Masada Siegel, Special to cjnews.com, Wednesday, August 9, 2011
Venice is one of those dreamy cities filled with blue-green canals, quaint bridges, magnificent art and outdoor cafés. Every sense is seduced, from the scent of freshly baked pizza, to the sight of people gently floating by on boats, ships and gondolas.
We wandered through streets lined with glassware, masks and bakeries. In every direction, a new secret path to take, each appearing more enchanting than the one previous. It was a challenge to decide where to let our feet take us.
Somewhere, on one of the twisty roads leading to another small bridge, a gondolier was singing in the distance. My friend Kathy, who had joined me on this adventure, smiled and said, “Do you realize we are in Venice, Italy? Should we go find that cappuccino I’ve been dreaming about?”
This was Italy at its finest, the cool, crisp air blew against my face, and the lapping waters of the canals sounded like music. But the best was yet to come – a floating palace awaited us. No need to roll my large suitcase onto water taxis or over canals.
Royal Caribbean cruise line is all about the “royal” treatment. Our stateroom welcome included a bouquet of red roses and a heaping platter of fruit. Every day, we were surprised with overflowing plates of chocolate and cheese, not to mention a menagerie of creatures, like elephants and bats, which had been created out of towels to greet us upon returning from off-ship adventures.
The ship, Voyager of the Seas, accommodates more than 3,000 passengers, and the choice of on-board activities is endless, including ice-skating and rock climbing. Fancy eateries abound, and there’s even a Johnny Rockets restaurant. The stops included Kuper in Slovenia, Dubrovnik in Croatia, and Bari, Ravenna and Venice in Italy, and the ship provided myriad choices for excursions, while more independent travelers could tour on their own or hire a guide.
The first evening, we set off accompanied by a spectacular sunset while cruising down the enormous Giudecca Canal. According to many, Giudecca means “the Jewry.” Hundreds of people gathered on the top deck of the ship to see the splendors of St. Marks Square and the city of Venice as we silently sailed into the night.
Our next day started early in Slovenia, and began with a downpour. Regardless of wet feet, Kathy and I ventured into Kuper and found a quaint café off the main square, where we proceeded to escape the rain, indulge in coffee and enjoy the free wireless Internet.
The sun started to peek out just as our private tour guide, Alen, picked us up and whisked us through the spectacular Slovenian countryside. The Soca River was unbelievably aqua-blue and we were astounded by a huge waterfall flowing out of a mountain of sheer rock.
Slovenia, a country of two million people, is so pristine, it seemed to be a Hollywood set. The views were breathtaking, and Alen’s driving at breakneck speeds, about 200 kilometres an hour, left me breathless.
We drove through the windy roads of the Slovenian Alps, snow on the ground in areas, and the steep mountains, which were littered with flocks of sheep. One feisty fellow made a beeline straight for us. He seemed to have a hankering for cameras and kept nudging me to take his photo.
Lunch was at Milka, a restaurant in Kranjska Gora, overlooking a white snow-capped mountain and a sparkling blue lake surrounded by green grass dotted with flowers. The delicious food and warm atmosphere of the restaurant contributed to the magic of the day.
Grinning, Kathy said, “Slovenia is just as beautiful as Switzerland; this must be one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.”
Our day concluded with a stop at scenic Lake Bled and a drive through the Italian port city of Trieste, just across the border from Kuper in Slovenia.
The evenings on the ship added to the adventure and included Broadway-style shows in a theatre that holds hundreds of people. Then there are the endless meal choices and bars and there are bands playing in seemingly every corner. The attention to detail was exceptional; it was hard not to grin at the smile-inducing sculptures fashioned out of various melons and fruit.
The next few stops were in Italy, and one of the excursions possible from Ravenna was a trip to Florence. It’s a bus and train ride away, but well worth the effort.
The Italian Jewish community dates back to 161 BCE, when Jason Ben-Eleazar and Eupolemus Ben-Johanan came as Judah Maccabee’s envoys. Jewish merchants, doctors and bankers started settling in Florence in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.
The Great Synagogue of Florence, built between 1874 and 1882, was designed in a Moorish style; the design is a mix of traditions of the Islamic and Italian worlds. Every inch of the synagogue is decorated with mosaic and marble, and the internal walls are painted with intricate designs. It successfully survived the Second World War, though there were attempts to destroy it. For a time, the Nazis used the synagogue as a warehouse and as a stable, and bayonet marks are still visible on the doors of the holy ark. Before the fascists fled Florence, they mined the synagogue with explosives. Fortunately, the partisans were able to defuse most of the bombs. One gallery fell, but was replaced.
A wonderful way to experience the synagogue today is to attend services. As well, the second floor hosts the Jewish Museum of Florence, whose exhibits include Torah scrolls, ketubot and a variety of silver Judaica.
Leaving Italy, the adventures continued in Dubrovnik. While the beach is the ultimate Dubrovnik destination, with its clear-blue waters, another piece of Jewish history is just steps away. In the rebuilt old city of Dubrovnik is Europe’s second-oldest synagogue.
The Dubrovnik synagogue was built in 1652 in the Italian Baroque style. The sanctuary is divided by three arches and is decorated with ornate fabrics dotted with gold. The chandelier is particularly striking. The synagogue suffered severe damage to its roof during the Yugoslav shelling of Dubrovnik in 1991, but was eventually repaired. In the early 2000s, the first floor was converted into a museum chronicling the local Jewish community and honoring members of the community killed during the Holocaust.
When you leave the synagogue, be sure to catch a glance at the brick wall outside, as it says, in Hebrew, “Bless you when you leave.”
The cruise ship itself was dreamy; I especially enjoyed my balcony, reading and writing, staring at the endless blue of the water, and the one day we had on board the ship was relaxing. I ventured to a yoga class at the day spa and attended the ice-skating extravaganza, featuring Canadian, Russian and American skaters. Tears welled up as I watched this visual masterpiece. I was so impressed, I saw it twice the same day!
Early the next morning, as the sun sparkled on Venice, the ship glided by the new levee system being built to protect Venice from its rising waters. The day started with a Royal Caribbean excursion to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and a glass factory on the island of Murano, home to the exquisite Murano glass and a famous gondola ride.
Later in the day, we boarded a bus – a waterbus – to Venice’s Jewish Quarter, which was once the ghetto. We toured the Jewish museum and explored the stunning synagogues, many of which are from the Renaissance era. Each one is built to the style and taste of the community that built it, but a general Venetian influence is apparent. The famous architect Baldassarre Longhena, who designed many churches, restored the Spanish synagogue, for example, which is spectacular.
The community has erected a memorial to victims of the Holocaust, and art galleries filled with unique pieces of Judaica, such as dreidels and mezuzot made of Murano glass, and a kosher restaurant are open for business.
As I wandered back toward the ship, I bought a pink mask. There was going to be a masquerade ball for the last night of the cruise. The sun had started to set and a golden glow danced over Venice’s waters. While the adventure was over, the party was just beginning.
Masada Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.
Venice, Calif. — Zar, one of my best friends, stared at me, wondering if I had been hiding under a rock and not heard the news for weeks. He said: “Absolutely not, you are not going, and certainly not solo.”
I responded cheekily while Matt and Kathy stared at me over brunch at Rose Café in Venice, Calif.: “Yes, I know about the Arab Spring, but it is summer. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry I’ll check to make sure there’s no revolution before my trip.”
Years earlier, my friend Justin showed me pictures of a place so majestic, so magnificent, I knew I had to see it with my own eyes. It took me a few years to finally get back to the region, and when I finally arrived to Eilat, Israel, the night before my adventure, I became ill. Instead of seeing an ancient city hidden for centuries – Petra, Jordan – I visited the emergency room. I was determined that this time nothing was going to interfere with my dream, not even a revolution.
This summer, I was in Israel, and the travel gods were taunting me yet again. I was at my favourite place on the planet, my namesake, Masada, and I was stuck with the most unpleasant group of tourists. (The two oldest members, in their 70s, were the menschen of the group.) Not only were most of them grumpy and unpleasant, but a few were downright mean.
Sometimes miserable situations can actually lead to positive ones. At least that is what my mom has told me numerous times. Although when in the midst of a situation where you happily consider pushing nasty people off a mountain, it’s hard to imagine.
I kept to myself, took photos and tried to absorb the positive energy of the mountain while avoiding the negativity emanating from some members of the group. The desert light bounced off the blue Dead Sea. The mountain was stark but stunning.
On the overlook where you could see Herod’s palaces, I noticed two blond women. They offered to take my photograph. I accepted and chatted briefly with Janet and Jen and snapped a few photos for them, too.
On the cable-car platform down the mountain we met again. Jen lives in Israel, as her husband works for the U.S. State Department and Janet was visiting her. Somehow our conversation veered to another magical, historical place, the place of my dreams, Petra, Jordan. I mentioned I was going later in the week, and Janet said she was interested in joining me on the adventure. We exchanged cards and promised to be in touch.
Janet and I met on the plane in Sde Dov, a small regional airport in Tel Aviv. She was the last one on the plane. Janet apparently told security: “I am travelling with Masada who I met at Masada and we are going to Petra.” Needless to say, they most likely thought she had lost her marbles and proceeded to thoroughly investigate her!
We arrived at Eilat, and our tour company, Eco Tours, whisked us away straight to the border. Janet grinned. She’s a relaxed traveller and had no idea what I planned. She had called the tour company and said: “Book me on whatever Masada is doing.”
The Israeli tour company Eco Tours is known as one of the best. The company customizes tours in Israel, Jordan Sinai and Egypt. In Jordan, it works with a counterpart that is also well organized and helpful.
After leaving passport control on the Israeli side, we started to walk to the Jordanian side. Janet said: “Do you see all barbedwire fences? There are minefields on both sides of the crossing. This is so odd. I feel like I am in a movie.”
Jordanian soldiers with automatic machine guns checked our passports and a man name “Light” met us at the border and helped us with the formalities of entering Jordan.
Mohammad, our driver, was waiting in a black Mercedes. We drove past Aqaba, past a new hospital being built, an army training facility and then through countless kilometres of desolate desert until we arrived to Petra. On the way, our driver pointed out a mountain named Jabal Harun. It’s 1350 metres high and on the top is a white domed mosque. Built in the 14th century, it is believed that Moses’ brother Aaron is buried there.
Petra, a mythical city, was unknown to the western world until 1812, when Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered the ancient city carved into the red rocks. The city was established around the sixth century as the capital city of the Nabataeans, a tribe that turned the city into an important link on the historic spice route extending from India to Syria to East Africa.
It’s easy to see why Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. The magic of generations past seems to whisper to visitors as they walk through the entrance to the city, or the siq. It’s a narrow gorge, more than one kilometre in length and surrounded on both sides by soaring, 80-metre-high cliffs. There is also a sophisticated water conduits system that runs through the siq, and ancient works of art decorate the tall, majestic narrow passageways.
Walking through the narrow passageways, I felt like an ancient explorer. I was mesmerized by the phenomenal colours and formations. At the end you see the first glimpse of the breathtaking Al-Khazneh, known as the Treasury.
The Treasury, carved out of the reddish-pink rock, is a massive façade 30 metres wide and 43 metres high. It was carved in the early first century, and was used as the tomb of an important Nabataean king.
Petra was conquered and re-conquered by many different groups, each one leaving different marks. For instance, in 106 CE, the city was incorporated into the Roman Empire. The Roman influence is evident through many aspects, but especially through the broken Roman columns found on one of the boulevards called the Colonnaded Street. There is also a mosaic at the Petra Church, from the Byzantine time, made of stone and glass cubes and featuring Greco-Roman designs.
There was even a Jewish/Israel connection. In the entrance of Petra, there is the Obelisk Tomb, which originates from the four obelisk-shaped steles crowning the monument. They are believed to represent the souls of the dead. Interestingly, the obelisks are called “nefesh,” a Hebrew word that means the soul and breath of life of a person, their essence.
While the history of Petra is mysterious still today, papyri discovered in the caves of the Judean Desert reveal that Petra had a senate and archives, and that it was visited by the Jewish inhabitants of the province.
Janet and I wandered for hours, into caves, atop hills, and into rooms that were once tombs brilliant with colours. We braved the 800-step climb through the afternoon heat of 40 C to see the “Deir,” also know as the “Monastery,” another magnificent sculpture built into the rocks, at the top of a mountain. The views seemed endless, and the architecture unbelievable. It was easy to imagine the busy merchants and the hustle and bustle of a city teeming with people. While now a place primarily for tourists, its energy makes history come alive.
Petra was more magical than I imagined. It took years of perseverance, luck and timing. Even the misfortune of illness and terrible travel companions all led up to meeting a great person, Janet, to join me on my adventure.
As we left Petra while the sun was setting, glowing over the reddish pink buildings, we stopped and watched the colours change. Janet turned to me and said: “Wow, what an adventure. Meeting you was a gift.”
I grinned and replied: “And thank you. This unlikely adventure, totally random meeting, made this trip even better then I could imagine! I love it. Sometimes dreams really do come true in the most unusual of ways!”
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