What if you could take the interesting old parts of Rome and stick them under a sleepy little village so just some tantalizing bits poked from the ground like the edges of golden coins? What if you could see all this without vans packed with dry sandwiches parked on the streets or snot-nosed kids poking you in the groin with a piece of cardboard scribbled upon with gibberish so your wallet can go missing while your brain furiously tries to interpret the odd hieroglyphics as you stand firm and onlookers snigger?
Welcome to Aquileia. Even the name sounds like paradise on an English muffin, doesn’t it? Aquileia was once a major city of over 100,000 people waiting for the barbarians to pour across the borders. It sat pretty along the Natiso river in Friuli. It even has the symbol of Rome right in front of the Basilica’s bell tower.
And not only that, but those barbarians I was talking about? None other than Attila the Hun came to lay waste to all manner of things late in his life. When—while you’re writing about Italy—do you have cause to mention Attila the Hun? You know Aquileia has to be special, eh?
Ok, but it’s even better than that. You hardly have to pay for anything besides lunch. Below, for example, you see the ruins of the forum, which you really can view from your car as you whizz by but you can also stop and walk around and take pictures.
When you’ve seen the river port area and burial ground for the rich and all the other stuff you can walk over to the Paleochristian Museum and see the interior of a church that changed quite a lot over time, especially after Attila did his bit.
You’ll see the interior of an early Christian basilica built at the end of the 4th century outside the city walls (“Attila, try us, we’re easy!”). You can get above to see how it’s all laid out and how it changed after the Huns got done with it. You also see a lot of stuff from the fourth through tenth century found in the necropolises of Aquilea, like the etching below:
The mosaics, like all of them in this corner of Friuli, as spectacular, although these are not the best of the territory due to all the destruction and the two rows of columns that were laid atop them in later years.
The museum is only open Thursday from 8:30am to 1:45pm. It’s free.
And then there’s the Basilica. Here’s where the really good mosaics are. Again, it’s free to go in, but the add-ons will have you getting your wallet out repeatedly.
If that looks like an absolutely monumental floor, well, it is. In fact, it’s “the largest of all the Western Christian world.”
It was discovered in 1909 by the Austrians, who after various surveys, removed the floor popponiano.
It is divided into ten carpets, figures with symbolic biblical subjects, each scene vividly illustrates fantasy and truth of faith. Of significant importance are: the struggle between the rooster and the tortoise, the four seasons, the portraits of donors and benefactors, the Victoria, the largest marine scene with within the biblical story of Jonah, the Good Shepherd and different animals. ~ The basilica
The first Christian building in Aquileia was constructed in 313 AD by Bishop Teodoro, so that’s what this now mostly Romanesque church was built upon.
You’ll want to head to the frescoed crypts, which will cost you. But you’re on vacation, so just do it. There are also more mosaics to be seen.
How to Visit Aquileia
The tourist information office is right on the main road through Aquileia. Stop there and pick up a map. It describes a walk that takes you to all the high spots and ends up at the Basilica. At the end you can visit the Archaeological museum which is also on the main road.
There are numerous places to eat in Aquileia. We ate at the Hotel Patriarchi on the main drag across from the Archaeological Museum. The cheese crackers in the bread basket will knock you out. Try Cjarsons de None, ravioli stuffed with seasonal stuff, in this case potato and spinach, with smoked ricotta salata grated on top with a butter sauce. Yummy cucina povera Friuliano.
We stayed in Grado, which is a resort city on the lagoon directly south of Aquileia. so there are many restaurants and wine bars as well as an interesting little medieval center. Check Grado Hotels.