Jerusalem – Part II: The Old City

Back to the highlights from Israel.  As I mentioned before, the advantage of staying at the Eldan Hotel is its proximity to the Old City.  Arguably the biggest religious center in the entire world, the highlights of the Old City can be done in a day – but it would be very, very exhausting.  My suggestion would be to give it a day and a half.

***I’ll try and limit the amount of historical background I get into (because quite frankly it would require pages and pages) 

Before you go into the craziness of the Old City, I would actually recommend checking out the Tower of David Museum at the Jaffa Gate.  We visited the museum at the end of our trip through the Old City, but in hindsight doing it beforehand probably would have been more beneficial.  This museum will give you a great history of the city before you go and see the actual sights and can be realistically be done in a couple of hours.

You’ll also notice as you begin your journey into the Old City how remarkably international the environment is.  Jerusalem, and in particular the Old City, really is the most international city that I’ve ever been immersed in with every sort of ethnicity represented.  It just shows you how widespread Christianity, Judaism and Islam are practiced throughout the world.

Christian Section

We started our journey through the Old City at the Jaffa Gate, and made our way into the market to try and find the start of the Via Dolorosa.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Via Dolorosa, it’s the path that Jesus Christ took on his way to his crucifixion.  On the Via Delarosa, there are several checkpoint stations that mark where different miracles/events allegedly occurred during Christ’s walk.  Be prepared to get lost.  Although there are maps and a few signs to attempt to help visitors guide their way through, the Via Dolorosa runs through a very busy and crowded bazaar (much like the one in Fez, but with far fewer shop owners in your face).  While some of the locals will actually try and help you, I’m afraid their kindness gets tainted by the locals who try and take advantage of you and get you in their stores.  What you will find helpful is that there will be tour groups surrounding each of the landmarks, so use that to your advantage.  I really need to find a way to create a perfect map of the Old City, with all the weird little roads and alleys marked.  I’d be a millionaire from the sales off of the tourists.

Expect to see A LOT of religious zealots.  As we were walking up and down the Via Dolorosa, there were several religious groups carrying crosses and chanting.  At the final stop of the Via Dolorosa, the Holy Sepulchre (the site where Christ was allegedly crucified), there were hundreds of worshipers praying and weeping at the locations of the actual execution, where Christ was laid to rest, and his resurrection.  I for one greatly appreciate the historical significance of all these landmarks, but I’ll be the first to admit that I was unsettled by the amount of crying and just 100% pure worship around me.  I did feel in a way like an intruder invading people’s private moments.  And I don’t mean to be insulting, but if I’m going to be honest – I really did think some of the people around me may have been slightly crazy.

Jewish Section

Towards the end of the Via Dolorosa, you’ll approach the Jewish section and the Western Wall (a.k.a. Wailing Wall).  Needless to say, you have to go through tight security to get to the Western Wall courtyard.  My first reaction to seeing the wall was surprise at the size of what was actually left.  I imagined that there was only small portion, but the ruins of the western side of the ancient Jewish temple was much larger than I thought.  There are separate men’s and women’s prayer sections of the wall, so make sure to find a place to regroup after you’re done looking and/or praying (though I heard recently they are considering making the prayer areas mixed).  There is also a dress code: men should have their heads covered and women should be pretty much covered to the knees and over the shoulders.  Shawls and skullcaps are available to borrow.

You’ll notice when you approach the wall that there are thousands, if not millions, or pieces of paper shoved into the cracks of the wall.  These are prayers or letters that have been placed in the wall as messages to God by pilgrims and anyone is welcome to contribute.  Although I don’t practice the Hebrew faith, I still partook in writing a personal note and placing it in one of the cracks in the wall.  God is God, no matter what your faith right?

Muslim Section

Part three of this world religion tour (seriously it was like a straight-up, real-life Epcot Center World Showcase going from religion to religion) was to head to the Muslim section of the city.  Because both Muslims and Hebrews share the Temple Mount, you will literally see a ramp along the Western Wall that will take you to the Dome of the Rock, the site where the prophet Mohammad is said to have ascended to heaven.

There aren’t many signs telling you that the ramp is the way to get to the Dome of the Rock, that’s why I’m telling you now.  Also, there is a long wait – at least 30 minutes – so be prepared for that.  Finally, be sure to figure out what hours the area is open for non-Muslims and plan accordingly.

Once you make it to the top of ramp, you’ll notice how serene the scene is and how impressive the gold dome of the Dome of the Rock stands out.  Compared to the rather crowded Western Wall, there’s much more room to leisurely walk around.  Although non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside, the Dome of the Rock is very impressive on the outside to see and one can imagine how much more impressive the building was centuries ago to the visiting pilgrims.

All in all, seeing this melting pot of religions and nationalities is easily one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had.  It is hard to put into words how fascinating it was to see thousands of people from these three major world religions crash into this one area no bigger than the size of a small town.  It amazes me to think about how much conflict has occurred over the years over this one region and, quite honestly, how much of a shame it is that there hasn’t ever been a way to find a resolution between what are essentially “distant relative” religions.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Jerusalem – Part I

After our little excursion to the Dead Sea and Masada, we headed out of the Negev desert and back to civilization.  Our next stop was Jerusalem which was what could be considered the main feature of the trip to Israel.

Driving into Jerusalem is tricky so be prepared for a high stress driving situation if you’re behind the wheel.  All the maps of the city that we had lacked the small side streets and the Garmin GPS struggled to find certain streets and pronounce the Hebrew accurately in understandable English (You don’t know on-edge driving until you’re in a different country and Garmin spits out “Turn left on Allafuweesa Hearzog” and the only sign you see is Kovshei Katamon Street.)

We eventually arrived at our hotel in one piece – the Eldan Hotel.  This place is located across from the famous King David Hotel, so you can use that as a landmark when trying to find it.  The hotel itself is very nice, with renovated rooms and it’s in a fantastic location (a quick walk to the Old City, which will be in the next post).  There is very limited and tight parking, so again, have a good driver behind the wheel.   You will pay a a bit to stay here – at least $200 US a night and there is NO internet (which was very bizarre for the price we were paying for the room), but its location in relation to the sites makes it worth it.  If you do want to use the internet, you have to go next door to the YMCA or the King David to get a free WiFi signal.

Here are a few of the highlights from our first day (apologies for the relatively scarce amount of pictures – most of these museums didn’t allow photography):

Israel Museum

Sun, Mon, Wed, Thurs 10 am – 5 pm
Tues 4pm – 9 pm (*Please note the Museum is closed on Tuesday mornings and during special holiday hours)
Fri and holiday eves 10 am – 2 pm
Sat and holidays 10 am – 5 pm

***Children under 18 free admission on Tuesdays and Saturdays

The Israel Museum is a solid starting point for your visit to the city.  There you can view the Dead Sea Scrolls and Aleppo Codex and get a nice, but admittedly typical, look at a range of Jewish artwork.  The Judaic portion of the museum is a good exhibit of the history of Jewish culture and worth walking through.  There is also free parking at the museum and some very good free tours that are offered throughout the day.

Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Museum

Sunday-Wednesday: 9:00 – 5:00
Thursday: 9:00-8:00
Friday: 9:00-2:00
Saturday: Closed

A trip to Israel wouldn’t be complete without a very necessary stop at Yad Vashem and The Holocaust Museum.  I’m going to say this right off the bat – this part of the trip will be extremely disturbing and emotionally draining, so be prepared for that.

At Yad Vashem, you’ll be able to look at the Hall of Remembrance – a dark, quiet hangar bay like structure that houses the eternal flame and the names of all the concentration camps carved onto the floor.  Down the way is the Children’s Memorial.  This memorial is a spooky, but beautiful tribute to the children victims of the holocaust.  The memorial is a completely dark walkthrough with only one candle in the center and mirrors all around that make the room look like it’s filled with starry candlelight.  The only sound that can be heard is the voice of one man reciting the names, birthplaces and ages of all the children victims.

Of the three big parts of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum is easily the most impressive.  Being from D.C., I made the mistake of thinking the D.C and Jerusalem holocaust museums would be similar.  The museum in Jerusalem is shockingly long, so give yourself at least two hours to go through it and I will admit is FAR better than the holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.  As you go through each room and listen to the hundreds of stories and read the thousands of displays, it’s indescribable to fathom just how unbelievably and incredibly horrible of a tragedy occurred.  Don’t be surprised if you see a lot of people with watery eyes or if you find yourself crying.  At the end of the museum, if you take a look around at all the faces of the other tourists, you’ll just see mass exhaustion and the look that everyone just got hit in the face.  Needless to say, this is not a “fun” thing to see or do, but it is an extremely interesting experience.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Masada and the Dead Sea

Driving north from Eliat, we made our way to the kibbutz that we would be staying in for the next couple of days – the Khalia Kibbutz.  The kibbutz is located a few miles from the Dead Sea and going into it I didn’t know what to expect.  I really thought it would be like an amish-type village thing, but quickly realized that I was quite mistaken.  As we approached the gate, there were armed guards who had to check us through due to kibbutzes being a frequent target of terrorist attacks.  We made our way past security, and we saw that that the kibbutz was a modern, fully-functioning community.

More like a vacation resort complex than a farm, the room we stayed in was modest, clean, and affordable with a little kitchen and back patio.  The staff was friendly, but like all Israelis they had a curt, edgy directness.  The Khalia Kibbutz is good choice if you’re looking to do something very Israeli and need a place to stay when visiting the following:

The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.  We went to Mineral Beach, which is one of the beaches you do actually have to pay for to enter.  They also offer towels and lockers to rent and spa services (which are very overpriced).  The beach itself isn’t really a “lay out the towel and lounge” type beach.  The ground is extremely rocky, but there are several beach chairs for you to have so that you’re not sitting on the rocks.

Dead sea
Look Mom! No hands!

Regardless of that, the reason why you’re there isn’t to enjoy the “sand” – its to experience the water.  And it certainly doesn’t disappoint.  All the stories you hear about being able to literally float with no effort are 100% true.  Once you get in, all you need to do is lift up your feet and it’s like you’re on an invisible floating mat.  A few things to note though – DO NOT DUNK.  I cannot stress this enough.  The water tastes absolutely horrible and will cause serious harm to your eyes if it gets in contact with them.  Also, DO NOT SHAVE before going in.  The water is SO salty that any small cut or scrape will burn like crazy.  I didn’t shave, but there were a few small scratches on my legs that I didn’t know about and the water quickly let me know they were there.

Natural mud treatment
Natural mud treatment

When you’re tired of floating in the sea itself, you can try giving yourself a mud treatment.  There are barrels of the mineral mud located on the beach and you’ll see everyone covering their skin up in this gunky mess.  When you wash it off, your skin feels absolutely smooth and fresh as the mud has sucked up all the oils and dead skin and washed them away.  Be warned, the mud also stings so if you’re going to put it on your face, just be prepared.

It’s also worth partaking in the sulfur pool.  This giant hot tub has the same water as the dead sea so you can float around in it with all the other people.  The water is very hot though and we couldn’t stay in there too long.

Hiking up the Masada

Another famous Israeli landmark is the Masada, a fortress that was built on top of a mountain in 37 B.C.  It’s famous for the great siege at Masada, where 960 Jewish settlers committed mass suicide to avoid capture from the Romans.  You can read more about the story here.  There are two ways up the mountain to see the ruins of the fortress – hike and the cable car.  The cable car will get you up to the top in a few minutes.  If you’re going to attempt the hike up to the top of the mountain, you’ll take the snake trail and that climb will take you 45 minutes to an hour or two depending on your pace.  You should also be in relatively good shape, the hike up is not an easy one if you choose the snake trail.  There is a significantly easier trail up as well called the Roman Ramp, but that requires you to drive 40 minutes around the mountain to the other side.  There’s a fee to hike and a fee for the cable car.  A popular option is to pay for the hike up and a pay for a one-way trip back down on the cable car.  Once you get to the top, you can easily spend a couple hours up there.  There are several pretty intact ruins left and the views of the Dead Sea are amazing.

Ein Gedi and Qumran

For more hiking, swing by Ein Gedi Nature Park.  There you can explore the park’s waterfalls, caves, natural springs and wildlife.  It’s pretty incredible seeing the lush flora and water of this oasis in the middle of the desert.  Qumran is also located close by.  If you have an hour, check out the site where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls and see how the ancient tribes that found them lived.  However, keep in mind that the actual scrolls aren’t kept at Qumran.  They’re housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem – our next destination.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Driving to Eilat and the day trip to Petra

After our brief stay in Tel Aviv, we took our rental car and proceeded south towards the city of Eilat, which is pretty much the most southern city in Israel.  To get to Eilat you can take a quick flight if you’re pressed for time.  But if not, the drive through the Negev Desert is about 4.5 hours.

Heed this warning: Israeli drivers are aggressive and brazen.  I mean – really brazen. So much so that most credit card companies’ insurance WILL NOT cover any rental damages in Israel.  You’ll have to really do your research if you want to find a credit card that will insure rental cars in Israel.  We actually had to open up an American Airlines credit card in order to get rental insurance for our car (and it’s a good thing we did too because our car didn’t make it through the trip without suffering some damage – admittedly my fault).  And make sure to have a GPS!  The maps aren’t exactly easy to use for getting in and out of the urban areas (more to come about that in the Jerusalem segment).

The roads through the Negev are very mountainous and quite scenic.  On the route there are several sights to see such as Sde Boker, which is the sight where Ben Gurion’s desert home is located.  There are also several wineries to visit, however some of them are gated and you MUST have a cell phone to call them to open it up.

Once we arrived at Eilat, the first thing you’ll notice is it’s very modern.  The city is very commercial and much more of a beach town than anything else.  You won’t find much local cuisine as they’re catering to the tourists, so unless you’re there when it’s warm and you’re going to do some sunbathing – the city doesn’t need much more than a day to see.  However, though it wasn’t local, we did eat at a very good Italian seafood restaurant called Pago Pago that is worth trying out.  I had the shrimp & calamari butter oil gnocchi which was excellent.

So we weren’t in Eilat for the beach.  The true reason we stayed in Eilat wasn’t so much to see the city as much as it was our launch point to see the great ruins of Petra.

Petra is located just across the border in Jordan so it’s best to book a guided tour to help you get through customs.  This is not a cheap excursion however and it cost us around $300 per person as well as $60 for the customs entrance fee into Jordan.  IMPORTANT: Remember – if you ever want to visit a place like Lebanon or another Arab country that doesn’t recognize Israel as a state, you MUST get the Israeli customs to give you a separate, special visa to stamp so that they don’t stamp your passport.

The group we went with was EcoTour.  They were quite good, providing us with an excellent guide and delicious lunch/dinner (the place they took us had amazing hummus).  They also offer overnight Petra excursions for the serious trekkers, and in hindsight we wish we had booked the overnight tour as we quickly realized that Petra had much more to offer than we thought.

The drive to Petra is about 2 hours from Eilat.  The start of the Petra tour begins as you take the downhill (about 1/4 miles) walk towards the Siq (narrow passage).  Once you get to the Siq, it’s like entering a whole other world.  The stroll through this narrow canyon is surprisingly long, with several archaeological carvings and monuments along the way.   You have to mind your step every way because donkey pulled rickshaws come careening through the curves of the Siq.

As you walk through the Siq, you’ll eventually come to one of the most famous sights in history – most notably made recognizable by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Treasury 0r Al Khazneh.  It’s easy to see why this facade was used as the location where the Holy Grail was located, but unfortunately in real life all that’s inside is an empty chamber.  Sorry, no blades cutting off heads or leaps of faith to be had.  Still impressive nonetheless, the Treasury is best viewed in the morning when the light from the sun hits the facade perfectly.

Because Indiana Jones made the Treasury so famous, I didn’t believe that there was much more than that.  Wrong.  As we continued our tour, the Siq opened up and we came upon an impressive and expansive set of ruins that would rivals those in Pompeii and Ephesus.  Here you’ll see ruins of the entire city including ancient temples, buildings and columns all around.  I’m sad to say that because of the time constraints, we were limited in the amount of sightseeing we could do and sort of sped walked through the ruins without giving them their due attention.  This is why I said earlier that in hindsight we wish we had done the overnight excursion.

Even so, we got our money’s worth and as much as we would have liked to stay longer we saw the highlights.  Remember when I said we walked downhill at the beginning?  Well as we started walking back we quickly realized that we never really went uphill at any point.  So bear this in mind: the uphill walk all the way back will be a little challenging.  There are several locals offering horse, donkey and camel rides back to the starting point if you’re willing to spend a little cash for a lift (they’ll get in your face, but in general they’ll back off if you say no – unlike the guys in Egypt who will follow you and follow you).

I know the trip to Israel will already cost you a pretty penny, but if you’re already there and there’s any way you can get yourself to Petra, I would highly recommend doing so.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Israel – Tel Aviv

For those of you who follow my blog, you’ll know that a couple of years ago my trip to Egypt was at the cusp of the revolution (unbeknownst to us of course at the time).  So when we found out rockets were being fired into the “land of milk and honey” a month before our scheduled vacation to Israel, we were uneasy to say the least.  Though we considered alternate plans, we decided to go forth with our visit to Israel and it didn’t disappoint.

After our ten hour flight, we landed at Ben Gurion airport outside of  Tel Aviv.  We hopped in a cab and attempted to negotiate a fair rate into the city, but after a day of traveling, the exhaustion won over and we ended up paying around 175 shekels (NIS) for a ride in.  If you’re up for negotiating, the fare shouldn’t be more than 150 NIS.  (As of this writing, 1 New Israeli Shekel = 3.7 U.S. Dollars).

Tel Aviv doesn’t look like much at first glance.  I would say that in all honesty it isn’t actually really a city you’d fall in love with on the surface.  There isn’t really any sort of standout landmark to give it any definition – and to me that makes sense.  I feel like Tel Aviv is a growing city with a bit of an identity crisis that has yet to really define itself.  But while it lacks in any sort of standout cultural staple, it makes up for with several other things.

For one (I can’t fully comment on this because I never really got a chance to go out in the evening) the nightlife is supposedly amazing and from what I did see, there were definitely several streets with clubs and bars side by side that were closed during the day, but had crowds people spilling in and out of them at 4:00 AM (which we did witness on our taxi ride back to the airport at the end of the trip).  So, if you’re looking for a club scene in Israel, Tel Aviv is the place to check out.

Another defining part of the city are their extensive beaches.  Being there over Christmas we didn’t have the summer weather to fully take advantage of the beach, but the walkway along the beach is still pleasant enough even in the winter time and worth strolling down.  Also, if you’re so inclined, you can take advantage of the free exercise machines on the sand and get a little workout in.  It’s like Tel Aviv’s own little Venice Beach.

There are also a couple of markets you can take advantage of for souvenirs, produce, goods, anything.  One is called the Carmel Market and the other is the flea market at Old Jaffa.  Both don’t really compare to the bazaar in Jerusalem (more on that later), but they are worth checking out to see the scene and it makes for a nice afternoon walk to go from one to the other via the beach.

And finally, the people are very friendly and love their dogs – Tel Aviv is a very dog friendly city.  Indeed, some of the populous are very straight forward (although not as many as the guidebooks would let you believe), almost to the point where you think they’re pissed at you based on the curtness of their talk.  But that’s just the way a lot of them are and you grow to see that their prickly outer demeanor is very thin and underneath is actually a very nice person.  Naturally we asked them about the situation with the Palestinians and the recent rocket attacks in November 2012.  Their response was this: It’s a fact of life around there that these things happen, but they’re blown out of proportion by the media.  They compared it to the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, CT.  They understand and live with the fact that violence exists in their society and that they could be victim to it – but they don’t go about their days living in fear.

So if you’re visiting Israel during the winter you only really need to give Tel Aviv a couple of days.  If it’s the summer however, you could probably go a few more days to take advantage of the beaches and nightlife.  Just make sure that if you’re planning on seeing the whole country, don’t plan too much time around Tel Aviv.  Israel, as we soon discovered, has more to offer outside Tel Aviv and in my opinion is worth prioritizing.

Where to Stay

Sea-Land Apartments
Don’t let the shady exterior fool you.  For $150 a night, these are great apartments to stay in.  Their location is right in the middle of the action and you’re only about a 10-15 minute walk from the beach.  They are also conveniently located across from an AM:PM, which is the Israeli 24 hour supermarket.  The apartment themselves are extremely clean, very modern looking and come with a kitchen and patio.

Ben Yehuda 84 Tel Aviv, 63435 Israel‎
+972 77-410-0966

Where to Eat

Falafel Gabai
If you want a fantastic cheap eat in Tel Aviv – Falafel Gabai delivers on of the best falafel sandwiches I’ve ever had.  We went a couple times it was so good.  You would walk right by it by how modest it looks, except for the fact that there seems to a crowd of locals outside of the place that gives it away.  A Falafel with Pita sandwich is very filling, so if you’re not looking for a huge filler of a meal, go with the half pita.  And when they ask if you’d like it spicy, use caution – it’s VERY spicy.

Bograshov 25, Tel Aviv, Israel

Literally a few doors down from Falafel Gabai, Kurtosh offers some of the best pastries I’ve ever had.  Not at the Paris level, but pretty damn close, the croissants, danishes, and strudels offered at this small bakery provide the perfect amount of sweet, flaky, crispiness that one can enjoy for breakfast or a tasty snack while in Tel Aviv.

Bograshov 39, Tel Aviv, Israel

This slideshow requires JavaScript.