I apologise. I haven’t written in the longest time. The main reason being I was away. Skipped the country to Italy for two weeks (okay 12 days to be precise). Of course I’ve been back for about another two weeks and in that time I’ve wanted to blog about Italy, but felt to daunted by the task of describing a trip which was so wonderful, magical and relaxing. Furthermore, after a certain time of the day my brain is too porridgy to really put finger to computer and write sensical paragraphs. Believe me, I’ve tried, and I’ve erased all that I wrote.
So here I am and I will try to do justice to Italy, for the sake of everyone who one day wants to go. (It’s a worthwhile holiday goal.)
We planned – at least my hubbie did (He did absolutely everything to be honest. I chicken out in anxiety and the hectic, pre-holiday, leaving the Princes arrangements, which are immense.) to go to Rome, Venice and Florence. He booked hotels off Trip Advisor, and booked through this company Jewish walking tours – walking tours. (Surprise, surprise.) And we were off. Me with my pregnancy, compression stockings that I ditched halfway over Africa because they were way too hot. (Horrible, horrible things. I didn’t wear them on the way back and admittedly my ankles doubled and swelled like a generous serving of gelato.)
Now the best thing about going away without the Princes was spending twelve days straight with my husband. It was the biggest gift for both of us. We discovered new things about each other and away from the Princes, we could just relax, have fun and focus on each other. So before I launch into the to do’s of Italy, I really want to repeat one of my blog themes. Go AWAY!!! Be it a night (my friend went to Cape town for one night for her tenth anniversary and she smiled for a week), a weekend, a week. It’s quality not quantity that counts. And it is hard to leave and I don’t think my Prince’s teachers are ever impressed when we go away, but sometimes life has to be lived by all of us, not just by our children.
Our first day in Rome we did typical, touristy things. We went to the Trevi Fountain (above), to the Spanish steps and just walked around, our noses in the guide book. (Again not my idea, but my husband proved very right in buying a guide book at the Johannesburg airport. We loved our DK Eyewitness Travel book on Rome, and we bought one on Florence too. It’s detailed and very visual and easy to use. I would buy one for any country I travel to now.)
When we got our guides though, we began to learn exactly how to tour a country. First you begin with its history and that’s exactly what we did by starting our Classical Rome walking tour at the Colosseum. Now I’m going to be completely honest here and say I was fully prepared to be bored. Since when was classical anything interesting? I lay the blame at my schooling for this boorish attitude. The history of ancient Rome turned out to be fascinating, and inextricably linked with Jewish history. The emperors of Rome were the very same emperors discussed in the Talmud. Our guide introduced the Colosseum to us, as the amphitheater Emperor Vespasian built-in 72 CE with his Jerusalem spoils from the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. I read elsewhere that the Colosseum was built by the Jewish slaves brought from Judea into Roman captivity. It puts a whole new spin to seeing and standing under the Colosseum’s massive Roman archways and sitting on the very steps where Roman spectators sat to cheer on the gladiators. This was my history too.
NB – Book before hand for the Colosseum. Even though we were there during low season it was PACKED and the queue extremely long. In general, especially if its high season it’s a good idea to pre book for the major sites.
We also went to the Palatine which is where the Roman Forum is as well as the Arch of Titus. Without our guide we wouldn’t have really got it. It would have looked like a bunch of decrepit, old building. This is what a lot of Rome can look like. And it’s beautiful and ancient, but essentially meaningless unless you have some understanding. So I really recommend guided tours with an enthusiastic tour guide. We learnt that everything has a story, and often the stories are very interesting. But I don’t have space to tell you all…
I learnt on my first day in Rome not to order a caffe orzo out of curiosity. It’s barley coffee and it was disgusting. We learnt that Romans are sitting, chatting and gulping down expressos at our tourist hours. My mother in law smsed me when I said I was enjoying an Italian cappuccino, ‘Only foreigners drink cappuccino after breakfast. Italians drink expressos.’ I gently reminded her that I was a foreigner, and asked our guide the next day if it was true that she’d only drink a cappuccino for breakfast. She said, ‘Yes only for breakfast, and expressos for the rest of the day, because it’s difficult to digest the milk.’ Well I stayed a foreigner and drank mucho cappuccinos the whole trip because Italian coffee is in a league of its own.
Roman Food – FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD
We learnt pretty quickly that whilst Italy is one country, each city and region has its own unique identity and pride. If you’re from Rome you are a Roman, and we were to eat unique Roman food in Roma. This prideful difference is understandable when you consider that Italy was only unified as a country in 1870. Now we went to the Jewish Ghetto where all the kosher restaurants are. I was nervous as kosher does not always mean good. But in Rome I needn’t have worried. The quality of food was AMAZING. I don’t think we could have ordered badly, everything was delicious. This was not Jewish Rome that I remembered when I was twelve, when there was but one kosher meat pizza, stand up and eat place, and a dodgy family run business with no certificate. (In those days from Australia to Israel, we’d stop in either Greece or Rome for a couple of days to break up the 24 hour journey.) Now it was a buzzing street with not one meat restaurant but a few, from burgers (no thank you) to fine Italian, Roman dining.
Now the main Jewish Roman delicacy is fried artichokes. I never knew there was more than one way to make artichokes. I always boil mine. But no artichokes appear in almost every dish. Artichokes in pasta, pizza, Roman and fried. And all delicious! One restaurant had a woman sitting by crates of artichokes sorting them out. I’ve never seen so many artichokes at once.
I’m not sure I can go back to normal pasta, having tasted homemade pasta. It feels like a sham, like play play noodles in comparison. And the Italian sauces were so delicious I’m afraid to say my mouth is watering at the memory of it. Which is ridiculous. So if you want amazing kosher food Rome is the place. They’re also really healthy eaters. I was surprised when my pasta came with nothing but pasta. No salad or accompaniment is brought with it. It seems the Italians eat lots of courses and don’t mix their food as we do. And like the French they eat salad only after the meal. We did that and it did feel healthier. Their salads aren’t a couple of lettuce leaves either. They’re full of fennel, cabbage, rocket and all sorts of veggies. I now knew why Italians are known for their food, it’s not just the taste, it’s the quality, and the care in eating it. They don’t have fast lunches or meals.
This is a MUST tour. The Jewish ghetto in Rome at the moment is a trendy, beautiful area by the Tiber river. As much as we hung out there to eat, it was only when we did our tour did we learn of Roman Jewish history. Surprise, surprise it was a hard one. The ghetto used to consist of narrow alleyways and was strategically surrounded by churches. They weren’t even allowed to build synagogues. Rather they had one building in which there were five synagogues. The Popes forced them to go to mass and when they left the ghetto the men had to wear joker hats and the women the scarves that prostitutes wore. They weren’t allowed any trades besides selling second-hand clothes and money lending. Needless to say they were dirt poor. And that’s just a summary. Now it has a beautiful, grand, cathedral style synagogue which was built by 1904 and is still in use.
Of course this was made more real to us because our guide was a Roman Jewess, who expressed the pain and indignity that the Jews suffered with real feeling. She spit out her disgust at the Papacy in World War II for redeeming the 10 Catholics who were accidentally rounded up with 1270 Jews in the ghetto. Of the 1035 Jews sent to Auschwitz, only 196 returned. One of them was her great uncle. And she introduced us to them, telling us what an honour it was. And it was an honour and I love how the survivors in Rome are honoured. Even the synagogues first pews are reserved for the survivors. Coming from Sydney, where there were so many survivors, I felt humbled. We should have honoured our survivors as much. They should have had their own reserved seats in synagogue. In Rome they knew the holocaust, in Sydney, everyone was trying to forget it, get on with it. It’s so important to commemorate properly, and give honour where honour is due.
Now there are so many more stories. But I’ll be quick now. I’m over my words. But not over my pictures. I must comment on the Vatican tour. I didn’t think I’d find it so interesting. But it was fascinating. We began in the Vatican museum and my appreciation for Classical Roman art that influenced the Renaissance grew. (Actually before the trip I had no appreciation whatsoever.) It’s a light bulb moment when you see a classical artifact of a man who Michelangelo saw and was influenced by. He is now my favourite, favourite artist. I didn’t know anyone could vie with the Impressionists, but he does. Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel is worth googling. What’s more seeing the rude signs he painted into them, insulting the Pope (behind his back of course, and once you’re there and see the fresco, you can understand how the Pope wouldn’t have noticed the angel pulling what was the finger in those days, behind the back of the Pope’s likeness. The intricate messages in the The Last Judgement of who was going to hell and heaven, is most revealing. He paints Jews in heaven amongst many other messages. Not very conventional for those Catholic times, I dare say. I’ve always loved a rebel. It’s worth looking up.
Of course if it wasn’t for my tour guide I’d have walked through and said very nice, beautiful and all those adages of the ignorant. But I’m running away with words again.
Training through Italy is a great option for seeing the countryside and getting around fast. Venice was a surprise of water. It really is a city on water. I don’t know why it takes seeing it to properly believe it. There are no cars, or scooters, or bikes. It really is a walking, boating city. We took a water taxi to our hotel. We were to learn that the water bus is just as good and effective and a tenth of the price.
Again in Venice the best thing we did was book a walking tour. It gave us such an insight into Venice’s history with a tour of the Doge’s Palace in San Marco square, a boat tour through the canals, and a Jewish Ghetto walking tour. Everyone says get lost in Venice, and we did!
Shabbat in Venice
We were told Shabbat in Venice is a great option. And it was. The chabad are amazing and run complimentary Shabbat meals at the Gam Gam restaurant. The food is decent, the company is great. We met Jews from all over the world and when you play Jewish geography, we’re all more interrelated than we think. So one guy from LA, who was traveling Italy with his daughter, knew my Uncle in LA. Another girl who was from London, on a weekend away with friends, (oh to be able to hop anywhere in Europe for the weekend) told me her father was Iraqi, so we had a fine old conversation about Iraqi cuisine. I met a lovely girl from Spain and charted my next destination – Espanola. It was a lot of fun. And sitting for Shabbat lunch in the sunshine by the grand canal, serenaded by a violinist busker - who had no idea that we couldn’t pay him for his services unfortunately, was magical.
The Sephardi service in synagogue was lovely. It’s worth going for the melodious liturgy and of course the beautiful architecture. And just to add, after Shabbat the Gam Gam restaurant is a great place to get Kosher meat food (I had an excellent homemade pasta spaghetti Bolognese, they also have awesome milk pizza at their takeout branch down the alley. (And I mean really excellent, perfect pizza. I’m sorry I don’t have a photo.)
Washing hanging – just outside the Venice Ghetto
Florence as the home of my favorite artist was just as magnificent as it was foretold to be.
- Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’ Accademia is a must see. And his Prisoners leading up to David are powerful sculptures of slavery indeed. I felt my own inner slave bursting at the seams of my own marble rock, trying to break free.
I really recommend the museum’s audio guides.
Must Do – Tour Tuscany
We did a half day wine tour. Needless to say I did not have wine. But it was an exceptional experience visiting a medieval castle and learning all about extra virgin olive oil and wine. I didn’t know that extra virgin is really when the olives are pressed within 24 hours of their picking. This means most of us are not consuming good quality extra virgin olive oil. Tips the guide gave us was, dark bottle or tin, buy the youngest made by date (ignore expiry), and yes the more it costs the more likely it is better quality. On wine I learnt that the grape makes the wine, and Tuscans are very proud of their grapes and wine. I also learnt the importance of smelling wine to see what fruity flavour it has. I was too shy to ask if I could smell without actually tasting the wine. Who wants to drink wine out of a glass that someone else has smelt. And yeah, hold your wine glasses by the stem not the cup of it, because you’re smudging the glass otherwise, and can’t see the colour correctly. You see there’s a lot to learn in this world.
I must say I was bemused by the lack of toilet seats through out Italy. We may have copper cable thieves in Johannesburg, but they have toilet seat thieves. Which isn’t funny when you have to go to the toilet every five minutes.
Another small hint at the situation was that one of our guides heard I was from Sydney (originally) and said she and her family are seriously considering moving to Sydney. Needless to say I was surprised.
One shop I entered shooed me out, saying, ‘It’s one o’clock and we’re closing for lunch.’ I don’t think that would happen anywhere. Make a buck or lunch…. You can see where the Italian’s priorities are good food, wine and laughter. They’re really a lovely people. It’s a lovely country to visit and SO MUCH to learn.
Hope this helps anyone thinking of going to Italy. It’s worth practicing your Italian beforehand because it’s a lot of fun to speak with the locals. (Of course my Italian and accent is abysmal.)
So for now Arrivederci!
Walking Tour Details
Jewish Roma Walking Tours – Micaela Pavoncello – email@example.com