When my wife and I first traveled to Europe in 1997 visiting London and Paris for our belated honeymoon, it was before dogs, children and hair loss.
Not a lover of traveling long distances (I prefer car trips), I promised my wife that one day we would go to Italy. And so we did, just a couple of weeks ago, 10 days sightseeing in Rome, Florence and Venice, this time with our children.
Seeing manmade structures centuries old dating back to the B.C. era is incredible. Here in L.A. “since 1959” is considered an achievement.
We walked around the awe-inspiring Colosseum and other ancient sites, climbed the final claustrophobic 320 steps inside the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica to a spectacular view of Rome, and marveled at Michelangelo’s genius in the “La Pieta,” the Sistine Chapel and the 14-foot high statue of David.
The food in Italy is as delicious as advertised. Pizza, pasta, pastries and gelato unlike you have ever eaten. If you ever go to Florence, the fourth-generation owned Vivoli is the gelato to get. In Venice, run not walk to the Pasticceria Rosa Salva for the pistachio cream puff.
In addition to the major landmarks, there were two other places on my list of must-sees.
Since I teach Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I had to see where he was assassinated and where his body was cremated. I also wanted to visit the old Jewish ghetto since I just finished a Holocaust unit last month.
While the cremation site was clearly marked, locating the exact spot where Caesar was killed was another matter.
Most sources reference an archaeological area called Largo di Torre Argentina. It is a place where every March 15 (ides of March) there is a reenactment of the murder. However, one tour guide took us to the real site, an apartment building several yards away without any signage.
When we visited the former Jewish ghetto, we learned that once Mussolini welcomed Hitler’s troops into Italy in the fall of 1943, the Nazis demanded 50 kilograms of gold within 36 hours not to deport Jews, yet after Romans assisted the Jews upon meeting that demand, the Nazis reneged on their promise, deporting over 1,000, several sent to Auschwitz; only 16 survived.
Berlin-born artist Gunter Demnig is known for commemorating victims of the Holocaust by placing gold plaques in the ground at the last known residences of those taken from their homes and killed. Several can be seen here.
However, the most serendipitous moment on the entire trip was meeting Eleonora Baldwin, our guide in a private food tour of Rome. Born in the U.S. but raised in Italy, she has a popular website about the Italian lifestyle.
One of the tastings was in the ghetto area where we sampled Jewish pizza (like fruitcake) and the Jewish-style artichoke (like potato chips). When I told her that I had just finished teaching about the Holocaust, she told me that her grandfather made a film about an aristocratic Jewish family who ignores what’s happening in Italy during World War II. Called “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” she asked if I knew who Vittorio De Sica was.
It was one of the few times in my life when I was speechless. Of course, I knew who De Sica was, arguably the most influential Italian filmmaker in history, the director of classics such as “Shoeshine,” “The Bicycle Thief” and “Umberto D.”
Eleonora said that her grandfather also helped hide Jewish people during the War.
Even more amazing was that she wasn’t even supposed to be our tour guide that day; the assigned guide became ill. It was if it was fated for her and I to meet at the moment. What are the chances?
So far I have focused on only positive aspects of my trip. Next time, I will describe my version of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”