Nature around Spilimbergo

The history of Spilimbergo is closely linked to the Tagliamento, the river that runs along it. Only a few traces have remained of the original plant species that covered Spilimbergo’s territory in ancient times.

The vast peninsula between the Cosa stream and the Tagliamento river, where human settlements are now located, was once covered in lowland oak forest, which expanded even along the pluvio-alluvial ravines (muculis), which discharge water into the river, to merge with the riverbed flora.

A few faded traces of the original layout, although heavily affected by human activities, can still be identified in the Valeriano Forest, a few kilometres north of Spilimbergo, and in some of the riparian fragments of the Tagliamento south of the Cathedral of Spilimbergo. Over time, human settlements have caused the natural forest to disappear. Moreover, intensive crop farming is also distorting part of the Aga Granda riverbed.

La Grava

Nevertheless, nature enthusiasts and all those who want to really discover Spilimbergo cannot miss an excursion to the pebbly shore of the Tagliamento or La Grava, how the locals call it. This naturalistic site covers a wide area, where you can still admire what is known as Europe’s largest natural stream. It is the result of its discontinuous streamflow and frequent diversions affected by uneven rainfalls over its great catchment area. It’s an experience really worth having, although you should be warned that going down to the riverbed can be quite difficult for those who are not familiar with the territory, as you might encounter orientation problems and danger caused by sudden floods.

A path to remember

Leaving Piazza Duomo, we walk down the anthropised palaeo-ravine that separates the town’s two castles. Passing the remains of the old walls and the Fossale Tower (or La Grava gate, one of the ancient gates to the town), we reach the little Sante Sabide church (also known as the Ancona church). This place of worship is a few metres above the limit of the cyclic floods in Carnia. Nearby is the Remembrance Park commemorating Spilimbergo’s victims of World War I, which was recently rearranged and replanted with cypresses.

We are at the base of the right bank of the Tagliamento, which in this point measures more than three kilometres in width. In this area, there are many sports facilities, which have to deal with the river floods. We continue east, passing the branc da l’Ancona, the first distributary (now dried up) of the river, which had provided castellans with water and fish for centuries. Now, we are in the first intermediate area, between two ancient bends, which has predominantly sandy-loam soil mixed with gravel. In the 1920s, this fertile area measuring two or three hundred metres in length was colonised by the hungry people. After a challenging reclamation, sieving pebbles and gravel and spreading manure compost, vegetable gardens and vineyards were planted feeding at least two generations of residents. The very little of all this that can still be seen today is the result of the sacrifices of the old owners. Now, most of the territory consists of meadows (often uncultivated).

The dirt road lined with wild mulberries, plum trees, acacias, and cherry trees leads to the centre of the river. The road surface is pretty rough and intersects with service dirt roads, which delimit large plots of land. Some bifurcations feature a wooden Christ as a symbol of the people’s devotion. This area was once a magredo (dry area) with sparse pioneer vegetation on the islands between the river’s aquifers. In one point, there used to be the little church of Saint Jerome, which was washed away and destroyed by flood waters. With the introduction of large agricultural machinery and state allotments, everything was levelled for a few hundred metres in depth, and the spontaneous pioneer species were replaced with crops (corn, soybeans, alfalfa, barley, and wheat) separated by sparse hedges and ditches. Here, in spring, you can find wild asparagus, mushrooms, and hops buds (urtiçons), which are excellent for making delicious risottos or frittatas. Silence reigns everywhere.

Continuing, we get to where the river’s streamflow marks the pebbly shore. We are in the intal salet (willow forest), a long longitudinal area two hundred metres deep covered by brambles, willows, poplars, hornbeams, manna ash trees, and wild cherry and plum trees. This is an area where it’s easy to lose your orientation and fall into the river concealed by the vegetation.

Once we find the right passage, we come across the lis blancis, i.e. gravel mixed with sand, which spreads for about eight hundred metres towards the left bank of the river, where it blends with small cultivated woodlands. This is a magical place, which continues north beyond the Pinzano gorge and south, towards the karst springs, where the river interweaves the aquifer bends, which create and wash away islands of sand and gravel. An environment worth preserving in its purity.

Endless spaces, colourful pebbles (once used by mosaic artists and terrazzo workers), sand, shrubs, flowers, and treacherous waters to cross. Legend has it that the lis aganis (evil fairies) hide here, ready to grasp wayfarers or cause sudden floods that wash away everything. Those are the days of tears versus the days of joy and freedom, when the river is calm and the amphitheatre of the mountains stands out up north, and the castle of Spilimbergo dominates east, guarding the ancient fords once crossed by kings, popes, emperors, armies, and poor people.

It’s nature at its best that takes you away from everyday city life, instilling a great sense of peace. An extraordinary place with a special habitat, where you can lie down on the sand and enjoy the sound of the water gurgling through the pebbles while watching the clouds move in the deep blue sky on a hot summer day with a cool breeze (O ce arie fresculine che ven ju dal Tiliment… There’s a cool breeze coming from the Tagliamento, as the old Friulian song goes).

If you look carefully (and are lucky enough), you can spot trouts, chubs, and graylings darting in the river. These are places where you can come across a hare that elegantly and quickly disappears from your sight, where larks sing, blackbirds, sparrows, pigeons, crows, and pheasants fly, and higher up birds of prey hover overhead.

In the morning or at dusk, you can come across roes and boars. When the weather starts getting hot, watch where you step, you wouldn’t want to tread on a snake or a less aggressive lizard.

During the transhumance period, hundreds of sheep move on the gravel, and then take advantage of the tender buds that grow in the fields, where you can also find the sclopit, the bladder campion, which is an excellent ingredient in the kitchen.

Once you rest your body and mind, it’s time to go back to town following the remains of the “trail”, an escape route for tanks and carriages prepared by the Nazis during the second world war.

An impressive work made of pipes and reinforced concrete platforms that crossed the pebbly shore of the Tagliamento from one bank to the other. The trail was destroyed in just over twenty years by the river’s force. Today, only a few faded traces remain of it as a reminder to those who want to dominate the river and a warning for future generations.

Along the way, we move along the fruit orchards of the Provincial Agency and the Agricultural Vocational Institute, where, in 1987, trees and shrubs compatible with the landscape of the Tagliamento shore were planted, thereby creating a 1300 sq.m botanical garden. We go up the Tagliamento bank through Via degli Alpini or closing the circle under the castle towards the Ancona Church.

Original Italian by Bruno Sedran