Exploring Two Basilicas in Italy, Two Synagogues in Prague

I recently embarked on two sharply different trips with Overseas Adventure Travel. It was supposed to be a 5-week exploration or Eastern and Central Europe with two different OAT trips. However, thanks to the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and my own post pandemic flexibility, I returned to Italy just a few months after my first post-pandemic Sicily trip, this time on the OAT trip Tuscany and Umbria: Italy’s Rustic Heartland. I took this trip (rather than going to Russia and the Baltics as originally planned) back-to-back with the already planned Central Europe trip Jewels of the Bohemia. The two trips could not have been more starkly different in terms of cuisine, geography, history, landscapes, experiences, and culture. Yet I embraced the differences, starting with my transition from three weeks of red wine to two weeks of dark beer. Being able to explore the world again in all its variety had even more appeal after the lockdown period of the pandemic and the associated fear of traveling. 

Multiple images and experiences will remain in the landscape of any travelers’ mind following this kind of two-pronged adventure. But when I think of the two OAT trips together, I primarily think of two Basilicas and two synagogues. They hardly define the trip, but they instead highlight the differences. 

On the Tuscany and Umbria trip, I took the pre-trip which included Bologna and Parma, and an optional excursion to Ravenna to see the famous mosaics in three different churches. Two of the three churches had reached basilica status. However, the 1400-year-old Basilica di San Vitale, built in about 550 AD under the rule of Emperor Justinian, stood out the most. It was indeed grand and impressive, with scenes from both the Old and New Testament all in mosaics. It not only reminded me of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, but it turned out to be a template and inspiration for its design just a few later years. It also has mosaics depicting the life of Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The Baroque frescoes were completed between 1778 and 1782. This Basilica was so impressive I had to sit in the pews to take it all in.

 I was much less impressed, and somewhat disheartened to learn how so many churches were being built and glorified during the years of the Inquisition. even though the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) and the Roman Inquisition (1542-1858) occurred at different times and Italy wasn’t united until much later (1871 to 1918). But that is why we travel. We take in the whole picture, the good and the bad, and we learn. We saw art in one church on the base trip that was anti Muslim back in the day and could still be perceived that way today. In the first of the mosaic churches in Ravenna, they had built a wooden sculpted monument to all religions using all religious symbols but that of Judaism. That was history, and we were face to face with it. But in the beautiful Basilica in Ravenna, I saw inclusion. So, I wanted to sit down and digest it, whether it was truly part of their history or not. The history of the Ottoman Empire and the Byzantine Empire were rife with holy wars. Yet this basilica was intended to portray all of humanity.

During the Umbria portion of the trip, we had the opportunity to go to Assisi to see Assisi itself and climb the winding uphill streets to see the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi. I may get tired of seeing churches, synagogues, or museums on any international trip, but the great ones always capture my interest for their art, history, and culture. Assisi was no exception. It was worth the climb uphill in 95-degree heat. This UNESCO world heritage site, where construction began in 1228, has an upper half and a lower half, with Saint Francis, the current Pope’s namesake, buried in a crypt. The upper half is Gothic, with beautiful wood carvings which really stood out to me. Both halves were completed by 1253. The Basilica is considered to have some of the most precious Italian art compared to the rest of Christian Europe during that time. The entire experience of Assisi should not be missed. It would be like not going to see Notre Dame in Paris.

When this trip concluded, I flew from Rome to Prague. I had two days before the tour Jewels of the Bohemia began, and after experiencing some 20 Italian churches, cathedrals, and basilicas (some of which I didn’t enter but waited politely while others did), I wanted to go to the Jewish quarter in Prague. I wanted to see the synagogues that I had tried to see in 2008 but which were being restored back then. All were available to see this year. As with the churches, I maxed out trying to see all five synagogues and the second Jewish cemetery. But two of the synagogues are unique and historically significant. I could not help but notice as well, that while none of this history had been preserved in Italy, the Czech Republic went out of its way to preserve Jewish history. In fact, all five synagogues and the two cemeteries were available to visit for five hundred Czech Krona. The ticket was good for the week. I really had one day to see them all in the small Jewish Quarter known as Jew Town, but I was surprisingly happy to move on after a little over two hours, four synagogues, and one cemetery.

The New Spanish Synagogue (1868), right behind the statue of writer Franz Kafka, is the most beautiful of them all, and has been turned into a museum of 20th century Jewish history in Prague, especially as it relates to the Holocaust. The synagogue itself is a reform synagogue and is still aligned with the Reform Jewish community there who in fact had a Friday night service when I was in Prague last. That practice has apparently stopped.  It was built in a Moorish style and fell into disrepair twice in the early 20th century. It was restored in all its splendor after the Velvet Revolution of 1998. It is situated next to a church and is actually the newer synagogue in the Jewish quarter. The older Spanish synagogue was in the same location exactly as this newer Spanish synagogue but was demolished in 1867 and the newer on was built. It has an organ and pews as a church would, rather than benches against the wall for sitting. It is currently administered by the Jewish Museum of Prague. Services are only held there now on special occasions. Glass cases of artifacts from the Holocaust surround the walls of the lower half.

The other unique synagogue in the area is the Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of all 78,000 Czech Jews are listed who perished in the Holocaust, along with the dates of deportation. Since the concentration camp at Terezin is only an hour away, this is an important memorial. It is also where former Secretary of State Madeline Albright learned that she was Jewish after reporters pointed out to her the family names that were on the inside of the Synagogues walls. It is stirring to walk from room to room in this synagogue and see all the names of the perished. 

This two-story building had been originally owned by a family who decided to turn it into a synagogue in 1535, making it the second oldest synagogue in Prague. It was additionally annexed between 1607 and 1635. The lower floor had been damaged by water and flood problems more than once starting in the 18th century, and again after the 78,000 names were added to the synagogue walls. Artwork from the children deported to Terezin remain a permeant exhibition at the lowest level of the structure. 

Just as with any other sites, any traveler would be wise to space out church, synagogue, and mosque visits. They all have unique and interesting art and architecture and represent the culture and history of the people. We can appreciate them even more, especially during group travel, when visits are paced properly, and only the most significant and unique (former or current) houses of worship are visited. Their history reveals so much about a country and its history. Museums add this rich texture of course, but there can be too much of them as well. I was reminded on this trip how  I “snubbed” the Beatles at the London Tate Modern in 1973 when I went to see their famous portrait after the group broke up. I went inside, and after 10 weeks of churches and museums, saw what I came to see, the turned around and walk right back out!

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