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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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Touring Israel: On the Footsteps of Herod the Great

Touring Israel can be tricky. Many years after a long visit to Israel and following the great technological advancement that the country has seen in the past two decades, one thing remains unchanged: public transportation in Israel remains a challenge. In such a small country where virtually every place is close, it is still difficult to get to places when touring Israel. Perhaps the most practical way is renting a car, but driving in Israel is not for the light-hearted. Traffic, specially around Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv can be chaotic. Buses are commonplace is Israel but from the bus stations you will be left to taking a cab and having to walk from site to site. You can always take the shared taxis, mini vans, know as sherut. Perhaps the most convenient option is to join a tour.

Visiting Caesarea was such one of the cases for which I decided to join a tour leaving Tel Avid headed north including multiple sites on the coast. On that particular tour, we left behind schedule and the tour guide seemed to rush to make up time. The group was a bit too large which to me is always a turn off. Nonetheless, the dazzling ruins of this ancient city and its history can offset any of the practical downside of being on a tour.Located halfway north of Tel Aviv and south of Haifa, the ancient Phoenician settlement first known as Straton’s Tower, was rebuilt by Herod the Great, king of Judea, to honor Caesar Augustus. In 6 CE, the city became the capital of the Roman province of Judea. Subsequently, it became an important center in the history of early Christianity.

Display of headless statue of unknown figure found in Caesarea, Israel
Display of headless statue of unknown figure found in Caesarea, Israel

It was in Caesarea that Paul the Apostle remained in prison for a period of two years before he was sent to Rome for trial. According to the first century historian Flavius Josephus, it was in Caesarea that the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome took place in 132-135 CE. The Jewish revolt that culminated with the torture and execution of ten of the greatest Jewish Palestinian sages, including Rabbi Akiba, is remembered in the liturgy of Yom Kippur.

Nowadays, home to the only golf club in Israel and a prime location for wealthy Israeli summer homes, the city is also known for having one of the best beaches in Israel. The Caesarea National Park is a magnificent site to be included when touring Israel. Excavations in the 1950’s uncovered a Roman temple, an amphitheater, hippodrome, aqueduct, and other ruins of later periods including that of the crusades. One of its unique treasure is the archeological evidence of Pontius Pilate’s existence that was found in Caesarea during the excavations of 1961. This archeological finding of the Roman procurator’s name inscription is the only mention that places him within his lifetime and at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion.

Remarkable for its archeological and historical value, the ancient port of Caesarea is a technological marvel accomplished by Herod the Great. Possibly it was the first of its kind built entirely in open sea, the port served as base for Herod’s navy that operated as far as the Black Sea. Another astonishing ancient architectural accomplishment is the Roman aqueduct that brought water from the foot of Mount Carmel located ten miles away.

Ruins of Roman Aqueduct arch - Caesarea, Israel
Ruins of Roman Aqueduct arch – Caesarea, Israel

Sebastos (Greek for Augustus) Harbor was built at the end of the first century BC by King Herod the Great and became an important harbor for commerce in the antiquity. Sebastos was the most impressive harbor of its time, rivalling Cleopatra’s harbor in Alexandria. Kenneth Holum in his book King Herod’s Dream: Caesarea on the Sea, quoted historian Josephus as saying that “Although the location was generally unfavorable, [Herod] contended with all the difficulties so well that the solidity of the construction could not be overcome by the sea, and its beauty seemed finished off without impediment.”

Roman public estrooms at the Roman hippodrome ruins in Caesarea, Israel
Roman public restrooms (latrines) at the Roman hippodrome ruins in Caesarea, Israel

Regretfully, by the time we arrived in Caesarea our tour guide announced that we had to move quickly as he had a lot to cover. We were first taken to the hippodrome where we delighted us with historical facts and anecdotes from the 1959 Ben-Hur film in which Charlton Heston plays a Palestinian Jew who is battling the Roman Empire. The hippodrome is where Judah Ben-Hur, falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother,  meets his rival in a chariot race and rescues his family for slavery. Standing on the site where the favorite Roman form of entertainment and competition took place is undeniably exciting. It is enticing to let one’s mind speculate on how thrilling would it be to travel 2,000 years back in time?

Ruins of Roman hippodrome excavated in Caesarea, Israel
Ruins of Roman hippodrome excavated in Caesarea, Israel

Touring Israel is like entering the portal that allows you to travel back in time. It magically ignites your imagination and it is impossible not wonder how life was at different periods of the history of Israel? Our guide was quite good in planting the seed of imagination in our minds. After we got our lecture at the hippodrome, we were shown the ruins of the palace and of the swimming pool. That’s right! The palace had a swimming pool! Our next stop was at the antitheater.

Arch in one of the entrances to the amphitheater in Caesarea, Israel
Arch in one of the entrances to the amphitheater in Caesarea, Israel

Showtime! The antitheater, with a seating capacity of 15,000 spectators, is a reminiscence of the grandiose of ancient Roman entertainment venues.
In its glorious days, it was the largest performance venue in Palestine. Partly restored and rebuilt after its ruins were excavated, it is today used for performances in the Summer season. Modern day big Israeli stars and internationally famous artists such as Shlomo Artzi, Yehudit Ravitz, Mashina, Deep Purple, Bjork, among others have performed at the ancient Roman theater in Caesarea. Besides its current functional entertainment venue, the view of the beach and the Mediterranean Sea is breathtaking.

It is important to note that in the vicinity of Caesarea, including the region in the southern foothills of Mount Carmel about 22 miles south of the city of Haifa, there are wineries that are open to visitors, tours, and wine tasting. Also, the Aqueduct Beach is an attraction visited by locals, Israelis vacationers, and international tourists who visit the area. A region with a diverse culinary tradition, hotels, and spas, Caesarea is a fabulous option for those touring Israel which must join your bucket list of places to see.

 

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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