Friuli Venezia Giulia (often shortened to Friuli) is a border region tucked between Slovenia and Austria where one will find the cultural imprints of all three countries. That imprint (as you'll discover on our culinary journey by bike) is very much present in the regional cuisine. Over the years, this region has been occupied by various European powers and as such has developed a unique language and culture. The political border has shifted a number of times while the physical border of the Julian Alps has stood still, and a timeless subculture typical of the practical life of mountain regions developed. On the other hand, the Adriatic coast has been bustling with trading activities since Roman times. On our Chef Bike Tour of Friuli Venezia Giulia, we'll see for ourselves both of these aspects with the Tagliamento River Valley and Collio wine production area in between.
The first part of the tour will descend from Tarvisio along the Tagliemento River Valley via the Alpe-Adria Bikeway. We take advantage of this great cycling infrastructure as much as possible (It’s very well known in Europe and one of the first long-haul rail-to-trail projects) and for the rest of the way, we'll be on secondary country roads with many interesting and tasty stops. The riding is fairly easy on this tour and you have the possibility to rent an E-bike or to add some extra miles to top off your day.
We are fond of Friuli not just because it is cycling heaven, but also because it is a must-visit destination for gourmands and wine lovers and is finally being recognized as such. Some recipes and products might ring a bell (prosciutto di San Daniele, polenta served in many ways), but some others are unknown and surprisingly different than any other Italian preparations (frico, cjarsons).
The Slavic and Austrian influences make this region unique compared to the rest of Italy. It is probably the perfect destination for someone who has been to Italy several times and is looking for something new and different. In fact, travelers who are eager to experience something novel and unexpected end up admitting that Friuli went beyond their expectations. Lonely Planet listed Friuli as Best in Travel 2016.
While it is unlikely that the Friulian customs (including language) will remain intact, it’s not too late to experience this vanishing culture and on a Chef Bike Tour with Tourissimo you'll do that by understanding the local traditions, landscape, agriculture, and, of course, by tasting and trying out the local dishes.
Wineries in this area are settled on some of the most beautiful hills you will ever encounter.
Scenic Alpe-Adria Bikeway
Wine tasting at a family-run winery that includes the rare and up-and-coming Schioppettino
Cividale del Friuli (UNESCO World Heritage Sites), and Venzone (National monument)
Stunning cycling along rolling hills covered with vineyards and with the Julian Alps in the backdrop
Grado's golden beaches
Palmanova and Aquileia
Regional food that combines Mediterranean and Mitteleuropean influences
Dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant with cooking demonstration
Tarvisio - 13 miles warm-up ride
Our tour starts with a shuttle from the Trieste-Friuli Venezia Giulia airport to the alpine village of Tarvisio, a border town where Italy, Austria, and Slovenia meet. During the winter Tarvisio is a bustling ski resort and in the summer it can be even more enjoyable as the Julian Alps express most of their beauty during this time. Immense forests and pristine lakes and rivers surround this remote corner of Italy. It’s also a crossroads of cultures and languages and an area where WWI was fought; remnants of the war still remain. The easternmost peaks of the Alps have been the natural border between the Latin, German and Slavic worlds since time immemorial. The local cuisine reflects just that.
Before checking into our hotel in Tarvisio, a cable car ride will take you straight to the top of Monte Lussari for some lunch, introductions, and unparalleled views. After lunch, you will be driven to the hotel to check in and to enjoy a warm-up ride to Lake Fusine (mostly on bike path with one challenging short climb to the lake). We will sneak into Slovenia just for a group photo at the border!
In the evening the friendly staff at our hotel will team up with our chef for a Mitteleuropean, yet Italian, menu.
Dish of the Stage: Goulashsuppe
Tarvisio - Venzone - 35 miles - Flat
Today we ride the famous (and much-appreciated among European cyclists) Alpe-Adria Bikeway. We go from Tarvisio to Venzone along the foothills of the Alpi Giulie, following the Tagliamento River Valley. Lunch is planned in Venzone, a tiny but interesting village. Its strategic position along several trading routes made it the perfect spot for the old Customs location, which gave it a great deal of importance.
The old town was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1976 and rebuilt as it was in the Middle Ages, stone by stone. Declared a National Monument, Venzone is one of the most extraordinary examples of architectural and artistic restoration in all of Italy (and possibly all of Europe). We’ll take a guided walk around the village to admire some of its landmarks such as the Saint Andrew Cathedral and the mysterious and old Saint Michael Chapel, home to historic mummies.
We’ll then ride back to the hotel where we’ll have a Q&A aperitivo with our guest chef. This informal talk will be followed by a pizza night at the hotel pizzeria.
Dish of the Stage: Pumpkin from Venzone
Venzone - Treppo Grande - 30 miles - Rolling
Cheese in this part of Italy is spelled Montasio. Montasio cheese is named after the plateau of the same name located in the Friulian Mountains. Montasio is a fairly mild, semi-hard mature cheese and it can be eaten as-is or used in a variety of recipes. The first part of our ride crosses its production area.
Our bike ride will also take us to San Daniele, home of the famous prosciutto. We’ll visit a family-run prosciutto factory and learn how the Prosciutto di San Daniele is produced.
Montasio cheese and San Daniele prosciutto are good examples of quality and tradition over quantity and market-driven. No one here would consider changing a thing and both products are protected DOP’s.
Lunch is conveniently arranged at Casa del Prosciutto where you can taste, and fall in love with this Italian delicacy. Some samples of Montasio cheese will complete our lunch platter, a mouthwatering experience.
We reach our Agriturismo accommodation fairy early to fully enjoy an afternoon by the outdoor pool in the garden, while sipping a Spritz (the original spritz was created in Veneto with local wine and sparkling water!)
Dinner will feature dishes prepared by our hosts Carlo and Federica, with the products grown on their farm.
Dish of the Stage: Prosciutto di San Daniele and Montasio cheese
Loop from Borgo Floreani - 27 miles - Rolling and hilly
So far, the landscape has consisted of rural valleys with mountain views. Today this will change as we enter a hilly area. Our first stop of the day is at a grappa distillery. The first thing to learn is that grappa is made from what is left after the grapes have been used for the season's wine, and is produced across the region by a well-defined distillation process. Grappa has been produced in Friuli Venezia Giulia for well over a millennium. Legend has it that the first grappa made here was by a Roman legionary who had returned home following a stint in Egypt in the 1st century BC.
Back at our agriturismo after lunch, the afternoon will be a full immersion in their vegetable garden where we will discover the history of the farm and Carlo will introduce us to their products and farm animals. We will pick some vegetables and use them during a cooking lesson for the making of the dishes that will be part of our second dinner at Borgo Floreani.
Dish of the Stage: Polenta e Grappa Friulana
Treppo Grande - Collio - Cormons - 35 miles - Rolling
Today’s ride will lead us southeast into the Collio wine region for a day dedicated to Friulian wines and another Friulano delicacy, frico.
The Grillo winery is a little gem among the wineries of the Collio. Anna, the kind owner and talented winemaker, will open her kitchen to us. Our guest chef will reinterpret the local frico dish and you’ll get to decide if you like the traditional version or the chef’s. We’ll explore the local wine production along with lunch.
We will be pedaling through the Collio and Colli Orientali del Friuli wine area for about 25 miles of easy and rolling terrain. Cividale del Friuli will be our morning stop and after lunch we will reach our hotel in Cormons.
Tonight, we will have dinner at Trattoria al Cacciatore, which is part of the La Subida estate under the lead of Alessandro Gavagna (one Michelin star). Alessandro will explain and demonstrate his traditional recipes including the dish of the stage which is gnocchi filled with plums (only made between Gorizia and Cormons, but of course, you can now try it at home). The recipes prepared under our eyes will be expertly paired with local wines.
Dish of the Stage: Frico and Gnocchi di susine
Cormons - Grado - 30 miles - Flat
Next, it’s the Adriatic coast! Our goal today is to reach Grado. Grado is Friuli’s lagoon city (it actually sits on an island), a town with 1600 years of history that can still be experienced by strolling the calli (streets) of the ancient city center. Grado was the first port of entry for ships headed upstream to nearby Aquileia, a powerful Roman city on the river Natisone.
There are no climbs on today’s route. We ride in the countryside and after crossing the Torre River we stop in Palmanova, famous for its star-shaped fortification. Time for a cappuccino in the main square right in the center of the star. We continue along the Alpe-Adria Bikeway until Aquileia where we stop for lunch and a visit to the Basilica with its stunning mosaics, the oldest of the Christian era and the largest one still existing in the western world.
Past Aquileia, again on the Alpe-Adria Bikeway, upon crossing a long bridge, we spot Grado’s skyline.
Take advantage of the nice beach to go for a swim after the ride (walking distance from the hotel).
Our celebratory dinner will feature fresh fish and seafood.
Dish of the Stage: Brodetto di Pesce alla Gradese
The cuisine of Friuli reflects the varied cultures that surround this region and the focus is on simple, homemade food made with local products.
On the antipasti side, affettati (cured meats) are served at nearly every osteria and wine bar. Prosciutto di San Daniele and smoked prosciutto di Sauris are served on a platter with pickled veggies and local cheese or fried polenta. Another classic is toc’ in braids, an antipasto made with polenta, cream, and cheese. Producing Prosciutto di San Daniele requires many skillful steps that are still carried out according to the ancient artisan tradition. However, the real secret of this process is the special microclimate in San Daniele. Cool breezes come from the Alps and meet the humid currents of the Adriatic sea.
First courses are unique to this region. Pasta, an Italian staple, is eaten in many different forms: lasagne are topped with poppy seeds, and gnocchi can be mixed with goulash or smoked ricotta. The Mitteleuropean influence is found in unlikely sweet and sour pasta dishes such as gnocchi filled with plum and the cjarsons ravioli. Polenta is served with meat, game or cheese. A wide variety of soups (iota, bisna), an influence from Central Europe, are consumed with different types of dumplings. One dish that can be a primo or second is the frico, made with potatoes and shredded montasio or carnia cheese, and, depending on the recipe, onion or leek.
The best known Adriatic dish is the soupy fish stew called Boreto all Graisana served over a bed of polenta.
Main courses are hearty and often involve game with sides of mushroom and polenta, sauerkraut or potato. Goulash is the best example of the legacy of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In the Friulian Dolomites every menu features pitina, a dish of ground mutton, pork, or goat cooked in red wine and mountain herbs, then smoked.
The Collio region is a land of big white wines like Ribolla, Friulano, Sauvignon and Collio Bianco. A smaller production of red wines includes Cabernet, Merlot, Schioppettino and Collio Rosso. Wineries in Friuli are set on some of the most beautiful hills you will ever come across. Many in Italy would argue that the best white wines come from this region. One of the most iconic wine producers in all of Friuli is inarguably Livio Felluga. The history of his wines is deeply rooted in the land and people of Friuli. Back when quality wine “wasn’t a thing” in this area, he set out to reinvent winemaking.