Israel is a country incredibly rich in nature, art, history, religion, food and populated with very welcoming people. I spent almost three weeks during summer 2011 with some friends, I will share some highlights, tips and experiences we had that might be useful to future travelers in the “Land Flowing with Milk and Honey“.
Traveling to/from Israel
We flew both Alitalia (no controls in Italy, all very quick as if you were traveling to any European destination) and El Al (20 minutes rough “interrogatory” at Malpensa Airport). The flight from Italy has an average duration of 3,5 hours and you can see the best of the mediterranean sea (Turkey, Greece, Cyprus…). Leaving Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport is a little bit more time consuming. Security procedures are very meticulous and, therefore, very long. Without a particular crowd it took me 1,5 hours to go through luggage and cabin luggage inspection. Expect lots of questions too, be at Tel Aviv airport at least 3 hours before your flight. Should you have extra time (you won’t :)) the airport’s Duty Free is packed with goods and the DAN Lounge easily accessible at Terminal 3.
We rented thorugh AirBnb a marvellous house in Jaffa (Tel Aviv). Having “a base” is a good way to explore a country where the longest distance is 2/3 hours drive, except for Eilat. International hotels are easy to find and reasonably pricey. Looking carefully you can get some good deals on 4 star hotels or sublet apartments. We stayed 2 night in Jerusalem at the Leonardo Plaza for 100 USD a night: definitely worth the price and some comfort/the pool in the hot israeli summer have been a relief! In Jerusalem you can find interesting places to stay in convents: Ecce Homo, Austrian Hospice and many others. It’s not only a way to have a cheaper accomodation, but to fully live Jerusalem’s old city and its unique atmosphere. The rest of the country and Palestinian Territories have regular hotel any travel guide can help you with. Living in a rented house has also the advantage to explore local markets, get to know the neighbors, relax and “feel at home” and spend less if you are a group.
Israeli food is a fantastic mix of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors. Falafel, Hummus and ShakShuka (although the latter is a tunisian dish) are the national dishes, but the variety of cuisines, ingredients and dishes is amazing. In Tel Aviv you can taste any kind of middle eastern and Maghreb cuisine. Israeli love to have a large breakfast (you’ll find it large even if you are american… ) and the creative cuisine scene is getting interesting in Tel Aviv. We had the chance to try many street food stalls and some restaurant I’ll write in the following lines. A dinner at Suzana is a very good idea both for the food (try the Iraqi Kubeh) and the Neve Tsedek Atmosphere. Another “must eat there” for foodies is Abraxas, from Israeli Top Chef Eyal Shani (we actually ate at the second shop, just next door: North Abraxas and had a charming trip through the flavors of this land in a Hip, village-like atmosphere). Puah (despite the name) is a good stop in the Jaffa flea market area where you should also try a delicious pastry shop who bakes almond and chocolate giant cones in Rabbi Nahman. The best Hummus in town, no doubt, you can have at Abu Hasan although it’s often served as a breakfast. Fruit juices (try pomegranate juice and the lemon mint! Not together ) are delicious all over the country and so easy to find, the best I had inside the HaKarmel market in the yemenite neighborhood. Hot tea with mint (Nana tea) is also a recommended drink, even in summer.
In Jerusalem the restaurant scene is definitely less charming, you should go for an aperitif in one of the two top notch hotels there, both for food and atmosphere: the King David and the American Colony. We had a dinner by the grill in the garden of the American Colony Hoptel and the atmosphere and the food were unique (a delicious lamb kebab). We spent around 30USD per person, including wine, so it was also a deal. Don’t miss the arab Mas’Udiyya market north of the old city and it’s street food stalls: try everything, it’s the best menu :)!
Tel Aviv (actual name is Tel Aviv – Yafo)
Tel Aviv is a vibrant city with a beautiful beach and a lot going on. The Tel Aviv Tayelet, the beach promenade, is a 7 km long pedestrian and bicycle path going from the Tel Aviv Marina to Jaffa and soon to be extended until Ajami (stop by if you can before they gentrify it all) and Bat Yam. The “TA” beach is always attended by someone: at 6:00 am you will find surfers mixing with partygoers exiting some clubs (the clubbing is wild down there and for every taste). You will find your Tel Aviv pretty soon: be it a Parisian like shopping carousel, a Museum tour, a Manhattanite resto-scene or a mediterranean exotic nightlife. An interesting tour is the White City walk tour, exploring the Bauhaus area around Rotschild Boulervard, it’s a free tour (do leave a tip at the end) leaving every saturday morning at 1:00 Am from Rotschild 46. A thing apart is Jaffa, the historical Jerusalem port and now arab south end of the city. Do read the amazing Jaffa history and dedicate a day to explore the flea market, the restaurants and the food stores along Sderot Yerushalaim. The best way to go around TA is by bicycle, you can easily rent one, if you stay many days it’s worth buying one and reselling it.
Jerusalem is a unique place on earth. The place where Judaism, Islam and Christianism were born, the holiest place for these three religions. It’s a destination of great interest for the mankind. The most relevant holy sites are all in a very small area (less than 1 square kilometer) called The Old City. Nonetheless visiting all these places takes several days (plan at least 3 full days for Jerusalem). You will find plenty of information on sites, hotels, tours, places to visit and the incredible history of this city. I’m not the person and this is not the place to recall it, I will just share here a great song I (re)discovered during this trip:[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlOcZELIn5M%5D
and a suggestion to take the Jerusalem Midnight Bicycle Ride, a unique way to visit a unique city: STRONGLY RECCOMENDED
find the info here: http://jerusalembiking.com/
The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth (411 meters below the sea level). The climate is hostile (be prepared with water, sunscreen and all needed). The place is a natural wonder, but don’t expect too much wonder. It’s a desertic area, with 45° in august. It’s worth a ride (1,5 hours from jerusalem by car) because of its uniqueness and because it’s worth trying the sensation of floating with an unbelievable amount of push from… the sea. We stopped 2 hours at Mineral beach, a cheap resort (no “free beaches” there). The locals told us that down south places are better (and the Masada fortress, we couldn’t make it, is supposed to be unmissable). At Mineral beach you can visit the AHAVA outlet, good prices for the world famous dead sea cosmetics. (curiosity: Ahava in Hebrew means Love).
The Palestinian Territories are a complex topic I won’t discuss here. We visited Jericho, on which I’ll share a few notes, we couldn’t make it to Ramallah and Betlehem, as planned, because the AVIS Car Rental (and ll others) won’t let you drive the car there and because of the outbreak of attacks in the Negev Area which created a tense situation in borders and checkpoints. Hebron, a very interesting historical and religious site, is considered to be very dangerous by everyone we talked to. Our afternoon in Jericho has been incredibly pleasant and inspiring. We crossed a Palestinian Checkpoint and after a 2 miles ride we arrived at the central square of Jericho on a calm ramadan thursday. Almost everyone was in the Mosque and in the main square we met only taxi drivers, policemen and fruit mongers. The fruit guy gave us lots of fresh, delicious dates, inviting us to eat them inside his store (it’s Ramadan). The people there gave us the warmest welcome I ever received. They were coming to introduce themselves to us, telling us: “You are welcome. We are happy you are here. This is your city.” and offering any kind of help, for the sake of hospitality. We ended having lunch with the taxi driver and recovering from the sun drinking fruit juices and exchanging thoughts on the different life they do in the territories. Although short and limited, a first hand experience useful to understand a bit better such a complex and tragic situation. Another peculiar moment has been the night IDF bombed Gaza, being in Tel Aviv, on the beach for drinks, we spent the whole night in the burst of TA nightlife with airplanes 2oo meters over our heads (they were taking off and coming back to TA Military airport) returning after bombing Gaza (56 kilometers south) in response to the terrorist attacks of August 19th. So distant yet so close and so difficult to understand.
The Kibbutz (Bar’Am)
Thanks to a friend we had the incredible opportunity to visit a Kibbutz and to live there for a couple of days. Try to visit a Kibbutz if you can. We ate and slept there, being lucky since Bar’Am is one of the oldest and largest kibbutz in Israel and we had a pioneer woman as our guest. There are many definition of a Kibbutz, Wikipedia defines the “[…] a collective community in Israel that was traditionally based on agriculture“, Ariela at first told us a Kibbutz is “a collective life project” I have been constantly hit by a Kibbutz as “a military installation where many things take place”. A Kibbutz ia a socialist dream come true, a collective life project, an agricultural center and also a start-up incubator, IMHO, in Bar’Am many entrepreneurial projects have taken off, first of all ELCAM. So expect something truly unique, if you have the chance to visit one.
Israel is way too often in the news for terrorist attacks and warfare actions. This leads to a high level of anxiety for those who are at home, I must say I felt comfortable and safe for all our staying, included the time after the Aug 19th attacks. The entire territory is patrolled by IDF in a way that avoiding territory control is almost impossible. Main civilian and military sites (airports etc) are controlled with (very) intensive security measures. In absence of extraordinary conditions a trip to Israel is very safe and never akward, from this point of view.
If you found this post useful, please say so with a comment, it would be greatly appreciated. If you have any update or integration on what written here, post a comment and I’ll be glad to edit the post. Todà. Enjoy Eretz Israel.
My photo album
Israel 2011, a set on Flickr.