Holiday of note

January 14, 2000

Sunshine and strudel and beautiful music, rainstorms and vino and plenty of pasta.

These are a few of the “favourite things” that linger after a very different and delightful trip to the north-eastern corner of Italy.

Bordered by Austria and Slovenia, the province of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia is actually closer — in both distance and atmosphere — to Vienna, Prague and Budapest than to Rome, with the mittel-european cloak of the Habsburg Empire still clinging to the elegant towns and villages scattered across this lush region beneath the Alps.

In fact, so lush and Alpine is it, you half expect Julie Andrews to burst across the landscape

This was, after all, a holiday with music, the latest venture from John Whibley and Specialised Travel. John and his wife, Helen, were involved in the classical music business throughout their working lives until switching to travel 10 years ago.

Acting as hosts, rather than leaders, they make the holidays feel more like a movable house-party than an organised tour.

Classical music enthusiasts may have wanted more than three musical events (an opera, an operetta and a chamber concert) in a nine-day holiday, but many of us in the 20-strong group were happy that music complemented, rather than dominated, a fascinating trip into the verdant, vine-covered countryside and the pretty towns where Roman remains rub stonework with medieval basilicas and ancient palazzos.

It seems churlish to dismiss Venice and Verona, where our itinerary began, but apart from the picturesque Venetian islands of Torcello and Burano and the always magical moment when you arrive in Venice via the Venetian lagoon, those two days were characterised by an excess of tourists and importuning handbag salesmen.

For me, the magic began on the third day in the Hotel Felcaro, at Cormons, where the delicious cuisine was surpassed only by the range and quality of the wines from the proprietor’s own vineyard.

This charming hotel, with swimming pool and al fresco dining, is the ideal base for forays into the region and the perfect sanctuary for avoiding a visit to yet another winery or basilica.

The city of Aquileia — even with its 11th-century basilica — however, is not to be missed. Founded in 181 bce, it was the fourth major city of the Roman Empire before the Huns destroyed it in the fifth century.

Being practical rather than preservationist, subsequent inhabitants utilised the bricks and stones to build their houses. But remnants of antiquity remain in the old Roman port and, with charming incongruity, amid modern shops and ice-cream stalls.

The basilica, whose near-perfect mosaic floor was miraculously preserved by a layer of clay until excavated early this century, seemed the most natural setting for an ethereal concert of Baroque music.

I may have imagined it, but the familiar chords of Vivaldi and Bach seemed somehow sweeter and more haunting in this setting, or perhaps it was the joyous playing of the solo violinist, Fulvio Furlanuti, a local prodigy, whose entire extended family gathered to inspire him to heights of virtuosity.

If there was any danger of overdosing on churches and basilicas (a hazard that goes with Italian territory), our on-the-spot guide, Flavio, found the perfect antidote.

A synagogue — which I am tempted to describe as “a jewel of a shul” — provided the highlight of a visit to Gorizia.

This beautiful Ashkenazi house of worship traces its origins to the town’s Jewish ghetto, created in 1699. The turbulent history of the building echoes the fortunes of the once-vibrant community of Gorizia which was originally in Austria but divided between Italy and Slovenia after the Second World War.

Its members were confined to the ghetto by the Austrians and restricted by the Fascist rulers in the 1930s. The illustrious names on the marble plaque bear witness to the ultimate obscenity of the Nazi occupation of 1943.

Torah scrolls and precious holy objects were plundered and the remaining Jews were deported to the camps. Only two Jews returned to Gorizia.

Occasional services are still held. The rabbi from Trieste officiates but takes the necessary precaution of bringing his own minyan.

An influx of Jewish soldiers with the occupying American forces of 1947 offered a brief flowering to this community, and US army chaplain Rabbi Nathan Barak initiated the reopening of the synagogue.

A poignant and well laid-out exhibition in the synagogue hall features the Rosh Hashanah card that the chaplain enjoined his flock to send to their families back home.

Nina Rosenberg, chairman of the Streatham group of the League of Jewish Women and highly knowledgeable about Judaism, was a member of our group, and the non-Jewish visitors — many of whom had never entered a synagogue — were engrossed by her explanations.

I have to confess that, despite the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-century churches, baptistery and basilica of Grado — an island resort since Roman times — my overriding memory of the place is of a hugely convivial al fresco lunch of grilled sardines, salad and beer (for a fiver).

In the end, Grado, Cividale and the impressive walled town of Palmanova, with its huge, splendid town square, provided the hors d’oeuvres to the main course: Trieste.

A scenic drive through the thick foliage and luscious acacia blossoms led first to the Miramare castle, built by Archduke Maximillian, the hapless Habsburg ruler who met a violent death in Mexico before he could take up residence.

It is now a popular setting for wedding photographs and we witnessed a not-so-happy bride trying to lift her gown above the muddy puddles — the sudden, drenching showers are the price for all this lush, scenic beauty.

Trieste is certainly imposing, but I didn’t have much stomach for the cathedral, despite its undoubted splendours. I was diverted by a windowless concrete building nearby. A memorial to the Holocaust and to Italy’s concentration camp, it was the site from where Jews were deported.

At the Teatro Verdi, the exquisite opera house fashioned on Milan’s La Scala, we enjoyed our final musical event on the last evening — a performance of Offenbach’s “Bluebeard.” A sort of upmarket Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, in which all the murdered wives come back to life in the last act, this charming opera buffa provided a suitably entertaining finale to an entirely memorable holiday.

Last updated: 2:50pm, September 10 2008