In a re­mote re­gion of north­ern Italy, res­i­dents have taken a prag­matic approach to tourist ac­com­mo­da­tion, finds Frank Par­tridge

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

FRI­ULI Venezia Gi­u­lia doesn’t ex­actly trip off the tongue. Tucked away in a cor­ner of Italy that is not wholly Ital­ian, it’s the small­est, least pop­u­lated and least vis­ited of all the coun­try’s re­gions. It’s as if the peo­ple who gave it such an un­pro­nounce­able, mis­print­prone name wanted to pre­serve its ob­scu­rity by putting us off visit­ing. No such luck.

So where is this triple-bar­relled place, which the cognoscenti know as FVG? If you imag­ine Italy as a full-length lady’s boot, FVG is at the point where you might catch a glimpse of stock­ing, just above the knee. Ge­o­graph­i­cally speak­ing, it’s north­east of Venice, south of the Aus­trian prov­ince of Carinthia and west of the Slove­nian Alps.

In other words, it’s at the point where three of the great Euro­pean cul­tures — Latin, Ger­manic and Slavic — come to­gether.

Through the years, this un­usual col­li­sion of civil­i­sa­tions has been the source of much con­flict and change, il­lus­trated by the wildly fluc­tu­at­ing for­tunes of the re­gional cap­i­tal, Tri­este. Be­long­ing to the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian em­pire un­til it dis­in­te­grated af­ter World War I, the city was an­nexed to Italy in 1920, an­nexed again by the Ger­mans in 1943, be­came a free ter­ri­tory af­ter World War II and was re­turned to Italy only in 1954, oc­cu­py­ing a some­what per­ilous po­si­tion a few kilo­me­tres from Tito’s Yu­goslavia and the com­mu­nist bloc.

To­day, Tri­este and FVG are se­cure. The neigh­bour­ing Aus­tri­ans and Slove­ni­ans are close friends: you barely no­tice the fron­tier as you pass from one coun­try to an­other.

One of the beau­ties of the re­gion is the speed at which the hori­zon changes as you fol­low the cen­tral au­tostrada from south to north. In a lit­tle more than an hour, you cruise from the strip of golden Adri­atic beaches that curve around the Gulf of Tri­este to­wards Venice, through the agri­cul­tural, vine-rich plains of the cen­tre, to the high mead­ow­lands and jagged, cor­ru­gated alpine peaks of the Italy-Aus­tria-Slove­nia border coun­try. For win­ter-sports lovers, this is known ter­ri­tory: the ski slopes in­clude the renowned Pram­pero run at Tarvi­sio. The heart and soul of the moun­tain coun­try com­prise the hardy, re­mote com­mu­ni­ties that have some­how kept go­ing in the face of na­ture’s over­whelm­ing odds.

FVG is not only a re­gion of border­lines, it is rid­dled with ge­o­log­i­cal fault lines. In 1976 it suf­fered a se­ries of earth­quakes that flat­tened 11 alpine vil­lages, with a heavy loss of life. The me­dieval town of Ge­mona sus­tained the worst dam­age and an in­ter­na­tional aid ef­fort was re­quired to put the re­gion back on its feet.

To­day, as you ad­mire Ge­mona’s dou­ble ring of me­dieval walls and ro­manesque cathe­dral, it’s hard to imag­ine a cat­a­clysm oc­curred here.

An­other suc­cess story in the re­cov­ery plan is the re­gion’s uniquely in­ven­tive way of ac­com­mo­dat­ing its tourists: the al­bergo

Moun­tain magic: Tarvi­sio’s cathe­dral, cloaked in win­ter snow dif­fuso, or scat­tered ho­tel. Sutrio is an in­ti­mate, pic­turesque set­tle­ment nearly 600m above sea level, known as the ‘‘ car­pen­ters’ vil­lage’’ for the skill of its wood carvers, who turn out furniture and hand­i­crafts from their home­spun work­shops.

Win­ter vis­i­tors come to ski on nearby Mt Zon­colan; in sum­mer, they walk, cy­cle or horse-ride in the wooded foothills. I find my way to the vil­lage cen­tre as night is fall­ing. Ea­ger to find my al­bergo , I am di­rected to re­cep­tion, which turns out to be a busy of­fice in a cob­bled court­yard, un­con­nected to any­thing else: all that is miss­ing is a ho­tel to go with it.

‘‘ Yes, we have your book­ing,’’ says Anna Lisa, the re­cep­tion­ist, be­tween deal­ing with in­quiries by phone and email. ‘‘ Your apart­ment is a five-minute walk across the vil­lage.’’ She takes a copy of my credit card, draws a di­a­gram of the route, hands me a key and leaves me to it. Mine is one of 40 apart­ments of vary­ing sizes scat­tered across the vil­lage within easy reach, be­long­ing to the com­mu­nity-owned so­ci­ety that runs Sutrio’s al­bergo dif­fuso . Or­di­nar­ily, an alpine set­tle­ment of barely 1000 in­hab­i­tants would be un­able to sus­tain a con­ven­tional ho­tel: Sutrio is one of seven re­mote com­mu­ni­ties to have cre­ated al­berghi dif­fusi out of the prop­er­ties left empty by the pop­u­la­tion drift to the city.

Lo­cal com­munes take 10-year leases on the prop­er­ties, ren­o­vate them, rent them out to tourists and hand them back to the own­ers at the end of the term. Ev­ery­one gains: the vil­lages can put up more tourists, vis­i­tors can en­joy ho­tel-stan­dard com­forts at a bud­get price and the own­ers have their sec­ond homes done up free of charge.

Fit­tingly, in a re­gion that has re­lied on the tree for its sur­vival, al­berghi dif­fusi are cat­e­gorised as one, two or three pines. My place, with a fully equipped kitchen in an unas­sum­ing, mod­ern block, is rated one pine; the two-pine op­tion would have se­cured a tra­di­tional prop­erty with rus­tic fur­nish­ings and three pines would have added lux­u­ries such as satel­lite television, DVD player, mi­crowave oven and dish­washer. But I wouldn’t have needed those things: there is too much go­ing on.

Straight­away I am im­mersed in the ev­ery­day life of an Ital­ian moun­tain vil­lage. Roused by the church bells, I tuck into freshly de­liv­ered break­fast in a bas­ket while fam­i­lies in neigh­bour­ing apart­ments or­gan­ise them­selves for the day ahead.

Dogs bark, cars and scoot­ers cough into life, chil­dren make their noisy way to school and shop shut­ters are raised. On the south­ern sky­line, Mt Amar­i­ana gives us our weather fore­cast. The vil­lagers call the moun­tain Mar­ian, think­ing of it as a wo­man who some days dons a hat (of clouds, sig­ni­fy­ing bad weather ap­proach­ing) and on oth­ers goes bare-headed (a fine day in prospect).

‘‘ When Mar­ian has her hat on, drop the scythe and pick up the rake,’’ farmhands used to be warned at har­vest time, to keep the hay dry. There would be no need for the rake to­day, I note, squint­ing into the sun to make out the snow-cov­ered sum­mit.

To sam­ple my sec­ond al­bergo dif­fuso I drive west, skirt­ing the Lu­miei Val­ley on a 30km moun­tain road of switch­back turns, tun­nels and bridges to reach Sau­ris, a col­lec­tion of alpine ham­lets ris­ing to 1400m, the high­est set­tle­ments in FVG.

Un­til the road re­placed the mule track in the 1930s, they were so iso­lated that in­hab­i­tants de­vel­oped their own lan­guage, known as Sau­rano.

In Sau­ris, my apart­ment in a tra­di­tional two-storey house is beau­ti­fully ap­pointed, with hand­made furniture. An invit­ing trattoria is close by, but the vil­lage has a mag­i­cal at­mos­phere and de­mands to be ex­plored first.

Sau­ris is renowned for its dis­tinc­tive pro­sciutto: cured ham smoked over beech wood, spiced with ju­niper and herbs, and ideally ac­com­pa­nied by lo­cally brewed beer. The ham fac­tory of­fers a guided tour and a taste of the prod­uct.

I ad­mire the church of St Oswald, with its ex­quis­ite wooden al­tar carved and gilded in 1524. Up the road, an ethno­graphic mu­seum, con­verted from an old hayloft, ex­plains how Sau­ris was once a rest stop on a me­dieval pil­grim­age route across the moun­tains to Aus­tria. Ev­ery turn in the road re­veals an­other ex­tra­or­di­nary view of the val­ley, car­peted with cro­cuses and rhodo­den­drons, or of the mag­nif­i­cent moun­tains, with their steep es­carp­ments.

I walk back up the hill, amazed at what you can dis­cover if your ho­tel be­longs to a com­mu­nity in­stead of stand­ing apart from it, rel­ish­ing the prospect of a warm fire and the chat­ter at an inn in a cor­ner of Europe where con­flict has been con­vivially re­solved.

In­deed, the three border com­mu­ni­ties share a web­site (­ing­to­ aimed at en­cour­ag­ing vis­i­tors to try them all: ‘‘ Break­fast in Italy, lunch in Slove­nia, sup­per in Aus­tria.’’

Re­la­tions do not ap­pear to have been strained by the fact the web­site spells Fri­uli Venezia Gi­u­lia’s name wrong. Ev­ery­body does it, af­ter all. The In­de­pen­dent The al­ber­god­if­fuso in Sutrio is Borgo Soan­dri; in Sau­ris, it’s Borgo San Lorenzo. Prices typ­i­cally start from about j18 ($30) a per­son a night. ■­ber­god­if­ ■­ber­god­if­fu­ ■


Pic­tures: Photolibrary

Home com­forts: The pic­turesque alpine vil­lage of Sau­ris in the Ital­ian re­gion of Fri­uli Venezia Gi­u­lia has em­braced the con­cept of the scat­tered ho­tel, with guests stay­ing at com­mu­nity-owned apart­ments

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