“People travel to far away places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”
-Dagobert D. Runes
We all know the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. Well Israel was the most accurate definition of this saying for us. All of our preconceived notions and perception of the country portrayed by North American media were so far from reality.
When we landed in the city of Tel Aviv the sun was setting as we caught an Israel Railways train from the airport into the city. When we got off at our station we had another 2.5km to get to our apartment, which we apprehensively opted to walk rather than grab a cab. Very quickly we began to feel safe. No one was offering us drugs, like in Lisbon. No one was selling ripped of merchandise on street corners, like in Naples. No one was following us or staring at us and everyone just looked like everyday normal folk. We began to wonder why we had been so nervous to land in this country. After finding our apartment, we grabbed a late night bite on a heated patio at a hipster restaurant called Diego San. The food was a fusion of flavours from around the world and the vibe was chill. A great place to spend our first night!
We only had two days in Tel Aviv and therefore had to make the most of our time. We began our exploration in the ancient part of the city, known as Jaffa, which is home to one of the oldest known ports in the world; mentioned in a number of Biblical stories. This suburb of the city has been beautifully restored to appear the way it would have thousands of years ago, although now it is filled with cute cafes and ritzy artisan shops. For those who prefer a bargain, there is a massive flea market which winds through several blocks in the city and offers shoppers a unique array of vintage items for purchase. We were in our glory and wished we had more room in our packs to buy everything in sight. We wrapped up our time in Jaffa with a traditional Israeli lunch at a restaurant that I don’t even have the name of, because it was only in Hebrew with no English translation. We ordered two chicken shawarma meals and were asked if we wanted salad with our meals. We said yes, thinking we would be receiving lettuce and other veggies in a bowl with dressing. Instead we received two massive pitas and 14 various dips and prepared veggies: baba ganoush, tabouli, pickled carrots, pickled beats and some of the most incredible hummus in the world. It was the most delectable “salad” we had ever had.
Jaffa stands out as the cultural and historical centre of Tel Aviv, a city that is mainly very urban and modernized. We spent hours wandering along the vast stretch of beach-front promenade that runs from the north end of the city all the way to the south. The beaches are lined with five star hotels, fancy restaurants and trendy bars. We were tempted by the surf board, paddle board and parasailing rentals, but after long days of touring the city we decided to just chill on the beach and swim instead.
In addition to the endless beaches and thriving metropolis, Tel Aviv is home to the best city park we have ever seen, HaYarkon Park. The entire parks stretches 8km in length, from east to west, in the north end of the city. With limited time to spend in the park, we decided to explore the various gardens: tropical, rock, cactus and rose. We then wandered along the Yarkon River where we were passed by runners and bikers on their respective paved paths. If we had more time we would have explored everything else HaYarkon had to offer: a water park, a hot air balloon ride, an aviary, a petting zoo, numerous lakes and ponds and two concert venues. Residents of Tel Aviv are truly privileged to have such an incredible and well equipped green space in the heart of their city.
What drew us to add Israel to our itinerary in the first place, was our fascination with the capital city of Jerusalem. Believed to be the Holy Land for various opposing religions, we decided long ago that we had to see this ancient city for ourselves.
Jerusalem is divided into two areas: the Old City and the New City. The Old City is surrounded by a 30ft sandstone wall and is divided up into various religious quarters. Within the walls of the Old City many secular landmarks, churches, synagogs and temples can be found. Although we are not religious people, having been raised Catholic, the stories had been engrained in me from a young age. It was so compelling to see sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Western Wall and to walk the Via Dolorosa, which is the path of the Stations of the Cross. Besides the religious sites, the Old City has been overrun with tour offices, kitschy restaurants and tacky souvenir shops, which was distracting from the importance of the city and caused many sites to loose their meaning. We hate tourist traps at the best of times, but experiencing them in the Old City of Jerusalem was somewhat disheartening.
We were much more drawn to the New City, which is extremely clean, quaint and just as alluring, with such a diverse population of people. One minute we would walk past two Ethiopian nuns in their veils and traditional garb. The next people we’d pass would be a Hasidic Jewish couple, conservatively dressed in dark colours and Jewish head coverings: the man in a black wide-brimmed hat, the women in a head scarf . The couple would be followed by an off-duty Israeli soldier, in full uniform, with an AK47 slung over his shoulder. We would listen intently to the voices of Hebrew, Arabic and many other languages and dialects being spoken all around us. We had the good fortune of meeting some fantastic Israeli people while we were in Jerusalem who were delighted to teach us so much about the culture, military and civil disputes. Every day was a new lesson and we were captivated beyond belief.
From Jerusalem we took a day trip, using the Egged bus line, to the ancient fortress of Masada and the incredible Dead Sea. Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built by Herod the Great between 31 and 37 BCE on the plateau of a mountain overlooking the Judaean Desert with the Dead Sea in the distance. Upon arrival at Masada visitors are given the option to hike up the mountain or take the cable car and, of course, we opted to hike. The fortress was the site of an epic battle between Jewish radicals and the Romans, known as the Siege of Masada. It holds a great amount of importance to the Israeli people, and is the site of the swearing-in ceremony for all Israeli soldiers at the start of their mandatory military service, where they state in unison, “Masada shall not fall again.”
After working up a sweat at Masada, we ventured to the Dead Sea, which has been receding for many years and will soon be gone for good. When we arrived at Ein Gedi beach, which is the only paved pathway access to the entire south end of the sea, the reception area was riddled with tourists and the prices were astronomical to simply walk their path to the water. Feeling angered at the prospect of being completely ripped off, and wanting a more authentic and private experience, we blazed our own trail to the sea, dodging massive sinkholes and avoiding unstable ground along the way. Needless to say, it was not the safest of options, as the ground beneath our feet could have given way at any step to another sinkhole below, but the results of our perseverance were well worth the risk. Stepping foot into the crystal clear emerald waters of the lowest point on Earth was like stepping into a postcard. The immense amount of salt from the sea covers everything in sight, including the beach itself, which is not sand but pure white salt. The buoyant feeling when floating on top of the water as a result of the density of the salt water, is like nothing else we have ever experienced. The greasy feeling that the salt left on our skin and the stinging pains of the salt in any cuts or scrapes, were the only downfall of the experience. We felt so grateful to have been able to visit this uniquely wondrous place before it disappears altogether.
Our last night in Jerusalem was New Years Eve, or as the Israeli’s call it, Silvester. Jeff had done some research and booked us in at The Eucalyptus, which had rave reviews online and is well known for using fresh local ingredients and serving Biblical Israeli cuisine. We decided to treat ourselves to a few bottles of wine and the King Solomon Feast, a tasting menu of about 15 courses of the most incredible and interesting food we have ever had. The tasting menu offered us the opportunity to try the chef’s signature dishes as well as some fan favourites of the restaurant. Our four-hour dinner ended with a casual champagne toast, as New Years is not a popular celebration in Jerusalem. We reminisced about memories and experiences of 2015 and hopes for a fulfilling and healthy year ahead. It was the perfect way to wrap up our time in Jerusalem..
By the end of our short week in the Middle Eastern country of Israel, we were in no way ready to leave. Having entered this place with fear and apprehension, we were astounded and elated to be leaving it with contentment and fond memories. We have learned to no longer form opinion based on media portrayal nor will we be be afraid of the unknown, as we have discovered one of our favourite places in the world and we are now more enlightened travellers for doing so.