To be honest Israel had never really been on my bucket list of travel destinations. I am not super religious so visiting the Holy Land was not something I dreamed of doing. The Dead Sea was really the only thing that drew my attention, but even that ranked pretty low on my wish list. Jordan on the other hand has always been at the very top of my bucket list because I have been dying to see Petra for as long as I remember (thanks to Indiana Jones!) But, I have always been a little too scared to plan a trip to the middle east. I assumed I would just wait until the political situation resolved and things were safer. Well, its been clear over the past few years that things are only getting worse. So Garrett and I decided it was now or never. Our recent surprisingly fabulous visit to Egypt gave us the courage to keep exploring the middle east. Israel got tacked onto our Jordan trip and I was pretty excited to see what it was all about!
I knew almost nothing about Israel so I had no expectations. We now have a few friends in Botswana who are from/have lived in Israel and they have piqued our interest. The history of Israel has always perplexed and fascinated me. So many intersecting story lines come together in one small stretch of land. So much of the world’s history is connected to this land. Even more intriguing, is that the US news portrays Israel as basically a war zone. I always thought it was too dangerous to travel there and could not imagine how people lived there! Within the past few weeks, after Trump announced his plans to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, things have been looking even more dangerous. We seriously considered cancelling the Israel portion of our trip. For the first time I actually felt like our lives could be in danger. Thankfully, I was wrong. We arrived in Tel Aviv and saw no signs of any conflict or disruption.
We stayed at the Sheraton Tel Aviv and were blown away by the view from our balcony, which looked out to the Mediterranean coastline. The Sheraton appeared to be one of the nicer/more expensive places to stay in central Tel-Aviv so we felt lucky to be able to stay for free with our starwood points. The hotel had a fabulous breakfast buffett in a basement level room that looked out onto the ocean. It gave us our first introduction to Israeli food – so many different breads, dips and salads! Yum!
Tel-Aviv is a big modern city with lots of high rises and a multitude of different neighborhoods. We only had 2 days in Israel so we could only pick a few things to do. We wanted to spend one day exploring Tel Aviv but didn’t feel like we had enough time to wander around and discover things on our own. We booked a “graffiti tour” to learn about the art and culture of one of the hip neighborhoods called Florentin. Bonus was that it was super cheap ~ $20.
I love street art and found it so interesting to learn about how Israeli artists are using graffiti to voice their opinions on society and politics. But not everything is serious…much of the art is just playful and meant to make you smile. We had done a similar tour in Bogota and it was great to see the similarities and differences between the art in these two vastly different societies. I also had no idea there was such a well developed hipster community in Israel! I thought hipsters were just a US invention but apparently it’s a global movement!
We spent the afternoon exploring the Jaffa Flea Market. Instead of free standing stalls, the market was more of a collection of small shops. I had hoped there would be food stalls but this was more of an area for trinket shopping. I did get to have my first of many fresh pomegranate juices of the trip. Pomegranates are wildly popular in Israel. They will juice them right in front of you with large hand press juicers in less than 3 minutes. Fresh pomegranate juice is so amazing. Nothing like the bottled Pom juice in the US that they try to tell you is fresh!
Garrett was feeling a little under the weather so we didn’t get to go out that first night. We ate at the hotel and went to bed early….which I guess was probably good since our red eye flight to Israel didn’t allow us much sleep night before.
The next day we woke up refreshed and joined a tour run by Ben Harim to Jerusalem. We typically despise this way of tour-bus traveling and avoid organized tours like the plague! However, due to the recent political uprisings, we were pretty much terrified to visit Jerusalem…so this seemed like the best idea. Safety in numbers! I was also hoping to learn a lot since I am totally mixed up on most of the historical details surrounding Jerusalem.
We had a smaller bus with about 12 people so it wasn’t horrible. Our guide was very friendly and knowledgeable. He kept to a strict schedule and we moved very quickly through the city. My first impression was shock at how big Jerusalem is! I honestly thought Jerusalem was just made up of the old walled city…I didn’t know it was home to a population of ~880,000 inhabitants. There are universities and even a Technology Park home to many major international tech companies like IBM, Teva, Intel, Cisco. Who knew?!
We entered the old city via Jaffa gate. I learned the city is divided up into the Armenian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter. We visited each one. I enjoyed walking down the “Carda” which is the remains of the Roman central walkway of the city. There are so many layers of history all piled onto each other in Jerusalem.
During its long history, Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times! How can any city survived so much!
Our first major stop was the church of the Holy Sepulchere. I knew vague details about this site but was amazed to learn the whole story. We got to touch the Rock of the Calvary which is said to be the spot where Jesus was crucified. This is also supposed to be the spot where Adam’s skull was buried and the blood of Jesus Christ is rumored to have dripped down the rocks and filled the skull. Then, we visited the Aedicule that houses the actual Holy Sepulchre – the tomb where Jesus was buried and the Angel’s stone (the large rock that sealed the tomb). Apparently there is usually a long line so most people don’t have time to visit the tomb. It was not crowded so we were lucky to get to visit everything in the church. Despite not being very religious myself, entering Jesus’s tomb was a powerfully moving experience. I felt very overwhelmed by the energy of the tiny room. It was as if I could feel all the emotions of the billions of people who had also set foot on that one spot….so powerful.
We also saw the Stone of Anointing where Jesus’s body was washed by his family before burial, another emotionally charged relic. As I looked around the room I could imagine the scenes from Jesus’s last day play out. I also thought about how many other people were crucified in such a manner on a typical day in those times. Did they know the ramifications of their actions? That their decisions would shape the course of the entire world for the rest of eternity? Did people really know how important Jesus was in his day or was it not until after his death that he became important? I can only imagine that only after his resurrection did most people start to pay attention and believe. So many questions….
Next we visited the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock. Sites that I knew even less about. I learned how the Jewish Holy Temple once stood at this site but was destroyed by the Romans. The Western wall is all that remains of the original temple. It is now known as the wailing wall and is a place where jewish people have come for centuries to cry over the destruction of their holy site. The wall is separated into a female and male side. The Female side was densely packed with people holding small torahs up to their face and shaking as they recited scripture. There were so many people crammed up to the wall, I couldn’t even touch it. The mood was somber and the sounds of sadness echoed all around.
There were chairs set up along the central divider with a few women standing on top looking over so I decided to go check out what was happening. I was surprised to see that there was a much different mood on the Male side. It was still serious but there appeared to be some type of ceremony going on. Older rabbis reading large scrolls and plenty of people were crowded around chanting in excitement. I soon learned it was a bar mitzvah! I’ve never attended one before so this was a new experience. What an amazing place to have a bar mitzvah! I can imagine how excited these boys must have been.
We unfortunately didn’t get to visit the Muslim mosque which is only open to visitors on certain days/times. We also didn’t get to see the separation wall, Bethlehem or any of the Palestinian areas of the West Bank. It would have been really interesting to see these spots…. but not worth to risk of going into a conflict area.
Our next stop was the Dead Sea. We visited the northern edge in the West Bank area. I had always imagined that this must be one of the hottest places on the planet, but since we were visiting in winter it was actually cool. It was about 70 degrees outside and the water felt lukewarm to cool. It was uncomfortable to get in but once you were submerged it was not cold.
It is as unique an experience as you would imagine. To really get the full effect you have to go out into the deeper water. If you keep walking out you basically start to feel like you are walking on water because you just stay at the top no matter how deep you go. It was also fun to try to jump upwards, because when you come back down it feels like the water is actually propelling you upward.
I had been most afraid that the water would sting horribly. I have very sensitive skin and a tendency to have a lot of small cuts on my hands (from my bad habit of picking at my cuticles!) However, the water really was not painful. I avoided getting it on my face, but Garrett got some in his mouth by accident and was screaming bloody murder. He said the taste was worse than you could imagine – so watch out for that!
Of course we had to rub the mud all over ourselves, as is the custom. It is rumored to have all sorts of healing properties which I naturally wanted to test out. Honestly after scrubbing all of our skin it really did feel incredibly soft and smooth!
I had imagined the water to be a beautiful turquoise or emerald color but sadly it was muddy brown. The surroundings were not very picturesque either. I know there are more beautiful areas of the dead sea to visit and we just got the basic “in and out” tourist package. Which was fine because we had such limited time!
We spent our last night back in Jaffa eating at Dr. Shakshuka. Although this seemed like a tourist trap, multiple locals recommended it to us and they offered a cheap tasting menu where we could try a little bit of everything. The food was overall good and we enjoyed the smaller portion sizes. They have a nice outdoor seating area which was very pleasant. I was bummed because I knew there was so much more amazing food around that we didn’t get to try! We had really hoped to do a food tour but they were so pricey – about $100 per person! If we go back to Israel, we will make sure we travel with local friends who can show us all their favorite places.
Overall, I thought Israel was an awesome place to visit. Tel Aviv is a beautiful, interesting and lively city that I would love to explore more. Also, winter is an amazing time to visit because the weather was just perfect! Downsides are that it is an expensive place! We were surprised by this. Who knows if we will make it back to Israel but I am so happy that we got to check it out! I learned soo much!