We often have clients who are curious to explore Jewish sites in Italy so we work historic and cultural treasures into their itinerary like the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, the ancient Jewish catacombs in Rome, and Florence’s Great Synagogue in Florence, considered among the most beautiful in Europe.
A few years ago, however, we created a trip for a Jewish family who had already been to Italy’s three most famous cities and wanted to explore an area a bit off the beaten path. They were foodies and history buffs, and particularly interested in art and architecture so we settled on Emilia-Romagna—a region rich in culture and cuisine plus home to a treasure trove of historic Jewish neighborhoods and landmarks.
The itinerary we crafted for them covered Emilia-Romagna’s jewel-like cities, blockbuster gourmet specialties, and a surprising range of Jewish religious and cultural sites.
Jewish settlement began in Emilia Romagna in the 13th century and flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries. In 1555, Pope Paul IV decreed that all Jews who lived under Papal rule must be relocated to defined districts in each city and town, and the first Jewish ghettos were established; Italian Jews were finally emancipated with full civic and religious rights in 1860. Today, there are only about 400 Jews who live in Emilia-Romagna, a region of more than 4 million inhabitants, but there are many historic Jewish sites to visit. Here are the most important Jewish sites in Emilia-Romagna:
This handsome and lively university town is the perfect home base for exploring Emilia-Romagna, especially if you want to eat well. The city is bursting with sights, shops, and great restaurants and is centrally positioned within striking distance of the neighboring historic towns. You’ll need at least half a day to cover Bologna’s main attractions, plus its historic Jewish quarter (Ghetto), Jewish museum, and Synagogue. If you need to prioritize, focus on strolling through the Jewish quarter.
Most famous for its balsamic vinegar and sexy Ferrari sports cars, Modena is a fascinating mix of history and innovation. Spend at least a few hours wandering the porticoed streets of the pretty old town, plus pop into an “acetaio” to see how traditional balsamic vinegar is made and visit the Enzo Ferrari Museum to learn about Italy’s iconic sports car. For Jewish sights, visit Piazza Mazzini (the main square in the former Ghetto) and the synagogue, which isn’t open all the time but you can call to schedule a visit.
Prioritize the Jewish Synagogue—which also houses the Jewish Museum—and walk through the pedestrian Jewish Ghetto along Via Mazzini, Via Vignataglia, and Via Vittoria. If you have time, consider visiting the Addizione Erculea Jewish cemetery, considered the oldest in Emilia-Romagna. You can also visit MEIS, the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah, set in the city’s former prison complex, not far from the ghetto. In addition to its storied Jewish sites, Ferrara has many fabulous cultural monuments and attractions, so allow at least half a day to walk around and visit the cathedral, the Estense Castle, and the art museum.
This small town had a Jewish community as far back as the 14th century, it began to decline in the 20th century and today has largely disappeared. The historic ghetto remains and has recently been restored, so you can admire this cluster of townhouses with 18th-century balconies encircling three connected courtyards; these homes once had interconnecting passages to access the synagogue. There is also a Jewish cemetery dating from 1818.
Until WWII, the town of Lugo was home to a significant Jewish community, which settled in this important market and trade center in the 13th century. In 1635, local Jews were relocated to the ghetto created along Via Sant’Agostino (now Corso Matteotti) and traces of the medieval ghetto architecture remain; just outside the ghetto, the Jewish cemetery in Via di Giù is what remains of the large local Jewish community that lived here from the 16th to the 20th century. Be sure to check out the lapidarium, which has a number of stone sepulchral pillars and memorials stretching across five centuries of history.
This medieval hill town sits high above the sea and plains of Emilia-Romagna, and was once home to a Jewish community that settled here at the end of the 14th century There are still vestiges of the old ghetto in the historic center, plus the home of the 15th-century Portuguese-Jewish poet, physician, and philosopher known as Leo the Hebrew. Look for the plaque that indicates the parts of the town Jews were allowed to live in and terracotta tiles depicting a Ner Tamid and a cornucopia.
Carpi and Fossoli were the largest sites in Italy for deportation camps. Visit Carpi’s Pio Castle or Fossoli’s public park and national museum, commemorating victims of the Holocaust. If you’re visiting castles in the area, you won’t want to miss Soragna’s famous Meli-Lupi castle; a Synagogue sits just opposite, which is now also a museum.
Add a visit to a kosher winery, taste some kosher Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, explore the incredible art and castles of the region, spend some time in the city of Parma, and maybe hop on a bike for some easy cycling…and you’ve got yourself a great trip!
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