Roaming Venice's backyard

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I'd like to show you our favorite souvenir from our trip to this city, but my wife and I ate it. It wasn't biscotti, chocolate or delicious Montasio cheese. It was a lemon.

Udine is in Friuli, which is shorthand for Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a region whose law-firm-like name does not roll easily off the tongue and whose location — in Italy's upper attic — is off the beaten tourist track.

Janice and I had just toured Venice for the first time last year and, like millions of tourists before us, had been blown away by it. Friuli gave us a different take on Italy, sort of like discovering that your favorite Hollywood star is just as cool off camera. Italy too is charming away from the set.

In Friuli, men actually wear those pointy green hiking hats. In Friuli, a casual conversation at a bar can turn into a half-hour language lesson. With free glasses of liqueur. And a lemon. But I'll explain that later.

Our trip to Friuli began with a 90-minute train ride from Venice northeast to Udine (pronounced OOH-dih-neh), the second-largest city in the region. (The Adriatic port city of Trieste, almost inside Slovenia, is the largest.)

Janice and I arrived late in the afternoon, too late to do much but — darn our luck — eat a leisurely carb- and cholesterol-laden meal. At Osteria alle Volte, in a 15th century vaulted basement, we enjoyed fettuccine with mussels and porcini, ravioli graced with saffron-tinted scallops and shrimp and fine local wine.

Then we contented ourselves with a quick walk through central Udine, noting places to explore later. Even here in the old part of town, the streets were wide and sunny, not the mazelike, codfish-scented alleys of stereotypical Italy.

From the street, we saw few signs of Udine's main attraction, the work of 18th century artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. In 1726, a local patriarch gave the young Venetian painter a commission — his first outside Venice — to execute frescoes in the Udine cathedral. Udine's residents apparently thought fondly of Tiepolo, and vice versa, for he continued to paint for them, on canvas, even after he left the city for Würzburg, Germany. He returned to Udine in old age with his son to produce more masterpieces.

Our next morning began with a buzz, in two senses. First, there was the energy of a workaday city waking up. Pedestrians and Vespa riders dodged Fiats and Lancias; cellphones chirped.

Clerks and cops popped into cafes seeking the other buzz — their daily caffeine boost. Nothing compares with a real Italian cappuccino — a foundation of a bittersweet elixir supporting a lascivious mound of foam — for clearing away morning cobwebs. It was the ideal companion to the flaky turnovers and tarts typically available at the cafes.

Farm countryThus fortified, we left for Passariano, a small town about 15 miles west of Udine. The local bus took us through flat agricultural country, through villages where farm fields and vineyards come right to the edge of town and cars share the roads with tractors.

Initially, we weren't sure we were on the right bus. But a succession of motherly women adopted us and made our safe arrival their project. As one would get off at her stop, she would hand us off to someone else who would make sure that we didn't get off too early.

We alighted in a pleasant but unremarkable residential section of Passariano. Just up the block was something magnificently out of place, Villa Manin. It is described as the country home of Venetian nobility, but that's "country home" in the sense that Rome's St. Peter's Basilica is a "church." (In fact, the colonnade in front of the villa is based on the one at St. Peter's.)

Villa Manin was begun in 1650 and was a symbol of Venetian domination of the area. So imagine the irony when a subsequent tenant, Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1797 signed the Treaty of Campoformido there, effectively ending Venice's run as an international power and asserting French authority.

Six decades later, the Manin family regained the villa during the unification of Italy in 1860. They directed landscapers to redesign the villa's 47-acre garden into the shape of the Italian "boot," and despite years of neglect, some of their work is still discernible. Janice and I spent an hour exploring the arboretum and expanses of lawn, appreciating the crumbling temples and weather-beaten statuary.

And that's just the backyard. There is a park-size lawn in front, confined by that elliptical colonnade. The estate's interior is equally grand.

The villa has its own armory, featuring a 12-foot-long 18th century musket and examples of body armor with Darth Vader-like helmets.

We also paused in the villa's chapel, richly decorated with sculptures commissioned by the family. Upstairs are the glittering rooms once occupied by Lodovico Manin, the last doge of Venice, from 1789 to 1797, when the villa was a center of civic, social and artistic life.

Traces of ancient lifeThe next day we church-hopped through Udine in search of Tiepolo. At the diminutive Oratory of Purity we discreetly inspected his Madonna while elderly worshipers chanted a weekday morning Mass.

The nearby Archbishop's Palace was quieter, except for its creaky wooden floors. This is Udine's knock-your-eyes-out, don't-miss museum, with a succession of distinctly decorated, high-ceilinged rooms. Entering each was like entering a different building. The prime attraction is the gallery, illustrated with Tiepolo's vivid floor-to-ceiling frescoes of Old Testament stories. The figures in them are not Sunday-school handsome: Each face — even those of the camels — is a character study.

The ceiling of another room holds Tiepolo's "Judgment of Solomon." In it an executioner raises his sword to split the squirming baby he holds upside down by an ankle. The child's true mother raises her hand to stop him while the competing claimant looks on.

There are more Tiepolos in Udine's cathedral and still more in the old hilltop castle, rebuilt as Udine's Municipal Museum. It gets my vote for most visitor-friendly museum. It's a modest hike up to the building, but once inside you can relax. There are cushy chairs in each gallery — Tiepolo pen-and-ink drawings are featured in one — and in one big room that has extensive paintings on the ceiling, the chairs recline so you can enjoy the art without straining your neck.

Throughout Udine are reminders that the city once was Venice's dominion. In Piazza Libertà, Loggia del Lionello (the old town hall) shows Venetian influence in its pink and white wedding-cake construction. St. Mark's winged lion, a symbol of Venice, shows up at a couple of places in the square. And at the clock tower of Loggia di San Giovanni, the giant sculpted male nudes ringing the hours by hammering on a bell are based on a similar pair in Venice's Piazza di San Marco.

On our last full day we explored Friuli's birthplace, Cividale del Friuli. The charm starts with the trip there, in a two-car train that runs the 15-minute stretch between Udine and Cividale, pausing at crossings to pick up students and farm wives.

Julius Caesar founded Cividale in 50 BC, and many traces of the city's ancient life under various conquering armies remain. There is a miniature Lombard temple where the Natisone River gorge makes a graceful turn. Saintly stucco figures as old as the 8th century chapel itself look down primly from an upper wall. Wooden choir stalls from a 14th century remodeling open leafy "wings" that must have made the singers resemble angels.

A bit downstream, a Celtic grotto from the 3rd century BC presents an enigmatic memorial of that prehistoric era. Its exact purpose is unclear. Perhaps it held funerary remains.

For lunch we sampled Friulian cuisine at Trattoria al Campanile, opposite Cividale's cathedral bell tower. Nine-foot-high stone arches ran through the room, giving an impression that it was very old, but the space's charm was negated by the sound of a microwave oven in the kitchen. We tried polenta, a Northern Italian staple, and frico, a puff of Montasio cheese and flour, which tastes like Mom's macaroni and cheese.

After lunch we walked along the Natisone to the 15th century Devil's Bridge, built when, according to one version of a popular legend, Satan threw a rock into the river to support the center pillar in return for the soul of the first person to cross the bridge.

The water was emerald and clear, and even from our position 65 feet above it we could see a dozen fish swimming. Ducks navigated the shallow rapids, swimming over some rocks, walking over some, flying over others.

A long, friendly chatThAT night in Udine, we found another Friulian restaurant. Five old guys — I suspect they're there every night — played cards in a corner of Osteria al Roma, while local couples at other tables laughed and gossiped over wine and frico. A brown-and-white dog rested at the feet of one of the women.

Wine — hearty and fruity, served from an unlabeled bottle — accompanied our meal of marinated white beans and roast pork with onion ragout. Dessert was gubana, a cinnamon-raisin cake doused with slivovice, potent plum brandy. After the meal, no one brought us the bill, so I went to the bar to settle up.

The minor transaction evolved into a rambling, congenial chat with the owner — some in English, much in Italian — about food, the Italian language, his travels to the States, our travels in Italy. Somewhere in the session a glass of high-octane brandy appeared for me and some limoncello, a strong lemon liqueur, for Janice. Conversation turned to how to make limoncello, and there was a consensus that to do it right you needed Italian lemons. Whereupon the owner gave us a lemon.

When we said good night, he bid us the same and buon viaggio, or good journey. Then so did the entire room full of customers.

Back at our hotel Janice and I concluded that although it was a lovely souvenir, U.S. agricultural inspectors would not let us bring that lemon back home. Though it never would become limoncello, it would be a shame to waste it, so we sliced it up and ate it just as it was. It was sour, as such fruit should be. But given its source, it was one of the sweetest desserts I've ever had.

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The fruits of Friuli

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Lufthansa and Air France offer connecting flights (change of plane) to Trieste, which is 26 miles from Udine. To Venice (87 miles from Udine), Lufthansa, Air France and KLM have connecting flights. Restricted round-trip flights to Venice and Trieste begin at $990.

Trains run frequently from both cities to Udine.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 39 (the country code for Italy) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Astoria Hotel Italia Udine, 24 Piazza XX Settembre, Udine; 0432-50-5091, http://www.hotelastoria.udine.it . This upscale hotel's rooms are elegant (chandeliers in some). Near cathedral and major points in central Udine. Doubles from $190.

Hotel Alle Due Palme, 5 Viale Leonardo da Vinci, Udine; 0432-48-1807, fax 0432-48-0213. This comfortable hotel has an ambience comparable to midlevel U.S.chain hotels. Ask for a room away from the street. Doubles from $70, including breakfast.

Hotel Friuli, 24 Viale Ledra, Udine; 0432-23-4351, http://www.hotelastoria.udine.it/hotel_friuli.htm . This midlevel hostelry is clean and modern. About a 10-minute walk from central Udine; 20 minutes from the train station. Doubles from $123, including breakfast.

WHERE TO EAT:

Osteria alle Volte, 4 Via Mercatovecchio, Udine; 0432-50-2800. Seafood and pasta are delightful here, as is the ancient basement setting. Big lunch for two, about $45.

Osteria al Roma, 49 Via Poscolle (at end of alley), Udine; 0432-29-9358. Friulian cuisine in a neighborhood favorite. Dinner for two with wine, about $45.

Ristorante del Doge, at Villa Manin, Passariano; 0432-90-4829. This would be reason enough to visit Passariano. The accommodating service and glorious food (dorado filleted at tableside; lemon sorbetto dusted with espresso) make it hard to believe that this was once the villa's toolshed. Lunch for two with wine, about $50.

Trattoria al Campanile, 4 Via Candotti, Cividale del Friuli; 0432-73-2467. No-nonsense Friulian cuisine near the cathedral bell tower. Try the frico and the oven-baked potatoes. Lunch for two, about $20.

TO LEARN MORE:

Italian Government Tourist Board, (310) 820-1898, http://www.italiantourism.com .

— Jerry V. Haines

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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