Been to Venice? Tired of Trieste? Also in northeastern Italy is Udine, a city with a rich mix of unexpected cultures and cuisine, a Mediterranean climate and glorious scenery
“Due neri, per piacere!” I am ordering two glasses of local red wine. And very good it is, too. We are in a tiny bar in Udine and as we go on to dinner I continue to practise my Italian, asking about the typical food and wine. Surrounding this small city, Friuli vineyards stretch in all directions. And a short drive away is San Daniele del Friuli, where they have been making air-cured ham for four centuries. To my mind, it’s the best prosciutto around.
The nearest airport is Friuli Venezia Giulia Airport, only a 30 minute drive away. After arriving, most visitors head south to Trieste; so Udine remains undiscovered. But this small city is a gem. Tradition reigns, particularly on Saturday morning. As they have for 700 years, locals meet and greet each other on the Piazza Matteotti, the market square. Over coffee or a glass of wine, they catch up on the week’s events.
More formal is the Piazza della Libertà, with its stylish loggias, clock tower and lion of St Mark – reminders that the city was once ruled from Venice, two hours away to the southwest. As for local heroes, painter Giambattista Tiepolo got his first break here at the Patriarch’s Palace in 1726. The artist whose frescoes were a miracle of light and movement, with clouds that seemed to scud across the sky, went on to paint in the castle, the cathedral and the Church of the Purità.
But Udine is more than just a nice, small Italian city. Wedged in Italy’s northeast corner, it rubs against both the Austrian and Slovenian borders. To the north, a wall of snow-capped mountains, the southernmost range of the Alps, stands guard. Locals still chat to each other in Furlan, or Friulian, their own ancient language with links to Latin. In the twisting lanes, some lined with arcades, we step into smart boutiques, where assistants greet us with a cheerful ‘Mandi!’, ‘Hello!’.
There are so many little places to eat and drink. As well as osterias and enotecas (wine bars), we eat in delicatessens, sitting at small tables, munching salads and cheeses with a glass of the local white Tocai Friulano wine. Menus often reflect the influences from across the borders: Austrian Strudel, Slavic goulash. Typically local is gubana, like a sweet bun stuffed with raisins and pine nuts. Have a slice with coffee, or take a whole one home from Pasticceria Carli (Via Vittorio Veneto 36), then ask to see the 500-year-old frescoes upstairs.
For dinner we head for Agli Amici, where the Scarello family has been titillating taste buds since 1887. We have now eaten twice at this Michelin-starred restaurant in Godia, a quiet suburb. Friuli tradition is the foundation of the menu, but the current chef gives a modern twist to dishes featuring traditional produce and deep flavours: home-made salami, grilled polenta, delicate ravioli called cjarsòns, calves cheek with red wine. We finish with a glass of Ramandolo, an intense but little-known local dessert wine.
As if Udine itself were not enough for a break, within an hour or so are photogenic villages, where time seems to have stood still. San Daniele del Friuli is a must, especially if you like prosciutto. We visit an artisan producer to see hundreds of huge ham legs hanging from the ceiling: “You can always tell the difference between our ham and a Parma ham,” we are told. “Apart from the more delicate flavour, we always leave the trotter on the leg.” Then we explore the twisting cobbled streets, before taking a seat in the sun outside a prosciutteria and tucking into a platter of the carved-to-order ham.
If you are into military history, you will love Palmanova, a little-known UNESCO World Heritage Site. Driving through the oh-so-narrow city gate, we can appreciate how difficult it would have been to attack the town 400 years ago. But only an aerial photo shows the skill of the Renaissance architects and builders: the walls form a nine-pointed star, while the central ‘square’ is actually a hexagon - and enormous at that!
Then, there is Cividale del Friuli. Everything here demands to be photographed, from the Devil’s Bridge, arching over the Natisone River, to the Piazza del Duomo, shaded by the 15th-century cathedral. But Cividale’s history goes back much further; it was founded by Julius Caesar over 2,000 years ago. So to discover the rich tapestry that is Udine and the region of Friuli, just remember to drive north on the E55 motorway when you leave Trieste airport.
Where to stay
Suite Inn has 13 simple but comfy rooms in a mini design hotel, and its own parking.
Ambassador Palace is the main business and leisure hotel, overlooking a park; it also has parking.
Quo Vadis is a useful, budget hotel on the edge of the old town.
Ryanair flies direct to Trieste from London Stansted, Bristol and Birmingham.