8 days in Israel
I wrote in my last blog about our trip to Jordan. Anna and I were a little split on Jordan—I loved it and she tolerated it, so to speak. It’s a beautiful country full of amazingly welcoming and hospitable people. Nonetheless, we arrived at the Jordan-Israel border crossing wiped out physically, fairly hungry and in need of a good, hot shower!
The border crossing seemed to represent everything that was great about Israel and everything missing in Jordan. It was as if the Israeli’s had done their homework (they probably had) and greeted their visitors with all the creature comforts that were impossible to find in Jordan— an actual physical toilet vs. a hole in the ground, restrooms that had been cleaned within the hour vs. never having been cleaned, flowers everywhere, city-wide and free WIFI, and pimped out and deliciously tidy taxi’s.
We stayed 1 night in Eilat, along the Red Sea. We used it as a refueling station— enjoyed some beach time, watched the wind surfing and kite surfing, and enjoyed this insane breakfast. In Jordan we had become accustomed to a hard-boiled egg, sliced cucumber and tomato for breakfast. So Israel was definitely showing off a bit with this breakfast!
With our bellies full and our batteries recharged, we headed north. Our destinations: a sunrise hike at Masada, a swim in the Dead Sea, 3 days in Jerusalem and 4 days in Tel Aviv.
Sunrise Hike up Masada
Hiking King Herod’s Masada Fortress at sunrise should accompany any Dead Sea itinerary. We stayed the night at Ein Gedi Kibbutz due to the proximity to the Masada. It’s worth noting that tour companies run trips from Jerusalem but my understanding is that you have to leave at stupid o’clock in the morning in order to make it to Masada for sunrise. We arrived at Masada just before sunrise and hiked the Snake Path up to the top. The hike itself is not terribly difficult as long as you are in decent shape. Keep in mind we’ve just hiked hours upon hours in Jordan so we felt a bit practiced.
The view from atop the Masada and the experience of walking amongst so much ancient history was worth the climb. The Masada is also a an important place in Judaism and we were joined at the Masada with plenty of youth trips. If you are interested to learn more about Masada, you can read more here: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/masada-desert-fortress
The Dead Sea
The experience of floating in the Dead Sea is one that you truly have to experience yourself. The water is a beautiful shade of light blue— I had seen photos and hadn’t been impressed so I was pleasantly surprised once I saw it in person. The water feels oily and has a bit of a sting to it. Top tip: ladies and well-groomed men— I don’t recommend shaving beforehand as all that salt will not feel nice on your open pores. As we waded into the water, I didn’t quite know what the experience of floating would feel like. I expected it would be like floating in a fresh-water lake but I would be a tad bit more buoyant. But as I sat down in the water and carefully lifted my feet, the water took them out from under me and took me immediately parallel. The experience of floating on the water in such a way that you cannot possibly sink is one of pure elation. We were like kids that had just experienced a law of the universe for the first time.
After floating in in the sea for 15 minutes, we of course had to rub the mud on our bodies. Why? We honestly have no idea but we knew it was part of the ritual. Supposedly it's good for your skin.
I cannot say enough about how special Jerusalem is. To be in a place that 3 separate faiths claim as their holy land is a moving experience. We spent 3 days and 3 nights in Jerusalem and made it our job to understand the city and the faiths that lay claim to this land.
We started with a New Jerusalem free (tips encouraged) walking tour with Sandemans. It offered a great and affordable way to immerse ourselves in and learn about the Old City of Jerusalem.
The next morning we did a sunrise bike tour with Phil The Guide based on a recommendation of our friends @amanda_rose_walsh and @seabats16. This was by far our favorite thing we did in Jerusalem, if not Israel. When you come to Jerusalem, be sure to book a sunrise bike tour with Phil the Guide. We met Phil at 5:15am and our first stop was to check out the graffiti art at Machane Yehuda Market.
After the market, we headed into the Old City and explored the market area on bikes. The ordinarily hectic markets are peacefully serene before they open.
Finally, we watched the sunrise over the Mount of Olives and Temple Mount, alone, on top of Mount Zion while Phil the Guide explained the significance of the Mount of Olives to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
Later that afternoon we enjoyed our 3rd tour— the Shabbat Tour with Sandemans. The Shabbat Tour delves deeper into the customs around the Jewish faith. Bonus— we were in Jerusalem for Passover— one of the holiest Jewish holidays.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (aka Church of the Resurrection) is a must-do site on a visit to Jerusalem. The first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, ordered the church to be built and it was completed in 335AD. The Church contains the two holiest sites in Christianity— The Cavalry where Jesus was crucified, and His empty tomb where we has buried and resurrected. I must say, it is a moving experience to be at the two sites upon which the entire Christian faith is based. Anna and I were both overcome with emotion as we were inside the church. And Phil the Guide brought the crucifixion particularly to life as he explained the small shrine which marks the spot where it is said Mary watched her Son die on the cross. The last 5 stations of the cross, or Via Dolorosa are within this church.
On Fridays in Jerusalem, the Franciscan Monastery carries out a procession along the Via Dolorosa, a.k.a. Stations of the Cross, following the path that Jesus followed on the day of his crucifixion. I recommend you organize your trip to Jerusalem so that you are here on a Friday. This way you’ll get the experience the procession, and you’ll get to take part in the Shabbat Tour.
The final thing I will say about Jerusalem is that the Old City is neatly divided into 4 quarter— Jewish, Armenien, Muslim and Christian. Spend time exploring all the quarters. It’s remarkable to see 4 distinct faiths, at times at odds, currently living peacefully as neighbors.
Tel Aviv is a big city that has a certain New York flare about it. What it lacks in charm and historical significance it makes up for in energy and scene. We enjoyed exploring the street art of the Florentine neighborhood, walking and biking along Rothschild Avenue, eating falafel at Ha Kosem (don’t miss this; the best falafel we’ve ever had; expect lengthy waits). We recommend CuCu Hotel for a stylish hotel with top notch reception staff. Thanks Hannah for everything you did for us!
In the end, we are so grateful that we were able to visit Israel. With more time in country and more time to plan, we could have done more. There are some things we chose to take out due to time constraints and others we took out due to logistics (nearly running out of gas). Still, we were able to enjoy the Dead Sea, hike Masada at sunrise, experience the unique and powerful complexity of Jerusalem, and experience the funky vibe of Tel Aviv. With more time, add in the Sea of Galilee and more of the historical biblical sights. If Israel has been on your wish list, and even if it hasn't, you cannot go wrong with a visit to this area of the Middle East.
Want to see more photos? Check out all my Israel photos on the photo page: Israel
- In the Jewish Faith, Shabbat starts on Friday at sundown, and ends on Saturday at sundown. During this time, don’t expect to find any Jewish shops opened. We left Jerusalem on a Saturday morning during Shabbat on Passover weekend with am empty tank of gas. We drove all over Jerusalem on fumes before finally aborting mission and getting on the highway to try to find a station. I’m talking running on fumes, air conditioner off, and barely pushing the pedal kind of situation. We finally found a station 15 miles outside of Jerusalem headed towards Tel Aviv.
- The Temple Mount is controlled by the Muslim faith and is off-limits to non-Muslims at certain times. Do your homework on this if you wish to visit the Temple Mount.