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.