When I started planning my trip for Israel, the question I was most frequently asked was, why Israel? And then a few would follow it up with, is it safe? The seed for the trip to Israel was sowed 18 months ago during a cruise in Ha Long bay when I started a casual conversation with a couple who like me were watching for a squid to bite onto a hook. In about 45 minutes, between the 3 of use, we scored zero squids. However, the picture they painted of Israel was something that stuck in my mind
They owned textile mills in Canada that lost a lot of their business when India and Bangladesh happened and just before their massive profits turned into massive losses, they had the good sense to sell, and retire in Israel. They described it as one of the safest places to be, with more history, culture and controversy packed into a square kilometer than anywhere in the world. It also is the promised land for all the Jews, who are one of the most powerful and still traditionally orthodox people in the world. The final nail in the coffin was an evening at home spent reading about Sabbath and how ways were found around every rule that was made.
All the research told me that the old city in Jerusalem was the place to be. The 0.9sq km walled city houses some of the most religiously significant places in the world. While people can fight on the basis of religion and boundaries, the religions themselves show no discrimination – the western wall of a mound on which an Islamic religious icon sits it’s the most sacred place of worship for Jews. Both these places are about a 5 minute walk from the place where Christ was crucified, buried and later resurrected. More on this later, but the other aspect that stood out was the size of Israel as a whole. It’s a tiny country where the 2 most prominent cities Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are 60 km apart and almost everything is within a 2 hour driving distance. A careful look at the map will tell you that a lot of Israel is interspersed with Palestine and divided by a security wall. As unfriendly the 2 regimes would be to each other, they have virtually no border checks as long as you are a tourist.
Jerusalem is the cultural center of the country and while it’s a partially disputed territory, it feels completely safe at any time of day. Tel Aviv is more the modern city with a vibrant and very active beach and is more known for its nightlife and party scene.
In addition, Israel has a few attraction around it – Bethlehem (birthplace of Christ, in Palestine control), Jericho (oldest city) and of course the lowest point on dry land, the shore of Dead sea. I planned the trip to have 5 nights in Jerusalem (with a day trip to Bethlehem), 1 night in Dead sea and 2 in Tel Aviv – which in hindsight was a near perfect distribution of time. I started on a Friday, to get a little time before Sabbath to prepare and maybe stock up – which, it turned out, wasn’t really needed as there was a 24/7 store right next to my apartment.
Local transport in Israel is expensive but there are usually good options available once you land and look around. Its best to explore around and as for options. I realized that for routes frequently travelled, shared taxis are the best options. Car rentals are easily available, but it is important to know that most Israelis drive like there is no tomorrow. Tail gating, aggressive honking and angry overtaking is a norm, especially with cab drivers. Speed limits are rarely followed, though there are speed check cameras. The cab drivers knew precisely where the cameras and even the occasional patrol car would be and they would slow down just in time. I decided to stick to having me driven around.
Food and drinks are expensive and even a bottle of water from a grocery store can be quite steep. Tap water in Israel is drinkable, though it is known to have a very high mineral content, that can make some people feel a little queasy. Local food is light, delicious and relatively inexpensive. A lot of food is vegetarian and the most common meat I saw was chicken, though Beef, Seafood and Lamb are easily available. One noticeable theme was that all food was delicious – even as the typical tourist trap restaurants outside of prominent places. Only drawback of at these restaurants was the higher sticker shock. You can find fresh hummus, salads, pita, chicken shawarma and fresh orange juice virtually anywhere.
Finally Israel is a country to walk around and you will always find sites and shops to keep you entertained on the way.
The bazaars are thick and dense with a lot of room for bargaining, the sites are pretty and unique and then the people are generally chirpy and often exotically dressed. Exotic in Jerusalem would be elaborate traditional attire while in Tel Aviv would be modern and minimal, so there is something for everyone…