Udine: an Italy beyond the popular imagination

View over Udine. Photo by Alex Sakalis. CC.

“Friulani are the worst people in the world,” says my friend Francesco, a Friulano. “They are so cold and mean. They always think you want something from them.”

We are at Osteria Alla Ghiacciaia, an Udine institution. It’s a stifling hot August night. Even the canal seems to be sweating. Earlier we had driven to the small town of Campoformido, twenty minutes south-west of Udine. Intriguing is that here in 1797, the treaty which effectively ended the Republic of Venice was signed. More intriguing, the house in which it was signed is now apparently a restaurant serving some of the best food in the region. It’s closed. We drive back in darkness, listening to Cat Stevens Greatest Hits.

“Don’t you like Friuli?” I ask Francesco.

“Oh no, I love Friuli,” he says, fiddling with some breadsticks, “it’s the Friulani who are the problem.”

Udine is a strange, beautiful place. It has a distinct Friulian culture which manifests itself in the food, music, architecture and ambience of the city. We are in Italy, but not the Italy you’ve dreamt about.

Although all regions of Italy are unique, there has always seemed something particularly removed about Friuli Venezia Giulia – that curious, triple barrelled autonomous region, jutting up against the borders with Austria and Slovenia. It seems to exist outside the imagination of Italy, studiously doing its own thing, furiously protective of its own culture and language. Many signs here are bilingual in Italian and Friulian – the regional language that looks like Italian and Slovenian merging into one another. The Friulani love circumflexes, which they seem to sprinkle liberally on every other word.

I had met Francesco in Piazza della Libertà. More solemn than the usual Italian square, it nonetheless boasts a stunning clock tower and a sixteenth-century Venetian loggia, which tonight is playing host to a Friuli folk music concert, complete with female ushers dressed in traditional alpine garb. “The Friulani only want to listen to their own folk music,” he says. The music itself is baffling. Rustic folk guitar with yodelling over the top. Francesco is equally unimpressed and we move on.

I often think of Udine. An industrial city, a student city, a historic city, a living city. It’s neither particularly memorable, nor particularly forgettable. It approaches the mind slowly, and lingers long after. My Italian friends who studied here say it bored them out of their minds and they would never want to go back. “You can’t spell solitudine without Udine,” they crow. The city is socially conservative. It boils in the summer and freezes in the winter. I can see why many choose to leave. And yet, why does this city fascinate me so much?

Cjalsons – a Friuli specialty. Photo by Alex Sakalis. CC.

The food arrives. A platter of local meats and cheese, including Montasio and San Daniele Prosciutto. I have also treated myself to Cjalsons, a local delicacy of gnocchi filled with plums, berries and cinnamon. The food comes from Carnia, a region in the northwest of Friuli which sees itself as the mother-protector of Friulian culture and language. Elsewhere, the Carnia is known mainly for its beautiful Alpine landscapes and the curious accents of its people, who sound like they’ve come straight from the movie Fargo. Actually come to think of it, Carnia would be a perfect setting for an Italian remake of Fargo.

Cjalsons is unusual in the summer, as is polenta, that ubiquitous staple of northern Italy, which here is served with cocoa powder. This mix of savoury and sweet, which I enjoy so much, is common in the Italian Alps, but verboten pretty much everywhere else in the country. Also on the menu is frico, a peculiar omelette dish that inspires an almost cult-like devotion here in Friuli. I have yet to meet anyone from outside the region who has even heard of it.

In the light of day, Udine is an impressive city. Oranges and electric blues which glisten and flicker in the sun.

From Piazza della Libertà, you can climb Udine’s lone hill to the city’s castle. Reaching the summit, you get a glimpse of Udine’s unusual skyline, a hodgepodge of Venetian spires, tiled roofs and modern glass and steel structures. Pivoting north you are struck by the sudden appearance of the Alps, which seem to emerge fully formed, out of nothingness. Densely clustered, they run diagonally along the border with Slovenia.

The Venetians once ruled this city, gifting it with Palladian villas and Tiepolo frescos. Venetians tend to think of Friulani as kinfolk, the errant younger brother who ran away and started his own family. People here find that all a bit patronising.

After Venice disintegrated, Austria moved in. The Friulani speak of the Austrian Empire, which ruled them between 1815 and 1866, as a kind of golden age for the city and the region. German is widely spoken here as a second language. A Mitteleuropa festival is held in the city every August.

After Austria came Italy, who picked up the city during its Third War of Independence. It all seems in vain. The mention of the word Italy here often induces an eye roll from people as if to say, ‘Oh yeah, that thing.’ While Lombards and Venetians may talk disparagingly about those ‘south of the Po’, the Friulani take it one step further by dismissing everything west of the Piave. The message is clear: we may be at the edge of Italy, but we are in the centre of Europe.

Piazza Matteotti. Photo by ElmAgos. Wikimedia.

It’s dark now and Piazza Matteotti is beautiful. Gently illuminated buildings stand shoulder to shoulder guarding the square. Children dart from one end to the other, their laughter reverberating off the walls.

The city unfurls graciously as you wander. Down inauspicious alleys, beautiful buildings seem to materialise out of nowhere. Smartly dressed students stumble out of bars, cigarettes in hand. An old man stops and asks for a light. Life goes on.

Though its beauty naturally fades as you wander out of the centre, the city remains refined and stoic. Its sprawling, farm-like suburbs slither out in all directions. Although Udine has grudgingly accepted its place as a modern and industrial regional hub, the Friulani remain deeply attached to the mountains and hills which frame the city. Friulani come from the woods, a local tells me. You get the sense that if this were in any other country, it would be a top tourist attraction. Here in Italy, it’s just another city.

One thing which always strikes me about Udine is how green it is. As well as the two big city parks, there are multiple little pocket parks scattered around. These aren’t just abandoned scrub lands, but elegant, thoughtful green spaces, with grand entrances, interesting sculptures and diverse flora.

Many of them are hidden down seemingly dead-end alleys, inside bombed out buildings, in the dead spaces between junctions. There is no wasted space in Udine – every square inch of the city is intelligently utilised for the public good.

It’s easy to see why Udine consistently ranks as one of the most liveable cities in Italy.

I wander into the Friuli Ethnographic Museum.

“Di dove sei?” Asks the old man at the desk

“Londra”, I reply

“Che provincia?”

“Provincia di…Inghilterra?”

“Ah,” he says furrowing his brow, “sei straniero”. He scribbles something on his notepad, before springing back into a courteous smile. “Benvenuto a Udine!”

Some creepy masks that Friulani apparently wear in the woods. Photo by Alex Sakalis. CC.

The museum is fascinating. Its exhibits exhaustive. There’s no English on the displays though, just Italian and Friulian. A female usher strikes up a conversation. 

“This is how my mother in Carnia lived,” she says. “We have come a long way in Friuli, but we must not forget our roots.” Her tone is slightly melancholic.

“Do you like Udine?” I ask.

“I’m proud of what our people have done against the odds,” she says.

I can’t tell whether she’s answered my question or not.

Udine has generally been off the tourist trail, visited mainly by curious Germans, Austrians and Slovenians who are passing through on the way to the beach or some other pleasure.

Francesco tells me that there have suddenly been lots of Asian tour groups here. Perhaps like me, they are searching for an Italy beyond the popular imagination.