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Archive for July, 2011

The next day, I took another early train from Udine to Gemona del Friuli. After passing endless, barren fields in varying shades of brown, we reached the Alto Friuli—the gateway to the Alps. From the station, Gemona’s centro was a peaceful 20-minute walk uphill. The streets were quiet in the morning light and took on the unreal appearance of an empty movie set. The buildings, though built in the ancient style, were perfectly unblemished and looked to be brand new. Well, in fact, they were newly built after the two devastating earthquakes of 1976, which destroyed practically the entire town.

The Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta suffered major damage, and it took ten years of skillful restoration to return the church to its original state. The façade now looks as good as new, with its large rose window and 23-foot-high stone relief of Saint Christopher. Inside the nave, however, I noticed that some of the pink- and white-striped columns were still leaning.

As I strolled through the pristine town, I spotted an occasional bit of rubble, such as the 15th-century Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie that was all but demolished. Just a portion of the façade remains, its doorway set like a picture frame against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Up on a hill above the old town were the ruins of a castle, along with an unsightly green crane still working on the reconstruction.

After stopping briefly at the tourist office (one of the very best I have visited), I took a detour through a quiet, residential neighborhood on my way back to the train station. I made it just in time for the next train to Venzone, one stop further north.

From the station, I had to cross the busy highway to reach the nearest entrance to Venzone, the only Friulian town surrounded by a medieval stone wall. Like Gemona, Venzone was devastated by the 1976 earthquakes, but despite the restoration, Venzone has retained much of its medieval character. Stark, gray stone buildings and cobbled streets blend with the surrounding rocky mountains to give the town an otherworldly sort of charm.

It was lunchtime, and so I headed straight for the first restaurant I saw, Ristorante Caffè Vecchio. The menu posted outside listed cjalsòns and gnocchi di zucca. Inside, however, there was no menu, only a verbal recitation of the daily offerings: two choices of pasta, two choices of meat (rabbit or veal), and a side of beans. I chose simply the farfalle with gorgonzola and artichokes, disappointed that none of the Friulian dishes from my list were available. (This would become a common occurrence over the next two years of research.) Despite the limited menu, the ambiance was enchanting: a white vaulted ceiling, rustic chairs, graceful glass wine decanters, and a fogolâr (fireplace) with a blazing fire.

Across from the Duomo di Sant’Andrea sits the 13th-century Cappella Cimiteriale di San Michele. I bought a token for the entrance (along with my return train ticket) at Bar Da Bruno across the street. The tiny, round crypt houses the result of a peculiar natural phenomenon—corpses mummified by a rare parasitic mold that covered the bodies and blocked decomposition. While the exact age of the mummies has not been determined, the oldest—named Gobbo, meaning “hunchback”—was discovered in 1647 during construction work on the Duomo. Twenty-one mummies were originally uncovered, although only fifteen were salvaged intact from the ruins of the 1976 earthquakes. Five are now on display, including Gobbo, a mother and daughter, and two noblemen.

As I later explored the perimeter of the town, the wintertime smell of burning wood filled the air. Near one of the portals stood the remains of the Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista, still in ruins after the earthquake. Portions of the double stone wall were accessible, and I could see how the wall was once used as a moat.

Back in Udine that evening, I had planned on eating at Ristorante Al Vapore, but they were closed while going through a change of management. So instead I ended up at Osteria Alle Volte. Down a set of stairs from Via Mercatovecchio, the cave-like setting was enhanced by stone walls and a vaulted ceiling and dressed up with elegant navy and white damask tablecloths.

I had my heart set on having gnocchi di zucca and frico, but the waitress reported that they were out of the gnocchi. So instead I ordered a raviolo: two plate-sized squares of pasta—a plain square embellished with a green leaf design angled atop a green square—filled with shrimp, scallops, and sole in a saffron sauce. The frico (fried cheese and potato pancake) came with a side of polenta, but I was too stuffed to finish it—the consequences of culinary research were beginning to take a toll on my appetite!

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Early one winter morning, I took the train from Udine to the town of Tarvisio in the mountains of northern Friuli. The sky was clear, and for most of the way, the tracks ran parallel to the autostrada. As we approached the Alps, we passed through the area called Alto Friuli, with the little town of Gemona del Friuli, nestled in the foothills of Monte Chiampon, and then Venzone, a quaint village surrounded by a medieval stone wall. Both towns had been severely damaged in the 1976 earthquake. After passing through a long tunnel, we emerged in Pontebba, where the ground was now blanketed with snow. Another tunnel led to Ugovizza Valbruna—and more snow—and still another tunnel to Tarvisio, where the train pulled into its final stop.

The Tarvisio Boscoverde station was actually located some distance outside the town, but there was a connecting bus waiting to pick up passengers at the station. I didn’t know this, so I leisurely made my way to the restroom, thinking I had all the time in the world. By chance, I happened to follow two middle-aged women out of the station to where the bus was just starting its engine. We barely made it! If I had missed the bus, it would have been a long walk into town.

Having arrived in Tarvisio, I stopped briefly at the tourist office to inquire about the Sagra dei Cjalsòns, which I was hoping to attend in May of that same year. From there, I walked and walked along the highway—past the Valle Verde hotel and ski resort, past endless snow-covered fields—until, over an hour later, I reached the town of Camporosso.

In Camporosso, I rode the telecabina (ski lift) to the summit of Monte Santo di Lussari. It was prime ski season, and the slopes were crowded with skiers. Not a skier myself, I took a walk up to the lookout point above the lift platform. The path was icy, and I had to hold tight to the railing to keep from slipping—although once I did manage to end up knee deep in a snow bank. The view of the surrounding Giulian Alps was simply breathtaking—in every direction, craggy peaks capped with snow stood out against the crisp, blue sky.

On the opposite side of the summit was the mini village Borgo Lussari, where the tiny Santuario di Monte Lussari poked its steeple out from amid the snow-covered rooftops like a fairytale church. Legend says that in 1360 a shepherd knelt to pray atop this mountain and discovered hidden in the brush a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. The patriarch of Aquileia soon ordered a small chapel built on that very spot.

Mass was being held in the sanctuary, so I didn’t enter. Instead, I surveyed the village for places to eat. There were only three restaurants to choose from. I decided on Albergo Ristorante Rododendro, where I warmed up inside their rustic chalet-style dining room and tucked into a hearty plate of goulasch con polenta. It was the perfect meal for a chilly day on a mountaintop!

The telecabina ride down the mountain was a bit harrowing when the cables suddenly jerked to a stop, leaving our compartment swinging dizzily from side to side. Of course, I made it safely to the bottom, and I immediately headed back to Tarvisio. The return trip took less than an hour—I must have stopped an awful lot for photos on the way that morning—but when I reached Tarvisio, everything was closed for the afternoon. I found the bus stop and sat and waited…and waited…and waited.

Finally when the tourist office reopened, I went in to inquire about the bus schedule. Apparently, I was waiting at the wrong stop, but I hadn’t missed the bus for there were only two per day, morning and afternoon, scheduled to coincide with the train to Udine.

I eventually found the proper bus stop (on a street parallel to the one the bus had dropped me off on that morning), but still had a long time to wait. The bus was late and was packed with British schoolgirls on some kind of sporting meet. The two women I had followed to the bus earlier were on the bus now returning to the train station. The three of us had a bit of a panic trying to catch our train. There were no signs announcing which track our train was on, and because the bus was late, we had no time to spare. In the sottopassaggio (underground passageway), the three of us ran up and down the stairs, checking each platform for our train. There were only two trains sitting in the station, and so when we found the platform for the first one, one of the women ran ahead to ask the conductor. Luckily this was our train, and it took off as soon as we boarded.

It was nearly time for dinner when I arrived back in Udine. I returned to my old stand-by, Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo, where I ordered the cjalsòns once again. I noted that, while still delicious, they were not as sweet as some of the other versions I had recently tried. For my second course, I had the stinco di maiale, a gigantic braised pork shank served with polenta. While I would never consider the food at Al Vecchio Stallo elegant or chic, portions are always substantial and thoroughly satisfying!

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On Valentine’s Day, I bid farewell to Trieste and took the train to Udine, where I discovered that the sottopassaggio (underground walkway) held a passage leading from the train platforms across the busy street to an exit next to Hotel Principe. This was more convenient than exiting into the busy station, and I was glad to avoid all the crowds. I checked into my familiar hotel—I was a return guest now, and the staff greeted me with an extra dose of friendliness, which would only grow over the next couple years.

My room felt a bit chilly, and I couldn’t resist crawling into bed and napping for the rest of the afternoon. For dinner, I chose the elegantly rustic Hostaria Alla Tavernetta, where the black-clad proprietor, Roberto, reminded me vaguely of Rod Stewart minus the spiky hair. Being Valentine’s Day, the restaurant was completely booked. But since I had arrived precisely at 7:00 (and since Italians typically eat late), they agreed to serve me if I promised to be finished by 8:00.

To start, I ordered ravioli filled with pear and topped with cheese and poppy seeds. They weren’t called cjalsòns on the menu but were practically identical to the Carnian dish I had grown to adore. In fact, the very next summer in Carnia I would try several versions of pear-filled cjalsòns. I also ordered goulasch with potatoes, but somehow in all the confusion I was served musetto with mashed potatoes and brovada instead. The owners were now frantically rushing back and forth, decorating each table for the romantic holiday, and I decided not to complain about the mistake.

Musetto is a Friulian sausage made from pig snout, and brovada is its traditional accompaniment. Following an ancient recipe, brovada is made from turnips that have been pickled in grape “marc” (the solid matter that remains after grapes are pressed) for at least one month. Here is my shortcut version of brovada:

1 pound turnips, peeled and sliced into 1/8-inch julienne strips
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup red wine vinegar
• • •
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup beef broth
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

In advance, combine the turnips, red wine, and vinegar in a medium bowl, making sure that the turnips are completely submerged in the liquid. Refrigerate for 48 hours; drain.

Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion and garlic; cook and stir until the onion begins to soften, about 10 minutes. Add the drained turnips, beef broth, parsley, sage, and black pepper; cook until the turnips are tender, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt.

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On my last day in Trieste, I took bus #20 from the train station and, after a half hour of winding through the city’s southern suburbs, arrived in the town of Muggia. The last stop in Italy before reaching the Slovenian border, Muggia sits on the bay overlooking a distant Trieste. With its abundance of Venetian architecture, the town exudes a certain charm that blends the essence of Italy with a hint of foreign exoticism.

First, I strolled through the old city center, a tiny maze of narrow alleys lined with bars, bakeries, and butcher shops. The hub was Piazza Marconi, bordered by pastel-colored stucco buildings and starring the Venetian-Gothic Duomo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo with its striking trilobed façade and rose window.

Across the square sat the yellow and orange Palazzo dei Rettori, current home of Muggia’s town hall. Like many Venetian buildings in the region, it featured a stone relief of the winged lion of Saint Mark, but this one struck me as particularly bizarre—the lion was sticking out his tongue, as if disgusted with his former ruling empire.

Nearby on Via Oberdan, I passed the Casa Veneta, a 15th-century Venetian-style building with white-trimmed Venetian-Gothic windows. From there, I left the city center and hiked uphill to Muggia Vecchia (“old Muggia”) to see the Romanesque church Santa Maria Assunta. Across the street from the church was a small archeological site featuring medieval ruins.

Once down the hill again, I made my way to the waterfront. Backed by more pastel houses, the harbor retained the atmosphere of an old-world fishing port. Hungry for lunch and intrigued by the sign hanging out front, I ducked into a restaurant called Lilibontempo Trattoria Ex-Hitler. (It turns out the previous owner bore a marked resemblance to the Nazi dictator.) There was only one other table seated: two American men who had both ordered spaghetti alla marinara. The waitress told me a boat of American tourists had just docked in Trieste, and that it was a fairly unusual occurrence to have any American guests there.

I was invited to help myself to a lavish buffet of seafood salads, and so I started with samples of salmon, sarde in saor, octopus salad, and shrimp in salsa rosa. For my main course, since I always seem to have trouble making a decision, I ordered the “Gran Piatto Istria,” a selection of local seafood specialties that included calamari, sardoni panati (breaded sardines), ribaltavapori fritti (miniscule fried fish), seppioline (small cuttlefish), and scampi grigliati (grilled langoustine). The plate also included sides of insalata russa (mayo-based potato salad) and rice.

Except for the crispy and addictive ribaltavapori, the meal was not particularly memorable. But I was delighted when owner Lili Bontempo came over to chat, and I persuaded her to give me her recipes for jota (bean and sauerkraut soup) and brodetto di pesce (seafood stew).

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