A Beginner’s Guide To The Vivid Country of Israel

A Beginner’s Guide To The Vivid Country of Israel
Boats moored at the Jaffa Port, Photo Credit: Getty Images

Scratching just the surface of a storied land will leave you completely enthralled

Gandharv Kamala
October 14 , 2019
13 Min Read

As we deboarded our Boeing 777-200 at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel’s Central District, among the first things that struck me were two synagogues—one at the Duty-Free hall, the other at the Greeters Hall at terminal three. Like many other Indians, I had heard a lot of conflicting stories about Israel, especially how often orthodoxy and strife coincided. Nevertheless, as any new traveller, I had to keep an open mind about tradition. As luck would have it, the representative of the Ministry of Tourism, the first official introduction to the country for our group of travellers, was donning traditional Hasidic attire. Complete with the traditional payot, or long sideburns, he welcomed us with a warm smile and a ‘Shalom’. Just a week before we arrived, Israeli forces and Hamas had exchanged rocket fire, with the latter landing towards a southern town. Contrary to all the unrest, Ben Gurion Airport, thankfully, was anything but abnormal.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

Once we got past customs, our guide, Graeme Stone, was waiting for us at the arrival. An Australian by birth, the sixty-something Graeme was married to a Jewish lady, had moved to Jerusalem and later become a practising Jew. Exiting the airport, we were met with an eight-seater car, waiting to take us to our first stop, which lay 45 kilometres away in Jerusalem.

It was evening by the time we got going. The winds grew colder, and the sun was setting up shop to paint the skies in exuberant strokes. The scene seemed almost stereotypically cinematic, as if painted by a novice colour grader. The yellow fireball was shifting into tones of orange, until finally ending at something cranberry and tangerine. The clouds—those cotton-candy ones—turned warm with the last touch of the sun. Far away, above the farmlands and somewhere above the Judaean Mountains, I could see silhouettes of birds flying home. As dusk arrived, our car came to a halt at a signal in Jerusalem. The biggest star had set, giving way to a thousand others.

When at the Church of Sepulchre in Jerusalem, don't forget to look up

We pulled up at the Mamilla Hotel on Shlomo ha-Melekh Street, and rushed to our rooms to freshen up before an early supper. Our hotel neighboured the renowned Mamilla Avenue, a paved thoroughfare with 19th-century buildings that had been transformed into the only open-air mall in Jerusalem. Think of it as a history-laced cousin of Liverpool ONE in England, or Belfast’s Victoria Square. Right next to the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, the mall is an upscale, retail-driven promenade with restaurants, cafés, office spaces, multi-level parking and a bus terminal. I assumed it was decked up like a Christmas tree all year. In the evening, the streets come to life with independent buskers and other travelling performers, the warm overhead lighting adding to the sense of theatre.

One of the restaurants at the mall was built into the Ottoman-era building known as Stern House. Apparently the Zionist writer and activist Theodore Herzl had once called it home. A sign at the top of the door read ‘Joy Bistro’, and we were invited into a vibrant hall serving Judeo-global cuisine. The warm wooden interiors were packed with bottles of local wine and several taps of beer, and the first symptoms of a Jerusalem fever of sorts emerged, as we watched the food (and booze) land on our table. I was ready for infatuation at first break, and love at first bite. Settling for a light local beer, I paired it with beef carpaccio, an egg-and-eggplant salad topped with lavash, and salmon with roasted sweet potatoes. Dessert had to be the Persian-origin mhallabiyeh, topped with sliced nuts and a pomegranate reduction. Variations of this rosewater and milk pudding can be found across the Levant, and I’ve read that some Sephardic homes use it to end their fast on Yom Kippur. As I got to know, we raised a l’chaim to a nice first supper in Israel, and a journey filled with good times.

A man prays at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem

The next day, we left to explore Jerusalem’s Old City. As the car snaked through the busy streets, one thing became evident: the very foundation of it was faith. The Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters added their own distinct flavours, as the ringing of church bells, strains of the Jewish shofar (made out of rams’ horns), and the deep Islamic calls to prayer filled the air. The scent of coffee, spices, incense, and food drifted along the buzzing souqs. As I watched pilgrims throng the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Al Haram Ash Sharif (or Temple Mount), the words of Welsh comic legend Harry Secombe’s Holy City ran across my mind: “I stood in old Jerusalem, beside the temple there, I heard the children singing, and ever as they sang. Me thought the voice of Angels, from Heaven in answer rang, me thought the voice of Angels, from Heaven in answer rang, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem!’” Despite the conflicts, destruction and centuries of rebuilding, history is not a closed chapter here. Even today its layers continue to be unearthed in the Old City, with excavations revealing cultural gems, ancient fortifications, and occasionally even providing weight to Biblical stories like the Babylonian siege.

A view of the Dead Sea

Our next stop was the Dead Sea, which, in reality, is a lake. Though no animal can survive its saline waters, it’s been used as a health resort area by Mediterranean people for thousands of years; naturally, we had to have a go. Located in the Jordan Rift Valley, it’s not just famous because it holds around 37 billion tonnes of salt. It’s also one of the Earth’s lowest points, lying more than 400 metres below sea level, and resting on a tectonic fault line between the African and Arabian plates. Graeme told us the Dead Sea was swiftly shrinking in surface area, by about one metre, or three feet, every year.

We were put up at Herods Hotel, about 100 metres away from the lake. We checked-in, changed into our swimming gear and headed for a float. As I walked into the water, I could sense the increase in buoyancy under my toes. The next step was to float, which, given our location, happened rather effortlessly.

The third step was the most challenging: to stay afloat without my head going underwater. I had to run back in my first attempt, needing a quick shower as my eyes came in contact with the mineral-rich water (sodium chloride isn’t the only salt in the Dead Sea), but I eventually managed. Holding a Kindle while afloat, I pretended to read something for the camera. Post this (albeit performative) activity, I was pampered with some in-house mud therapy, and a delicious dinner buffet. The Dead Sea was now off my bucket list.

Once inside my room, I slid open the glass door to listen to the wind and the waves. The glow of the full moon was filtering through the palm trees and onto my private swimming pool. I could not resist a brief siesta with my feet dipped in, and thanked my stars. Being a water baby, the beach came next, and I grabbed a couple of beers, walked to the shoreline and laid down on one of the guest beds. The intoxication helped me appreciate the salty haven a little bit more. As I finished my first bottle, the rain gods decided to show up, turning the winds a little colder and the waves a tad stronger. The showers lasted till my last sip.

Next morning, we coursed down Highway 90 on the road to the southern port of Eilat. The longest road in Israel, H-90 is about 480 kilometres long, and peppered with date farms. The highway is bordered by Lebanon in the north, goes through the Jordan River Valley, and meets Egypt in the south at the Red Sea. The stretch that goes along the western bank of the Dead Sea is the lowest road on Earth. I learned the ominous fact that between 2008 and 2013, the route had seen over 2,000 road accidents. Lucky for us, we reached Eilat unhurt.

A free-diver with a dolphin at Eilat

The Dolphin Reef in Eilat will remain as one of my favourite memories from Israel. The reef has open access to the Gulf of Eilat in the Red Sea, and doesn’t keep these smart creatures captive, which made our diving experience a lot more natural. Remember Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara? The breezy diving instructor, Laila (Katrina Kaif) and the camaraderie she shared with Arjun (Hrithik Roshan)? I dare say I found my Laila in Yasmeen, a smiling blonde diving instructor at the Reef. It was not my first diving rodeo, but I pretended it was. Yasmeen helped with the basic instructions and then took me out for a trial dive. After that was over, we returned to the shacks for a final guide. We were categorically told not to touch the dolphins under any circumstances.

Our final dive began, rather unceremoniously, with a mouthful of seawater. It was the saltiest thing I’d ever tasted. I panicked, but Yasmeen pulled me close and calmed me down. She looked me right in the eye, and all I could do was smile at her. Once my breathing returned to a regular pace, I held her hand and was led deeper into the sea. I was still struggling, trying to come to terms with the layer of salt on my tongue, but Yasmeen firmly pressed my left palm and pointed her hand towards a bottle-nose dolphin. We saw as many as five of them in the water, apart from some breathtaking corals and small tropical fish. Yasmeen, I learned, had been an instructor with the Dolphin Reef for some time, and had fostered a special bond with the animals. There were times when they swam real close to us, with two dolphins accompanying us side-by-side before disappearing deep into the sea. Later that night, Yasmeen and I went out for a few drinks. What happens in Eilat, stays in Eilat.

An old alley in Tel Aviv

The next day we set out for our final destination, Tel Aviv. The impressive thing about this country was all the curious sights in the most unexpected of places. For example, on our way from to Eilat, in the middle of the desert, we’d found what looked like the ideal place for a date. Tucked away in the corner of a small community café, hidden under the branches of wild trees, was a table for two. A smooth, white-topped surface with two even whiter chairs, a candelabrum, and a small swing right opposite. Hardly a kilometre from here was another strange sight; a signboard that read ‘Caution! Tanks crossing and dust clouds’ in all caps.

As our car went along Highway 40, we saw military tanks stationed at various points. In one of the areas, as many as 20 tanks were racing towards the highway in a single column. We weren’t sure about a sandstorm, but there was a hurricane of fear building in our hearts. Graeme laughed it off. “It’s their usual drill. Don’t worry. No one is going to prison.”

A mountain biker on a desert track near Masada

After driving for an hour through barren lands, we reached Mitzpe Ramon, a small town in the central Negev Highlands. Overlooking the makhtesh Ramon, the world’s largest erosion crater, Mitzpe Ramon is also the gateway to the Ramon Nature Reserve. Remember my musings a few lines ago, about curious sights in unexpected places? Well, it kept getting better. Out of nowhere, in the middle of the desert, the Israelis had managed to build a five-star property. A luxurious escape, the Beresheet Hotel infinity pool overlooks the Ramon crater and surrounding mountains in all their sandy, primeval glory.

We reached our final destination, Tel Aviv, by early evening. I threw my bags, grabbed my Speedos and a beer, and rushed to the terrace for a quick swim before we headed for town. We were staying at the Carlton, and the view from the rooftop was incomparable. If Jerusalem was a city known for its history, Tel Aviv was meant for the future, with glitzy highrises, dynamic nightlife, thriving shopping hubs and public, outdoor gyms by the beach. The pub-hopping tours in this city are not to be missed, and neither should the Carmel Market experience, with its beef rolls, mounds of dry fruit, and Dead Sea souvenirs.

After two laps in the pool, I pulled out my chilled beer, took a pensive sip, and paused behind the glass railing. A flight cruised past the sun, slowly descending somewhere above the Mediterranean Sea.

Israeli soldiers enjoy coolers at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem

INFORMATION

GETTING THERE

Air India and El Al offer direct flights to Tel Aviv from Delhi and Mumbai, respectively. A single-entry tourist visa is for INR 2,760.

WHERE TO STAY

Mamilla Hotel (from INR68,500; +972-25482222; mamillahotel.com) is a lively choice in Jerusalem’s older quarters. Try Herods Hotel (from INR19,799; +972-86591591; herods-hotels.com) in Neve Zohar, for great views of the Dead Sea. In Eilat, the Leonardo Plaza Hotel (from INR23,816; +972-86361111; leonardo-hotels.com), is right on the Red Sea shoreline. For Tel Aviv, it has to be the Carlton (from INR23,670, including breakfast; +972-35201818; carlton.co.il).

WHAT TO DO

>In Jerusalem, drop by Yad Vashem, an official Holocaust memorial. Visit the Wailing Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Temple Mount. We also suggest a tour of the Old City, Mahane Yehuda Market and Mamilla Mall.

>Make a stopover at Masada. It’s an ancient plateau-top fortress overlooking the Dead Sea, with ruins of King Herod’s palace and a Roman-style bathhouse. We suggest you take the cable car on the ride up.

>The Coral World Underwater Observatory Marine Park in Eilat has one of the best coral collections, while diving at the Dolphin Reef guarantees encounters with bottle-nose dolphins. After a day in the water, recharge exploring Eilat’s nightlife.

>Sample sweet Israeli wine at the Neot Smadar kibbutz, about 70 kilometres north of Eilat.

>Pub-hopping in Tel Aviv is a must, as is trying innovative cuisine at ‘the vegan capital of the world’. Try the Jaffa Port for its street culture and amazing food. You also can’t leave without visiting (and bargaining) at the Carmel Market.


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