An overnight sailing brought us into Haifa in northern Israel. What a contrast between this city and Ashdod! The port has views of the Carmel (and the Bah’ai Temple) that lure the visitor to want to explore this beautiful city.
Despite having arranged for a hire car, we still had to negotiate the local taxi drivers, who were all touting to show tourists around this area of the country. We finally struck a bargain with one of them, who dropped us at Eldan to collect our car (with fewer dents than the previous one). First stop was my sister-in-law’s grave high up on the Carmel and overlooking the Mediterranean. What a beautiful, tranquil spot for a cemetery.
All this had taken longer than anticipated so an iced coffee was needed, and a three-legged dog petted, before we made our way to Tiberias.
The area around the lake is much lower than Haifa, and consequently much hotter. However the views across the Sea of Galilee and over to the Golan Heights were spectacular, especially when accompanied by a plate of the local St Peter’s Fish, dutifully shared with a local black and white cat. Moggies the world over treat humans as their slaves, but they do it in such a way that animal lovers cannot help but be seduced by them. I’ve always said that felines have tremendous chutzpah, but Israeli cats have even more than most.
After a brief paddle in the lake, and no walking on water for mere humans, it was time to wend our way back to the ship and say goodbye (or shalom) to Israel.
We were warned not to drive into Jerusalem between 8 am and 10 am as the traffic would be very heavy, so we left the ship a little after 10 in the morning for a drive into the most disputed city for the world’s religions.
Our first stop was in the Arab quarter of the old city, where we were constantly accosted and waylaid by vendors trying to sell their wares. The old city has probably not changed much since biblical times, but is also similar to other old Middle Eastern cities, such as the souk in Tunis or Lindos on Rhodes. After a little bit of shopping, the constant touting for business became rather tedious as the salesmen became ruder and we resorted to fighting fire with fire.
Our first tourist visit was to David’s Tower, from where we had the most amazing views across the old city, dominated by the Dome of the Rock with its golden roof. However the most important sight for me was the Wailing Wall, the site of the First Temple, which we first viewed from higher up. I thought I was clothed modestly in a maxi dress, but my sleeves (despite covering my shoulders) were too short and I had to borrow a scarf to cover my upper arms. Conservative Judaism is still misogynistic. The greater part of the area in front of the Wall is allocated to the men, whilst the women have to squeeze into a much smaller space and it was impossible to get close enough to the holy stones, or to leave a message between the bricks.
After visiting the surface area of the Temple, we joined a fascinating tour under the walls of the structure, and learned that the stones were quarried nearby and that the bottom ones weighed 570 tons each. They were dragged into place and then chiselled flat once in situ. Emerging into the evening light we caught the end of a girls’ choir singing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem; an appropriate reminder of where we were and a warning that Jews must never be forced out of their homeland ever again.
A bus ride along the walls was like stepping back several hundred years. Most of the passengers in the vehicle were orthodox Jews, men sitting at the front and women in the back half. A rather unnerving experience for a twenty-first century Londoner.
Having actually visited Jerusalem, my appetite has been whetted and I will definitely return, perhaps not ‘next year in Jerusalem’ but before too long.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Tel Aviv is a sprawling modern city, more European than Middle Eastern. The shops sell many of the same labels that can be found around the world, and most of the cafés boast free Wi-Fi. Wandering along Dizengoff, the main street, is just like any other busy shopping area, except that it’s probably much hotter. An hour or two of this was enough and we made our way to Jaffa , a suburb of Tel Aviv.
Jaffa, by contrast, still retains many of its Arab origins. Its age is reinforced by the shops selling antiques or second hand goods. We wandered and browsed until it was time for lunch, an Israeli delicacy called Shakshuka in a restaurant called Dr Shakshuka. This is a delicious vegetarian stew of onions, peppers and tomatoes, topped with a couple of lightly poached eggs. All we needed was some bread for mopping up the juices, and a plate of local couscous. Yummy and healthy. If only the drive out of Tel Aviv and back to the main highway had been equally enjoyable. How on earth can rush hour start around 2.30 in the afternoon, and how can the car ownership of such a small country be so extensive? Do all Israelis learn to drive in Italy, Paris or Athens, or do the instructors come from those places to teach them?
I know I should have visited Israel before now, but each attempt I’ve made in the past has been thwarted, so when I had the chance to join a cruise that disembarked in both Ashdod and Haifa, the chance was too good to pass up.
Two relaxing days at sea were followed by three and a half days spent in the heat of the Holy Land. Arrived at Ashdod (what an ugly port, not destined for tourist ships), I offered my first shaloms spoken in Eretz Yisroel and rapidly reminded myself that Israelis can be the rudest and most offhand of all nations. No matter: I was in Israel and that’s all that counted.
First stop on dry land was to collect the hire car that we’d pre-booked. We couldn’t believe how they could rent out a car with so many scratches and marks; even the front number plate was wonky! However it wasn’t long before we encountered the standard of driving on the local roads and soon found out why our car was far from pristine. The roads were easy to navigate, although our Hebrew is so poor that we could only cope with the signs that were translated into English. It didn’t take long to get onto Highway 4 and famous place names started to appear: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa – places I’d only ever heard of or encountered in the Bible.
Our destination on our first day was to Ra’anana, a suburb of Tel Aviv, to meet friends and business colleagues. We pulled off the main road for a light snack of Israel’s national dish: Falafel in pitta bread. However we didn’t realise that Bnei Brak, the town we’d chosen, was ultra religious. Coming from London we were used to Chasidic Jewry in Golders Green and Stamford Hill, but this was something else. I must have been the only woman wearing short sleeves and no head covering or wig (sheitl). Even the snack bar we chose was Glatt Kosher, despite not selling meat products. Anyway we enjoyed our food, shared with a couple of Israeli soldiers, and continued on our way. We eventually found our destination, made friends with a beautiful, elderly, cross-bred spaniel-dachsund and had our first proper meal on Israeli soil in the seaside resort of Herzlia. Israeli food is hugely influenced by Middle Eastern cuisine, and owes very little to traditional European Jewish cooking. The food was delicious, although not kosher (there were prawns on the menu), and my pudding of a semifreddo of Halva was too delicious to leave, although I was rather full by then.
A late night drive back to the ship, by which time the traffic had calmed down immensely, where a good night’s sleep was imperative to set us up for the next day’s trip to Jerusalem.