“Oh walnuts of Carnia, farewell!/My thought is roaming through your branches/Dreaming of the shadows of the time that was!...”
This is an excerpt from the famous 18th century Italian poet Giosué Carducci, who in the poem “Il Comune Rustico” (“The rustic village”) drew this sketch of the region.
The mountainous region of Carnia takes its name from the ancient civilization of the Carni, a population of Celtic origin, and even though there are still discrepancies as to its actual extension, it covers roughly the northwestern section of the Alps of Friuli. In fact, it is through a mixture between the Carni and the Romans that the people and language of Friuli are said to be born.
Historically and geographically, Carnia belongs to the actual region of Friuli; in fact, in Roman times it was known as Carnorum Regio, and – in a reversal of roles – used to give its name to the whole of Friuli. It is almost entirely mountainous, and occupied by the Alpi Carniche (Carnian Alps). To the east, it is boundaried instead by the Canal del Ferro-Val Canale, part of the Alpi Giule (Julian Alps).
During the Middle ages the region enjoyed a high degree of autonomy – which is perhaps one of the reasons why attempts to becoming a new province within the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region (thus separating from Udine) are recurrent, but have proved unsuccessful so far.
As a matter of fact, the area fell under Venetian rule since 1420, even though the Patriarcato di Aquileia (a potent religious authority controlling a vast territory) formally survived until 1751. After that, the region became Austrian between 1814 and 1866, then finally Italian.
Harsh fighting took place in the area during WW1, while during WW2 the Repubblica Partigiana della Carnia was founded, with headquarters in Ampezzo: it was the most extensive Free Republic of its kind in Italy, but it didn’t enjoy an easy – nor long – life, as Fascist and Nazi reprisals quickly forced its premature end.
Carnia is articulated around the main valley of the Tagliamento: a river which crosses the whole of it; minor valleys gravitate on to this one. Undoubtedly, its main centre is Tolmezzo – a pleasant town situated roughly in the middle of the region, which makes it an ideal base from which to explore it.
There are several good reasons for coming to Carnia; one of them is certainly the presence of a compelling nature and the beautiful mountain setting, generally quieter and wilder than Cadore just to the west. Having said that, a small section of the Dolomites (the Dolomiti Friulane, much less frequented than the region's heartland) belongs to Carnia.
Even though, strictly speaking, out of Carnia proper – but just south of the historical border of the region – along the Tagliamento valley one can find also the incredible walled Medieval town of Venzone. This can easily be visited when traveling towards the region from the south, as it lies in a very well connected point not far from the motorway exit, and makes for a wonderful introduction to the area.
In the vicinity there is also the historical town of Gemona del Friuli, whose Duomo is a masterpiece of Romanesque-Gothic art, and not far form another unusual and interesting sight – most likely, an unexpected surprise in this mountainous region: the "Casa delle Farfalle" (Butterfly House) in Bordano.
Other than the Tagliamento there are three other main valleys, known as “Canali” – a word which translates literally as 'channel' in Italian, to stress their narrow and elongated form: the river But forms the Canale di San Pietro; the river Chiarsò forms the Canale d'Incaroio and the river Degano originates the Canale di Gorto. There are also other minor valleys, such as the Valcalda, Lumiei and Pesarina.
Important villages are in these valleys too, such as Ovaro and Comeglians in the Degano valley; Paularo in the Canale d'Incaroio; Zuglio, Arta and Paluzza in the But valley and Sauris in the Lumiei valley. Other noteworthy villages are Pesariis and Forni Avoltri.
As anticipated above, this section of the Alps is known as Alpi Carniche, and its highest peak is Mt. Coglians (2,780 m). The rock types which form Carnia fall mainly into three types: limestone, Dolomite and flint. If you are interested in the geology of the area, a must-see visit is the newly refurbished geological museum in Ampezzo.
In the region there are around 2,000 plant species, 1,000 types of mushrooms and about 50 orchids; fir, spruce, beech and larch are the dominant trees. Up to 400-500 m in altitude oaks and chestnuts are the dominant species; then the so-called “montane” flora takes over. There is not much vegetation after 1,500 m, as the tree limit is at only 1,900 m here (the lowest in the Alpine range), because of the elevated rainfall coupled with the colder continental climatic influence. In spring and early summer there are beautiful Rhododendron and Gentians blossoming.
There are also two parks: the Parco Regionale Dolomiti Friulane – which covers mostly a high mountain environment – and the Parco Intercomunale Colline Carniche, which is situated at lower levels on the foothills around Tolmezzo. All in all, in Carnia there are 28 municipalities.
The vernacular architecture can be ascribed to four main different types. The area of the Forni Savorgnani (Forni di Sopra and Forni di Sotto) displays houses built with the old typical “Blockbau” traditional technique, on a stone base with wooden balconies and external staircases: all superstructures due to the climatic situation of the area (a lot of hay was needed for cattle farming, and it had to be dried; there was also a need to dry corn).
Typical of Sauris is instead the separation between the house and the rustic annex; the house has usually several floors. There is an entrance and a central corridor from which the different rooms (kitchen, storage, cellar) are accessed; a similar disposition is repeated upstairs with the bedrooms; then there is the loft, where the agricultural products were traditionally kept (but not hay, which was destined to the annex).
Stone was the traditional material for the basement, then wood for the main block of the house (worked with the “Blockbau” technique). The roofs were covered in “scandole” (larch wooden tiles); long boards and stones were then used to protect them from the heavy snowfalls that can characterize the area.
In the Canale di Gorto the traditional house is rectangular, built completely in stone without superstructures in wood; it is usually a two- or three-storey building, with an internal staircase, preferably in wood. The two main roof-slopes are very inclined, and in the shorter sides of the house there are usually two smaller pitches. The roof cover is usually in green-glazed tiles of Germanic origin known as “Bieberschwanz”, introduced in the 17th century. As in Sauris, the rustic annex is generally separated from the house.
In Central Carnia the traditional vernacular house is built in stone and clad in wooden balconies with external staircases; these were directly influenced by the 'noble' Venetian architecture. This type is also characterized by a series of ample arches that form big loggias known as “sottoportici”, which have not only a decorative function but were once used as working spaces too.
There are usually two or three loggias on the ground floor that correspond to arcaded loggias upstairs. The “sottoportico” is connected to the first floor by an internal staircase, usually in stone. The house is thus so divided: at the basement are the rooms used as living and working spaces, while upstairs are the bedrooms, and finally there is the “solaio” – the loft – directly under the roof.
In terms of local products, Carnia has always been more important for animal farming rather than agriculture – especially cattle. Traditionally, meats were cured and smoked so to guarantee a better and longer conservation: this is why the production of Speck (smoked ham), to this day, has always been so important – as it would keep for the whole, harsh winter.
In terms of agriculture, only a few selected items could be cultivated with success; mainly potatoes, beans, broadbean and corn. Smoked cheeses and ricotta were other traditional items in the diet of the area.
Polenta was by definition the staple food that would accompany meat or cheese; in winter there would be soups – usually a single dish eaten with some bread or corn flour in it. Traditional were also the “minestra di fagioli” (bean soup) and the “jota” (a thick and rich, creamy soup).
The “Cjarsons” are a type of pasta similar to ravioli, stuffed with local herbs and then sprinkled with melted butter and smoked ricotta; other dishes include pumpkin gnocchi and “frico” – a rich cheese omelette with onion and mushrooms that has almost become the culinary emblem of Carnia.
Pork meat was traditionally considered very precious and a delicacy: usually each family kept a pig, and nothing was thrown away of the animal; also, the time of the killing of the pig was a feast for the whole village (around December-January).
As can be expected, in Carnia there are also a number of industries connected with wood and timber production (papermills, carpentry, loggeries); in some areas wood is also traditionally worked to make masks (as in Sauris, of all places), pieces of furniture or other small items.
All in all, despite the majestic mountains (some of which are composed of Dolomite), and a good network of CAI-marked (Italian Alpine Club) trails, the region of Carnia is not as widely known and frequented as nearby Cadore and the Dolomites' heartland – and this can definitely be a “plus”, if what you’re after is a mountain setting where peace, quiet and a certain degree of wilderness still reign.
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