A Travellerspoint blog


Hanging Out in the Holy Land: Eastern Israel and Jerusalem

Driving from the western to the eastern edge of Israel took less than an hour. We found a cabin on Airbnb that was part of a development right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We had a beautiful view of the sea, which of course is actually a freshwater lake, and the Golan Heights on the far shore. It was strange to think that this relatively nondescript place was the site of some of the most dramatic moments described in the New Testament. We went down to the beach and stripped the kids so they could play in the sand and the shallow water. The waves were surprisingly forceful for a small lake, apparently because of strong winds generated by the climactic difference between the low-lying shoreline and the surrounding hills. One particularly emphatic wave knocked Cleo flat onto her back and for a second or two she was submerged, staring up at me through the crystal clear water with a bemused expression. Although there was no real danger, the moment underscored how completely dependent she was on me to protect her from all the world's dangers great and small. I reached down and pulled her up before she had a chance to become scared.

For some reason I have very little memory of Galilee, and very few photos. I don't remember where we had dinner, and I'm fairly sure we never went to Tiberias, the only major town on the lake. We left early in the morning to see the Dead Sea before doubling back to Jerusalem. One thing that had confused me when planning the trip was how to drive from the Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea without passing through the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. We had no intention of making that border crossing with two small kids. As it turned out, Highway 90 which passes through the West Bank is under complete Israeli control.

Having a float in the Dead Sea is one of Israel's iconic experiences. The water is so heavily saturated with salt and minerals that it's almost impossible to submerge oneself in it. The sensation of effortless floating on the surface attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year, although the popular conception that it is impossible to drown is actually a myth. If someone accidentally turned onto their stomach, they might have a difficult time getting their limbs underwater to maneuver back to the face-up position. This can lead to swallowing of hypersaline water which can disrupt the body's electrolyte balance very quickly. It's not a place to let one's guard down. We arrived at the Dead Sea at the popular access point of Ein Gedi and had a quick float. I didn't particularly enjoy the oily feel of the water and we had to enter the sea in shifts because the kids were too young to join us. In fact Cleo got some water in her eyes just messing around at the shoreline and was howling up a storm until a more experienced tourist came by to bathe her eyes in bottled water.

On the opposite side of the highway from the small beach is the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. This lush oasis in the Judaean Desert is fed by several springs that flow downward from karst in the surrounding mountains. The most popular hike extends from the ticket office to David's Waterfall, named for the biblical hero who took refuge in Ein Gedi from the jealous king who wanted him killed.

It was a short hike but much of it was uphill and we had the kids on our backs. Fortunately it was a relatively cool day or the half-hour climb would have been unbearable. Our efforts were ultimately rewarded with the sight of a staircase of natural pools connected by short waterfalls. We still had our bathing suits on so we were in perfect position to cool off underneath the last waterfall.

Jerusalem had a quite different atmosphere from Tel Aviv. Our Airbnb was on the ground floor of an atmospheric stone building in a relatively modern area of the city, practically next door to the Machane Yehuda market.

Of course it was no accident that we were situated in proximity to Shuk Machane Yehuda. The main produce market is always the first thing we look for when deciding which area of a city we're going to stay in. Machane Yehuda fell somewhere between the touristy superficiality of Shuk Ha-Carmel and the gritty utilitarianism of the Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv. We encountered all the usual Middle Eastern standbys but also plenty of creative and unusual delicacies. Best of all there was a large selection of restaurants inside the market and we eventually chose a small Lebanese place that was very satisfying. The market itself closes at seven but the area around it is filled with open air restaurants and bars and it was always still full of energy when we retired for the evening.

Naturally the main draw of Jerusalem for travelers is the Old City. The Old City is surrounded by an imposing twelve meter wall that was built by the Ottomans five hundred years ago and the only entry is through one of the eight gates. We entered through the Damascus Gate and soon arrived at at the square outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was built on the site of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and burial. Just on the other side of the division between the Christian and Muslim quarters is the Via Dolorosa, believed to be the path that Jesus walked while carrying the cross.

The center of the Old City is largely occupied by an intriguing Arab bazaar filled with beautiful displays of ceramics, metalware, and fabric. One particular shop specializing in blue and white porcelain was especially stunning. The ancient alleyways and stone staircases lent historic gravitas to the merchandise.

South of the Christian Quarter is the Armenian Quarter, which had more open space compared to the narrow alleys and tunnels of the other quarters. Here we were able to get to an upper level which gave us a better appreciation of the layout of the Old City.

Eventually we found ourselves at Temple Mount, the most heavily touristed part of the Old City. At the Western Wall we had to split up as men and women are apportioned separate areas of the wall to pray at. It was fairly easy to tell the serious worshippers from the spectators because their religious fervor was palpable. I kept a respectful distance and only approached the wall to touch it briefly. We never found our way into the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli soldiers barred our progress at the one entrance we found although we never determined if that was a temporary or a permanent state of affairs. We weren't tremendously enthusiastic about entering all the contentious religious sites so we let it go.

The Muslim Quarter had by far the fewest tourists and we received a number of bemused looks from the locals as we passed through with the strollers. It must be an unusual existence for the Arabs living in Jerusalem, especially those without Israeli citizenship, being treated like foreigners or enemies in their ancestral homes.The hilltop area outside the Lions' Gate on the eastern side of the Old City was surprisingly desolate but had interesting views over East Jerusalem. I had a very limited understanding of the Israeli jurisdiction over the eastern half of the city and did not by any means feel safe bringing the family any further.

Of course there was much more to Jerusalem than the Old City and the Machane Yehuda area and we had enjoyable walks going between one and the other. At one point we came across a Georgian restaurant which was something I had never previously encountered, and the food was quite good.

We had quite an eventful final day in Israel. Our flight was a red eye departing late in the evening and we needed to fill the entire day before heading back to the airport. We first drove back to Highway 90 along the Dead Sea and drove south to Masada. The area around the desert fort was one of the most desolate environments I have experienced.

We took the cable car to the top of the mesa where we toured the ruins of Herod's Palace and admired the views over the desert that extended as far as the Dead Sea. The legend of the heroic mass suicide of Jews in the face of Roman conquest has not been corroborated by archaeologic evidence, but it still makes for a compelling atmosphere at the top of the isolated mountain.

We took the southernmost transverse back west towards the Mediterranean, on the northern edge of the Negev Desert. At Siderot we were less than a mile from the Gaza border, a place where Hamas rockets had landed many times. Nevertheless it seemed as peaceful a place as anywhere. An hour later we were back in Tel Aviv just in time to have dinner at a pleasant bistro on Ben Yehuda. We had come full circle after our whirlwind tour of this tiny but fascinating and historic country.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:07 Archived in Israel Tagged road_trip dead_sea family_travel galilee western_wall friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

Hanging Out in the Holy Land: Tel Aviv and Acre

These days I don't think I would consider spending fifteen hours in transit each way to for just a week of travel, but back in 2014 we were feeling invincible after our successful first European road trip and the whole world seemed open to us. I was taking off as much time from work as I could and we were making a significant dent in the list of desirable countries we had never visited. One country still at the top of the list was Israel, an ancient and culturally diverse nation with a great deal to see despite its small size.

We made it to Ben Gurion airport after two long flights with a changeover in Paris. For all practical purposes Ben Gurion is Israel's only airport for international tourists, serving both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Our original plan was to spend five days in Tel Aviv and three in Jerusalem, focusing on the major cities rather than attempting to cram too much into such a short visit. Tel Aviv is technically smaller than Jerusalem, although if East Jerusalem is not included then Tel Aviv is bigger. Israel's political situation is so complicated that one can't even determine what the largest city in the country is without running afoul of different interpretations of the country's borders. Irrespective of size, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are two very different cities. The former is one of the most illustrious historic cities in the world, packed with sites of critical importance to three major world religions. The latter is a much more modern creation that has become the financial center of Israel and a magnet for leisure tourism thanks to Mediterranean beaches and nightlife. We began our road trip in Tel Aviv partly because it was closer to the airport and partly because I expected we would like it more than Jerusalem.

The logical place for tourists to stay in Tel Aviv is close to the long beach near the city center. Aside from the beach itself there's a high concentration of restaurants along iconic streets such as Ben Yehuda and Dizengoff. We had a room at an undistinguished Best Western a block back from the beach promenade. We arrived early enough in the day to take a walk along the promenade and give the kids a taste of the sun and sand. There were plenty of people out enjoying themselves but it wasn't one of the more beautiful Mediterranean beaches we've been too. The strip of sand was relatively narrow and the buildings along the promenade had a somewhat dilapidated appearance.

All internet searches for street markets in Tel Aviv lead to Shuk HaCarmel. The market is a hundred years old and occupies a long pedestrian street just south of the center. It's a colorful and busy place with stalls full of produce and spices as well as some small restaurants offering Middle Eastern standards like falafel and hummus. It was also clearly a tourist attraction more than a place where locals would stock up on kitchen staples. There were a lot of places to buy souvenirs and travel clothing, and the food seemed to be geared more towards quick consumption than home cooking. We were fine with that given that it was our first day in the city but we made a note that there were probably more utilitarian markets hidden away somewhere that didn't make the guidebooks.

Tel Aviv was founded in the early twentieth century as a Jewish suburb of the ancient port city of Jaffa. Tel Aviv grew rapidly and became an independent municipality before the two cities were reunited after Israeli independence. By this time Jaffa had dramatically receded in importance and is now best known as an Arab suburb of Tel Aviv. Having already seen most of downtown Tel Aviv we spent most of our second full day exploring the compact Old City of Jaffa. The main attraction here is the flea market where merchants have been selling second-hand items for almost a century. Between the displays of tarnished silverware and restored furniture are quiet cafes and fruit stores with stacks of the famous Jaffa oranges. Although we didn't have much interest in the various odds and ends for sale we enjoyed the palpable difference in atmosphere from bustling Tel Aviv. Here everything felt more languid and immersed in the past.

By now we had realized that we weren't going to stay in Tel Aviv for the five days we had originally planned. The city definitely had its positive attributes but we couldn't think of much outside of the beach and downtown that we hadn't already done. Instead we decided to check out early and spend a couple of days in northern Israel before our stay in Jerusalem. We did have one mission for our final afternoon in Tel Aviv which was to find a real community market, if such a thing existed. Fortunately we encountered a local who claimed to know of such a place and directed us to the working class neighborhood of Hatikva far from downtown or any sign of tourism. At first we thought we'd been had as there was no sign of a market amid the utilitarian array of shops and low residential buildings but then we rounded a corner and suddenly found ourselves at the threshold of paradise. This was a huge and authentic local market which existed for the sole purpose of stocking the larders of the neighborhood inhabitants. Here were all the objectionable foodstuffs that might have driven tourists away from the Carmel Market: whole, bloody brains in styrofoam trays, lamb heads in various stages of dismantling, and every kind of animal viscera we love to find when we travel. The smell of butchery was heavy in the air. Of course, many stalls were piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables as well as bread and dairy. My eyebrows lifted as Mei Ling busied herself purchasing an idiosyncratic collection of offal including chicken kidneys and rooster testicles. The rooster testicles were pale, bean-shaped objects of surprising size. I had no idea what we were going to do with this stuff given our lack of kitchen facilities at the total but I've learned not to object.

After a few more minutes of walking around we came across the food court of the mall where there was a far greater variety of restaurants than we had seen at Shuk HaCarmel. One guy was cooking for his tiny restaurant on an outdoor griddle and Mei Ling immediately entered into negotiations with him. I thought he would wave her off but he seemed pleased and soon they were dumping the bags of offal onto the griddle. The cook picked up handfuls of chopped onions and peppers from his bins and began expertly stir-frying the unusual concoction. As I watched there was a loud pop and I felt a searing pain in my right eye. My eyelids clamped down and I staggered away from the grill holding my face in my hands. Even amid the fog of pain I could sense the ridiculousness of what had happened. A testicle had exploded on the griddle and sent a jet of boiling rooster juice into my eye. Regardless, if I ended up in an Israeli emergency room half-blind there wouldn't be any humor in the situation. Our vacation would be over. Someone took me by the arm and guided me to a spigot which released cooling water over my closed eye. Eventually I was able to open it just a little and the water streamed over my seared eyeball. I gradually got my eye to open more and more and after a minute I realized the pain had receded and I could see again. I even took out my contact lens and replaced it to make sure it hadn't melted to my cornea. By the time I'd recovered it was time to participate in the meal Mei Ling had created with the restaurateur. I took my revenge on the rooster testicles with gusto, filled with relief that our journey could continue.

The next morning we departed Tel Aviv with only a vague plan to drive north to Acre, an ancient port city with a mixed population of Jews and Arabs. Although Acre is the official name of the city it is commonly referred to as Akko for reasons we never understood. We only visited in the old city which occupies a small peninsula at the southern end of the town. The maze of narrow alleys filled with bazaars made the ancient sector of the city seem much larger than it was. The souks felt more authentic and intimate than what we had experienced in Jaffa, as far fewer tourists made it up here close to the Lebanese border.

We enjoyed the atmosphere in Acre so much that we decided to have dinner and spend the night there. Of course, we hadn't reserved any accommodations and this was before the time we had travel phones with internet access. We found a main street with several large hotels but surprisingly none of them had any availability. It was well after dark and starting to get chilly when we made our way back into the souk and found an enchanting small hotel where we were welcomed and spent a very comfortable night.

The next morning we had plenty of time to browse the colorful bazaars of Acre. Bags of aromatic spices lined alleys that were paved with flagstones. Most of the arcades were covered to protect shoppers from what must have been frequent rains, but we only experienced clear skies. I found a small barbershop and got a rather military-looking short haircut. Once we were sure we'd perused every corner of old Acre we regretfully took our leave and began our drive east to Galilee.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:59 Archived in Israel Tagged israel tel_aviv jaffa family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman zzlangerhans hatikva Comments (1)

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