Israel Day 1 – London to Jerusalem
24th October 2017
The flight to Ben Gurion was uneventful, despite the Cadbury’s special offers in Duty Free, meaning a plane full of people armed with ‘Fruit and Nut’. We arrived at the airport and tried to follow signs to the Jerusalem bus without success. We gave up and took a Sherut (shared taxi). Our fellow travellers included a family who lived not particularly on the way to Jerusalem, but we made it eventually, but a somewhat circuitous route.
We were dropped at the Metropole Hotel, which was unfortunate, as we were staying at the New Metropole Hotel. Luckily it was only a few doors away from our hotel, and we traipsed up the hill and checked in.
Our hotel was in the predominantly Arab East Jerusalem. It had seen better days. The biggest issue was the leak from the upstairs toilet through our bedroom ceiling. We called the manager. He said if we didn’t like it, we should check into a more expensive hotel. We googled alternative hotels and decided to lump it. After some experimentation, we came up with a bin/cushion combo. The bin caught the drips and the cushion muffled the dripping sound. It had been a long day, so it didn’t matter too much, we could have slept through pretty much anything.
Israel Day 2 – Jerusalem
25th October 2017
Following an excellent breakfast at the hotel (much to our surprise) it was time to explore Old Jerusalem, a city which just oozes history. We entered through Damascus Gate, part police checkpoint, part time warp.
Fact: pilgrims are mental. I’m not sure if they start off this way or some sort of mass hysteria takes over, but it adds an extra element of entertainment to a trip to the Holy Land.
First stop, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Jesus was crucified. Inside the door, the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus was prepared for burial. The stone dates from 1810, so a leap of faith is required, but there was a scrum of people desperate to kiss it and rub it with an oily rag to extract some stone juice (hence the need to replace the original which was evidently all juiced out).
Next, The Citadel; King Herod’s palace. Great views across the city and an eclectic array of artefacts. My favourite; a diorama showing Muslims chasing Christians out of Jerusalem and vice versa.
On to the Room of the Last Supper – one word – bonkers. The Holy Spirit is said to be present here. We followed a group of Kenyan pilgrims. Immediately, the entire group were hit by the Holy Spirit, lots of shouting (in tongues – obviously) and crying. Cue a group of Korean pilgrims. They wanted some Holy Spirit too, so set about touching the Kenyans. Lots more shouting and crying.
Meanwhile, downstairs is King David’s Tomb. The tomb has separate entrances for men and women, which means the iconic king has essentially been cut in half. We split up to visit separate ends, not sure which end I got.
Next stop the Church of the Dormition, which marks where Jesus’ mother Mary died. More pilgrim madness, a sing-off between rival pilgrim ‘gangs’. A bit like a surreal remake of Step Up.
Onwards to the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu, built where Peter denied Jesus 3 times before the cock crowed, hence the proliferation of cocks. My guide book says the grave of Oskar Schindler is also nearby, but despite an extensive search, we failed to find it and moved on.
Time to tackle the Via Dolorosa – the route Jesus walked with his cross. Each of the 14 stations is marked with a plaque, so it’s easy to follow (that and thousands of people following the same route through what is essentially a maze). After 9 stations, we decided we were all cultured out and stopped for a beer.
We had dinner, a mezze, at the excellent Family Restaurant, including great hummus. I didn’t know I liked hummus, having only had it in plastic tubs from the supermarket, but freshly prepared it’s a whole different dish.
Back to the hotel (moved to a dry room – yay!) through the old city which, although bustling during the day, really comes to life at night with the market in full swing. Props to the spice seller who used his product to build a spicy Dome of the Rock.
Israel Day 3 – Jerusalem
26th October 2017
Yesterday Christianity – today Islam and Judaism. We started with Temple Mount, location of the Al Aqsa Mosque, where Mohammed ascended to heaven, and the Dome of the Rock. The queue was massive, and entry was complicated by the fact that the old man was carrying contraband (a tablet) but we made it in eventually. The Dome of the Rock was spectacular in the morning sun, as was the and the view across Jerusalem. But there wasn’t much else to do, as non-Muslims aren’t allowed in any of the buildings, so we descended.
At the bottom, The Western Wall, remnant of the original temple in Jerusalem. Again, we had to enter separately. The Ladies’ section was quiet and demure. It was a lot more lively the other side of the fence, where there appeared to be a Jewish version of the Conga in progress.
Time to venture further afield. We exited the old city through the Cardo Maximus, the original Roman high street, still in incredible condition for for a two thousand year old structure.
We took a tram to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, a huge site containing a museum and various memorials to the victims of the Holocaust.
Having trodden on a group of children sitting on the floor of an exhibit containing a walkway in total darkness, I decided to wait outside next to The Memorial Cave, and ponder how, when 6 million people had died, the best idea you could come up with to signify the enormity of this act of barbarism was a rock with 6,000,000 written on it.
Back through town for more hummus, and that was the end of day 3. On the walk back to the hotel we were serenaded by a piano playing soldier. Only in Israel…
Israel Day 4 – Jerusalem
Jerusalem 27th October 2017
This morning, The Israel Museum, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a large sculpture garden (I have a confession – I have a sculpture fetish). We needed to take a bus across town. The bus system in Jerusalem is complicated; there are separate Jewish and Arab buses. We set off up the hill to the nearest Jewish bus stop. We thought we’d located it; a sign and a bench and some bins (quite a lot of bins with hindsight), but the bus sped past and stopped 100m further up the road. We were sitting at a recycling centre. Second time lucky, we caught the bus to the museum. Upon arrival we discovered an added bonus; an exhibition by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
Each piece was accompanied by a detailed description of the thought process behind it. A fun game – look at the work and try to guess its meaning; a prize for the person who is closest. We were having so much fun, we didn’t realise we were following the wrong route and standing on a lush carpet which looks like a stone floor. It was an exhibit and an angry security guard gave chase. We hastily removed our shoes and took our guess. (Soft Ground – a replica of the floor of the Haus der Kunst, designed when Ai Weiwei was invited to show his work at the aforementioned gallery, which was formerly patronised by Hitler).
We made our exit through the excellent Sculpture Garden, and on to the piece de resistance, the Shrine of the Book, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It turned out, the scrolls on display were in fact replicas. Nevertheless, there was an equally fierce security guard chasing away would-be photographers. It was a challenge I couldn’t resist – I waited until he had chased someone through 180 degrees and struck.
The return bus trip took forever; it was Friday afternoon, almost Sabbath and everyone was rushing to travel/shop/eat before sundown ie not rushing at all as the traffic was gridlocked. Having mastered Jewish buses, it was off to the Arab Bus Station for a bus to The Mount of Olives. This time we had a different problem: We are British, we don’t know how not to queue. The bus was already there when we arrived, but full so we had to wait for the next one. When it arrived, we were at the front of the queue. When it was full, we were second from the front. I’m not sure how this happened but it was obviously an epic fail. We waited for a third bus, determined to adapt our boarding technique but with limited success until an elderly gentleman intervened and said something to his fellow travellers which caused them to take pity on us and let us onto the bus.
The Mount of Olives, besides offering spectacular views across Jerusalem, is where Jesus spent his final days. I’m not particularly religious, but went to Sunday School as a child so was interested to see places which featured in the stories I was told as a child. Basically, any site mentioned in the Bible, now has a church on it. But we started our visit with a mosque; The Mosque of the Ascension, where there is a stone allegedly containing Jesus’ footprint made as he ascended from heaven. While we stood wondering how on earth it looked like a footstep, pilgrims threw themselves at it, showering it with kisses.
We worked our way down the mountain, past a selection of churches; first, Dominus Flevit, where Jesus Wept; a church in the shape of a teardrop.
Next, Pater Noster, where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, where a courtyard is lined with the words of the Lord’s Prayer in every language spoken by Christians. At the bottom, a church built over the Tomb of the Virgin Mary.
Finally, the Garden of Gethsemene. Here little has changed since Jesus’ time. Some of the olive trees are over a thousand years old so there is a (admittedly slight) possibility that they were there at the same time as Jesus (cue more pilgrim kissing and the like). Next door is the Church of All Nations. Our Mount of Olives church extravaganza was complete.
We headed back through the old city, planning to purchase food and beer en route to the hotel. There was a party atmosphere with many thousands of Jews heading to The Western Wall to celebrate the start of Shabbat. We stopped to watch a while. We reached the supermarket just after sundown. Rookie error; it was, of course shut. Consolation – another trip to the Family Restaurant. We ate are our hummus whilst pondering the unfortunate placing of the Tea & Coffee sign at the shop opposite.
Day 5 – Palestine
Israel Day 6 – Tel Aviv and Jaffa
29th October 2017
Time to collect our hire car and explore further afield. One last walk through the Old City to the Pool of Bethesda and the Rockefeller Museum, a building complete with bullet holes from the day it ceased to be the Palestine Archaeological Museum.
The clocks really have gone back now. Apparently, although those picking up rental cars are aware of this, it has escaped the notice of those dropping cars off, resulting in a packed waiting room and no cars. Eventually our car appears and we set off.
The journey to Tel Tel Aviv is easy, straight down the motorway but once there, we encounter a selection of intricate motorway junctions, a rather baffling one way system and astronomical parking charges. We decide to skip Tel Aviv and proceed to the ancient port of Jaffa. It’s a beautiful town with views across to Tel Aviv. Funds are running low and we can’t find a cashpoint so we opt for chips in a restaurant called Chipsterdam. All it sells is beer in chips. Perfect.
We are booked into Elis Boutique Hotel on the seafront in Bat Yam, a picturesque Mediterranean resort town with a prom, similar to our home town of Bournemouth, only significantly warmer. It feels positively decadent to be in a ‘proper’ hotel after the somewhat squalid conditions of the past 5 nights.
We take a stroll along the prom, buy some beers and watch the sun go down.
Israel Day 7 – Caesarea and Haifa
30th October 2017
On this morning’s itinerary is Caesarea, Herod’s port. The whole ancient town is now a National Park. In some places, such as the amphitheatre, the architecture is incredibly well preserved. In others, bits of statue and remnants of marble columns are sprawled around like a huge Roman jigsaw puzzle.
Today’s ultimate destination is Haifa, a port city at the foot of Mount Carmel. Our hotel has overbooked and passed our reservation to the Templers Boutique Hotel. Their error is our gain as the hotel is immaculate, beautifully renovated and includes some very quirky toilets.
The main attraction in Haifa is The Baha’i Gardens; 19 immaculate terraced gardens cascading down the mountain side. Our hotel is just metres from the bottom of the gardens. We try to enter, but are told the entrance is one level further up, via a public staircase. 364 stairs later, we arrive to be told this entrance is now shut and we need to ascend another level. We’re tired, we consider a further ascent but my Fitbit has run out of battery; these steps won’t even ‘count’. We settle for enjoying the view and looking at the gardens from the edge.
Back down 364 stairs and off in search of provisions. We google the nearest supermarket, it turns out to be Ukrainian. Everything is in such huge packs, the only sensible option appears to be the deli. It’s a bit tricky, we don’t have a language in common and I have to be careful not to buy anything containing nuts. Luckily, the sales assistant is extremely obliging. I point at various items and she draws pictures of the ingredients. We end up with a tasty selection of mystery produce.
Israel Day 8 – Nazareth
31st October 2017
Before departing Haifa, we take the Mount Carmel Cable Car for the view and to visit the Stella Maris Monastery.
We walk back along the beach, no humans – it’s off season but it’s heaving with cats, they appear to live among the rocks.
Then onwards, stopping for lunch at Tel Megiddo (aka Armageddon), to check out the venue where the world is prophesied to end. A strange irony; it’s not where Google Maps says it is. A conspiracy theory; this is a deliberate and cunning ploy by Google to prevent the end of civilisation.
We arrive at today’s destination, Nazareth – Jesus’ manor. The hotel, Villa Nazareth, is immaculate. It is in a converted school adjoining the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation which is built over a spring where the Greeks believe Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel. There are a number of springs in Nazareth, each has a church on top, just in case this is where Gabriel put in an appearance.
We work our way down the hill, until we reach the star attraction; The Basilica of the Annunciation. It’s modern, built in the 1960s, but it is one of the most stunning buildings I have ever seen.
The stained glass windows are striking and the church is adorned, inside and out with paintings and mosaics of the Virgin Mary from Christian communities around the world. The USA’s contribution particularly draws the eye.
We enter the Mary of Nazareth International Centre and head for the top, where there’s a chapel and roof garden with unparalleled views over the Basilica and the city.
Back up the hill via the White Mosque. Nazareth is predominantly Arab and the walls in this area are adorned with pro Palestinian graffiti.
We round the evening off with dinner. We are hungry, which results in the old man over ordering – it’s a mega mezze.
Israel Day 9 – The Sea of Galilee
1st November 2017
Today is our last Jesus-themed day with a drive along the west shore of The Sea of Galilee, which is in fact a lake. The place names are familiar from stories told at Sunday School, but I don’t recall anybody mentioning how utterly beautiful the scenery was. No wonder Jesus wandered around preaching love, harmony and sharing your picnic.
Our first stop, is indeed the site of the Feeding of the 5000; Tabgha and the German Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fish. Here as if the labour the point, the church is fronted with a pond full of fish.
Next, the Mount of Beatitudes, site of the Sermon on the Mount. Here there is the octagonal church, each side containing a stained glass panel indicating whom Jesus said should be Blessed.
The old man talks a lot about cheesemakers. He thinks he’s funny. We wander along the shore, enjoying the view and considering the conflicting signage.
Final stop, Capernaum, which contains the remains of a house which may (or may not) have been the home of St Peter.
We head towards tonight’s hotel in the resort town of Tiberias. The hotel, Aviv Holiday Flat, and the town have seen better days. We take a walk along the prom, it’s strewn with litter and smells of sewage.
We head for the Tiberias Open Air Museum. It doesn’t really live up to its name; it’s actually a small sculpture garden. There’s also a twin domed mosque, which makes us laugh; from the side it looks like a giant set of boobs.
Israel Day 10 – Beit She’an, Masada and Ein Bokek
2nd November 2017
For today’s journey, we are heading to Eilat down Route 90, an Israeli controlled road which runs through The West Bank. But first, the Roman town of Beit She’an. You can climb the hill behind the town for a great view looking back across it.
We head out of Israel, and yet weirdly still in it, along Route 90. Security is tight; both on the ground and overhead, with MIGs speeding up and down the road corridor.
The journey is without incident and we reach the other side of the West Bank. We know we have reached ‘civilisation’ when we spot a McDonalds in an oasis.
We reach the ancient town of Masada, which lies on a plateau above the Dead Sea, where 1000 Jews attempted to defend themselves against the might of the Roman Empire’s Tenth Legion. I’m impressed, I’ve seen the Tenth Legion in action on Dr Who and they looked scary. Ultimately the people of Masada failed and took their own lives rather than be captured by the Roman soldiers (where’s Dr Who when you need him?) The town is reached either by following a footpath up the side of the mountain, or by cable car from the visitors’ centre. It’s sweltering hot, so we opt for the cable car, but there are a steady stream of nutters making their way up by foot.
Our room for the night is The Desert Inn in Neve Zohar. It’s a small settler community next door to the resort town of Ein Bokek. It appears to have no redeeming features. The hotel isn’t a hotel; the village consists of prefabs initially put up for workers mining the Dead Sea for minerals for cosmetics. We are staying in one of these. The owner, who is lovely, appears to have attempted to make up for the drabness of the hotel and its environment through her choice of bed linen.
We decide to go and see what the more up-market Ein Bokek has to offer. We are told to be back by dark, as Neve Zohar is locked at night (yes, the whole village locks itself in at dusk). We wander along the sea front past and watch the sun set over the Dead Sea. Then rush back to Neve Zohar before our curfew.
Israel Day 11 – Eilat
3rd November 2017
Today’s schedule is simple: 1) Blat down the last 130 miles of Route 90 to Eilat. 2) Relax on the beach. There are no shops or restaurants in Neve Zohar, so we get up and head for Eilat straight away. Once through the security cordon that surrounds the city, we find a bakery and eat brunch on a bench overlooking the Red Sea.
Eilat isn’t as nice as I had hoped. The beach is super crowded and the sand is littered with bottle tops, cigarette ends and broken glass. It’s not like the pristine sand I’m used to in Bournemouth, so we give up and head for our hotel.
Almog is a large apartment complex next to the university. We are the oldest there by several decades, but the room is nice. We sit down on the balcony, time to relax after a hectic few days. For approximately one minute. Then we remember it’s Friday afternoon and the shops are about to close for the Sabbath. Cue emergency dash to the Supermarket. Now we can relax, sit on the balcony and drink beer as the sun sets. We are on the 12th floor of a building on a hill, from here we have a wonderful view across Eilat and the Red Sea to Jordan, where we are going in the morning. I’m excited – another new country.
Day 12/13 – Jordan
Israel Day 14 – Mitzpe Ramon
6th November 2017
Time to head back towards the airport, which will be achieved over two days. Today a 100 mile drive through the Negev Desert to Mitzpe Ramon, a town on the edge of the Makhtesh Ramon crater. The drive though the desert is more scenic than I expected. There are warning signs for camels and tanks. I’m not sure which I would least like to hit.
We arrive at the crater and head for the Ramon Visitor Centre. We buy tickets and head inside. We are expecting a museum detailing the geology/flora/fauna of the region. We are not expecting to enter a fake rocket launch site to watch a series of films about Ilan Ramon, an Israeli astronaut who died on board the space shuttle Columbia.
The area is very busy with both tourists and soldiers on manoeuvres. We find a quiet spot on the edge of the crater for a picnic, gazing over the stunning scenery. We are soon joined by a family of ibexes. They clearly haven’t read the signs.
We head for our hotel. We need our passports, but they’re in my handbag, last seen during lunch on the the crater edge. We hurry back and it is where I left it. It hasn’t been stolen/eaten by ibexes/blown up by the military, which is a huge relieve. We check into our hotel, the iBike. It’s unconventional, a converted army warehouse.
Our room is in the middle of a mezzanine with no outside windows. It’s a bit claustrophobic. But the hotel has a lovely garden where we have a beer and watch our last Israeli sunset.
Israel Day 15 – Mitzpe Ramon to London
Mitzpe Ramon 7th November 2017
The final day of our trip and we have just over 100 miles to cover to reach the airport. But first time to explore Mitzpe Ramon. We head for the sculpture park overlooking the crater.
It is still early, there are more ibexes than people and they take a keen interest in us.
The journey to the airport is more complicated than expected, the old and new private motorways run in parallel and Google maps keeps trying to divert us from one to the other. Plus we need petrol; it’s pay at pump and the instructions are only in Hebrew. A fellow motorist takes pity on the old man and helps with the transaction. We arrive at the airport with plenty of time to check out the quirky Ben Gurion statues and convert our spare Shekels into duty free chocolate.