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Cividale 23 September 2011

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Cividale del Friuli

After a final errand to the market to get lunch, we caught the tram and made it to the station in plenty of time to catch our intended train to Venezia Mestre, where we changed to a regionale train to Udine. Venezia Mestre is the mainland half of Venice, where the Venetians actually live; Venice (the island) is a sort of European Disneyland for adults who shop. We took advantage of our lay-over in Mestre to drag our luggage across the busy boulevard and indulge in cappuccini in a dignified restaurant apparently intended for just that purpose.

Then back on another train, a little grittier, with a bumpier roadbed (but I still love trains!) and away through the fertile flatness of the Veneto and into the foothills of Friuli.

mouse over to see where in Italy we are

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<p>three quick shots from the speeding train</p>

three quick shots from the speeding train

The drained swamps that composed Venezia's breadbasket and the domestic source of La Serenissima's well being gradually yielded to greener and hillier lands as we approached Udine, at a major trade crossroads between eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Italy. We contemplated spending time in Udine, but it was hot and unwelcoming, so we got on a new little private train that left the electric grid and dieseled its way to one of the ancient gateways to Italy, and the historic capital of Longobardia.

One of the surprises of northern Italy is how much beautifully productive agricultural land has been taken over by industry ... and how much of it is derelict. Since industrialization started changing this land fifty years ago, two or three cycles of technology have passed, and apparently where Italians used to reuse and recycle, they now allow to decay and build anew. 

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The little train dropped us off on the edge of what looked like a busy but unremarkable town, and we wondered, Why Cividale? We'd read a little about it being wonderful; had we fallen for the PR?

We were too early for our B&B, so we stopped in a little park and ate some figs and crackers. Some teenaged girls engaged us in conversation, enabled by cellular translation. When they learned we were from California, they asked if they could travel in our luggage.

Once we were ensconced in our big comfortable room in a funky old mansion, we walked out in search of whatever it was we came to see. Immediately, streets narrowed and became windey, and we knew we were in a medieval town, exactly the kind we like: once a power and wealthy, it lost its memonetum for some reason and was preserved until it was rediscovered in an era that values picturesque agedness. We walked right through the center to the Devil's Bridge. Why the Devil's? Accounts differ, and none satisfy. That's what it's called.

We couldn't help noticing that, unlike every other stream and lake we have seen in Italy, the water here is clear. You can see the fish happily doing their fishy business. The land here is karst, compressed limestone, through which the River Natisone has carved a modest gorge. There has been a bridge here for a thousand years.

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Here's what you do in Cividale: you window shop, and you sit under an umbrella at a bar on the Piazza sipping a glass of the superb local wine while your baby crawls around or your eight year old rides around the fountain. It's a good life.

Cividale is like Carmel in the 1950s, except without the hills. Lots of shops full of things you can get elsewhere but don't, because they are more alluring in this context. It's a quaint place, not like suburbia or the overcrowded cities; the pace is different. The people who actually live here are mostly wealthy and retired and can easily afford this gentle lifestyle. It's a lovely place to visit for a wind-down, and that is exactly why we came. 

Well, not entirely. I forgot to mention the food.

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Alla Frasca

There is a memorable eatery here, an assuming place that looks, from the outside, like a hole in the wall in an unassuming little pedestrian alley. Inside, it opens up into two graceful dining rooms with an open kitchen between. We ate here two nights, violating (and disproving) one of our basic rules of travel: you can't go to the same place twice. 

Alla Frasca specializes in two things, fish and mushrooms, and offers tasting platters of both. Above, you see the mushrooms, five ways. (From lower left clockwise) A gorgeous simmered portobello, tagliatelle with funghi in a simple but spectacular butter sauce with shaved truffles, a little polenta for clearing the palate, beef in mushroom sauce, and another mushroom presentation, possibly steamed then sauced. In the center, a scallop with, you guessed it, another mushroom sauce. We also shared a penne with shrimp and shaved truffles, and simple yet delicious roasted vegetables of the season – zucchini, yellow peppers, and white eggplant. As if that wasn't enough, we shared a lovely light creme caramel with a caramelized sugar web. All washed down with one of the region's inimitable mountain whites, and polished off with local grappa. Memorable ... but absolutely not unique or the last memorable meal (he says, still happily digesting the lunch fish platter in Trieste.) 

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As I mentioned before, Cividale was a stronghold of the Longobards, as I understand it, a belligerent Celtic race that kept getting kicked out of one place then another from what is now Belgium, Northern Germany, Central Germany, and finally found a defensible place here at the mouth of a minor river flowing out of the Alps. In the 9th Century they made their stand, and started imposing their practices on the locals. Since these were not writers, and never were integrated into a mainstream written tradition, not much is known about them. The six gorgeous ladies above the archway – were they queens, goddesses, or simply well dressed women? What is known about them comes mostly from their burial practices; found nearby this Tempietto Longobardo were interments of a fully armored warrior and his horse, and a well-dressed and bejeweled woman, not at all old, assumed to be a priestess or noblewoman. 

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The main thing that distinguishes these sculptures is that they are the best examples of a period of art history that is otherwise thoroughly blank. The ornamentation, drapery, individuality of the faces, the solemnity but approachability, I might even say the modernity, of these figures is, well, Greek ... and yet there is no evidence that their sculptors knew anything of the Greek tradition or had seen Greek or Roman sculptures. Theirs was essentially an independent and original art, over a thousand years old. 

Are those crosses that two of them hold? Clearly not; burial items retrieved in the 19th Century show that these were ritual objects predating contact with Christianity ...and yet they were close enough so that when the Longobardians were co-opted and assimilated into the ferment of races that occupied Italy in the 12th Century, and this site became a monastery, they were not obliterated, but incorporated into the iconography, and thus preserved. (It is this habit of the conqueror bigots to destroy the "barbarian" icons that leaves us with so little from the 9th Century.)

In the spirit of recycling, this temple became a chapel; prayer stalls were built in below the ladies (and there remain) and the frescoes on the walls were allowed to gradually chip away.

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The tradition of reusing rather than destroying generated an energy in Cividale that instilled reverence for old things that comes down to us in an interesting way. in the 1870s, at the time the village of Cividale realized its medieval-ness was a precious benefit, one of its town fathers recognized that the bones, mosaics, and trinkets that were being unearthed during the repaving of the town square and the building of then modern structures had historical value, and should be carefully and systematically dug up. At a time when most "archaeology" consisted of digging things up with teams of men and shipping them to the Brutish Museum, or repurposing them and telling convenient fables about them (see Crete) this father of modern archaeology, Paolo Diacono, caused the preservation of treasure in Cividale that are delights from an unknown age.  

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