As the saying goes: “A lot of water has flowed under the bridge” since Grado essentially lived off of fishing, mostly in the lagoon and populating islets and huts, with the typical fish trade represented by the batelante, who would harvest the catch aboard the characteristic boat with an almost flat keel. The days of the half-dozen “Sardinenfabriken,” the industrial plants for processing and packaging sardines and other fish during the Austro-Hungarian period, also seem remote by now. It was at the beginning of the 1930s that the fishermen of Grado came together to form a cooperative and organized the direct sale of their catch with the operating of a fish market. By the end of the 20th century there were about 100 fishing boats, and today the Grado Fishermen’s Cooperative groups together most of those who work in this specific industry. For the Cooperative, the promoting of the sea and lagoon culture is of the utmost importance in terms of protecting the environment, as well as for maintaining a sustainable fishery. With the organizing of recurring summer festivals, such as the characteristic and delicious “Sardelada” festival, but also by participating in various events, the fishermen of Grado have shown their considerable attention to local and seasonal customers through the “Zero Miglia” (“Zero Miles”) project: more than 10 years ago they created both a catch-of-the-day market, open all year round, and the Zero Miglia seaside tavern on one of the most characteristic “shores” of Grado, keeping the Grado fish cuisine tradition alive, albeit with some innovative concessions or delicious variations on the theme. Economically speaking, the transition from a Cooperative to a Producers’ Organization was intended to modernize and promote the work of the members and their sphere of activity, while the preservation of many related trades and local jobs, and also of a way of living that spans several generations, are of great social importance for the island. Sea bream, sea bass, sole, grey mullet, scorpion fish, red mullet and sardines, as well as cuttlefish, squill fish and much more can be purchased or tasted with the greatest guarantee for the consumer in terms of freshness, traceability and purchasing awareness, depending on the season, weather and sea conditions, and biological rest periods.
Nowadays you can shop “on the net,” whereas until recently you would go shopping with a net bag... And before shopping centres with supermarkets and hypermarkets began to appear everywhere, the various food shops, fish shops and green grocers seemed to satisfy customers’ needs. Not to mention the weekly market, which is held on our island on Saturday mornings in the Città-Giardino area with rich variety of products. However, the covered market was and still is a favourite place to go for daily shopping or for buying specialties: though not quite on the verge of extinction, covered markets are becoming harder and harder to find, and have almost become tourist attractions, like La Bouqueria in Barcelona or the Naschmarkt in Vienna. The present-day Grado Municipal Covered Market, located in the heart of the historic centre on Piazza Duca d’Aosta just beyond the ancient castrum, was established at the beginning of the last century with one area for fish and one for other foods: we must go back to the rapid development of Grado tourism during the Austrian era to understand how the needs and demands for food supplies consequently changed. In the period following World War I, the building that houses the market was enlarged according to the architectural style of the time, but still today, if you look from the outside, you can see the fish-themed decorations from the past that characterize the right side. There is an undeniable similarity with the Covered Market in Gorizia, although our structure is considerably smaller compared to the complex structure of the Isonzo capital. Last but not least, it was built to provide full accessibility from an architectural perspective. Known as “the Island at the Market,” inside you can find products for all tastes and budgets: from local bread to fine Collio wines; from seasonal fruit and vegetables from the nearby Aquileia mainland or from the rural hamlet of Fossalon to olive oil varieties from southern Italy; from Friulian and Karst specialties, both sweet and with a high alcohol content, to delicacies from other regions throughout the entire peninsula. Like visiting old friends, for fish and shellfish, for example, you can go to Jana and Michela, while for packaged or fresh food, stop at Paolo and Paola’s stand. Other vendors will always be ready to provide you with the best local and nonlocal products for a good dish to be prepared right away, or to advise you on tasty treats to take home with you at the end of your vacation. During the summer the Covered Market naturally keeps longer hours and there are more stands, but the opportunity to purchase tasty products and specialties for Easter, Christmas and New Year’s is guaranteed, with the charm of Grado in the off-season.
Grado and its Bike Paths
Along with being the “Island of the Sun,” Grado can also justifiably be called the “Island of Cycling.” With its first place ranking 4 times in a row, our town has once again been awarded the FIAB Yellow Flag’s 5 “bike smiles,” a rating obtained by only 6 municipalities in the nation. Dozens of kilometres of bike paths, special attention to protecting the environment and sustainable mobility, a low number of motor vehicles, theme events, professional and amateur sporting events, hotels and other types of bike-friendly accommodations, interurban and maritime transport services in the summer months with the possibility of carrying bicycles as well, bike rental with technical and mechanical services, and a functional bike-sharing service make Grado an ideal destination for the ever-growing number of cyclists. Indeed, for some years now, bicycle tourism has been experiencing exponential growth, and the island is completely up to the task of this positive phenomenon, thanks to its internal cycle network, the FVG2-Adria bike route, and above all the Alpe Adria bike route. The over-400-kilometer-long Alpe Adria route connects the northern Adriatic with Salzburg, and therefore with Austria and the Alps. Even a partial journey on the Alpe Adria, perhaps taking advantage of the cross-border railway service specially equipped for carrying passengers and bicycles, is enough to discover completely different landscapes, virtually pristine nature, and cultural, social and architectural diversity and typicalities, discovering unique facts and flavours along the way: the post-seismic reconstruction of the Friuli area with Venzone and Gemona, or UNESCO sites such as Palmanova and Aquileia, which can make interesting stops together with the tasting of not-to-be-missed local specialties. For those who are less fit, Grado offers opportunities for riding on local bike paths: it is truly priceless to travel by bike, especially at sunrise or sunset, along the more than 4 kilometres of the lagoon stretch of regional road 352 as far as Belvedere di Aquileia. Equally rewarding is the ride through the thick vegetation of Grado Pineta and the area of the campsites and Grado Golf Club to the extraordinary Valle Cavanata Regional Reserve; it is recommended that you continue up to Caneo, thus admiring the “flat” but very lively and active area around the rural hamlet of Fossalon and the wild character of both nature areas, very rich in flora and wildlife. Continuing instead in the direction of Monfalcone, after crossing the bridges over the Primero and Isonzato canals, you will come to the bridge over the Isonzo, the beautiful “river sacred to the peoples of Europe”: a succession of fruit & vegetable stands with local produce, vineyards and farmhouses accompany cyclists to the shipyards of Monfalcone and its Great War Theme Park, thus passing from the sea and the lagoon to the Isonzo karst plateau.
The Lagoon and its Treasures: fish, plants and Santonego
According to experts, the Grado lagoon did not exist in Roman times: a low alluvial plain instead stretched out in its place. It seems that the area between ancient Aquileia and the sea was occupied by residential settlements and structures for shops and activities serving the port, namely the Aquileia river system and the Grado marine system. This area was crossed by the delta of a large river, probably the Natiso cum Turro mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, with its mouth further south on the Adriatic than today’s Grado. The coast of our locality must in fact have been about half a kilometre farther out, and the actual lagoon supposedly formed towards the 7th century following various hydrogeological changes. While the Anfora artificial canal was actually dug in Roman times to connect Aquileia with the sea, what remains today of the ancient river is the main stretch corresponding to the Natissa: the river upstream is beautiful, after having crossed the present-day lagoon which, together with the much older Marano lagoon, is part of the Venetian lagoon system between the Po River delta and the mouth of the Isonzo. Furthermore, the western part of Grado lagoon (Palù de Soto) formed earlier than the easternmost part (Palù de Sora), and the resulting changes made directly or indirectly by man, such as the building of embankments and land reclamation, have considerably changed the lagoon. The tidal mouths, that is the openings toward the sea protected by jetties, allow the tide to ebb and flow, thus creating fascinating changes in the lagoon landscape: sandbanks, shoals and shores are found above the mean level of high tides; mudflats and secondary channels, on the other hand, are situated between the mean levels of high and low tides; and swamps, main channels and lagoon mouths are below the mean level of the low tides. From the mouth of the Tagliamento river to the west to that of the Isonzo to the east, our lagoon system is about thirty kilometres long and covers an area of approximately 160 square kilometres. The salinity of the Grado lagoon, which has more marine characteristics, is therefore greater than that of the Marano Lagoon. Lagoon ecosystems have typically favoured the development of a rich flora, with tree species such as tamarisks, maritime pines, junipers, elms, willows and various plants typical of areas with brackish waters: amongst the many of these we mention the limonium, with beautiful violet flowers, the famous fiuri de tapo in the dialect of Grado. As for the fauna, apart from the numerous fish species and the fish farming enclosures known as valli da pesca, found on some islets, the lagoon area is a paradise for birdwatchers: many aquatic birds nest or stop there during migrations, and along with the many seagulls, there is no shortage of herons, including grey herons, and egrets, mallards and terns. The presence of humans in the lagoon can be easily seen from the casoni, or fishermen’s huts: once inhabited all year long, most of them have been modernized and made more comfortable, although they all retain a rectangular plan, a pyramid-shaped roof and a single door facing west to protect against the bora, the fierce wind from the east. The building materials available in the lagoon were naturally wood, straw and reeds. A trip around the lagoon by boat among the reeds, canals and huts is an integral part of a visit or a holiday in Grado, and rather than finding a message in a bottle, it is definitely possible to find a bottle with a beautiful message: that of the green Santonego, the local liqueur made from sea wormwood that inebriates and induces one to meditate...
Valle Cavanata Nature Reserve
Open to visitors all year round, like the nearby Isonzo River Mouth Nature Reserve, the Cavanata Valley Reserve was established by regional law in 1996, but it had already been recognized twenty years earlier as a “wetland of international importance” according to the Ramsar Convention. It offers a habitat that is especially favourable for the resting and nesting of birds, mostly aquatic, and to date about 250 different species have been counted on the over 300 hectares it occupies today, about 70 of which are sea. Located in the easternmost part of Grado lagoon, which was embanked with an adaptable system of locks communicating with the sea, it had a valle da pesca, an enclosed fish farming area, that was in operation until the mid-1990s, before being abandoned in favour of the avifauna. During the first half of the 1900s, the entire area underwent major reclamation works to gain space for agriculture, resulting in profound changes. From nearby Grado, this protected area is an ideal destination for literally immersing yourself in pristine nature, with different environmental characteristics and disturbance by humans restricted to the far limits of the district. The reserve can be reached from Grado by taking a nice walk or a bike ride along the 6-km FVG2 bike route, which can be continued, again by bike, to the Caneo nature area. The Reserve Visitor Centre, opened 20 years ago but recently modernized, has shorter opening hours during the winter, but there is always a wide selection of activities organized there, including guided tours, educational workshops and seminars structured according to the age group of the visitors. Several things have been done both inside and outside the Centre to provide the public with an overview of both the typical lagoon flora and fauna and of the past more closely linked with man’s presence in this area. The fascinating Del Mare and Della Valle paths allow you to admire biodiversity in its pure state, one of the strengths of the Valle Cavanata Reserve, where constant attention is given to maintaining the optimal preservation of the natural habitats. In the meadow areas and among the luxuriant greenery, consisting of both wild plant species and those introduced by man, you can see mammals such as foxes, hares, wild boars and roe deer, as well as the less visible but typical various species of fish, reptiles and amphibians. There are extraordinary opportunities for bird watching: the greatest number of species can usually be seen during the spring migration period in April, whereas in the winter there is a greater number of “guests.” Depending on the time of year, you can admire many species from the Anatidae family, including mallards, as well as several types of herons, some birds of prey, the occasional magnificent flamingos, and of course the mute swans and wild geese: Anser anser was indeed the inspired choice to be the symbol of the Reserve.
Fossalon and White Asparagus
The fertile rural hamlet of Fossalon in the municipality of Grado has recent but historically interesting origins. In the late 1920s, with the placing of Grado under provisional administration, 2,000 hectares at the far eastern edge of the lagoon were sold to the Opera Nazionale Combattenti, the national veterans’ assistance organization. The local casoneri were obviously opposed to the enormous reclamation began by the first new inhabitants, some of whom even came by bicycle from the nearby Veneto region. At the start of the 1940s, a forced labour camp was created in the “Bonifica della Vittoria” area, with the internment of over 200 Italian citizens of the minority Slovenian ethnicity who were generically defined as the “kin of rebels,” or relatives of presumed partisans or those accused of having anti-Italian sentiments. The demand for farm labour by the Ente per le Tre Venezie, which managed the lands around Fossalon, effectively thinned out the Gorizia prisons, even though Grado was part of the province of Trieste at the time. Those who refused to work were taken to prison in Trieste, and the labour camp was closed on September 8, 1943. Later, at the time of Tito’s new Yugoslavia, more than 1,700 Italian exiles arrived, especially from Zadar, but also from Rijeka, Pula and other Istrian towns. Following the construction of the bridge over the Primero canal after World War II, the entire area’s isolation came to an end, with the indisputable thrust towards the modern tourist development of our island. Today Fossalon is losing its population, although the farms are still there, providing an excellent production of fruit, vegetables and dairy products. Furthermore, there are truly unique landscapes to be discovered for those who enter it on foot or by bike, and it is no coincidence that the area has two Natural Reserves, the custodians of a rich, varied biodiversity. The sense of community among the inhabitants of Fossalon and the “networking” of local farmers contribute decisively to the success of the now traditional Asparagus Festival, an unmissable spring event organized by the Grado local tourist board. Perhaps not everyone knows that white asparagus is produced by growing Asparagus officinalis underground: since the chlorophyll photosynthesis process does not take place, the colour remains white, and the flavour differs from that of green asparagus grown in the sun, and it typically remains more tender. For those who want to savour this typical area delicacy, this festival is absolutely not to be missed, with the tasting of white asparagus-based specialties, an exhibition-market for this product of local excellence, events and various attractions in both Fossalon and Grado, thanks to the involvement of many restaurateurs on the rest of the island who make use of these white shoots.