After extensive questioning, the El Al officials decided that they would let Angela and me on board our 3pm flight to Israel. The tour company had advised us to get to the airport in plenty of time and I had heard that El Al had very tight security, so we weren’t surprised about the time it took to check in. We had some time for duty free shopping at Heathrow before our five hour flight to Tel Aviv. It was a bit of a bumpy ride but other than that, the flight was fine.On arrival in Tel Aviv, we were met by our tour guide, Rami, who told us that this was his first ever tour. This was also the first time he counted the tour group only to find someone missing. One of our group had been taken aside for detailed questioning and searching by the Israeli officials; fortunately, she wasn’t kept for too long. Once all fifteen people were accounted for, we headed for our hotel and to bed. Sleep was not easy to come by as it was a very warm night.
The next morning, Angela and I got to the restaurant early for our very nice breakfast. While we were waiting, we had a chance to meet some of our fellow tourist, including some of the seven people who weren’t on the flight the day before.After our meal, our tour group set off for a scenic drive through Tel Aviv with commentary from Rami. It was the start of a busy day of travel. Tel Aviv reminded me a bit of Amman in Jordan – lots of pale box shaped buildings; Bauhaus style architecture is a major feature of the city. Eventually, we reached the water front and drove along the seaside boulevard to old Jaffa.
Jaffa was our first stop and although it was only 9am, it was already really hot. We started our walking tour at a park with a stunning cliff top view over Tel Aviv. Then we went down though the winding streets of the old town to the port, passing the house of Simon the Tanner; our first encounter with biblical history. We then got back on the coach and headed for Caesarea.The remains of Herod’s city of Caesarea are in a lovely location by the Mediterranean Sea. We walked around the ruins, visiting the theatre and the hippodrome. Soon, we noticed that, as in many Mediterranean counties, cats are a common feature to be found wondering amid the ruins and alleyways. A short coach ride took us to the aqueduct and beach for a brief photo stop, followed by a much longer coach ride to Haifa.
In Haifa, our stop was the Baha’i garden, high on a hill overlooking the city. We had time to stop for photos and a short walk around the gardens. I think it is the first time I have ever had to go through a security check just to enter a garden.At some point during the day we stopped for lunch, I can’t remember when, but I think it was after Haifa. We stopped at a tourist restaurant where there were several coach loads of people. It was the first of many meals where the options were pita bread with a choice of falafel, chicken schnitzel or chicken shawarma and accompanied by hummus and salad, with a soft drink. The prices were pretty much the same at every location. First time around, it was a good meal but after a week, it got a little boring.
That afternoon, we headed for Acre (or Akko or other variations), our final destination for the day. We left the coach to go for a walk through the old town, following an introductory film at the local tourist centre. Unfortunately, one of the ladies from the group snuck off to the toilets without telling our inexperienced guide. She failed to catch up with the group and a short time later, her husband noticed that she was missing. He went back to look for her, eventually going back to the coach. The remainder of the group was led through the crusader era tunnels under the town to the waterfront. Rami then continued the search for our missing traveller, mostly through a series of phone calls. Eventually, our lady was found and a meeting point arranged. In the meantime, we watched the sun setting over the sea and saw some boys diving off the city walls into the sea below. After the mishap in Acre, Rami got very good a periodically counting us and making sure we had regular toilet breaks. In my experience of being a tourist, these are two of the most important tasks for any guide. The day ended with hotel pizza for dinner (there were not really any other options) and another warm night.
Our first destination on a very hot day three of the trip was Nazareth, home to Jesus, Joseph and Mary and also home to our guide and coach driver. It seems somehow appropriate that we were led around the Holy Land by a man from Nazareth.In Nazareth, we visited a couple of churches that had been built over the ruins of crusader era churches that had been built over the ruins of Byzantine churches that had been built over Roman ruins that may have been the location of a biblical event or home to a biblical character (apologies for the long sentence). This was generally the situation with all the churches we visited in Israel. In my view, some of the locations made sense and seemed reasonable whereas other locations had more tenuous links to the bible stories they commemorate. The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth was built over a Roman house that apparently had been marked as special by Roman era Christians, which is why it was thought to be the house of Mary. Also, in Nazareth, we visited a spice shop with huge sacks of colourful and odorous spices.
Our next stop was the ruins of Capernaum. Here, a modern church had been built over the presumed house of the apostle Peter, suspended in the air with a glass floor so that the house could be viewed beneath it. We had a chance to wonder around the ruins and to see the Roman synagogue. This stop was followed by a visits to a few more churches located around the Sea of Galilee. It was fascinating to see the area where Jesus and his disciples spent much of their time. The landscape was much hillier and more rugged than I expected, but I could say this about the whole of Israel.In the afternoon, there was time to relax while we sailed on the Sea of Galilee. The design of the boats is not thought to have changed much in two thousand years, except for the obvious addition of a motor. I think everyone enjoyed the boat ride.
The relaxing continued when we reached the kibbutz that was our home for the night. We stayed in cabins that each had chairs and a table outside. It was very pleasant sitting around chatting with the others in the tour group and defending our dinners from the local cats and a dog. It was also at this point that we discovered that the husband of the lady who got lost in Acre had a small set of bagpipes that he carried around in his backpack. The bagpipes appear and were played from time to time on our travels.For dinner, we had ventured into an Israeli (or Palestinian?) supermarket for supplies. It was fun trying to guess what some stuff was thanks to mostly Hebrew labels, however, Angela and I had no problem identifying a packet of Tim Tams for dessert. For those who don’t know, Tim Tams are a much loved brand of chocolate biscuits from Australia.
Day four of the tour involved more ancient history and the Dead Sea. The first stop was Bet She’an, a Roman city next to a large tell with about 20 layers of civilisation. I really liked Bet She’an. What made it different to other Roman cities I have visited was the colours; the city was a mix of white marble columns and black basalt blocks.Jericho was our next stop. Entering Jericho meant leaving disputed territory and no-man’s land and entering Palestine proper. Old Jericho is an archaeological site with a number of trenches but no reconstruction, so there is not much to see in a quick visit. The modern town has a very large old sycamore tree that may (or, possibly, may not) be the one that Nicodemus climbed so that he could see Jesus, two thousand years ago. We also had time in Jericho for souvenir shopping in a designated shop, the speciality being beautiful Hebron (or Phoenician) glass – yes, I did buy a small piece. Getting out of the coach in the town centre was not allowed as it was not safe.
Our third stop was Qumran, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unlike Jericho, Qumran has been very well set up for tourists, complete with a huge souvenir shop and restaurant (more Pita with Falafel or Shawarma). In addition to the caves where the scrolls were found, there is a settlement that has been excavated and plenty of information about the life of the Essenes who lived there. A lot of it seemed to involve baths.In the afternoon, we went swimming (or rather floating) in the Dead Sea. The general consensus of our group was that the Jordanian side was better when it came to swimming. Quite a few people on the tour had been to Jordan and most had been to other Arabic countries; everyone seemed to have saved Israel to last because of the restrictions that can come from having an Israeli stamp in a passport.
That night it was another (rather nice) kibbutz. For dinner, most of us went out to a café for dinner. Options were very limited because it was a holiday in Israel (Sukkot, the Jewish New Year) and most places were closed. The highlight of the evening was finding a fish shaped tambourine in one of the shops near the café – the ultimate in tacky souvenirs.The next morning, our first destination was a National Park to see some wildlife – the Syrian Ibex. We got lucky and found some quite quickly, thanks to our eagle eyed driver. Some of the animals were obliging enough to come quite close to the coach so we could get some good photographs. We were also lucky to see some hyraxes (which look like gophers).
After a scenic drive along the Dead Sea, we came to Masada, one of the highlights of the trip. Masada is an impressive site (and sight); the plateau really stands out from the other mountains in the area. We took the cable car to the top of the mountain and had time to explore the hill top site. The ramp the Romans built during their siege of the fort circa 70 AD is still there, as are the siege walls and camps. The views from the top are spectacular; rugged mountains to the west and the Dead Sea to the east. It was very hot though, with very little shade. Trees are not easy to find in the Israeli desert.
Our next stop was not far from Masada, but it was quite a long drive as the road didn’t go directly to the Bedouin camp that we were visiting for a camel ride and for lunch. The camel ride was fun. On this occasion, there were two people riding each camel. Angela and I shared one. On the way up a hill, the camel at the front of our string refused to move and the order had to be changed so that a more amenable animal was in the lead.
After our late lunch, we set of for Jerusalem, reaching the city after dark. After a bit of a break at our hotel, some of us headed for Mamila, a fancy new open air mall near the old city. Our guide, Rami, had given us strict instructions about what areas were safe and what areas should be avoided. Angela and I were not really hungry, due to the heat and a big lunch, so we spent a couple of hours investigating the many jewellery shops and looking for possible venues for dinner on other nights (however we never made it back to Mamila).Our first full day in Jerusalem started with a drive around the outskirts of the city, followed by a visit to Yad Veshem, the Holocaust museum. The museum is well designed but is very full-on and intense. Angela and I both felt that it was a bit of “information overload”, so we moved through it quite quickly. However, I am sure that anyone who had a direct link to the Holocaust, or who wanted to know all the details of the horror, could easily spend several hours there.
Rami told us to make sure we visit the children’s memorial while we were there. I thought this was the best thing at Yad Veshem. It was quite a simple memorial but very moving. It is a dark space with candles and mirrors, which makes it almost look like the night sky, and a voice reading out the names of child victims of the Holocaust.We next visited the Israeli Museum, mainly to see the Shrine of the Book, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many of the scrolls on display are facsimiles rather than the originals, though. The museum has a very large and impressive model of Roman era Jerusalem, showing the Jewish temple, which we also had a good look at. We had a little free time, so I managed to pay a quick visit to the archaeological section of the museum.
In the afternoon, we went to Bethlehem. We had to bring our passports for this, although we didn’t end up needing them, as Bethlehem is in Palestine. We visited the Church of the Nativity. Apparently, we were lucky that there were very few tourists there and so we were able to get into the small subterranean room that marks the presumed birth place of Jesus quite quickly. The monks at the church were holding a mass while we were there and they weren’t happy when a group of pilgrims started to sing. While in Bethlehem, we had time for souvenir shopping. Bethlehem is the place for buying olive wood carvings.In the evening, we were dropped off by the gates of the old city and we had our first chance to venture a little way inside the walls. There was a group of five of us sticking together. As it was Friday and the sun was setting, we had the experience of nearly being bowled over by the many orthodox Jews who were rushing to get to the Wailing Wall. Often, it was men pushing prams or dragging a string of several small children along behind them. Initially, we thought the rush was because the sun was about to set, marking the beginning of the Sabbath, but the following day we realised that this is just how the orthodox Jews in Jerusalem seem to move about. They make London commuters look slow.
As all the shops were closing due to the Sabbath staring, we went back to the hotel and after a short break, went to a very nice local restaurant for dinner. My impression was that the standard restaurant cuisine in Israel is Italian in style – lots of pasta and pizza, which is what we ate that night.The final day of our tour was spent exploring the old city of Jerusalem. We started off at the Mount of Olives, looking across to the old city and the Dome of the Rock. We then set of walking down the hill, stopping a t a few churches along the way. The most impressive is the very modern Church of all Nations at the bottom of the hill. It is beautifully decorated both inside and out. From there, we crossed the main road at the bottom of the valley before heading to the Lion Gates to enter the old city.
Not far from the gates, we visited the church that marks the spot where Mary, mother of Jesus, was said to have been born (I don’t remember that bible story), which is also next to the remains of the pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed a blind man. Around this area, there was a group of Brazilian pilgrims wearing what appeared to be high vis vests. They kept getting in the way of photos.From here, we returned to the Via Dolorosa and followed the Stations of the Cross through old Jerusalem to the church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was completely chaotic and overcrowded. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and have no idea whether what I saw was everything I was supposed to look out for.
Next stop was the room of the Last Supper. The most interesting thing about it was the lookout on the roof, where my main impression was that it was a long way from the Garden of Gethsemane.Our final destination for the organised part of the day was the Wailing Wall. As it was still the Sabbath, we were not supposed to take pictures, as that is considered work. The wall is split into two sections, one for men and one for women. It was fascinating to see the Jewish men, several rows deep praying and socialising at the wall, it was very unstructured. There were nowhere near as many women at their section of the wall and we were able to go right up to the wall.
We had several hours of free time in the afternoon, before we were due to set off on a night time tour of the city. Angela and I did some final shopping, had some fresh pomegranate juice (yum!) before heading back to the hotel for a rest and to pack. On the night time tour, we re-visited some of the scenic places we had already seen during the day, but there is always something special about a city lit up a night. In Jerusalem, it was the brightly lit gold Dome of the Rock.
It was a great tour and I had a lot of fun with a great group of people. I took about eight hundred photos that I could use to illustrate this story, but I have restrained myself.