From the sea to the mountains, the wonderful landscapes of the region Fruili Venezia Giulia in northeast Italy has so much to offer the travelling golfer including extra inches to your waistline! Alison Root reports
What springs to mind when you think of Italy? Is it the country’s famous cities, shoes, pasta, wine, or even Pavarotti? I suspect that golf doesn’t feature in your list of top five, but Italy does have golf courses to shout about and with the help of the Italian Golf Federation and the Ministry of Tourism, Italy Golf & More is a project featuring eleven Italian regions, established to let the world’s golfers know what they are missing. Fruili Venezia Giulia in northeast Italy, bordering Austria, Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea, is the leading partner region of the Italy Golf & More project and was the main focus of this trip.
From Venice Airport, we headed some 75 miles to Udine, an unmistakably Italian town with squares and ancient architectural buildings, and enough shops, bars and restaurants to keep you entertained.
We weren’t the only golfers in town as after an absence of six years, the European Senior Tour had returned to Italy at Udine Golf Club. Sadly rain put paid to me partnering with former British Ryder Cup star Barry Lane in the pro-am, and it was a real shame to miss an opportunity to play this hillside course that’s renowned for its unique panoramas. However, the grass was more dampened than our spirits as we enjoyed a longer than anticipated lunch in the clubhouse restaurant Villaverde, choosing from a variety of pasta dishes, fish, and even donkey stew. This was only the beginning of our culinary journey through the region, but a segment of what ‘& More’ stands for, soon became apparent.
Overlooking Udine Golf Club is the Villaverde Hotel & Resort that promotes itself as a ‘machine for people’s wellbeing’. The facilities in this ecofriendly hotel are first class and the concept is unique, if a little bizarre. It’s not often you’re told that you can follow 18 holes with a dental, optical or even a gynaecological appointment! It was with relief the following day that usual weather conditions in mid-October had resumed, so under a bright sky andwearing only a couple of light layers, we set off to Castello di Spessa Golf & Country Club.
This course is situated in the glorious surroundings of the Spessa Castle, which dates back to the 13th century, amongst the famous Collio vineyards. It’s very narrow and certainly proves very intimidating from the tee, especially the first few holes. The front nine weaves its way through the vineyards and combined with elevation changes, it’s the most interesting half. The course offers some splendid views, but one of the best is from the driving range across to the castle.
Needless to say, I simply admired the view! At the foot of the castle, in what used to be farmers’ cottages, is the restaurant Tavernetta al Castello and what a treat it is, as the quality and presentation of food served in this traditional rustic-style country villa complete with an open fire, is superb, and with on-site accommodation, it’s an ideal venue to celebrate a special occasion.
The Castello di Spessa experience doesn’t end there, as it’s also possible to take a tour of the castle’s wine cellar followed by a wine tasting. After another sumptuous lunch, we were keen to have a lie down, but instead we headed to the nearby medieval town, Gorizia, meaning ‘little hill’ from the Slovene word ‘gorica’.
The calm atmosphere of present-day Gorizia belies its stormy past with an oft-shifting border zone throughout much of its history. There’s now an endearing eclectic ambience radiating from the maze of streets that open out to piazzas with cafes, bars and restaurants, however, it’s the 11th century castle that is the town’s main attraction. It was well worth walking around the castle walls, not only to burn off a few calories, but to appreciate the stunning views over the town with the Alps as a backdrop.
After spending two pleasant evenings in Udine, staying at the centrally located Astoria Hotel, we journeyed south to the highly rated Grado Golf Club. The lagoon that runs adjacent to the course is not the only stretch of water you’ll come across during a visit to this extremely welcoming golf club that has a stylish clubhouse and terrace, and even a separate bar for dogs. There are copious water hazards - I lost two balls on the 1st hole, but I was not to be outdone and continued to thoroughly enjoy this course and its abundance of wildlife. Special mention must go to my match play partner, Dario Scotto, the regional representative of the Italian Golf Federation, as although we lost on the 18th, a 124 metre par-3 to an island green, shouts of “bella, bella” and “bellisimo” from this charismatic gentleman throughout the round, added to what was already a challenging but fun golf experience.
Across the other side of the lagoon is Tarbusino, an enchanting restaurant overlooking the water with seating inside and out. Yet another five-course gastronomic extravaganza followed, featuring specialty dishes such as coffee flavoured polenta, sliced duck breast with pomegranate sauce, and a dessert that was my favourite, plum-stuffed dumplings.
An hour’s drive from Grado is the region’s capital Trieste, the seaport city that’s situated towards the end of a narrow strip of Italian territory, lying between the Adriatic and Slovenia.
Trieste’s main square is magnificent; it’s one of the biggest in Europe that faces the sea and is fronted with the city’s most impressive buildings including the City Hall and the Governor’s Palace. The ornate Grand Duchi Hotel has sat on the corner of the square since 1873 so you cannot beat its location. With classic decor and an old-world charm, it was easy to relax in these surroundings.
Trieste is also the place where Dublin-born novelist James Joyce spent many creative years and a bridge over the canal is graced by a bronze statue of the Irishman. With a remarkable wealth of culture, there’s plenty of opportunity for camera-happy visitors, and if only there had been more time to take advantage of the great shopping. It was a unanimous decision that we’d all like to return to this vibrant city, if only to pay another visit to family-owned seafood restaurant Al Bagatto.
The region has seven golf courses, but time only allowed us to play one more round at Lignano Golf Club. Just a short walk from the sea, the course is situated between the Tagliamento estuary and the Marano lagoon (watch out for the mozzies).
This course is a proper test of golf and with extensive rough and large greens defended by water hazards; it’s a struggle if you don’t reach the landing area. Italian female golfers must be made of stern stuff as length is key on several holes including the par 3s, and much to my annoyance as a 12-handicapper, a driver came out of my bag on two occasions.
For those wishing to base a holiday around this popular summer resort, the Golf Inn has 26 rooms overlooking the golf course along with a wellness centre, and staff couldn’t be more accommodating. And so, before heading back to the airport, our last meal was at Da Boschet seafood restaurant. It didn’t look that much from the outside, just a few steps from the church in the ancient village of Latisana, but it just shows how appearances can be deceiving. Inside was larger and more modern than anticipated and full of locals enjoying their Sunday lunch. It was a real fish feast including squid salami, which for me was a taste of something new.
Without sounding sexist, women especially will love golfing in Italy because not only are there a variety of affordable courses, but also beautiful countryside, fabulous food and wine, and many interesting things to see and do. It’s not all about golf, as after all, you are on holiday!
For further information visit: www.promoturismo.fvg.it
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