Elvas, Portugal’s Ultimate Fortified City

A crackling fire in the common room of the charming hostel where I stayed just outside the fortified walls of Elvas, Portugal, was an inviting place for guests to gather one evening and share stories of a day’s adventure in the historic city.

Some of our clothes, soaked from walking in the rain that day, were draped strategically over chairs near the fireplace. We found umbrellas useless in the high winds. Pedro, the owner of the hostel (see photo), kept a watchful eye on the fire as the evening progressed.IMG_3018 resized

The lights that illuminated the city walls helped guide us back to the hostel that cool, misty night.

IMG_3138 resizedFrom the middle 1600’s until modern times, Elvas served as a garrison border town. Over the centuries numerous hilltop fortresses guarded the long border with Spain. Elvas, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was a significant one of these war fortresses with a unique dry-ditch defense system and outlying fortresses which served as lookouts for invaders.IMG_3113 resized

Elvas has a beautifully restored main plaza which is anchored by a 16th century cathedral. Its modest exterior is in sharp contrast to the exquisite craftsmanship found within. The interior is a treasure of high Gothic arches, marble pillars, beautiful paintings, and finely-carved wooden details.

Steep, narrow, cobbled streets lead to small, hidden plazas. The labyrinth of streets was designed and built by the Muslim Moors, one of several occupying forces of the city. I discovered a small brass plaque on a crumbling wall which identified the entrance to the old Jewish Quarter where a gate once stood.

Over the centuries Elvas was three successive walled towns and contains many remnant walls from its turbulent history. I followed an occasional muddy path, passed through deep archways, climbed up and down long ramps, and walked over wooden draw bridges that spanned deep, green ditches.IMG_3107 resized Traditional eateries and inviting pastry shops were never far away. IMG_3101 resizedI often made a detour at a local bakery when I caught a whiff of freshly-baked bread. The Castelo, Elvas’ small, but highly fortified castle, offered dramatic views of the plains stretched out beyond.

The grand Amoreira Aqueduct which was built in the late 16th and early 17th centuries dominates the countryside outside the city, stretching for miles. IMG_3090 resizedIn addition to supplying water to Elvas, the purpose of this imposing structure was to enable the stronghold to withstand a lengthy siege. I felt dwarfed standing under its tiers of arches which extended up to 40 meters (130 feet) high at some points.

My last night in Elvas I was the only guest in the hostel, so I had the fireplace all to myself. In this peaceful, cozy setting, I sat in a big easy chair, my feet propped up to receive the fire’s warmth, some bread, cheese and hot tea at my fingertips, and my computer on my lap. I proceeded to write this blog posting, finishing it as the last embers faded.IMG_3056 resized

My visit to Elvas was magical.

 

 

 

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Porto, Portugal – A Historic Seaport

IMG_4043 resizedPorto, Portugal’s second largest city, is built on hillsides overlooking the Rio Douro (Douro River).  The historic section of the city called Riberia, which includes the waterfront, is designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. The Romans were the first to make the city into a significant port. IMG_3695 resizedToday Porto is the economic capitol of northern Portugal.

IMG_3723 resizedStylish walking streets with upscale fashion stores fan out in every direction in the historic downtown area. While strolling on one of these pedestrian streets near my guesthouse one afternoon, a lively group of female “tuna” singers and musicians attracted my attention. The Portuguese guitars which they played, their harmonious serenades, and their traditional attire which included a flowing black cape, all added to their electric performance. One singer explained to me in perfect English that they were university students trying to raise money to keep their instruments in good working order.IMG_3779 resized

These traditional “tuna” university groups originated in Spain and Portugal in the 13th century as a means for students to earn money or food.

Free walking tours, which can be found online, were offered daily at our guesthouse. On one of these tours we explored the hilly, historic Riberia section of town, winding through medieval streets. IMG_3808 resizedIMG_3794 resizedThe most picturesque streets and alleyways were in two of the four old Jewish quarters. There was little indication of their former presence. Several of the synagogues that flourished here before the Inquisition were either completely destroyed or converted to Christian edifices.

Beautiful, historic azulejos (hand-painted tiles) which are prolific in towns all over Portugal, greeted us at every turn – on churches, walls of houses, and in the train station on huge, awe-inspiring murals.IMG_3686 resized

The plaza in front of the grand Porto Cathedral which was perched on one of Porto’s many hills, offered sweeping views. On the dark side, many lost their lives in this plaza during the Inquisition. This medieval cathedral is one of the city’s oldest monuments and one of the most important Romanesque monuments in Portugal today.IMG_3947 resized

Climbing down steep staircases, we ended our walking tour on the historic Praca da Riberia (Riberia Square) which stretches along the Rio Douro. IMG_3823 resizedOutdoor cafes which lined the waterfront were packed with people soaking up the afternoon sun. Dog-walkers shared the plaza with strollers and male “tuna” troubadours. Classic wooden boats which have ferried Porto’s famous Port wine for centuries, offered tourists a ride.IMG_3836 resized I took one up the mouth of the river. Picturesque fishing enclaves with hand-painted boats dotted the riversides.IMG_4175 resized

The highlight of my day was when one of the troubadours of a tuna group asked, in perfect English, if I would mind being serenaded to. Following my approving nod, he proceeded to throw a cape around my shoulders and the IMG_3895 resizedshoulders of several other approving female onlookers. Several of the singers then got down on their knees and serenaded us. I felt honored.

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Lisbon, Part 11 – Alfama, the Historical Soul of Lisbon

IMG_4557 resizedThe hillside of narrow, winding cobbled streets in Alfama, Lisbon’s medieval area, eventually leads one to the hilltop fortifications of Castelo de Sao Jorge. Stopping at small plazas along the way offers sweeping vistas and, on weekends, bustling, neighborhood outdoor markets.IMG_2582 resized

The ancient neighborhood of Alfama, which was not destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, is the historical soul of Lisbon. It is a picturesque labyrinth of narrow streets, created by the Moorish Muslims as a defense system. It was first settled by the Romans. Remnants of the Roman city wall are awe-inspiring in their grandeur. IMG_4562 resizedExtensive ruins of a Roman theater are perched on the hillside. It was an important Jewish quarter in the 15th century. It has traditionally been a neighborhood of the poor. Today it is a thriving, community and home to an abundance of Fado bars and restaurants and numerous historical attractions.IMG_2465 rsized

I entered the Alfama neighborhood by passing through one of several narrow openings of a former fortified wall along Lisbon’s waterfront. At the top of a steep stone staircase a cobbled street with trolly car tracks led me higher. IMG_2609 resizedThe small squares IMG_2643 resizedwhich were neatly tucked away under leafy trees and crumbling buildings, were a welcome respite to catch my breath. The terraces (miradouros) in these squares often offered views of intriguing gardens and back yards among the tiled rooftops.

Many of Lisbon’s buildings are in a general state of disrepair, and Alfama has its share, all of which add to the charm of the district. IMG_2114 resizedAzulejos (hand-painted tiles), are prolific on the sides of walls, buildings and in churches. In some of the churches, traditional blue and white azulejos adorned the walls in the form of expressive Bible stories. More colorful, stylized designs adorned walls and buildings.

IMG_4591 resizedBeing a Sunday, the locals were out strolling with the tourists who thronged one of the larger plazas along the way where there was a weekend, neighborhood market underway. An older man was strumming his guitar while singing Fado music, a traditional Portuguese soulful sound which dates back to the 1800’s. Castelo de Sao Jorge loomed in the background with the medieval part of town below. I perched myself on a bench near the Fado musician, understanding that I was privy to what is offered in the area’s “casa do Fado” (Fado houses) at night, only I had a better seat and it was free. IMG_2452 resizedDuring IMG_2410 resizeda break an appreciative couple bought one of his CD’s which was displayed in his open guitar case at his feet

I browsed the market, sampling some of their local cheese and freshly-baked bread. A traditional Portuguese custard tart was impossible to resist. Several artisan tables displayed lovely jewelry, coin purses, wallets and bags made of cork, a highly-regarded, quality product of Portugal. Portugal is a major grower of cork oak trees and produces approximately half the cork harvested annually in the world.IMG_3645 resized

Continuing my journey upwards I passed numerous cozy restaurants tucked in among the alleyways with signs offering Fado music that night. The aroma of food preparation drifted among the alleyways.IMG_2730 resized

In the late afternoon Castelo de Sao Jorge loomed up in front of me. Tourists abounded. I passed through the tiny neighborhood of Santa Cruz which is tucked inside the castle walls, and crossed the dry moat to the area which housed the castle’s 11 towers. Views revealed the expansive, historic center of Lisbon and the picturesque suspension bridge of Ponte 25 de Abril which spans the Rio Tejo (Tagus River).  Ferry boats plied the waters below.IMG_2653 rsized

The Moorish castle dates from medieval period of Portuguese history. The first fortification was, presumably, erected in 48 BC, when Lisbon was classified as a Roman municipality. It was occupied by the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians. It was transformed in the Royal Palace in the 14th century. Convicts were house here in every century.

What a fine reward it was to reach this commanding hilltop on foot, I thought, mindful of the myriad treasures I encountered along the way.  I finished the day at the bottom of the hill in a casa do Fado – I couldn’t resist.IMG_3675 resized

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Lisbon, Portugal, Part 1– Exploring the Plazas

IMG_3600 resizedFrequenting the charming, historic plazas that dot Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon, and their outlying streets, is one way of getting to know this intriguing city, which dates back to the Roman times.IMG_3622 resized

It gets dark an hour later because of the time change traveling from Italy to Portugal, giving me more daylight exploration time.  But since I am still traveling in the Mediterranean, I still need to contend with the seeming loss of time when most tourist sites and shops are closed down for a couple of hours in the early afternoons during siesta time.

Lisbon’s medieval Castelo de Sao Jorge sits high on a hill overlooking the Praca do Comercio, the city’s main riverfront plaza. The plaza was rebuilt, along with the stunning triumphal Arco da Victoria, in the wake of the devastating 1755 earthquake.

On sunny afternoons people flock to the outdoor cafes that hug the 18th century arcades that line one side. Others lounge in the middle of the square at the foot of the statue of a former nobility on horseback.IMG_1924 resized I often joined locals and tourists on the waterfront steps while watching the sunset as ferries passed by.

Late one afternoon I took a ferry to the other side of the river during rush hour. The sharply-dressed business people on board appeared to be amused by my constant jostling into position to get a good photo of Lisbon’s expansive waterfront in the setting sun.

The wide cobbled walking street of Rua Augusta which extends out from the plaza’s Arco da Victoria is lined with lovely historic buildings.IMG_1915 resizedOn the ground floors are upscale shops, coffee houses and restaurants. The upper walls of many of these old buildings were covered with azulejos (hand-painted tiles), an important part of the country’s architecture. IMG_2487 resizedAlong the street IMG_2503 resizedlive music and street dancing is performed by buskers of all ages and nationalities, each vying for the attention of on-lookers in hopes of earning a few Euros. One finely-dressed young man played a cello beautifully on the steps of a church while a woman in traditional church attire who was greeting guests looked on in admiration. I gave him a few coins, in appreciation.

This walking street, which had been a main artery during Roman times, had some underground ruins. On the way to these ruins we passed through two buildings with a long, 8-foot wide covered, multi-story, corridor between them. When rebuilding the city after the earthquake of 1755, new buildings were built about 8 feet apart to allow for their movement during IMG_2387 resizedearthquakes.IMG_1987 resized

Once underground, we passed through low, narrow tunnels while viewing what were believed to be the remnants of a Roman bath and an industrial complex for salting and conservation of fish produce between 1st century and 5th century AD. It was humid and warm in this space, in contrast to the cold air outside. As I passed through these tunnels, I was in awe that I was walking over underground ruins of the Golden Age of Rome in downtown Lisbon.IMG_3577 resized

IMG_2574 resizedGetting around the city using the Metro system was interesting, and at the same time challenging. The problems often began when I got above ground when trying to find a specific destination, such as a museum or historical site. My trusty Lonely Planet guide book always eventually got me where I wanted to go, but, invariably the result was a wonderful new adventure.

One lovely Sunday afternoon I exited the Martim Moniz Metro station in an attempt to find a nearby tourist site.  The surrounding plaza was full of international people, food, and live entertainment. IMG_2755 resizedA young local man described the spontaneous, mostly- percussion music to me as “world music” which he said was being performed by internationals who live in the area, many of whom are Nepalese and Indians. Actually, the instruments seemed more international than the people performing on them. I snacked at a Chinese food stall. As the afternoon progressed, I moved near the center of activity and enjoyed the dancing of young, bohemian-type locals. Face painting was de rigueur.IMG_2790 resized

 

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Sicily – Syracuse, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

IMG_1408 resizedSyracuse, Sicily, founded in 8th century BC, played a key role in ancient times when it was one of the major powers of the Mediterranean world.

We climbed up the steep steps of the well-preserved Greek theatre and sat for a while on the hard stone seats. Green foliage covered the hills in front of us. IMG_1200 resizedEvery summer this theater comes alive with performances of classical theater. Little was left of the nearby Roman amphitheatre, but it gave me much food for thought – just considering the close proximity of the two structures and how they related to the two great Greek and Roman civilizations.

If only these medieval walls could talk, I thought as I wound my way through the narrow streets of Ortigia Island in Syracuse. IMG_1053 resizedOur hotel was located in a charming square next to a Catholic church, formerly an old synagogue, in Guidecca, the old Jewish quarter.IMG_1259 resized

The small square came alive at nightfall with local school children laughing and cruising around the plaza on their skateboards. People were engrossed in animated discussions at the outdoor cafe across the street. One evening clanging church bells preceded a religious procession that passed through our plaza. A statue outlined in lights seemed to glide effortlessly above the crowd and then disappeared with the parade down a narrow dimly-lit street. Silence ensued.IMG_1339 resized

One evening we visited the oldest Mikvah in Europe (a ritual Jewish bath) which was under a nearby hotel. This hotel was formerly a home owned by a rich family which they think had Jewish ancestry and converted to Catholicism in 1492 to survive the Inquisition. The Mikvah, which was accessed by a steep stone staircase, had been covered up for centuries. IMG_1065 resizedCold water from an ancient Greek well was flowing among the five pools. The air was so heavy with moisture I felt like I was in a cave. The Mikvah is occasionally used today by the few Jews that still reside in Syracuse.

Syracuse has lovely squares with beautiful fountains, fascinating historic architecture, and a lively outdoor daily market. Many of the narrow medieval streets end at the old city walls, offering stunning views of the Bay of Syracuse. IMG_1251 resizedOthers lead into expansive plazas, such as Piazza Duomo.

On one side of Plaza Duomo is a historic, grand cathedral. On the other side is the elegant Palazzo Beneventano. The Greek Temple of Athena from 5th century BC had been incorporated into the cathedral. Interestingly, some of the temple’s ancient pillars that are currently supporting the structure could be seen from the outside.  Tourists relaxed IMG_1103 resizedin a cafe under a sun umbrella taking in the drama of the plaza. The scene was so perfect I felt like I was in a movie set.

The bustling waterfront market on Ortigia operates in the shadow of the ruins of the ancient Greek Temple of Apollo. Each day I stopped here to buy some fresh fruit. The local apples were especially delicious. IMG_1126 resizedThe owner of an inviting cheese shop offered free samples in the form of a cheese sandwich whenever we passed by. Of course we felt obliged to buy some cheese from him; which we did. One morning a priest dropped in to bless this business. Everyone around us stopped for a minute as he offered a prayer.IMG_1150 reaized

Fishermen in their colorful fishing boats constantly ply the waters just outside the marketplace. They often gave us a smile when they spotted us taking a photo of them as they passed under the bridge where we were standing.IMG_1169 resized

One evening around sunset we were captivated by a group of athletic young men in kayaks playing a form of water football near one of the small bridges that connects Ortigia Island with the mainland. Splashing and kayak-bashing seemed to be part of the game. An appreciative audience, some just passers-by like us, cheered them on.

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Sicily – Agrigento, Valley of the Temples

Enter: The ruins of ancient Greece in Sicily at the Valley of the Temples

 

IMG_0959 resizedA friend from the States, Betsy, joined me for a week of exploration of Sicily. This Italian island with its unique Greek and Roman history, lies off the coast of the southern tip of Italy. It is other-worldly with its ancient temples and ruins which dot the landscape, many over-looking the Mediterranean Sea.

Sicily had long been a place I wanted to explore, especially because of its Greek heritage from the Hellenistic Period (323 BC to 31 BC). I felt a visit here would further the Greek education I acquired from my earlier years of travel in Greece.

IMG_0993 resizedBetsy and I flew from Rome to Palermo, the island’s largest city. IMG_0911 resizedFlights with Ryan Air are competitive with ground transportation between the two cities, so we decided to fly. I felt like we had joined Europe’s young jet-setters given the dress of people on our plane and their multilingual abilities.

A three-hour train ride from Palermo brought us to the modern-medieval town of Agrigento on the island’s southwest coast. Our Lonely Planet guide book of Sicily was very helpful in getting us to the places that were important to visit and giving us critical tourist information once we arrived.IMG_0991 resized Here we visited the awe-inspiring Valley of the Temples. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Valley of the Temples is one of southern Europe’s most compelling archeological sites.

I put my $30US per day budget for food and lodging on hold for the time being. The price of accommodations in Sicily was higher than in Rome, due to a lack of hostels, which I often stay in to keep within my budget. In Rome, for example, the price of a dorm bed in the *HI-Rome Hostel where I stay ranges from 12-15 Euros per day (approx. $13-16US). In Sicily we found delightful budget hotel rooms and B&B’s to be relatively well-priced at 50 Euros for two persons. It is easy to eat on a tight budget in Italy I basically live on pasta and pizza, bread and cheese, and fresh fruit purchased at a local market. I often splurge with a refreshing scoop of gelato at some point during the day.

IMG_0945 resizedWe found a lovely B&B in the medieval part of Agrigento. Our innkeeper made a point of letting us know that he was giving us an off-season rate. Despite the fact that this historic area was surrounded by a modern city, it was easy to be lost in time there. Our balcony overlooked a lively night walking street. Each evening we enjoyed sitting outside in a nearby cafe sipping tea, munching on one of Sicily’s delicious sweets, and people watching.IMG_0986 resized

The language barrier never seems to be a problem with me in Italy because of my general language schooling (other than in Italian), and my usage of Spanish in my travels in the Western Hemisphere. The similarity of Spanish to Italian makes it relatively easy to understand and be understood. Also, the degree of English spoken around the tourist areas is helpful. Nevertheless, I keep my trusty Berlitz Italian phrase book handy, just in case.

IMG_0934 resizedModern Agrigento used to be the Greek city of Akragas, a colony of settlers mainly from the Mediterranean islands of Rhodes and Crete. The city, which was thought to be founded in 582 BC, soon became prosperous. During this time it was one of the most important and most culturally-advanced Greek cities in the Mediterranean.IMG_0928 resizws

The Valley of the Temples is not really a valley as it sits on a ridge to act as a beacon for homecoming sailors. The 1300 hectare park (3,200 acres) encompasses the ruins of the ancient Greek city. The highlight is the Temple of Concordia, one of the best preserved Greek temples in existence. The Valley includes remains of seven temples.

IMG_0921 resized1The weather was balmy and clear, albeit a bit brisk. There was no need for the layers of clothing I had been wearing daily up to this point. We walked among the ruins for a couple of hours, reveling in the sheer size of the temples which towered over us. Deep ruts in the old Greek/Roman roads had been caused by centuries of vehicles passing over them. As I inspected them, I imagined two-horse chariots that must have used these roads, pictures of which I saw in the nearby archeological museum.

Betsy and I sat in the afternoon shadow of the stunning Temple of Concordia and had a snack of cheese and crackers and some local fruit, while contemplating the view around us. This temple, which as built in 5th century BC, is one of the best preserved temples in the valley. It was turned into a church in 6th century AD. The Mediterranean Sea sparkled in the distance. IMG_0968 resizedThe port town of Sciacca was dotted with boats. Looking inland the modern town of Agrigento hugged the hillside. Colorful wild flowers were scattered among fields of olive and orange trees in the surrounding hills. Betsy found sitting on the sacrificial alter of the temple to be something special. She sat there for some time in contemplation before asking me to take a photo of her perched on it.

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We left the next day by bus for Sicily’s east coast in expectation of further adventures in the walled, medieval coastal city of Syracuse. We were not disappointed. Stay tuned!

*HI – Hostelling International – An international non-profit organization with thousands of hostels around the world http://www.HIHostels.com

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The Jews of Northern Italy – Part II (Venice and Padova)

Ghetto Nuevo of Venice

IMG_0134 reizedIMG_0136 resizedIn Venice I crossed over a small bridge to enter Ghetto Nuevo, situated on an island in the heart of the city, with four main entrances. This was the first Jewish ghetto in the world, established in 1516. For three centuries the four gates were closed during the night. IMG_0159 resizedThat all changed in 1797 when Napoleon burned down these gates and gave the inhabitants freedom to move about day and night.IMG_0150 esized

The revitalized main square today is surrounded by medieval tower houses. The unusual tall buildings found here were divided into floors of sub-standard height, demonstrating how the density of the population had increased over the years. Several old synagogues became apparent to me as I listened to an English-speaking tour guide who pointed them out to her tour group.IMG_0164 resized

In the large open square, two Orthodox Jewish men were in animated conversation. A young man wearing a “kippah” on his head was seated next to a wall working on his computer. A sign on one door asked tourists to dress modestly. IMG_0167 resizedThe small museum in the square was full of precious Jewish artifacts which had been donated by former residents. The community boasts their own “water stop” for water taxis called “Ghetto Nuevo” Over 500 Jews now live in Venice.

The Ghetto of Padova

IMG_0577 resizedAbout 22 miles west of Venice is the charming, old city of Padova with over 700 years of Jewish history. Towards the middle of the fourteenth century scores of Jews from other parts of Italy established themselves in Padova as money-lenders.IMG_0578 resized

Padova’s Jewish ghetto with its narrow, winding streets and graceful arched porticoes, was established in the early 1600’s. An important family who lived here were silk entrepreneurs. Today it is filled with small, upscale shops and cafes on the lower level of the tower houses and is teaming with university students. The maximum population of Jews in the ghetto reached 1200. Today about 180 are living here.

The Jewish museum was located in an old German synagogue. It had been torched by Fascists during WWII. They blamed the Jews for supporting the Americans who were making their way up from southern Italy. It has since been restored.IMG_0589 resizedIMG_0587 resized

The woman who was manning the museum, Henrietta, told me of her Jewish history as she showed me around the museum and the ornate 16th century Italian synagogue across the street. IMG_0627 resizedHer Jewish Mother wanted to marry a Christian man but at the time it was forbidden. Her Mother lied about her heritage so the church would marry them. Henrietta, brought up as a non-Jew, decided she would never “be a Jew” until her Mother passed. She is now passionate about her Jewish heritage.

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Visiting the ghettos and Jewish areas of Italy’s cities along with their corresponding museums is a fascinating window into European and world history.

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The Jews of Northern Italy – Part I (Rome)

IMG_0658 resizedJews have been in Italy since the beginning of the Roman period. They were sometimes free, sometimes enslaved, sometimes walled in at night, but invariably contributing significantly to the society they were living in. Here they enjoyed centuries of peace, prosperity and inclusiveness in a diverse society, often overcoming persecution at the mercy of the government they were living under. A major turning point in their history in Italy was the Spanish *Inquisition in 1492 when the Jews were obliged to leave the country or convert to Christianity. Many converted; many left; many have since returned.

Each of the *medieval ghettos I visited in Rome, Venice and nearby Padova, have a unique story which has spanned centuries. They all followed a pattern of growth, decline, restoration and revitalization. I found each to be charming, well maintained, educational, and bustling with activity.

Ghetto di Roma (established 1555)


IMG_0028 resizedTo find the old Jewish Ghetto in Rome I followed the narrow streets that led off the
plaza of the bustling market, Mercado de Campo di Fiori. I passed a shop bulging with leather handbags and overheard the shopkeeper telling a customer, in English, a story about her family who lived in the building above.
They were Jews and her grandfather was born in this building.
Her leather business has been there for three generations.IMG_0653 resized All in her family survived the Holocaust except an uncle. She greeted me and we talked. She said her family story is one of survival. She then directed me on to the ghetto just ahead.

The roads got narrower as I approached the main square of the ghetto. The revitalized main square was teaming with energy. A kosher bakery, founded in 1984, had a line out the door. IMG_0039 resizedNo signs identifying this shop IMG_0040 resizedseemed to be necessary. People lounged on benches and in outdoor kosher cafes. A festive attitude was in the air. A large number of children were greeting their Mothers as they exited a grandiose medieval building which housed a Jewish primary school. Undercover guards made it very clear to me that I was not to take any photos of this activity.IMG_0656 resized

Just beyond the Great Synagogue stood engulfed in a wire fence. Guests to the extensive underground museum and the synagogue were checked in at the guardhouse. The synagogue overlooked an antique bridge that spanned the rushing Tiber River. Jews who worked at the mills that were there passed over this bridge for centuries. IMG_0043 resizedA string of apartment buildings lined the street alongside the synagogue. Embedded in concrete in front of each entrance was a brass plaque in memory of those who had once lived there and had perished during WWII. Over 40,000 Jews now live in Rome and Naples

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*Inquisition – A group of institutions within the judicial system of the Roman Catholic Church whose aim was to combat heresy

*Medieval – The medieval period lasted from 5th to 15th century. It began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance

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Day tripping to Murano Island

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A day excursion in the Venetian lagoon to the island of Murano to discover the secrets of making Murano glass was an enticing idea. So I did it.

Armed with my public transportation day pass, I boarded a ferry and headed to Murano Island where the Murano glass factories have specialized in making fancy glassware for centuries. Our ferry plowed through a thick fog for about an hour making stops along the way while picking up and dropping off passengers. One stop was at a hospital with a water ambulance waiting for a signal to take off next to us.322.

Located about a mile from Venice, Murano has been a commercial port since the 7th century. It is believed that glass making originated here in the 8th century. Murano’s glass makers lead Europe for centuries. Glass foundries which were located in Venice before the 13th century were moved to Murano at that time due to the fire concerns of old wooden buildings where they were located. This increased Murano’s reputation as a center for glass making.IMG_0330 resized

IMG_0126 resizedIt was high tide when I arrived on this small island. The town center was flooded. Upon departure from our boat, tourists were directed to a glass factory, over dry ground, for a demonstration of the art. By the time the factory visit was over water had reseeded enough to expose some of the walkways around town. I joined three young travelers from South Korea in explorationIMG_0334 revised.

We walked over bridges, through narrow alleyways, and among sheet brick walls of glass factories, often ending up at a dead end.. At times it felt like we were on a floating barge, with waterways greeting us at every turn. The smell of fire was in the air as we walked among the factories. We followed some workers, all of whom were wearing high rubber boots.IMG_0348 revised

Later we noticed a fashionable young lady stop just before a flooded street, remove her shoes, and pull out a pair of rubber boots from a bag she was carrying. After wading through the water she did the opposite and walked away in her high heels, her chic bag full of her wet rubber boots.

IMG_0253 resizedInterior design shops displayed stunning glass lamps, tables and artwork. In some artisan shops, we watched as craftsmen made glass jewelry. Tourist shops bulged with a large variety of colorful Murano glass items. I bought some pendants and earrings with intricate glass designs that are distinctively Morano.

I caught the ferry back to Venice in time to enjoy a ride down the Grand Canal at sunset using my transportation day pass. The evening splendor along the Grand Canal was a fitting ending to a lovely day of exploration in the lagoons of Venice.IMG_0378 resized.

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The Magic of Venice

IMG_0385 resizedIMG_0426 resizedWhen it comes to being a tourist in Venice this time of the year, high tide needs to be taken into consideration if one wants to navigate easily through the often-flooded, historic St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), the principal public square of Venice. IMG_0230 resizedBut nobody should ever be concerned they will be caught off-guard. Street and shop vendors are more than happy to sell you a set of colorful, disposable plastic boots that slide over your shoes for less than 10 Eur

I arrived in Venice after a six hour train ride from Rome. By doing some online research in advance,IMG_0123 resized I learned that the lively walking street just off the main train station had many highly-rated budget hotels. I had left my large backpack in my hostel in Rome and was traveling for a week with only essentials in a day pack. This gave me some freedom to walk around at my leisure to find a suitable place to stay. I soon found a charming hotel room on this walking street for 30 Euros per night and made it my headquarters for a week.IMG_0109 resized

St. Mark’s Square is home to such historic landmarks as St. Mark’s Basilica, the Clock Tower, and the Doge’s Palace. IMG_0193 resizedThe palace was the residence of the Doge of Venice, the supreme authority of the former Republic of Venice which was from late 7th century AD until 1797. When high tide loomed, platforms which laid dormant until needed, suddenly became useful when placed end to end for walking above flooded areas.

IMG_0295 resizedI often cruised the Grand Canal on one of the regularly scheduled “water buses” for 2 Euros, leaving the rides on the expensive gondolas to other tourists. IMG_0178 resizedThe locals also used gondolas to ferry across canals. Church bells often drowned out the sound of the engines of boats that plied the waters. Occasionally unpleasant smells from the canals would disrupt the awe I was feeling as I strolled over quaint bridges and along narrow canals.

IMG_0200 resizedI searched out the old Jewish Ghetto. It was a distinct island in the middle of the city. This made it relatively easy for centuries for authorities to control the movement of the Jews who resided there. More on this in a future blog.IMG_0258 resized

Many shops among the back streets and canals specialize in Venetian masks. The variety ranges from cheap commercial grade to extremely intricate, expensive designs. These masks are a centuries-old tradition, and are typically worn during the Carnival.

IMG_0471 resizedIMG_0488 resizedThe extensive Rialto market has been the city’s principal market for centuries. I often stopped there for fresh local fruit and baked bread at nearby bakeries. The oranges were juicy and apples were crisp. The baked goods were awesome! The market bustled in the shadow of the picturesque, historic Rialto Bridge which spans the Grand Canal. Tourists flock to this bridge for photos.

On my return to Rome I acquired a front row seat on the second level of a Pullman bus with a great view of the countryside and a plug for my computer. Inspiration flowed as I drafted this story of my adventures in the magical Venetian lagoon.  

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Categories: Italy | 3 Comments

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