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Aquileia: Ancient Gem in the Heart of Northern Italy

Updated on September 7, 2017
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Linda enjoys searching for fascinating travel destinations, seeking relaxation and fun, and (of course) eating great food.

Aquileia basillica
Aquileia basillica | Source

The Heart of Italy

If the Puglia region is the heel of Italy, then the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region must certainly be the heart. Fred Plotkin, writing for the New York Times, described the area in this way:

Italy's Secret Garden

By FRED PLOTKIN Published: July 7, 1999

"There is a place, at the very geographic center of Europe, that is home to one of the most refined food and wine cultures in the world.

Hemingway, Joyce, D'Annunzio, Rilke and Pasolini all lived in this place, and yet it is nearly unknown in the United States, and even in much of Europe. It has been occupied by Julius Caesar (for whom it was named), the Celts, Attila the Hun, the Ottomans, Napoleon (who brought French grapes), the Hapsburgs, Yugoslavia and, ultimately, by Italy. It suffered some of the heaviest damage in Europe during two world wars. Much of it was leveled in 1976 by earthquakes. Yet, its people rise again and again, roll up their sleeves, plant food and vines, and plan for a better life.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia is the tiny region on the far northeast fringe of Italy where Europe's three principal cultures -- Latin, Slavic and Germanic -- converge."

A Hidden Gem

Friuli is the great undiscovered region of Italy. When dreaming of travel to Italy, I would wager that most people thing of:

  • Liguria, home to some of the most beautiful coastline in Europe with resorts in Portofino and San Remo and the smaller picturesque villages of the Cinque Terre;
  • Rome-Lazio with the Vatican and Rome (of course); and
  • Toscana (Tuscany) which boasts the great artistic cities of Florence and Siena.

But Friuli has all of these enticements and more--beautiful beaches on the Adriatic, stunning undiscovered alps in Carnia, idyllic scenery in the winegrowing district known as Collio, vibrant and handsome cities such as Udine and mysterious Trieste, historical centers such as Aquileia and Cividale del Friuli.

Regions of Italy--Friuli-Venezia Giulia is in the upper right-hand corner
Regions of Italy--Friuli-Venezia Giulia is in the upper right-hand corner

Location, Location, Location

When discussing real estate, those are the three most important things to take into consideration. That was certainly the case in 181 B.C.

Within the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region is Aquileia. Today Aquileia is a small (population of 3,000) rather pedestrian little town, but a little over 2,000 years ago it was a principal Roman city with perhaps as many as 200,000 residents. Aquileia was founded in 181 B.C. as a Latin colony on the Natisone River, south of the Julian Alps. Location made it a strategic base for Roman power in the conquest of the Danube and as a defense of the eastern borders against Gallic and Istrian barbarians. And it was Aquileia's location that expanded trade between alpine countries and the eastern Mediterranean. Aquileia grew to be the fourth largest city in Roman Italy and ninth largest city in the entire Roman Empire.

"Aquileia omnium sub occidente urbium maxima" ("Aquileia, the greatest of all the towns in the West") -- Justinian, Roman Emperor 527 to 565 A.D.

However, All Good Things Must Come to an End

After the Edict of Milan in 313 (a proclamation stating that Christians would be tolerated within the Roman Empire), Aquileia also became an important center of early Christianity. The first basilica was built in the 3rd century A.D.

However, as the Roman Empire began to crumble, Aquileia was besieged many times. Attila the Hun burned it in 452 A.D. and the basilica was destroyed at that time. The Lombards struck 100 years later which prompted the bishop and the remaining population to pack bags and move to the lagoon island town of Grado a few miles away.

basilica [buh-sil-i-kuh, -zil-]

Noun--an early Christian or medieval church of the type built especially in Italy, characterized by a plan including a nave, two or four side aisles, a semicircular apse, a narthex, and often other features, as a short transept, a number of small semicircular apses terminating the aisles, or anatrium. The interior is characterized by strong horizontality, with little or no attempt at rhythmic accents. All spaces are usually covered with timber roofs or ceilings except for the apse or apses, which are vaulted.

But Not All Was Lost

Despite all of these trials, the main basilica was rebuilt on the ruins in 1031. The structure that exists today contains pieces from the 11th thru 17th centuries, and intact mosaics dating from the 4th century.


What Can You See in Aquileia Today?

If you enjoy history, you will be enthralled with Aquileia. However, even if history has never been of interest to you, Aquileia might change your mind. The archaeological remains of Aquileia give testament to one of the largest and most prosperous political and administrative cities of the Early Roman Empire and provide the most complete example of an early Roman city. Place it on your bucket list.

Aquileia is an extremely important archaeological treasure and that is why it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS).

Excavations by WHS have revealed an amazing wealth of artifacts--the remains of the Roman forum and river port, a large mausoleum and the basilica.

THE BASILICA—The Basilica of Aquileia is one of the most important edifices of Christianity. This flat-roofed structure was erected by Patriarch Poppo in 1031 over the site of the earlier 4th century church. It was rebuilt about 1379 by Patriarch Marquad and played a monumental role in the spread of Christianity in central Europe in the early Middle Ages.

Many of the the original 4th century Christian mosaics have been uncovered, and work continues on restoration of the entire floor. Glass walkways allow visitors to walk over the mosaics without damaging them. Mosaic images feature early Christian iconography.

It seems ironic to me that the period of history (beginning in 476 A.D.) referred to as the “Dark Ages” is actually the time in which the Christian mosaics of Aquileia were created. They have been carefully and lovingly excavated and restored by the UNESCO World Heritage Center

Mosaics in the basilica of Aquileia
Mosaics in the basilica of Aquileia | Source


The Museo Archeologico Nazionale is a short distance south of the Basilica. Within its three floors are a remarkable collection of Roman-age glassware, amber, engraved stones, statues, clothing, and ancient coins.

One can also stroll in the adjoining garden and find on display architectural materials, statues, funerary, and the remains of a Roman boat.

remains of Roman boat
remains of Roman boat


The mosaics of the Basilica are breathtaking; the vastness of the collections in the museum is impressive. The ruins of this once prosperous city--sobering.

Fields now cover the site of once-busy urban streets. Weathered stones and marble columns delineate the original Roman forum. There are remnants of public baths, private houses, warehouses, and a burial ground. One can even see chariot tracks from centuries ago.

But it is the Roman river port that is the most stunning. Two-thousand years ago goods from ships were uploaded at Grado and then transferred to smaller vessels to be brought up the River Natisone to this spot. Close your eyes and imagine the bustle that must have filled this area long ago.

The ruined port is now silent.

Roman forum
Roman forum
site of Roman warehouse
site of Roman warehouse
site of former river port
site of former river port

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Although it is off Italy's main tourist routes, Aquileia is an important archaeological site with UNESCO World Heritage status. A visit to Aquileia can be a day trip from Venice, Trieste, or other nearby towns. It is only a few miles from the Adriatic coast.

How to Get There:

By Plane—The most direct way to get to Aquileia is to fly to theTrieste airport (Aeroporto Friuli-Venezia Giulia). From the airport use Ronchi dei Legionare bus service to Aquileia.Web

By Car— Take the A4 Venice-Trieste motorway or A23 Tarvisio-Udine motorway.
Exit at Palmanova (tollbooth), 17 km from Aquileia. Take the SS352 and follow the directions to Aquileia

By Train-- If you are traveling from Venice (or Trieste, in the opposite direction), take the train running between the two cities and stop in Cervignano. From Venice, it is about 90 minutes, and from Trieste, about 30 minutes.

Once you get off the train, you will have to wait outside the train station for the bus going to Grado. Note that the buses maintain a precise schedule--in other words they leave promptly. The bus ride takes about 10 minutes. If you are not arriving in the morning, don't forget that buses stop running between Cervignano and Grado between noon and 2 PM. A taxi ride will be expensive. Also note that if you are staying just for a day trip, when leaving Aquileia, the last bus to Cervignano leaves around 8 or 9 PM. Web

© 2015 Linda Lum


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    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Buildreps - So glad to "meet" someone who has also been to Aquileia.

    • Buildreps profile image


      4 years ago from Europe

      Very nice Hub. It's indeed a breathtaking area, with a long history. Been there a few times. Voted up!

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Rachel - I doubt that my husband and I will ever go to Europe again; I am glad that we went when we had the opportunity. I am glad that you enjoyed it. Thank you for your support. Blessings on your day.

    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 

      4 years ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      Thank you for all the information about Italy and the wonderful pictures. My husband and I don't travel so I can only see the world through the pictures of others. I voted up.

      Blessings to you.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Hello Flourish - So happy to hear from you. I loved Aquileia for so many reasons--the weather was perfect, the scenery was almost beyond words, the artifacts (well, you know what my feelings are about those), I was with my sister (who I had not seen for 5 years!).....and then there was the food. Aquileia was the first place that I tasted real, authentic tiramisu. Total bliss on a spoon.

      Thank you for stopping by and for your (always present) encouragement and support.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      4 years ago from USA

      Much enjoyed and oh how I would like to see this history for myself, your history lesson was superb. Voted up and more.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Thank you Bill. I was really taken by the ruins, wondering what life was like 200 years before the birth of Christ. It is a haunting place.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Loved the history lesson. It's always interesting to me, the factors that play into a major city becoming a minor village....we do not live in a vacuum. Our success, and failure, depends, a great deal, on outside influences. So it was with Aquileia. Fun article for this old history teacher to read. Thanks, Linda.


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