A Tour of Rome’s Jewish Quarter

Marble tiles in the Jewish Quarter of Rome

 

“It’s impossible to do this tour or any other tour chronologically.”

This was one of the first things Lauren, a guide for the walking tour company Context Travel, told us as we stood in Largo Arenula, our starting point for a historic walk of Rome’s Jewish Quarter and Trastevere. In addition to Lauren, a British scholar who has studied the art, history, and culture of Rome for the better part of two decades, my group consisted of a quiet, young couple and a young, single woman. Context had invited me to be a guest on one of their tours and I chose to take this one as it was an area I knew the least about. I liked the idea of going on the tour as more or less a blank slate. I wanted to learn something.

At this point, I should back up and say that I have studied Rome, its landmarks, art, history, and neighborhoods for more than 15 years. Before that, I worked at an institute for German Studies and interned at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Even with this specialized knowledge, I’ve always found it difficult to find information about Rome’s Jewish heritage. Most guidebooks give it short shrift, which isn’t surprising; there are too many layers here to cover any one topic in detail. But I would venture to say that the story of the Jewish people in Rome is one of the few threads that weaves together the story of this city in a way that is both historically comprehensive and personal.

Following are just a few of the sites I learned about on the three-hour tour. Continue reading A Tour of Rome’s Jewish Quarter

Google as Tour Guide

google_city_tours_logoFirst they want to scan my copyrighted books and now Google wants to be a tour guide: has Google gone too far this time? I recently received a Google Wave invitation, so I was browsing Google Labs to see what else was on the backburner. It seems that Google will soon be launching City Tours, putting people like me – travel writers – out of business. Or will it?

Here’s Google’s thinking behind City Tours:

Making holiday planning as easy as searching the web. City Tours helps you identify points of interest and plan multi-day trips to most major cities. You just specify the location of your hotel and the length of your trip and City Tours will map out an itinerary for you.

I thought I’d look up Rome as a test. Google presented me with a three-day itinerary – complete with map, of course. The plan included walking time, distance, and links to the sites included on the tour. The first day had me going to locations such as the Museo del Risorgimento, the Pasta Museum, Les Musées du Capitole (Capitoline Museums – Google’s link was spelled the French way), and about five other place. Fine. Some of these sites, especially the Capitoline Museums, are worthy of a first-day visit even for a first-timer. But the itinerary didn’t tell me, for example, that the Pasta Museum is near the Trevi Fountain (though you can see that fact if you zoom in on the map), or that the Museo delle Cere (the Wax Museum) is totally lame.

I’ll give Google points for being able to add/delete sites from an itinerary and change dates. For example, if I were beginning my trip on a Monday (when many museums are closed), the auto-generated agenda ostensibly should steer me towards sites that are actually open. You can also choose the length of your tour, from 1 to 5 days. Unfortunately, when I chose a one-day tour of Rome, Google came up empty-handed. The program should at least generate a basic tour for one day – ya know, Vatican Museums, Spanish Steps, a handful of churches.

So Google City Tours is still in the Labs stage. And, in my opinion, has a long way to go to get it right. Thankfully, I think this tool, like an online translator, is helpful and pretty cool. But, in a field as subjective as travel, nothing beats the human touch.

Am I right?

Photo from Google

Kid-Friendly Tours of Florence

Florence may feel like a fairy tale city for adults, but kids aren’t always impressed. That’s mostly because they’ve yet to study or appreciate the art, architecture, and history that have made the Tuscan town one of the world’s most favored destinations for generations.

Enter Context Travel. The walking tour company, which I have mentioned in The Unofficial Guide to Central Italy, has just announced a “robust kid-friendly program” that includes family tours such as Symbols and Legends of Florence, a 2-hour family treasure hunt, and Arte Firenze for Families, a guided tour through the Uffizi Gallery.

Some other Context Travel tours of Florence and Tuscany that your family (and teens) may enjoy are Florence Food Experiences, Fresco Workshop, and (one we’d LOVE to try) Tuscan Truffle Hunt. You can also find Context Travel tours and services in Rome, Naples, and Venice.

Of course, you can’t expect some of the most knowledgeable guides in the business to charge a pittance for their services. These group walks, excursions, and daytrips start at around €200 per group. But, you’ll definitely return from your trip to Italy with more interesting captions for your photos. And your kids will be able to impress their teachers with loads of Tuscan trivia.

Photo by Context Travel

Walking Via Giulia

Via Giulia, Rome

Rome’s famous Renaissance street, Via Giulia, is celebrating its 500th anniversary this year. And, the New York Times‘ Elisabeth Rosenthal provides the history and descriptions of the streets’ sites in her article A Stroll in Rome With a Papal Pedigree.

Usually an unharried street, Via Giulia is set to be quite busy this year with classical music concerts and open houses. For more information on the events and Via Giulia’s many churches and palazzi, visit viagiulia500.net (in Italian only at the time of this post).

‘Angels and Demons’ Tourism

The book – and now movie – Angels and Demons isn’t too kind to the Catholic Church, with murders taking place at some of Rome’s famous and not-yet-famous churches and squares, including Piazza del Popolo and Santa Maria della Vittoria. But, city officials don’t think that will deter tourists from wanting to take an Angels-and-Demons-based tour, as this article from the New York Times suggests.

In fact, Dark Rome Tours and Walks has been taking tourists on the “official” Angels and Demons tour since 2004. Group and private tours are available, and start at €56 per person and last for four hours. The tour visits Santa Maria del Popolo, St. Peter’s Square, Santa Maria della Vittoria, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the outside of “Il Passetto,” the Vatican Corridor. Of course, you can visit all of these sites on your own for way less than €56 – indeed, among all the sites listed above, only Castel Sant’Angelo charges a fee (approx. €5) – so you may want to tote the book along and create your own tour.

Walk Off the Pasta Pounds

We all know that a vacation – especially one to Italy – is a good excuse to eat with abandon. But it’s also a great chance to get in shape, what with all the great walks you can do.

Here’s a fantastic new (new to me, anyhow) website where you can learn about various walking routes in Italian towns and elsewhere. The site mapmywalk.com has at this moment 21 user-submitted walks around the city of Rome and 6 for Florence. Users have also submitted walks for Naples, Milan, Venice, Bologna, and the Amalfi Coast for a total of 105 Italy walks so far. Very cool!

Mapmywalk.com also lets you submit a walk, bike ride, or run of your own. So, if you have found an especially pleasant touring trek – and have the wherewithall to write it down – you, too, can share it with others. If you’re keeping a blog of your travels for the folks back home, you can embed your walk in your blog. The site also provides a link to Google Earth so you can see the walk in 3D. (My only problem with the tool that I can see right now is that the names of the walks are not very intuitive, so you have to click “view” on several to find one you may like.)

So, now you have no excuses for getting fit while on vacation or for forgetting that lovely evening stroll through the streets of Rome.

Photo by Tawmas

Pompeii By Night

Pompeii By Night
Pompeii At Dusk

Question: What’s eerier than surveying the ruins of Pompeii? Answer: Visiting them at night.

According to the ansa.it news service, Pompeii will once again offer its popular “Sound-and-Light” tour, a one-hour look at the ancient Roman city complete with ambient music, flood-lit ruins, and a video simulation of the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed the city in 79 AD. The tour will be available in English, Italian, and Japanese.

Sognopompei, as it is called in Italian, promises to be an unforgettable night and will show the “poetic side” of the must-see tourist trap:

The tour kicks off at the Terme Suburbane, a once-neglected district that has become a big draw for its frescoes graphically depicting a variety of sex acts – presumed to be an illustration of the services on offer at the local brothel.

It then winds its way up the main road, pointing out the curious cart ruts, craftsmen’s shops and famous villas.

The grand finale comes in the heart of the old city, the forum, when four giant projectors beam a special- effects-laden video reconstruction of the wrath of the volcano Vesuvius, which smothered the city and its lesser-known but equally fascinating neighbour Herculaneum in ash and cinders.

Sognopompei tours will run this summer, Fridays through Sundays, through November 13. Prices start at €20 per person, with discounts for Campania Artecard holders and families with children under 16. Reservations are required.

Photo by Pirate Alice

Walk for a Cause in Italy

As I was preparing to post information about the Italy Breast Cancer Walk 2008, which will take place in September, I learned that registration for the event had closed. At any rate, what a wonderful way to see Italy and raise money for a worthy cause.

This year’s walk will be through the region of Le Marche (the Marches), starting in San Severino and finishing up in Tolentino. During the week-long trek, participants will “walk more than 60 miles, with the longest day being 18 miles and reaching an elevation of 3,000 feet. Walkers will stay in small family-run inns and eat home-cooked meals and fresh pastas.”

Although registration to this year’s Italy walk is closed, Ride for a Cause, the nonprofit that organizes the tour, has other walk/ride events in Ireland and Spain this year. This is the third year that RFAC and their partner, Girosole Walking Tours, have planned a Breast Cancer/AIDS walk in Italy, so you may want to get in touch with either group to see what’s in store for 2009.

Create Your Own Italian Tour

Here’s an easy way to use Google Maps to create your own interactive driving routes or walking tours. The website Wayfaring.com has done all the coding for you. All you have to do is locate your points on a map, give them descriptions, and you’re done. You can also connect waypoints to create routes.

In our example, we marked a few important works by Bernini on a map of Rome. Others browsing this map can add new waypoints and/or create their own walking tour using the points we’ve laid out. You can also explore other maps by tag or search on wayfaring.com.

This is a fairly new website, and is still a bit buggy. And, at the moment, there aren’t any other Rome or Italy maps on the site. But if you decide to recap your driving tour through Tuscany or your walk of vegetable markets in Naples, let us know by sending an e-mail to [email protected].

Have fun!