Small Towns, Big Art

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On Monday we drove through vineyards and then flatland and fields, many covered with poppies to the southwest corner of Friuli, where it borders the Veneto. Mondays can be slim pickings for tourists in rural Italy, with much closed up tight. But churches are usually open. We first visited the 12th century Abbey Santa Maria in Sylvis, in the town of Sesta al Reghena. The Abbey has been added to over the years, but retains frescoes from the 13th and 14th centuries. The church was painted in pale greens and rose, it is quite lovely. Outside are the stone foundations of the 8th century church originally here.

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We also stopped in nearby Cordovado, a town with a charming old core, tiny and largely consisting of one street with old houses, a small castello, and town gates. Just about deserted on a Monday morning.

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In Valvasone we found two churches with beautiful renaissance-era organs and partially restored frescoes, and arcaded old houses lining the streets. So quiet. Where are the people?

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Lunch was at La Baita, a highway truck stop type place, where everyone but us were obviously regulars. Two courses and side dish for 11 euros (2 choices, verbal menu) I had homemade gnocchi then a caprese salad with grilled eggplant. Home style food. Parked next to us was an ape with a load of grape starts, we’ve seen people in the vineyards planting them this week.

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We spent some time strolling through Pordenone, a large and lively town.  Finally, a town with open shops, loads of people, a bustling air. We first stopped into the Chiesa del Christo, chatting outside until it opened with a young man waiting for Confession. He appeared quite anxious and was prepared to wait for the priest. I couldn’t help wondering, what a nice young guy, what he had done? Inside were several 14th century frescoes, including an interesting one  of Christ, with symbols of all the activities not permitted on Sundays.

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The street lead to a gorgeous corso of 15th and 16th century palaces, many still covered in faded frescoes. There are lots of attractive shops and cafes on the ground floors, a pedestrian zone, and several interesting museums (sadly closed on Monday). This is a delightful town, with people riding bikes, eating in cafes, and going about their business.

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We stopped for a gelato, (pink grapefruit, very refreshing) and then headed for home.

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Sunday in Slovenia

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We had a morning visit planned with a winemaker Shannon likes in Slovenia, a 45 minute drive east. We also made a reservation at a nearby restaurant where she takes her groups. Among the many emails  necessary to make these plans, she warned us that we’d likely need three hours at the winery. Three hours? That seemed excessive to me, our winery visits are usually completed in an hour or so, longer if it’s a thorough tour of the facility. But OK, we reserved with Matjaž at Tilia at 10:30, with lunch down the road at 1.

Yup, rain clouds over Slovenia. But oh, those rains make for a lush green landscape. The 114 carries you through a valley lined with vines and fields, with hills rising from small towns at their base. Each town seems to have at least one white church and belltower.

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Matjaz met us at his home, and we first wandered over to his cherry orchard to munch on ripe cherries as we talked. His father managed a winery, and he and his wife have worked their whole lives in the business. They’ve worked for wineries in Switzerland and in the US before buying this property and starting their own small winery. His wife completed her PhD, and now is a university professor. He buys grapes from farmers in the valley and produces three lines of wines–the fresh white for which the valley is known, Pinot Noirs and blends; and his top line Pinot Noirs.  He also consults to other wineries, and seems to have his oars in multiple waters. We spent some time in the cellars, and then commenced tasting. And tasting, and talking, and tasting some more. Matjaz is passionate about winemaking, has strong opinions, and likes to share them. I think we had tasted close to a dozen wines, then grappa, when we attempted to start easing ourselves out at 12:15. When we left with five bottles at 12:45, Matjez called the restaurant that we were on our way–aparrently the owner hates when people are late.

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Made it to Majerya in Vipava at 1:05. If you didn’t know this restaurant is here, tucked into a a twisting lane in a small farming village, you’d ride right past. In an airy stone building is a restaurant bustling with people enjoying a leisurely Sunday lunch–large tables of extended families, children running in the vegetable garden, young couples holding hands while sipping wine.  The food is sophisticated, elegant without being fussy. And surprisingly affordable for such high quality.

We were first brought glasses of sparkling wine with a little plate of savory pastries. We then split a wine pairing through the meal. I started with a dish that Shannon had described–fried dandelion leaves, served with a rich yogurt. The texture of the crisp, slightly bitter leaves with the dairy sweet yogurt was fabulous. Larry had a plate of transparent carpaccio, also wonderful. We shared a traditional extremely thin pasta with a sauce of spring vegetables that was one of the best things we ate on the trip. Then I had pork with a stuffing of nettles; and Larry lamb and spinach in a pastry case. We shared dessert of a cherry tart with cherry gelato. Fabulous meal, charming staff and all around experience. If you are anywhere in the neighborhood, you must, must go.

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Stuffed to the gills, we drove around the long way to get home. Up into mountains, alongside a turquoise river that reminded me of the color of the water in Plitivice in Croatia (I looked it up, it’s the same minerals that turn the water that color) , through more vine-covered hills, cherry orchards and small towns with white churches.

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Tons of people selling cherries by the side of the road, we stopped and bought a huge bag.  At one point we were driving a one-lane gravel road and met another car coming down–luckily the other driver knew the road and was able to back down and to the side to let us pass.

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Cherries for dinner.

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Museums and Wine

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Saturday morning promised dreary weather,  with the rain already hitting Slovenia, a few miles away. (It became our joke of the week to watch the rain clouds form over Slovenia every day. Yup, raining in Slovenia again.) So as planned we went back to Cividale to visit the museums. The Museo Archeologico Nazionale is a real gem, with locally found artifacts from Roman, Lombardian, and more recent times. There are large detailed signs in each room with English translations. The rooms are carefully arranged, by era and also by material or theme, so you can really thoughtfully wander through history and ideas. Roman and early Christian floor mosaics, reliefs, stone decorations from buildings, Lombardian early Medieval work, including fascinating artifacts collected from tombs.

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We were just about the only people there until large groups of children arrived for a family special activity. My Blue guide had a good overview of the rooms, identifying pieces of particular interest. Don’t miss the outside courtyard with funeral pieces (including several from a Jewish cemetery from the 14th through 18th century); we had to ask at the desk for it to be unlocked.

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We also went to the smaller Early Christian museum next to the Duomo, which had some marvelous items in a beautiful old palazzo. A fantastically carved 8th century altar. Originally it would have been painted, even now bare stone is is beautiful. Even the ceiling was wonderful.

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Upstairs, I loved this monumental 14th century embroidered altar cloth. The legend says that the artist completed it in one night, assisted by angels.

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I consulted my Google map to find a likely place for lunch.  We found  Trattoria al Pieve in Corona. Another excellent meal, sharing lightly smoked goose breast, sliced like prosciutto; then gnocchi with rabbit ragu; and cinghiale with sour cherries. We were going to pass on dessert until we saw what other tables were ordering–a fun take on tiramisu, where the waitress poured a shot of espresso over as it was served. Good!

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It was raining hard after lunch, so we made an appointment to taste wine at Borgo San Danielle in Cormons, a winery recommended by Shannon. The helpful woman there had no English, but we managed. The Pignolo, an old red Friulan grape was particularly good, as were their whites. Some wine is going home with us. Their grounds are beautiful, and I believe they also rent rooms.

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We drove home in what was now a downpour, happily the gravel road up to the house wasn’t washed away. We spent the rest of the day reading and relaxing at the house. I made yesterday’s market peas for dinner, mixed with sauteed mushrooms. Nice light dinner with some bread and wine.

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Among the Vines in Friuli

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We drove from Venice to our agriturismo just south of Cividale del Friuli on Thursday morning. We’re staying in a winery that rents rooms and apartments, Perusini outside of Cormons. http://www.perusini.com/en/. We are in an old house high on a hill, that has been divided into two apartments. We had originally booked one of the halves, and upon arrival discovered that it only had an exterior staircase, with bedrooms on the top floor and the only bathroom on the ground floor. Uh, with my knee, dragging myself down and up on an outside stairway in the middle of the night, no. Very fortunately, the apartment in the other half of the house had an interior stair, was available, and in fact had the much better view from the porch. It is definitely funky as country houses can be, but we have a fabulous view, a comfortable bed, and the toilet flushes.

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We hit the local Despar for some groceries. Corno di Rozzano is a newer town, not much on charm but with good shops and services for the community. We easily cooked pasta with sausage and greens for dinner (after rinsing out the cooking pots and plates, yuck) , and ate on our porch with a nice bottle of Friulian wine. What more does one need?

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Friday morning we went to the Cormons weekly market. Not huge, and the usual trucks selling made-in-China shoes, clothing, and housewares. But there were several fruit and veg sellers, cheese trucks, and butchers. We bought a kilo of the sweetest peas I’ve ever had, some zucchini, tomatoes, and fruit.

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We drove around a bit, admiring the vine-covered hills, mountains in the distance, and glimpses of castles hidden behind trees.

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Then drove the short distance in a valley to Cividale del Friuli, a lively and very interesting town with plenty to see and do. We found parking in a lot near the “Devil’s Bridge” in the south of town. The centro has attractive main streets, and plenty of evocative cobblestone alleys to explore. It was a stronghold of the Lombards, and retains much of its history.

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There’s a Roman mosaic under the town hall, a Duomo, the lovely Piazza Diacono lined with cafes, a restored 14th century house to explore, and a nice riverside walkway. We tried two regional sweets, gubana and strucchi, pastries filled with nuts, cinnamon and chocolate. Our favorite visit was the the beautiful Tempietto Longobardo, built in the mid 8th century. Tiny and very special, with carvings and partially restored frescoes.

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We had an excellent lunch at Antico Leon d’Oro, just across the Devil’s Bridge on the south side of town. We tried the local traditional frico, a hot mashed potato and cheese dish, hilariously served with polenta. Definitely something to get you through a cold winter. Also excellent was my pasta with asparagus, and Larry’s herb-stuffed ricotta dumplings.

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Cividale has several interesting museums, and since the weather for tomorrow promised rain, we decided to return to them then. To take advantage of today’s sun after lunch we drove north to Gemona in the foothills, (about 40 minutes drive) with mountains rising all around making for a spectacular landscape. The town is built up a hill, and was mostly destroyed during the 1976 earthquake with centered there. The town has been rebuilt and some of the older parts restored. There is a marvelous medieval cathedral with a striking facade. The interior was heavily redone in later centuries, but still there is the charming Romanesque font which incorporates a font from the 2nd century with beautiful carvings. We wanted to go to the small museum, but even though the sign n the door said open, it was firmly shut. Ah, Italy, what can you do. We’ll try again.

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A few miles north we stopped at Venzone, a lovely walled town that was also completely rebuilt from the original stones after the quake. There’s a 14th century civic hall, and a cathedral that is still being restored.

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For dinner we ate at Al Postiglione, the restaurant on the agriturismo. Meat and Meat is what you eat here. We had an excellent crudo, a fresh salad (yay, vegetables) and then the main dish arrived–enough perfectly rare steak for four people, plus vegetables. We also had an engaging encounter with the local curling champions at the next table, celebrating their victory. They seem to push polenta pots on an ice rink, insisting we see their videos on youtube. Much laughter.

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