Kosher Italy

Travelling kosher in Italy can be either frustrating or fun, depending on how you decide to look at it.  Outside of the cities of Venice, Milan, Florence and Rome where one can find kosher restaurants, there is virtually no ready made kosher food to be had.  That can leave one on the outside looking in on diners enjoying their wine and pasta or pizza at sidewalk cafes or classy restaurants.  Alternatively, if you plan it right, kosher eating can be an adventure indeed that leaves you feeling both satisfied and right in the swing of things.

Our last trip to Southern Italy was a perfect example of the latter.  We chose to stay in apartments with fully outfitted kitchens and our clothing shared space in our suitcases with kosher wine, cheese, crackers, tortillas, coffee, tea, one frying pan, one pot, a knife and some disposable dishes and cutlery.  Thus when we arrived in the early evening at our first apartment in rural Saint Agate high above the Amalfi Coast with a bird’s eye view of Sorrento, we were ready to hit the local shops and start preparing dinner.  By the time we set out the only store that was open was a fruit and vegetable market that had some basic groceries as well.

What fun it was to explore the local produce, some of which looked vaguely familiar, while other items were totally new.  We picked some of each, and enjoyed in particular the red raddicio which added beautiful color and crunch to our salads.  We of course purchased local virgin olive oil, and olives, as well as coffee for the espresso machine (non-electric) that we found in the kitchen.  Eggs, lentils and barley rounded out the shopping list.

Radicchio

Radicchio

Coming home that first night we enjoyed wine, cheese and olives while the spinach frittata was cooking.  The next morning following my friend Sara’s advice, we made a hearty lentil/vegetable soup that cooked while we were eating breakfast and getting ready for departure.  What a treat to have supper waiting for us at the end of our long day of touring the Amalfi Coast.

We made sure to eat hearty breakfasts each morning that would hold us for most of the day.  One day it was omelettes, another day quesadillas using the tortillas and cheese from home with sauteed onions and mushrooms.  Yum.

When the local market opened we were able to find Barilla pasta, and buffalo mozarella (made from cow’s milk)  and these both enriched our menus and made us feel like we were eating Italian fare along with millions of tourists and locals.

Buffalo Mozzarella

Buffalo Mozzarella

We spent Shabbat in Naples in a beautiful apartment with views to Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples and we arrived on Friday afternoon just in time to kasher the oven, bake challah, and cook the pasta and fresh salmon that we had bought along the way.  Friday night was a feast!

When we realized on Saturday night that the “kosher” pizza we were hoping for wasn’t going to happen in Naples, we made our own, using the leftover challa, tomato sauce and … buffalo mozzarella. It was an okay substitute but the pizza the following night in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto was far better.

In addition to pizaa we enjoyed eating the local Jewish specialty of fried artichokes at  BaGhetto restaurant.  It’s what I would call an “interesting” experience that need not be repeated, but the food there was very tasty and the waitress was lovely. We enjoyed kosher Italian chianti with our dinner but were happy that most of the wine we had imbibed during the week came from Israel.  While it was lots of fun to eat out and celebrate the end of our trip, to my estimation, our home cooked food was at least as good, if not better!

Some additional information you may find useful:

A list of kosher restaurants

List of kosher foods in Italy

Another kosher list for Italy

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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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