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Note: Like much of the world, Italy has been on a nationwide lockdown due to the devastating coronavirus COVID-19. Although the activities and events listed below will almost certainly be closed or cancelled this spring, I’ve decided to go ahead and post this piece to remind us of the abundant beauty of the Friuli region. As new cases of the virus are beginning to slow down, we can look to the future, when life will eventually return to normal, albeit a new normal, and people can once again attend food festivals or concerts, visit places such as the butterfly house or spa, and dine in restaurants throughout the region and beyond. My heart goes out to all who are suffering during this catastrophic time. Andrà tutto bene.

1. See the butterflies at the Casa delle Farfalle in Bordano

Casa delle Farfalle, BordanoThe town of Bordano, located in the foothills of the Carnian Alps, is home to the largest tropical butterfly garden in Europe, the Casa delle Farfalle (open from late March through September). The microclimate of nearby Monte San Simeone has attracted over 650 native species of butterflies—550 of which are nocturnal—making this town the ideal location for entomological studies.

Inside the Casa delle Farfalle, three greenhouses contain over 400 species of butterflies from Africa, the Amazon, and Indo-Australia. The butterflies are free to fly, surrounded by exotic vegetation in a miniature rainforest setting of vines, rare palms, and colorful orchids. The air is damp, filled with the echoes of mist and fluttering wings. Indigenous birds, reptiles, fish, and other insects complete the realistic ecosystem.

2. While in Bordano, stroll the streets decorated with butterfly murals

BordanoBordano pays tribute to its butterflies in yet another way. It began in 1996, after the publication of a book on the region’s native butterflies sparked interest among locals. Building on that idea, Mayor Enore Picco established a mural contest, inviting artists from all over Italy to participate. The instructions were to use buildings throughout Bordano and the neighboring hamlet of Interneppo as a canvas for the artists’ interpretation of the theme “butterflies.” Since the contest’s inception, more than 200 homes and public buildings have been painted with vividly hued, fantastical butterfly murals, transforming the streets into a kaleidoscope of color.

3. Attend the Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna, e dei Funghi di Primavera in Piano d’Arta

Every May, the Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna, e dei Funghi di Primavera is held in the hilltop hamlet of Piano d’Arta in Friuli’s Carnia mountains. Celebrating all the local bounties of spring—wild asparagus, mountain radicchio, and spring mushrooms—the festival’s main event is the Sunday street fair, where the roads are lined with tables displaying all sorts of arts and crafts: hand-knit scarves, copper kitchen utensils, and lavender-scented soap and potpourri. Wildflowers seem to be a particularly common theme, appearing on hand-painted ceramic plates, beaded ornaments, and wooden plaques for the home.

The festival’s food stands are naturally the biggest attraction. To the tunes of a live band, you can indulge in such local specialties as herb fritters, frico (crispy fried cheese), frittatas made with wild asparagus and mushrooms, grilled sausages, and cjarsòns (a sweet, cinnamon-laced filled pasta).

4. Take a spa day at the nearby Terme di Arta thermal baths

In a region scattered with Alpine chalets and onion-domed church steeples, one Japanese-style pagoda stands out as a symbol of health and well-being. Located alongside the Bût River in Arta Terme, the Terme di Arta spa has been attracting guests since the late 1800s. The original structure was destroyed in World War I and later rebuilt in its current style. The thermal baths are fed from the waters of the ancient Pudia Spring and have a high concentration of many minerals, particularly sulfides. Even the Romans, who settled in nearby Zuglio in 52 BC, took advantage of the sulfuric water’s supposed healing properties. In addition to thermal baths, the spa offers a complete menu of mud treatments, facials, and massages, as well as a gym and swimming pool.

5. Attend the Sagra dei Cjalčons in Pontebba

Every year on the last weekend in May, the town of Pontebba—or more precisely the nearby hamlet of Studena Bassa—hosts the Sagra dei Cjalčons, a festival dedicated to the Friulian filled pasta (alternate spellings includecjalsòns” and “cjarzòns”). There are countless varieties of cjalčons, as every town in Friuli’s northern mountains has its own unique recipe. Most combine both sweet and savory flavors, but the version from Pontebba is primarily sweet: sizeable pouches of dough stuffed with a mixture of dried figs and fresh ricotta, and tossed with melted butter, sugar, and cinnamon. While most cjalčons are served as a pasta course, these could just as easily be a dessert. In addition to the food stands, highlights of the festival include a 5km race, wine tasting kiosks, indoor games, and two evenings of music and dancing.

6. Go hiking at the Fusine Lakes

fusine lakesIn Friuli’s northeasternmost corner, near the Austrian and Slovenian borders and just outside the town of Tarvisio, is the Parco Naturale dei Laghi di Fusine, home of two beautiful glacial lakes encircled with hiking trails. The first lake, Lago Inferiore, is larger and surrounded by spruce trees and forested mountains. The higher one, Lago Superiore, is smaller but offers an even more spectacular view of the Giulian Alps. Monte Mangart is the highest mountain here, at 8,782 feet. A short walk along a secluded path through the woods to the far side of Lago Superiore will reward you with an impressive view of Mangart’s snow-covered, rocky peaks towering over the emerald green water of the lake.

7. Sample the region’s white asparagus at Locanda Al Grop in Tavagnacco

white asparagusOne of the sure signs of spring is the appearance of white asparagus on plates throughout Friuli, and there is no better place to sample this prized vegetable than Locanda Al Grop in Tavagnacco, a town located just north of Udine and the center of white asparagus production in the region. The restaurant dates back 500 years, when it was initially run by monks from the adjacent church, Chiesa di Sant’Antonio Abate, for the sale of their wine. In the mid-19th century, Al Grop was taken over by Francesco Del Fabbro and has remained in the family for five generations. Today, owners Silvia and Simona Del Fabbro are well known for their preparation of many traditional Friulian dishes, but they have made white asparagus the restaurant’s specialty. During springtime, you may find the tender ivory stalks smothered in cheese sauce, dressed with creamy egg salad, topped with a mound of prosciutto and ricotta affumicata, or in risotto alongside peas and zucchini blossoms.

Tavagnacco is also home to the Festa degli Asparagi, an annual festival that takes place over three weekends in April and May. Food kiosks offer a wide variety of dishes made with asparagus, including risotto, frittatas, and crespelle (a lasagna-like dish made with crepes), as well as frico, grilled meats, and numerous desserts. In addition, you can attend wine pairing workshops, browse the Sunday market stalls, and enjoy music and dancing late into the night.

8. Attend a springtime music concert at Castello di Miramare

Castello di Miramare, TriesteThe starkly whitewashed Castello di Miramare perches on the tip of a promontory just north of Trieste, its wedding-cake façade glistening against sea and sky. The castle was built for Archduke Maximilian (brother of the Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph), who lived there with his wife Carlotta until he was tragically executed while stationed in Mexico. Carlotta is said to have gone mad with grief, and the castle has since gained the reputation for cursing anyone who sleeps under its roof. Today, Miramare is open for visitors to explore the couple’s lavish apartments, all featuring the original 19th-century decorations and furnishings.

In the springtime, the castle hosts the music festival “Concerti al Castello,” a series of free concerts featuring classical musicians from all over Italy and beyond. The concerts are held in the Sala del Trono, a splendid Throne Room adorned in red silk. Before the concert, take some time to wander the castle grounds, fifty-four acres of perfectly manicured gardens, complete with statues, ponds, and walking paths.

9. Attend the Festa delle Erbe di Primavera in Forni di Sopra

For two weekends in early June, Forni di Sopra hosts the Festa delle Erbe di Primavera, a festival celebrating the wild mountain herbs of spring. Like other food festivals in the region, the streets are lined with booths selling all sorts of handicrafts, as well as gastronomic stalls that offer dishes made with locally sourced ingredients.

In addition, you may participate in guided excursions through the fields and forests, during which experts will discuss the use of mountain herbs in food and medicine. Back in town, there are a number of scheduled exhibitions and conferences, with topics ranging from the history and tradition of wild herbs to the gathering of wild mushrooms and truffles, as well as cooking workshops, which naturally feature recipes using local plants, flowers, and herbs. For dinner, several of Forni di Sopra’s hotels offer special herb-centric menus that include dishes such as lasagne with dandelion, gnocchi with ricotta and nettles, barley with wild asparagus, frico with chives, and salami with grilled mountain radicchio.

10. Go hiking in the wildflower-strewn mountains of Forni di Sopra

Forni di Sopra sits at the western edge of Carnia, bordering the Dolomite mountain range. Here, the verdant hills and valleys are home to some 3,000 species of wild flora that come alive in the spring and summer, from yellow buttercups to red rhododendrons to purple anemones. From the town, head up into the mountains for a panoramic view of the jagged, gray Dolomites peeking up over the softer peaks of forested mountain.

On both sides of the Tagliamento River there are numerous hiking trails to choose from: easy paths through the woods and meadows bordering the town, to routes of medium difficulty to nearby refuges, to longer excursions for trained hikers into the Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti Friulane.

Across the river from the town is the Centro Sportivo, a large sports complex housing a gym, roller skating rink (ice skating is offered in winter), swimming pool, and spa, along with outdoor courts for tennis, basketball, and soccer. From there, walk a short distance to the south and you will find a lovely park known as the Pineta e Laghetti. Here, you can take a more leisurely stroll around three small lakes shaded by pine forests.

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This piece was originally published in the April 2014 issue of Dream of Italy.

Legend says that when the goddess Venus emerged from the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea, she dropped her necklace, and those gemstones became the seven islands of the Tuscan Archipelago. Many visitors would declare Capraia to be the most stunning of these islands, with its dramatic cliffs, pristine waters, and wild, uninhabited interior.

While the island is a popular summertime destination for Italians, it still has much to offer during all but perhaps the coldest winter months. I traveled to Capraia in mid-June, when the crowds had not yet peaked, but the weather was still warm enough to enjoy a refreshing dip in the sea.

I arrived by ferry, a three-hour journey from Livorno, accompanied partway by a pod of dolphins riding the bow wave. As we disembarked, an orange bus was waiting to shuttle many passengers to lodgings across the bay in Capraia’s only village, perched on a hilly promontory dominated by the imposing Forte San Giorgio. Others, including myself, were staying at Albergo Da Beppone, a modestly priced hotel located just footsteps from the quay.

Aside from these two areas, porto (port) and paese (village), the rest of the seven-square-mile island is uninhabited, a nature reserve split down the middle by a crest of mountains, the highest peak rising 1,460 feet above sea level. With a landscape swathed in Mediterranean macchia shrubs, Capraia’s backcountry offers a true escape from civilization. Its hiking trails traverse the island, leading to ancient watchtowers, panoramic vistas, and rocky coves at the water’s edge.

On my first day on Capraia, I embarked on a hike to the island’s only lake, a pool formed in the crater of an extinct volcano and referred to alternately as il laghetto (small lake) and lo stagnone (large pond). Beginning in the village’s Piazza Milano, to the left of the yellow Chiesa di San Nicola, the stone path initially ascended on a gentle incline but soon became steeper, narrower, and increasingly more strenuous. The low brush on either side rose every now and then, creating a tunnel-like canopy of branches overhead. Underfoot, the rocks were pointy and sharp, not having weathered enough traffic to smooth down their surfaces. Occasionally, I caught a glimpse of a lizard sunning itself on one of these stones, slithering into the shade to disappear upon my approach.

Coming to a crossroads, I turned onto a dirt path that wound up and down hills, climbing higher into the island’s desolate hinterland. Having encountered only a couple of other hikers along the way, the feeling here was of complete isolation—silent except for the sweet chirping of birds and faint rustle of hidden reptiles.

Eventually, the path flattened out, coarse macchia giving way to soft grass and wildflowers. At last, I reached the laghetto, which was camouflaged by a swampy carpet of rushes. This, as I later learned, was merely one of its many veils: in spring, the shallow lake may become blanketed with white aquatic buttercups, while other times, its limpid water reflects the ever-changing blues of the sky.

Already over two hours into my hike, I contemplated turning back, but the hill ahead promised views of a sapphire horizon. I climbed to the next vantage point, where a tiny triangle of sea appeared through the craggy ravine. In the distance, I could clearly see the outline of Corsica—Capraia, in fact, lies closer to this French island than to Italy’s mainland.

If I had had the stamina to continue north a little further, I would have found even more breathtaking views from the jagged summit of Monte Le Penne. To the south, the trail climbed another peak, Monte Arpagna—home to the Semaforo, a rusty iron structure that was once used as a lookout point by the Italian Navy—before coming to an end at the watchtower Torre dello Zenobito on Capraia’s southernmost promontory.

On my return hike from the lake, as the distant village came into view, I espied Forte San Giorgio directly ahead atop its massive fortification walls. Like three of the island’s four towers, the castle was built in the 16th century by the Genovese to defend against Saracen pirate raids.

A relic of somewhat more recent history was nestled in the hills northwest of the port: the Colonia Penale Agricola, closed since 1986. Reachable via a trail starting behind the Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta, the former penal colony’s cells and other abandoned buildings stood in a haunting state of disrepair.

Having now explored Capraia by land, the following day I set out on a giro dell’isola to survey the island by sea. An absolute requisite for all visitors, this boat excursion lasted around two hours, circumnavigating the island for a spectacular view of its coastline.

We left the harbor heading south, the morning sun casting a warm glow along Capraia’s eastern coast, where rolling green and brown slopes tumbled down toward rugged sea cliffs. Directly below Forte San Giorgio, at the stone watchtower Torretta del Bagno, a group of sunbathers had already gathered on the flat rocks. Nearby, we passed some swimmers in Cala dello Zurletto, a cove marked by a tower-like outcropping of rock. (Each of these spots is accessible down a steep, narrow path from the village.)

As we cruised along, our captain pointed out numerous local and migratory marine birds, including ospreys, European shags, and several species of seagulls. Colonies of those gulls had made their nests on the small islets off the coast, as well as along the sheer cliffs pockmarked by erosion.

Along the southeastern coast, the landscape hinted at an impending change of hue—evidence of the volcanic eruptions that gave birth to Capraia nine million years ago. Here, the cliff face revealed striations of dark gray and rust red, with patches of green shrubbery and golden wildflowers dotting the stone ridges like Impressionist brush strokes.

Then, just after the Torre dello Zenobito came into view, we turned the corner into Capraia’s most magnificent natural landmark, the Cala Rossa. Cliffs of white granite and fire red rock joined along a starkly defined diagonal, plunging dramatically into the clear, turquoise waters below. Amid divers, kayakers, and a handful of other boats in the cove, we lingered awhile in awed silence.

Heading north along Capraia’s west coast, we passed several caves, including the dark, dank Grotta della Foca. After rounding the island’s northernmost point by the tiny islets called Le Formiche, we reached the ephemeral Cala della Mortola. Capraia’s only sandy beach, La Mortola typically emerges in June or July, cloaked in sand or pebbles, depending on the whim of the tide, only to vanish by summer’s end. No trails lead to this beach, though many people still come by boat. Ours anchored offshore, so that we could slip into the clear, buoyant water for a swim.

During the excursion, we spotted several Capraia Diving boats, whose recreational scuba diving trips cater to all levels of experience. As part of the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano, Europe’s largest marine sanctuary, the sea around Capraia is protected by environmental laws, which serve to preserve its rich, abundant marine life. Divers will encounter a variety of fish, including barracudas, scorpionfish, and John Dory. The reefs offshore provide shelter for moray eels and spiny spider crabs, and are home to plenty of colorful corals, sponges, and sea urchins.

As I toured the island’s perimeter, it became clear that land access to the sea is fairly limited. Some coves require a long trek down to sea level; others, like La Mortola, can be reached only by rented boat or barca taxi (both available in the port). Only one beach is easily accessible from the village: La Grotta. Located across from the harbor below the resort La Mandola, this rocky bathing area sits atop a wooden platform and is fully equipped with umbrellas, lounge chairs, and snack bar, its shallows protected by a short breakwater.

Of course, a day by the sea must conclude with a meal of freshly caught seafood, and there is no better place than Ristorante Al Vecchio Scorfano. Overlooking the harbor, this restaurant has been run by the same family for three generations. On my first evening, I ordered their signature dish, zuppa di pesce (fish soup). In a style unique to Capraia, it was served in two dishes: a bowl of savory tomato broth with toasted garlic bread and a platter containing mussels, clams, calamari, octopus, langoustines, and an assortment of fish that naturally included scorfano (scorpionfish). Other house specialties were bocconi di rana pescatrice (monkfish rolled in speck), risotto al nero di seppia (cuttlefish ink risotto), spaghetti con scampi e limone (spaghetti with langoustines and lemon), and garganelli al ragù di polpo rosso (pasta with octopus ragù).

My final day arrived with that sense of poignancy that often accompanies the end of a journey, the realization that no amount of time is ever adequate. From the wild inland terrain to the sea’s crystal depths, there was still plenty more to be discovered. As my ferry pulled out of port, on its way back to the mainland, I gazed longingly at Capraia’s retreating silhouette—and kept my eyes peeled for those dolphins.

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Val RosandraHaving lived, at the time, over fifteen years in San Francisco, I sorely missed seeing the gorgeous hues of autumn foliage. So when I traveled to Trieste in October of 2005, I found myself in a perpetual state of awe over the reds and oranges that were beginning to transform the countryside. Longing to immerse myself in the great outdoors, I planned a hike through the Riserva Naturale della Val Rosandra.

I set out early to do a few errands first: the produce market for some apples, the salumeria for a wedge of latteria cheese, and the tiny supermercato for my new favorite olive bread. Then, after dropping off my groceries and packing a picnic lunch, I swung by Pasticceria Penso to deliver the gift of Vitovska wine that I had purchased the day before at Osmiza Škerk. In return Antonello gave me a slice of sachertorte for the road.

I took the bus to the small town of Bagnoli at the mouth of the Val Rosandra, a huge gorge slicing through the mountainous Carso region. Numerous hiking trails had been cut through the forests of the nature reserve, and I set out on what seemed to be the most well-trodden path.

Val RosandraThere was no map, but I followed the trail until it emerged onto a ridge overlooking the gorge. From a distance, I could just make out the 118-foot waterfall that fed into the Rosandra Stream. The bora wind whipped through my hair as I struggled to keep my footing on the slippery gravel. The path hugged the cliffs, rising and falling with the curve of the mountain, until it descended once again deep into the woods.

Though the foliage was only just starting to turn, I still saw plenty of reds and golds mixed with the verdant evergreens. I crossed the stream near the ruins of an ancient Roman aqueduct, in an area I suspected to be very close to the Slovenian border. Then, I followed the path as it climbed the ridge on the other side of the ravine, the rough path giving way to a wider, paved road.

Here, with the chilly wind blocked by the limestone peaks above me, I found a warm spot in the sunshine to sit and eat my picnic lunch—cheese, olive bread, an apple, and that yummy slice of sachertorte. There were very few people on the trail that day. I had passed several hikers near the entrance to the park and another few along the initial rocky ridge. Since then, I had enjoyed complete and utter solitude.

Val RosandraAs I continued on my way, the paved road leveled out. I noticed the occasional sign marking a bicycle path, as well as an unmarked building that looked like a refuge of some sort. Unsure of where this road would lead, I plodded forward, winding around the mountainside and passing through tunnels. Eventually I was able to spot the town of Bagnoli in the distance across the gorge. The visibility was excellent on such a clear day, and from this vantage point, I could even see all the way to the Gulf of Trieste and the sea beyond.

I had been hiking for about two hours at this point, and I began to wonder if it was wise to continue in the same direction, whether the path I had been taking would eventually circle back to its starting point or if I had better begin retracing my steps back across the ravine. A map or some signs would really have come in handy just then.

Fortuitously, I passed a young woman walking her bike, and I asked her whether this road continued full circle. It did not, but she told me that up ahead there was a shortcut leading down to Bagnoli—but she warned me that it was quite dangerous, with steep slopes and slippery rocks.

I decided to follow her direction. The trail was not well marked, but I found the narrow path cut into the bushes, heading downhill on my left. She wasn’t kidding about the steep and slippery part! Wishing that I had brought my good hiking boots on this trip (though the boots I was wearing still had some traction), I managed to baby-step my way down the mountain without falling on my butt. An hour later, I emerged not too far from where I had started in Bagnoli—and I made it to the bus stop with only five minutes to spare before the next return bus to Trieste!

Buffet Da PepiI spent the afternoon back in my apartment, looking through the cookbook of Triestine desserts that Antonello had loaned me. Around 5:00pm I headed out for an early dinner at Buffet Da Pepi. Once again, I had the piatto misto, the pig-shaped platter of assorted types of pork, accompanied by a heaping portion of sauerkraut. And, of course, a glass of local red wine.

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