Before Venice, there was Aquileia!
Aquileia, a short drive from Venice!
Winter 2017 is turning out to be one of the coldest winters I can remember since coming back to live in Venice, a good 18 years now.
So when you finally have a day in January full of sunshine (kind of) and where the temperature for the day is above 0 degrees Celsius, you grab the opportunity to go on a day trip.
Marisa Convento, my dear friend from Venetian Dreams and the Queen of Beads in Venice, suggested we took a day out to Aquileia, to visit a small but interesting exhibition on Perle Veneziane (Venetian Beads) at the Archeological Museum.
Together with another dear friend, we set off from Venice, on a cold but sunny Saturday January morning, totally determined to have a real tourist like day trip!
Aquileia in the Region of Friuli Venezia Giulia
After about an hour and half drive on the motorway A4 heading towards Trieste – we took it leisurely, since we were laughing so hard in the car we nearly had to stop to wipe off the tears from our eyes – we got to Aquileia, a small little provincial town on the Adriatic coast, in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia.
After making our way, easily, through the pretty and free of traffic roads of Friuli, we arrived at our destination.
We easily found a spot to park our car – parking is definitely not a problem here, there are many free large car parks – and made our way to the local tourist office. We were determined to get the best out of our visit to Aquileia, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Where to get information about Aquileia
The young lady at the Information Office was extremely polite and, as we realized during our conversation, very well prepared too.
She suggested we follow a set itinerary, explained where we should start, provided us with a very easy to read map and a cheap to rent audio-guide. She handed us over a lot of brochures and pamphlets not only about Aquileia, but also about the surrounding area in Friuli. And to top it all, she gave us great suggestions on where to get a good coffee and cakes, to start us off for the morning!
As we were leaving, we noticed a lot of bicycles parked on the side and she told us we could rent them for free, upon supplying a valid identity document. We looked at each other and decided we would come back in the summer and take a bike ride!!!
All in all, I think this is the best Italian Tourist Office I have ever encountered! Professional friendly staff, truly well organized and extremely easy to find!
We all gave it 10 out of 10!
Tourist Office – Infopoint Aquileia
Via Giulia Augusta – Bus Terminal
Breakfast in Aquileia
We set off for the Coffee Shop/Bakery/Patisserie, Panetteria Sandrigo, the same one the young girl at the tourist office suggested we pay a visit to and upon entering our jaws dropped: a huge counter packed with typical Italian cream pastries, pizzas, focaccias, packed with local residents buying their weekend bread.
Via Giulia Augusta, 32,
After a coffee, some pizza and a cream frittella (it is Carnival time after all) we were ready to start our discovery of Aquileia!
Aquileia, a frontier city!
Aquileia, UNESCO World Heritage site, is located in the picturesque lagoon area in the East Northern Adriatic coast. It is situated a few kilometers from the beautiful seaside resort of Grado and about 50 kilometers from Trieste.
It is one of the most important archeological sites in Northern Italy and it was elected UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998.
The city of Aquileia was founded as a Roman military base in 181 B.C.
It was founded near the river Natisa, as a colony of Latin law, to block the road to the neighboring barbarians, Carsi and Histri, who were threatening the eastern borders of Italy.
At first it was used to expand into Italy and, subsequently, towards Istria and Dalmatia. Julius Caesar used it for his troops during the Gallic campaigns.
Later, Aquileia became an important road junction towards Gaul, starting from the West (via Postumia, Annia), to and from the East (via Gemina) and also to the Alps.
It was the main road for gold and amber, as well as for oil and wine.
Thanks to this good road network and an impressive river port, in time, it became more and more important as a trading center and for the development of very fine crafts like glass making, gems and amber.
The city reached its peak under the rule of Caesar Augustus (27 BC – 14 A.D.), becoming the capital of the X Regio “Venetia et Histria”, speeding up the process that would make Aquileia one of the most important metropolis of the Roman Empire.
Think that at one stage Aquileia counted over 100,000 inhabitants!
During the subsequent centuries, a series of internal wars, external reprisals and rapid incursions threatened the city, which was also involved in the wider crisis of the Roman Empire.
Aquileia slowly began to gain a new look, becoming, with the arrival of Christianity, a missionary influence center as well as an ecclesiastic organization.
The city, a crossroad of prehistoric ways, colonized by the Romans, hub of Roman military campaigns and barbarian invasions, fundamental paleo-Christian patriarchy, is one of the most fascinating and interesting places to visit in Europe.
The most important things to visit are:
The Great Mausoleum
The Great Decumanus known as Aratria Galla
The Roman Forum
The Roman River Port
The Heroes Field (the cemetery dedicated to the soldiers of WWI)
The Bell Tower
The Complex of the Patriarchal Basilica
The Archeological Museum
With the help of our very interactive and interesting audio-guide, we started our itinerary, following the stages indicated in our little map.
1 – The Great Mausoleum
Located on the other side of the road from the Tourist office, the funerary mausoleum was reconstructed, not exactly like the original, inside the ancient city, in 1956, with funding by the Candia family.
The Mausoleum was rebuilt with fragments found in the town of Roncolon, along the Roman road, leading to Tergeste (Trieste).
It consists of an enclosure, protected by two lions, and a high base decorated with reliefs, topped with a circular structure in the shape of a small temple, in which there is the statue of the deceased, without a head, but dressed in togas.
Although strongly rebuilt with modern materials, the mausoleum is the example of a great funerary monument of Augustan age that belonged to an eminent figure of Aquileia.
On the same side of the road of the Mausoleum, just a few meters in the direction of the Roman Forum, we stopped to observe The Great Decumanus known as Aratria Galla.
2- The Great Decumanus known as Aratria Galla
The Romans called Cardo, meaning hinge, the road which crossed the Roman camps and towns from north to south (in Latin Cardo means pole, cardinal point).
The Cardo intersected the Decumanus, a road that ran through the camp or the city from east to west.
The Cardo and the Decumanus divided the camp into four parts called quarters: this word has assumed later the significance of self-core within an urban area.
This Decumanus was a very important way, because, from the center of Aquileia, it went straight to the port.
It was an essential link for the merchants, who had their “tabernae” in the forum and used the port to receive the goods arriving by sea.
The name of this street comes from the name of a wealthy woman who lived in Aquileia during the Roman era. Her name was Aratria Galla and, before dying, she ordered in her will that a portion of her possessions had to be destined to the paving of the main Decumanus.
The road was then paved in her honor and became known as ” The Great Decumanus known as Aratria Galla”.
We then made our way to the beautiful Roman Forum, again only a few steps away.
3 – The Roman Forum
The forum is the first Roman monument that visitors can observe when arriving in Aquileia.
The actual forum is located in an area that, from the beginning, was made up of a natural recessing: this is why the Romans turned it into a pedestrian area.
In the forum, exactly at one third of its length, to the south, the Decumanus, following in the West the route of the canal Amphora, joined ideally the Major Cardine, which, even today, in some way, is recalled by the main road which runs through the city, called Via Giulia Augusta.
The Forum was the noblest place of the Roman city, the heart of civil and religious life.
Here The Romans held campaign rallies, trials, ceremonies, they exhibited laws and decrees and this was the meeting place for entrepreneurs and merchants.
The Basilica of the Forum stood to the south and there were also various commercial shops, the “macellum” to the north, various temples, all probably located in the west. On the sides of the colonnades there were the “tabernae”, with tiled floors and mosaic panels.
The columns, which were topped with composite capitals, supported an attic, adorned with parapets with busts of Jupiter, Ammon and Medusa, symbols of the eastern and western borders of the Empire.
During the Middle Ages, with the decline of the city, the forum, invaded by the waters, become a swamp.
Together with this, there was a continuous removal of stone materials that were used for buildings in the area, leading to the total dismantling of the ancient Roman constructions.
Therefore eventually the forum completely disappeared and it was only in the 1930s that an Italian archaeologist spotted its exact location, after a chance discovery.
Since then, a series of archaeological excavations have brought to life a large collection of remains, witnesses to the importance of Aquileia during the Roman Empire.
After enjoying a nice long stop here, taking lots of pictures and fantasizing about living during the Roman times, we walked all the way to the Roman River Port, a 5 minutes walk from the Forum.
4 -The Roman River Port
The Aquileia Roman River Port is one of the best-preserved examples of port structures of the Roman world.
It is the witness to the existence, in Roman times, of a flow of commercial ships arriving in the area from the Adriatic Sea.
We visited the remains of the River Port walking along a picturesque tree-lined pedestrian boulevard called “Via Sacra”.
The main access is from via Gemina and it was created in 1934, after the excavation and enhancement of the site. The street follows the course of the ancient river.
Aquileia was a very important port: during the Roman times, the Natisone river and the river Torre flowed into the Natissa river, turning it into a river of a certain scale, with a bed of 48 meters.
The port was built with cutting-edge engineering criteria, which included a double level of docks, to overcome the tidal motions and different cargo ships.
The port, that we now can see, dates back to the mid-first century. AD, that is during the empire of Claudius – but the oldest surviving part of the pavement, next to the central warehouse walls, dates back to an earlier era.
It was rebuilt several times in later times, as we can see from the flow structures which were excavated in the 20th century.
Three little streets linked the port to the city center, crossing many gaps in the walls and connecting to the Decumanus that led to the forum: the northern and central streets rose to an angle so as to limit the rise of water during floods.
There were also three warehouses, which stood against the walls: to access the stores, people used the paved ramps perpendicular to the little streets.
On the opposite bank stood a suburban neighborhood, inhabited by people who worked or had something to do with the port (sailors, officers, etc.).
The entire structure was made from the local Istrian stone, resistant to corrosion by water. For this reason, since 1934, it was possible to bring to light much of the ancient complex, allowing the visibility of the port and its formation.
Along the tree-lined avenue, there are also columns and stones which were found during the excavations.
We eventually reached the end of our long but pleasant walk and we found ourselves at the back of the Campo Degli Eroi, Heroes Field.
5- The Heroes Field
(the cemetery dedicated to the soldiers of WWI)
Il Campo degli Eroi of Aquileia is a very important historic site because, unlike other cemeteries, shrines and ossuaries, it is the only one to have retained its original form since the burials in 1915.
From here, in 1921, the remains of the Unknown Soldier left for the Altare Della Patria in Rome.
The order of the graves is the work of Don Celso Costantini, priest of Aquileia in those years, who made sure to give a decent burial to the soldiers.
Wandering through this silent and simple cemetery, we felt very humble and grateful to these men who gave their life, so we could have a better future. And we felt a bit ashamed for, sometimes, wasting this precious gift!
We quickly found ourselves at the base of the imposing bell tower.
6- The Bell Tower
With its seventy-three meters of height, the bell tower of the Basilica of Aquileia stands out on the massive plains of Friuli.
Patriarch Poppone ordered its construction probably coinciding with the building of the basilica or soon after, however, for sure, before his death in 1042.
The people of Aquileia used the materials from the quarry of the old Roman sites to build the bell tower.
The bell tower offers, from its belfry, which is accessible by internal stairs, a beautiful landscape that stretches from the Alpine foothills to the lagoon.
On this occasion we did not have time to go all the way up and admire the beautiful panorama, but it will be a must on our next visit!
Next to the Campanile, the astounding Basilica Patriarcale of Aquileia stands, grand and magnificent.
7- The Complex of the Patriarchal Basilica
Among the treasures of Aquileia, the Patriarchal Basilica, dating from about the year 1000, represents, with its magnificent mosaics of the fourth century, an unparalleled example of religious architecture.
The Patriarchal Basilica and the Baptistery arise slightly off-center relative to the center of Aquileia.
The Basilica was completed in 1031, by order of the Patriarch Poppone. The Basilica is the result of the radical restoration of a religious complex dating from the fourth century. A.D., which was damaged by the barbarian invasions and various earthquakes.
Of this original complex today we can still admire the Paleo-Christian Rooms, built by the order of Bishop Teodoro and the stunning large mosaic floor.
As you enter the Basilica your breath is sharply taken away by the height of the ceiling and the light shining through! And then your eyes are immediately drawn to the floor: this incredible mosaic floor is the largest and best- preserved early Christian mosaic example of the Western world – a good 760 m²!
The Basilica, dedicated to the Virgin and the Saints Ermacora and Fortunato (the same saints of San Marcuola church in Venice), has an architectural history which finds its roots in the years immediately after the Edict of Milan, which put an end to religious persecution, giving the Christian community the opportunity to freely build their first place of worship.
In later centuries, after the destruction of this first church, the Aquileia people rebuilt the church four times, overlapping the new buildings to the earlier remains.
The current Basilica is in Romanesque-Gothic style.
The interior, majestic and solemn, is permeated by an intense spirituality. The floor consists of a beautiful polychrome mosaic of the fourth century, unearthed by archaeologists in the years 1909-12. The elegant wooden ceiling is like the hull of a ship and goes back to the fifteenth century.
Therefore, over a thousand years of historical and artistic events are enclosed between the floor and the ceiling.
The visit of the Basilica takes place walking over a transparent walkway which brings you over the mosaics, giving you the opportunity to have a close-up view of this wonderful works of art.
The grand mosaic consists of ten carpets, each apportioned according to a main theme and divided by bands of botanical motifs. In ancient times, man expressed himself through symbols or allegories, which sometimes are difficult to decipher. The mosaics were used to educate the new adepts, since most of the people could not read or write.
Some of the mosaics are of Gnostic origin, the first philosophical and theological system formed within Christianity, while others were created later.
In the ten carpets we could identify several leitmotifs, such as the large fishing scene, which extends both in the nave to the presbytery and in the right side. Here, we were able to recognize the Old Testament story of the prophet Jonah, swallowed by a sea monster, rejected by it and later resting under the calabash tree.
A recurring symbol in the mosaics is the Solomon’s knot. It symbolizes the deep union of man with the sphere of the divine. The Solomon’s knot consists of two closed loops, which are doubly interlinked in an interlaced manner.
This symbol is everywhere you look on the floors of the basilica.
We then made our way to the Frescos Crypt, where we admired nineteen scenes depicting the origins of Christianity in Aquileia. According to the legend and tradition, St. Peter sent Saint Mark to evangelize Aquileia, the capital of the Tenth Augustan Region, the Venetia et Histria. Once there, Saint Mark proclaimed Saint Ermarcora as the first bishop of Aquileia.
San Fortunato, a disciple of Saint Ermacora, was martyred in 70 A.D. with Saint Ermacora in Aquileia.
After the crypt, we carried on admiring the rest of the Basilica, with its Apse, the moving statue of the Christ in the Trench, the Holy Tomb, The Crypt of the Excavation, which unfortunately was closed for works.
By now our tummies were rumbling very noisily, so we decided it was time to take a well-deserved break.
Luckily enough just outside the Basilica there is a very nice, elegant but not expensive Patisserie/Bar called Pasticceria Mosaico.
We opted for a nice hot sandwich, prepared with their own bread, the local Prosciutto and various sauces. Quite happy that we had burnt plenty of calories during our walk, we indulged also in three of their inviting cakes! A delicious chocolate and ricotta cake, a chocolate fudge cake and a hot apple strudel. All accompanied by a steaming fragrant white tea!
Well, it was all for the sake of research, you know!!!
This lovely coffee shop produces also a large range of gluten-free cookies and savory crackers, as well as pralines and chocolates. And they sell all of their products online!
Anyway, after this well deserved break, we made our way to our final stop: the Archeological Museum and the exhibition of Venetian Beads.
8- National Archaeological Museum
The National Archaeological Museum of Aquileia is one of the most important archaeological museums in Northern Italy. It is located in Villa Cassis Faraone, and is spread over 3 floors with 12 rooms.
The museum hosts only Roman remains which were unearthed in Aquileia, among which statues, ornaments and various items of furniture, with a particular large collection of gems, cameos, amber and coins.
The museum holds various temporary exhibitions during the year and the original reason why we decided to go to Aquileia was to see the exhibition on Venetian Beads.
We started from the top floor, where the exhibition was held, so we could make our way down.
Marisa was more than happy to talk to us about the history of the Venetian beads, the love of her life (after her husband of course). She talked us through the process of creating a glass bead, the history and importance of Venetian beads in the world and she explained what is the difference between an Impiraressa and a Perlera.
By the way, the exhibition is now ended, but you can discover all about Venetian beads by booking a Bead Experience with Marisa and Italian Stories.
We then visited the various rooms of the museum and admired some amazing cameos, more than 2000 years old, a collection of beautiful Roman jewels and much more.
And the layout of the museum is very easy to navigate, very well lit and not overcrowded with artifacts.
A small but quite well organized museum.
And with this, our day in Aquileia ended.
We purposely travelled to Aquileia totally unprepared because we wanted to arrive with no expectations, to avoid disappointment, as, unfortunately, it happens many times in Italy lately.
Maybe, subconsciously, we wanted to test the tourist offer, to compare it to Venice, to see if the problems in the tourist costumer care service is are only happening in Venice.
I must admit I feel like giving the city of Aquileia and the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia 10 out of 10 in costumer service, usability of services, attention to details and the use of resources. All of the staff we encountered was friendly and well prepared, from the tourist office, to the Basilica and also the museum.
We did not go around to try the local food in restaurants or the local hotels, but I have a feeling they won’t disappoint the tourist either.
And we made ourselves a promise: We will be back!