TravelRest of World

Livin’ Aviv loca: Enjoying a cultural adventure complete with nature walks and party nights in Israel

Rest of WorldBy Neil Fetherston
The world-famous Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem
The world-famous Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

All around the world there are iconic landmarks so familiar they cause an intake of breath and a sense of awe when you see them for the first time with your own eyes.

The Dome of the Rock in the ancient city of Jerusalem has to be right up there with the pyramids of Egypt, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and, for some, even the Hollywood sign in California.

To see the famous, glittering dome rising over the sandstone-coloured city from the Mount of Olives is one of those experiences where you mentally pinch yourself to make the picture postcard scene even more real in your mind.

That was certainly the case for me when I first visited Israel in November 2011, but it was no less an impressive sight to behold on this more recent visit to the holiest of holy cities.

I’ve been fascinated by Israel for years and during this trip I was able to tick off some of the major sights and places of historical or religious significance that I missed on my first time here in this amazing Middle Eastern country.

But such is the vast number of must-see locations packed into such a relatively small country (you can drive across Israel in a couple of hours) that I left, once again, vowing to return.

In just five days as guests of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism we were whisked through ancient tunnels from the time of David, mixed with the celebrants at the Wailing Wall, clambered over abandoned Crusader castles and literally walked in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

But just to prove that this tiny country, founded as it is on layers upon layers of history, is not stuck in the past, we were treated to a raucous night out in the financial capital Tel Aviv featuring local X Factor stars to round off the trip.

Neil Fetherstonhaugh on the Mount of Olives, with the old city of Jerusalem in the background

Of course, no journey to Israel can be made without at least an acknowledgment of the historical divides which continue to make life here for the inhabitants a daily challenge. And, for some, the decision to visit Israel can create its own personal controversies.

Even a simple post on Facebook of a picture of myself in front of a sign marking the modern borders with Israel, Syria  and Jordan prompted  comments along the lines of ‘did I not intend to visit Palestine as well, to hear, as it were, the other side of the story’?

As a matter of fact, on my first visit I did cross over to the West Bank to see and hear the other side of the story, but, as with all major divisions along the world’s major political fault lines, some people will never accept the situation as it currently exists.

These and other presumably sensitive subjects were open to debate with our tour guide, the brilliantly named Ori Stern, who – as well-versed as he was in the history of his country – was happy to debate the finer political points from the modern Israeli viewpoint.

Carved through solid rock thousands of years ago to supply water to the city, the tunnels are navigable on a 30-minute wade through knee high water (note: not for claustrophobics!) that prompted some of our group to start whistling the tune from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Some Israelis are aware of and sense a poor PR perception of their country in the rest of the world and are convinced that many in Europe regard Israel as an illegal entity existing in the middle of the Muslim world.

The Israelis, of course, regard themselves as living where they were always supposed to be living, in the land promised to them as God’s chosen people.

On our first tour of Jerusalem the focus was very much on the creation of the holy city in the time of David, over 3,000 years ago. And there could be no more evocative way of feeling that you are travelling back through time than to descend into Hezekiah’s water tunnels running deep beneath the city.

Carved through solid rock thousands of years ago to supply water to the city, the tunnels are navigable on a 30-minute wade through knee high water (note: not for claustrophobics!) that prompted some of our group to start whistling the tune from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

After the darkness of the tunnel we were momentarily blinded as we stumbled back out into the sunlight (be aware, Jerusalem can get seriously hot during a July day). We continued to the famous Wailing Wall, where even in the glaring heat of the day there was a manic air of celebration as families gathered to celebrate the Jewish coming of age ritual of the Bar Mitzvah.

Jewish families celebrate the Bar Mitzvah at the Wailing Wall

After a brief lunch of the excellent local specialty, shawarma (which consists of lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, veal, and mixed meats placed on a vertical spit and grilled for as long as a day) we embarked on a journey along what was, for me, one of the most fascinating parts of the city.

Whether you are a religious fanatic or have absolutely no interest in the teachings of Christianity, to follow the Via Dolorosa where Jesus made his final walk to his death is to feel like you’re walking in his footsteps.

The route is marked to show the various Stations of the Cross where Jesus fell for the first time and where he saw his mother in the crowd. An embedded handprint in the wall of a leather goods shops is said to be where he reached out for support as he stumbled.

The Via Dolorosa leads to the epic Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is the site where he was finally crucified and the location of the tomb where his body was placed.

As I said, even for the absolute unbeliever, to be among the throngs of pilgrims who have made this journey, like countless others for over two thousand years, is a mesmerising experience.

After dinner we retired to the terrace of the excellently located Dan Boutique Hotel before making sure we got a good night’s asleep ahead of our drive north in the morning.

On the two-hour drive to the Sea of Galilee we took in the views of Israel’s  neighbour Jordan to our right, while Ori proudly pointed out the various Israeli irrigation projects that have brought life to what was once desert. 

With the tour’s theme of ‘Water and Walking’ it was on with the hiking boots for a thrilling hike in the Majrase Nature Reserve.

Located in the northeastern corner of the Sea of Galilee, the reserve encompasses an area of approximately 1,750 acres, and includes spring-fed streams and jungle-like wetlands that are ideal for a refreshing ‘water hike’. 

Here we stepped down into the stream for a refreshing stroll through clear river waters flowing under the thick forest.

We splashed along for 40 minutes or so surrounded by gangs of delighted Israeli schoolchildren before a quick change of footwear and then we were back on the bus to rejoin the Jesus trail.

We visited the former fishing village of Capernaum, the town where Jesus learned his trade, gathering his disciples on the Sea of Galilee and performing the first of the many miracles attributed to him.

Capernaum, the town where Jesus learned his trade

This is where - the bible says - he walked on the water, cured the sick and even brought the dead back to life. 

A visit to the nearby church where the miracle of the loaves and the fishes took place was abandoned after an apparent religiously-motivated attack on the building the day before, a reminder that even as we marvelled at the country’s past, the situation in Israel was still very much a feature of the present.

Further along is the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount on a hill high above the dazzling blue waters of the sea far below.

The park is famous in Israel for its sheer clifftops rising majestically above the Sea of Galilee

After a quick stop at the Hamat Gader Park, a health resort since ancient times, where today you can bathe in modern thermo-mineral pools among Roman bath excavations, we arrived at the Prima Galil Hotel in Tiberias, Israel’s lowest city located 200 metres below sea level.

After dinner in the excellent Magdalena restaurant outside of town – which was heaving as a result of pretty much everywhere else being closed for the Sabbath – we rested up ahead of an early morning hike in the nearby Arbel National Park.

The park is famous in Israel for its sheer clifftops rising majestically above the Sea of Galilee and its cave-fortresses carved out of the rock, but for some of our group the clambering down parts of the rock face was a little daunting for this hour of the morning.

After catching our breath we were on another drive north for a more leisurely hike in the relaxed Tel Dan National Park, in the Upper Galilee, capital of the biblical northern kingdom.

After all the hiking our appetites were well up for a huge dinner that night at the Decks Barbeque Restaurant overlooking the Sea of Galilee, which is something of local institution. Then it was off to bed for another early start the following morning.

Sunny and buzzy Tel Aviv

A quick spin across to the west coast brought us to the former Crusader citadel of Acre. Now called Akko, it is filled with the sights and smells of the Middle East, with the Muslim town now featuring a busy fishing harbour and spice market.

On the drive back to Tel Aviv we stopped off at Herod the Great’s 
Caesarea, an ancient ruined city where the remains of the harbour built by the Roman governor vie for tourists’ attention alongside the remains of the Crusader fortress destroyed by a Muslim force in 1265.

For the last night of our stay we bedded down in the beautiful Market House Hotel in Tel Aviv’s upmarket suburb of Jaffa and then it was just time for quick swim in the warm Mediterranean Sea in the morning before our flight home.

Walking along the boulevard in the blazing sun alongside the beach where the beautiful people played volleyball and frolicked in the surf, it was hard to believe that this was the same country we had been in over the last few days, such was the wild array of varying experiences.

 

READ NEIL'S NEW TRAVEL BLOG HERE:

 

FACTBOX

For more information on Israel, visit www.thinkisrael.com.

El Al (0207 121 1400, www.elal.co.uk) offers flights from €308 from London Luton and €508 from London Heathrow over the summer.

Dan Boutique Hotel Jerusalem has rooms starting from €159 per night (visit www.danhotels.com).

The Prima Galil Hotel Tiberias has rooms starting from €102 per night (www.m.prima-hotels-israel.com).

The Market House Hotel, Jaffa, has rooms starting from €198 per night (www.atlas.co.il).