Travelling through Israel
If you are planning a trip to Israel there are quite a few things you need to be prepared for. Like for example very, I mean very strict airport control; answering a series of random questions about yourself and your intent for visiting (it took approximately 20 minutes of my time); for women – having a long skirt and/or a scarf to cover your body if you are planning a trip to Jerusalem and so on.
Israel differs from city to city, from open-minded Tel-Aviv- which easily combines Western and Eastern cultures to Jerusalem – that preserves cultural heritage, therefore being much more conservative.
In Tel-Aviv you can go out in an open, short summer dress without standing out from the crowd, but in Jerusalem you will be frowned upon if you wear the same gown.
But overall Israel is a country with a very interesting history, stunning views and world-known places that ARE worth seeing. Let’s look at some of them more closely.
Tel-Aviv was the first place that unfolded in front of me during my stay in Israel. I didn’t read much guidebooks so I didn’t know any of the must-see tourist places. I much prefer to explore the city by following my eyes, instead of a map. Well, sometimes, I am following someone who lives in the city and showing me around. In Tel-Aviv I had such helpers – Dean, Anna & Adrian.
They showed me the old city of Jaffa, the beach, the night life and introduced me to a local cuisine, to Tel-Aviv street art, galleries and so on.
I only spent two days in Tel-Aviv but the program was intense. First was the beach. Tel-Aviv has beach promenades just like in California (I imagine) with Palm trees, skaters, couples walking hand in hand, dogs running and etc. etc. My Jewish friend Dean introduced me to a new beach game, that is highly popular in Israel, called “Matkot”. Matkot is very similar to beach tennis, but with smaller wooden rackets and ball not hitting the ground. If it hits – you lose. At first I miserably sucked at Matkot but after half hour got better and better.
Later on we went for a walk in the part of town called Jaffa or Yafo. Jaffa might be considered a part of Tel-Aviv but actually it used to be a separate solid city, an ancient port of Israel that expanded over the time and became Tel-Aviv – Yafo in 1909. Jaffa is known for its biblical and mythological legends, like for example the legend of Andromeda and Peruses. According to the legend Andromeda’s beauty turned sea nymphs crazy jealous so they complained to the God of the Sea – Poseidon and asked him to flood the land, which he did and the only way to stop him was to bring a sacrifice by chaining Andromeda to the cliff in the bay of Jaffa. Not to worry folks, she was saved by the strong and the brave Peruses and they lived happily ever after. The cliff of Andromeda though remained to be a popular location for tourists in Jaffa. Although now it is not a cliff but relatively small rocks.
Tel-Aviv- Yafo is really beautiful, with narrow alleyways, brick roads, galleries, souvenir shops and restaurants.
Night life is very vivid in here. Bars expand to the streets and beyond. The music is loud, the places are packed and the people look like they know how to party. So if you are looking for something like that – this is a city for you. Myself was looking for something more quiet therefore I just hit the bed leaving the partying side to better times.
Next on my list was Jerusalem. We arrived there around 5pm on a Friday evening and if you know anything about Israel you shall know that their weekend falls on Friday-Saturday and is called Shabbat, meaning a weekly day of rest and worship. It starts with a sunset on Friday and lasts until Saturday night. So taking this fact into consideration you can imagine my surprise when the first thing I’ve seen in Jerusalem was a trance music party right in the middle of city centre and right across the hostel where I was staying. I could literally sit on a porch and watch hundreds of people jump to the beat. But as soon as the clock showed 6, the music stopped and Shabbat as I imagined it (quiet and solitary) has begun.
I am glad I was in Jerusalem during the weekend, because it wasn’t as packed with people, although of course it still was but not to the overwhelming extent. There is something magical about Jerusalem that is hard to put into words. The city has so much history, at times a really tragic one – yet it has this peaceful atmosphere that you simply need to experience. No wonder its name means “The city of Peace”.
Jerusalem has a new part and the old part. The new part of Jerusalem is amazing, it’s really modern and stylish and colorful. You really need to see it to understand it 🙂 –
The Old Jerusalem
As you may or may not know the Western Bank Barrier or in more simple words – a wall of around 500km long (708km upon completion) is going through Jerusalem, dividing it between the Jews and Palestinians. Many Palestinians have to go all the way around it and pass check points to attend prayers or other events, even to get to work in the city of Jerusalem.
The wall was built after Israeli prime-minister made a visit to the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem – one of the most important religious sites in the world. Palestinians saw it as a provocation meaning that Israel is showing control of all of Jerusalem and the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine has escalated by uprising of Palestinians. Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been in the news for around 50 years. The key issues are: mutual recognition, borders, security, water rights, control of Jerusalem, Palestinian freedom of movement and Palestinian right of return.
Now I don’t’ want to get all political here, so if you are interested in this subject I invite you to read about it at your own initiative.
But what I feel necessary to add is that during my stay on both sides of Jerusalem (Jewish & Palestinian) I have met incredibly sweet and friendly people. And this is something that media will not commonly show –humility between the citizens and their crave for peace and amicable existence.
When in Jerusalem you must go to the following places:
- The Western Wall or the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem– a holy place for prayers and one of the holiest places in the world. Every year it attracts thousands of visitors and pilgrims. The wall has separate areas for men and women and also separate entrances.
- Al-Aqsa Mosque – one of the holiest places in Islam and one of the most recognisable places of Jerusalem.
- Kidron valley and The Mount of Olives – a place with olive groves, ancient tombs, monuments and an old Jewish cemetery (pic. 1). The story reads that Jesus was often passing Kidron valley (pic. 2) on his way to Bethany. (Keep in mind we are talking about one of the most holy cities in the world). At the top of the Mount of Olives (pic. ) you can have a wonderful view on the valley and the Old city of Jerusalem and also have a ride on a camel if you wish.
- Street Market in Old Jerusalem – a place where you can find a variety of exotic spices, fresh made humus, jewellery, souvenirs, scarfs, Jewish tokens, fresh bread, fruits vegetable and more. The market spreads on both Jewish & Palestinian parts of Jerusalem so you can visit Palestine by just taking a turn here and there. I have to admit that Palestinian side has cheaper food of the same quality 😉
After Jerusalem we head South all the way to the Dead Sea. Dead Sea is not actually a sea but a salt lake and is the place where all the goodie goodie skin products are coming from. Dead Sea is known for its healing properties and is peacefully shared by three countries – Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Apart from its holistic powers the lake is also known for two things –
- It has the lowest elevation below sea level in the world
- Its water contains so much salt and minerals that you cannot sink.
Swimming in the Dead Sea is nearly impossible, so you just float. This experience can be compared to swimming in a salty jelly-ish substance. The water is really eemmm… thick and doesn’t really feel to your skin like normal water does. It also leaves a thin but solid layer of salt on the skin so be careful to not let the water get into your eyes because it is going to sting really badly.
How to get there
There are many tours that you can take to get to the Dead Sea and usually they all stop at the beach, but we were told by a hostel receptionist in Jerusalem that it is much better to get off one stop before to get rid of the crowd and get more private feel to it. Now of course if he says it to all the visitors it makes one wonder about the whole “privacy” feel, but we tested the theory.
What can I say – the place is indeed much more secluded and we’ve only met two other tourists and a guy who lives by the lake in a tent. He says he is doing this for years and really enjoys this kind of life style. You probably need to be local to be able to survive the heat of 40C and limit your fresh water supply to a tiny nature-made pool.
He didn’t seem to be bothered by any of it, me on the other hand was nearly fainting. The sun was strong, the weather was still, the water in the lake was warm so not at all refreshing, also to top it all up we ran out of drinking water. Nearest kiosk to get it was a good few kilometres away and did I mention that Dead Sea is located in a rocky dessert?
Yet, it was a memorable experience that I would never take back. I always wanted to visit this place so I was really thrilled and probably also a little bit sun-drunk that one of my tasks on a bucket list can be marked down.
Golan Heights & Mount Bental
As much as I enjoyed the Dead Sea it was getting late and we had a plan to go all the way up to Golan Heights. We decided to hitch hike and save some cash on other things. So we got to the main road and started waiting. It only took us around 10 minutes before the first car stooped and offered us a lift. We didn’t drive long as they were going to Jerusalem on the West and we were going North but they did bring us a little bit closer towards our destination. We had much more luck though with the next car with two elderly ladies going all the way to Quatsrin, a little town in…. Golan Heights!
It was a pleasurable drive and our drivers were really sweet, talking perfect English that according to them they last spoke in school. Either the level of English in Jewish schools is extremely high or these ladies have a really good memory but it fascinated me that in 40-50 years they didn’t actually forget the language and could easily communicate with us.
The drive to Golan Heights is very picturesque, with Jordan river on your right and planes on your left. But the best part of it comes when you drive along the Sea of Galilee, another lake in Israel. I am a bit angry at myself that I didn’t photograph this part of our drive, but it all happened so fast that I was just enjoying the view without thinking of anything else. Total Zen moment that was.
Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee have a lot to offer, from Tiberias – a city located right on the lake to National Parks, Mountains and Wine Yards.
As my trip to Israel was quite short I had to choose one place and I chose Mount Bental. Mount Bental is a volcano but since it’s been inactive for a long while it is safe and open for visitors. It has a viewing platform on the top of 1170 metres that is “decorated” with life-size metal soldiers reminding us of 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel, Syria & Egypt. During that time Mount Bental had one of the largest tank battles and the valley below got a name of the Valley of Tears.
Of course now, despite its history the place doesn’t look gloom. It has a cute café for tourists and spectacular views on Golan and Syria (in a far distance).
Time to go back
After spending few days in Golan it was time to get back to Tel-Aviv and get on a plane back home. I only spent one full week in Israel but somehow it felt longer. It felt rich, but a different kind of rich, the one that is not measured in any currency. I had this mixed feeling of sadness (because the holiday was over) but at the same time a feeling or an urge for living. Living a lively lifestyle as my friend Rory once said, it felt like I finally got what it means.
This is the best thing about travelling – you come back being a little bit different. The places you visit leave their imprint and you change.
“Why do we go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” – Terry Pratchett