For eons, carving out its path through large silver boulders, untrammeled emerald-green water has arisen from the mountains molding the rocks into canyon formations, twisting and meandering, sometimes in unpredictable ways. The river is compact and narrow, and holds a great secret: it is deep! Here in Cerdevol Curnila, a little paradise set in the woods of Val d’Arzino, Friuli, northeastern Italy, is the home to amazing cliff jumping and wild swimming.
I was high atop a cliff’s edge, peering down to the shimmering water below. I glanced back to Ana, my travel partner who, while I was pondering my jump, observed from afar. I made a gesture as if to quell the unspoken feeling of encouragement, as if her staring was compelling me off the rock. Unlike the majority of my trips which I take solo, my partner in crime this weekend was one of my best friends, who bravely accepted my proposition to set out on an adventure into the Friulian Dolomites. Without hesitation, she courageously followed me into the wilderness, up high mountain passes, and through unexpected run-ins with modern-day hippies.
Much like the travels I take, we got lost. I was having some serious relationship problems with my GPS. My motto is, “ always follow the Lady in the Box”, my nickname for the GPS, because she always knows better, but obeying her this time led us into unending circles. Luckily a couple of friendly and helpful strangers who we besought for directions pointed us straight and said, “Go north to San Daniele”. I felt like we were weary travelers who found their way home by following the North Star, but in our case, we followed San Daniele.
Finally, we reached our destination, Cerdevol, a small little town high on the mountain looking down at the Arzino River below. Luckily our little Fiat 500 was small enough to climb the tiny, apparently one way road, to a cluster of homes. Two women preparing to leave in their car saw we were lost yet again, generously offered us their bathrooms and volunteered to lead us by their car to the swimming hole. In fact, it was embarrassingly easy being just around the bend on the right, past the left turnoff to reach the town center. There we finally arrived at Cerdevol Curnila.
A steep but short path leads down to the water. I was so excited to see the place I forgot my water shoes in the car, which I came to regret later, and ran over the rock bed, covered in holes and cracks, to reach the shore. I dipped my big toe to test the water, and as I expected, it was a chilly 8-10°C. I figured the only way I was going in, which was imperative I do of course, was to just cliff jump dry and this is how I found myself standing atop that cliff’s edge with Ana watching me with worried apprehension. Finally, I forced myself off the rock and jumped into the icy water beneath and after the initial shock subsided, the flow of the river carried me down to the shore where I quickly climbed out, heart pounding, face smiling.
Following more jumps, some explorations around the canyon, and time lying in the sun like a lizard to warm up, we decided to head to our hotel which was in, believe it or not, San Daniele. We didn’t get lost this time!
San Daniele, a quaint and delightful Italian town built on a hill, is known for their sweet, delicious prosciutto. The region is also world renowned for their white wine especially of the Collio and Colli Orientali zones. Wines age longer in Collio due to the frequent use of oak and barriques and are fermented with minimal oxygen contact, preserving fresh notes of ripe apples, apricots, and pineapple. On the palate you’ll taste the distinct flavor of roasted aromas of hazelnut, smoke, and vanilla. Colli Orientali wines are known for their scents of white flowers and ripe apples while the finish will taste of stone fruit with a long tingly finish. A confluence of natural factors such as unique soil, abundance of sun, and a special microclimate, where breezes from the Adriatic Sea mingle with winds blowing down from the Carnic Alps, nurtured the native white grapes like tocai, ribolla gialla, malvasia istriana, and verduzzo that were the creation of the exceptional Friulian wines. Thanks to some locals who revealed it, we discovered a little restaurant outside the city center. Still not used to eating on Italian time, we were the only ones in the restaurant when it opened at 7pm. However, as the sun was setting and the temperature lowered, sitting outside on the patio among the trees, drinking wine, and eating typical Tagliolini with San Daniele prosciutto was the perfect way to wrap up our day.
The following morning, after taking our coffee in the garden looking out towards San Daniele, we were back on the road once more. Our destination was another swimming hole, Pozze Smeraldine, towards the Friulian Dolomites, but we made a spontaneous stop along the way at Pradis Grotte, a complex of Karst caves where archaeological artifacts have been found and carbon dated to roughly 11,000 and 12,000 years ago. There are three main parts to the visit. The first is The Grotta Verde and La Statua della Madonna (Green Cave and The Statue of the Madonna) which, as the name implies, is a large cave with a statue of the Madonna lit by an intense emerald glow. The second part descends down over 200 steps towards a ravine created by the river Cosa. A network of three separate caves where only two are able to be viewed at the moment, offer no stereotypic tourist path to follow. As you enter deeper into the caves and as the light begins to darken, you have a feeling of actually exploring and finding something unknown. Ultimately, to end the tour of the caves, a scenic path leading around the complex takes visitors back to the starting point. Wrapping up the tour with an idyllic stroll around the rim of the ravine, we could smell the intense scent of fragrant flowers which the locals describe as “Profumo del Bosco” or the Perfume of the Forest. Sweet and delicate, yet constantly felt, the forest flower’s aroma gently seeps in and tantalizes the senses.
Our lunch venue after asking another local in a town we had passed along the way, was Agriturismo Borgo Titol in Tramonti di Sopra. We took a tiny road in the middle of the woods, turning to find the path had transformed into dirt, filled with potholes, and once again I started to doubt we were in the right place. Although still recovering my trust with The Lady in the Box, I decided to keep going further, and after a few minutes, my persistence was rewarded. The road ended and opened up into a large green field with a working barn on the right, encircled by mountains, and before us, a lovely stone building with a substantial garden in front. Everything was green: the immense trees in the front yard, to the grass, to the mountains in the back, however, brightly colored red flowers planted near the albergo interrupted the virescent monotony with a lovely pop of color. Sitting at a secluded table overlooking the mountains, a soft breeze ran throughout the courtyard as we sipped local red wine and ate with little self-control their fresh, still hot, homemade bread drizzled with their raw olive oil. There was no menu, instead the owner came by and offered us an assortment of cheeses and cured meats, all produced at their farm, in addition to homemade apricot jam which we shared. Even though I have frequently eaten those kinds of meats, I was surprised by their softness and how the flavor was unlike anything I have tasted before. A pasta dish followed consisting of homemade ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese and sprinkled with walnuts and a type of grated smoked cheese. Last but not least was the desert, panna cotta with fig jam, again all homemade. Even though I was stuffed to the brim, I still had to exercise a lot of self-restraint not to lick the plate clean! Then, once we finished, my friend and I looked at each other and said; “did you see the price?”. Neither of us had paid attention to the price and since we were getting low on cash at hand, (with no ATMs nearby and our credit cards not accepted), we started guessing at what it could cost. As the bill came, we apprehensively peeked, waiting for the sting of the numbers, but it read €36, total for us both!. My friend asked me if she was reading it correctly and I thought maybe I was becoming dyslexic. I almost felt like I needed to pay them more for what we received, because it was as if the price was not even close to equaling the enjoyment of our three hour lunch. With happy stomachs and mid-afternoon laziness, we proceeded to our next stop, although much less enthusiastically than before.
Pozze Smeraldine, was the hardest part of our trip thus far. These emerald pools were the most elusive. Half driving and half walking, we searched high on the nearby hill and low down by the town Tramonti di Sopra, but for the life of us, we couldn’t find the trailhead. After walking around for perhaps an hour, we encountered a couple who were also looking for the starting point to the trail leading to the swimming hole. There were other pools in the valley near the city which looked pleasant enough, but were completely covered by people who were there for a modern-day hippie festival that was happening nearby. Camper vans, tents, and cars were parked all along the riverbank and the visitors were making barbecues, walking in the road, and having a wonderful time all the while a low thumping of bass music from the festival was escaping from the distance. But I was determined to find this little piece of utopia, not just because I wanted to be secluded deep inside the woods, but because I was hell bent on finding something that was until then, eluding me. Perhaps stubbornness is not my best quality, but sometimes tenacity pays off, especially when traveling! Finally, with the couple blindly following us, we found a sign pointing to Pozze Smeraldine near a small, beautiful church (46°18’32.82″N, 12°47’18.62″E) and by car we made our way up the road on the left of the church. A tiny parking lot sits alongside a house (46°18’27.93”N, 12°46’40.61”E) and after parking there, we continued walking up this road, where another sign pointed us in the direction of the trail (46°18’34.75”N, 12°45’42.50”E). We followed this dirt road until we reached another sign indicating the direction down the hill entering the valley (roughly 15-20 minute walk). Once inside the ravine, we continued alongside the river and finally a huge boulder laying on the left came into sight. It is here, on this bank, where we found the frigid, crystal clear, emerald-green water. Given the immense drought felt across Europe, the water level was much lower than expected but I imagine exploring when the water level is high as in the spring just after snowmelt, yields some amazing swimming and enjoyment.
Still full from our amazing lunch, we headed directly home as the sun was starting to set, for our two hour drive back. For the entirety of the way home, we drove with the windows down, our hair blowing in the mountain air, and singing along at the top of our lungs to the most cliché 90s boy-band music we could find. One of the worst feelings a traveler could have is the sadness of ending a trip and leaving a magical place. Although short, this weekend made it to the “one of the best trips taken” list entirely because of the non-stop laughter and immense fun fueled by great food and mountain air, all which returned me home feeling light-hearted and carefree.