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 shifted a number of times while the physical border of the Julian Alps 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. No one would argue that the best white wines in Italy come from here. One of the most iconic wine producers in all of Friuli is undoubtedly 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,” he set out to reinvent winemaking.
Chef Mary Sue Milliken participated in the inaugural Chef Bike Tour in 2017, in the Sicily one in 2018, and in the Piedmont Chef Bike Tour 2019. She was as happy in the kitchen as she was on the bike and she jumped at the opportunity to come back with Tourissimo for a fourth time! Her charm makes our trips come alive and she humbly shares her wealth of knowledge with guests.
Mary Sue has co-authored five cookbooks, co-starred in nearly 400 episodes of the Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales.” In 2018, Mary Sue and her friend and business partner Susan Feniger became the first women to receive the Julia Child Award for their contribution to the way America eats and drinks.
Scenic Alpe-Adria bike path
Wine tasting at Bastianich Friulian winery
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 - Hike or 13 mls 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.
After some lunch and introductions, you are presented with the following options: a ride to Lake Fusine (mostly on bike path) or a cable car ride to the Sanctuary of Monte Lussari. Your guides will make recommendations based on weather conditions and visibility. The view from Monte Lussari is unparalleled.
In the evening the friendly staff at our hotel will team up with chef Mary Sue Milliken for a Mitteleuropean, yet Italian, menu.
Dish of the Stage: Goulash
Tarvisio - Venzone - 38 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 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.
For dinner, you’ll be served the staple dish of this area (Carnia): cjarsons, a type of dumpling. Again, you’ll taste a variety of ingredients and dishes that are not associated with classic Italian cuisine and that is exactly why we strive to portray authentic regional cooking on our Chef Bike Tours. It goes without saying that the wine pairing will enhance the experience. Wines are from Carnia and Collio.
Dish of the Stage: Cjarsons, Tortelli della Carnia
Venzone - Fagagna - 27 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. However, it is also produced in the bordering region of Veneto. Just after leaving Venzone we stop and visit a cheesemaker right around the time of production. Montasio is a fairly mild, semi-hard mature cheese and it can be eaten as-is or used in a variety of recipes. Our friends at the caseificio will prepare a tasting for us.
We continue on and very soon we will be in the San Daniele prosciutto area. Lunch is conveniently arranged at Casa del Prosciutto where you can taste, learn, and fall in love with this Italian delicacy.
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. San Daniele is not only prosciutto and, in fact, the dish of the stage is trout.
We reach our stunning hotel fairly early to fully enjoy the amazing facilities, which include a spa and a golf course. Check-in and relax but do meet for a cooking demo in the hotel’s kitchen. Dinner will feature some of the dishes prepared by chef Mary Sue and the local chefs.
Dish of the Stage: San Daniele Trout
Fagagna - Cormons - 41 miles - Flat and Rolling
So far, the landscape has consisted of rural valleys with mountain views. Today this will change as we enter the hilly area of Collio where wine production has shaped the landscape. 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.
Castello di Buttrio is a wine producer and hotel de charme. It's an intimate and relaxing setting. We will spend two nights there.
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: Gnocchi con Susine
Collio loop - 25 miles - Rolling
The Bastianich family are longtime friends of Mary Sue and their winery is right on our itinerary. Lidia Bastianich, of course, did not forget her roots and her biography is a testament to the mentality and strong will of the Italian-American immigrants from this area. The winery has a beautiful open kitchen overlooking the vineyards and we’ll explore the local wine production along with lunch.
Mary Sue will reinterpret the local frico dish and you’ll get to decide if you like the traditional version or Mary Sue’s.
We will be pedaling through the Collio and Colli Orientali del Friuli wine area for about 30 miles of easy and rolling terrain.
Cividale del Friuli will be our mid-ride stop and then we will head back to La Subida along a different road. Before reaching the hotel, we will stop at Abbey of Rosazzo (the most notable landmark of this wine production region) to enjoy the view from this special place. The vineyards surrounding the abbey make grapes that go into a small production blend called Rosazzo and the producer is iconic Livio Felluga who in the 90’s achieved his longtime goal of caring for the abbey’s vineyards. Dinner is going to be at l’Osteria of the Castello di Buttrio.
Dish of the Stage: Frico
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, 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). Dinner is preceded by a walk through the old part of Grado. Our celebratory dinner will feature fresh fish and seafood.
Dish of the Stage: Brodetto di Pesce
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.