This was meant to be a story about a road trip, about driving through Friuli and the misadventures that naturally come with an English driver on provincial Italian roads. But just days before I planned to set off on my midsummer holiday, I had what some might call “cold feet” and others an epiphany. My planned itinerary was, in essence, a wine-trip, travelling from vineyard to vineyard in the Friulian regions of the Collio and Carso to taste some of my favourite wines in the world. Was a car really such a good idea? I mean, who wants to be the designated driver, sticking to water on a trip like this? I took a look at Italy’s extensive rail network, and the problem was solved. All the vineyards I had planned to visit were clustered within reach of the train stations on the line between Udine and Trieste in the strip of land that marks the border between Italy and Slovenia. Maybe a little walking would be necessary, but it meant I could imbibe freely.
This is a journey based on wine–not about getting drunk–but on exploring the methods by which the cuvées are fermented and tasting them in the vineyards where they were produced. My focus is the orange (some would argue amber) wines particular to this region of Friuli are which were developed by the legendary winemakers of Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon in the 1990s. Their wines are coveted worldwide due to their artisanal approach and biodynamic principles. Their methods involve long maceration of white grapes–especially those typical of the region, such as Ribolla Gialla, Pinot Grigio and Vitovksa–with the skins on to create full-bodied, oxidative wines.
After having first discovered this type of winemaking almost a decade ago, the producers of Friuli have been my gods and their wines my Holy Grail. For years, I have been saving the locations of their vineyards on Google Maps so that the little slip of land that marks the border between Italy and Slovenia has so many hearts that it appears rose pink.
My first port of call is Udine: an easy train ride from Venice on the Regionale Veloce, but a journey I’d never made before. Is it not strange how when you arrive in a new town your immediate impulse is to compare it with places you already know and to create a mélange in your mind? Within the first 30 minutes of walking around Udine, I had picked out the elements that reminded me of Venice, Vicenza, Bologna and Padova and decided that Udine was a veritable patchwork of all four. The lions that decorate the columns in the main piazza are testimony to Udine’s past as an outpost of the Venetian Empire; the Vicentine architect Andrea Palladio also worked in Udine; the portici that lead up the hill are akin to those in Bologna; the main piazza has the subtle element of people watching similar to my beloved Caffe Pedrocchi in Padua. A further hour’s meandering of the cobbled streets and I have a different opinion. Udine is Udine. It is a place with its own identity: one with a strong local community thanks to its location off the beaten tourist track. For instance, at the top of the hill that is home to Udine Castle is a view that looks over the rest of Friuli, up to the Alps and across to Verona. And topping it all off is a bar with an unrivalled sunset over the mountains–empty save for the ten or so locals who know the city well enough to pop up for an aperitivo.
The next morning a new region calls: the Collio. As I leave the station and start the long walk that will take me to my next hotel, I feel as if I have travelled to another country. The architecture is a combination of delicate structures with white stucco on the exterior and modernist office towers covered in glass and steel. This is no surprise: Gorizia, and its sister Nova Gorica, straddle the border of Slovenia and were formerly outposts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There are no Venetian lions here.
By the time I finally arrive at my next destination of Azienda and Agriturismo Radikon, an hour and a half uphill walk later, my hands are stained purple from the plucking of wild cherries along the way, and I’m in desperate need of a drink. That is a problem easily solved: Radikon produces some of the best wines in the region of Oslavia with my favourite being their Ribolla Gialla that comes in elegant 500ml bottles. What is less known is that they have four hotel rooms that first opened in 2020 that look out over the vineyards. It takes little convincing after the afternoon’s hike to have a nap with the windows wide open, serenaded by the symphony of cicadas whose nationality is open to interpretation.
The next morning, by 8 a.m, I am on the road to the Italian border with Slovenia. The stubborn Taurean in me took the path that, from the map, seemed the one of least obstruction: simply down the hill and across a little stream… There was no passport control, no soldiers, just a 70-year-old lady tending to her vegetable path just across the border. When I first attempted to cross, she simply told me to return to Italy and to not bother her again. But once I started to explain that I was simply wanting to explore, and understand, the fluidity of the border between Slovenia and Italy, she changed her tune. Perhaps it was the acceptance of someone who had a respect for the history of the Collio or simply a curiosity towards a tourist on her land, but she let me pass, giving me a warm hug and telling me buon coraggio as if I was setting off on a big mission.
What is indubitable though is that just by crossing the trickling stream that marks the border of the two countries, I felt a tangible difference between the culture of Italy and that of Slovenia. Ascending Monte Sabotino, I made my way along the mountain ridge until about two hours later I emerged into a clearing with an unrivalled view over Friuli with all of the vineyards laid out like a tapestry. Behind me were two huts that at first glance looked closed. Suddenly, the door to one opened and out emerged a man of around 65 years old with the sturdy physique that matched his military attire. “You want something to drink?” he asked “… Wine?” I glanced at my watch. It was 11:30am. “Ok, and a large bottle of water.” He disappeared back into his hut and emerged a few minutes later brandishing the drinks on a tray with the flourish of a seasoned butler at The Ritz. “That will be 1 euro 40 cents.” He looked at me as I handed over my small change, and I could see the sentence forming in his mouth: “Ma come mai parli così bene l’italiano?”
“But how come you can speak Italian so well?” If I had a euro for every time someone asked me this question, I would be sipping 20 euro Bellinis at Harry’s Bar all day every day. It is a sentence that is familiar to expats across Italy, a sentence that reflects an Italian curiosity and respect for those who have committed to learning a language that can at times seem entirely idiosyncratic. Over the years, I have honed a concise answer encompassing my studies, my travels and my past that I can rattle off without a second thought. The response is always the same: a generosity towards a kindred spirit. On this trip alone, I have been gifted pears, olives, wine and various offers of telephone numbers that I would rather not accept. But as much as it brings with a little sigh of frustration at providing an answer on repeat, what speaking Italian offers is a warm welcome into communities even if you are just passing through. This is the beauty here in the Collio: a place where you encounter few tourists and where it is not so much a luxury to speak Italian but a necessity.
On my second, and last evening, in the Collio, I decided to walk up to the neighbouring village of San Floriano for an aperitivo. The previous day, en route from a tasting at Gravner to one at Damijan Podversic, I had walked past an old Castello densely covered with ivy and spied a couple sitting at iron wrought tables in the garden, wine glasses in hand. I delighted in an evening watching the sun make its way across the land, before finally setting in a radiant glow, the same shade of orange as the local wines, into the blue tinged mountains of Slovenia.
There is an undeniable pleasure to be had in abandoning the car and travelling across Italy by train. The rail network is so well developed that it is possible to reach the most remote villages even if the final leg requires a committed hour or so walk in the sweltering heat. This is also the case at my next stop: the little hamlet of Prepotto is the epicentre of winemaking in the Carso coastline’s slip of land. The terrace of my hotel-vineyard Lupinc has a view that looks out to the intense blue of the Adriatic. As the midsummer sun sets into the water in a fiery haze, I sip a glass of the somewhat saline wine that defines this region, and I am in heaven once again.
Sunday morning and that intense blue calls: I head for the beach. I select the most scenic path, and I’m rewarded as the path leads through small hamlets and along a gravel road path with olive trees either side with fluttering butterflies for company. On arriving at the beach, a set of stone steps leads to a small shingle beach with large boulders at the centre. A small sign announces “Benvenuto a Paradiso” (“Welcome to Paradise”). I find my spot on the sunniest flat rock I can find and set myself up for the day, the sound of the lapping water lulling me back to sleep.
There is a simple bliss in finding offbeat places that few others know. Yes, it might take a little bit more effort to get to this little corner of Italy, but it is worth it. And so are the metres only possible by foot.
The final leg of my journey and I head to Trieste. One of my closest friends has seen on my Stories that I was in the Carso and messages me with excitement to say that he was travelling from Croatia via Trieste the same day. A flurry of DMs later and we’ve made an arrangement to meet at Gran Caffé San Marco, the historic café whose interior has not changed since it was first constructed over 100 years ago. As we catch up with each others’ lives and continue our exchanges on a stroll through the centre of Trieste and down the Grand Canal to the waterfront, we reach the same conclusion. This part of Italy is not Italy. It is a place unto its own, where cultures merge and where the wines are idiosyncratic.