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Fort Stevens: Camping, Hiking, and History on Oregon Shores

Destination, Fort Stevens! My last camping and hiking spot in Oregon before crossing over to Washington, was a relatively short drive away from Portland. I was looking forward to camping and hiking on the Oregon shores for a couple of days. I had not been camping nor hiking since I had left Point Reyes four days earlier. On that Sunday morning, the sun was out and it was a beautiful day for hiking. The weather forecast for the next few days was perfect! However, the tiny itchy spot on my eyelid had now swollen and it was making it difficult for me to drive, as my left eye was half shut. Before looking for medical help I had to check-in and set up my tent. Being that it was a Sunday, I had to look for a clinic or go to the emergency room.

I arrived at Fort Stevens around two in the afternoon. After setting up the tent I drove to the town of Astoria hoping to find a clinic, but because of being Sunday all I could find was a sympathetic pharmacist who told me not to go to the emergency room. She advised me to wait another day or so because she said that the center of the boil was about to pop! Returning from Astoria, I found the campsite invaded by an army of mosquitoes. The firewood supply man drove by and I made sure I would have plenty to burn to keep the insects away! I even sprayed the outer tent with repellent to try and keep them away.

Shipwreck of Peter Iredale at Fort Stevens State Park - Hammond, Oregon
Shipwreck of Peter Iredale at Fort Stevens State Park – Hammond, Oregon

After make preparations for the evening, I hiked to the beach to watch the sunset. The wind brought ashore a cold breeze. It was, in fact, quite cold! However, despite the cold the crowd was growing rapidly. They came prepared! Most of the sunset watchers brought blankets and were dressed for cold weather. A photo shooting that had been taking place by the Peter Iredale wreckage was reaching its climax. A few photographers were setting up their equipment at strategic locations on the beach and on the dunes.

Peter Iredale shipwreck - Fort Stevens, Oregon
Peter Iredale shipwreck – Fort Stevens, Oregon

Fort Stevens was in operation for 84 years, from the Civil War to World War II. Today, this historic landmark in the Northwest offers camping, beach combing, fresh water and lake swimming, hiking trails, wildlife viewing, a historic shipwreck, and a historic military fort. Fort Stevens is unique and diverse. It’s unique because it is the only Civil War era earthen fort in the West Coast. It also has many early twentieth century concrete artillery gun batteries; including a rare battery that served as a command center during World War II. The park, which today has a network of 9 miles of bicycle trails and 6 miles of hiking trails in a diverse habitat of spruce and hemlock forests, wetlands, dunes, and shore pine areas, was named after Union Army Major General Isaac I Stevens. Major General Stevens was the first territorial governor of Washington, who died in 1862 at the Battle of Chantilly.

The original earthen fort was completed in 1865 to protect the mouth of the Columbia River from a possible British Army invasion from the north and from confederate gun boats from the south during the Civil War. A possible English invasion from Canada, in case the British joined the Confederate side during the Civil War, was seen as an eminent threat and Fort Stevens was an imposing line of defense. The fort became the only coastal defense during the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. It also gained the distinction of being the only American military installation to have been attacked during time of war since the war of 1812, when on June 21, 1942 it was attacked by a Japanese submarine.

Slowly decaying and disappearing, the wreckage of Peter Iredale sits as a monument grounded on the beach creating a great background for photographers and sunset watchers. Having ran ashore on October 25, 1906, she was 285 feet long, four-masted steel bark sailing vessel. The Peter Iredale was built in Maryport, England, in 1890 and owned by British shipping firm Iredale & Porter. On September 26, 1906, the Iredale left Salina Cruz, Mexico, bound for Portland, where it was to pick up a cargo of wheat for the United Kingdom. Despite encountering heavy fog, they managed to safely reach the mouth of the Columbia River early in the morning of October 25. The captain of the ship, H. Lawrence, later recalled that, as they waited for a pilot, “a heavy southeast wind blew and a strong current prevailed. Before the vessel could be veered around, she was in the breakers and all efforts to keep her off were unavailing.” The Iredale ran aground at Clatsop Beach, hitting so hard that three of her masts snapped from the impact. Fortunately, none of the crew were seriously injured. Captain Lawrence ordered that the ship be abandoned, and rockets were launched to signal for help.

The lifesaving station at Point Adams quickly responded, sending a team of men to rescue the crew. It was a dangerous task, but the lifesavers managed to bring all twenty-seven crewmen, including two stowaways, safely to shore. William K. Inman, one of the lifesavers who helped Captain Lawrence ashore, remembered that the red-bearded captain stood stiffly at attention, saluted his ship, and said “May God bless you and may your bones bleach in these sands.” He then turned and addressed his men with a bottle of whisky in his hand. “Boys,” he said, “have a drink.” The British Naval Court later ruled that the sudden wind shift and the strong current were responsible for the stranding of the ship, and that the captain and his officers were “in no wise to blame.”

The wrecked bark became an immediate tourist attraction. The day after the ship ran ashore the Oregon Journal reported that the wreck “proved a strong attraction…and in spite of the gale that was raging scores flocked to the scene of the disaster.” They noted that the Astoria & Columbia River Railroad was already planning to run excursion trains to the site.
Although the ship has been broken up by wave, wind, and sand over the years, the wreck of the Peter Iredale continues to be a popular tourist attraction. It is the most accessible shipwreck of the Pacific Northwest graveyard. Undoubtedly, my favorite attraction. Perhaps, knowing that in a few years all that will remain of Peter Iredale are the photos and memories, I returned to the same spot a few times during my visit to the park to watch the sunset.

Quiet time camping at Fort Stevens State Park, Oregon
Quiet time camping at Fort Stevens State Park, Oregon

 

It’s Better Outside

 

From Coast to Coast

 

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Portland: Handcrafted Beer and a Unique Hotel Experience

Where to stay? Too many elements to consider when you look for a unique experience at a hotel. In Portland, it happened by accident or coincidence. I was supposed to have stayed just one night in Portland and move on the next morning. Since I began my road trip, it was my plan to avoid cities and focus on national parks. This was not meant to be a visit to urban areas; rather, it was about camping and hiking. Nonetheless, it turned out that I stopped by and stayed in a few cities because of how many hours I had been driving, or because there was not another option. Also, sometimes I needed to have good internet service, do laundry, and take care of other practical chores.

A few times on the road I came to cities where I knew someone. In Portland I knew a former employee who had worked for me in New York. After my first night in town, I spoke with him early in the morning and he offered to reserve a room for me at his hotel because he wanted me to see where he was working. He thought that having worked in hospitality, I would enjoy staying at the Kennedy School. So, instead of move on I stayed a second night in Portland. He was absolutely right! What a unique experience! The charm of the hotel is in its simplicity and austere feel of an old school. However, it was the atmosphere created by a relaxed and genuine costumer service that made my experience exceptional.

Main entrance hall of the historic hotel McMenamins Kennedy School - Portland, Oregon
Main entrance hall of the historic hotel McMenamins Kennedy School – Portland, Oregon
Blackboard in one guestrooms at the historic hotel McMenamins Kennedy School - Portland, Oregon
Blackboard in one guestrooms at the historic hotel McMenamins Kennedy School – Portland, Oregon

Now a hotel that houses a brewery, the Kennedy School had operated as an elementary school for over one-hundred years. After many years of abandonment, the old school was transformed into a hotel. One thing that makes it charming and unique is that it still looks and feels like a school, and preserves the history of the Kennedy Elementary School. Classrooms are now guest rooms. As I entered my room, the first thing I saw was the original classroom blackboard on which the word “Welcome” was written in chalk!!! Today this piece of rescued piece of Portland’s history, offers more than a classroom where you can comfortably sleep without being sent home with a note to your parents. And it is okay to have a beer or two in this old school!

Today, the McMenamins Kennedy School houses a movie theater, a restaurant, a cigar bar, a small bar, a larger lounge, and a brewery. What really captivated me was the restaurant where I had a wonderful brunch before leaving Portland. The decoration displays a collection of non-matching exotic lamps and other exotic objects. The waiters and staff do not wear uniforms and are encouraged to be themselves, bringing in their individual personalities. The unique experience made for a great way to start my day. There’s something very uplifting and motivating about an environment where people seem to enjoy what they are doing.

Unique gas lamp at the Courtyard Restaurant at the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland - Oregon
Unique light fixture at the Courtyard Restaurant at the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland – Oregon

The Courtyard Restaurant is set in the transformed cafeteria of the old school. From the moment I stepped in to have brunch, I could not take my eyes off the eclectic collection of light fixtures. Each of them is unique! On a corner closer to the bar, an old gas lamp was probably one of my favorite. Alas, it is

Colorful light fixture at the Courtyard Restaurant at the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland - Oregon
Colorful light fixture at the Courtyard Restaurant at the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland – Oregon

hard to pick a favorite with so many never seen before designs and styles. Another feature of the restaurant are the old, comfortable mahogany booths. They transport you back in time and make you feel like are in the old childhood schools from the past. It does give a touch of distinguished character to the restaurant and to the experience of eating there, except for the beer that pours throughout this old school. The Courtyard also is unique for serving handcrafted ales brewed just a few steps away on the onsite brewery.

Gas lamp fixture at the Courtyard Restaurant at the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland - Oregon
Gas lamp fixture at the Courtyard Restaurant at the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland – Oregon

In the age of “cookie-cutters” hotel chains that promises a unique guest experience but in the end turn out to be the same everywhere you stay, unique hotels are my favorites. It does not have to be the most luxurious hotel, nor the most well-known hotels. What really catches my attention is the uniqueness of hotels that have unmatched characteristics and appeal. Working in the hospitality industry, I heard too many guests ask “where am I today” because hotels that lack that unique charm and personality look exactly the same anywhere you stay. For frequent guests who travel on business for most part of the year, the standard design and décor of brand hotels may bring some comforting sensation of being at the same place day in day out. But, for the leisure traveler who wants to experience the uniqueness of each destination, historic and boutique art hotels have more to offer.  That was what my one night stay at the McMenamins Kennedy School in Portland was all about. There, not only the architecture of the building and its decoration make a clear distinction, but it spells out the character of Oregon! One of the hallmarks of Portland is the high concentration of breweries and its people’s love for great handcrafted beers. At the McMenamins Kennedy School, the passion for beer takes center stage!

Another feature of the McMenamins Kennedy School, is the soaking pool. Guests have complimentary access to the soaking pool, and the public can also have access to it for a fee. Surrounded by gardens, the soaking pool is a relaxing treat to be enjoyed. It is located in the old Teachers’ Lounge and it is decorated with multi-colored ceramic tiles. After relaxing in the soaking pool, it was time to enjoy the evening at the Cypress Room Bar. Rated as one of the best bars in its category, the Cypress Room is a rum bar. It has a Caribbean vibe with a great selection of rum and reggae music, making it the perfect place for a happy hour or that night cap, all of which offers a unique experience. However, if you prefer beer, housing a brewery onsite, the hotel has plenty of options to enjoy a good beer.

Art work on the hallways of the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland - Oregon
Art work on the hallways of the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland – Oregon

My friend in Portland was right! Staying one extra night in town and experiencing a day back in school was a unique experience. It turned out that I never left the hotel from the moment I checked in. And, I didn’t have to; this historic elementary school transformed into a hotel has everything to keep you busy and entertained within its walls.

Speaking of walls, they are covered with art work in the rooms and corridors depicting scenes and moments in the history of the old Kennedy Elementary School. Even if you are not an overnight guest, grab a beer or a cocktail and walk around to check the art around you. I visited Portland multiple times in the past, but this was a delightful surprise.  It was a memorable moment and a unique experience on my road trip. Just one of those surprises that came around and made me forget the last of days on the road and made me look forward to the days ahead in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

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Gay Travel: Why ‘Gay Travel’ and How Gays Travel?

Why gay travel in the first place? Adam, from travelsofAdam.com, writing for a column published at Nomadic Matt How Gay Travel is Different (and Why it Matters), contended that “It’s about safety, it’s about comfort, it’s about politics. But it’s also about welcoming events, friendly accommodations, and having fun with similar travelers.” Adam summarized it succinctly and nailed it! Those of us who know the meaning of the ‘turn-off’ experience of getting the ‘funny look’, know that paying the same price as other travelers and getting second class treatment is painful. A fact that led to the coining of the expression ‘pink dollar’. Simply put: the LGBTQ community got tired of paying the same price to in return be discriminated by businesses that dispensed different service and treatment based on their customers’ sexual orientation.

View from a cafe on Rue des Archives in the gay neighborhood of Le Marais - Paris, France
View from a cafe on Rue des Archives in the gay neighborhood of Le Marais – Paris, France

I recently wrote in my blog Tel  Aviv: Middle East’s Most Gay Friendly City that it is not only the Tel Aviv’s Pride Festival that attracts travelers from most corners of the world.  Tel Aviv has earned its place on the list of top LGBTQ travel destinations because it is truly welcoming and inclusive. It is not a reputation that a business garners just by placing a sticker on the window. Neither is won by countries or cities that run ads targeting the LGBTQ community. It is won through attitude toward visitors who genuinely feel that they are welcome.

If there is one thing that I have learned about visiting places that are not gay friendly, is that uncomfortable feeling of relinquishing the freedom to be myself and going back into the closet. Even if it’s for just a few days, that is something that most of us are not going to do. Politics aside, economics matters! If I am going to drop some money into someone’s economy, I want to see a deeper commitment to equality and inclusiveness by governments. I also want to see that the local population is embracing those principles as well. And there is the issue of safety that is crucial to any traveler, but so much more relevant to LGBTQ travelers who can fall victims of violence just for being who they are.

I travel solo! Hence, the name of my website! However, gays tend to travel in groups; either with a small or large group of friends, or join in large travel groups such as cruises.

Rue des Archives in the heart of Le Marais - Paris, France
Rue des Archives in the heart of Le Marais – Paris, France

In the gay community, friends are family; and family travels together! That’s the simple truth! But there are other reasons which include ‘the more, the merrier’ element to have a great party. Safety justifies why traveling in group makes so much more sense because harassment can happen, as it has occurred even in gay friendly countries and cities. Nowhere is completely safe! Harassment and violence against an LGBTQ person can happen even in places known for their openness, such as San Diego, New York, Paris, or London.

Remarkably, in a city that elected a gay mayor, Paris offers that sense of safety to its LGBTQ population and visitors alike. Just a few blocks from the City Hall, in the Le Marais which is also known as Paris gayborhood the relaxed atmosphere of countless cafes, restaurants, and clubs is just one example of gay friendly destination. More importantly, the overwhelming attitude of Parisians is that of respect, friendliness, and welcoming. It’s a behavior and attitude that reflects its treatment to visitors as ‘people’, regardless of sexual orientation; as it should be anywhere else. However, that’s not the reality we live in. Therefore, we choose where to go and where not to go; making ‘gay travel’ relevant and necessary.

Enjoying the safety and beauty of gay friendly Paris
Enjoying the safety and beauty of gay friendly Paris

Sadly, there are the countries like Russia, Egypt, India, and Turkey currently deemed too dangerous to visit as an LGBTQ person. Their laws criminalizing homosexuality is a violation of human rights and a warning to gay travelers to stay away. However, they are not the only ones to be avoided because there are over 70 countries where homosexuality is still illegal and considered a crime.

Besides the fact that traveling as part of a group adds a sense of being ‘safer’, it can also reduce costs from car rental to sharing accommodations, renting a beach house, or sharing an apartment. Nonetheless, there is a sizeable number of gay travelers who travel solo, which can be a bit more challenging than traveling with friends.

Gay solo travel means you are on your own! However, it does not mean that you are alone. It means you will experience the local culture a bit more in depth. Forcibly, you will connect with other travelers and interact with more locals than just your waiter at a café or the cab driver. I admit that when traveling solo, the comfort zone that most of us enjoy staying in so much, is the first thing to go off the window. Although our comfort zone is not the first thing that we are willing to surrender, it can be rewarding for those who are daring travelers and seek to really get out there. In such case, it becomes more important to stick to your own kind. That’s when ‘gaycation’ becomes a real thing. It means visiting gay friendly destinations, gay events, and supporting those economies and neighborhoods that support and welcome you for who you are.

Backpacking in the wilderness area of Zion National Park, Utah
Backpacking in the wilderness area of Zion National Park, Utah

Many of the activities I like doing and hobbies I have are not gay per se. Places and landmarks I visit are not exclusively for gays, and some events that I attend have no label. Nonetheless, as a traveler I am who I am and I must consider if I can fully enjoy what I choose to do; or if I will have to watch my back.

Being in backcountry solo hiking for long periods of time, I am just a hiker who happens to be gay. My sexuality should not matter a bit. Still, I know that depending on where I am, carrying a rainbow flag or wearing a T-shirt with a slogan calling for marriage equality is not a smart thing to do. Encountering a militia man, who made it a point to show me that he was armed, during a solo backpacking hike in a remote area in Utah reminded me of the risks any of us may face: gay or straight.

Hiking at Joshua Tree National Park, California
Hiking at Joshua Tree National Park, California
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Montreal: A Romantic Destination

Montreal! The Marseille of the New World! Georges Marciano, fashion designer and co-founder of Guess, is credited to having compared Montreal to his French hometown of Marseille. After selling his company’s shares, he left California to live in Montreal. Not only he found a home in the Old Montreal, but created one more reason to attract visitors to this charming city in the Canadian province of Quebec. Coincidentally, my last visit to Montreal had a lot to do with his visionary creativity and passion for the arts, style, and beauty. Visiting a  hotel that is more an art gallery than anything else, was another reason to be in Canada this time. Being there on a freezing weekend in December was personal, nostalgic, and romantic.

The Love sculpture by Robert Indiana at the entrance of LHotel, Montreal
The Love sculpture by Robert Indiana at the entrance of LHotel, Montreal

Welcome to Montreal and bienvenue to LHotel Montreal; the fabulous world that Marciano created in the historic Saint Jacques Street, the main street in Old Montreal. First opened in 1672 and the center of the financial district of Montreal in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Saint Jacques Street is at the center of the city’s historic past and vibrant present. Marciano’s hotel is an art gallery where his personal art collection is on the walls in every floor in the public areas and in the guest rooms. Additionally, since my visit was just before the holidays, the Christmas tree in the lobby was stunning and displaying an elegant and exotic large figurines.

Placed outside in front of the hotel, Fernando Botero’s statue named Voluptuous Man on Horse and Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture are just the prelude to what awaits beyond the front door. Once inside, Marciano’s portrait by Andy Warhol in the lobby of LHotel and the gigantic white resin glowing male figure by Jaume Plensa that constantly changes color, offer a glimpse of the personal, intimate character of the hotel. They are just the first of many of the surprises that lay on each corner of every floor of this magnificent boutique art hotel. At check-in guests are invited to get a cocktail or a glass of wine at the lobby’s Botero Wine Bar and walk throughout the hotel and enjoy the art collection that Marciano shares with his guests.

Jaume Plensa's white resin glowing figure - LHotel Montreal
Jaume Plensa’s white resin glowing figure – LHotel Montreal, Quebec – Canada
Jaume Plensa's white resin glowing figure - LHotel Montreal
Jaume Plensa’s white resin glowing figure – LHotel Montreal

At walking distance from the hotel, the Musee d’Art Contemporain, Musee des Beaux Arts, and the Quebec Museum of Costume and Textiles at Marche Bonsecours, are only a few to name. However, it is LHotel’s art collection of limited-edition prints, paintings, and statues that make it cozy, intimate, and unique. Marciano’s collection includes works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Miro, Damien Hirst, James Rosenquist, and  Edward Ruscha among others.

Usually, a hotel is not the primary reason to visit a city. But, this time, the only reason to be in Montreal was to visit the LHotel. A tough sell to the immigration officer who seemed to have a hard time accepting that I was traveling by myself from Vermont just to visit a hotel in Montreal. I suppose a hotel didn’t seem enough an attraction for him. Well, it was for me! After explaining why I was coming to visit this particular hotel in Montreal and delving into the bitter-sweet nature of the visit, he apologized and wished me a great weekend.

It all started at the end of 2015 when I mentioned to my late husband Eric about the LHotel as he talked about unique hotels he had visited. He was passionate about hotels, which undoubtedly was the reason for his successful career in the hospitality business.  As I cooked dinner, he looked it up online and as he read about the hotel he said we had to spend a weekend there. Later, as we were having dinner he told me that he had made a reservation at LHotel for us to visit Montreal in the Spring.

However, the initial reservation for May of 2016 had to be cancelled as he had to visit his niece’s graduation. An attempt to go in July was scratched because of him being diagnosed with cancer, which ultimately took his life just before Thanksgiving. Just two days before passing away he reminded me that I had to go and visit the hotel. So, while I was spending some time in Vermont a few weeks after he passed away, I decided to drive up to Montreal for the weekend. It was bitter-sweet! The LHotel is everything he would have loved in a hotel.

Glass window at the Basilica of Notre Dame of Montreal, Quebec
Glass window at the Basilica of Notre Dame of Montreal, Quebec

Only a couple of blocks from the hotel, the historic Basilica Notre Dame of Montreal is intertwined with the history of Montreal and its pioneers. I find it to be more impressive in its interior design and architecture than that of the Notre Dame of Paris. Perhaps because blue is one of my favorite colors, and there is plenty of blue that glows inside the church. The history of the construction of the church is overwhelmingly interesting and the light effect produced by its glass windows is breathtaking. Housing the largest pipe organ in the Americas, the Christmas Eve Mass is known as the greatest event of its kind and tickets to attend such celebration must be purchased well in advance.

Main altar at the Basilica Notre Dame of Montreal, Quebec
Main altar at the Basilica Notre Dame of Montreal, Quebec – Canada

Designed by architect James O’Donnell Built in the Gothic style, the deep blue with golden stars give the vaults an incredible light effect. Multiple tones of blues, reds, purples, silver and gold adorn the sanctuary that displays stained glass windows that on a sunny day produce a spectacular show of light. Departing from the traditional biblical scenes displayed in stained glass windows in most Catholic churches, the scenes depicted in the windows of the Notre Dame of Montreal portray scenes from the historic past of religious and founding figures of the early days of Old Montreal.

Main altar at the Basilica Notre Dame de Montreal, Quebec - Canada
Main altar at the Basilica Notre Dame de Montreal, Quebec – Canada

Having visited Montreal at different seasons of the year, I find that no matter what time of the year the city has a unique charm. Its people is possibly the most polite I have come to know. Its cafes and restaurants are to die for and its cuisine is mouthwatering. Montreal’s several Summer festivals, the Montreal World Film Festival, Montreal Pride, and the comedy Just for Laughs Festival which is held in July each year are great reasons to visit the city. And if cold weather does not scare you away, bundle up enjoy Montreal’s laidback, romantic winter nights at some of its cozy, romantic cafes and restaurants.

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Tel Aviv: Middle East’s Most Gay Friendly City

Gay friendly and just over the rainbow, Tel Aviv is a happy place to be! It’s a gay city in the old and new connotations of the word. Known as the most gay friendly city in the Middle East, Tel Aviv draws particular attention with its gay pride celebrated in June. However, regardless if you are gay or straight, there is no reason to why one should wait for the next pride week in 2018 to visit and enjoy this fabulous city. However, if you want to visit Tel Aviv in June for Pride, plan it now!

View of Tel Aviv from Kedumim Square - Jaffa, israel
View of Tel Aviv from Kedumim Square – Jaffa, I1srael

The history of this city of about half a million people, bathed by the Mediterranean Sea and featuring stark 1930’s Bauhaus buildings, is quite fascinating. The Bauhaus architecture found in thousands of buildings clustered in the ‘White City’ architectural area gives a nostalgic and romantic flare to the city of Tel Aviv. Putting it in context: in a country with a population of just over eight million people, Tel Aviv is part of the largest metropolitan area in Israel. Known as the Gush Dan, in Hebrew, or the Dan Bloc, it comprises almost half of the population of Israel.

Diamonds, hi-tech, and tourism are the backbone of the Israeli economy, making it an attractive destination for not only tourists but to many in the hi-tech industry who have made Israel their home. The Silicon Wadi, in Hebrew meaning literally Silicon Valley, covers a high concentration of hi-tech in Israel in the area of Tel Aviv, including the cities of Ra’anana, Petah Tikva, Herzliya, Netanya, the academic city of Rehovot and its neighbor Rishon Le Zion. Additionally, hi-tech clusters are also found in Haifa and Caesarea. Most recently, hi-tech industrial parks have been developed in Jerusalem and surroundings. All of which make Israel a breeding ground for start-ups fostering creativity and innovation.

Nonetheless, besides the economic boom in Israel in the past decade, socio-economic issues still remain a hurdle in the Israeli society. So, it is not surprising that Israelis, mainly the younger ones, will openly vent their frustrations and complain about their daily struggles.

Fresh fruits and produce in one of Sarona Market's 91 stalls, shops, and restaurants of all categories. With over 93,600 square feet, Sarona is the largest indoor market in Tel Aviv, Israel
Fresh fruits and produce in one of Sarona Market’s 91 stalls, shops, and restaurants of all categories. With over 93,600 square feet, Sarona is the largest indoor market in Tel Aviv, Israel

Rents are high compared to income, making the cost of living quite high. Although Tel Aviv is the most expensive city in Israel, it is also a city that has long embraced diversity and inclusiveness. Its charm, fashion and arts, beaches, great weather, outdoorsy lifestyle, and an amazing night life has attracted many people from Europe to emigrate to Tel Aviv in the past decade or so; many of whom  are gays who find freedom, quality of living, entertainment, and professional opportunities to be the reasons to call it home. Not surprisingly, gay friendly Tel Aviv continues to be a great destination for LGBTQ travelers with a number of cafes and gay bars and clubs spreading across the city in its more fashionable and glamorous areas.

In my recent visit to Tel Aviv, I did find out that as LGBTQ people continue to become more and more visible and part of mainstream society in Israel, and, Tel Aviv more and more gay friendly, most of the old gay bars and clubs such as Evita are now closed. Some locals argued that online dating aps bare the blame of the closing of exclusively gay bars and clubs. However, it seems to me that it is more the result of how gay friendly and inclusive the city has become. With less reason to be segregated and forced into exclusive gay venues, the gay population has folded into the general night life and expanded its visibility in the social life of Tel Aviv. What really matters though, is that everyone is having a great, fabulous time in this amazing gay friendly oasis in the Middle East.

I landed in Tel Aviv early in the evening of the beginning of Purim and I was greeted by perhaps the most welcoming, chatty and cheerful immigration officer in can remember in a long time. It was him who reminded me that the festivities began that evening and I should make sure to go out that night. I knew that by the time I made to my hotel and checked in it would be close to midnight and after a long flight perhaps I would be exhausted? But, there is always one thing that can be counted on: it’s that energy that sets in and erases any discomfort on a long flight.

There is something that any first time visitor should know about Israelis! At first they can scare you! There is a certain toughness that comes across as rude. But, that’s all for show! Israelis like to compare themselves to the thorny desert cactus fruit called Sabra. Despite its rough outer look, it is sweet as honey in the inside.  The comparison could not be more on point! Once you overcome the external attitude you realize that there is no more welcoming and sweet people to be with.

On that first night in Tel Aviv it took only a few minutes to meet new friends. One of them could not stand the fact that I did not have a costume for Purim, so he got me one! So, then dressed for the party I had a great time and returned to the hotel in time for breakfast. I had taken a cab to Shpagat on 43 Nahalat Binyamin Street only to find out that it was impossible to get in. The party had sprawled onto the street and by the time the night was over I had already met a number of people and been invited to dinner parties and other events. For the next couple of weeks I returned to Shpagat a few times. With its unique design and atmosphere, hot guys and great music, Shpagat is one of the best spots in Tel Aviv.

To many in Israel, breakfast is the main meal of the day. And one can not be disappointed with breakfast in Israel. Most of the cafes serve breakfast all day. Avid consumers of fruits, vegetables and juices, Israelis love coffee, beer, and wine. Do not be shy to include beer or wine to finish breakfast and start your happy hour at ten in the morning!

Typical Israeli Shakshuka breakfast dish - Hilton Beach area in Tel Aviv, Israel
Typical Israeli Shakshuka breakfast dish – Hilton Beach area in Tel Aviv, Israel

I particularly liked to return to one place that was close to my hotel and because of it’s charming, relaxed atmosphere. Jeremiah, at 306 Diezengoff on the corner of Yermiyahu adds to its great breakfast selection, a feel of a ‘neighborhood’ café. However, no matter where you go in this truly gay friendly city you will enjoy the charming European style cafes with an added Middle Eastern character that abounds in Tel Aviv. Either at the ritzy cafes and gay friendly restaurants on Rothschild Avenue or enjoying the first hours of the day at one of the many casual restaurants on the beach, there are just too many options to choose from to start or end your day.

Tel Aviv's skyline and beaches
Tel Aviv’s skyline and beaches

The Tel Aviv Gay Pride Festival and Parade is organized by the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality which already announced next years Pride week’s schedule. Pride week kicks-off on June 3, 2018, and the Tel Aviv Pride Parade takes place on Friday, June 8, 2018. The Tel Aviv-Yafo Gay Center may be contacted for additional information via office@gaycenter.org.il and a quick Google search land several options for packages which include visits to other locations and sites in Israel and Jordan. If partying your heart out at night and relaxing on the beach as the sun comes out is your thing; stay in Tel Aviv-Yafo! There’s no better place to party and get the perfect tan in the Middle East.

 

 

 

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Rosh Hanikra: Beyond the Gay Hotspot of Tel Aviv

Beyond Tel Aviv the options for sightseeing day trips are limitless and only certain borders can stop you! Add the fact that short distances is one of Israel’s conveniences for travelers, there is no excuse not to leave this gay mecca for a day or two. One of these getaway options is Rosh HaNikra, located on the border with Lebanon. It is only 130 Km from Tel Aviv which can be covered in just under a two-hour drive. After a day trip to the northern border, one can be back in time to enjoy the great nightlife in Israel’s most famous and vibrant gay hotspot.

Sitting on the border with Lebanon on the western Galilee by the Mediterranean, Rosh HaNikra is best known for the grottoes, although its history reveals that there is a lot more to it. Its name in Hebrew literally means “head of the grottoes”.

Grottoes in Rosh HaNikra, Israel
Grottoes in Rosh HaNikra, Israel

Additionally, this soft chalk rocks geological site of cavernous tunnels formed by the forces of the sea, has great historical, strategic trade and defense importance. The border crossing is today closed to Israeli and Lebanese civilians, but that was not always the case. Yet, nowadays, standing close enough to the border crossing the grottoes of Rosh HaNikra is as close to crossing into Lebanon as one can get.

Rosh HaNikra functioned as a passage for trade caravans and armies between Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt, and Africa. Railway tunnels were blasted through nearby rocks by the South African forces during World War II, allowing trains to run through the Cairo-Istanbul line. In 1946, the Haganah spared the bridge during its operation known as the Night of the Bridges. However, in February of 1948 the 21st Battalion of the British army destroyed the bridge to prevent Lebanese shipment of arms to the Arab forces fighting against the UN Partition Plan. Later on the tunnels were sealed. On the Lebanese side, the railway have been dismantled almost completely and the Israeli Coastal Railway ends near Nahariya to the south of Rosh HaNikra.

Carvernous grottoes of Rosh HaNikra in the Israeli-Lebanese, Israel
Cavernous grottoes of Rosh HaNikra in the Israeli-Lebanese, Israel

In 1949, beyond Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and modern Israel’s young political centers, Rosh Hanikra was the place where Israeli and Lebanese officials met and reached an armistice agreement that brought to an end the Lebanese-Israeli conflict over the 1948 War of Independence of Israel.

Border crossing at the Israeli-Lebanese UN Blue Line Zone at Rosh HaNikra, Israel
Border crossing at the Israeli-Lebanese UN Blue Line Zone at Rosh HaNikra, Israel

Today, the border crossing at Rosh HaNikra is only used by the UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon). However, not until long ago, before the insurgency of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and its constant attempts to attack northern Israel, thousands of Lebanese used to cross into Israel to work mainly in agriculture. Locals in the region attest that the current situation hurts both sides as Israel’s agricultural industry needs workers from Lebanon and Lebanese workers have lost one of their source of income.

Road on the hill at the Israeli-Lebanese border in the Blue Line zone at Rosh HaNikra, Israel
Road on the hill at the Israeli-Lebanese border in the Blue Line zone at Rosh HaNikra, Israel

Despite the concerns over eventual attacks coming from southern Lebanon, the area is relatively calm and of astounding beauty. Standing at Rosh HaNikra one can enjoy the view of Israel looking south at the beach along the Mediterranean coast. At the same, looking north on the hill, it is quite surreal to see the dirt road that separates the two countries and that is only used by boarder patrolling and UN personnel in the Blue Line created in May 2000 after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. Nonetheless, Rosh HaNikra is a great destination for a day trip or to be visited as part of a multi-days itinerary in the northwestern region of the Galilee..

View of Israel looking south from Rosh HaNikra, Israel
View of Israel looking south from Rosh HaNikra, Israel

Visiting Rosh HaNikra in March had pros and cons. The wintry conditions with high winds and a bit chilly makes it a bit unconvertible, mainly on top the of the cliff e descending to the grottoes in the cable car. On the other hand, it is a lot less crowded than in late Spring and Summer. In any case, if it is just a day scape beyond Tel Aviv, it is worthwhile to take the trip north. And by the end of the day back in Tel Aviv the options abound for a great evening out to enjoy this city that has been hailed as one of the greatest gay hotspot and destination in the world.

Chalk rocks sculpted by the sea in Rosh HaNikra, Israel
Chalk rocks sculpted by the sea in Rosh HaNikra, Israel
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Old Acre and Haifa: Coexistence and Continuity

Sitting on the shores of the Mediterranean at the northern extremity of Haifa Bay, Old Acre is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. It is its location that helped it to remain populated since the middle Bronze Age, since 4,000 years ago. Today, Old Acre’s population is nearing 50,000 people who make it a diverse community. Christians, Druses, Jews, Muslims, and the Baha’is coexist in this city that is the holiest in the Baha’i faith. Anyone visiting Old Acre and Haifa will notice that coexistence and cultural diversity is something that both cities share in common.

View of the Baha'i Gardens from the top of the staircase overlooking the golden-domed Shrine of Bab - Haifa, Israel
View of the Baha’i Gardens from the top of the staircase overlooking the golden-domed Shrine of the Bab – Haifa, Israel

Just before getting to Old Acre, despite the overcast skies, I made a brief stop in Haifa overlooking the Baha’i Gardens. One of the most visited sites in the Middle East, the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa and Acre are breathtaking. Geometric shapes, a long staircase with nineteen terraces, and the golden domed Shrine of the Bab, are stunning features of the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa. The geometrical composition with natural elements and shapes create an ambiance of pure beauty, peace, and tranquility.

Old Acre, or Akko is also known as Akka, and it is referenced to in Phoenician and biblical texts with slight variations of the word. More importantly, throughout its long existence and its history, Akko was conquered and dominated by different armies that contributed to shaping its cultural heritage. It was, however, the Ottoman Turkish empire that perhaps left a visible mark in the city. Certainly, it can be seen in the skyline of the city and its minarets.

Once called the Mosque of Lights, the Al-Jazzar Mosque, known in Arabic as Jama El-Basha (the Great Pasha’s Mosque), is among the largest mosques built by the Turkish empire in Israel. Completed in 1781, in the early years of the rule of Pasha Al-Jazzar, it was built in the Ottoman Turkish style and it is the largest mosque outside of Jerusalem. It is the third largest mosque in Israel and the Palestinian territories after Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem and the Ibrahim Mosque (Tomb of the Patriarchs) in Hebron.

Al-Jazzar Mosque's green dome and minaret in Akko (Old Acre), Israel
Al-Jazzar Mosque’s green dome and minaret in Akko (Old Acre), Israel

Ahmad Pasha Al-Jazzar was nicknamed “the Butcher” thanks to his cruelty. As the governor of the provinces of Sidon and Damascus, Al-Jazzar was based in Akko where he left his mark stamped by three things he was famous for. Not only he was renowned by his use of cruel force, but by his impressive public works and for defeating Napoleon during the Siege of Acre in 1799. Along with his adopted son and successor Suleyman, Al-Jazzar’s resting place is at the small twin-domed building at the base of the minaret of the Mosque of Lights renamed Al-Jazzar Mosque in his honor.

The region of Haifa and Acre is known for its diverse population peaceful coexistence. Built on the slopes of Mount Carmel, which according to tradition was the home of prophet Elijah, Haifa is a destination for Christian, Jews, and Muslim pilgrims who venerate the prophet. Moreover, the fact that the City of Peaceful Coexistence is home to the Baha’i who are persecuted in most countries of the Middle East speaks volume about its tolerant society. Interfaith initiatives along with arts and sports events that encourage peaceful coexistence, have earned Haifa and its neighboring Acre and the surrounding region the reputation of all working together to foster and maintain peace.

Sweets at a stand on the street in Old Acre, Israel
Sweets at a stand on the street in Old Acre, Israel

As the popular Israeli saying goes, “In Jerusalem people pray, in Haifa they work, in Tel Aviv they have fun.”

And it does not take long for a visitor to notice the ‘relaxed’ atmosphere on the streets of Haifa and Old Acre. Walking on streets, cafes, the market, and street vendors interactions with locals and tourists alike immediately gives a sense of calmness and stability. Years ago I visited Haifa for the first time, and after my recent visit to Acre, I have added a longer visit to Haifa to my bucket list.

After visiting Al-Jazzar Mosque, walking through the souk and buying more than I needed sweets from a street vendor and savoring a large cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, it was now time to visit the Knights Hall.

Crusaders mural in the Knights' Hall in Old Acre (Akko), Israel
Crusaders mural in the Knights’ Hall in Old Acre (Akko), Israel

 

Arches in the central courtyard of the Knights' Hall in Old Acre (Akko), Israel
Exhibits under aches in the central courtyard of the Knights’ Hall in Old Acre (Akko), Israel

Visiting the Knights’ Hall complex or the Citadel is quite moving and exposes the magnificence of Old Acre’s two golden ages: the first in the thirteenth century, and the second in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Central courtyard in the Knights' Hall at the Citadel in Old Acre (Akko), Israel
Central courtyard in the Knights’ Hall at the Citadel in Old Acre (Akko), Israel

Excavations in the 1950’s and 1960’s exposed remains from the Hellenistic Period (300-63 BC), from the Early Arab Period (638-1099 AD), from the Crusaders Period (1104-1291 AD), and most extensively from the thirteenth century.

Prison courtyard at the Knights' Hall or Citadel in Old Acre (Akko), Israel
Prison courtyard at the Knights’ Hall or Citadel in Old Acre (Akko), Israel

Today tourists enjoy the site thanks to the extensive restoration work that took place in the 1990’s. The Knights’ Hall, which served as the Knights Hospitaller Compound, is a testament to the Crusaders Period in Old Acre.

The capital of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Old Acre saw the destruction of the Crusaders compound during the Mamluk period (1291-1517 AD). In the late Ottoman Period (1750-1918 AD), the citadel was built on the ruins of the Crusaders’ fortress structures as part of the city’s defense. Later on, during the British Mandate Period (1918-1948 AD), serving as the main prison in northern Israel, the site was used to hold the Jewish Zionist resistance activists prisoners.

 

Pillars in the northern hall at the Knights' Hall or Citadel in Old Acre (Akko), Israel
Pillars in the northern hall at the Knights’ Hall or Citadel in Old Acre (Akko), Israel

 

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Fascinating Jerusalem: An Intriguing World of Diversity

Jerusalem intrigues and fascinates! It does not matter what are your interests and reasons to visit Jerusalem. This at times tumultuous city has something for everyone. Undoubtedly, the first thing that comes to mind is religion. Home to the three major religions in the world, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have shared and fought for Jerusalem for the most part of the past two thousand years. However, its history and the tales of conflicts, destructions, and rebuilding predates the birth of Christianity and Islam.

However, if religion is not your focus, no worries! Jerusalem’s political history is a magnet for those who are interested in international affairs. You don’t have to be a historian or a scholar to be attracted to Jerusalem. Simply speaking, if you are a ‘history buff’ or just love history and current affairs for the sake of curiosity, Jerusalem must be in your short bucket list of places to visit.  One thing is to have opinions based on the news media; the other thing is to walk the alleyways of the Old City observing the dynamics of its inhabitants daily lives, and have a conversation with locals while sipping coffee or tea.

Coffee in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel
Coffee in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel
Palestinian Authority (PA) police officers guarding the 'Muslim-only' entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque - the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel
Palestinian Authority (PA) police officers guarding the ‘Muslim-only’ entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque – the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel
The Old City Souk in the Muslim Quarter - East Jerusalem, Israel
The Old City Souk in the Muslim Quarter – East Jerusalem, Israel

Thus, talking to locals in this often portrayed as a dangerous city to visit, can change one’s perspective about its reality. Although one cannot overlook nor disregard the fact that occasional conflicts do happen. Despite the acts of violence that are committed sporadically, it is the fact that the vast majority of Muslims, Jews, and Christians live side-by-side in Jerusalem that reflects its daily reality.

More importantly, for the casual tourist, Jerusalem is a city where you can spend a week or so and enjoy days filled with activities. It is a city that one can explore without the help of a tour guide and enjoy the freedom of time to spend at will. I find it particularly exciting stopping at shops and cafes chatting with locals.  Shopkeepers are always willing to offer their own perspective on their daily realities. Just do not expect more than two people to agree on anything here.

The Old City Souk in the Muslim Quarter - East Jerusalem, Israel
The Old City Souk in the Muslim Quarter – East Jerusalem, Israel

And remember! No one is in a rush here! It seems that everyone is accustomed to waiting. Some people are waiting for the first coming of the Messiah; others are waiting for His return. And there are those who are just waiting to go home at the end of the day to be with their families. Some of its inhabitants wait for the call to pray; others wait for enduring peace. And there are those waiting for the next waive of shoppers dropped by another tour bus.

Additionally, if one day is all you have in your tight schedule because in one week in the country you want to hit all the highlights of Israel, then I recommend joining a tour. A day tour will take you from one place to another maximizing the use of your time and providing with historic information and facts that will leave you wishing you had more time to spend in the city.

So, in my last visit to Israel I decided to make Tel Aviv my home base and go on day trips around the country, as I wanted to spend more time having fun and relaxing. So for my one day visit to East Jerusalem, the Old City, I chose to join a tour. I found it very convenient knowing that I would be picked up at the hotel in Tel Aviv and be dropped off at its door back in the evening. I must confess that I was a little hesitant because I was not so sure if that was the right decision.

Nevertheless, a successful tour depends on the particular tour guide and sometimes on the other travelers who are in your group. My group was a small one with only eight people. I chose to travel with Bein Harim Tours which provides day tours throughout Israel and some longer tours of two, three, four or more days. Bein Harim buses and vans pick up passengers at different hotels in Tel Aviv and bring them to a ‘meeting point’. At the meeting point passengers transfer to buses and vans heading to different cities and attractions in Israel. Some of them to Jordan.

Furthermore, each tour description offers recommendations about what to bring, how to dress and what to expect. I found them accurate and helpful on all day trips I went on to do with them. My hotel was only five minutes from the meeting point, so I was the last one picked up that morning. From the start, I liked the tour guide, Amir, who also happened to be the driver. What a fascinating story-teller! A linguist and a historian with a captivating sense of humor.

In fact, just before arriving in Jerusalem Amir made a stop for coffee. Surprisingly, a planned stop at a place that is all about Elvis Presley! Really? Was this a joke? My first thought was that I came all the way from California and my first stop on a tour of Jerusalem is at a diner that looks more like Graceland! Nonetheless, it was there surrounded by Elvis’ memorabilia that I started to talk to another passenger whose home is in New Jersey.

Consequently, Mike became my travel buddy for the day. Soon I found out that he was an airline pilot who was grounded in Tel Aviv for a couple of days. His flight like many others was cancelled because of the winter blizzard in the US northeastern region. As it is his first time visiting Jerusalem, it was exciting to see the reactions of a first time visitor and hear his impressions. He was marveled to find out that ‘it is safe’ to visit Jerusalem and remarked that he had to stop watching television. Mike now felt comfortable to bring his wife and his two little children to visit Jerusalem.

Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount - Jerusalem, Israel
Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount – Jerusalem, Israel

Next we stopped at a viewpoint at the Mount of Olives. Our was the first photo-op of the day! Overlooking the Old City with the iconic golden Dome of the Rock shinning on Temple Mount, offered a stunning view of Old Jerusalem and its surrounding valleys.

View of Temple Mount over the Kidron Valley - Jerusalem, Israel
View of Temple Mount over the Kidron Valley – Jerusalem, Israel

After getting acquainted with the geography of the city, we continued our trip passing the Garden of Gethsemane and the astonishing 2,000 year old burial tombs in the Kidron Valley, before entering the Old City by the Jaffa Gate. The small square inside the Jaffa Gate which leads to the entrance to the Christian Quarter to the left, the Muslim Quarter straight ahead, and the Armenian Quarter to the right past the Tower of David, was our first stop in the Old City.

Just before lunch we toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the holiest site for Christians, pilgrims line up to touch the Stone of Anointing believed to be the stone where the body of Jesus was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea, to pray at the Altar of Crucifixion, and to contemplate at the Aedicula believed to contain the tomb of Jesus.

Because of its importance to Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is divided among the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, and the Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Overwhelming Christian pilgrims from all over the world, the church’s intriguing history and fascinating architecture is certain to dazzles even the most agnostic of its visitors.

Ceiling at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - East Jerusalem, Israel
Ceiling at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – East Jerusalem, Israel

Next stop was at the Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall as it is also known, we passed through the Muslim Quarter where we had shawarma for lunch on the rooftop of a restaurant overlooking Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. After lunch we continued our tour which included the ‘stations of the Cross’, on the Via Dolorosa.

Sign on Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows) - Old City of Jerusalem, Israel
Sign on Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows) – Old City of Jerusalem, Israel

As we arrived at the last station of the Cross, our guide reminded us that we had been walking “not on the steps of Jesus, but at best above where it might have been the Way of the Cross on the day of his crucifixion”. Two thousand years of sediments deposited after a succession of destructions and rebuilding, as excavations show, have long ago buried the 2,000 year old pathways where Jesus once walked. However, such geological reality should not in anyway diminish what current day Old Jerusalem represents.

Another important via (street) in the Old City is the Cardo.  Today, with part of the excavations completed, a section of the Cardo was rebuilt and reactivated with shops and art galleries in the Jewish Quarter.

Excavated original pillars that collonated the Byzantine Cardo - Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel
Excavated original pillars that collonated the Byzantine Cardo – Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel

Since part of the Cardo excavations work is still an ongoing project, visitors can see it from a viewing point installed above. The Byzantine Cardo is what Jerusalem’s main street was 1,500 years ago. Originally paved when Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem in the second century, the Cardo was expanded in the sixth century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. In its glorious days, the wide colonnaded street ran through the cardo (heart) of the city.

In addition, one can have a good idea about what the heart of Jerusalem looked like in the Byzantine period. A replica of a mosaic found on the pavement of a Byzantine Church from the sixth century in the town of Madaba, Jordan, is on display in the Cardo. Known as the Madaba map, it depicts what the cardos, a feature in many Roman cities in the Near East looked like.

Replica of mosaic from a sixth century Byzantine Church from Madaba, Jordan on display in the Cardo in the Jewish Quarter - Old City of Jerusalem, Israel
Replica of mosaic from a sixth century Byzantine Church from Madaba, Jordan on display in the Cardo in the Jewish Quarter – Old City of Jerusalem, Israel

Similarly, the reconstructed Cardo is once again the main attraction in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. And not to be missed in the replica of the mosaic portraying the Cardo, on its right lower corner is the representation of a Byzantine girl handing a pomegranate to a twentieth-first century boy. Perhaps, to me this is a statement to how Jerusalem’s present is intrinsically connected to its past. Obviously, contrary to what many wish, its present cannot be separated from its past … not even for a second!

Finally, just before leaving the Old City, we visited the holiest place in Judaism commonly known as the Western Wall where Jews are allowed to pray. The Kotel (or, HaKotel)  in Hebrew, it is also known as the Wailing Wall, in reference to the practice of Jews weeping at the site of the destruction of the Temples.

At the Western Wall - Old City of Jerusalem, Israel
At the Western Wall – Old City of Jerusalem, Israel

Built by Herod the Great, it is known as the Western Wall because it was one of the four retaining walls that formed a box-like structure. On top of this rectangular set of retaining walls, Herod built a large esplanade surrounding the Temple. Of all four retaining walls, the Western Wall is considered to be the closest to the Temple, making it the holiest places in Judaism outside the Temple Mount old esplanade itself.

However, on our way out of town heading to the Dead Sea, the moment Amir announced that we had arrived in was perhaps one of the most clarifying and entertaining anecdotes of the day. Although I had heard the story a few times before, it was particularly interesting and colorful coming from our guide’s sharpened sense of humor. A relief to know that this is all what hell is about! Or, a disappointment to those expecting a bit more in the after life. Passing through the Valley of Hinnon, Amir suddenly stopped the van, turned to us and said: Welcome to Hell! 

Surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City including Mount Zion, from the west and the south, the Valley of Hinnon meets and merges with the Kidron Valley. Originating from the Greek word gehenna and from Hebrew geHinnon, the valley is the location where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire. A place for those who fell from grace with the kings, in Jewish Rabbinic literature, and Christian and Islamic texts, Gehenna is the destination for the wicked. Literally it means the Valley of the children of Hinnon.

After being saved from hell, we continued through the Judean Valley, passing Jericho to the northern coast of the Dead Sea. Now in the desert and closer to the Dead Sea the landscape was no longer green, only dotted with beautiful oasis of date palms.

Floating! - Dead Sea, Israel
Floating! – Dead Sea, Israel

In our journey through the desert we were warned not to drink from the waters of the Dead Sea. Under no circumstances! “One single cup of water from the Dead Sea will kill you!” – our guide repeated several times. After a couple of hours getting muddy and floating in the mineral rich waters of the Dead Sea we returned to Tel Aviv. It was almost eight in the evening when I was dropped off at the door of my hotel. I would just have enough time to shower and go out to have dinner with a couple of friends.

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Eat in Jaffa When You Visit Israel

When in Tel Aviv you must stroll in the city’s promenade and find your way to Jaffa. Or, take a taxi. If you visit Israel, that is just one thing that you must do. As the city’s history attests, modern day travelers are not the only ones who fell to the seduction of its charm and character. Jaffa is known for its association with the biblical stories of Jonah, Solomon, and Saint Peter. In mythology, Jaffa is associated with Andromeda and Perseus. Its captivating history spans from the Early Antiquity period to Modern Israel, through the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods, the Medieval period, the Ottoman period and the British Mandate

Welcome to Old Jaffa - Tel Aviv - Jaffa, Israel
Welcome to Old Jaffa – Tel Aviv – Jaffa, Israel

Archaeological evidence shows that the city was already inhabited around the year 7,500 BC. Mythology has that Jaffa, or Yafo, was named after one of Noah’s sons; Japheth.  Throughout its history, Jaffa was fought over and conquered by empires, crusaders, and pirates because of its strategic location and harbor. Its harbor has been in use since the Bronze Age, making it one of the oldest in the world. The old port of Jaffa has been in almost continuous operation for the past 4,000 years. That’s where I ended up after a hike on the promenade of Tel-Aviv.

Walking from Tel-Aviv to its southern and oldest part of town, provides with a magnificent view of the beach and the Mediterranean Sea and it is not a long walk. The promenade ends at the Old Port of Jaffa where shops and eateries are certain to catch a visitor’s attention at the moment one sets foot at the old harbor. If you are already in Jaffa or chose to take a taxi or drive yourself, there is still plenty of walking to do while visiting the old city. As it is the case with most ancient cities, there are steps that will take you up and down the alleys and labyrinths of Jaffa.

Jaffa Port - Tel Aviv - Jaffa, Israel
Jaffa Port – One of the oldest ports in the world.

Although layers upon layers of historical events cover every inch of the city, the landmarks are remarkable testimonies to Israel’s cultural, religious and political identity. Jaffa is greatly significant for Christianity, as it was there that Saint Peter raised Tabitha from the dead according to the Act of the Apostles biblical texts (Acts 9:36-43 and Acts 10:1-4). The Saint Peter’s Church is one of such landmarks built in the Ottoman period in 1654 and dedicated to Saint Peter.

Saint Peter's bell tower - Old Jaffa, Israel
Saint Peter’s bell tower seen from Kikar Kedumim Street – Old Jaffa, Israel

Regardless of religious affiliation or faith, the succession of events embodied in the Saint Peter’s Church is certain to fascinate any visitor. Located over a medieval citadel that was built by Frederick I, later restored by Louis IX of France in the thirteenth century, the church was destroyed twice before it was rebuilt from 1888 to 1894. Among other intriguing facts, except for the windows that depict Tabitha, Francis of Assisi, and the Immaculate Conception, all other windows represent Spanish saints because the church was reconstructed by the Spanish Empire.

Steps on Kikar Kedumim Street with Saint Peter's Church iconic bell tower in the back - Jaffa, Israel
Steps on Kikar Kedumim Street with Saint Peter’s Church iconic bell tower in the back – Jaffa, Israel

 

Saint Peter's Church bell tower and the minaret of Al-Bahr Mosque - Jaffa, Israel
Saint Peter’s Church bell tower and the minaret of Al-Bahr Mosque – Jaffa, Israel

The Mosque of the Sea, or the Al-Bahr Mosque, is said to be probably the oldest mosque in Jaffa. Standing on the shores of the Mediterranean in the Old Port of Jaffa area, its minaret with a green dome gives a peculiar character to the skyline of Jaffa. When approaching Jaffa from its northern neighbor, on the promenade of Tel Aviv, the iconic view of the bell tower of the Saint Peter’s Church and the minaret of the Al-Bahr Mosque side by side are reminders of the complexity of history of Jaffa and of Israel. Nonetheless, when you visit Israel the realities of daily coexistence debunks the extraordinary efforts in the media to show only the conflicts of war and disputes.

Jaffa Flea Market - Jaffa, Israel
Jaffa Flea Market – Jaffa, Israel

No matter where you go when you visit Israel or how much time you have left in yours hands, visiting the Jaffa Flea Market is a must do. In the Shuk HaPishpishim, as it is called in Hebrew, treasure hunters are certain to find antiques, handmade and secondhand artifacts from everywhere.

It certainly offers an authentic Middle Eastern market experience. Complete with the haggling, vibrant colors and smells of vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices, the market’s three areas on main street sell antique furniture, carpets and oriental ornaments. In two long covered alleys, clothing, jewelry and souvenirs complete the scene with a lively and colorful bazaar atmosphere.

Alleyway in the Old City of Jaffa, Israel
Alleyway in the Old City of Jaffa, Israel

Every time I visit Israel, I try not to go on organized tours unless it is absolutely necessary or required that I join a tour. Although I suggest them to most people I speak with, I personally prefer spending more time at one location at my leisure. I also enjoy walking, as I love a great hike, and Jaffa offers a fantastic opportunity to do just that. One never knows what lies around the corner!

On my last visit, after a couple of hours exploring the flea market, I discovered a café by pure chance. In fact, it was the smell that came from the café that led me inside. Cafes, restaurants, and bars are typically very busy in the evening in and around the shuk area, but as I walked in, except for three or four people sitting at a small table outside by the door, I was the only customer. Main Bazar is located on Olei Zion 7 Alley and it is a pub with a great, laidback atmosphere. Besides the its local feel, what made my day was the food! Simple, original, and superb!

Hummus at Main Bazar in the Flea Market - Jaffa, Israel
Hummus at Main Bazar in the Flea Market – Jaffa, Israel
Bourekas at Main Bazar - Jaffa, Israel
Bourekas at Main Bazar in the Flea Market – Jaffa, Israel

The hummus at Main Bazar was probably the best I have ever eaten; even compared to other locations in Israel. Not realizing how generous the size of the portions were, the three items I ordered turned out to be a bit too much and I could not eat even half of the servings. In the end, it was the hummus that vanished from my plate.

The surprise came with the check! I could not believe how good the prices were and I probably paid just one-third of what I would have paid in Tel Aviv. By the time I left, the sun had set and the place was then full with locals who seem to know one another and were just ending their day with a happy hour. So next time you visit Israel, eat in Jaffa!

View of Saint Peter's Church and the Al-Bahr Mosque illuminated silhouettes stood elegantly and majestic appearing to be one. 
View of Saint Peter’s Church seen from the promenade of Tel Aviv at night – Jaffa-Tel Aviv, Israel
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From Dana Point to West Hollywood

Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California

One of the advantages of traveling alone is that there’s no discussion about where to go, when to go, and when and where to stop. If I see a place that catches my eyes, my attention and my imagination, I simply turn around and go check it out! It’s either a quick stop or a place to stay for a few hours or days. It’s true that in many occasions I think about who I would like to be there sharing that moment with me because I know we would have a great time doing this or that together. One of the conclusions that comes from being on the road is that a place is multidimensional as it is seen in different ways by different people who are at different stages in their own personal voyages. I have got recommendations from people who visited or lived at a certain location, but, as I visited those places, I did not have the same reactions and impressions I was told about. By saying that I do not intend to say it was not as good or bad as described. Rather, seeing and experiencing a place is personal.

Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California

Traveling north after leaving San Diego, drove through Dana Point, stopping only to get a cappuccino. Finding a place to park proved to be a struggle as the town was a bit “crowded”. My next stop was at Laguna Beach where I parked right in front of Coffee Klatch on South Coast Highway. An inviting, colorfully decorated coffee shop serving great coffee and pastries. After spending about half an hour at the coffee shop, I went for a stroll on the beach. Contrary to Dana Point, Laguna Beach was less crowded.

A couple of hours later I was traveling to Malibu where I had planned to find a place for a late lunch. No, I had no place in mind! When I am traveling by myself, unless I am meeting someone, I do an online search when there are just a few or no visible options. Otherwise, I like driving or walking around and let the curb appeal drag me in. Sometimes it is the smell of food, the colors of the walls, or the people who are already there that will make me go in. The deciding factor that will make me ultimately choose the place is how I am greeted by the host or hostess. So, with no plan or place in mind I crossed Malibu south-north on Coast Highway and it was on the north end of town that I found the place I would have lunch and spend another hour relaxing on their little private beach.

Paradise Cove Beach Cafe - Malibu, California
Paradise Cove Beach Cafe – Malibu, California
Malibu Mai Tai at Paradise Cove Beach Cafe
Malibu Mai Tai at Paradise Cove Beach Cafe

The Paradise Cove Beach Cafe has character and lives up to its name. Paradise Cove is a stunning area that has been the location for quite a few movies and has a Hawaiian feel. The cafe has indoor and outdoor sittings with some tables on a sanded area. One of the perks is that if you plan on staying up to four hours and eat at the cafe, parking becomes a lot cheaper. Parking fees in the area are steep! The staff was welcoming and friendly and I only had to wait about ten minutes to get a table outside. As I had plans to be in West Hollywood by the end of the day, I chose to eat light, so I had the Paradise Shrimp & Delicious Crab Chop, which turned out to be a huge salad. It was superb! I ordered their Malibu Mai Tai and would have had more than one if I didn’t have to drive because it was just perfect! While I was having lunch I noticed that the restaurant was getting a lot busier with a varied crowd. As I get the check I asked the waiter about sitting outside by the water in their lovely wood chairs. He told me that I could sit there for a couple of hours but there was one rule: I had to open the beer I had ordered myself! Just outside a little gate to the beach there’s a small table with a bottle opener, and that’s where my beer bottle would be waiting for me. After paying the bill and opening the beer bottle I sat in one of the chairs outside basking in the sun for another hour.

Earlier that day I had made it a goal to get to West Hollywood and there was one place I had in mind to stop by: The Abbey! Having heard so much about The Abbey, I could not simply drive through the neighborhood and not stop by. Although I kept reminding myself that this trip was about wildlife, camping and hiking and not about cities, I could not resist driving through Sunset Boulevard! Surprisingly, when I set my GPS to take me from Paradise Cove in Malibu to The Abbey in West Hollywood, it told me that it would take almost two hours to get to my destination. Something is wrong, I thought! I reentered the address just to make sure that I hadn’t made a mistake, after all it is only 28 miles. Again it told me that it would take almost two hours! All I could do was trust the GPS as it had never been wrong before and I thought that maybe there was an accident somewhere on the road ahead. No, there was no accident! Just traffic! Two hours later I arrived at The Abbey. It’s beautifully decorated and obviously everything resembles a chapel. However, it was not busy at all. Only a few people in small groups around the bar where I sat and had a couple of beers and some delicious appetizers. It appeared that everyone there knew everyone else. A couple who sat next to me told me that a few hours later the place would be packed! After chatting with a few people who came and went, I realized that The Abbey would be really fun to visit with friends. By the time I finished eating I figured that it was time to get back on the road and a pick a place to spend the night. My next stop was Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, almost four hours drive from The Abbey. That evening I planned to get as close to the park as possible so I could get in early in next morning. The weather was perfect for driving!