Spring in Friuli: Top 10 Things to Do
Note: Like much of the world, Italy has been on a nationwide lockdown due to the devastating coronavirus COVID-19. Although the activities and events listed below will almost certainly be closed or cancelled this spring, I’ve decided to go ahead and post this piece to remind us of the abundant beauty of the Friuli region. As new cases of the virus are beginning to slow down, we can look to the future, when life will eventually return to normal, albeit a new normal, and people can once again attend food festivals or concerts, visit places such as the butterfly house or spa, and dine in restaurants throughout the region and beyond. My heart goes out to all who are suffering during this catastrophic time. Andrà tutto bene.
1. See the butterflies at the Casa delle Farfalle in Bordano
The town of Bordano, located in the foothills of the Carnian Alps, is home to the largest tropical butterfly garden in Europe, the Casa delle Farfalle (open from late March through September). The microclimate of nearby Monte San Simeone has attracted over 650 native species of butterflies—550 of which are nocturnal—making this town the ideal location for entomological studies.
Inside the Casa delle Farfalle, three greenhouses contain over 400 species of butterflies from Africa, the Amazon, and Indo-Australia. The butterflies are free to fly, surrounded by exotic vegetation in a miniature rainforest setting of vines, rare palms, and colorful orchids. The air is damp, filled with the echoes of mist and fluttering wings. Indigenous birds, reptiles, fish, and other insects complete the realistic ecosystem.
2. While in Bordano, stroll the streets decorated with butterfly murals
Bordano pays tribute to its butterflies in yet another way. It began in 1996, after the publication of a book on the region’s native butterflies sparked interest among locals. Building on that idea, Mayor Enore Picco established a mural contest, inviting artists from all over Italy to participate. The instructions were to use buildings throughout Bordano and the neighboring hamlet of Interneppo as a canvas for the artists’ interpretation of the theme “butterflies.” Since the contest’s inception, more than 200 homes and public buildings have been painted with vividly hued, fantastical butterfly murals, transforming the streets into a kaleidoscope of color.
3. Attend the Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna, e dei Funghi di Primavera in Piano d’Arta
Every May, the Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna, e dei Funghi di Primavera is held in the hilltop hamlet of Piano d’Arta in Friuli’s Carnia mountains. Celebrating all the local bounties of spring—wild asparagus, mountain radicchio, and spring mushrooms—the festival’s main event is the Sunday street fair, where the roads are lined with tables displaying all sorts of arts and crafts: hand-knit scarves, copper kitchen utensils, and lavender-scented soap and potpourri. Wildflowers seem to be a particularly common theme, appearing on hand-painted ceramic plates, beaded ornaments, and wooden plaques for the home.
The festival’s food stands are naturally the biggest attraction. To the tunes of a live band, you can indulge in such local specialties as herb fritters, frico (crispy fried cheese), frittatas made with wild asparagus and mushrooms, grilled sausages, and cjarsòns (a sweet, cinnamon-laced filled pasta).
4. Take a spa day at the nearby Terme di Arta thermal baths
In a region scattered with Alpine chalets and onion-domed church steeples, one Japanese-style pagoda stands out as a symbol of health and well-being. Located alongside the Bût River in Arta Terme, the Terme di Arta spa has been attracting guests since the late 1800s. The original structure was destroyed in World War I and later rebuilt in its current style. The thermal baths are fed from the waters of the ancient Pudia Spring and have a high concentration of many minerals, particularly sulfides. Even the Romans, who settled in nearby Zuglio in 52 BC, took advantage of the sulfuric water’s supposed healing properties. In addition to thermal baths, the spa offers a complete menu of mud treatments, facials, and massages, as well as a gym and swimming pool.
5. Attend the Sagra dei Cjalčons in Pontebba
Every year on the last weekend in May, the town of Pontebba—or more precisely the nearby hamlet of Studena Bassa—hosts the Sagra dei Cjalčons, a festival dedicated to the Friulian filled pasta (alternate spellings include “cjalsòns” and “cjarzòns”). There are countless varieties of cjalčons, as every town in Friuli’s northern mountains has its own unique recipe. Most combine both sweet and savory flavors, but the version from Pontebba is primarily sweet: sizeable pouches of dough stuffed with a mixture of dried figs and fresh ricotta, and tossed with melted butter, sugar, and cinnamon. While most cjalčons are served as a pasta course, these could just as easily be a dessert. In addition to the food stands, highlights of the festival include a 5km race, wine tasting kiosks, indoor games, and two evenings of music and dancing.
6. Go hiking at the Fusine Lakes
In Friuli’s northeasternmost corner, near the Austrian and Slovenian borders and just outside the town of Tarvisio, is the Parco Naturale dei Laghi di Fusine, home of two beautiful glacial lakes encircled with hiking trails. The first lake, Lago Inferiore, is larger and surrounded by spruce trees and forested mountains. The higher one, Lago Superiore, is smaller but offers an even more spectacular view of the Giulian Alps. Monte Mangart is the highest mountain here, at 8,782 feet. A short walk along a secluded path through the woods to the far side of Lago Superiore will reward you with an impressive view of Mangart’s snow-covered, rocky peaks towering over the emerald green water of the lake.
7. Sample the region’s white asparagus at Locanda Al Grop in Tavagnacco
One of the sure signs of spring is the appearance of white asparagus on plates throughout Friuli, and there is no better place to sample this prized vegetable than Locanda Al Grop in Tavagnacco, a town located just north of Udine and the center of white asparagus production in the region. The restaurant dates back 500 years, when it was initially run by monks from the adjacent church, Chiesa di Sant’Antonio Abate, for the sale of their wine. In the mid-19th century, Al Grop was taken over by Francesco Del Fabbro and has remained in the family for five generations. Today, owners Silvia and Simona Del Fabbro are well known for their preparation of many traditional Friulian dishes, but they have made white asparagus the restaurant’s specialty. During springtime, you may find the tender ivory stalks smothered in cheese sauce, dressed with creamy egg salad, topped with a mound of prosciutto and ricotta affumicata, or in risotto alongside peas and zucchini blossoms.
Tavagnacco is also home to the Festa degli Asparagi, an annual festival that takes place over three weekends in April and May. Food kiosks offer a wide variety of dishes made with asparagus, including risotto, frittatas, and crespelle (a lasagna-like dish made with crepes), as well as frico, grilled meats, and numerous desserts. In addition, you can attend wine pairing workshops, browse the Sunday market stalls, and enjoy music and dancing late into the night.
8. Attend a springtime music concert at Castello di Miramare
The starkly whitewashed Castello di Miramare perches on the tip of a promontory just north of Trieste, its wedding-cake façade glistening against sea and sky. The castle was built for Archduke Maximilian (brother of the Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph), who lived there with his wife Carlotta until he was tragically executed while stationed in Mexico. Carlotta is said to have gone mad with grief, and the castle has since gained the reputation for cursing anyone who sleeps under its roof. Today, Miramare is open for visitors to explore the couple’s lavish apartments, all featuring the original 19th-century decorations and furnishings.
In the springtime, the castle hosts the music festival “Concerti al Castello,” a series of free concerts featuring classical musicians from all over Italy and beyond. The concerts are held in the Sala del Trono, a splendid Throne Room adorned in red silk. Before the concert, take some time to wander the castle grounds, fifty-four acres of perfectly manicured gardens, complete with statues, ponds, and walking paths.
9. Attend the Festa delle Erbe di Primavera in Forni di Sopra
For two weekends in early June, Forni di Sopra hosts the Festa delle Erbe di Primavera, a festival celebrating the wild mountain herbs of spring. Like other food festivals in the region, the streets are lined with booths selling all sorts of handicrafts, as well as gastronomic stalls that offer dishes made with locally sourced ingredients.
In addition, you may participate in guided excursions through the fields and forests, during which experts will discuss the use of mountain herbs in food and medicine. Back in town, there are a number of scheduled exhibitions and conferences, with topics ranging from the history and tradition of wild herbs to the gathering of wild mushrooms and truffles, as well as cooking workshops, which naturally feature recipes using local plants, flowers, and herbs. For dinner, several of Forni di Sopra’s hotels offer special herb-centric menus that include dishes such as lasagne with dandelion, gnocchi with ricotta and nettles, barley with wild asparagus, frico with chives, and salami with grilled mountain radicchio.
10. Go hiking in the wildflower-strewn mountains of Forni di Sopra
Forni di Sopra sits at the western edge of Carnia, bordering the Dolomite mountain range. Here, the verdant hills and valleys are home to some 3,000 species of wild flora that come alive in the spring and summer, from yellow buttercups to red rhododendrons to purple anemones. From the town, head up into the mountains for a panoramic view of the jagged, gray Dolomites peeking up over the softer peaks of forested mountain.
On both sides of the Tagliamento River there are numerous hiking trails to choose from: easy paths through the woods and meadows bordering the town, to routes of medium difficulty to nearby refuges, to longer excursions for trained hikers into the Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti Friulane.
Across the river from the town is the Centro Sportivo, a large sports complex housing a gym, roller skating rink (ice skating is offered in winter), swimming pool, and spa, along with outdoor courts for tennis, basketball, and soccer. From there, walk a short distance to the south and you will find a lovely park known as the Pineta e Laghetti. Here, you can take a more leisurely stroll around three small lakes shaded by pine forests.