Inspired By Israel

Travel

At the start of this year, we had no plans to visit Israel. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to go to Israel, just that other destinations held more appeal for us. But all that changed overnight. when our good friend Jeff announced he was getting married in Tel Aviv, and that we were invited.

Like many of our trips, we hadn’t read up on our destination until we were actually on the plane so we didn’t really know what to expect. Our straight and simple plan was to base ourselves in the thick of it right in Tel Aviv, and after the wedding, take a few days to explore the country.

Touchdown In Tel Aviv

So here we are, in Israel. We’d landed on the last day of Sukkot, a major five-day holiday after Yom Kippur. These final days are actually the Simchat Torah, so, it looked like we were on a steep learning curve for Jewish history and traditions.

Flying LHR to TLV direct in five hours was super easy. I’d heard that border security was super strict but we breezed through before we hit the taxi the queue.

The taxi queue. This was my first taste of how full-on this place can be. The taxi prices are fixed which is always a good start, and the taxi rank had some guy marshalling the cabs. After that, you were completely on your own. As top Brits, we love a queue but wondered why people kept on getting cabs before us. There seemed to be an order of service yet still we were going nowhere. I messaged pal Jeff and asked for guidance. He told me to stop being so British and start barking at people. As the next cab rocked up, another couple (from the back of the line) stewed forward to grab it. I barked at them, something along the lines, of “Hey man, where’s my cab” which seemed to do the trick.

Riding into town was pretty easy. There seems to be a stretch of land between the airport and city that looks the same in whatever city you land. You know, semi-industrial, graffitied buildings etc. Tel Aviv was no different.

Tel Aviv Yafo/Jaffa

Jaffa, or Yafo is an ancient port city out of which Tel Aviv grew. That’s why you will see Tel Aviv – Yafo listed on the flight tickets.

First impressions of Tel Aviv Jafo Israel

Tel Aviv is on the Mediterranean so we wanted a sea view. Hotel David Intercontinental provided us with an excellent base and a vast coastal horizon to wake up to. The hotel was perfectly positioned between the old town of Jaffa and the new build of Tel Aviv. I’ll write more about the hotel in a separate post… We had two days to recover before the wedding.

Our first morning we took a walk out to Jaffa – about 20 minutes walk along the beach from the hotel (if you stand facing the sea, it’s to the left). ‘Old Jaffa’ starts from the sea, and one of the world’s oldest ports – in operation for over 4,000 years. It then climbs back up the hill through what feels like a walled city towards more modern (relatively speaking) parts with shops and bars. Jaffa Port has a number of small boutiques and coffee shops. The old town in Nice or Porto Cervo would offer similar comparisons. We took a few trips to the old city as the week progressed and our love blossomed.

Most of the Tel Aviv history we saved for another time, and some older history in other parts of the country. We did, however sample some excellent restaurants – fine sushi at Moon, great seafood (and wine) at Goocha and the best ice cream at Otello on Dizengoff, one of the main shopping streets in the capital.

Unfortunately, Tel Aviv itself is not a pretty city. I am sure there are pretty bits, like the Bauhaus area, but in the main, it was generally quite normal; much of the buildings were of similar style to what you’d find in downtown Nice, which makes sense as they are both cities on the Mediterranean. Most of the Tel Aviv history we would have to save for another time, with even more older history all over other parts of the country. We did, however sample some excellent restaurants – fine sushi at Moon, great seafood (and wine) at Goocha and the best ice cream at Otello on Dizengoff, one of the main shopping streets in the capital.

The traffic, however, is crazy, (but then I expect most visitors would say that about a foreign city) with the added complication of scooters! More on those later.

The Wedding

Tuesday’s wedding was held at a special venue called the ‘Garden Events Chateau’ about 30 minutes taxi ride outside Tel Aviv. From Google Maps this looks to be set in an industrial area, but you arrive at this beautiful oasis of manicured grounds and wedding venues – one large and one small. The whole ceremony took place in the smaller of the two venues. One area comprised of the bar/mingling area and the ‘Chuppa’ – a covered area where the wedding ceremony takes place. The second, larger hall incorporated the tables and space for dining. My first Jewish wedding was another experience to remember and another step on that rapid learning curve for Jewish traditions and history. We ate, we drank, we ate some more and danced the night away before grabbing a taxi home.

I tell you what, the Israeli taxi drivers know more about Brexit than we do! On at least two different cab journeys, once they’d realised we don’t follow football, they started grilling us about Brexit. Gee whizz, talking about Brexit and they’re not even in Europe!

After a chilled, post-wedding day by the pool, we were ready for some adventures. The newlyweds had kindly offered to show us around the country, starting with Jerusalem.

Jerusalem

Everybody knows about Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world and the focus of so many religious and historical stories. Jerusalem, home of the wailing wall; the church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Jesus was crucified; the Temple on the Mount and much, much more. I read about all this stuff growing up but never really made the connection. And here we were, at the walls to the old city of Jerusalem. We passed through Jaffa Gate, one of eight gates into the city. A few steps in and we could see The Tower of David. A few more steps and we spotted fresh pomegranate juice. For a few shekels, we could get this dark red somewhat alkali freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. Yum, more of that please!

But onwards into the ‘bowels’ of the city. These souks were warren of small lanes jam-packed with small shops offering everything from ‘fake’ T-shirts to leather goods, freshly baked bread and sweets. The Old City is divided into four uneven quarters:

There is no obvious barrier between the quarters and to the untrained eye there is no real difference as we hustled towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

It’s easy to get lost in there, so asked a friendly priest which way to go. His response was to guide us back to his home, the church. Not only that but he then gave us a whirlwind tour showing us the most important parts of the church. These were the Stations of the Cross – the key locations in Christ’s path to crucifixion. In short order, we saw where Jesus was washed, where he was crucified and where he was buried. Then down below to see the grave of Adam (you know, of Adam & Eve fame). We also saw the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Nuts. I have to admit, there was a little tear in my eye. Whilst I am not religious, I can understand the importance of this place and what it means to so many believers. I’ve written up more about my visit to the church in a separate article.

The Western Wall

This was to be a rapid trip to Jerusalem, so next, we headed to the Wailing Wall. Again, something I had seen so many times on the news and in books. And here it was! After a quick trip through a security check (think airport-style security) and I was standing in front of the wall, of which you are allowed to go and touch. There are two sections of the wall, one half for the ladies, the other half for the men. Jeff helped me with the traditions of washing my hands three times and placing a ‘Western Wall’ branded kippah on my head (just double check the auto correct there) and head to the wall. Again, I am not religious but I could feel the energy and power from those around me. I said a few words and touched the wall. There was the option to write a small message and place it in the cracks, but I chose not to do that. Jeff showed me into the Synagogue adjacent the wall. I hovered around the door and watched as the men bowed and prayed, bowed and prayed. I felt a little charlatan, standing there but I respected their prayers and found my presence to be of no complaint.

The Western Wall is actually the only remaining wall of the second Jewish Temple, erected by Herod the Great. The location of that temple is now called the Temple Mount, home to the magnificent Al Aqsa Mosque. The third holiest site in Islam but also the holiest of sites in Judaism. As Jews are not permitted to pray on the Temple Mount they focus on the Western Wall. I urge you to read more about the history and religious importance of this site. It is far too detailed and important for me to give you a summary here.

Temple Mount/Al Aqsa Mosque 

Access to the Temple Mount is heavily restricted and we were fortunate to be allowed access to the area. More security checks and strict rules (no praying for our Jewish friends) before we could enter the site too. We had to don ‘skirts’ to walk around the area after which we were free to marvel at this glorious building. Possibly the most beautiful building I have ever seen. The Temple Mount surrounds combine large stone plateaus dotted with Olive trees leading up to the mosque itself. Renovated less than 20 years ago, it shone bright in the afternoon sun. We could not enter the mosque itself, that is reserved to Muslims only, which is cool. We walked around the building and took some shade to enjoy its outstanding beauty.

We left the Old City with so much more to explore for another day. We took the tram to Mahane Yehuda Market for a wander, some dinner and a shot of Gat juice, before heading back to Tel Aviv.

Towards Masada… 

Day two of ‘Jeff’s Tours’ took us from Tel Aviv, past Jerusalem and then on down to the Dead Sea, which starts about 20 minutes drive East of the city.

We were driving through the West Bank, another name I’d hear much about but did not really understand. I didn’t think we could go to the West Bank but here we were driving through it. Palestinian settlements were pointed out to us, up the hills away from the road. At times we could see evidence of ‘fortification’ and at one point crossed through an Israeli military checkpoint. We were told that Israeli cars were let through but Palestinians (with different coloured number plates) would be stopped and may not enter without the right permits. I texted our daughter to say we were driving through the West Bank because, not for the first time on this trip, it was nuts!

We drove South with the Dead Sea stretching along beside us, hundreds of feet below. We stopped a few times for pictures before heading to Masada National Park.

Masada is a gigantic rock sticking out from the surrounding desert. On the top King Herod, yes King Herod from the bible had built an amazing Winter Palace back between 37 and 31 BCE (before common era, which is the same as BC – before Christ). He was paranoid that someone would kill him, so the palace had been chosen with 360 views of the surrounding landscape. It is no surprise that Masada means Fortress in Hebrew. Here was built the most amazing palace, with his bathroom literally hanging off the side of the cliff.

Taking a cable car up to the top we explored the ruins and baked under the hot sun. We learnt the story of the Siege of Masada. At the end of the First Jewish–Roman War ended in the mass suicide of 960 Sicarii rebels who chose death over Roman slavery in 74 BCE. To think they knowingly chose suicide over Roman slavery and persecution is just heartbreaking. Yet another culturally significant story from the region’s history.

We cooled off in the streams of the nearby Ein Gedi oasis. A valley fed by streams and waterfalls, before heading to the main event – bathing in the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea

You’ve seen the pictures of the Dead Sea – people floating whilst reading a newspaper. Well, that’s how it is. We chose Herod’s beach, a nice sandy beach with plenty of amenities (loungers, chairs, showers) to enjoy the sea.

I wasn’t sure just how ‘floaty’ the sea was, but it only took a few seconds to answer that question. ‘Very floaty’ is the answer. I found that out just a few seconds after the cuts on my legs were bathed in the salt water. You know that phrase, ‘rubbing salt in the wounds?’ instead of rubbing salt in them, you dip your limbs in a whole sea of the stuff. Yikes, that hurts. After the initial stings I immersed myself in the beautifully warm, thick sea. It is so full of salt and other chemicals that you have no choice but to float. As you walk into the water, your legs are taken from under you and you’re floating. Flip onto your back and you will float, fully stretched out.

We’d chosen to bathe at the end of the day, so it would be cooler which is a relative term in the Dead Sea. 34 degrees at 17:00! It was lovely! I loved it so much I spent at least an hour just bobbing around. You could see other visitors were going to be in there for hours at a time. Some people even brought their chairs, and iphones into the water.

We grabbed a brewski and watched the sun set over the water. The setting light was beautiful, almost pastel coloured, reminding me of the sunsets in Palm Springs which makes sense, as they are both deserts. On the other side of the water we could see the lights of Jordan slowly come on. I wonder if someone was sitting on the other side, watching Israel light up?

After another huge meal, this time in a Bedouin tent, it was time to drive home to Tel Aviv.  This time we took the direct route, straight through the pitch black desert.

Farewell Israel…

Our final days back in Tel Aviv saw us explore more of Jaffa Old town before packing up and heading back home to England.

From starting the week, and year, not thinking about going to Israel we’re now thinking when can we go back? There is so much more we want to see. The weather is good, the people are great and the food was plentiful. The trip would not have been the same without the company of our friends Jeff and Ortal. Jeff did all the talking and Ortal did all of the driving but it wouldn’t have been the same without the two of them!

We hope it is not too long before we are back…

You may be interested in our other travels: Chateau Marmont | Crystal Cruises Alaska

Jamie is a luxury travel blogger and the creator of Wine Travel and Song. You can find him on a ‘plane with a head full of music or in the pages of this blog! Next Stops; Tel Aviv, Paris and TBD!