Spring in Southern Italy

Southern Italy was our destination as we set out with our dear friends and not a small amount of trepidation as to whether we would still be good  friends by week’s end (I am happy to report that we are).We landed in Rome, rented a brand new BWM (10 km on the odomoter) and after stuffing our bags into the almost big enough trunk, our adventure began.

The Four of Us

The Four of Us

Seasoned slow travelers that we are, we prepared our friends for the notion that we would not see everything there was to see, nor even a fraction of what is to be found in Lonely Planet or Rick Steve, but that what we would see, we would savor and enjoy.Deciding between Pompeii and Herculaneum was our first joint decision, but since our friends had made all the land arrangements and left the touring to us, Heruculaneum it was. The rain clouds parted as we parked at the edge of town at the “scavi” (Italian for excavation).

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Herculaneum

This major site goes largely unnoticed compared to it’s much more famous sister, Pompeii, and as far as I am concerned that was all to our advantage as another tenet of slow travel is to avoid crowds.    The day we visited there were a few tourists there and thus we were able to leisurely explore the site, without being trampled by the  hordes.  We picked up a local tour guide who showed us the highlights of the site and went into great detail about the differences between Pompeii and Herculaneum.  When Mt. Vesuvius blew it’s lid on the Ninth of Av in the year 79 (a mere nine years after the destruction of our temple in Jerusalem) it first covered Pompeii in thick ash, and only a day later, when the wind changed sent hot mud streaming down the mountain to cover the much closer Herculaneum.  Herculaneum, the summer watering grounds of Roman upper crust society,  was thus preserved down to the furniture and wall frescos, and of course the grisly remains of human skeletons were found too.  The site is quite remarkable and we enjoyed our introduction to ancient Roman culture with its emphasis on joys of the flesh and not too much worry about the world to come.

After driving through Sorrento, up the winding mountain road to our villa in the town of Saint Agate, we were happy to settle in, unpack, and run out to the local fruit and vegetable market for garnet red raddiccio, mushrooms and espresso coffee.  Enjoying the wine and cheese we brought with us from Israel and the local olives, as our food cooked, it seemed like an auspicious first day, and a wonderful start.

Day two dawned partly cloudy to the aroma of fresh espresso.  After a hearty breakfast we set out for the Amalfi Coast renowned for its breathtaking scenery, with cliffs meeting the sea at precipitous angles, and little villages virtually hanging off the sheer side of the mountains.  We weren’t disappointed and caught some beautiful views.

Amalfi Coast and Positano

Amalfi Coast

Positano

Positano

As you might imagine, the roads are sinuous and winding and provided some not insignificant challenges to our wonderful driver, Mike . Sometimes it is the better part of valour to just sit and wait like when we met the bus below on a road wide enough for one.

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.We spent some time in the town of Amalfi, wandering the streets and alleyways and visiting an interesting paper museum.

Town of Amalfi
Town of Amalfi

The next day we set out for the island of Capri, a short boatride from Sorrento. While waiting for the boat we enjoyed exploring Sorrento, a quaint seaside town, with many reminders of it’s glorious past.  Some of those reminders are the archways in buildings.  Others, like the local “men’s club” below, are truly fantasti remains of ancient glory.  There were actually men playing cards in the corner!

Sorrento Men's Club
Sorrento Men’s Club

Capri, the playground of the rich and famous is a charming seaside island.  We took a cable car ride up the tallest mountain, and wandered around soaking up the views and atmosphere, deciding that it was worth a one time visit, but we didn’t have to return.

On the way to Capri
On the way to Capri
Cable Car over Capri
Cable Car over Capri

Friday was spent packing up, grocery shopping, moving on to Naples and getting ready for Shabbat.  Little did we know what was in store for us.  When we stepped into our apartment in Naples we found ourselves in a palace.  The view on to the Bay of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius was world class.  The antiques and furnishings were museum class, the chandeliers would be the envy of any housewife in Boro Park.  We baked challah and cooked wonderful food, enjoying the bounty of the Italians both the sea and the land.

"our" view of Vesuvius
“our” view of Vesuvius

“Our” Palace in Naples

Shabbat was spent like most of our shabbatot: davening, eating, sleeping, walking.  We went to the only active synagogue in Naples, a twenty minute walk from our place.  Total membership: 100.  Not too impressive, and not overly friendly.  My overriding impression is that it is a struggle to be Jewish in Naples, and it is remarkable that the synagogue even exists.  Saturday night we went for a walk in search of a kosher pizza that wasn’t to be.  Walking on the seaside promenade where the four lane boulevard was closed for pedestrian traffic was clearly what most  Napolitans were doing. It felt like the whole city of 3 million was out at 10 PM walking the streets- grandparents, youngsters and even little babies. The boulevard is lined with restaurants, all offering pizza, as Naples is the birthplace of that most wonderful of foods.

Sunday morning we met Roberto Modiano, our local Jewish tourguide.  He packed an amazing amount of sites into the five hours we were with him.  We started out on an unremarkable Napolitan street.  Little did we expect to see the thousands of skeletons that greeted us as we entered the caves that were actually the leftover stone quarries.  The earth under Naples is called “tuffo” and this is the yellow building stone that is used in this area.  Naples sits on more than 150 kilometers of tunnels and caves, with very few of them opened to the public.  We were luck to see two.  The first was the dumping grounds of Naples during the black plague in the 1500s and the more recent malaria plague in the 1800s.  Tens of  thousands of corpses were dumped here.  As time passed, local people would “adopt” a skull, and build a box for it.  They would come to visit the skull, and bring offerings, asking for intercession in the heavens above; requests might be for health, marriage, or children.  When the miracle was wrought, the happy supplicant would show his thanks by preparing a plaque, or building a nicer box for the skull.  This practice went on until the 1950s when it was outlawed and the cave was closed.  After a massive cleanup effort, the caves were reopened only a couple of years ago.

Thousands of Skulls
Thousands of Skulls
Adopted Skulls
Adopted Skulls

After touring more subterranean sites, seeing ancient Greek and Roman ruins, as well as palaces, we also saw the remnant of the Jewish Quarter, noted only by a small street sign.  There are virtually no remainders of Jewish presence in Naples, and in fact the Jews were here for only a very short time after the expulsion from Spain in 1492.  They came back in the 1800s, but the community was always quite small.

Subterranean Naples
Subterranean Naples

Before leaving Naples we stopped at it’s most famous coffee shop for world class coffee served by barristas who are proud of what they do.

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Making Coffee is an Honorable Profession

Sunday afternoon we loaded up our trusty BMW and headed off to Rome.  We stopped on the way for breathtaking views from the top of  Monte Cassino.

Mounte Cassino
Mounte Cassino

Arriving in Rome in the evening we were most disappointed with our “kosher” B & B, Cesar’s Palace, so we decided to cut our losses, and stay there only one night, rather than two.  We salvaged the night by driving down to the Jewish Ghetto and eating in Ba’Ghetto, an authentic Italian dairy restaurant.  We finally got our pizza.

On our one day in Rome we did a walking tour  of downtown Rome, guided by the tireless Rick Steve, revisiting favourite piazzas and fountains, the Pantheon, and enjoy the world’s best coffee at Café D’Oro right near the Pantheon.  We grabbed a cab to the Vatican Museums where with the help of audio guides saw highlights of this most amazing of museums.  The Sistine Chapel was the final stop of this visit, and once again the irreverent Rick Steve guided us through it, this time on a downloaded audio (highly recommended).  Seeing the famous panel of God creating man is slightly underwhelming, but the overall effect of the Chapel, and the richness.

Roman Fountain
Roman Fountain
Roman Market - Campo Fiori
Roman Market – Campo Fiori
We ended our wonderful trip with a celebration dinner, this time at the meaty BaGhetto.  All in all a wonderful trip.  Fortunately I threw a coin in the Trevi Fountain so I know that I will be back soon.
Throwing a Coin in Trevi Fountain

Throwing a Coin in Trevi Fountain

Slow Cruising

One could technically argue that cruising is anything but slow.  Port hopping, frenzied excursions, tourist hordes would seem to weigh in on the side of the frenzied tourist.  On the other hand the mammoth cruise boats do not got faster than 22 knots an hour allowing for a leisurely place in moving around the scenic Caribbean. This fall Mike and I were initiated into the delights of cruising and found it slow cruising indeed.  We were two of the lucky 1700 guests who boarded the Holland America Line “Zuiderdam” in Fort Lauderdale on a sun dappled afternoon in late October.  We chose our maiden voyage without much forethought or research, finding the date and length appropriate and the destinations exotic sounding and far enough from home to make it sound like a real vacation.

The Zuiderdal - "Our" Ship

The Zuiderdam – “Our” Ship

Upon boarding  ship we found our stateroom with king size bed, sofa, coffee table, desk and chair, very comfortable, and our veranda looking out to sea, outstanding.  The fruit bowl and ice bucket were full and remained magically filled our entire stay.  We began to explore the ten decks of the ship and all of its offerings almost immediately, since our bags had not yet been delivered and we were both hungry and curious.

Ah yes- hungry…that was the last time we were hungry while aboard ship.  We found to our delight an open buffet serving approximately 23 hours a day (we never did check to see if they were open at 2 AM), with an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables and drinks.  Later research opened up new vistas to us with kosher ice cream and baked goods as well as bagels and lox.

After filling our bellies we moved on to the spa where we quickly signed up for the “thermal suite” allowing us entrance to the thalasso-therapy pool, wet and dry saunas and heated ceramic chairs overlooking panoramic windows to the sea. You can be certain that we did not miss even one daily visit to the spa which was open daily from 7 AM to 10 PM, allowing us even a quick visit on Saturday night.  Down the hall from the spa was the remarkably spacious gym.  It was situation right at the front of the boat on the ninth deck with large windows facing the sea. We both enjoyed daily workouts and exercise classes, starting off each day with time in the gym.

Many people have asked us, “Didn’t you get bored?” and the answer is a resounding no.  Remember that slow travel allows one time for contemplation and reflection, naps, and long talks, reading and writing on our veranda, and listening to music as we watched the sun setting over the Caribbean.  Neither of us was bored for a minute.  When we wanted to partake, there were activities galore: cooking classes, trivia, ping pong tournaments, daily movies in a full-fledged movie theatre, shows and more.

Mike and the Towel Animal

Mike and the Towel Animal

Our Indonesian room stewards, Fadley  and Singam, pampered us and took care of us so well that I begged them to come home with us.  They smiled.  Every night they would leave a different “towel animal” on our freshly made bed along with two chocolates.  Mike loved the animals so much he took private lessons with Fadley.  The wait staff in the main dining room were also extremely solicitous and helped us navigate kosher eating with no difficulties at all.  We had chosen open eating so some days we dined alone, and others we chose to sit at larger tables enjoying the company of our fellow travelers.

In between the days at sea we stopped at six ports in our twelve days.  Each port provided a different opportunity to sample the richness of life around the Caribbean Sea.  Our first stop was at an island in the Bahamas, Half Moon Cay, owned by Holland America. There we soaked up the sun, swam and snorkeled.  I was lucky enough to see a barracuda and other colorful fish.  It was a lovely day at the beach, sun, turquoise sparkling water, white sandy beaches, with palm trees weighted down with coconuts.  A picture of paradise.

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Our second stop was in Aruba where we joined an excursion from ship to sail and snorkel a famous wreck called the Antilles.  The excursion was fun, and afterwards we joined a couple we met and explored Aruba by dark (no pics). We quizzed the tour guide/driver so thoroughly asking him endless questions about life in Aruba that I am sure he had no idea what hit him and he is still recuperating till this very day. I think our enthusiasm to find out about Aruba expressed the limitations of cruising in that you have very little time to meet the local folks and get a feel for life in each country.  If you take that as a given, then you can be happy cruising.

Our third stop in Curacao gave us the opportunity to spend a full day scuba diving, with a prearranged local dive club.  We were most fortunate that the dive master took us up the island to the tip, allowing us a chance to see much of Curacao before reaching one of the best dive sites on the island.  We were not disappointed.  Both Curacao and Aruba boast beautiful beaches and a lively tourist trade, but they are quite poor, and the contrast between fancy tourist hotels and local housing is quite stark.

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Curacao country side inlet

After a day at sea to rest (fortunately for us it was Shabbat), we set out early Sunday morning to explore Cartegena, Columbia, a picturesque walled city replete with colonial history including many building where, “Sir Frances Drake slept here.”  We set off on our own, taking a cab from the port to the old city, where we were convinced by a local guide, Manuel, to hire him to show us around.  He convinced us by telling us that he was actually learning to be a tour guide and he wanted to practice.  He told us that we could pay him whatever we wanted.  Thinking it over, Manuel may have a good thing going with that story, but he gave us a great tour and we saw far more than we would have rambling around on our own.

Cartegena Coastline

Cartegena Coastline

Old City - Cartegena

Old City – Cartegena

Monday 6 AM found us outside onthe fourth deck with hundreds of other passengers vying for the first site of the Panama Canal.  After a short while we found better vantage points on the tenth deck that provided both air conditioned comfort and chairs to sit in as we watched our progress through the Canal.  Was it interesting? Mildly.  We both have seen canals before, and this is really no different than the Erie Canal or the one I saw as a child on the St. Lawrence Seaway.  The history of the Canal is quite interesting, and its importance in world shipping and world affairs is great. Many folks set off for excursions so that they could say that they had touched the Atlantic and Pacific in one day.  We chose to stay on board, and limited ourselves to enjoying the local supermarket at our stop in Colon, which apparently is one of the high points in this rather sad looking city in Panama.  Interestingly enough, there was a shelf full of kosher products, many of them from Israel there.  On the checkout line we met some of the staff of the boat, one of them a young guitarist in a jazz band. After talking to him we decided to check out his band, and found another nice music venue on the boat featuring swing and jazz music nightly.  Up until that time we had spent many evenings listening to a singer playing acoustic guitar to accompany himself in singing songs of the 60s and 70s.  Just our cup of tea (or glass of wine, should I say?).

Blue or Grey Heron, Costa Rica

Blue or Grey Heron, Costa Rica

Our final port stop was in lush, green Costa Rica, a country with no army, the highest standard of living in Central America and an unbelievable array of wildlife.  We joined a few other people from our cruise and hired a minibus and tour guide to take us to the Torkegena Canal where we took a boat ride and saw exotic birds, iguanas, sloths, monkeys and lush vegetation.

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Sloth Close Up, Costa Rica

Rounding out the trip were two more magical days at sea, enjoying the slow and easy pace and the feeling of being far, far away. The blue waters all around, sunrises and sunsets, the slight movement of the ship that lulled us to sleep, the sunny afternoons sitting on the porch, all these are snapshots of a great time on a slow cruise.

Sunrise over the Caribbean

Sunrise over the Caribbean

Rainfall in Jakarta

Technically this was anything but slow travel.  At the last minute I was asked to join a delegation to teach a seminar in psycho social interventions after disaster in Jakarta, Indonesia.  How could I refuse? I, who have never been farther east than Amman, Jordan, was offered a chance to take a peak at the great East for one week.  I knew at the start that I would have little opportunity for sight seeing, and slow travel would be a non-existent commodity.  Urban landscapes was what was on offer, along with the jet set age and a week of intense teaching about trauma and resilience.  Yet I agreed feeling the pull of the road, the spirit of adventure and the opportunity to meet a new culture and way of life.  I was also pleased to be meeting with a group comprised largely of mental health professionals from the Crisis Center at the University of Indonesia, teaching them about resilience and learning from them how they meet the challenges of frequent natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes as well as ethnic and religious violence.

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So while I did not see much of the traditional sightseer’s delights, I did get a peek of life in Jakarta, a simmering city of over seventeen million residents by day and around ten to twelve million after sun down.  As you can imagine, a city of that size is plagued by traffic jams, and many life decisions are dictated by that.  The hotel we stayed at, for example, was in the middle of nowhere with little to do after hours, however the reason it was chosen was to avoid hour long traffic jams going to and from the seminar location in the beautiful new library at the University of Indonesia. Motorcycles are the preferred mode of transportation as the drivers can weave in and out of traffic. At a red light it is not uncommon to see one hundred or more motorcycles waiting for the light to turn green.

Indonesia is indeed a tropical country with lush vegetation, due to copious amounts of rainfall and equatorial climate (read: hot and humid!).  Upon arriving at the airport one is greeted by lovely gardens and greenery surrounding the departure gates giving no indication of the bleak urban landscape that lies beyond.

After making our way through moderate traffic- it took only one hour instead of the expected two to three hours predicted by our hosts, we arrived at the campus of the University of Indonesia where we spent most of our waking hours over the next five days.  The university is home to 60,000 students, and has a lovely campus with both older traditional buildings, like the psychology department, and newer ones like the library.

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U. of Indonesia Campus

 The library has been built with environmental sensitivity, so that half of the building is without windows and essentially is built into the mountain.  This is to reduce air conditioning costs which must be enormous, as the equatorial climate is hot and humid year round.  The weather while we were here hovered around 34 degrees with incredibly high humidity.  There were frequent rain showers which did nothing to cool things off, but rather just added to the steamy, sticky atmosphere.

Ecologically Built Library

Ecologically Built Library

The workshop, run by the JDC, who is trying to build bridges to more moderate Moslem communities worldwide, and is joined in this particular venture by the USAID, offered an opportunity to begin to meet the people of Indonesia, and get a tiny peek at understanding the diversity of ethnic groups, religions, geography, culture and language that make up this country called Indonesia.  It may be more accurate to consider Indonesia as a patchwork quilt of several major islands, many smaller ones (close to 18,000 in all) with over three hundred active languages and 500 ethnic groups.  While the major religion practiced is Islam, with 95% of the people considering themselves followers of Mohammad, their form of Islam for the most part is quite moderate, and incorporates many of the former Hindu and Buddhist practices into it.  Many, but not all women cover their head in the Islamic tradition.  Intermarriage appears to be fairly widespread, however not without its difficulties.  There have been several pockets of religious and ethnic violence over the years, although recently natural disasters have overtaken the internal strife, bringing people together to work at the common goal of restoration after destruction.

The Human Landscape

The Human Landscape

Our seminar was held in Jakarta, the capital city on the island of Java.  This is not the largest island, but it is relatively central.  People in our seminar came from a variety of islands, and ethnic groups, and are proud to be identified with where their mother or father have come from.  Bahasa is the common language, created so that the people of this diverse country could talk to each other.  From my understanding it is a simple, colloquial language, perhaps similar to Yiddish, in the sense that it is based on several of the local languages.  Most people will speak Bahasa, their local ethnic language, English, and perhaps one or two other languages as well.

Beautiful Faces of Indonesia

Beautiful Faces of Indonesia

One of the dominant pictures for me was the contrast between the lush green pockets, to be found in places like the University and the Mini-Indonesia we visited, and the huge urban sprawl, reminiscent of other third world countries such as Haiti and Bangkok.  The traffic, the smog, the huge air conditioned shopping centers for the rich, the hovels for the poor.  A world of contrasts, and a world of transitions.  Hopefully, the next time I make it over this way I will be able to indulge my passions of slow travel, leaving urban sprawl far behind.

Kosher Venice

For the kosher traveler Venice is a wonderful place to spend a few days or more.  On our current stay there we rented an apartment and brought with us a couple of pots so breakfast and lunch were a breeze.  Part of our enjoyment of Slow Venice was shopping with the locals in the small supermarket just over the footbridge which supplied us with milk, eggs, yoghurt and Barilla pasta.  The large outdoor market was a twenty minute walk away, and there we rubbed shoulders with local Venetians and were able to partake of the proliferation of colorful produce and the very fresh fish.  There were many kinds of greens and mushrooms that we had not seen before and we enjoyed trying them out.  Also readily available were sun dried tomatoes and pure olive oil which turned our pasta into a gourmet’s delight.

Outdoor Market

Outdoor Market

In terms of strictly kosher provisions there is a grocery store called Volpe  (Ghetto Vecchio, phone:  041-715178)  that sells kosher produce and bake goods.  It is located just a few steps down from the Chabad House in the Ghetto.  The store has long hours and excellent baked goods that are under the supervision of the local Jewish community (not Chabad) and while the counter people and we had no common language we had no trouble making our purchases and enjoying the fare. The fresh rolls and cakes added a nice touch to our late morning breakfasts and evening tea.

Right across from Volpe grocery is a kosher pizzeria, run by the local Chabad that serves coffee and sandwiches as well.  We did not have the opportunity to sample their wares, but the aromas wafting out of the small storefront were mouthwatering.

Eating at GamGam on the Canal

Eating at GamGam on the Canal

The high point of our Kosher Venice was the famous Gam Gam Restaurant located at 1122 Cannaregio, Venice (Main entrance of the Ghetto by the GuglieBridge).  GamGam has been around for close to twenty years under the kashrut supervision of the Chabad Rabbi Rami Banin and is the most remarkable of restaurants.  During the week it looks like a typical Venetian restaurant that fronts one of the many canals.  In fine weather diners can choose to sit at outdoor tables and enjoy the water traffic and soak up the unique atmosphere of Venice.  If weather is inclement the indoor seating is in two rooms that are tastefully appointed with pleasant lighting and ambiance.  When we ate dinner at GamGam on a weeknight, many if not most of the diners were tourists who did not look particularly “kosher” or Jewish, and were just looking for a good place to eat.  That reassured us that prices were reasonable. The menu included some Venetian specialties such as pickled sardines (yum) as well as typically Israeli and Jewish cuisine.  It was all tasty and prices seemed on par with other restaurants in Venice.

The fun begins on Shabbat and Jewish holidays  when GamGam undergoes a facelift and becomes the local Chabad House, serving meals to one and all without charge.  Donations are of course gratefully accepted and in fact encouraged but no one will be turned away, and the hospitality is amazing.  Hundreds of people are served  wonderful three course meals prepared by the Rebbetzin Shachar and her staff every Shabbat of the year.  It is both remarkable and heartwarming.  The Shabbat that we were there the restaurant was packed to overflowing, and four long tables were set up outside to accommodate the overflow.  Rumor has it that during high season in the summer meals take place in two shifts and over 300 people partake at each meal.  Eating at long communal tables with fellow Jewish travelers is always an interesting adventure and this is an experience not to be missed!

One last kosher option is the guesthouse/pension Giardino dei Melograni (phone number: 39 041 8226131) that is located right next to the Chabad House on the large square of the Ghetto and is under the supervision of the Chief Rabbi of Venice.  When we visited Venice they were sporadically operating a restaurant on the patio adjacent to the hotel called Hostaria del Ghetto, and we ate a lovely late lunch there accompanied by a bottle of Italian Kosher Prosecco. (Maybe that’s why the lunch was so lovely!).  The restaurant was not inexpensive, but the food was tasty and authentically Venetian.  Several days later we walked by the restaurant and it was closed, so it pays to make sure they are open before making plans.

Our Waiter Pouring Prosecco

Our Waiter Pouring Prosecco

All in all, Venice is an easy destination for the kosher traveler, and highly recommended.

On Vertigo in Venice

For those of you who have been following this blog, you know what a wonderful trip we had to Venice.  What may not be apparent in the reports thus far is the vertigo that attacked me the first night after arrival.

A Local Art Gallery Hosting a Show - Vertigo!

A Local Art Gallery Hosting a Show – Vertigo!

Vertigo is an interesting phenomenon- at least from my perspective a few months hence.  While you are experiencing vertigo your world tilts crazily, spinning out of control, often causing a sense of nausea and always accompanied by a feeling of disorientation.  The vertigo that attacked me, first time ever, made its presence known in the middle of our first night in Venice. As I groped my way to the bathroom that first morning, holding on to the walls for a sense of stability I was sure that our vacation had gone up in smoke.

In retrospect, Venice is a most interesting city in which to experience vertigo.  In fact, I believe, all first time visitors experience a certain amount of disorientation that comes with finding canals instead of streets, and waterbuses instead of motorized vehicles with wheels.  My vertigo was just a stronger case in point.

 Having vertigo in Venice actually contributed to our goal of slow travel.  We decided to avoid indoor buildings, museum and churches in those first few days, since that would encourage me to move my head in ways that were likely to bring on the horrible spinning sensations.  That means that the classic tourist sites of: the Basilica of San Marco and the Doge’s palace were on the “No” list.  That meant that we were free to spend our first few days in the glorious outdoors, enjoying the islands that dot the Venice harbor, and sport interesting houses and even more interesting crafts.  Lace making, for example.  Have you ever spent anytime considering the soon to be lost art of lace making?  The island of Burano, a 45 minute boat ride away from the main island of Venice not only sports the only lace museum in the world, but samples of intricate lace.  Just stopping to consider how much time and craft go in to this lost art is mind boggling, and humbling.

Burano Lace

Burano Lace

Our slow outdoor travels included long boat rides on vaporettas.  On the waterbus the fact that I was feeling unsteady was absolutely normal.  The boat was rocking .  Everybody was feeling unsteady. So was I.   We saw the sunrise and sunset over our lagoon, watching from either our apartment window, or from yet another vaporetto.  Vertigo also meant that I had to hang on to Mike tightly, so we walked through Venice arm in arm for a week.  Very cuddly.  While vertigo is not recommended it certainly did not ruin our vacation, and in many ways enhanced it.

Sunset Over the Lagoon

Sunset Over the Lagoon

Slow Venice 2: Travelling Around Venice

One of the great pleasures of Slow Travel is getting to where you are going.  Enjoying the ride rather than being focused on getting quickly to your destination so that you can pack in more, one can enjoy the sights, the people, the smells, and soak up the general atmosphere.  Slow travelling around Venice provides the perfect backdrop for enjoying the ride.

Vaporetto at "our" bus stop

Vaporetto at “our” bus stop

Vaporettos

Vaporettos or water buses are the most common form of transportation around Venice.  The tourist can buy a pass for varying lengths of time from 12 hours to seven days, and it is always more worthwhile than the very expensive cost of a single trip (7 Euro).  We purchased a seven day pass during our stay (cost:50 Euro each ) allowing us to enjoy this most unusual form of transportation during our entire stay.  Just imagine every time you want to go somewhere you get to take a boat ride.  The local Venetians of course take this in their stride, and by the end of our stay, we were quite blasé about the whole thing.  But the first few rides were very exciting indeed.  It is hard to imagine that this is the only form of public transportation. No buses, no trains, no trams no light rail, only vaporettos.  We particularly enjoyed the long ride out to the islands of Murano and Burano, the former a quaint island noted for its glassworks, and the latter known for its colorful houses and lace.  The weather was glorious, and with the winds in our faces (we chose to sit outside) the forty five minute ride allowed us to enjoy the water and the ride, and feel like we were getting a great deal into the bargain.

Colorful House in Burano

Colorful House in Burano

The Grand Canal

Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge

Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge

Another not to be missed ride is the vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal (Bus #1 ) an unforgettable ride through history.  Choosing to sit once again on the outside so that our view would be unobstructed we floated by scenery that felt like movie sets from Hollywood.  Decaying palaces lining both sides of the canal showed their architectural treasures from the Gothic to Moorish to Renaissance , and caught us breathless trying to keep up as we turned our heads from left bank to right bank.  The Rialto Bridge, perhaps the best known landmark of Venice is of course one of the high points of the Canal, and a great place to get off and explore the markets and shops.

Decaying Elegance on the Grand Canal

Decaying Elegance on the Grand Canal

On Footbridges and Trolleys

 Venice Footbridge

Once you reach the water bus stop closest to your destination you will usually have to walk a few steps, and this almost always entails a footbridge crossing one of the more minor canals.  These picturesque footbridges invariably consist of several steps up and several steps down making travel for the infirm or handicapped very difficult in Venice.  Dragging large suitcases any distance can be difficult as well, and therefore it is recommended to travel very light when going to Venice. Travelling Light? Most interesting perhaps of all are the trolleys or hand trucks that abound and are the preferred method for bringing produce and merchandise to vendors on the islands of Venice.  Garbage is  hung on hooks outside one’s entrance and carted away on hand trucks as well.

Trolley Carting Building Supplies

Trolley Carting Building Supplies

Gondolas

We couldn’t finish this piece on travel around Venice without mentioning what Venice is best known for: her gondolas and gondoliers.  A confession is in order here.  We did not splurge on a gondola, and splurge it is.  A gondola ride is similar to hiring a limousine for an excursion.  An hour long ride costs a mere 80 Euros, money we preferred to spend elsewhere.  The gondoliers are in fact a colorful addition to the human landscape of the city, and a memory of time’s past before the days of motorized water buses. Tourists seem to enjoy the ride but we preferred rubbing shoulders with the locals on our favorite vaporettos.

Gondolier at Rest

Gondolier at Rest

Tourist Tips

Purchase your vaporetto tickets at the Santa Lucia Central Train Station on arrival. Information about vaporettos can be found here.

Slow Venice

Venice is the ideal location for the weekend traveler.  Upon arrival in Marco Polo airport one already is immersed in Venice when alighting the vaporetto (waterbus)  that brings you, if you are lucky, to the doorstop of your hotel.  If you are less than lucky, you may spend several long minutes dragging your suitcase up and down pedestrian bridges that span the hundreds of canals that make up Venice.  Most people who come to Venice seem to come for a day or two, or at the most three.  It is usually wedged into an itinerary that may include the Quick Italy vacation (Rome, Florence, Milan, the Lakes in one week or less) or just a Northern version, focusing on Florence and the Dolomites.

Venice Canal

Venice Canal

Using All Our Senses

It was therefore, an unusual stroke of good luck that had us book our vacation to Venice for nine days and eight nights, suiting my emerging philosophy of “Slow Travel.”  This allows one to savor the unique flavor that is Venice, to walk the canals, see the changing lights reflecting on the water that is everywhere, visit one or two museums or churches in a day, and then spend time letting the sights settle in and percolate, before running off to the next site.  It is such a refreshing change from our daily rush, where we try to pack in more than is humanly possible in the shortest time known to man.  It allows all of our senses to absorb Venice, the smells of water and decaying buildings (not always pleasant), the light on the water, the sea breeze on our faces, and the bite of Venetian espresso on our palates.lagoon

Our days begin in Venice looking over the lagoon and marveling at the water traffic that wakens the city before daybreak, when the sky is just beginning to lighten in the east.  Boats of different sizes and shapes constitute the flotilla that brings produce, food, building materials, and all sorts of strangely shaped packages from the mainland to water locked Venice.  It boggles the mind to consider that every item available for sale in Venice has been transported here by water. Human beings are also transported by water to and from Venice, and it is not a rarity to see an ambulance boat or a waterborne funeral hearse with a mound of flowers on the casket.

Ambulance Boat

Ambulance Boat

The morning continues with a leisurely cup of coffee in the local café, one of the few places with free internet I have found.  The café is located right next to the waterbus stop, and serves as the coffee stop for the locals on their way to and from work.  Interestingly, they all take their coffee standing at the bar.  I learned the hard way that it is half the price to drink coffee standing as compared to sitting.  Of course, in order to use internet, one has to sit, and pay the price.

Part of the Slow Venice experience is renting an apartment in an out of the way neighborhood.  Our apartment was advertised as “magical stay overlooking the lagoon”.  The apartment, in a fairly typical ancient Venetian building is located on the first floor of a three story building.  The huge wooden doors that form the entry way need to be given a hard push of the hip in order to enter with a key into a pitch black hallway, that smells rather rank and dank, as do so many Venetian buildings, close as they are to the water.  One flight up, and another push of the hip brings us into our small apartment that, for lack of a better word, has character.  There is a small living dining room with a window overlooking the lagoon, a teeny but adequate kitchen, and a larger bedroom with a decent bed, and very little closet space.  Neither of us mind living out of our suitcases for the duration.  The only real downside of the apartment is the bright streetlights right outside our bedroom window, and the lack of shutters or Venetian blinds.  Wouldn’t you think they would have Venetian blinds in Venice??  Fortunately, the eye mask I brought for the airplane travel is serving me well.

Tourist Tips:

Kosher Budapest

On our recent mid-week stay in Budapest we enjoyed the sites offered by the Jewish community as well as the kosher eateries available nearby.  Our first stop after arrival was at the bakery/tea shop called Froelich at 16 Dob Ut. offered fresh baked goods including apple and cherry strudel.  One might sit there and enjoy the pastry with a cup of coffee but we were in a rush to make our guided tour, so we packed up some treats and were on our way to the Great Synagogue.

Great Synagogue on Dohanyi Street

Great Synagogue on Dohanyi Street

 The architect of this building, a Christian, was clearly influenced by the churches in the area, and the synagogue is more reminiscent of a church than a shul.  In its heyday there were 15000 families, and while it has been totally renovated and is in pristine shape, today there are no more than 200 families who count themselves as member of this synagogue.  One of the interesting features of the synagogue is an organ that is played by a non- Jew, granddaughter of the original organ player of this synagogue.

Making our way up the block from the synagogue we found three kosher eateries, Carmel, Hanna, and Carimama, a kosher pizzeria/dairy place.  All three eateries are located on Kazinczy Ut within about fifty meters of each other.  While they all advertise that they are open until 10 PM, in December, when we visited the only one that was open late was Carmel. As a result we ate there twice, and are unable to report on Hanna.

Carmel Restaurant

Carmel Restaurant

Carmel is an upscale glatt kosher restaurant with two main rooms, very nicely appointed with excellent service.  The large menu is illustrated with pictures of some of their choice dishes, which makes it a bit easier to choose.  The restaurant prides itself on Hungarian dishes including goulash soup, Hungarian noodles, fried blintzes and much much more.  We ate there on two occasions, and both times the food was excellent and beautifully served.  The vegetable soup was filled with the flavor of winter root vegetables including parsnips and carrots, while the Hungarian goulash soup was brimming with meat, potatoes and paprika.  Main courses of schnitzel and beef stew were hearty and filling, as were the vegetarian options of eggs and noodles, a typical Hungarian dish, and the potato blintz with mushroom sauce.  We polished off the meal with a local specialty called Gandal pancake, a pancake filled with nut cream and covered with chocolate sauce.  Delicious.  All this came at a price.  The restaurant was definitely not inexpensive.  Our meal, each night cost around 15,000 forints (approximately 300 shekel, or $75.) without tip.

The pizzeria, Carimama,  is a more reasonable option, and also provides a wide range of dishes beyond pizza.  This includes salads, soups, pastas, and some traditional Hungarian dishes as well. We enjoyed a pizza for two (2500 forints – 50 shekel) and purchased a Hungarian cake (750 forint- 15 shekel) to take home and enjoy with tea.  At the pizza shop one can also buy kosher bread and baked goods.

Farther along the street there is a small kosher grocery with items imported mostly from Israel and the UK.  We looked high and low for something to buy that might be Hungarian, and all we could find was sweet tokay wine (pass on that) and paprika, which we bought.

Budapest, when all is said and done, is easy on the kosher traveler.  If one enjoys the fruits and vegetables at the breakfast bar, and takes advantage of the kosher eateries, you can feel that you have taken advantage of Hungarian cuisine at its best.

Spa Number Two – Szechenyi Spa

The Szechenyi Spa (pronounced Set Sheyni)was our destination on day two of our sojourn in Budapest, city of spas.  After a lovely walk down Andrassy Ut, the so-called “Champs Elysee” of Budapest, and a quick peak at the ornate Opera House, we climbed down a few steps to a the orange line of the metro, a throwback to the 19th century, when this was the first metro built in all of Europe.  The stations are tiled in white and burgundy tiles, with wooden cabinet fittings; the look is entirely retro, but the metro is extremely functional, and brought us quickly to Hero’s Square and from there a short walk to this largest of all spas.

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The spa complex is an enormous yellow and white set of buildings built in 1909 in the modern Renaissance style, it is perhaps the largest spa in Europe.  The building circles a huge, heated swimming pool and a thermal pool of equally large proportions.  The swimming pool is heated to 28 C and the thermal pool clocks in at 38 C.  The waters themselves are quite comfortable; the only problem is getting in and out of them into the frigid 0 C weather. Unfortunately, I had to do that one extra time because I was not wearing a bathing cap, apparently a sanitary requirement in the outdoor swimming pool (not the thermal pool, don’t ask me why).  After swimming several laps, and enjoying the outdoor thermal pool, where you can observe men playing chess while immersed in the water as if this was a very normal, everyday sort of event, we made a mad dash to the indoor pools of which there are no less than 19!  Each one is a slightly different size and has the temperature of the pool noted above it.  The waters range from 28 C-40 C allowing one to choose or go between the various pools.  All signs are in Hungarian, and in my attempts to understand what they meant I searched in vain for a Hungarian speaker.  Apparently, Mondays are tourist days, and while there were very few people speaking any language that I could recognize, there were no Hungarian speakers to help out. The pools were all filled, but there was room enough for all.

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After traveling among the various pools for two hours we indulged ourselves in a relaxation massage, which was quite similar to a massage in any spa we have visited, including massage table, soft music, candles, and pleasant cream.  The only unusual feature of my massage was that my masseuse, who spoke no English, answered her cellphone several times, and the knocks on the door at least twice.  Rather than getting annoyed, I figured this was my introduction to Hungarian spa culture, and let it pass.

After the massage we returned to our single sex changing rooms, and used our plastic watches to unlock our lockers, once again bundle up, and prepare to face the chilly Budapest evening.  A quick stop for a hot chocolate warmed our insides before making our way to a Bach filled organ concert in St. Stephen’s magnificent cathedral.

Tourist Info:

Szechenyi Spa can be reached by the orange metro line taken to the last stop.  Entrance to the spa which includes a locker is 3400 forint.  Towels can be rented, and one can upgrade to a private changing cabin as well.  Please note that one can rent a locker in the building with indoor baths (we didn’t know that), and if you prefer not to expose yourself to the cold outdoors this may be preferable.

Additonal spas you might want to try:

Gellert spa

Lukacs spa

Spa Hopping in Budapest – Round 1

Budapest_General-view-of-Royal-Palace

Arriving in the capitol of Hungary on a December morning, the grey, overcast skies and cold air greet you, and remind you that you are no longer in the mid-east but deep in the heart of Europe.  Any thoughts of sunshine, green lawns or trees, or flowers fade away.  The days are short, and darkness sets in at mid-afternoon.   It is no wonder then that thermal baths have taken front and center stage in Budapest’s long history.

 Apparently, the Romans who first built the city of Budapest, decided on this spot because of the thermal waters that are found all over the region.  Remnants of the Roman baths are hard to come by, but the city itself boasts 24 thermal spas that are open to the public.

Spa animals that we are, we set ourselves a goal of visiting one spa per day.  But which one to go to?  Ah, so many choices. How big? How historic? How many baths?  Rick Steve’s Budapest was a big help. We decided to take advantage of the coed policy on Sunday (all other days are single sex) at the Rudas Spa on the Buda side of the city. As you may know, the city of Buda pest is actually two cities: Buda and Pest with the Danube river running north/south through the city.  Our hotel is in Pest, as are most hotels, so we need to cross over the Danube on the Chain Bridge in the drizzle that accompanied us since arrival.  Having bought earlier in the day a 72 hour public transportation pass (3800 forints, allowing you to get on and off all modes of public transport – bus, train, tram) we decided to cut our walk short and hop a bus that seemed to be going in the right direction.  It was, but when we realized that we had arrived at our stop, we couldn’t figure out how to egress the bus, and overshot our stop by quite a bit.  After boarding a tram in the reverse direction, we eventually arrived at our destination, only to be met by a severe looking hostess who tried to convince us to purchase a combination ticket for the swimming pool and the baths so that we could enter immediately.  We were only interested at that point in the day (5 PM) in the baths, which entailed a 30 minute wait for a free changing “cabin”.  After paying (3200 forint each) we received plastic watches that allow entry into the spa, and into one’s personal cabin.  While waiting, we chatted with the folks on line and had a Hungarian draft beer (550 forint for a half litre – about $2!).

Finally we were allowed entry into the changing area,  whereupon, we realized that the two of us were assigned to one very small changing cabin more like a telephone booth.  Very small.  With the two of us in there neither of us could easily move without elbowing or kneeing the other.  We debated taking turns waiting outside, but decided to do it the Hungarian way, and so we did.  After mastering the art of changing in the cabin, we made our way to the spa, but not before checking to make sure that we had in fact understood that two people changed at once in these teeny, tiny cabins.  They did.

Rudas Spa

Rudas Spa

We made our way to the room containing the thermal spa on flip flops we had luckily remembered to bring and with our “borrowed” hotel towels that we had full intention to return.  (Renting a towel is an added expense).  The room that greeted us was Moorish in design, originally built in the 15th century,  with subdued lighting and a mist rising from the octagonal central pool in the middle of the room that was surrounded by four smaller pools in each corner of the room.  The central pool was 38 degrees Celsius, while the smaller ones ranged from a cool 28 C to a scalding 42C.  We gingerly made our way from pool to pool, eventually finding our comfort level matched in the 38 degree pool in the middle under a domed roof.  Looking around there were people of all ages, mostly couples, mostly speaking Hungarian, with perhaps a slight advantage for the under thirty crowd.  There was only one child in the entire complex.  After spending about 30 minutes moving from pool to pool we were ready for the plunge into the 10C freezing cold pool.  At least some of us were.  I was only able to make it in up to my knees, but there were several people fully immersed for several minutes.  Back to the warm pool for another set, until we were ready to rest in the quiet room on lounge beds.  Resting after thermal baths is both imperative, and perhaps the most enjoyable part of thermal bathing.  There is something about the chemicals in the water that afford one a natural “high” if you take the time to notice it.  Lying on the lounge bed, a lassitude takes over, and I float somewhere between imagination and sleep, savoring this feeling of deep and total relaxation.

After a quick, public shower, we return to our changing cabin, this time adopting our style of changing one at a time, bundling up to face the cold Budapest evening, where the misty drizzle of the afternoon has now turned into a bonafide rainfall.  Nothing that a hearty vegetable soup, and plate of Hungarian goulash won’t chase away.