Posts Tagged ‘Venzone’

Flavors of FriuliIt was June 2004 when Mike and I returned to San Francisco. I had over a year to prepare for my next trip, which would take me once again throughout Friuli–Venezia Giulia. Since Udine made a convenient home base for me to explore the region, I planned two separate weeks there, bookending a three-week journey through Carnia. Two of my main objectives were to visit at least one malga and to attend several more food festivals, so I arranged to travel to Carnia’s major villages—Sauris, Arta Terme, Ravascletto, Forni di Sopra, and Forni Avoltri—all by bus. During my time in Udine, I would take day trips to now-familiar towns such as Cormòns, Cividale, and San Daniele, as well as new ones like Marano Lagunare, Bordano, and Maniago. I would tour three prosciutto factories, climb two mountains, and panic during one very frustrating train strike that stranded me in Venzone. Please join me in the weeks and months to come, as I continue chronicling my Friulian adventures.

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Festa della ZuccaCheck out my new travel “Highlights” on Afar.com: a pumpkin festival and my favorite village in Carnia.

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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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