No one will ever ask me for this piece of advice regarding a trip to Venice because this is not something that happens to normal people. Nevertheless, an unsolicited piece of advice: Do not fall into a Venetian Canal. If you swallow any of it you will need shots and if it’s Winter, you will be freezing.
Falling into the canal—in my one set of Shabbat appropriate clothing no less—may have been the most memorable aspect of my trip there, but Venice has so much to offer beyond the occasional, accidental dunk into the water.
I spent three weeks in Italy over January of 2013. Most of my time was spent in Florence, enough so that I can still, almost a year later, give directions to the notable sites, but I also visited Pisa, Sienna and, as mentioned, Venice.
Winter is actually one of the best times to visit the country because it isn’t tourist season. A Chabbad rebbetzin there told me that during tourist season, you literally have to wait for breaks in the street traffic to exit buildings.
In Florence, or Firenze as Italians call it, there are a number of key places to visit, but first the food. There is one kosher restaurant in the city, Ruth’s, and sadly no kosher gelateria. If you’re looking to eat outside a restaurant, you can purchase Yomo brand yogurt, a large variety of beautiful fresh produce, Mulino Bianco brand cookies, and Toscana bread, that’s any bread with a really hard crust (knock on the bread to test it.)
In Venice you get the chance to do something special- eat all those Italian baked goods you’ve seen in store windows, but not had the chance to eat. The main restaurant, which hosts Shabbat meals, is called Gam Gam, but just down the road are two kosher grocery stores: one which sells pizza and a number of Israeli products and the other which sells the aforementioned baked goods in addition to deli sandwiches and groceries.
Italians are a friendly and courteous people. For instance, my friends and I couldn’t find our hotel in Venice. While strategizing in the street, an elderly Venetian lady opened up her window, babbled away at us, said a word that sounded vaguely like accompany and then popped outside in slippers and a robe to escort us. If you’re ever lost, just say the name of the place you’re trying to go and someone will help you readily.
The main sites to find in Florence are: the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio, Piazza Michaelangelo, Pitti Palace, the Uffizi, the Academia, the shul and a mercato or two. Climbing the Duomo requires going up around 400 steps, but the spectacular paintings and the view from the top are worth it. Ponte Vecchio crosses the Arno, the city dividing river, and is home to an array of amazing jewelry stores and nothing else.
Pitti Palace, on the other side of the Arno, is enormous; the former home of the Medici family, it now houses multiple separate museums and, through it, you can access Boboli Gardens. There are porcelain, modern art, silver and costume museums. You can also tour the royal apartments. The two other notable museums, the Uffizi and Academia, are home to a slew of amazing paintings and statues including the David and quite a number of Botticelli paintings.
The shul in Florence is stunning. The services were Sephardi, which would have thrown off my focus all on its own, but the interior of the shul and its beautiful design didn’t allow my mind much time to process the different mode of davening.
Sienna holds a surprising amount of Judaic artifacts. The civic museum has marble moldings of biblical scenes and there’s a calligraphy and book restoration store which focuses largely on Hebrew material just 15 minutes walk from the city’s black and white Duomo. While there, be sure to see the Piazza del Campo and clock tower. Note: if you take the train into town and ask a resident if it’s possible to walk to the center of town, they will say yes. Know that all they mean is that it’s possible, not that you should do it.
The train in Venice though is located well in the sense that you’re going to want to see everything in the city, not just the “main” sites. Venice is the city of Vivaldi, masks, canals and more. If you’re interested in visiting Murano, Burano, or Torcello, note that the boat to each island is actually quite time consuming. Boats for ‘long distance’ travel are more of water taxis or busses; if you want to ride a gondola, but you’re not sure about the outrageous price, find another tourist on the street and buddy up, that way you can split the bill.
Finally, a few practical remarks: if you purchase train tickets in the station several days before you plan to travel to a city, you can get sizeable discounts, but this only works in the station- not online. Also, validate your tickets before entering the train; a conductor will check for it and you can be fined if you don’t have that stamp. My last practical, but honestly terribly sad bit of advice, only visit Pisa if you have time to spare. The Leaning Tower is obviously very impressive and a good thing to check off a bucket list, but there isn’t much else on offer in the city.
By Aliza Chasan