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Travel - Discovering Friuli-Venezia Giulia: the history (3)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- This feature is part of the "Discovering Friuli-Venezia Giulia" series. These stories highlight the history and culture of the region surrounding Aviano Air Base.

Ladies and gentlemen, the day has come to meet the great Napoleon Bonaparte. So let's turn our clocks back March 1797: as the imperial Austrian-Hungarian army is retreating toward the Tagliamento river, the "Grande Armée," of 40,000 soldiers led by a young Gen. Bonaparte infiltrates Friuli. The two armies will fight each other on the ford near Valvasone on March 16, 1797. The same night Napoleon and his soldiers will celebrate the victory and spend the night in the Valvasone Castle.

Over the course of the next few days the French will defeat the Austrians and conquer the whole region. The first Italian campaign of revolutionary France is a success.

Between August and October of the same year, Napoleon will be at the General Headquarters of the French Troops, Villa Manin in Passariano. Today, more than 200 years later, we can still see the room and the small bed where he slept. Also you might want to take a closer look at Casa Flangini-Biglia in Sacile and Palazzo Cattaneo in Pordenone. Did you know that these two buildings you've probably walked by several times lodged Napoleon Bonaparte?

Let's jump to Oct. 17, 1797: the victorious French general and the representative of the Austrian Empire are about to sign the famous Treaty of Campoformio which marks the end of the Republic of Venice and its rule over Friuli and the handover of the whole territory to Austria.

But this is only a temporary arrangement: between 1797 and 1814 the control of the region will alternately pass between French and Austrian hands.

General Bonaparte... oops, I meant Napoleon I, Emperor of the French since 1804, will be back in these lands in 1807. Let's travel back to that year and follow him in one of his trips to visit an attraction of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, rare enough for even an emperor to want to visit.

We're talking about the exceptional mummies of Venzone. During the French occupation in 1797 these extraordinarily preserved bodies, in particular the one known as the "Hunchback," had already caught the attention of Napoleon's soldiers, who cut strips of flesh as grim souvenirs to take home. You probably wouldn't want such singular souvenirs, but if you want to take a look, the mummies are still visible at the Cemetery Crypt of San Michele in Venzone.

Let's jump to 1866: with the Third Independence War, when we were officially annexed to the newly unified Reign of Italy! The unifying process is not complete though: Venezia Giulia -the eastern part of the region, including Gorizia and Trieste- will have to wait until the end of the first World War to break free of Austrian dominion.

In 1915-1918, what will later be known as the "Great War" or World War I, overwhelms these lands. Many important battles will be fought right here on the Isonzo river, the Karst plateau and the Julian Prealps. At the end of the conflict, Venezia Giulia will finally go to Italy but at great cost: 15,000 dead, 5,000 disabled and a devastated land. Evidence of these terrible events can be found in monuments like ossuaries, shrines and cemeteries scattered all over the area, such as the Tempio Ossario in Udine, the memorial of Oslavia and the breathtaking monumental staircase of Redipuglia, the largest military sacrarium in Italy. Also the magnificent Victory Lighthouse in Trieste is a monument to all the marines dead during this war. It's still possible to see with our own eyes battlefields, posts and trenches. Among these sites is the fort of Col. Roncone, housing a permanent exhibition of military history and the open-air museum of Monfalcone's First World War Theme Park. If you're interested, the region also offers tours guided by an expert on WWI history at the open air museum "Comprensorio difensivo della Dolina del XV Bersaglieri" on the second Sunday of every month.

But, as we all know, there will be another world conflict soon. We don't need to travel back to the period between 1940 and 1945, many pictures and documents give evidence to the horror of the Second War World. Visit the Risiera of St. Sabba in Trieste, used as a police detention camp by the Nazis for the imprisonment and extermination of Italian, Slovenian and Croatian hostages, partisans and political prisoners. Stay in Trieste and walk in Kleine Berlin, the complex of tunnels and air-raid shelters used by the German army and the local civilians or move to Carnia to see its defensive complex and the fortifications of Vallo Littorio.

To conclude the exploration of these sorrowful war times, let's go to Gorizia and walk up to the hill of Medea. Here lies the Ara Pacis Mundis, a memorial built to honor the fallen of every war and to symbolize the hope for a world of peace, liberty and justice. As the inscription on the big urn in its subterranean room says, "Hate causes death. Love produces life".

Moving forward to 1963, a tragedy that will be later cited by UNESCO as one of five "cautionary tales" about "avoidable disasters," is about to hit this region. We're in the valley of the Vajont river, under Mount Toc, facing one of the tallest dams in the world. It's Oct. 9, 10:39 p.m. In the dark and silence of the night, a massive landslide of approximately 270 million cubic meters of earth and rock detaches from one mountainside and slides into the water reservoir. As a result, an 820 foot-high wave overtops the dam and 50 million cubic liters of water will wash away the towns in the underlying valley. Almost 2,000 people lose their lives, while many more lose everything they had. To host the people evacuated from that area, a new municipality will be founded in the late 1960's: it's the town of Vajont near Maniago where some of you might live. After almost 50 years, it is now possible to walk along the first twenty meters of the dam's crown and visit the Vajont museum at the visitor center of the Friulian Dolomites natural parks of Erto and Casso.

But another tragedy is just around the corner: the earthquake that devastated Friuli-Venezia Giulia in 1976. For the last stop of our historical tour, I would like to bring you in a more private place and introduce you to my great-grandparents and grandparents. As they're gathering in the living room the earth starts shaking. Shaking so badly that they cannot even take the stairs to escape. It's May 6, 9 pm. When the shaking stops, the ceiling boards of their neighbors' bedroom will be in my grandparents' living room. Many nights in the open, sleeping in tents or cars, together with all the people of the neighborhood.

But this is just my grandmother's account of the event, a story I've heard hundreds and hundreds of times because the earthquake of '76, the "Terremoto del Friuli," is still fresh in the memories of those who experienced it. Talk to anyone old enough to remember: every Friulian will give you his or her personal story. The seism of 1976 will kill almost 1,000 people, with thousands of injured and immense damage to the buildings, artistic heritage and factories of the region.

But, as I told you at the beginning of this journey, Friuli-Venezia Giulia has always proven to be able to rise from its own ashes, no matter what human or natural disaster hits it. After the destruction of the earthquake, the Friulian people will roll up their sleeves and start the reconstruction, following a plan that will later become an internationally recognized model of efficiency. The ancient cathedrals of Venzone and Gemona, almost razed to the ground by the seism and completely rebuilt in the following years exemplify the strength and will of rebirth. These two beautiful and ancient towns, located in the area most affected by the earthquake, today host the dedicated museum Tiere Motus in Venzone, the photographic exhibit Frammenti di Memoria and a didactic laboratory on the seismic phenomena in Gemona del Friuli.

This is the story so far. A story that necessarily had to be compressed, but hopefully still gives you an idea of our past and present. For every event, place and historical site that I spoke of, there are thousands of other events, places and sites that I haven't mentioned. It's up to you to discover more.