The hotel upgraded me to a suite with a great view of the Mediterranean. Luckily, I had the benefit of seeing a few pictures and getting a little advice about Tel Aviv before I arrived thanks to my friend Bill who recently visited here.
The city was not at all like my pre-conceived notions. I never pictured it as a beautiful beach city like Rio or even Honolulu but, like those cities, the beach definitely dominates city life here.
Dining in Israel
Dining in Israel is a little different than anywhere else I’ve been. Kosher rules dictate that meat and dairy should not be mixed and Israeli cuisine reflects this. Restaurants serve either meat or dairy but not both.
This makes for an interesting dining experience. Even in the hotels, they will have one meat restaurant and one vegetarian (dairy). The vegetarian restaurant options are actually quite good and that’s what I went with for most of my stay.
Military Service in Israel
Another important note about Israel is that all men and women are required, at the age of 18, to do National Service in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Men are required to serve three years, women serve two.
Because everyone must serve, you see young soldiers in uniform carrying machine guns all over the place. On the street, on the train, sitting next to me on the bus, wherever you go.
It’s a little unsettling at first (like my experience at Masada) but after a while it just becomes normal and you actually get used to the fact that every third person you see is armed.
I didn’t really have a plan for my 36 hours in Tel Aviv but I did want to visit Jerusalem, which was about an hour away. Unfortunately, the companies that offered half-day tours (all I really wanted to commit to), didn’t offer them on Fridays or Saturdays.
Sundown Friday to sundown Saturday is Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) and almost everything is closed during this time (which Bill warned me about). I didn’t think that would apply to Friday morning tours, but apparently it did.
The Bus to Jerusalem
Luckily, the concierge at the Sheraton told me it was pretty easy to take a bus to the central station in Jerusalem and then transfer to a bus for the Old City. She printed a schedule for me and gave me good instructions on how to do it so I decided to give that a go.
So, the next morning I dutifully followed the instructions (half of the people on my bus were gun-toting Israeli soldiers, which actually made me feel safer) and I made it inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem in about 90 minutes.
I first visited the Western Wall, a site crucial to the Jewish faith. Jews visit it regularly, mainly to mourn the loss of the Temple which once stood above. It was destroyed in 586BC by Babylonians and again in AD70 by Romans.
The atmosphere is one of hushed silence and people take turns placing tiny folded notes to God between the stones. The wall is segregated by sex, one side designated for women only and the other for men, which I thought was interesting.
Next, I attempted to navigate my way through the crowded, winding, market-lined streets to find my way to the Dome of The Rock (this is where a tour guide might have come in handy, but hey, I had a map).
The golden Dome of The Rock is the focal point of the Jerusalem skyline. Its exterior consists of a myriad of tiny, painted tiles in every imaginable shade of blue and green, topped by inscriptions from the Koran. According to legend, on Judgment Day, the souls of mankind will be weighed in scales hung from the pillars at the top of the steps.
I finally found it but just as I was getting close enough to take a picture, I was stopped by a security guard who told me that it was closed to tourists on Fridays and Saturdays. Darn it. So, I got a couple of pictures from afar and continued on.
After walking around for about an hour, the Old City was starting to make me a little nervous as it was reminding me a lot of Cairo or Marrakech with the harassment-factor on the narrow streets – aggressive vendors trying to draw me into their shops. I decided I’d seen enough and headed back to the bus stop to make my way back to Tel Aviv.
An Afternoon Walk to Jaffa
I spent the afternoon in Tel Aviv walking all the way down the beach to the picturesque little port city of Jaffa. Unlike modern Tel Aviv, Jaffa’s history stretches back thousands of years.
Jaffa is Hebrew for “beautiful” and the name was given to the port by Noah’s youngest son, Japheth, who decided to settle here after the great Flood had subsided. Jaffa thrived as a port for 4000 years until Haifa became Israel’s main port under British rule. I didn’t stay long but it was a quaint little town and a really beautiful walk down the beach.
On the way back as I was walking along the ocean, I noticed jellyfish after jellyfish beached along the shoreline. I’ve never seen anything like it. There was one about every 10 feet and all were huge, the largest I saw was approximately the size of a car tire!
Some were already beached on the shore and not moving and others were struggling to stay afloat near the water’s edge fighting the inevitable. Apparently, this is one good reason not to swim in these waters. I took some pictures for you, Chase, I’m hoping this will suffice as the “unusual animal” of the day.
Overall, I would have to say that I really loved Israel. It is an amazingly beautiful country encompassing land with a rich history dating back to the beginning of time.
It would be nice to think you could visit here without any worries about terrorism but sadly, that is not likely to be the case anytime soon. Still, I think if you take reasonable precautions, it’s definitely possible to see the country safely and really enjoy it like I did.
Oh, and one final note…apparently the intense airport security precautions that I’d heard about take place when you are leaving Israel, versus arriving. When I checked in for my flight this morning, I was questioned at length (after being referred to a supervisor) regarding the Arab stamps in my passport – Morocco, Dubai and Egypt.
The officer asked me a number of questions about the purpose of my visit to each country, where I stayed, how many days was I there and did I know anyone there. And then my luggage was completely searched by two different sets of airport security teams.
Fortunately, I had arrived at the airport almost a full two hours before my flight so I still made it to the gate in plenty of time but it made for another interesting morning in Israel.
Next up, back to Thailand!