Winter in Friuli: Top 10 Things To Do
1. Ski the slopes of Monte Santo di Lussari
Among the towering, snow-capped peaks of Italy’s Giulian Alps, Monte Santo di Lussari stands out like a precious gem. Near the 5,870-foot summit, a pristine 14th-century sanctuary looks out over the forested valleys below. Legend says that in 1360 a shepherd knelt to pray atop this mountain and discovered hidden in the brush a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. The patriarch of Aquileia soon ordered a small chapel built on that very spot. For centuries, vast numbers of pilgrims from neighboring countries have journeyed to this religious site. Today, the telecabina, or “ski lift,” carries passengers from the village of Camporosso at its base to Borgo Lussari at the summit.
2. Enjoy a plate of hot, steaming goulasch at Albergo Ristorante Rododendro
During ski season, the few taverns and restaurants on Monte Santo di Lussari are always teeming with guests. Even if you’re not a skier, take the telecabina to the top, where you can tuck into a warm meal at one of the village’s rustic taverns or simply admire the snowy panoramic views across the Valcanale and Tarvisio basin. If you can get a table in the rustic dining room of Albergo Ristorante Rododendro, you’ll have a wide selection of traditional Friulian dishes, including orzo e fagioli (bean and barley soup), gnocchi di pane (bread dumplings), frico con polenta (cheese and potato pancake with polenta), cervo in salmì (venison stew), and goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew). Dessert offerings include strudel di mele (apple strudel), torta ai frutti di bosco (wild berry cake), and sachertorte (chocolate cake with apricot jam and ganache).
3. Attend the Krampus festivities in Tarvisio
In Central European folklore, the Krampus is a half-goat, half-demon character that is something of an anti-Santa Claus, in that he punishes children who have misbehaved rather than giving them presents. Many regions, including the Alpine towns of northern Italy, hold festivities dedicated to both Krampus and St. Nicholas.
Tarvisio is the site of one of these events. Every year on December 5, people dress up as Krampus—a costume consisting of goat or sheep fur and a wooden devil mask with horns—and roam the streets carrying torches, ringing cowbells, and searching for “bad” children. They are accompanied by St. Nicholas, who rides in a cart pulled by several Krampus. The parade concludes with St. Nicholas subduing the Krampus (representing the triumph of good over evil) and handing out small gifts and candies to the children.
4. Browse the stalls at Udine’s Mercatino di Natale
Every December, Udine’s Piazza della Libertà gets decked out for the holidays, as the Torre dell’Orologio (clock tower), Tempietto di San Giovanni, and arches of the Porticato are all strung with glistening lights. Underneath the pink- and white-striped Loggia del Lionello, a brass band plays Christmas carols, the festive notes luring shoppers to the city’s annual Christmas market.
In the center of the raised piazza towers a giant Christmas tree surrounded by several dozen market stands. These red, white-roofed stalls sit in rows along a grid of green carpet and display a variety of trinkets and edible treats. Here, you may browse homemade jams and honey, as well as handcrafted items such as candles, tree ornaments, and soaps. Local bakeries showcase regional desserts alongside stalls featuring foods imported from other regions. As the sun sets, shoppers can nibble on roasted chestnuts or samples of crostini with prosciutto di San Daniele, accompanied by a warm cup of vin brulé (mulled wine).
5. While in Udine, enjoy a traditional Friulian meal at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo
It was at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo that I fell in love with the cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. One of the Udine’s oldest, the restaurant is housed in a 17th-century building that once served as a stable and rest stop for deliverymen. Amid the atmosphere of an old-world tavern—wood-beamed ceilings, hardwood floors, red-checked tablecloths, and walls cluttered with colorful paintings, newspaper clippings, period photographs of Udine, and memorabilia of all sorts—chef Mario serves up hearty portions of local dishes such as cjalsòns (herb-filled pasta topped with cinnamon and smoked ricotta), gnocchi di susine (potato dumplings stuffed with plums), baccalà (salt cod stew), sarde in saor (marinated sardines), cevapcici (Slavic grilled sausages), salame all’aceto (salami cooked in vinegar), and brovada (pickled turnips). In true Friulian style, most second courses are served with polenta. For dessert, order the gubana—a spiral cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices.
6. Warm up with an Illy espresso or hot chocolate in one of Trieste’s Viennese-style coffee houses
While they truly love wine and beer, Triestini are even more notorious as coffee drinkers. Claimed by many to be the world’s best coffee, Illycaffè got its start in Trieste in the early 1900s. Of the 6 million cups of Illy espresso or cappuccino that are enjoyed daily around the globe, a good number are imbibed at home in Trieste’s old-time cafés. The legendary ones—Caffè San Marco, Caffè Tommaseo, Caffè degli Specchi, and Caffè Tergesteo—date from the 19th to the early 20th century. Authors James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Italo Svevo, and Umberto Saba were known to be regulars.
7. Indulge in a putizza from one of Trieste’s historic bakeries
One of several desserts considered native to Trieste, putizza is a rich spiral cake filled with dried fruit, chocolate, nuts, and spices. Like Friulian gubana, a similar spiral pastry, it was originally baked only for the Christmas and Easter holidays but is now available year round. For a taste of the city’s best putizza, I recommend visiting one of the century-old bakeries such as Pasticceria Penso or Pasticceria Bomboniera. Both prepare an excellent putizza, though there is one slight difference I noticed in sampling the two. Penso melts the chocolate for their filling, while Bomboniera leaves the chocolate in large chunks. Taste them both to decide your favorite!
8. Take advantage of the off-season with a crowd-free stroll in the seaside town of Grado
Located on an island and adjacent peninsula in the marshy lagoon off Friuli, Grado was once a fishing village but is now a popular destination for beachgoers. Though lacking the pristine, white sand of nearby Lignano Sabbiadoro, crowds still flock to Grado’s beaches and spas during the summer season. In winter, however, the town takes on an entirely different character, with the winding alleys of the medieval centro storico largely devoid of tourists. An expansive seaside promenade that curves around the town center makes for a relaxing afternoon stroll, as do the boat-lined canals that run through the harbor.
9. While in Grado, sample the town’s signature dish, boreto alla Gradese
When dining in Grado, don’t miss the town’s best known dish, boreto all Gradese. Also called boreto alla graesana in local dialect (and not to be confused with the soup called brodeto), boreto alla Gradese is a selection of small fish steaks cooked with garlic and vinegar and served with white polenta. Many restaurants in Grado offer the dish on their menu, but one of the more elegant is Tavernetta All’Androna, run by the brothers Attias and Allan Tarlao.
10. Attend the quirky Carnevale Muggesano
In contrast to the elegant, baroque images evoked by the nearby Carnevale di Venezia, Muggia celebrates the absurd and bizarre with townspeople dressed in quirky garb such as cartoon characters, farm animals, and platters of food. Among the whimsical costumes, however, you will rarely see a masked face. Contrary to the practice of other Carnevale celebrations where anonymity is sacred, the people of Muggia have elected to keep their identities exposed.
Carnevale Muggesano began after World War II, when a group of friends dressed up as gauchos and marched through the streets playing music. As they repeated this annual affair, dressed next as gypsies and later as Apache Indians, the procession grew with more and more people joining in the merriment. Soon a few rival groups had formed, each costumed in its own fantastical theme. By 1954, the parade had blossomed into an official event.
The week of festivities opens with the “Dance of the Vegetables,” when representatives of each group perform for the public. This is followed by the “megafrittata,” a culinary ritual that begins with townspeople traipsing door to door begging for eggs. The eggs are then used to make what is possibly the world’s largest frittata, cooked in a giant 13-foot-wide frying pan. On Ash Wednesday, to mark the final day of the celebration, the groups perform a tragicomedy ritual: following a solemn funeral procession, townspeople throw a lifelike “corpse” of the Carnevale king into the sea.