Cruising Through Europe Back Into Jewish History

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Three must-see Jewish sites on a Mediterranean Sea voyage — September 15, 2019

MEDITERRANEAN SEA — A luxury cruise on the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea features all the magical and alluring experiences one would anticipate – a glimpse into how the rich and famous play on the French Riviera, picturesque fishing villages, a stunning array of historic architecture, and – of course — phenomenal cuisine.

Regent Seven Seas Voyager

The Regent Seven Seas Voyager anchored in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Monaco

But a voyage on the Mediterranean also offers Jewish travelers another treat.  It’s a chance to see some relatively little-known sites that shed light on the survival and resilience of Jewish life dating back thousands of years to Roman times.

I recently set sail on a 10-day, seven-country “Aegean Adventures” cruise on the luxurious Regent Seven Seas Voyager.  We started in Barcelona and ended in Athens, with stops along the way in France, Italy, Malta, Turkey and the Greek island of Santorini.

In three of the stops on the itinerary – Barcelona, Rome, and Ephesus, Turkey – I had the chance to visit Jewish-related sites and learn more about the ups and downs of Jewish existence in this part of the diaspora.


Just a five-minute walk from the city’s famous Las Ramblas promenade, is the former Jewish quarter that once was home to Barcelona’s thriving Jewish community.  Amidst the small and winding streets and medieval architecture, sits what some believe to be the oldest synagogue in all of Europe – the Sinagoga Major de Barcelona.

According to historians, Jews began moving to Barcelona after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.  They settled in an area of the city known as El Call, believed to have come from an old Catalan word derived from the Hebrew word kahal (community).

Sinagoga Major

Entrance to the ancient synagogue in Barcelona

The Sinagoga Major, located on a street called Carrer Marlet, is in a building dating back to the third or fourth century.  It’s unclear if it was initially used as a synagogue.  However, one of its excavated walls has a carving of 18 in Roman numerals, a spiritual number in Judaism.  Some suggest the carved number offers evidence of the building’s ancient Jewish roots.  The building also was built with an eastward orientation toward Jerusalem, in contrast with other buildings on the street.

The synagogue was significantly expanded during the 13th century.  At that time, Jews comprised up to 20 percent of Barcelona’s population.  Tragically, in 1391 the Black Plague decimated the city.  Jews were blamed and most were either murdered or forced to convert to Christianity.

An Argentine businessman with Catalan roots purchased the building in 1996 before it was to be demolished by the city.  Restorations began and Sinagoga Major reopened as a museum in 2002.

One room features ruins from the Roman era; the other has a small sanctuary with a menorah, a 500-year-old Torah scroll – donated by a New York attorney — and other Jewish artifacts.  Tours are given in English, Spanish and Hebrew.  There are no formal services held in the synagogue.  However, it is used for special events like weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Barcelona Jewish Quarter

The old Jewish Quarter in Barcelona

Sinagoga Major is not easy to find.  The Jewish quarter is a maze of streets not clearly marked and we needed to ask for directions several times before finding the building.  But it was well worth the effort to see a site with such religious significance and historical magnitude.

Over the years, the Jewish community in Barcelona has seen a mild resurgence.  In 1918, the Jewish population was estimated at just 100.  In subsequent years, Jews arrived from such places as Turkey, Greece, South America, northern Africa and Israel.

Today, the city’s Jewish population has grown to about 5,000, and there are four working synagogues.  We visited the largest — the Orthodox Cominidad Israelita de Barcelona Synagogue.  Located in a residential area in a building dating back to 1954, it was the first free-standing synagogue built on the Iberian Peninsula since the Jewish expulsion in 1492.  The synagogue houses both Sephardic and Ashkenazic sanctuaries. Security is tight, so if you’d like to attend services, it’s best to contact the synagogue in advance:


Rome Synagogue

The Great Synagogue of Rome

A visit to the Eternal City rewards Jewish travelers with a must-see look at the oldest Jewish community in Europe and one of the oldest continuous Jewish settlements in the world.

It’s believed that a Jewish presence in Rome dates back to 161 B.C.E., when Jason ben Eleazar and Eupolemus ben Johanan were sent as envoys of Judah Maccabee.  While the treatment of Jews by the Romans in Palestine was often harsh, relations with the rulers in Rome were generally much better.  But once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Jewish rights eroded.  During the Middle Ages, treatment of the Jews varied from pope to pope.

Like most ships on Mediterranean itineraries, the Seven Seas Voyager docked in the Italian port city of Civitavecchia, a 90-minute drive from the heart of Rome. We had the option of taking a tour of “Jewish Rome” organized by the ship, but opted instead to do it on our own, using one of several “hop-on-hop-off” bus lines that follow the same route past the city’s main sites.

Shanghai Jewish newspaper

The beautiful interior of the Great Synagogue of Rome

We exited the bus at the Piazza Venezia stop and walked about 10 minutes to the “Ghetto Ebraico,” which is clearly marked on city maps.   The Jewish Ghetto dates back to 1555, when Pope Paul IV restricted Jews to this small area of the city, which was then surrounded by a wall.  Following the unification of Italy in 1870, Jews were granted citizenship and the Ghetto was eventually abolished.

It was easy to figure out when we had reached the former Ghetto.  There were several kosher restaurants in the main square, catering to the large number of Jewish tourists coming to see the nearby Great Synagogue of Rome and the attached Jewish museum.

The Great Synagogue is a beautiful building that opened in 1904.  Containing elements of Assyrian-Babylonian, Egyptian and Greco-Roman architecture, the building’s aluminum dome is the only square dome in Rome.  The Jewish community of Rome wanted an eye-catching building that would represent a visible symbol of the community’s freedom after centuries of hardship.  They succeeded.

For an 11-euro admission fee, we entered the two-story synagogue.  Security is extremely tight; there was a Palestinian terrorist attack here in 1982 which resulted in the slaying of a 2-year-old boy.

Our visit came on a Friday morning and while we sat in the sanctuary, a cleaning crew readied the synagogue for that evening’s Shabbat services.  We were surprised to learn that the Great Synagogue is just one of 18 working synagogues in Rome, although many of them are quite small.  There are an estimated 15,000 Jews now living in Italy’s capital city.

The admission fee to the synagogue also includes entrance to the attached Jewish Museum of Rome, which chronicles Jewish life in Rome throughout the centuries.  Established in 1960 as a room behind the Torah ark in the synagogue, the expanded museum moved to its present location adjacent to the synagogue in 2005.  We were especially impressed with the extensive collection of Jewish art on display.

The synagogue made headlines in 2016 when Pope Francis visited and gave a speech rejecting all forms of anti-Semitism and calling for “maximum vigilance” to prevent another Holocaust.


Celsus Library

The ruins of the famous Celsus Library in the ancient city of Ephesus, Turkey

After a wave of terrorist attacks in 2016 that had a severe impact on tourism, some of the cruise lines – including Regent Seven Seas – are now slowly starting to return to Turkey.  One of the most popular port stops is the city of Kuşadasi, located on Turkey’s western coast on the Aegean Sea.  Kuşadasi is just a 30-minute drive from the famous Roman ruins of Ephesus.

One of the world’s most impressive and best-restored archaeological sites, Ephesus was the former capital of Asia Minor and was first built about 3,000 years ago.  In the Roman Empire, the city was considered second in importance only to Rome.

Ephesus reached its height in the second and third centuries, when it was home to nearly a quarter-million people.  Over the centuries, Ephesus was visited by such dignitaries as Alexander the Great, Julius Cesar, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra.

It is believed there was a substantial Jewish community living in Ephesus since at least the 5th century B.C.E.  Only about 20 percent of the city has been excavated; archaeologists think there is a synagogue that has yet to be discovered.

Unfortunately, there is currently little visible evidence of Jewish life in this ancient city.  However, there is a barely visible carving of a menorah on the marble steps in front of one of its most famous and popular structures – the Celsus Library.

Ephesus Jewish marker

A marker commemorating Jewish life in the ancient city of Ephesus, Turkey

Built in the second century, the two-story library with Corinthian style columns once contained more than 12,000 scrolls.  A marker on the steps in front of the library next to the menorah carving carries the following inscription in both Turkish and English:  “Menorah, seven-branched candlestick Judaic symbol, incised on the steps of the Celsus Library.  Roman Imperial period.”

Interestingly, our guide noted my interest when mentioning the Jewish marker.  She asked if I was Jewish.  When I responded affirmatively, she told me that she too was Jewish and lived in the nearby Turkish city of Izmir and is a member of one of the synagogues there.

Like a number of other cruise lines, Regent goes out of its way to accommodate Jewish passengers.  There were Shabbat services onboard and kosher food was available, if arranged in advance.  In fact, Regent offers 70 kosher meal options, prepared with certified Glatt kosher meats under strict rabbinical supervision.  Each meal is served on kosher china.

The Voyager was close to capacity, with 665 passengers onboard.  About two-thirds of our fellow travelers were either from America or the United Kingdom.

Had we had more time, we would have liked to have explored other Jewish sites on the itinerary, including the synagogues in Monaco and Livorno, Italy.  But seeing the survival – and even revival — of Jewish life in Barcelona and Rome and the vestige of an ancient Jewish community in Ephesus, certainly whet our appetite to come back and learn more about Jewish life and history in this wondrously beautiful part of the world.

© 2019 Dan Fellner

View of Dubrovnik Croatia

Cruising the unusual

By | Bulgaria, Croatia, Cruising, Italy, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine | No Comments

Offbeat Black Sea itinerary offers fascinating stops

East Valley Tribune – July 15, 2001

“Excuse me,” a shopkeeper said as my wife and I passed his stall in the bazaar in Kusadasi, Turkey. We were browsing our way through the endless rows of knockoff designer goods, including bogus Rolex watches, Lacoste shirts and Louis Vuitton purses.“Best-quality merchandise,” he told us. “Authentic fakes.”

Venice's Grand Canal

 Venice’s bustling Grand Canal

Kusadasi was the fourth stop on our recent 12-day Renaissance cruise that visited mostly off-the-beaten-path ports on the Adriatic, Aegean and Black seas.

Some of the goods for sale we saw along the way may have been inauthentic, but the trip was filled with the type of genuine experiences increasingly difficult to find on many itineraries that visit all-too-familiar ports overrun with other cruise ships.

Indeed, to a growing number of cruise connoisseurs, the Caribbean and Alaska just don’t cut it anymore. Instead of sailing to St. Thomas or Skagway, they are more interested in visiting places such as Morocco and Malta. And they want to get there with all of the creature comforts and convenience that cruising offers.

While the trip started and ended in fairly well-known and popular destinations – Venice and Istanbul – it was the ports in between that attracted us to this particular itinerary. The ship stopped in non-tourist-oriented countries such as Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia – places in which we would be just as likely to see horse-drawn carts as souvenir shops.

First, though, we met our ship in Venice, where there are plenty of souvenir shops and tourists. But the city is so charming and unique, the crowds are worth enduring.

Venice was built on water more than 1,000 years ago and consists of 118 islands, all linked by bridges and canals. Everyone gets around by gondolas or motorized water taxis and buses, as cars and trucks are not allowed in the city.

We took an evening gondola ride, which glided us through the city’s narrow canals and gave us an up-close glimpse of its 12th-through 18th-century Gothic and Renaissance buildings. While sipping champagne, we were serenaded by a tenor who belted out Italian standards. It was tranquil and romantic, but pricey. The 45-minute trip cost $80 per person.

A ride on a water bus through the city’s bustling Grand Canal, its two-mile main drag, is far less taxing on the budget and offers an interesting look at how the city manages to function just fine with no cars. You’ll share the waterway with the locals commuting to work, police and fire boats, and maybe a wedding or funeral procession. We even saw a garbage boat pick up trash from Venetian homes.

The next stop on our cruise itinerary was across the Adriatic Sea in picturesque Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Dubrovnik, Croatia's Old Town

  Dubrovnik, Croatia’s Old Town

Dubrovnik was heavily damaged 10 years ago when it was shelled by Serbs and Montenegrins from the surrounding mountains during Croatia’s successful struggle for independence from Yugoslavia.

But the city has been beautifully restored. It’s difficult to spot signs of the war. The heart of Dubrovnik is its Old Town, which is surrounded by a 1 ½-mile-long wall. For $2, you can climb the stairs to the top of the wall and take one of the most scenic walks in the world. Red-roofed homes, palaces, church steeples and the blue waters of the Adriatic can be seen below.

The Old Town features a marbled pedestrian promenade known as the Placa. Aside from shops and cafes, there’s a Franciscan monastery housing a pharmacy that’s been in operation since 1317.

From Dubrovnik, we sailed through the Ionian Sea to Piraeus, Greece, about seven miles southwest of Athens. Most passengers opted to take an excursion into Athens to see the Acropolis. However, we had already been to Athens and instead chose a tour that took us down the Saronic coast to scenic Cape Sounion, on the southeastern tip of mainland Greece.

The cape is home to the famous Temple of Poeidon, perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. Several columns of the temple remain, which dates back 2,500 years. The poet Lord Byron was so inspired by the place that he carved his name on one of the columns.

For those interested in archaeology, it’s hard to top the ruins of Ephesus, just a few miles outside the port of Kusadasi, on Turkey’s west coast. Ephesus, dating back to 1000 B.C., is one of the best-preserved ancient cities in the world.

A stroll down the city’s main marble street leads to a number of interesting structures, including temples, baths, a 25,000-seat stadium still used for concerts today, and the two-story Library of Celsus that housed 12,000 scrolls.

Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey

 Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey

But the Ephesians liked to do more than read. Right across the street from the library sits the remnants of a brothel.

Near Ephesus are the ruins of St. John’s Basilica, which is believed to be the original burial site of John the Apostle, and the single remaining column of the temple of Artemis, known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Don’t be put off by the admission charge to Ephesus – seven million Turkish liras. Turkey’s inflation rate is now running at a whopping 70 percent, and its currency has been devalued. As soon as you pull a dollar bill out of your wallet, you instantly become a Turkish millionaire. Seven million liras translate into less than $6.

This makes the Kusadasi bazaar a shopper’s paradise. It’s hard to resist buying a Turkish carpet, and you can watch them being made by hand in front of many shops. Leather goods, jewelry and brass also are pervasive.

As a gesture of hospitality, it’s common for Turkish shopkeepers to offer their clientele hot tea as they browse. It will help soothe your nerves for the obligatory bargaining, which is as intense as you’ll encounter anywhere.

The ship left Kusadasi for the four Black Sea ports on our itinerary, Odessa and Yalta in Ukraine; Constantza, Romania; and Varna, Bulgaria. On the way, we sailed through the Bosporus, a narrow 20-mile strait that begins in Istanbul and separates Europe from Asia.

Not many cruise lines visit the Black Sea, and it’s a chance to observe how former Communist countries are making the transition to a free-market economy. As soon as we arrived in Odessa and were besieged by beggars, we could see how difficult the transition has been for some.

The tourism trade is still in its infancy in these countries. This means you won’t find many five-star hotels, people who speak English and stores that accept dollars. But you will see some fascinating historical sites and a population truly welcoming of visitors (and in dire need of their foreign currency).

Odessa is the largest city on the Black Sea, with a population of more than 1 million. Many of them live in drab, look-alike apartment buildings built long before the Ukraine independence from Russia 10 years ago. Our guide told us that the city’s unemployment rate is nearly 50 percent.

The city is perhaps best known to Americans for its massive Potemkin Staircase,

Potemkin Staircase

 Potemkin Staircase; Odessa, Ukraine

immortalized in the landmark 1925 Eisenstein film “Battleship Potemkin.” The staircase, which has 192 steps leading up from the harbor to the main part of town, was built in 1837. Odessa also boasts some fine museums and an opera house built to resemble the one in Vienna.

Scenic Yalta, located on the southern coast of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, is a popular summer resort area for eastern Europeans. The town is nestled beautifully in the Crimean Mountains and with good beaches, gardens and a subtropical climate, it’s no wonder that Russian czars and 19th-century writer Anton Chekhov chose to live there. Chekhov’s home is now a museum, and it features a piano Rachmaninov played when he visited.

Yalta made history in 1945 when it hosted Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin for a conference at the Livadia Palace, at which the fate of postwar Europe was decided. Inside Livadia, which was built in 1911 as the summer residence of Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, you can see the table and chairs where the three men actually signed the agreement as well as other memorabilia from the historic event.

Our next port, Constantza, Romania, is a poor and dilapidated city of about 300,000 people, and seemingly, just as many stray dogs. Romania still is trying to recover from the brutal reign of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who plunged the country into economic ruin before he was executed in 1989.

We found it interesting that in Constantza’s National History Museum, there was not one mention of Ceausescu, who ruled Romania for 22 years.

“People want to forget him,” our guide told us.

There isn’t much in the way of sightseeing in Constantza, but we enjoyed a trip to the Murfatlar Vineyard in the Romanian countryside, about eight miles outside the city. Romania produces some good wines, and a bottle of Murfatlar’s best vintage will set you back only $4. While we sampled cabernets and pinot noirs, we were treated to a Romanian folk-dancing show.

Varna, Bulgaria, is a major naval and commercial shipping port rich in Greek and Roman history. The Varna Archaeological Museum has some remarkable displays, including objects recovered from a 1972 excavation in the area dating back 6,000 years. Most interesting is a display of the oldest specimens of gold jewelry ever discovered.

The city also has some well-preserved Roman baths dating from the 4th century and the impressive 19th-century Orthodox Cathedral of the Assumption, built to resemble the Cathedral of St. Petersburg.

Our journey ended in Istanbul, Turkey, a congested city of 13 million people that spans two continents – Europe and Asia. Every day, 3 million of the city’s residents commute from one continent to the other, either by ferryboat or bridge across the Bosporus.

We spent only a day in Istanbul – not nearly enough time to explore its many palaces, mosques and bazaars.

Istanbul's Blue Mosque

 Istanbul’s 400-year-old Blue Mosque

But we did get to see the 400-year-old Blue Mosque, named for its 21,000 blue tiles, and the 6th-century Hagia Sophia, once the largest church in the Christian world, and now a museum that houses the remains of the famous wall mosaics of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a stop in the famous Grand Bazaar, where you can find more than 4,000 shops on 60 streets. It’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of corridors and passages, so unless you have a good sense of direction, don’t stray too far from the central shopping street.

And it’s worthwhile to learn one word of Turkish before you go – “hayir.” It means “no,” a word you’ll need to use repeatedly to fend off the persistent vendors.

All told, the ship visited nine ports on seven countries and two continents over 12 days. A couple of “at sea” days along the way enabled us to catch our breath from the hectic pace of sightseeing.We saw some exotic places that we probably would have been reluctant to visit on our own.

Cruising offers a nice blend of comfort and adventure. Trekking through ancient ruins, shopping in a Turkish bazaar and witnessing new democracies emerge in the former Soviet bloc can be exhilarating.

But it’s always nice to return to the ship at the end of the day, to a five-course dinner and a clean bathroom.

© 2009 Dan Fellner — Plan a Cruise, Save Money, Connect with Cruisers