Thirty years ago, the very notion of luxury travel in Eastern Europe — let alone upscale Jewish heritage travel — was a bit far-fetched. Much of the region lay behind the Iron Curtain. Borders were tightly guarded; tourism infrastructure was limited; transportation was often sparse and difficult. In Jewish communities decimated by the Holocaust, and further depopulated by emigration to Israel, surviving landmarks and institutions were neglected or even inaccessible.
Fortunately, the fall of Communism and the expansion of the European Union transformed this vast region, making its rich Jewish heritage — both Ashkenazic and Sephardic — newly accessible. New Jewish museums, like Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, are rising alongside restored synagogues, kosher restaurants and boutique hotels.
The result is that visitors to Eastern Europe — a diverse territory that extends, by some definitions, from Vienna to Vilnius, from the Baltics to the Aegean — now enjoy luxurious (and even kosher) exploration throughout a region historically associated in American minds with material privations.
“We’re using only the top hotels, Four Seasons level or comparable,” noted Ashley Isaacs Ganz, who coordinates private Jewish heritage tours through her New York-based firm, Artisans of Leisure. Those options wouldn’t have been available 30 years ago in Prague, Budapest, Krakow and Warsaw, which form the core of the firm’s 12-day “Jewish Tour of Central Europe” itinerary ($16,990 per person, based on double occupancy). But the region has been a consistent travelers’ favorite since Isaacs Ganz began offering trips 15 years ago.
For today’s high-end travelers, personalization is just as important as thread counts. “Since all our tours are private, it’s completely customized to their interests and pace,” said Isaacs Ganz, whose typical client is a couple or family. Some people request private meetings with European rabbis, renowned scholars or members of the Jewish community; others want what Isaacs Ganz calls “Jewish lite — the historical synagogues and the Jewish ghetto, and eating at some kosher restaurants to sample local cuisine.”
In our information-rich age, traveler requests have become ever more specific, Isaacs Ganz said. Among the experiences she arranges are Michelin-starred restaurants, gatherings with members of the Vienna Philharmonic and high-end personal shopping. A family whose son was an accomplished chess player requested a session with a European grandmaster; an avid art collector visited the studio of a Budapest artist. “Access to our in-depth destination knowledge is also a luxury,” Isaacs Ganz noted.
That’s the thinking behind the scholar-driven Europe trips offered through Jewish Heritage Travel (JHT), the five-year-old travel program organized in conjunction with New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. A resident scholar accompanies every 12-day itinerary (roughly $6,400-$7,000 per person, based on double occupancy), with local historical and cultural experts providing insight in each city visited, said director Aryeh Maidenbaum.
“It’s heavy on content,” said Maidenbaum, who holds a doctorate in history from Hebrew University, has led educational travel for 20 years and is also a psychoanalyst in New York. Cultural knowledge, after all, is what drives travelers to explore a region where poverty, and the ravages of 20th-century turmoil, are still widely visible.
Upcoming JHT trips include the spectacular Dalmatian Coast, from Trieste through the medieval cities of Croatia; and a Baltic tour of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, where prewar Vilnius was known as a second Jerusalem for its concentration of synagogues. Another trip reveals the breadth and richness of Jewish heritage across Poland, where a wave of Jewish investment has resulted in new archives and museums, restored cemeteries and ghettos, and distinctive Jewish landmarks, from textile factories to artists’ houses.
Yet “people want comfort, also,” acknowledged Maidenbaum, who has upgraded his lodgings over time in response to demand from his travelers — most of whom are, like he is, over 50. “Touring during the day is very exhausting. It sets a tone for when you travel, if you’re coming back to the hotel and feeling comfortable. It makes the whole thing more pleasurable.” Eastern Europe’s hospitality standards have risen dramatically since its nations joined the E.U. Maidenbaum added: “Hotels are now first rate, as good as any in the world.”
Luxury travel also means personal attention. Maidenbaum caps JHT trips at 30 people and is considering lowering the number further. “People have said they would rather pay more and travel with fewer people,” he noted.
Upscale excursions have now reached corners of Eastern Europe that were historically overlooked by tour operators, such as the Balkans. Not long ago, intrepid travelers had to improvise on rickety trains, make do with Communist-era lodgings, and rely on phrase books to communicate in Bulgaria, the former Yugoslav nations and northern Greece. Kosher travelers packed suitcases full of tuna and crackers. And the region’s rich Sephardic heritage was virtually unknown to most Americans.
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All that is changing. In Greece, where Jews have lived since the destruction of the Second Temple, Sephardim settled en masse after the 15th-century expulsion from Iberia. The country is the focus of a heritage itinerary from New York-based Kesher Tours, a family-run outfit that has specialized in Jewish and kosher travel for 34 years.
Participants on the 12-day trip visit Thessaloniki, an Ottoman-era Jewish cultural nexus; nearby Ioannina, for centuries the hub of Romaniote (historically Greek-speaking) Jews; Athens, site of a Jewish history museum; and the Peloponnese, land of ancient Sparta and birthplace of the Olympics, where a Holocaust Museum in Kalavryta documents the city’s Nazi-era massacre.
Tzipor Gabbay, a spokesperson for Kesher, keeps groups small — 24 to 30 people. The 12-day Greece itinerary ($4,300 per person, double occupancy, or $3,000 without flights) features kosher meals, Shabbat hospitality, four- and five-star hotels and all the little extras that make a trip go smoothly. “It’s easier to travel in a group, where everything’s included,” she said. “People can feel comfortable being adventurous.”
Sephardic Balkans, a boutique tour company, recently added a Jewish heritage trip to the Western Balkans — Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia — with highlights like a viewing of the fabled Sarajevo Haggadah; visits to historic synagogues in Trieste and Dubrovnik; and architectural highlights in Ljubljana. Gourmet Sephardic-style dining and fine local wines are highlights of the 12-day itineraries, which are organized by Joseph Benatov, a Sofia native and noted expert on Balkan Jewry who teaches Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania.
Benatov leads travelers to the Western Balkans annually in May ($3,590 per person based on double occupancy, land only). June departures include trips to Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Northern Greece ($3,260) — a region where Ladino culture still lives, ancient bazaars invite haggling over handcrafts, and vacationers can relax on the medieval shores of Macedonia’s Lake Ohrid.
“Europeans really want to tell their stories,” observed Gabbay. “And travelers really care about Jewish heritage. They want to understand their roots. History is truly a reason to travel.”