THIS was the second time that I have been to Israel and I still feel that I have only scratched the surface of the country and all its many contrasts. There are many places that you visit and think "that was nice" but never go back again – Israel is somewhere that will never fail to keep attracting you back.
Jerusalem was the first city visited. This divided city is so important to so many different faiths, and the potential tension is evident in the number of people carrying guns. Soldiers, including what appear to be just boys and girls in olive brown uniforms with big guns, are a common sight. The larger hotels always have a gun carrying person on duty at a desk in front of the main entrance.
Security guards are at all shopping centres, stations, and so on. Here is one of Israel’s contrasts, what I have just described sounds threatening, like impending danger, but it is the opposite. Because of so much security, the streets are safe places to go by day or night. There are few beggars. In all my travels around Jerusalem by foot or tram, I never saw any problems at all, unlike inner city UK. Also, the people are friendly. I’ll give you one example.
I took the modern tram for a way (tickets from machines at each stop, an English option on the screen, one journey £1.60). I had a look around a shopping centre and roundabout that area, and came back to the tram stop.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to take the correct tram, so I studied my map (in English) and couldn’t make out the English names of the stops on the sign at the tram stop. I asked the first lady who was just coming along if I was going on the right tram to get back to my hotel. She apologised that she hadn’t her glasses on so couldn’t read my map – so she stopped the next lady and together they put me on the tram and made me sit next to the first lady while she asked a young man to read the map.
They then checked it with the ticket checker, and a soldier, and an orthodox Jew in his black clothes, until nearly half the tram was involved. They put me off at a stop and I looked around. No, this was not right. There was a young boy at a pedestrian crossing, so I showed him my map and asked if I was going in the right direction. He was Arab and didn’t speak English. He frowned intensely and pointed out the gates in the old city walls facing us, then took me across the road and stopped the first Arab looking man who then set me on the right road, and escorted me as far as his turning, making sure I kept going! I found this to be typical.
The people are such a mixture, coming from all the countries of the world, but all united by being Israeli.
Jerusalem is also the city with the biggest population of ultra orthodox Jews. The gentlemen all wear black, long coats, skull caps and those large black hats. How they cope with the heat is beyond me – but it doesn’t seem to bother them – and how they keep those big hats on is also a mystery – they certainly wouldn’t last long in the winds of Keith.
The Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, is all that remains of the first temple, the one where Jesus went. This is a very special site for Jews. Security is tight, and you must be respectfully clothed. There are separate sections for men and women. While we were there a few bar mitzvahs were taking place. This is when young men – usually 13 years old – are officially men. It is a great joyful noisy celebration with fancy clothes, people playing musical instruments, balloons, cameras, parading through the streets and visiting the Wailing Wall for prayers.
As everywhere in Israel, there are clean, free, plentiful public toilets here. To one side, excavations are still taking place, revealing even more very ancient buildings’ foundations and relics. You cannot put a spade in the ground in Jerusalem without discovering something. Of course, this slows down any development as the archaeologists have to go over it first. This area is a hive of Jewish activity at any time.
By contrast, there is a covered wooden bridge rising up to the top of the wall. On the top is a huge flat area, with the Golden Dome of the Rock mosque. When the Crusaders were thrown out, the Arabs demolished the temple and erected this massive beautiful mosque with its gold covered dome. I was told that this is the third most sacred site in Islam. We went up the bridge and entered through the large stone gateway to be met by a weary security guard in a black boiler suit with a gun, radio, and so on. He walked over and waved his finger from side to side at the ladies. Not acceptable clothing. One lady protested that she had covered up – she was wearing leggings. The guard just said "too tight".
Another lady was told to remove her belt from her frock – it made the garment cling too much – and it was too short. The ladies were affronted, but the weary guard, obviously fed up with keeping telling western women who think that in the heat of the Jerusalem sun you must expose as much skin as possible, just said that they go buy a shawl or go away. The girls went to a stall there and bought cheap rough shawls to drape round their waists to cover their legs, and other scarves to go over their shoulders. The girls were offended, felt discriminated against – but this is the culture at this place – they do not have to accept our culture in their holy place – we have to abide by their rules.
On this vast plateau, created by levelling a mountain top, there is also the Museum of Islam – but we, being non-Muslims, were not allowed in. The Mosque is beautiful. The walls are highly ornate, and the glowing gold dome can be seen for miles. Again, we were not allowed in. To one side of the plateau arches frame a cluster of smaller golden domes of a distinctly Russian looking church – and it is Russian, dedicated to Mary Magdalene. To the other side is a well laid out garden (where a shifty Arab character was trying to sell postcards showing the interior of the Mosque, he looked like he was keeping well out of sight of the guards) and to the fourth side you go down onto a market for a cup of tea at a small café.
Before leaving Jerusalem, we just had to go on the Via Dolorosa, the way of the cross, that Jesus took carrying his cross to Golgotha. This could take an article all by itself. Some stations are simple, others are churches. The way is narrow, and lined all the way with Arab traders who can be a pest. If you stop for breath one is there enticing you into his shop, selling all kinds of religious junk, or sweeties, or drinks, or textiles (how one of them thinks that you are going to buy a carpet to carry with you I don’t know!).
The massive church that covers Golgotha is always packed and hot. To go into the actual tomb requires patience to stand in the queue – when we were there it was estimated at 45 minutes. People from all the countries of the world seemed to be there. It has been a centre of pilgrimage for over 2,000 years now, and will always be so.
Leaving Jerusalem, we went north to Haifa. This is an ancient city, the third largest in Israel, dominated by Mount Carmel. It is a busy port, and feels more open than Jerusalem, less pressured. The Templar people from Germany came here and established a colony of typical German houses and industry. Then, in the Second World War, they were undesirables, and went away; their houses have been refurbished and form an incongruous oasis in the city – yet another culture.
There is also a large Baha’i faith centre here, stretching up the hill in meticulously balanced gardens. Haifa has also inspired many artists and writers, and you can go on a guided tour around the city viewing special buildings. Haifa is also where the Israeli national railway museum is. This is another fascinating place to visit – even if you are not interested in railways. It includes such things as a "coach" made of concrete to protect travellers from bullets during the "disturbances", and locomotives and wagons from an incredible range of sources, all reflecting the complex and troublesome origins and development of the state of Israel.
Just around the broad bay is Acre (Akka). This was the main port for the Crusaders. It has a fishing port, a bazaar, and is very attractive. It is one of the many UNESCO sites in Israel recognised as World Heritage Sites. The town is surrounded by the sea walls that even defeated Napoleon’s attempts to invade it.
Moving south the last stay was in Tel Aviv, where there is the main international airport. The city is modern, only started in 1909 when some citizens of ancient Jaffa moved a little north and started building – today the two places are joined by developments. Tel Aviv is spread along the magnificent beach. As the Mediterranean has little tide, the beach has fixed thatch sun shades, chairs, loungers, and everything you could imagine. There are gay beaches (Tel Aviv is a big centre for LGBT events), dog beaches, family beaches, and a whole way of life centred on the sea side.
The cultural contrast between the restrictions and tensions in Jerusalem and the free and easy atmosphere of Tel Aviv is striking. All along the miles of seafront are luxury hotels, with more modest hotels a street or two behind. Despite being such a tourist hot spot, I found it very difficult to find any postcards to buy!
In comparison to Tel Aviv’s brash open modernity, to the south of the city, without a break in the beach or hotels, lies the very first railway station ever in Israel, built in 1892. This is now incorporated into a retail, catering, fashion and cultural outlet. It is called "HaTachana" – "the station" in Hebrew. The line used to continue from here round to the harbour at Jaffa – which is so ancient and clustered around the steep side of the port are historical buildings dating back to biblical times and earlier St. Peter’s church is here – reputed to be built on the site of where St. Peter actually preached.
There is also the house of Simon the Tanner, where St Peter stayed. There are Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Melkite, Armenian, and two Roman Catholic churches, and a mosque. And Andromeda’s Rock, (where she was tied by her father) which rather restricts the entrance to the harbour, and the spot where Jonah set sail from to go to Tarshish and was swallowed by the whale. As you come to Jaffa from Tel Aviv, an easy walk, you see a tall clock tower, and beyond it you are in another market. Such a jumble of cultures and experiences!
Israel really is such a fascinating place. I do not have room to tell you about Alexander brewery and their excellent beers (www.alexander-beer.co.il) or the Tulip Winery. This is at the village of Kfar Tikva, which means village of hope. (www.kfar-tikva.org.il) This was established in 1964 for people with learning and emotional difficulties to lead as normal a life as possible, Today over 200 of the villagers work at the winery. They started growing vines in 2003, and today produce absolutely superb wines. With the combination of climate, soil, and endless care and attention, their wines have established an international following. The wines are all Kosher (i.e. supervised by a Rabbi) and if you are lucky enough to find some – buy it! See www.tulip-winery.co.il Getting to Israel is easy these days. I flew down to Luton by Easy jet, stayed overnight and caught their flight from there. Prices are good with Easy jet, especially if you book in advance. The flight is 5 hours. You can also go with El Al from Luton. In Israel, I stayed at the Leonardo Hotel in Jerusalem. There are several Leonardo hotels in Israel, all top quality. See www.leonardohotels.com In Haifa the boutique hotel Villa Carmel is quietly situated in the centre of the city, see www.villacarmel.co.il and in Tel Aviv it was the very splendid Dan Hotel.
Dan hotels are also situated in most places in Israel and are very high standard, top of the range hotels. It was luxury to go out across the road onto the beach, or relax in one of the hotel’s swimming pools, and the cuisine is excellent. They even have "Danyland". This is a free activity club for children of hotel guests, so that Mum and Dad can have some time to themselves. See www.danhotels.com For more information on Israel, their tourist office is superb and efficient, see www.goisrael.com Costs are about the same or slightly less than here, English pounds (but not Scottish ones) are exchanged for Shekels everywhere, toilets are clean and everywhere, and you can even get good tea (but the milk is often UHT). The water is safe to drink, and my travel insurance company told me that Israel is classified by them as "Europe" due to the high standards of cleanliness and hygiene and health care if you should have a problem. English is widely spoken, and everywhere I went I found the people, of all races and colours and descendants, to be helpful and cheery.
You cannot ignore the political tensions. Israel is surrounded by countries that want it to go away, but Israel is surely here to stay now. It is a great place to visit.