A diverse and fascinating country
Israel is only five hours away from the UK but it is different in many ways. For a start, as you’d expect, security is pretty tight getting on to a plane taking you there. And I found it a country and society that is divided and yet united by religion. Yes, religion is big here, if you want it to be, worship is taken seriously especially the Sabbath and the visitor should too, but away from the mosques, churches and synagogues it seemed a country that really wants to get on with life and has much to offer the visitor from chilled out desert locations, sophisticated boulevards to bobbing about in the Dead Sea.
My first stop was Tel Aviv, once the playground of international playboys and spies it is now more a luxury hang out for the young and trendy. The streets are filled with cool cafes and restaurants especially in the Rothschild Boulevard area where a tiring afternoon involves sitting at an outside table chatting to friends and taking selfies and being beautiful.
But if it’s a slice of history you after then go no further than the old port of Jaffa. It’s about three miles from Tel Aviv which you can easily walk if it’s not too hot. The harbour is full of leisure boats and small fishing vessels. Many restaurants front the water. There has been something of regeneration here with lots of boutique shops installed in the old buildings. The world’s only deaf-blind theatre is here. They have performances and run a restaurant that is in total darkness designed to simulate the experience of being blind. Putting one hand on the shoulder of the person in front the customers find their tables, aprons are given out to deal with the food!
Getting around is simple here, you can get taxis readily or if you feel a bit more energetic there is their version of the Boris Bike. Daily hire is about 17 Shekels a day (about £3). Jaffa has plenty of galleries with the emphasis on modern and innovative art. One sells pictures made from ‘wool’ spun from recycled plastic bottles the effect is similar to felt. Frank Meisler, renowned metal sculpture has his workshop here as well as a comprehensive shop. Everybody who’s anybody has been here and there are photos of the great and the good all around. World leaders, pop stars and royalty abound. He was a ‘kinder’ child, saved by the British Government on a ‘kinder’ train, educated in England and then resettled in Israel.
The British had a mandate to rule Israel from 1917 – 1941 during this time they invested in the country’s infrastructure building hospitals, airfields and train lines etc. The links are still strong and English is widely spoken. The old Jaffa train station is still standing and the area has now been transformed into a hub of shops, bars and restaurants, a cool place to visit. In 1918 the population was only 4000 by 1948 it had swelled to over 100,000.
Food here is not as obvious as you might think. I had a fantastic meal at the best Lebanese restaurant in town, Dr. Shakshuka. With a rustic decor (check out the ceiling with hundreds of hanging pots and primus stoves) a small courtyard and a super location in the centre of the flea market district you can’t go wrong. Yulia in northern Tel Aviv looks out over the sea and offers tasty swish modern seafood (especially the baked sea bass) all finished off with fresh yoghurt and sliced fruit.
The next day I travelled to the Bet Gurvin-Maresha National Park 60km south of Jerusalem. Set in 1250 acres it is UNESCO recognised as an ‘outstanding example of traditional human settlement”. There are 800-year-old ‘bell’ caves hewn during the Byzantine period that you can walk around, some are gigantic in size. There is a Crusader fortress and a Basilical church built by King Foulk in 1136 but the most interesting to me were the Sidonian caves. During the Hellenistic period the people Maresha buried their dead in caves with hand carved niches. They are decorated with gables and paintings giving an insight to the art, mythology and ethic origins of the population. There is evidence that Idumeans, Sidonians and Greeks are all buried there.
Next I moved south to the vast Negav Desert and stopped at Revivim, a small community and kibutz. They have developed a system of irrigation to ‘reclaim’ the desert and are successfully growing olives and producing their own oil. Their technique has attracted international attention, as the yields are higher than average and the quality better. I managed to slip in a quick camel ride with guide Ben. We slowly made our way into the desert wilderness where nothing had changed for thousands of years. I learned that females are the best to ride (they are calmer) and then the illusion of tranquility was shattered as Ben’s mobile went off. We both laughed.
Leaving the area we stumbled across a music festival called ‘In D Negav’. It’s been running for nine years and we caught a couple of acts and danced away with the 10,000 strong festival-goers who had been there for three days. At the end a Hebrew super group performed a number of Aric Enstein 60’s songs much to the audience’s delight. It felt like a kind of surreal Woodstock experience brought up to date that was packed with families camping old and young alike enjoying the vibe.
I chatted to some long-term advocates of the kabutz Sarah and Amishi who joined in 1974 and 1964 respectively. They are now retired but still live there. I was curious about how what makes a kibutz work. They replied in unison “You have to believe in it”. Up until 25 years ago any children in the camp were brought up in separate accommodation within the camp. After the change they had to extend the existing housing to make room for their kids!
Heading further south into the Nagav Desert it gets dryer and hotter (about 30c). But as we approached central Negav we steadily climbed higher up to 1000m above sea level where it’s slightly cooler. The mountains and surrounding hills of Negav are all rock but despite this people settle there. The struggle to obtain water for agriculture has had some success. The land is supporting many start-ups and alterative ways of life.
The Ben-Gurion grave heritage site and research centre is a place of pilgrimage for many. David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel is buried there with his wife. He worked there on a kibutz for the last years of his life and his lasting wish was to make the desert fertile. He was passionate about the Negav and felt it was an opportunity for a ‘new start’ for the new country. Only 8% of the population lives in the desert that occupies 60% of the country.
The newfound ‘life’ in the desert has meant a growth in small farms. I visited a winery Carmey Avdat where the vines grow in very sandy soil and on rocks. With six grape varieties they produce up to 20,000 bottles a year as well as fruit and olive oil. They have three rooms to stay in if you fancy getting away from it all for a few days (with a wine shop in the grounds) why wouldn’t you? The cabins are minimal and cool with solar panels providing the electricity so you are really off grid.
History prevails in Israel and the desert is no exception. The ancient city of Avdat was the most important on the incense route after Petra. Founded in the 3rd century it has been occupied by the Nabataeans the Romans and the Byzantines. Now a ruin but well worth a visit, it has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 2005. Sitting high in the mountains it affords a commanding view of this harsh and unforgiving terrain. It was finally abandoned in the 7th century after a massive earthquake.
The small town of Mitzpe Ramon was created for the builders of the road to Eilat in 1951. It is now an enclave of ecotourism and the location of one of the world’s largest natural craters. The Ramon crater is a staggering 38km by 6km and 450m deep and 235 million years old. It is an awesome sight. I descended into the crater in two ways. One I would happily repeat the other I would think twice about doing again. The conventional way was with a jeep safari, which is great fun and run by Alen Gafny. Trained as a geologist he brings quite a lot to the descriptions of what you see at the bottom of the crater. The other way I went down was by rappelling. This activity is also run by Alen and is totally scary but exhilarating at the same time.
At the very top on the edge I climbed into a harness and was assured by Alen that the safety rope would prevent any problems that a swift application of gravity might create. I gingerly edged over the precipice while holding the rope that controlled my descent. The process was very frightening as it went against all my instincts. I had to straighten out and form a right angle with the cliff face and gently ‘jump’ down while pushing myself away from the cliff. The first ‘push’ was the hardest and with the best advice in the world of “don’t look down” I managed to make it to the designated landing ledge. Sure, it wasn’t the whole 450m but it was far enough for me. A must for thrill seekers and non-believers alike.
The community in this part of Israel is quite alternative and I came across many artists and creative people including soap makers, a ‘bicycle’ hotel where you can stay and have your machine fixed amongst other quirky enterprises. Naama Dvir, a senior Yoga teacher who has been here 16 years and raised five children took me under her wing and gave me an introduction to Yoga – desert style.
I had never tried Yoga before but was won over by Naama’s ease and calm instruction (she was born on a kibbutz). I found that learning to breathe and ‘slow’ things down for half an hour or so was really relaxing. Although I felt as if I’d been on a half day walk afterwards despite going nowhere on my mat. The views from the cliff edge that Naama chose to teach me to were incredible. She’s a great fan of a totally immersive experience.
You can stay on Naama’s alpaca farm (I told you this area was quirky) and learn to look after the animals, go on walking trails and picnics. This really is chilled out central where hippy meets practicality in the nicest possible way. Naama told me her mantra was “It’s really a way of learning, the right to the life you dream of”. Her husband, Ilan Dvir loves the area so much that he has written and illustrated a beautiful book about the crater called The Mountain That Disappeared.
My travels in the desert included my first taste of cactus juice. A farm that grows cacti to make jams, sauces and other culinary treats also produces juice from the flesh (which is very tasty in its own right). When chilled the juice is a perfect tipple in the dry desert tasting a little like a mild melon it is incredibly refreshing. Obtaining the juice is something best left to the practiced hands of an expert. The thorns or needles on the cacti are fatal, you need a very sharp knife to cut them off then peel the skin to reveal the soft interior.
At 427m below sea level the Dead Sea is lowest point on earth. It is very dry and in the summer incredibly hot. The water is 29.5% salt and minerals. Said to have healing properties I tried it out, like many others I smeared myself with the black mud that forms the seabed and hoped for a cosmetic miracle. I’m not sure if it made me look younger afterwards but bobbing about in the sea was an unreal experience. The buoyancy of the water makes it hard to sit down an impossible to sink! A word of warning though (nobody told me) do not let the water get in your eyes or mouth. Both are very unpleasant.
Just 30km away is Jerusalem. This cradle of civilisation is a fascinating place with a busy frenetic buzz about it. Pilgrims of various religions from around the world come to converse with God at The Western Wall or worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulcha where you can see where Christ was buried. Over 15,000 people still live in the walled city of Jerusalem where Jews, Arabs and Christians have existed for millennia. It’s a complex place to understand but certainly worth visiting. As my guide told me in Israel every stone tells a story.
I had a superb meal at Eucalyptus, a modern kosher restaurant run by the flamboyant Moshe Basson. The restaurant is located just outside the walled city and has more seating on the pavement than inside. The food is great I enjoyed a trio of soups (why don’t more restaurants do that?) fish balls, and breads. And that was just the starters. Moshe’s approach is to use herbs and spices to weave the threads of an unknown pattern into a culinary tapestry fit for a king. The menu is strewn with references to past. He even came to my table and gave me a herb ‘lesson’ with samples of herbs used that night in the dishes.
As a contrast to 3000 years of history in old Jerusalem I had to visit the Holocaust Museum. This is a must, it’s the most popular attraction in Israel and it’s easy to see why. Unflinching in its honesty and scope it covers all the steps in history that led to Hitler’s campaign of murder and belief in the master race. What made it so compelling for me was the wealth of personal stories and testimonies on offer. Countless film clips of people talking about their experiences during the war really bring the museum to life. Collections of victim’s belongings are also a moving sight often these are attributed through superb research to actual owners. The letters and photographs are also very moving. It is at times a ‘heavy’ experience but worth it as it’s very moving and explains a part of history that should never be forgotten.
The Museum of Israel is also a must visit. Not unlike London’s British Museum this is a general collection history from the Middle East and Africa. It’s here that the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed and on display. Made up of some 7000 fragments they were discovered in a cave by a boy seeking shelter from the sun in 1947. They are exquisite to look at, neat clear writing that influenced the Bible. My guide took me through the museum and at one turn pointed to an impressive large statue of Hadrian (of the wall fame) and casually said “Oh, I found that in a field that I was ploughing in 1968”. As all Israelis do he was completing his three years of national service on a kibbutz and hit it with his tractor.
Israel is a complex, fascinating and beguiling country with more history and culture than you can imagine. So many important milestones of antiquity are located here. From the birth and death of Jesus to the start of Judaism and the beginnings of the Muslim faith this crucible of civilisation is at times hard to understand but eternally interesting. You can roam the desert, float in the Dead Sea or walk the stations-of-the-cross as Jesus did before his crucifixion. Discover where King Herod lived, read the Dead Sea scrolls, follow the path of the first Crusaders, ride camels in the desert or try a spot of yoga. It is a country that I would defy anyone to visit and not want to return to and see more. Offering a diverse selection of pursuits for all the family it really is a brilliant location for a holiday full of excitement and adventure.
Flights with EL AL from London Luton to Tel Aviv start from £310 and £351 from London Heathrow. For more information or to book, please call 0207 121 1400 or visit www.elal.co.uk.
I stayed at the following hotels: Dan Panorama Tel Aviv, rooms start from US$275 per night (approximately £179.28). www.danhotels.com.
Rooms at the Isrotel Ramon Inn start from US$176 per night (approximately £114.74).
Rooms at the Inbal Hotel Jerusalem start from US$264 per night (approximately £172.10).
For more information about Israel, please visit www.uk.thinkisrael.com.