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Archive for August, 2011

Once again, in my efforts to see as much as possible in two weeks, my plan was to visit two cities in one day. I left my hotel in Udine and walked next door to the bus station, where I promptly departed for Aquileia. An hour later, I arrived at the stop on the dusty highway across from the renowned Basilica.

Founded as a Roman colony in AD 181, Aquileia was once the fourth largest city in ancient Rome. Theodore, one of Aquileia’s first bishops, built the city’s Basilica Patriarcale in 313, paving the floor with a decorative carpet of mosaics. The church was remodeled by Patriarch Poppone in 1031, and so these intricate works of art became concealed for nearly a millennium. At the beginning of the 20th century, the ancient mosaic pavement was discovered below the nave floor and is thought to be the earliest surviving remnant of any Christian church.

The designs incorporate both Christian and pagan symbols, including animals, birds, trees, flowers, and geometric patterns. Panels represent allegorical scenes, such as the cock fighting the tortoise, as well as portraits of religious figures. The biblical story of Jonah and the Whale is illustrated with numerous sea creatures, its fish motif alluding to the city’s proximity to the Adriatic Sea.

In addition to the mosaics carpeting the Basilica’s floor, others had been discovered around the bell tower and are on display in the Cripta degli Scavi. The second crypt, Cripta degli Freschi, contains colorful 12th-century Byzantine-style frescoes.

From the Basilica, I walked along the river, past fields of Roman ruins, to the Museo Paleocristiano where I admired yet another display of mosaics. On my way back, I passed the Roman forum and the mausoleum, taking a detour to the ancient cemetery. My last stop in Aquileia was the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, but I unfortunately had to rush through the museum in less than 20 minutes so that I could catch the next bus to Grado. Still, I managed to view numerous Roman relics, including portrait busts, funerary carvings, household items, glassware, bronze objects, amber and precious stones, and a large collection of coins.

The bus deposited me on the island city of Grado, located across a lengthy bridge, just 15 minutes south of Aquileia. Since it was the middle of winter, and there were few tourists in this beach resort, I could find only two restaurants open. I chose Trattoria De Toni and ordered for my lunch Grado’s signature dish, boreto alla Gradese. That particular day, the kitchen used steaks of sea bass and halibut, which were cooked in a sauce of garlic and vinegar. In the typical tradition, the fish was served with white polenta. I asked the waiter for the recipe and was promptly handed a printed copy on the restaurant’s letterhead—it seemed that they must receive plenty of requests.

Like Aquileia, Grado was built around its Roman ruins, and areas of mosaics and ancient stone seemed to pop up in all sorts of unexpected places. For example, as I left De Toni, I noticed some excavations under glass right in the middle of the floor. From the restaurant, I took a stroll along Grado’s beachfront promenade, which was naturally deserted, save for a few elderly signore bundled up in fur coats. Then I circled back to the old city center to see the 6th-century Basilica di Sant’Eufemia. Finally, before heading back to the bus station, I crossed the bridge to the tiny Isola della Schiusa, where fisherman were anchoring their boats along the wide canal.

Back in Udine for dinner, I decided to try Osteria Alla Ghiacciaia, located alongside the canal on Via Zanon. Inside the smoke-filled room, locals gathered at the bar drinking wine and engaging in raucous banter. The waitress offered me a seat in their “non-smoking” section, a small, semi-secluded room off to the side. There, I capped off my day with a hearty bowl of orzo e fagioli (bean and barley soup); a plate of grilled eggplant, zucchini, red peppers, tomato, and radicchio; and an assortment of regional cheeses.

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