A visit to Venice: Enchantment!

Venice, Italy (photo credit: LARRY COLBY)
Venice, Italy
(photo credit: LARRY COLBY)
I had a great guide in Venice, the city of floating palaces and fabulous art. He explained the Jewish story in one short paragraph:
“The Jews arrived in Venice in the 10th century. They came from the Levant, Corfu, Greece and Turkey. In the 16th century, the Venetians gave the Jews an area to live and work. They called the plot by the Venetian name “ghetto.” The Jews had to wear a colorful cap so they would be recognized as Jews. The five synagogues that exist in the ghetto today are the German, the Canton, the Italian, the Levantine and the Spanish synagogues.”
Millions of people every year pour into this “dream city of lagoons,” for Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
To this day, I recall nearly every experience I had in this city of “good looks.”
Imagine: a full moon, a starry sky, a gondola, a loved one. Then dream that the gondolier is Luciano Pavarotti singing O Sole Mio. Enchantment!
Welcome to Venice – the vistas, the art, the palazzi, the canals, as well as Tintoretto, Byron and James.
You can take any of the vaporetti (waterbuses), as I did, to view the grand palazzi and outlying islands. Walk through Piazza San Marco, “the drawing room of Europe,” or stroll down more intimate, labyrinthine streets. I felt I was a Venetian.
I ALSO recall being welcomed in the iconic 1700’s Café Florian in Piazza San Marco. Having traveled the world, I believe there are few people-watching spots equal to this location in this town of marble palaces.
But it is the art and the architecture that astound the visitor. The Doge’s Palace is one of the world’s wonders, “a confection wedding the greatness of Venice and the genius of Italy’s greatest artists whose masterpieces can be seen in the locations for which they were made,” noted one travel expert. Add to that the facades of the palazzi reflecting the passage of time and the intimate relationship to water.
Venice possesses a high concentration of glitzy hotels and seductive restaurants. If you want to splurge, stay at the luxurious Hotel Danieli, located next to the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs. And there is the Hotel Cipriani on the Isola Della Guidecca.
I will never forget attending the Festa del Redentore for the fireworks. The event is held on the third Sunday of July. If you enjoy fireworks, you’re going to love this city. At sunset, the St. Mark’s Bay begins to fill up with boats from all over Venice waiting for the festivities to begin. The fireworks begin at 11 pm. After the fireworks, we headed to Lido Island where we joined others sitting on the sand and waiting for the sunrise.
Venice has the distinction of being a city of water, with its 118 islands and 400 public and private bridges. Its rivers pour into the Adriatic Sea and nearby lagoons. These waters made the city wealthy, as ships from every port in the Mediterranean came here to trade. No wonder it boasts the title La Serenissima Republica de Venezia, “The Most Serene Republic of Venice.” At the end of the 15th century, it probably was the richest city in the world.
But just at the time when Venice was booming, a “new India” was discovered to challenge the Venetians. We call that land “America.” Trade patterns changed and the city’s power soon faded.
Once considered the most important Jewish community of Northern Italy, Venice involved Jews in “banking, pawnbroking and second-hand dealing.”
Not everything is perfect. These days, this lovely city floods regularly, its painting rots and its canals are green, but its citizens and tourists love it and enjoy the outdoor pleasures it offers.
Make sure you visit the Rialto Bridge, as I did. No trip to Venice is complete without crossing the Ponte di Rialto, replete with a mix of vendors and unparalleled viewpoints.
Do stop in the shops of the local craftspeople who work in glass, paper and lace.
YES, THIS is the city that gave the world the “ghetto.” The word comes from the Italian word gettare – to cast in metal. When the ghetto was established, it consisted of iron foundries, or geto novo, which means new foundry in the Venetian dialect. Interestingly, some think the word ghetto comes from the Hebrew word, get, for divorce.
I knew that the ghetto was a prison neighborhood set up by the Italians. A tourist spot today, it once contained several thousand Jews who were literally locked up at night.
Generally, it is not easy to find Jewish sites in a European city. Not so in Venice. Everyone knows the location of the ghetto. Just ask!
Located near the Venice railroad station, the ghetto can be reached by taking the vaporetto via the Grand Canal. Get off at San Marculo Landing. Walk away from the canal. Then walk toward Ria Terra San Leonardo. Follow the yellow signs which are in Italian and Hebrew and say synagogue. They will direct you to the ghetto, a lively area composed of Renaissance buildings, medieval houses and columns, and even some wonderful glass-making shops.
The ghetto, moreover, is an excellent location to discover original art and Judaica galleries.
By the way, make sure when you are in Venice, you observe that at dusk, the water and sky glimmer with tints of violet, blue and gold.
The writer is a travel lecturer and the author of the recently published 4th edition of ‘A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe’ (Pelican Publishing), and the historical novel ‘Klara’s Journey’ (Marion Street Press). Follow him on Twitter @bengfrank.