Back to Tuscany: Pitigliano, the Little Jerusalem

I didn’t know much about Pitigliano, only that it was known as “Little Jerusalem”. This tiny village in the Maremma region, originally settled by the Etruscans, has been home to a flourishing Jewish community since the mid-1600s. After visiting Sorano, we drove up yet another winding road, among vineyards and olive groves, to this charming, untouristy town. And I was immediately struck by its quiet atmosphere and multi-storied buildings that seem carved out of volcanic tufa stone.

Jewish traditions in Pitigliano

We have to go back to the 16th century to understand why so many Jews chose to live in Pitigliano. At that time, Count Niccolò Orsini IV ruled the village. Hoping to revitalize Pitigliano’s economy, he decided to encourage the Jews to move up here. In many other places they were exiled or segregated, but Orsini knew they were skilled bankers and artisans, who could bring wealth and money. The Jews and Christians lived peacefully together until the arrival of the Medici family, at the begin of the 17th century.

Then the Jews were confined to the ghetto that we can still visit today, built around the synagogue. If you step into the courtyard, you’ll see a plaque commemorating the Jews who were born in Pitigliano and died in Nazi death camps. Although the Jewish community has a few members today, their traditions are still alive. The Jewish bakery near the synagogue, Panificio del Ghetto, sells the “sfratti“, stick-shaped biscuits filled with nuts and honey. The name comes from “sfratto” (eviction). It refers to the fact that the Jews were forced by the police to move into the ghetto. The biscuits are delicious, by the way.

Wandering Little Jerusalem

The bakery, as well as the ritual bath and slaughterhouse, was carved out from the tufa rock centuries ago; slippery stone steps go down to vault-like rooms. Here the Jewish families used to bake sweets for the Passover celebration, and we can only imagine the fragrance that must have filled the narrow streets.

I take one of the many alleyways, attracted to the stone steps decorated with flower pots. It culminates in a fantastic view. Chestnut and olive trees grow on the rolling hills, soft clouds float in the blue sky. Anxiety and stress seem to be a thousand miles away. I go back to the main street and peer into an old church. It’s quiet in there, the air smells of incense.

In one of the shops selling local products I buy two jars of honey. Tuscan honey is particularly good. Honey production dates back to the Etruscan era, when beekeeping was popular among all the Mediterranean peoples. I suggest trying heather or chestnut honey, if you don’t mind a mildly bitter aftertaste. I cannot tell you where to eat, because I didn’t stay for lunch or dinner. But if you want to try some Tuscan dishes, then go to the Tufo Allegro. The restaurant is located near the synagogue and has a traditional menu with a modern twist.

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