Monday, May 5, 2014

An Excursion to Two Charming Ancient Towns in the Heart of Tuscany, Pisa and Lucca

For a change, I'll be focusing this blog on one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and keep my Jewish obsession under temporary control.
When I looked at the itinerary of the upcoming Kosher Cruises in 2014, I noticed the ship boards in Livorno, Italy for a long time - allowing for leisurely shore excursions to nearby towns in Tuscany.  One of my recent blogs concerned the Jewish community in Florence the capital of the region. This time I think I'll focus on the marvels of architecture, art  and other culturally and historically important things to soak in, starring the iconic Leaning tower of Pisa .

If you were to ask my opinion, I'd advise picking your excursion by deciding on the amount of energy you want or can expand, and also by how you and members of your group prefer to spend their time. I for one, am a rather greedy traveler, wanting to see everything and cram in as much as is possible to my time in any given place.
In the Livorno stop I'd advise speaking to your cruise director and signing up ahead of time for a guided tour, in which you'll be driven to remarkable places, have expert tour guide explain and describe what it is you are seeing. The reason this is the preferred method, especially for families and groups consisting of varying physical strength and attention span, that it saves time and energy which would go on trying to find your own transportation, plus talking to the guide and expressing special desires and needs.  Besides, I realize not everyone enjoys burying their head in research resources and the guide can enlighten one on almost any subject pertaining to be area.

Also, you can tailor your shore excursion by groups with common interests - for example, I know of people, some older with less staying power, some families with little kids with strollers and nap times or shorter attention spans. These would be candidates for the mini bus tour which picks up near the boat and drives to Pisa to see the piazza of miracles, the leaning tower of Pisa, have some free time to look around the town which had become world famous for its quirky gorgeous structure, while having a chance to climb as high as you desire on the stunning marble staircase, and if you manage it to the top a most breathtaking view is awaiting you, plus a caress of the refreshing Tuscan air as a reward for your efforts.

With still time left you can take a stroll along the Arno river, and see how it carves up the historic part of the city city. If you happen to take the excursion later in the day, the sight of the river at night is the most romantic after sunset, with the lights of the town shining on the water.

This excursion, whether taken morning or afternoon is only about 3 1/2 hrs long.  For those wishing to use more of the docking time and have never been to Lucca, birthplace and home to composer Giacommo Puccini. Lucca is a fortress city and a favorite of connoisseurs of old Italy. It's extremely well preserved with a renaissance wall, intact and perfect. Locals use the wall as a park, community roof garden and bicycle path. Within the walls there are ancient Romanesque buildings, piazzas filled with fun and there, when time comes to return to ship- you have two delightful renaissance cities under your belt, both filled w history and pulsing vitality.

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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Gondola Workshop in Venice

I'm about to go on the Costa Fascinosa, Greek Isles cruise. The cruise begins and ends in Venice, which happens to be one of my favorite cities in the world. I wrote about it before in greater depth, but this time I thought I'd share with our readers a peak experience, I'm about to repeat.

As most anyone knows, the Gondola is the main mode of transportation in the magical city floating exquisitely on water, ornate palazos, deep historic sites and romance. There's hardly anything as delightful, as soaking in the atmosphere, while one sits on these centuries old waster vehicles, being stirred by the singing Gondolier. 

In the 16th century, there were 10,000 gondolas in Venice, 350 of which are still gracing the water, masterfully gliding under bridges, slightly tilted to the right by the Gondolier who traditionally stands at the back of the boat to the left.

Not just anyone can be a Gondolier mind you...this honor goes from father to son, for generation upon generation.

On my last trip we decided to take a tour to the Gondola boatyard, a place where these ancient beauties are repaired and new ones built, all executed in accordance with revered age old tradition.

When I found out more about the scientific precision required to build a gondola, I was bee-lining to the squero, my kids in tow, to watch how it was done.

We saw art and science combined as we watched one of the sleek black boats being put together. When our 8 day cruise was over, we headed straight back to the mini-lagoon like, wide spot in the canal, the Bacino Orseolo just north of Piazza san Marco. The gondola we watched the week before in it's earlier stage, was still hard at being built, with a long way to go. We learnt that it takes 40-45 days to build the rare and very occasional new ones.

Every evening countless gondolas gather there, while the gondoliers lounge against the bacino's railing, laughing and chatting. Some days you can see hundreds of these gorgeous boats side by side and it looks like a water bound parking lot.

The boats have been painted black since a 16th-century law—to curb  excess and gaudy extravagance, which spiraled out of control. The local artisans carefully craft the gondola from the seven types of wood—mahogany, cherry, fir, walnut, oak, elm, and lime—necessary to give the shallow and asymmetrical boat its various characteristics.

After they puzzle all the pieces together, the painting, the ferro which is the iron symbol of the city affixed to the bow, and the forcole, the squiggly wooden post that serves as a complex oarlock.

Although this squero is the city’s oldest and one of only three remaining, it works predominantly on maintenance and repair.

The new one we saw being built, ended up carrying us, all shiny, elegant and new, propelled by the strength of a single gondolier, no addition of new technology and a magical and fascinating recreation of the ancient beauty which sailed the waters for centuries.

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Monday, June 24, 2013

If You're Going to Italy, Go to Venice

Venice is a city synonymous with love and beauty. Millions of people discover or rediscover its romance every year. And cruise ships are no strangers to its bustling port.

The incredible architecture of the city seems to float on the surface of the canals. It is ancient and has been an important and powerful city since its founding. As a crossroads between the Byzantine and Roman worlds, Venice developed a unique culture and style that remains visible today.

The Jewish community in Venice began as a collection of refugees. Jews from Germany and Central Europe created the Ashkenasi community, Spanish and Portuguese refugees the Sephardim, and the Levantines came in from Constantinople. Many became money lenders helping to finance the Palazzos and acting as a vital cog in the city's booming economy.

Venice was home to the world's first Jewish ghetto, established in 1516. The word ghetto is derived from the Italian word getto (foundry). The ghetto is located on an island, separated from the rest of the city per Pope Paul IV's strict segregation rules. Two large gates closed off the area after curfew and the hinges of those gates are still visible. The ghetto residents were marked by yellow rounds on their chest or yellow hats.

Despite impossible to assimilate conditions the Jewish community thrived becoming both wealthy and highly educated. Many important figures emerged including doctors responsible for treating royalty, Kabbalists, Talmudists, Gnostics, Alchemists, politicians and poets.

At last count there were approximately 500 Jews living in Venice, only a few of whom continue to live in the Ghetto. Musea Ebraica (Jewish Museum) has an extensive collection of Judaica objects from intricately carved silver. The entrance includes a visit several synagogues counted among the most beautiful in Northern Italy.

For anyone planning a tour of Italy, Venice is a stop not to be missed.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Jewish History in the South of France

France has been a sometimes haven for Jewish refuges since the days of the Roman Empire. Life in the region has been a mixture of struggle, perseverance and adherence to belief. Added together these elements have created a fascinating history.

Israelites arrived following the destruction of the Temple of Herod and the conquest of Jerusalem. The tragedy at Massada occurred in the same time period forcing a Jewish diaspora throughout the Mediterranean. The South of France became one of the main areas of refuge. Most of the exiles were merchants, slave-dealers, tax collectors and physicians. And most lived in the Phoenician Marseilles area. During the Middle Ages, Jews in the region were expelled and allowed to return on several occasions. In 1384, 100,000 Jews living in the South of France were forced to relocate, most ended up in German speaking areas.

Instability did not hinder prosperity. The 11th century was a time of intellectual and cultural awakening for Franco-Jewish thinkers and artists. Iiturgical poetry, interpretations of the Bible and Talmud commentaries came to light. Including the daring and depth of Ashkenazi genius Rabbi Rashi. It was the start of a scholastic tradition that established the area as a center of Jewish learning.

The first exile was not the only exile. The Jewish population in Southern France grew with the expulsion of all Jews from Spain and exiles from Eastern Europe, Tunasia, Algeria and Morocco.

The Jewish communities in the region have produced intellectual, financial and artistic luminaries like Rashi, James Mayer de Rothschild, Sarah Bernhardt and many more. Today France has the 3rd largest Jewish population in the world behind only Israel and the United States. Most live in Toulouse, Marseilles, Lyon and Paris.

The natural beauty in the South of France is legendary and nestled within that beauty you will find ancient synagogues, museums depicting Jewish life and some of the best kosher restaurants anywhere. It is the perfect destination for a Kosher tour!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Jewish Ghetto in Rome. A Story of Tragedy and Triumph.

Rome is one of the great cities of the ancient world.

Rome is one of the great cities of the modern world.

You know the names; Pantheon, Vatican City, Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Sistine Chapel. You should see them. You should take pictures and enjoy the experience. You should also go past them into the ghetto.

The Jewish ghetto, first established in 1555, has been the site of deplorable persecution and awe inspiring resilience. All Jews from the poor to the wealthy and influential were forced to live within its walls. Most were poor and all were forbidden to practice medicine. The living conditions were subhuman and if that weren't degrading enough residents were required to wear yellow hats or yellow stripes to identify their marked status. The curfew was dusk at which point the entire community was locked in behind three massive gates. Not even faith was left untarnished. Residents were forced to attend Catholic services on the Sabbath. During the Black Plague the community lost almost a quarter of its population. The list of abuses and tragedies goes on and on. But, so do the tales of perseverance and community strength no matter how daunting the obstacles.

Most of the Old Ghetto was torn down in the 19th century, however, many old stores, museums and interesting relics remain to give you a glimpse at the heartbreaking history of the Jewish people in Rome.

Thankfully attitudes have changed in modern years. Today the neighborhood is one of the most charming and vibrant areas in Rome. The streets have been widened and lined with great Kosher restaurants, Jewish owned shops, and a beautiful synagogue that has a trying history of its own. The neighborhood is small enough that you can easily cover it on foot.

Cruise the Mediterranean in luxury. Enjoy every part of Rome from the ancient to the modern. But, take a few moments longer to appreciate this tiny neighborhood that has survived so much and gotten so much better with age.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Rembrandt: From the Jewish Quarter to the Grand Palace

The Jewish Hermitage museum is housed in one of the finest architectural sites in Russia: the grand palace. Walking through the opulent halls and decadent rooms of the palace is a magical and humbling experience. And that is before you notice the world-class art hanging on the walls.

The palace collection was started by Peter the Great an enthusiastic but unfocused collector. The true champion was Catherine the Great (Catherine II). She commissioned the construction of the palace and began buying art on a large scale. She acquired the Gotzkowsky Collection in 1763 and followed that with the addition of more than 2000 works of art; many of which came from the greatest artists to ever hold a brush--Rembrandt among them.

The Rembrandt collection consists of forty-three paintings. That number, however, is up for scholarly debate. There are some who believe that certain examples, although beyond capable, are the work of his dutiful students. Whatever the true number, Rembrandt's gift as a master storyteller is evident. And it is clear from his body of work that he drew inspiration from Jewish people and Jewish traditions.

Rembrandt was known to select his models from the Jewish population of Amsterdam. One such model can be seen in the painting above. An immortal work called "The Jewish Bride." And you can see scenes depicting the Old Testament in "The Sacrifice of Abraham", "The Blinding of Samson," and "David and Uriah" amongst many others.

On an interesting biographical note, Rembrandt and his wife chose to rent a spacious home in what was then Amsterdam's up and coming Jewish Quarter. He brilliantly incorporated real life observations into his biblical subject matter. He used what he saw in the movements and gestures of Amsterdam's Jewish population to bring a spark of life to his depictions of sacred stories.

Seeing his genius in person is indescribable. He opens a window into our past. He allows us to see our ancestors and to feel their love, struggle, will and hope.

We visit the Grand Palace and the Jewish Hermitage every time we schedule a kosher cruise through The Baltics. We hope that next time, you'll join us!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dreaming of Europe. Dreaming of the High Seas.

There is nothing better than positive customer feedback. A comment on Facebook, a quick email, photos from your kosher cruise; no matter what the format we love to hear about your experiences. Every so often we get an email or a letter that just makes our day, week, month. Like this recent gem:

"I had always dreamed of sailing off to Europe. With limited time a cruise that visited multiple countries seemed like the perfect choice; luxury combined with shore excursions to the canals of Venice, the ruins of Rome, the grand museums of Spain, Portugal and France; not to mention the warm Mediterranean sun! 

But, admittedly I am not an easy traveler. I was particularly concerned about finding good Kosher fare. I am very cautious about my diet and being a modern orthodox, I stick to Glatt Kosher only. I've taken too many flights that served inedible Kosher meals and I couldn't stomach the idea of being stuck at sea with that kind of food.

And then an answer came in the mail. The pamphlet was from a company called Kosherica and it showed people laughing and smiling and enjoying generous portions of exquisite food. I was thrilled to discover that the food was Glatt kosher, even 'Chalav Yisrael' and supervised by Rabbis!  

That was all the information I needed to sign-up. A life-long dream come true.

The cruise was all I could have hoped for. I felt like a queen! The meals were amazing and often had a Mediterranean flavor. The wide variety of kosher food was paired with excellent kosher wine from Isreal, which as I learned on board, is starting to compete with best vintages coming out of France and Napa Valley.

Off ship we visited ancient synagogues and historic Jewish cemeteries. I felt a new connection to our past and the history of our people. On the days we stayed on the ship we were treated to a choice of religious studies with well-known and clearly brilliant Rabbis.

Being a bit of a picky eater I was especially excited about the Jewish cooking lessons. And of course I spent plenty of time lounging by the pool and luxuriating in the spa.

I made countless new friends and enjoyed every minute of the entertainment. I can honestly say this was the best travel experience I've ever had.

Thanks Kosherica!!"