Rome Sweet Rome!
It’s known as the Eternal City – and while Jews certainly haven’t been there since time began, Italy’s capital has hosted the community for an astounding 22 centuries, ever since the First Temple was destroyed.
That was just one of the fascinating facts to emerge on a five-day trip to Rome organised by ECJS (European Centre for Jewish Students).
Our first stop in this city steeped in ancient Jewish heritage was the Great Synagogue, the first Italian synagogue built after unification in 1870. It is a stunning example of the European ‘cathedral’ shuls, the baroque-style marble interior and wooden seats transporting you immediately back to a different era.
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Our local guide then took us to the adjacent Spanish Synagogue, a Moorish-style small building with beautiful architectural details dating back to the 16th century.
The nearby Jewish Museum of Rome (Museo Ebraico di Roma) contains an extensive selection of Judaica, including items from the Middle Ages and Renaissance era, as well as an exhaustive history of the city’s Jewish Ghetto.
Although never forced to convert, the Jews were obligated to attend church services in order to “persuade” them to do so.
A visit to the Ghetto, where the Jews lived until the city was freed from the Papacy, is a real treat, with a dozen kosher eateries, including meat, milk, and café houses. I ate in Ba’Ghetto’s dairy restaurant, which also runs an adjacent meat restaurant.
The fried zucchini, Roman artichoke and penne arrabiata were cooked to perfection and went down well – as did the Chianti.
We learnt about the Jewish presence in the city for more than 2,000 years – which makes it one of the oldest continuous communities in the world – saw the ruins of an ancient apartment building and visited the Roman Forum, once the centre of Roman life and the meeting place of the senate.
We strolled across the Via Sacra, the main thoroughfare of Rome, passing the Palatine Hill, until we reached the Arch of Titus, the south panel depicting the spoils of war taken from the Temple in Jerusalem.
We ended our journey through the Arch of Constantine and found ourselves standing at the site of the world-renowned Colosseum, where many a Roman citizen was entertained by gruesome gladiatorial combat.
A city-centre tour included the Piazza Venezia, the central hub, the bustling Piazza Navona and the fountain of the four rivers, which represents the four continents through which papal authority has spread: the Nile in Africa, the Danube in Europe, the Ganges in Asia and the Río de la Plata in the Americas.
Not for the faint-hearted, the monumental Spanish Steps – 135 in total – connect the Piazza di Spagna at the base and Piazza Trinità dei Monti at the top, while a visit to Rome wouldn’t be complete without seeing the beautiful Trevi Fountain, where an estimated €3,000 (£2,720) a day are thrown in by people wishing for good luck.
The best, however, was saved for last, with my final day spent visiting the Vatican. The group tour is a must and saves on long waits at the entrance as tens of thousands of visitors come here every day.
By taking the tour, you will find yourself proceeding quickly through the buildings. Don’t forget the audio guide, essential in order to absorb the surroundings.
The Vatican Museum contains an impressive art collection built up over centuries, including classical sculptures and masterpieces of Renaissance art, while the breathtaking Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo, is worth the entrance fee alone. The variety of biblical, mythical and allegorical images makes it a staggering narrative of creation and thought.
St Peter’s Basilica was the final point on the journey. Aside from being a renowned work of Renaissance architecture, at 720 ft long and 490 ft wide, it is also easily the largest church in the world and it is from this impressive place that the Pope appears to thousands-strong crowds throughout the year.
James Martin stayed at the Sheraton Roma Hotel (sheratonrome.com), where prices start from €71 (about £63) per night. He toured Rome with ECJS (ecjs.org) and visited the Jewish Museum of Rome (museoebraico.roma.it/en/the-museum).