The ABCs of Bruge

An extended layover on a recent cross Atlantic trip gave us the perfect excuse to spend a day in Bruge.  But who needs an excuse for a city that boasts the ABCs: atmosphere, beer and chocolate?  Many cities will tell you that they are famous for these three things but Bruge truly is.

Starting at the top, Bruge is a perfectly preserved medieval city with buildings dating from the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth century.  It is a compact city and easy to sample in a day, but a genuine slow traveler would more likely enjoy two or three days to partake in more of its pleasures.

We set off from the international airport of Brussels, and after an uneventful trip on two trains, we arrived after 90 minutes at the Bruge Central Station.  A quick walk down a treelined boulevard crossing several canals brought us to our first stop, a local taphouse.  We figured that liquid refreshment was in order, considering that Belgium is home to 300 different brews, and at any given bar you can find at least ten local brews on tap, ranging from pale ales to the more hefty trippels and even quadrupells.  As home brewers, we considered this part of our “continuing education.”  We limited ourselves to two very good brews, and thus outfitted we were ready to see the city.

IMG_20141126_132116 IMG_20141126_132514We found ourselves in Market Square, the medieval town center, flanked by two large palaces, one of them with a belltower of 300 steps that you can climb should you choose to do so.  We passed.  IMG_20141126_141933The picturesque square is lined at this time of year with Christmas fairs and booths selling wares of all kinds, mostly food and gifts.  This was our favorite booth.

IMG_20141126_141036One of the more remarkable features of Bruge is the number of chocolate shops that line the medieval city streets.  The sweet smell of chocolate is everpresent, like a cloud hanging over this wet, gray city.  We counted more than fifty shops, but I am sure that we didn’t seen them all.  Chocolate in various shapes and forms abound, each shop with its own specialty. One of the more remarkable ones we saw featured houses formed of chocolate.  Fortunately for us, there were no free tastes.

IMG_20141126_165752Wondering why one small city is possibly both  the chocolate and beer capital of the world, we considered the misty, grey sky, the startlingly short winter days, and the penetrating cold and decided that both chocolate and beer would be exceedingly good  “pick me ups,” and therapeutic indeed for those suffering from SAD- seasonal affective disorder.

We continued walking through the city, crossing canals, lined with charming row houses, perfectly maintained since the 17th century, soaking up the atmosphere, the chocolate smells, and considering which beer to drink next.

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We came across the eighteenth century fish market still active today, however our timing was off and all we met were the clean up trucks hosing down the stalls, and the fishy smells.  A quick look around brought us to the fresh fish store across the street sporting a mound of fresh matjes in the window.  Who could resist?

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We rounded out our visit with a beautiful harp concert in the St. John’s Hospital (no pics to show), and a visit to the Half Moon Brewery.  By the time we got to the Brewery the tours were over for the day, but they were more than happy to serve us their justifiably famous brews.

Ending the day in Bruge full and happy, with early twilight descending, and a faint mist turning into cold rain, we alighted the train back to Brussels and the continuation of our trans Atlantic trip.

 

 

 

 

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Driving the Dalmatian Coast, Slowly….

Travelling the Dalmatian Coast from Dubrovnik to Split with my daughter Shoshi could hardly be considered Slow Travel. Or could it?  Weighing in on the plus side is the fact that in the week we spent in Croatia we focused on one relatively small area, the 163 kilometer (101 miles) stretch from Dubrovnik to Split.  Although we considered driving to the world famous Plitvice Lakes, a mere eight hours from Dubrovnik, and almost went to it’s smaller and less famous sister the Krka National Park, we bagged them both and decided to slowly enjoy the drive.  What might seem to indicate that this trip was less than Slow Travel was the fact that Shoshi kept me on the move and we slept in  a total of six different beds in the seven nights that we spent in Croatia.

While 163 kilometers, or 101 miles may seem a paltry amount, the road that borders this most picturesque of coastlines is a narrow, two lane highway, following the winding contours of the coastline where the mountains abruptly drop off to the sea.  The 60 km speed limit, along with the temptation to make frequent stops at the quaint fishing villages meant that it took us two days to drive up the coast and another two days to drive back.  But more on that later.

a preview of the coastal road

a preview of the coastal road

Let’s start at the beginning.  Shoshi and I decided on Croatia rather last minute, after we found inexpensive charter flights to and from Dubrovnik, allowing us a full week to explore.  I had recently enjoyed being in Slovenia with Mike (see my report on Slow Slovenia), and was eager to continue exploring this region of the world.  That coupled with the fact that the flight was direct (2.5 hours from Tel Aviv) and inexpensive made it an easy decision indeed.

We arrived in the middle of the night (who says charters fly at convenient times??) at the Dubrovnik airport, located actually 20 km outside of Dubrovnik near a charming seaside village called Cavtas.  We booked a room in Cavtas, and after picking up our rental car, and examining it for scratches with the proprieter by the light of a cellphone (I guess that’s how they do it in Croatia), we made it without incident and with the help of the indefatigable  Waze, to our first bed of the trip.  When we awoke in the morning we were pleasantly surprised to note that if we craned our necks at a 90 degree angle we could get a view of the Adriatic Sea.  Clearly we would not be staying in the apartment any longer than necessary.  It had served its purpose.

We set out to explore Cavtas, and after a quick cup of coffee and granola bar (remember this isn’t quite the slow travel we have been accustomed to…) we drove to the center of town with Cavtas spread out in front of us, and the sparkling blue of the Adriatic beckoning. We found the bike rental store and procured the last bikes available.  We set out on the recommended 45 km adventure in the hills above Cavtas and fortunately the higher elevations provided cooler weather, and we even got drenched in a quick but fierce rainshower.  Unfortunately I left my camera behind that day so we have no photos of the quiet churchyard where we stopped for a picnic lunch or the ancient flour mill we came across with running water streams, and two lovely restaurants shaded by large, leafy trees, placed directly over the running streams.  We of course stopped for a drink and not only was our thirst quenched but all of our senses were refreshed as the result of this lovely stop.  We resumed our ride and made it back to Cavtas by 6 PM, allowing enough time for a stroll around the inlet, and our first dip in the Adriatic.

It turns out that the Adriatic beaches are all rocky, no sand to be found.  In Cavtas they have built cement decks to allow for easy entry, and we happily took advantage of the ladders leading into the water.  The water.  Ahh, the water.  The Adriatic is absolutely amazing. Clear to the bottom, soft and gentle, salty, and cool but not cold.  Actually, as perfect a body of water as I could possibly imagine.  Our swim that evening cooled off our sweat drenched bods whereupon we set out to find a place to rest our heads for the night.  We found a room for rent with a fabulous porch overlooking the sea and enjoyed our picnic dinner with this world class view.

view of the Adriatic from "our" porch in Cavtas

view of the Adriatic from “our” porch in Cavtas

Day two dawned bright and early, as we set out for our road trip.  Destination: Omis, a town about 30 kilometers from Split.  We slowly wound our way up the coast, and to a rafting adventure on the Cetina River.

Rafting the Cetina

Rafting the Cetina

The Cetina was perfectly clear, clean and refreshing, due to the lack of industry in Croatia which has preserved the rivers, lakes and the sea as well. While this may not be good for Croatia, it is wonderful for us tourists.  We continued to Omis after a wonderful trip down the river, and after finding a tiny room with air conditioning that worked only if you paid for it (gulp!) we enjoyed the sunset, a swim and the general ambiance of a vacation village on the Adriatic.

Omis

Omis

The next day took us to Split, second largest city in Croatia, and home to a temple of the Roman Emperor Diocletian from the third century CE.  We had booked a Jewish tour of Split with a wonderful young tour guide, Lea, and we explored the palace finding menoras carved into the castle walls, indicating the presence of Jews in this far flung province of the Roman empire as early as the third century.

Menora Etched into Palace Wall - Split

Menora Etched into Palace Wall – Split

Castle - Split

Castle – Split

We got an insider’s view of the little used but beautifully maintained synagogue of Split.  There are Friday night social  gatherings during the year, that are suspended during summer time, and there are services for the high holy days.  We found the inscription above the bima, “hineh ma tov uma naim shevet achim gam yachad,”  most unusual and interesting, possibly the result of the melding of ashkenazi and sefardi communities into one.

Split Synagogue

Split Synagogue

After visiting the synagogue we made our way up to the old Jewish cemetery.  When we got there we found this:

Inscription at the Entrance to a Pub!

Inscription at the Entrance to a Pub!

It turns out that the Jewish community decided that in order to raise funds they would rent out the funeral home adjacent to the old cemetery neither of which was still in use.  They added one proviso to the rental contract.  The renters were not allowed to cover over the Hebrew inscription, and thus, this must be the only bar in the world that has the inscription, Tziduk Hadin (follow the link for more info).  We drank a le’chaim with this bird’s eye view of the city, and prayed that all the neshamot (souls) buried hear would have an “iluy”(uplifting).

View from the Pub-Split

View from the Pub-Split

We began the return trip on the Coastal Road, and even though we were retracing our steps, each turn in the road brought a beautiful new vistas into view.

Coastal Road

Coastal Road

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We arrived in the town of Brella as the sun was beginning its descent, and after checking into our room, we quickly made our way down at least 100 steps to the sea, where we caught our daily dip.  Have I told you how refreshing the water was?  As we shook the drops of water off of us, we walked down the boardwalk, and found what turned out to be our evening adventure.  A ferry was departing in five minutes time to the nearby beach town of Makarska where a local festival was underway.  Without a second thought, we signed on figuring that we would find some clothes in Makarska.  We enjoyed the beautiful sunset from the boat, and then spent two hourse wandering Makarska, enjoying the crowds and the festival.  And oh yes, we found some clothes!

Sunset over the Adriatic from the Boat

Sunset over the Adriatic from the Boat

Huge Pita Filled with Spinach  Cooked Over Open Fire- Makarska

Huge Pita Filled with Spinach Cooked Over Open Fire- Makarska

Finding a place to stay for Shabbat, the following day,  proved a bit more challenging than we expected.  We wanted to stay somewhere off the beaten track and decided that Braca was the place.  We held our breath as we drove 2 kilometers on a narrow road bordered by water on both sides until we reached Braca.  Thank God we did not meet any cars coming in the other direction.

Road to Braca - Note the water on either side

Road to Braca – Note the water on either side

Unfortunately there were no rooms to be had, and so we had to make the return trip on the same 2 kilometer road.  Again, we were fortunate not to meet any other cars.

Eventually we struck paydirt and found a place 30 minutes away  also on the Peljesac Peninsula, at an isolated cove in a town called Kabli,consisting of about 4 houses.  We were hosted by Ivica who farms mussels and clams, and supplements his income with renting out his house which is a stone’s throw from the water’s edge.  He took us out in his boat to show us his “farm,” and was disappointed that we did not want to partake in his treasures.  We assured him they looked delicious and loved the boat ride and insider’s view of life in a Croatian fishing village.

Ivica's Farm

Ivica’s Farm

Ivica at work

Ivica at work

Kabbalat shabbat on the porch overlooking the water was memorable, and the entire shabbat was relaxing allowing us to catch up on sleep, eat  good food, and chat with Ivica and some other guests from Poland.

Sunday brought us to Dubrovnik, but that deserves a post all of its own, and this is getting awfully long, so here is just a quick preview to keep you interested:

Shoshi and I on the walls of Dubrovnik

Shoshi and I on the walls of Dubrovnik

 

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Slovenia, Slowly


Our recent trip to Slovenia was the essence of Slow Travel.  After spending a quick overnight in the city of Graz, and visiting the infamous synagogue that had been dynamited on Kristallnacht, and rebuilt and dedicated on November 11, 2000, 62 years after Kristallnact, we made a beeline for Lake Bled where we spent six glorious days.  That was followed by three more days at a Slovenian spa in Rimske Toplice, but more on that later.

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Graz Synagogue

Lake Bled, an hour’s drive from the capitol of Lublijana, is a shimmering blue gem, with surfaces that are so still, they reflect the lush trees surrounding the lake.  We had originally anticipated renting an apartment with a panoramic view of the lake for six nights.  Little did we realize that the apartment was situated directly above the road ringing the lake, and aside from the view we would be treated to cars, buses and motorbikes switching gears right under our panoramic window.

Lake Bled

Lake Bled

We quickly bailed out, and luckily our landlady manages another property about 3 kilometers outside of Bled, with the perfect apartment just waiting for us.  This one bedroom newly constructed apartment sported a balcony looking out over a peaceful meadow, with the sounds of a running river not far below.  It was situated at the end of a tiny village Bodesce, and about a five minute drive from Bled.  Amazing what five minutes will bring you!  Peace, quiet, tranquillity.  Everything we were looking for in this Slow Vacation!

View from "our" porch

View from “our” porch

Once our suitcases were unpacked and the refrigerator filled, we were ready to set out.  First stop was a bike trip in the countryside.  We rented bikes in Bled and set out on the recommended 35 km route, on empty country roads that included rolling hills, small villages, and outstandingly peaceful scenery.  We stopped at a small restaurant for a drink and conversation with some local school kids that were gearing up for summer vacation.  The cycling trip ended abruptly when Mike’s gears froze on a fairly lonely stretch of the road.  Fortunately, Slovenian people are outgoing and ready to help.  Within ten minutes a man driving a van appeared out of nowhere, loaded our bikes into his van and took a 30 minute detour from his ride home to get us back to the bike store in Bled.  Talk about serendipity!

Mike on the bicycle

Mike on the bicycle

Our saviour

Our saviour

The next day we set off for a road trip to the Julian Alps.  Alps might be a misnomer, for these mountains rise up only 2800 meters at Mount Triglav, but the scenery is outstanding and the ride was beautiful.  We stopped several times to snap photos, and  enjoy the views.

Julian Alps

Julian Alps

Mount Triglav

Mount Triglav

We made our way down to the Socha Valley, and enjoyed crossing over the Socha River, sometimes called the Emerald River ( you will see why) on rather shaky suspension bridges.

Socha River

Socha River

Me on the shaky bridge

Me on the shaky bridge

From there we crossed into Italy making our way home via an excellent cup of coffee (finally!) and an Italian supermarket.  Those Italians know a thing or two about food that the Slovenians could learn.IMG_3565

Sunday brought us to Lake Bohinj, a thirty minute drive away from our apartment.  We once again rented bikes, and this time set out on a 25 km bike ride to the lake through thankfully flat countryside.

Me on the bike

Me on the bike

We took a break from biking to take a cable car ride up to Mt. Vogel, a ski resort, enjoying a beer and the beautiful views at the top of the mountain.

View of Lake Bohinj from Mt. Vogel

View of Lake Bohinj from Mt. Vogel

Monday we sadly bid goodbye to our apartment with the wonderful porch and headed towards Lublijana and on to the Rimske Toplice Spa, but more on that in the next post.

So why, you might ask, is this “slow travel”?

“It sure sounds like you were running around alot,” you say.

In fact, we did move around a bit, but we didn’t do more than one site each day.  We never rushed.  We started out each morning after waking up without an alarm clock, enjoying a leisurely breakfast, sometimes learning or reading for awhile, and only then packing up to go out.  We came back each evening and enjoyed preparing and eating dinner, watching movies on TV and reading.  We never felt that we had to “accomplish”, “get to”, or do anything in particular.  We took our time, and decided day by day, hour by hour, what was next.  For me, this is the essence of slow travel.

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One Last View of the Julian Alps

 

 

 

 

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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:

  • As usual  our favorite tour guidebook: Rick Steves Venice
  • We booked our apartment through AirBnB  which proved to be a reliable and user friendly site.
  • We purchased a seven day vaporetto (waterbus) pass which was very useful and saved us lots.
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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.

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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

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