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Roaming Venice's backyard

Udine, with its wide, sunny streets and Tiepolo masterpieces, retains much of its historic flavor and gives visitors a warm welcome.

August 29, 2004|Jerry V. Haines | Special to The Times

Udine, Italy — 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 Wurzburg, 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 country

Thus 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 life

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