Israel: Tel Aviv & North – mountains, miracles and skyscrapers

Tel Aviv – the city I was singing about the whole Eurovision 2015 long and definitely wanted to visit someday. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been a fan of this competition, but as Vienna happened to be the epicentre of the party I did join the fun and made some crazy memories during that time. Israel had in my opinion a really cool song that made this competition suck a bit less.

I was lucky enough to actually get a chance to go there this October. The best time to go was during the Sukkot holidays – both my Israeli friend, Aviv and me were free in this time. Earlier, as the Jerusalem Temple still existed (which was until the destruction of it by the Romans in 70 CE), this was the time to make a pilgrimage there. Today it’s a holiday that lasts 7 days and for which you build a sukkah – a booth in which you have a festive dinner at the first and the last day. These 2 days are as well free, so it’s pretty hard to move around if you haven’t got a car. They are like Shabbat, the Saturdays in Israel – no public transportation, open shops, whatsoever.

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It’s also the time when a lot of Israelis go on holidays, so as I arrived at 4 in the morning the airport was literally full with people. I went past a huge hall where all tables were occupied and went to the passport control. I had to explain the purpose of the trip, the name and address of my friend, how long I was going to stay… As I was done with that I went to collect my luggage and look for the train that would take me to the city where Aviv was waiting for me. The ticket vending machines are in English, however I would recommend you to remember the time your train departs – the ticket you get is in Hebrew, so you can’t read any destination of the train whatsoever. Already on the platform there is an information screen that shows the names of the stations in both languages which assured me that this would be my train.

I got off at a small station about an hour away from Tel Aviv and the first thing that struck me was that there was a security check at the entrance. At the entrance of this station of like two platforms! Little did I know that in Israel there are security checks at all malls, train stations and even underground passages.

And here it all began.

Day 1

On our first day we went to Caesarea, the ancient Roman harbour city built by Herod the Great – yes, the same ruler you read in the Bible about, the one that ordered the Massacre of the Innocents as Jesus was born. This tyrant and despot has spent a lot of money on huge building projects… This city, a magnificent jewel of the Empire, was one of them.

IMG_4783-001Although slighted in the 13th century, the site is still impressive. The remains of the Roman city, Herod’s palace and of the Crusaders fortress, a Roman theatre where various spectacles and concerts are held and the ruins of a hippodrome! Somehow I’ve never got to see one that would not be in the history books or on TV, so I was pretty astonished by it. Just standing there and imagining the cantering horses, the cheering crowd, all this excitement…

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As Caesarea is a harbour city, it’s by the sea and as it’s by the sea there are beaches. We went down the elevation by the Herod’s palace and found ourselves on a beach… where you could say parts of it were not made of sand but of shells. It was in October and the sea was still nice, so we had a swim and a nap in the sun afterwards. The nap wasn’t planned though.

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Day 2

On the next day we went to the Abu Jameel Ranch that is located in an Arab village nearby. We saw the olive mills and press, had our hands painted with henna, we made our very own pita bread and saw, smelled and tasted what grew there.

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It’s kinda tricky to find the road to the top of Mount Tabor and as you do find it, it’s pretty steep and curvy. As you arrive, you go through a medieval-looking gate, park your car and go on the church grounds. As this mountain is believed to be the place where Jesus took three of his apostles and in a state of glory talked to the prophets Moses and Elijah, the Roman Catholic Church of the Transfiguration is the most prominent building you will find there.

Don’t forget to dress properly! No knees or shoulders should be seen.

Inside you will find a rather modest (for a Roman Catolic church) decoration – with an exception of the frescos at the altar and in the three grottoes, out of which the Grotto of Christ is the most ornamented one. It is located just under the altar and has a stunning blue ceiling with baby Jesus, angels and other golden details and a beautiful peacock stained-glass window.

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Afterwards we went for a walk in the forest. It was a good idea as the stroll was very pleasant and gave me the possibility to see some more of the local flora. That’s where I got to know one of the most prominent flowers in Israel – the Sea Squill. This plant appears in many poems and its flowers are a sign of autumn for Israeli children. It’s a very interesting-looking plant as it’s pretty much a tall and thin stick with a lot of tiny flowers on it.

Then we did what the Israelis do – we had tea in the nature (dear coffee lovers: yes, it’s possible to have coffee as well). It’s called Pakal and it’s a set containing a little pot, a portable burner, some glasses and tea… or coffee. I opted for tea because, being raised on tea bags, I was pretty amazed by picking some leaves and then pouring them with hot water.4

Day 3

On the third day of our trip we went to Haifa – the third-largest city of Israel. At the time there was the Haifa International Film Festival going on, so we saw “Fanny’s Journey”, a French movie about Jewish children trying to escape from the Nazis. It was a very moving screening and there were so many other great movies to see… But there was still the whole city to see as well, so we got going.

The absolute must-see are the Bahá’í Gardens, also known as the Hanging Gardens of Haifa. They consist of 19 terraces around the Shrine of the Báb. The shrine itself was built where the remains of the Báb have been buried. He was the forerunner of the Bahá’í Faith, a religion in which all people are equal and there is only one God that is the source of all major religions. It is pretty young as it was founded in the 19th century.

They extend almost one kilometre up the Mount Carmel and are perfectly symmetric. The terraces are linked by stairs and streams of water and although the only thing you want to do is to see all of them, you can’t. First of all, you can’t see anything if you’re not dressed properly, so do cover your knees and shoulders. Then, there are three areas that are open to public, so better check out their website to see which entrance you want to choose: http://www.ganbahai.org.il/en/haifa/.

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At the foot of the mountain there is the German Colony which is mainly interesting if you’re hungry or tired due to a lot of nice looking restaurants. It was established by the German Templers that arrived to Haifa in 1868 – they believed that because they now lived in the Holy Land Christ would come back to Earth earlier.

Lead by some tips read on the Internet, we went to the Masada Street that was said to be hipster, artsy, alternative, you name it. My friend was really surprised that I wanted to go there, but we went anyway… Because I really wanted to. So, what did we find there? Well, the most interesting thing was a bookshop. We even asked the guy working there what was to see in this street and he didn’t find it especially interesting, he meant that it only gets exciting when there is some festival going on, like for example the day before. Damn you, Haifa!

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Pretty close there was a sushi bar which you could call hipster – with vinyls on the walls and some fun music coming from the speakers. The menu was in Hebrew only, so that I had an even harder time deciding than usual. Aviv was translating the menu to me, as I got shocked. Carrot? Sweet potato? Are you sure you’re reading about the ingredients I can put in my sushi?

She totally loved her sushi with sweet potatoes – just as much as she loved pizza with sweet potatoes a couple of days later. I’ve tried it because yolo (California rolls aren’t traditional Japanese neither, right?) and found it okay, interestingly I couldn’t really taste the potatoes what shocked me even more… But maybe my taste buds weren’t working properly.

The sun was slowly going down and we went to a street flea market close to the port. The streets were lively and filled with relaxed people and it was simply a pleasure to walk around and look through some pretty interesting stuff.

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Day 4

The next day was a Friday, so the public transportation was working only until the sunset – yes, according to the Jewish Concept of Time the day ends with the sunset, so our Friday evening is already on Saturday for the Jews. That’s why we wanted to go to Tel Aviv by car, but then there was some kind of marathon that made coming there by car impossible. So we had to be quick to see everything and take the last train home.

On our way to the centre we found a beautiful place called Cremerie De L’éclair. It is basically paradise with ice cream sandwiches. You can put any kind of ice cream between two cookies, buns, even macarons and still get some crazy sauce and sprinkle and whatever you want on it. Needless to say, I had to get one. I’m still dreaming about this hot’n’cold sweet piece of heaven.

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The King George Street (that is a great shopping street) becomes at some point Carmel Street along which Carmel Market is located. It is the most famous marketplace in the city. At the entrance there was a woman giving away Shabbat candles – two little round tealights in a plastic packaging with a prayer.

What really surprised me was the selection of halva – from pecans through hot chilli to nutella coffee. I’ve never seen so huge “cakes” of it and if I only could handle this level of sweetness, I would have totally gone home with a bit of every single one.

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Moreover, you could find there other sweets, fruits (I finally bought my beautiful sweet dragon fruits), spices, tea, dried fruits, clothes, jewellery and much more. The marketplace was very crowded so it was hard not to get lost – especially with so many stimuli all around me. I somehow managed it and we went to find a bus to Jaffa, the oldest part of the city.

And you can really tell that it’s the oldest as the architecture changes drastically. While the new Tel Aviv is building new sky scrapers and fancy hipster cafés, buildings in Jaffa are still made of stone and the Middle Eastern soul. There we found another street market filled with clothes, jewellery and art of any kind.

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It’s a great place to walk. From the flea market we went to the port and then walked down the nice promenade. We passed by some restaurants facing the seafront, horses, boats, a lighthouse, some more lovely buildings, palm trees, a mosque… And then the new Tel Aviv appeared between these stone walls. It is a great spot to enjoy the panoramic view of all the sky scrapers by the sea. Between the two there is a really long beach that we unfortunately had no time to enjoy because of the sunset coming soon. On our way back we saw as well the Clock Square with its curious clocktower with a green roof and some ionic columns. We went by bus and made it, we got on the last train! Yay!

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Day 5

On Saturday we went to the Mount Arbel for a hike. We parked the car at the parking almost at the top, got ready at the picnic area and went to the Sea of Galilee and the Carob lookouts. The views were marvellous, the climate dry and the plants almost yellow from the sun. My lovely friend told me about some army mission where soldiers were sent here without any water and died – what a nice story to start the day! I double-checked my water bottle, it was full.

Then we went towards the Sea of Galilee and began to descend. It wasn’t a hard hike down as there were some handles that made place for feet where there were no natural ones.

On one rock we saw a small, guinea pig-similar animal observing all the crazy people walking and talking. It was sitting still and tried to not catch anybody’s attention. After a short google search it turns out to be a rock hyrax, or dassie, as the South Africans call it (it lives not only in Israel but in a big part of Africa as well).

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The trail lead us to cave dwellings where the Jews used to live and hide from the Roman soldiers. Herod’s people found it impossible to reach them because they’re situated within steep cliffs, so the Jews were safe. It didn’t last very long though – the army of the new ruler came up with an idea. They lowered some of their soldiers in chests from the top of the cliffs and slaughtered the inhabitants of the caves. The survivors killed themselves to not suffer captivity.

Today, they are either too high up there to enter or… used as a toilet by the hikers. Anyway, there is nothing to see inside.

An exception are the fortified caves that got in use again in the Ottoman period and became a cave castle. It probably has seen better times, however there are still some stairs, passages and windows which make you wonder how it looked like these hundreds of years ago.

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In order to go up the mountain again there is a system of handles and chains fixed on a steep cliff. As there was no way around, I did go up and tried to not look down. In the middle of the way I remembered that I actually hadn’t told anybody about my fear of heights. Probably a useful information.

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My body was shaking, but I did it! To relax, we drove down to the Sea of Galilee, also called Kinneret – the place where Jesus once walked on water. There is a popular camping site nearby you have to cross in order to get to the beach which was quite original – it was a sand beach with a lot of really tiny shells and really big stones laying around. We had planned to have a swim, but the water was way too cold to do so (for us; some people were swimming), so we took the Pakal out and had some coffee and tea. As we did so, the sun was going down and changing all the colours both of the sky and of the mountains on the other side of the lake.

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Day 6

On my last day of sightseeing we went to the kibbutz where my friend’s mom was born. Kibbutzim are collective communities in Israel based on socialism and are still working. The idea was to create a new type of society and as they began, everything was shared. Even clothes? Yes, people got some for some time and then they got some other. If somebody got something from outside, it went to the common treasury. Everything was decided by voting. The people were trying to do as much as possible together: everybody ate and drunk together in the dining hall, children lived and were raised together at their communal houses and their parents could visit.

Today the rules are not so strict anymore and the residents of kibbutzim have some individual property, however the bigger items like cars are still communally owned and somebody that wants to use it has to request it in advance.

As we were walking around, it seemed to be a pretty normal small town. The only difference would be the dining hall and the children playgrounds right outside their communal houses. They were filled with loads of toys left in such a mess that probably no parent would ever allow.

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In the evening, as I got to the airport, I was checked by the security staff as precisely as never before. Before the check-in a soldier asked me what I was doing in Israel, which friend I was visiting and where and then went through my passport and went on to ask me the same questions about Egypt and Malaysia. Me not having friends there apparently helped me to go a bit quicker. The next surprise was waiting at the security check as I had to put even the coins out of my wallet and then wait for a couple of minutes as the security guard was going through my stuff. To sum up, the recommended time to be at an Israeli airport is 3 hours.

Israel is a pretty diverse place. Synagogues, mosques and churches, mountains and the sea, skyscrapers and small houses, hip coffee houses and old market places – just decide what you want to see and go.

Or don’t decide at all and let it surprise you!

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As you will be travelling in Israel, you will notice that there are colourful curbs. They seem funny at first, but they actually make a lot of sense and I wish all the curbs of the world would be painted. The colours have different meanings:

  • Black & white: signalizes the sides of the road
  • Red & white: no parking
  • Red & yellow: space reserved for specific vehicles, still no parking
  • Blue & white: parking allowed

Don’t leave Israel without trying:

  1. Hummus – no. 1 must-eat. Do I even have to introduce the magnificence of mashed chickpeas?
  2. Leben – kinda salty yoghurt, absolutely delicious, especially with some olive oil and za’atar (mainly dried herbs and sesam seeds);
  3. Pita – soft flatbread, put some hummus or leben on it and you’ll know what heaven is like. I still miss these Israeli breakfasts;
  4. Shakshouka – eggs poached in tomato sauce, there are some chili peppers and onions as well;
  5. Salep – some refer to it as a drink, other as a dessert; I would go for a drink that plays the role of dessert, just like these really sweet wines or liquors. It has the consistence of a pudding and is drank with some coco nut, walnuts and cinnamon. It’s tasty and perfect for a long chat with a friend – it’s so sweet that it’s not possible to drink/eat it quickly, so you can focus on the conversation and spend hours without having to order anything else.

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