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The Italian city of Udine is situated in the region of Friuli-Venezia which is in the north east of the country. This region extends from the Adriatic and the gulf of Trieste to the lower reaches of the Julian Alps which extend into neighbouring Slovenia and Austria, the final throes of that mighty European chain.
In the past when we have used Trieste Airport as a convenient stepping stone into Slovenia, we have spent a few days exploring that city and its environs so when using the airport again in April 2010, we decided to look for somewhere else to visit. Just forty minutes away by bus (perhaps thirty by car), Udine is not just a good place to stay, but it's also a realistic day trip from Trieste. It's also about 40 kilometres from the Slovene border and could be reached easily as a day trip if you are staying in the west of Slovenia.
The only thing I knew about Udine (apart from the fact that the football team 'Udinese' play there) was that it was where the great artist Giambattista Tiepolo lived and worked in the seventeenth century; some detective work on the web revealed that some of his frescoes can be seen in several locations in the city and a glance at the city council's tourism website portrayed Udine as a handsome city with many fine buildings and a well preserved old core. The main square Piazza Liberta has even been described as "the most beautiful Venetian piazza on the mainland" - praise indeed! We decided it was worth at least a couple of days of our time.
The train and bus stations are situated almost beside each other in the newer part of town. If you walk from here towards the oldest part of town the buildings get progressively older so it's like travelling backwards through time. While there are some lovely places to eat and drink in the old town, some of them are quite expensive and if you are cost conscious you might look at some of the perfectly fine places in the area between the stations and the old town as they are much cheaper.
Udine is a well-preserved city in which many of the municipal departments are housed in grand old palazzi which must make the civil servants who work in them feel rather grand. Not only are the dates of the buildings and the names of the architects prominently displayed, there are lots of plaques all over the city celebrating famous past residents who have lived or even just stayed there. Many of them I didn't know at all, but they help to paint a picture of Udine past as an important cultural centre, which, indeed it was until Trieste eclipsed it.
Having arrived late afternoon, our first look at the old town was in the early evening and the old buildings and the charming square with its colourful houses looked especially attractive in the last of the day's sun. The nightly passeggiata ritual takes place in Udine, as in every other Italian town (and indeed in many other places like Spain, Turkey, Croatia (and even Slovenia) as families enjoy a stroll together, perhaps stopping for an ice cream for the kids and a glass of wine for the adults. There are plenty of shady piazzas and cool colonnades where you can find cafes to suit everyone; if one place looks too expensive and posh, you'll not have to wander far to find another.
We spent only one full day in Udine but it was enough to see what I wanted to see and we were fortunate to be able to see the Tiepolo paintings as I had forgotten that many museums could be shut because of the May Day holiday. The very helpful lady in the tourist information office had a full list of the museums and visitors attractions, not just in Udine but in neighbouring towns too, showing their opening times (or not) over the whole holiday weekend. She gave us an excellent map and a leaflet that named some of the city's most prominent buildings and explained their use, either present or past; this was particularly useful because some of the these buildings are open to the public while others are not; it's often the case that only the buildings that can be visited are mentioned so it was good to learn something about the most striking ones, even if we couldn't go in.
I was desperate to view the paintings which are housed in the Palazzo Patriarcale not far from the tourist information office but first we strolled around an outdoor flea-market which was taking place across the road from the office. As well as antique furniture, collectables and art, there were several stalls selling attractive handmade items such as jewellery and children's toys.
Entrance to the museum was Euro5 and there is an exhibition of religious paintings and artefacts on the first floor which you can look at before seeing the Tiepolo works on the floor above. I am not a fan of religious art and these dark and dreary scenes and sombre and heavy religious carvings didn't interest me a great deal; besides, I was waiting for the main attraction! The museum attendant had given us an illustrated booklet in English (which had to be returned afterwards) which described the key features of each room and explained some of the allegorical stories depicted in the frescoes. I was delighted by how well the paintings have been restored, the colours looked vibrant and, except for the subject matter, one would not know these wonderful works were executed so long ago. Photography is not permitted but some official photographs of the Tiepolo frescoes can be seen here (http://www.musdioc-tiepolo.it).
Next stop was the castle, which we already knew was closed although the grounds at least could be visited. Perched on a modest hill, the view of the old town's umber roof tiles is classic Italy but it was surpassed, for me, by the sight of the snow covered peaks of the Julian Alps in the distance. The castle itself, originally built in the Venetian style but subsequently added to, is not especially beautiful but the views and the gardens are certainly worth the five minute work out. Beneath the castle, Piazza Liberta is quite stunning; a short walk down the cobbled footpath brings you straight into the square. On one side is the old town hall the Loggia del Lionello which is built in the very distinctive Venetian Gothic style, and opposite it is the Loggia di San Giovanni and the Torre dell'Orologio (the clock tower). This is one of the most popular meeting places on warm evenings; the cafes put tables and chairs outside while youngsters tend to hang out together on the steps of the loggia.
Leading off the piazza is Via Cavour on which pedestrianised street you'll find more cafes and a magnificent little ice cream shop which serves delights that justify queuing - the mango ice cream is to die for.
Finally we ended our sight seeing with a peek inside the splendid gothic style duomo - the cathedral - to see some more of Tiepolo's work. While I didn't find these works as exciting as the ones in the gallery, there was another delight in store: the little chapel at the bottom of the cathedral's bell tower is covered in frescoes painted by the artist Vitale da Bologa in the fourteenth century.
The rest our day in Udine was spent simply wandering the pretty streets and stopping now and then for drinks. Even in early May it was very warm but fortunately the style of the buildings means you can always find a shady spot. Between the old town and the train station there are a number of gated gardens that are open to the public and these too are a pleasant place to relax. While there are a small number of museums and galleries many that appealed were closed due to the holiday but we did not feel that it was essential to do anything in particular.
The centre is very atmospheric and compelling, teeming with interesting shops, inviting bars and tempting restaurants. I'm not a shopper but the window displays were beautifully presented and the Italian reputation for style is reflected in the profusion of exclusive boutiques, designer interior stores and exquisite florists. On Saturday morning a small market was held in Piazza Matteotti. Most stalls were selling fruit and vegetables, most of it very seasonal and local people were clamouring to buy freshly picked asparagus (which was on the menu at every restaurant and osteria).
As is usually the case in Italy, there are few restaurants that aren't Italian (those we spotted included a Lebanese restaurant and a couple of Chinese restaurants) but that wasn't a problem for us. One night we ate in a little osteria (a traditional restaurant serving food typical of the region) and the other we ate at a restaurant specialising in seafood; the food in both was excellent and good value for money. At lunch time we ate in a place described as an osteria but really more like the Italian version of a tapas bar, or more precisely, the Catalan version "pinxtos" where the tapas comes served on a piece of bread. All the items are in a glass display cabinet and you simply point which you'd like to try. There were pieces of delicious frittata, wedges of tasty pizza and, on top of crusty bread, creamed asparagus or salt fish.
In short, Udine is a very picturesque city even if there isn't a great deal of things to do other than to walk and admire. I can't see anyone making a special trip just to Udine but if you are in the area it is certainly worth a look, even if just for a few hours.