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What’s the closest city of at least 100,000 people to Aviano Air Base in Italy?

Pordenone, Treviso and Venice — yes, Venice — fail to make the population cut. Padova and Trieste are too far away.

That leaves Udine, a city just into six figures and less than 40 miles from the home of the 31st Fighter Wing.

Sports fans might know it as the home of Udinese, a small-market team that usually manages to hold its own in Italy’s top soccer league. Shoppers flock to a mall that’s the largest in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with attending a game at Stadio Friuli or spending some euros at the Citta Fiera shopping complex. But Udine’s got a downtown to explore as well.

The heart of the historic area is Piazza della Liberta, a mostly pedestrian area dominated by a clock tower that dates to the 16th century. Two bronze statues of Moors strike the bell on the hour.

Climb up the steps through an archway that leads to the castle. Don’t expect to see knights in armor, a drawbridge or pots of burning oil. It’s more like a palace, though certainly not as ornate as others in the area, such as Miramare near Trieste.

Inside, it’s got a handful of museums of varying interest. There’s a civic museum and archaeological museum on the ground floor. If you don’t understand Italian, it’s hard to get much from the civic museum.

An art gallery sits on the second floor and currently has an exhibit featuring paintings and sketches by Veronese and local-boy-gone-famous Tiepolo. It’s got brochures in English in every room.

Climb another series of steps and there’s a seemingly endless supply of drawings, sketches and maps. And a few rooms of photographs dating to the 1800s of Udine and other Italian cities.

To the northeast of the castle hill, there’s a large oval-shaped green area known as Piazza Maggio. The 15th century church Santa Maria della Grazie faces the piazza.

The city’s main church, the Duomo (or cathedral) is a few blocks southeast of Piazza della Liberta. It’s got a museum housed in the 15th century bell tower. The cathedral itself features a main aisle that’s white and almost totally without ornamentation. But the side aisles and altar — with a ceiling designed to appear as though the clouds are three-dimensional — make up for it.

Udine’s not on many tourist treks, so don’t expect to see much in the way of crowds — unless you take in a mall trip or soccer game.

Directions: Udine can be reached via the A23 autostrada or the SS13 secondary highway that runs within a few miles of Aviano Air Base. It’s about 35 miles from Aviano via the SS13 and takes about an hour, though traffic can vary greatly on a road that’s long been known as one of the most dangerous in Italy. Watch out for those making daring passes in order to drive much faster than the posted speed limit.

Hours: The castle is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and closed Mondays. A sign says the Duomo (cathedral) is open from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., but doesn’t mention that it can be closed several hours for lunch. The cathedral museum is open from 10-noon and 4-6 p.m. except on Sundays, when it’s open from 4-6 p.m.

Costs: Driving and parking in the downtown area can be an adventure. There are several multi-story options on the outskirts. Expect to pay about 50 euro cents an hour. Admission to the castle and its multiple museums costs 8 euros for an adult and 2 for students. There is no cost to walk around the outside of the castle or visit the cathedral.

Food: Udine, one of the largest cities in the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, has Italian, Austrian, Slovenian, Hungarian and other influences that are reflected in its food. Expect to find many dishes common to northeastern Italy, with some slight twists. Get a taste of the mountains at Il Rifugio in Citta, a block from the entrance to the cathedral.

Information: The tourist office is located at Piazzo Maggio 7 – the large oval-shaped park that’s below (and northeast) of the castle. Phone: 0432-295972. Email: (in English).

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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