by Matt Thomas
Travel Article on Recent Visit to Magical Israel taking in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem
|Also available at www.travelandtalk.info
Having studied the Arab/Israeli conflict at school and university, from 1917 through to the present day, Israel had been very high on my to do list for some time. I was filled with nervous excitement when I touched down in Tel Aviv, on a pleasantly warm late September evening.
The day was getting on, so although a train to the centre followed by a much cheaper taxi would have been the more frugal option, I took a cab to my hostel. Taxi drivers are more often than not, only too happy to give you their take on the issues of the day, and mine was no exception. Without going into too much detail, his dislike of his Arab neighbours came across very clearly.
Tel Aviv is a very cool city. It is an IT centre and home to Israel's new, young generation who have little interest in the past troubles of the country. The city's numerous cafes and bars are packed from late afternoon and the weekly Shabbat (Sabbath – Friday-Saturday) is much less of an event than in Jerusalem. It is enough to walk up the beach and you are sure to find a beach bar playing dance music. Similarly, psytrance parties are very popular with the post national service crowd who flock to Goa en masse after their duty is over, and return, carrying the Indian city's musical and lifestyle influences with them. Parties are frequent in the summer months.
There are plenty of museums and historical sites as well, a must is the Natum Goldman Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, located at the University. I took a 25 bus from George Street (round the corner from the Hayarkon 48 hostel). Getting off at the University and finding gate 2 or 7 is easy enough to do, but either have a good map, or be prepared to ask the locals for specific directions to the museum. The best of the rest is the Palmach Museum. It is a high tech facility that focuses on guerilla fighters that battled the British security forces in the late 1940s, as the quest for an independent Jewish state reached its climax.
I would recommend the half hour walk up the beach, to the ancient port city of Jaffa, for a slice of Arab life. All the sites are conveniently located around the small amphitheatre, which is also a great photo spot. Take a walk around the Arab street markets to finish off the day before strolling back down the beach for sunset.
If travelling by bus to Jerusalem, give yourself time to find your platform and stand, as the central bus station is over several levels. Buses to Jerusalem are frequent and run every 15 minutes (no.405), and take around an hour. Staying out of the Old City is advised as orientation around the narrow, cobbled streets can be difficult, and particularly unpleasant with a lot of luggage. The Jerusalem Hostel on Jaffa road is a convenient and friendly option.
Sightseeing the old city of Jerusalem is one of the best things a traveller can do. It will remind you of your old Religious Education and Scripture classes. Taking in significant historical sites such as the Western Wall (go on Friday at twilight for a truly magical experience), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Room of the Last Supper as well as the Tomb of David will leave you emotional and humbled. Given the narrow streets and shear volume of sites, many take a guided tour. I would tentatively suggest you can do a lot worse than giving each of the quarters (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Armenian) a portion of your day and take in the contrasting sights, sounds and smells. The schwarma I had at a cafe just through a small courtyard at the bottom of the Muslim quarter was amazing!
Church of Holy Sepluchre, Old City Jerusalem
Shabbat is every Friday/Saturday and most public places will be closed and there is no public transport from around sundown on Friday until an hour after sundown on Saturday. The reception of my hostel closed with 2 non-guests taking advantage and getting free beds, which was much to the annoyance of the Russian man in my dorm who just wanted to sleep and sip his vodka! You do not need to stock up on food. There are still plenty of cafes and restaurants open, as are the main sights.
There are numerours tours available, including overnighters in the desert but with limited time, I opted for the Masada (site of an ancient Jewish suicide pact) and Dead Sea tour. The Dead Sea is as you have heard, you can float! Be sure to take swimwear and a towel. Covering yourself in mud at the nearby pools is also a lot of fun, and made for some great photographs. With the two places over three hours outside the city, and two hours dedicated for each sight, allow a day for this.
I had a morning to kill before taking the bus to Haifa, so I walked to the Arab bus station to the left of Damascus gate as you walk from the city centre, and took a bus to Ramallah on the West Bank.The Jewish buses do not go to the West Bank and you will be lucky to see more than a handful of non-Arabs. The town has a population of 65,000. As always, be sure to have your passport with you for the checkpoints, that are dotted up and down the security wall that surrounds the West Bank.
I did see an incident of road rage and another confrontation, but spent an otherwise uneventful couple of hours looking around the town, which was clean, westernised, friendly and full of interesting market stalls and shopping malls. Be sure to note the time of year, as during Ramadan, eating or drinking outside is tolerated for tourists, but it is preferable not to, for risk of causing offence. Orientation is difficult, so try and trace your steps so you remember where to catch your bus back!
The port city of Haifa, at the foot of, and on Mt Carmel, is one place where Jews and Arabs live side by side in relative harmony. Walking or taking the cable car up the mountain, will lead you to stunning views over the bay. But if you are more of a beach dweller take the train two or three stops to the south and you will not be disappointed.
Haifa's premier attraction are the Baha'i Gardens (advance booking essential). Every shrub, bush, lawn, tree and flower is trimmed to stunning perfection and a photograph from the top is as iconic a view of Israel as possible. It is not open to the public and there is no charge, although disappointingly there are no tours in English, but do not let that put you off. A must see.
There are numerous museums on offer including the Natural History Museum and National Museum of Science, Planning and Technology. The pick of these is the Clandestine Immigration & Navy Museum which focuses on Zionist efforts to illegally enter Palestine in the late 1930s and 1940s. If you don't mind some heavy leg work, an aimless cruise around the German Colony and Wadi Nisnas, the old Christian-Arab quarter, is an excellent way to gain a general feel for the diversity of the city.
Much has, and continues to be said and written about Israel and those with historical or even current affairs sensitivity will be moved by travelling here and may even have their perception changed. Go with an open mind and prepare to be a little overwhelmed and most certainly challenged.
Accommodation:Hostels are of a good standard and very security focused. £12-£18 per night.
These were my picks: Tel Aviv: www.hayarkon48.com. Jerusalem: www.jerusalem-hostel.com
Money: Israel is an expensive place to travel, allow £40-£50 at least per day, and I hardly had a drink outside of the hostels.And ate a lot of filling schwarma (kebab in pitta, standards vary) from cheap food stands and takeaways.
Time to go: April - June & September - October. Summer months are very hot although by the coast in Tel Aviv quite bearable with the sea breeze.
Flights: Sadly no budget airlines go here at low rates. From the UK £300+, from the US £550-900.
Transport: Very good. Bus services between cities are frequent, comfortable and reasonably priced. www.egged.co.il. Always consider Shabbat and public holidays as public transport stops around sundown on friday and does not start again until one hour after sundown on saturday. The Sherruts (shared taxis) still run and are a good alternative.
Visas: Issued free of charge on arrival for UK, US, Australian, New Zealand and South African passport holders. www.goisrael.com
Security:To say Israel is a very security conscious country would be the understatement of the century. Your bag will be searched on entry to ANY public place including shopping malls and cafes. Have your passport on you at all times. When leaving the country I was quizzed as to what I did for the duration of my stay, and I found it helpful to have some evidence in terms of bus tickets, museum stubs, hostel receipts etc. I would also advise not mentioning you have been to the West Bank. The security personnel are generally quite pleasant, and not overly intrusive, and a level of common sense is applied, but bear in mind the violent past and present before you start to feel too aggrieved at this.