SITTING on the other side of the Med, a mere five hour EasyJet flight from Luton, is a tiny country that has some of the most important religious sites in the world. A place where Jewish, Christian, Islamist and Baha’i faiths ‘meet’. A land that has more cultural influences than any other Middle Eastern state. Rooted in a deep and bloody yet relatively young political history (this nation still shares disputed borders and is yet to be recognised as a state by many of its neighbours), it’s often easy to forget that Israel is also a cosmopolitan party country and a destination hotspot for travellers the world over. Welcome to ‘Zion’.
Tel (Aviv) us more
Tel Aviv can probably (definitely) take the title ‘most liberal city in the Middle East’ and it is a great place to base yourself during your trip. The ease of wandering around this 24 hour city, at any hour, came as a great surprise. As with any city, it obviously helps when locals show you around and I was lucky enough to have some ready-made friends who were more than happy to show off what Tel Aviv has to offer. But I can assure you, this is not a pre-requisite, and friends in Israel can be made in any bar or on any street at any time and they are more than eager to show you their favourite places.
Israelis have an endearing arrogance. If you have the patience to take it with a pinch of salt, you will be told that Tel Aviv is the ‘best city in the world’ and that you will be taken to eat ‘the best Shawarma/hummus in the world’. It is this national pride which draws you in. You begin to fall in love a little bit with the place. It may also help that the city is bordered to the west by awesome Mediterranean beaches and with a warm and hospitable general climate — what is there not to like about Tel Aviv?
One lesson you will learn, almost directly upon arrival, is that most things in Israel can be reached within an hour from Tel Aviv. This includes the capital of the country, a city which represents so much more — Jerusalem.
The Holy City
What can be said about Jerusalem other than — wow! Taking in this city will affect everyone in some way. It’s not a claim many cities in the world can make (Google ‘Jerusalem syndrome’) but you will be sure to take something away from a visit to Jerusalem. I took away with me a line which was my friend’s response to my musings regarding the architecture: “it may look pretty on the surface, but underneath, it is filled with racism and hate.” I am not going to delve into the subject further as it opens a whole can of worms not to be discussed in a travel article, but if you are ever to visit — keep those words in mind.
Everything about the old city of Jerusalem affects you – the sounds, the smells, the people. You may believe you feel the tensions between the Palestinians, Armenians, Christians and the Orthodox Jews who reside there during the day selling their wares. You can experience the history even if you are a non-believer (like me) and it will amaze and baffle you. There is seemingly so much common ground yet so many divisions.
Walking through history
Walk through Jerusalem’s ‘old city’ into the Palestinian quarter and eat there. I can safely say that it was indeed some of the best hummus I have ever had. Walk through to the Western Wall (the Israelis looked baffled when I referred to it as the ‘Wailing Wall’) and from here you can climb up to the Jewish Quarter and take in the most iconic view of the city, the Dome of the Rock. And all without climbing the Mount of Olives.
Jerusalem does not pride itself on being a party town like Tel Aviv and be aware — the city shuts down between sundown on Fridays and Saturdays for the Sabbath and many of the younger, probably more secular, residents will leave for the weekend. During the evening I was privileged to be taken to some of the characteristic bars which are hidden all over the city. One particular bar had a night dedicated to art, in a separate room artists worked on simple creations and they were sold to people who stopped by. Eerily though and in stark contrast to Tel Aviv, signs of life are few and far between out in Jerusalem’s streets.
Jerusalem has recently completed a tram service which has made getting around the city a lot easier — it had only just opened when I visited and the novelty meant that the carriages resembled London’s Central Line during rush hour. However don’t abandon walking the ‘new part’ of the city in favour of the tram as there is so much to take in – the art work and architecture alone tell stories of this embattled city. Before you do leave, ensure you pay a visit to the market to get a feel of everyday life.
The Dead Sea is another ‘must-do’ on any trip to Israel and it can be reached easily from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. You can do a tour or drive there yourself, or as in my case, be driven. I was taken the ‘back road’ which was built so people could get between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem quicker — however unfortunately due to obvious tensions, there are a number of military check points which defeat the objective. If you venture by yourself to the Dead Sea, one of the saltiest bodies of water on earth, you won’t be taken down the ‘back road’ — the satnav was adamant we should not be going this way.
The drive between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea has elevation markers reminding you just how far below sea level you are driving. The country out here is biblical, you can almost imagine Jesus wandering here in his sandals and robes! By the time you reach the famous shores you are 1300ft below sea level, where you have to drive along the coast for a while until you reach the Ein Gedi settlement. Here’s where you can bathe in the water…but be warned – take sandals as the crystallised salt cuts and the salty water stings like you wouldn’t believe! I was unlucky that on the day I visited – the water was quite rough so we didn’t get the standard floating pictures however we did scout around the shore and found some of the reason this is so famous — minerals! There is something extremely satisfying about covering yourself head to toe in earthy Dead Sea mud.
Forcing yourself to leave
There are many more things to visit in Israel — Haifa, Eilat and the Kibbutz were things I wish I had more time to do, but I am confident that a return visit will be a definite eventuality
Leaving a country you have enjoyed is always emotional — luckily the Israeli border force are there to provide a physical barrier as well. The interrogation and search process is the most efficient and thorough of anywhere I have ever been…and completely over the top. But I guess it is necessary, because if something should happen to a plane which leaves Israel, the blame lies with Israel and let’s face it, it is the last thing they need.
Head to Israel and enjoy for yourself a country that puts a lot of the stereotypes to shame. L’chaim!