vacationing sunbathers. It was now peak season, and thousands of those colorful umbrellas dotted the soft, golden sand, all lined up in flawless rows. I walked partway down the beach to an enclosed jetty that extended out over the sea. The sapphire blue water was shallow and calm, and I wished that I could go for a swim myself.
Standing there alone, surrounded by families, couples, groups of friends—everyone attached to someone else—a certain melancholy began to set in. I was, for the most part, quite comfortable traveling alone and rarely felt awkward even going into restaurants by myself. As an only child, I had grown accustomed to keeping myself company and generally enjoyed the solitude. But every so often, as on that day in Lignano, I wished that Mike (my now husband) had been able to come on the trip, so that I would have someone to lounge on the beach and splash in the sea with.
I walked back past highrise hotels, tacky gift shops, and gelaterie, most of which were closed at that late hour of the afternoon. Near the bus station, I did find one gelateria that was open, and I treated myself to a double scoop of limone (lemon) and yogurt. The sun was beating down, and I was glad to finally board the air-conditioned bus.
Before returning to Hotel Principe, I took a walk into Udine’s centro. It was so swelteringly hot that I knew I wouldn’t feel like having a big dinner that evening. Deciding to eat in again, I picked up some apricots, strawberries, and a tomato at the produce market. Then, I found a bar that sold tramezzini and bought a sandwich with turkey to go. I ate my picnic dinner early, in the cool of my hotel room, watching the news on TV and trying to figure out my plans for my final three days in Friuli.