Our Italian Jewish Adventure

Our Italian Jewish Adventure

Robyn Spizman Gerson is a New York Times bestselling author and a media personality seen often on local and national television.

Robyn Spizman Gerson is a New York Times best-selling author of many books, including “When Words Matter Most.” She is also a communications professional and well-known media personality, having appeared often locally on “Atlanta and Company” and nationally on NBC’s “Today” show. For more information go to www.robynspizman.com.

Menorah at the ancient Jewish ghetto in Venice.
Menorah at the ancient Jewish ghetto in Venice.

Want to know the secret to an exciting and meaningful trip? The answer was eloquently shared during our Italian adventure by historian Dr. Giorgio Padoan, of the Mazzega Glass Factory gallery in Murano, Italy. “A tourist travels, but a traveler learns,” Padoan said, quoting from a philosopher, in Italian.

On a quest to learn, explore and always add a Jewish perspective to our travels, my husband and I headed to Venice and Florence, two of my bucket-list destinations. With a 10-day window devoted to this Italian journey, we’d spend three days in Venice and the remainder in Florence. Preparing for the trip, it evolved like a novel as each person, friend, family member, added something special to our trip.

Exploring Venice and the Jewish Ghetto

Our first round of thanks is to seasoned flight attendant and dear friend, Sugar Eisenberg. When asked, Sugar suggested Hotel L’Orologio for its convenient location to the endless canal-lined streets, shops, restaurants and more. For walking city on canals, the hotel location made it easy to get almost everywhere by foot. The hotel concierge coordinated our boat ride to Murano and then we continued to Burano, two quick outings.

As we searched for Jewish relevance, we discovered Venice is home to the ancient Jewish ghetto. The Cannaregio neighborhood, established in the 16th century, is called the world’s first ghetto, and is where the ancient synagogues and the museum of Venice’s Jewish community are housed.

The winding canals of colorful Burano are a quick boat ride from Venice.

In planning our visit to the ghetto, we easily arranged a trip to the area to learn about the Italian Jewish community and visit the remaining synagogues. A tour of the ghetto was simple to navigate as concierges in Venice knew of the ghetto and tours are available from the Jewish Museum there. The Venice Jewish ghetto is a confined geographical area with well-defined boundaries.

The Jewish Museum of Venice houses a rich collection of ritual objects, nuptial contracts and ancient books that tell the history of the Jewish community. It was opened in 1954 by the Jewish community and, since 1990, is managed by a company specializing in cultural services.

While in Venice, we next embarked upon the art world and enjoyed a not-to-be-missed visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the former home and now museum of the avid art patron and enthusiast who amassed one of the most significant collections of modern art. An early Jackson Pollock collector and supporter, she encouraged artists and gave them endless opportunities to further their works.

Synagogue interior in the ancient Jewish ghetto in Venice.

Walking the shop and restaurant-lined streets of Venice is entertainment enough. An unexpected surprise came from our rooftop visit to Fondaco dei Tedeschi, Venice’s lifestyle department store by the Rialto Bridge. Complimentary reservations can be secured ahead of time online or at the concierge desk at the store. It’s an amazing place to photograph and even FaceTime your family to show them the spectacular sights from atop this elegant store that boasts a panoramic view of Venice from every angle imaginable.

As our three days came to an end in Venice, we water-taxied to the Venezia Santa Lucia train station with two tickets pre-purchased online headed to Florence.

Falling in Love with Florence

A rich layering of history makes Florence culturally diverse and a vibrant place to visit. The main monuments and museum highlights are a must-see. Afternoon breaks, late dinners with a bottle of your favorite Italian wine and endless pizza, pasta and Italian delicacies delight even the most seasoned of foodies.

Gallery Hotel Art was our lodging choice endorsed by our tour guide and highly recommended by Nancy Freedman, who stayed there with her entire family. The Salvatore Ferragamo Group launched this entirely new urban hotel experience. A far cry from the Italian traditional antique-filled hotels, its modern art interior felt like a mini museum. Located a block from the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, it’s near the epicenter of jewelry and all things gold, silver, dazzling and shiny. As we frequented the bridge, the views on both sides felt like a picture-postcard setting straight out of a subtle brush-stroked Renaissance Italian oil painting.

While checking out my Facebook a month prior to traveling, I noticed friend Diane Lechter sitting in a gondola, which immediately piqued my interest. I instantly messaged Diane and heard about her recommendation of Jim Mazzarella in Florence, a former industry executive and accomplished photographer, who owns a boutique tourist service called “Through My Eyes.” He proved to be our best decision and the finest tour guide. Friend Joey Moskowitz had also traveled recently with his wife, Susie, and shared, “a travel guide in Florence is definitely necessary.”

The Moorish architecture style of the Great Synagogue of Florence.

As we FaceTimed with Jim, he began planning our trip based on our interests. Exceedingly friendly and gregarious, Jim’s extensive knowledge of the city and culture and deep personal relationships within the community transformed our trip. Jim accepts a limited number of client’s March to May and September to November, and specializes in customized shopping excursions, food and wine events, and personalized walking tours of the city and its treasures.

As our Florentine travels continued, we requested that Jim take us to our first stop, which was the Great Synagogue of Florence. Designed of Moorish style, it’s a landmark peeking out of the rooftops of Florence, not to be missed. The Great Synagogue is one of the largest and most important synagogues in South-Central Europe, and was built in 1848.

As you scan the rooftops of Florence, with beautiful churches scattered across the city, the one and only beautiful dome of this synagogue stands magnificently and proudly. The Jewish community viewed this synagogue as a symbol and its interior is covered throughout with colored design in Moorish patterns.

During World War II Nazi soldiers occupied the synagogue and used it as a storehouse. In August 1944, retreating German troops worked with Italian Fascists to lay explosives to destroy the synagogue. However, Italian resistance fighters defused most of the explosives and limited the amount of damage done. Any destruction was restored after the war. The synagogue was rebuilt yet again after damage from a river flood in 1966.

Over the next few days of our trip, Florence was exciting at every turn. Plan on being lured into endless shops, and if you are in the market for leather, suede or any of the Italian fashions, it’s not for the faint of heart. And you’ll never go hungry. We enjoyed designer Jennifer Tattanelli’s JT Café along with a visit to her next-door magnificent leather store of custom fashion for women and men. From leather jackets to shoes, clothing and handbags, Jennifer is a respected designer whose fashions are timeless. Florence is definitely a place that beckons the fashionista on all fronts.

Michaelangelo’s David is on display in Florence at Galleria d’ell Accademia.

A visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze was breathtaking with Michelangelo’s David, a must-see stop, but be sure to arrange your tickets ahead of time for yourself or through your guide to avoid the long lines of tourists.

Apéritifs were the afternoon’s choice as we slowed down and enjoyed a glass of wine and small plate of something delicious. Our visit to Antica Bottega, set inside of the 13th century palace (palazzo) of the Dante Alighieri family led us to an educated wine tasting.

Serious shoppers will love the designer outlets located in Montevarchi. There are two outlets. One is Prada Space, which is only Prada, and the other is the outlet mall that includes Gucci, Hugo Boss, Prada and more. Both can be done in a day with a private driver or prearranged tour. Either destination will tempt shoppers.

For dining suggestions, skip the tourist places and head to restaurants where the locals dine. Il Parione attracted our taste buds with a return-repeat dinner dining on truffle-flavored pastas and an endless array of delicacies. It’s a lovely, intimate restaurant devoted to serving a tasteful meal and a divine cheesecake that will be long-remembered.

Robyn and Ed Gerson on the Ponte Vecchio Bridge in Florence.

While lodging in Italy, ask your hotel concierge to recommend daily activities so you don’t miss live concerts, markets or special events. By chance, we learned about The Three Tenors in concert. This group, inspired by the world-renowned “Three Tenors” of Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, pays tribute to opera arias and Neapolitan songs. Along with a chamber ensemble of mandolin, double bass and grand piano, it was outstanding.

Our Italian journey flew by, and as it came to end, it certainly left a taste in our mouths for Italian food and a return one day to explore the country. The sights and sounds continue to remind us why a trip to Italy is a lifetime event. It’s the perfect gift for anyone you know, especially you. Ciao!

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