A Day Trip to Cividale del Friuli
When the Lombards founded their first Italian duchy in the Dark Ages, it was centered on this pretty little city, so the entire region became known as Friuli after a corrupt elision of this Roman colony's original name, Forum Iulii (Caesar had modestly founded it as "Julius' Forum"). It later produced a few Lombard "Kings of Italy" from the 8th to 10th centuries, and until the Middle Ages, it was the seat of the local patriarch, after which its fortunes fell off. These days it's a largely medieval town perched on the lip of an impressive river gorge, where some of the best Lombard-era stone carving in Italy is preserved.
Visitor Information -- The tourist office, Corso Paolino d'Aquileia 10 (tel. 0432-731-398 or 0432-731-461; fax 0432-731-398; www.comune.cividale-del-friuli.ud.it), is open Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm and 3 to 7pm.
A Stroll Through Town -- From the train station, turn left on Viale Libertà to Via C. Alberto, where you can take a right and follow it (it becomes Corso Mazzini) into the heart of town. After Piazza Duomo, the road becomes Corso Paolino d'Aquileia, and then you cross the Ponte del Diavolo over the deep and seriously impressive limestone gorge carved by the Natisone River.
The current Duomo (backtrack from the bridge to the central Piazza Duomo) is largely of the 16th and 17th centuries, though its bare interior does house a fantastic silver altarpiece set with gold-backed enameled scenes from the 12th century. A small series of rooms opens on the right aisle, with detached frescoes and several gorgeously carved stone relief panels, including a cobbled-together 8th-century baptistery, an 11th-century throne for the patriarch, and the altar of the Duke of Ratchis (A.D. 744-49) ★★, duke of the Friuli and king of Italy, featuring gibbon-armed angels surrounding a beardless Christ, with side panels of the Visitation and Adoration of the Magi. The cathedral is open daily 9am to noon and 3 to 6pm (to 7pm Apr-Oct) and is closed Sunday morning.
Around the corner on Piazza Duomo sits the Palazzo dei Provveditori Veneti, designed by Andrea Palladio (but construction began only after his death, in 1581; the building was finished in 1596). It now houses the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (tel. 0432-700-700), whose treasures include ancient bronzes (look for the fragment of a toga-wearing man from the early 1st c. A.D.), a Roman mosaic of Oceanus, and numerous early medieval pieces. Among the latter, standouts include the 6th-century Treasure of Duke Gisulfo (gold accouterments and a gem-studded cross, all found in his sarcophagus), and the Pace of Duke Ursus, an A.D. 800 ivory crucifixion scene surrounded by a silver frame. Admission is 2€, free for children under 18 and seniors over 65. It's open Tuesday to Sunday 8:30am to 7:30pm, Monday 9am to 1:30pm.
Medieval streets behind the Palazzo dei Provveditori Veneti lead under the Romanesque Porta Patriarchale to Piazzetta San Biagio and the entrance to Cividale's top sight, the Tempietto Longobardo (tel. 0432-700-867). The Lombards carved this cliff-side church directly into the limestone in the 8th century, decorating it with saintly high-relief statues and stuccoes. The stalls date to the 14th century. Admission is 4€ for adults, 3€ for seniors over 65 and 1.50€ for students. It's open daily April to September 9:30am to 12:30pm and 3 to 6:30pm; October to March, the closing is pushed up to 5pm.
For kicks, ask the guy at Bar all'Ippogeo, on Corso Paolino d'Aquileia at the corner with Via Monastero (on Mon, when the bar is closed, ask at the tourist office), for the chiave all'Ippogeo Celtico ("key to the Celtic Tomb"), an artificial grotto of uncertain date with a few highly worn carvings at Via Monastero 6 (tel. 0432-701-211). It's free, but relaxing with an espresso or Campari at the bar when you return the key never hurts!
Where to Dine -- For a quick bite or a sampler platter of meats and cheese near the Tempietto Longobardo, pop into the Osteria Bar Al Tempietto, Via Michele della Torre 2 (tel. 0432-731-071; www.altempietto.it).