Where: Israel (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Dead Sea, Ein Gedi, Masada)
When: June 2010
How: direct flight JFK to Tel Aviv (my longest flight time to date = 12 hours TLV to JFK)
Duration: one week
Accommodations: in a flat with friends in Tel Aviv suburb Ramat Hasharon
Language: Hebrew is the official language; English is widely spoken. This is the first place I realized that sometimes, I will not be able to read the signs or even guess as to what they say, courtesy of the Hebrew alphabet.
Currency: New Israeli Shekel
Tourist facts: According to my arsenal of guidebooks and Wikipedia, Masada is one of the most highly trafficked tourist sites in Israel. According to history, Masada was a fortress built by/for King Herod and later the site of the last stand made by Jewish rebels against the Romans. This fortress has been perched in the Israeli desert overlooking the Dead Sea for over 2,000 Years.
An important note on weekend travel in Israel. The country observes the Jewish religion and therefore the weekend starts on Friday instead of Saturday. Friday is shabbat and traditionally this means NO work. This includes taxi drivers! Your cab fare can sometimes double when driving on shabbat, so please be mindful of your travel days.
Not religious? No problem. Even though many tourists make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there is so much more to this vibrant culture. I myself am agnostic and I find it fascinating to be in a holy place and watch how others express their faith, or react to artifacts and stories from the history of their religion.
Links I recommend during trip planning:
Fodor’s Israel 2010 gave me insights to a country I knew absolutely nothing about. Once again, I am very fortunate to have Israeli friends who were more than willing to plan my trip and answer my every question. As my host was studying madly for his exams during the day, I took advantage of two organized tours courtesy of United Tours. Not typically a guided tour girl, I was pleased with both of these, although I did wish for more time in Jerusalem and at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.
My absolutes: Old City. Western Wall. Dead Sea.
What I saw: In the same Old City street, you can see an Orthodox Jew dressed in black with a hat and curls for sideburns, and a college co-ed in flipflops and a tank top. A large cemetery visible from the Mount of Olives, bright white with black-clad mourners walking between the waist high tombs, placing pebbles for remembrance. Driving through the Judean desert, seeing Bedouins living in the hot hills, and camels camouflaged by the sand. A view of Petra, Jordan, while floating in the Dead Sea next to elderly locals reading their newspapers.
What I did: Day One w/ United Tours: Jerusalem, Mount of Olives, Yad Veshem. Driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, our guide tells us that there are 800,000 people living in Jerusalem. This is made obvious by the sprawl of the city, and the traffic. The view from the Mount of Olives is magnificent, the Western Wall is powerful and Via Dolorosa is packed with tourists. Yad Veshem (Holocaust museum) deserves far more time than we gave it – I would easily spend half a day in the museum on a return trip.
Day Two w/ United Tours: Masada and Ein Gedi (spa at the Dead Sea). Masada was stunning early in the morning, ahead of the hordes of tourists. For the record, I took the cable car to the top – you will never see me take the Snake Path on the face of the mountain. Ein Gedi smells like a rotten egg! The sulfur showers are to blame, but if you can get past the smell, it’s one of the most relaxing places on earth. The Dead Sea is 37% salt – let this be a lesson that you should not shave before swimming OR open your eyes under water. I spent a long time floating around under the thatched roofs escaping from the sun and trying various salt water acrobatics. Cover yourself in mud, bake in the sun, and rejuvenate.
What I ate: Shakshuka at Benedict in Tel Aviv – an egg dish to die for at a hopping breakfast spot. Gelato from Anita Café (La Mama del Gelato), a perfect precursor to the beach. Outrageous fish dinner at Reviva & Celia. Wine, wine, wine. Israeli wine is to die for – Pelter is one of my favorites.
If (when) I return I will: wander the Old City at my leisure; return with a rabbi; eat more falafel; ship wine home.
Sorry I missed: the wine country in the north (Golan Heights).
Thanks to: Eyal & family for inviting me into their home for shabbat. Reut for taking me out on the town. Ayelet for having a lovely reunion dinner in her flat. Rotem for showing me the “real” Tel Aviv. Skip, the nice American guy who spent the day with me touring Masada and the Dead Sea. The security guy at the airport who stopped me from removing my shoes; “this is not America!” Ilan, the gorgeous Israeli who (1) gave up his seat for an old lady, (2) entertained the 18 month old next to us on the plane and (3) waited for me after baggage claim, bought my train ticket and made sure I got where I needed to go. תודה!
Now, you: Have you traveled to a religious destination? What did you think? Have you traveled to a place for it’s medicinal claims? Where?