Israel is a country that continually wowed us. For such a compact, diminutive region, Israel is extremely diverse. Our visit included the unmissable city of Jerusalem, which contains some of the holiest places in the world for Christians, Muslims and Jews. We joined Christian pilgrims to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, mingled alongside Jews to pray at the Western Wall, and walked amongst Muslims who flocked to the Dome of the Rock. From Jerusalem, we took a day trip into the West Bank to see Bethlehem, whose highlight is the Church of the Nativity (birthplace of Christ), Jericho (the oldest and lowest inhabited city in the world where we visited the Mount and Monastery of Temptation, a 12th Century Greek Orthodox monastery that clings to the rock face), Herodion and Mar Saba. Another Jerusalem day trip included a hop over to the Dead Sea where we hiked to David’s Waterfall at Ein Gedi, floated in the Dead Sea and rode a cable car to the plateau fortress of Masada. Then it was off to Tel Aviv, which is a gorgeous cosmopolitan city by the sea. There, we visited Old Jaffa and had some quality beach time, before jetting off to Haifa, where the Baha’I Gardens are not to be missed. A day trip to Akko was rewarding before we headed over to the Sea of Galilee (where Jesus supposedly walked on water but we swam instead!). From Tiberias, we had a day trip to the Golan Heights where we explored every nook and cranny of Nimrod Castle before hiking to Banias Waterfall which was an oasis of delight. Back in Tiberias, we soaked our tired bones in the Sea of Galilee, before heading back to Tel Aviv where we reveled in all that we had seen and done over the past two weeks.
4 Aug: Our Air Sinai flight touched down at Ben Gurion airport at 11:20 am, just a few minutes later than our scheduled arrival time. We disembarked and were immediately drilled about where we had come from, what we had been doing in Egypt and if we knew anyone from Rabat (the immigration official checked our passports for stamps and found it curious that we had visited Morocco of all places). Eventually we were allowed to continue, but again at passport control, both of us were flagged and escorted out of the queue for further questioning as to our travel itinerary. We had to explain all the African stamps in our passport but it was easy to do as Robby was wearing his TransAfrica t-shirt and simply pointed to the map on it as an explanation. Finally, as abruptly as our interrogation had started, we were allowed to leave the holding area with a “Welcome to Israel”. Our lone checked bag was sitting forlornly by itself on the baggage carousel, and we grabbed it and passed through customs with no further to do. After withdrawing some money from a nearby ATM ($1 = 3.4 NIS), we followed our youth hostel’s directions on taking public transportation to downtown Jerusalem (it cost 23 NIS to get to the Jerusalem Central Bus Station) and a further 6.20 NIS to get to Jaffa Gate. To our immense surprise, the bus drivers were extremely helpful and accommodating towards tourists, and they always made sure to tell us when to get off and where our stops were. After arriving to Jaffa Gate, our home for the next few days was to be the Citadel Youth Hostel which is smack dab in the center of old Jerusalem. It was quite easy to get to as their directions were spot on. We paid our outstanding balance, 450 NIS, and were given rooftop access (with mattresses brought out at 4 pm daily). The view from the rooftop of the old city was phenomenal, and we couldn’t believe how picturesque and lovely Jerusalem is. After getting ourselves sorted, we headed back downstairs and walked through the Christian quarter in search of lunch, stumbling upon Families Restaurant where we scored a tasty shawarma for 16 NIS each. Eating in Israel is going to be expensive!!! Afterwards, we wandered around the city with no agenda in mind, stumbling upon the Damascus gate and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A small grocery store with no labeled prices irked Robby tremendously but we bought some spaghetti and sauce and two bottles of water for 30 NIS. We headed back to our hostel to revise our itinerary and debated whether or not to book an excursion to Bethlehem. The small kitchen got quite crowded around 7 pm so we had to wait a bit to cook our pasta dinner. Meanwhile, Becky made small talk with some friendly Spanish guys who were preparing their dinner. The Citadel Hostel had super-hot water showers that felt wonderful and there was a strong breeze on the rooftop so we slept quite well throughout the night.
15 Aug: Much to our chagrin, our 5:30 am alarm sounded unexpectedly. Robby forgot to turn it off last night, and it was tucked away in the bottom of a locked bag. Fumbling around in the early morning light, it took Robby about a minute to unlock the bag, find it and turn it off, making us two of the most unpopular campers on the rooftop that morning! We finally roused ourselves out of our comfy sleeping bags at 8 am and scoured the city of Jerusalem for fresh bread, but to our surprised, almost everything was closed (perhaps due to Ramadan?). Finally, near Damascus Gates, we found a bakery but the owner refused to sell us his day old stale bread and recommended that we wait an hour to get some freshly baked bread. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a neighbor carting up several crates of fresh bread, so he pointed us in the right direction, and we were able to get four fresh pitas for 2 NIS. Our breakfast consisted of bread, peanut butter and honey as well as some tea. Afterwards, we headed over to Jaffa Gate where we wanted to buy tickets for the rampart walk. We requested the 16 NIS tickets which was the price for walking the ramparts themselves, but a sly saleswoman lied and stated that we would have to pay extra once on the walls to gain access past certain points, so she sold us 55 NIS tickets which included entrance to these “mandatory” sights. We were skeptical but decided to give her the benefit of the doubt, as we knew we could figure out right away if she was deceiving us or not. Our route took us on the southern section of the wall, from Jaffa Gate towards Dung Gate. Enroute, we saw two bar mitzvahs going on, complete with lots of singing, dancing and merry making. By the time we reached Dung Gate, we had a fine view of the crowds gathering to visit the western wall (aka the “wailing wall”) and the ruse was up…we knew firsthand that the saleswoman had been deceptive in her sales tactics by stretching the truth. The 16 NIS ticket it all that is necessary to walk the rampart walls as the 55 NIS ticket allows entrance to several optional and not so appealing extras. We stormed back to the ticket counter and demanded a refund (and got one with no questions asked….we saw another irate customer who had fallen for the same gimmick and he was pretty firm when he reprimanded her that “I told you all I wanted was to walk the ramparts wall so why did you sell me this other overpriced ticket!?”). It was nearing 11 am when we finally got our refund back, and just beyond Jaffa Gate, we met our free city tour guide, Eres, for a walk around the four quarters of Jerusalem. There was a lot of interest in this tour, so our group was quite large and Eres had to lay down some rules to gain control of what could easily turn into an unruly situation. Just a few minutes into his opening speech, an American girl passed out in a seizure in front of everyone. It was a bit scary watching as her eyes rolled to the back of her head, and when she came to, everyone realized that she was just dehydrated and had passed out due to the intense heat. Suitably warned, everyone began gulping down water to stay hydrated, and Eres brought us over to a nearby convenience store where everyone could purchase a last minute bottle of water if need be. Then it was the start of our three hour tour, and we strolled through the Christian Quarter where we made our way to the Ethiopian Monastery to reach the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Next we strolled down the Via Dolorosa (“way of suffering”) where Jesus Christ struggled beneath his cross towards the site of his crucifixion. Our path crossed Station 9, the location where Jesus took his third fall under the weight of the cross. Our next destination was a wander through the Muslim Quarter where we eventually ended up at a lookout point over the Western Wall. Eres was extremely knowledgeable about religion and history which he freely shared with us, and it was enjoyable walking around with an expert who knew how to put the history into context. Lunch was in the Jewish Quarter, where we were given about 10 minutes to grab a quick bit to eat. However, with the cheapest shawarma priced at 26 NIS, we quickly gave it a miss and decided that since the tour ended in about 45 minutes, we could hold out and return to our other shawarma joint for a better priced lunch. It is unfathomable how expensive Israel is, and we just struggled to wrap our minds around the costs of everyday items. Eres gathered everyone together and led us over to the Cardo, the main street of old Jerusalem with two rows of colonnades. From the Jewish Quarter, we headed over to the compact Armenian Quarter where we climbed up a staircase for a lookout over the entire city. At this point, we parted from the group after giving Eres a tip (he’s a free city tour guide but earns his income from tips) and headed back to Families Restaurant for another shawarma lunch. Becky recalled where a nearby supermarket was, so we dropped in to pick up some tuna, bread and water. However, the price for water was extortionate, so we found a different supermarket where we got 2 liter bottles for only 4 NIS each (a bargain for the old city). A sign in the Khan Ezzeit Souq advertised an ATM, but we quickly found out that despite their claim of “no fees”, the exchange rate was absolute crap. Robby wanted to withdraw 1000 NIS and was told it would cost him $335 (compared to the official exchange rate of $284)…does anyone ever fall for these tricks? After returning to the hostel to drop off our groceries, we headed out towards Zion Square where we found an ATM machine and hit the Mahaneh Yehuda Market area, a lively section of Jerusalem with fresh fruits, vegetables, pastries, and shoppers all in search of a good deal. Becky was able to find Masala Chai tea and we found a store selling cheap cereal (10 NIS for a box of Honey Bunches of Oats…a bargain breakfast), along with a reasonable bottle of wine for only 20 NIS. So there are some bargains to be found in Jerusalem! From Mahaneh Yehuda, it was a short walk back to the hostel where we cooked up dinner (pasta with tomato sauce and tuna) and crashed up on the roof top. Another fine day in Jerusalem!
16 Aug: Surprisingly, it gets cold in Jerusalem at night, especially on the rooftop of the Citadel Youth Hostel. We were able to stay snug in our sleeping bags until 8 am when we woke and had breakfast. On our agenda today was a visit to the Western Wall (aka “Wailing Wall”), where we joined the security lines to be granted access to one of the most holy Jewish sites in the world. Men and women are segregated to their respective areas of this open air synagogue, and it was fascinating to be able to walk freely amongst worshippers who had come to the wall to slip prayer notes. After our visit to the Western Wall, we headed for the exit and did a U-turn right up an ugly wooden ramp leading to the non-Muslim entrance of Bab al-Maghariba (Gate of the Moors) to enter the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount compound. Built by the early Islamic rulers of Jerusalem in 691 AD over the site of the Temple of Solomon, the Dome of the Rock is famous throughout the world as one of its most beautiful structures. Our guidebook informed us that the gold dome is actually gold plated (although Eres had told us it was solid gold), and tourists are allowed to walk around the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque but can enter neither of them. We had been advised that since this was Ramadan, we should visit the Dome of the Rock early in the morning, as it is only open to tourists up until noon of Sunday through Thursday during the Ramadan period. We heeded this advice and as a result, found the complex to be rather devoid of tourists. In fact, we were able to take a self-portrait photo of the two of us with the iconic golden domed temple in the background and not a tourist was in sight. After taking our time wandering around this holy site, we exited via the Cotton Merchant’s Gate in the Arab quarter and headed over to the Cardo Maximus section of town to revisit this area in depth. The entire Cardo has been renovated into a ritzy shopping area, and it was quite easy to imagine the main street of Jerusalem in its heyday. From here, we exited the walled city via Jaffa Gate to hop on a public bus #20 (6.40 NIS each) to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum where we stayed for almost 3 somber hours. This museum is excellent (and free), with touching displays, stories, photographs and personal accounts of life during the holocaust in Germany, Poland, Austria, France, etc. Our hearts were heavy and a bit depressed after several hours in the museum where we despaired at how cruel mankind can be to each other, but we both felt that a visit to Yad Vashem is a must-do while in Jerusalem. Hopping back on to Bus 20 for the return trip into town was easy and we arrived a 4:55 pm, with 5 minutes to spare to enter the Ramparts Walk from Jaffa Gate to Lion’s Gate. Luckily for us, once up on the walls, we could take as much time as we wanted to stroll the entire length as there were several exit turnstile points. We quickly realized that it had been a prudent decision to wait until the end of the day to visit the Ramparts as we had the entire section of wall to ourselves and were able to leisurely walk the entire route taking as many photographs as we wanted. The afternoon views of Jerusalem were riveting, and we reluctantly exited at Lion’s Gate to go shopping for dinner in the Muslim Quarter. There, we were able to get two chicken leg quarters (22 NIS per KG), rice, onion and bell peppers for 24 NIS. As Robby went to pay for the bell peppers, the vendor gifted it to him for free as it was Ramadan! Back at the hostel, the kitchen was free so we whipped up an amazing dinner in no time and stuffed ourselves silly. It had been a long day and it was nice to wind down with two cups of masala tea before crashing on the breezy rooftop.
17 Aug: Sleeping was tough last night as we were kept up by a boisterous group of drunk Germans…grrrr. We were up at the crack of dawn and after breakfast, decided to visit Bethlehem by public bus. It was a bit of trial and error as we flagged down Bus #21 (going in the wrong direction) but eventually we made our way to the Damascus Gate bus terminal and hopped on the next bus headed that way (tickets were a bargain priced 7 NIS per person). The ride into Bethlehem was smooth and to our surprise, there was no checkpoint to enter into the city. Our bus dropped us off about 3 KM for the center of town, and we were immediately met by a taxi driver named Osama who offered to take us to several highlights for 150 NIS (Nativity Church, Milk Grotto Chapel, the Shepherd’s field, the Palestinian/Israel segregation wall where graffiti artist Bansky’s work can be seen, and Herodium). We thought it was expensive and tried to negotiate but Osama wouldn’t budge. Becky had read online that a trip from Bethlehem to Herodium and return would cost between 150-200 NIS (a ridiculous price for sure but the taxi drivers appear to have an agreement not to go below that amount), so in the end, we figured that the asking price was fair and agreed to it. Our first destination was a visit the Christian village of Beit Sahour where the Shepherds’ field is located. Apparently, this area is identified as the scene where an Angel visited the shepherds to inform them of Jesus’ birth, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And the Angel said to them, Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:8-10). Today, a 5th Century Greek Orthodox church stands over the cave of the shepherds and we strolled around the complex and checked out some nearby excavations of a circa 4th Century Byzantine Church and Monastery before heading back to our awaiting taxi. Osama proved to be a safe, reliable and considerate driver, so after visiting the Shepherd’s field, we asked if several extra sites could be added to today’s itinerary (the Monastery of Mar Saba, Jericho’s Mount and Monastery of Temptation, Hisham’s Palace, and the Zacchaeus Tree). Since our driving distance more than doubled, we haggled the price to 380 NIS for the day, which was out of our budget but we figured we may only be in this part of the world once and figured we could skimp on dinner to afford today’s day trip. To placate our minds, we did remember that all the Jerusalem based travel agencies were charging US $80 per person to visit three basic sights in Bethlehem (a real rip off since they only included the Nativity Church, Milk Grotto Chapel, the Shepherd’s field), so in the end, we didn’t fare too badly as we were going to see everything we wanted to for a total price of $107 for the two of us. Our next stop was to Herodium, which is located south east of Bethlehem in the West Bank. Herodium was built by Herod the Great (hence its name) who wanted a palace fortress atop a volcano like hill. We hiked up to the top of the complex and climbed back down through a series of tunnels leading to the underground water cisterns. Apparently, the Tomb of Herod is located about halfway down the hill of Herodium, but all we saw when we exited the labyrinth of tunnels connecting the cisterns together was an ancient 450 seat amphitheater. Next on our busy agenda was a drive out to the Judean Desert to visit Mar Saba, a gorgeous Greek Orthodox monastery overlooking the Kidron Valley. It is one of the world’s oldest functioning monasteries, and today, about 20 monks reside here. Women are not allowed to enter the main compound, so we just hiked along a path outside the complex and admired the amazing vistas of the steep Kidron banks down to the gushing river. A local boy told Becky that the river here feeds into Jordan, and he kept her company while Robby hiked down to the base of the river to get a view of the monastery from the other side of the bank. From Mar Saba, we headed up north to Jericho, which is one of the oldest permanently inhabited sites in the world, and at 260 meters below sea level, the lowest city in the world to boot. We rode on a 1.3 KM cable car (touted “the longest cable car below sea level”) up to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Temptation, a 12th Century monastery clinging to the rock face where Jesus was supposedly tempted by the Devil. The views overlooking modern Jericho were fantastic, and we were surprised to see so many Russian pilgrims visiting this holy site. After riding the cable car back down (a pricey ride at 55 NIS round trip), we drove onward to Hisham’s Palace, located on the northern bank of Wadi Nueima about 2 KM north of Jericho. The palace ruins, referred to as “Khirbat al-Mafjar” were built between 743 to 744 AD, and are of a winter hunting lodge complete with an amazing Byzantine mosaic in the audience room of the bath house. The other interesting thing at the Palace is a hexagonal star shaped window built of sandstone. At this point in our tour, we were a bit hungry so we drove into Jericho in search of lunch (a mighty feat during Ramadan), and made a quick detour to a date packaging factory where we sampled a variety of truly delicious dates. Osama informed us that the best dates in all of Palestine come from Jericho and we can attest this to be true! Becky bought 2 KG of dates for 25 NIS and we drove onward into town. Unfortunately, as it was Ramadan, street food was impossible to find, so we told Osama that we weren’t starving and could hold out until we reached Bethlehem (where Christians would still be serving food in the day time). We had one last stop to make in Jericho though, and that was to the tree of Zacchaeus, an ancient sycamore tree that Zacchaeus supposedly climbed in order to get a better view of a preaching Jesus. From Jericho, we backtracked towards Bethlehem, where we stopped at the Milk Grotto Chapel, a shrine built beneath a Franciscan Chapel to commemorate where the Holy Family took refuge during the “Slaughter of the Innocents”, before their flight into Egypt. While Mary was nursing baby Jesus, a drop of milk fell to the ground, and supposedly turned it white. Both Christians and Muslims believe if they scrape the stones of the grotto and mix it into their drinking water, it can enhance the quantity of a mother’s milk. Would be mothers can increase their fertility by placing the rock under their mattress. We spent just a few minutes at this site before heading to Bethlehem’s most famous wonder, the Church of the Nativity. This is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world, and is built over the cave that is marked as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. His exact birth location is marked by a silver star beneath the alter in the Grotto of the Nativity, and we joined the long line of pilgrims to the grotto to see this sacred site. The rest of the Church of the Nativity definitely warrants a visit, so we spent some time wandering through this complex before finally taking an early afternoon break to grab a quick bite to eat. Our 5 NIS hummus sandwiches were quite tasty and hit the spot, and afterwards, Osama drove us over to the Israel/Palestine Security Wall, where we were able to take photos of the various spray painted graffiti slogans and images. Finally, our last stop was back at the bus station where we thanked Osama for a busy and productive day, and hopped on Bus #21 back to Jerusalem. On the return trip, everyone with foreign passports had to offload the bus for a security checkpoint, but it was relatively harmless and we were quickly waved through. Back in Jerusalem, we decided to get off at Damascus Gate so we could buy some dinner ingredients. As it wasn’t 6 pm yet, we were quite surprised to see that almost everything had been shut down already, and we were quite lucky to be able to buy some chicken and vegetables to make dinner with tonight. After whipping up a tasty and filling dinner, we both took wonderfully relaxing hot water showers before retiring to the rooftop for another breezy night.
18 Aug: We had an early morning wake up today as we wanted to take public transportation out to Ein Gedi and Masada and the first bus leaving from the central bus station was at 8 am. After having breakfast, we hopped onto Bus #20 to the central bus station where we took bus 486 to Ein Gedi for 36 NIS each. The drive was straightforward and it took us about 90 minutes to reach Ein Gedi, which is a nature reserve located on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, right on the shore of the Dead Sea. Our helpful bus driver told us when to get off the bus and the first thing we noticed were a bunch of Nubian Ibexes grazing in the parking lot of the reserve. After changing into our swimsuits, we paid 27 NIS each for entrance to the park and opted for the leisurely hike to see David’s waterfall. Several rock hyraxes were feeding in trees along the path, and they are so habituated to humans that they didn’t even budge when they spotted us. The hike to the first waterfall took mere minutes, and since families with younger children were frolicking there, we decided to continue hiking onward to the second waterfall. Once we arrived there, we hopped into the shallow pool and had a few minutes to enjoy the cascading falls until a huge group of teenagers arrived, completely shattering the tranquility of the moment. It was a hot day and the cool water felt wonderful, so after soaking for a bit, we continued on to the base of David’s waterfall where we took a few photos before backtracking to the entrance of the park. While walking past the bus station on our way to the Ein Gedi Beach, we met a friendly sherut driver named Muhamd who offered to take us to Masada for 20 NIS each (the bus ride would have been 19 NIS each so it made sense to use Muhamd’s services). But first, some float time in the Dead Sea. The Ein Gedi Beach is clean, well laid out and best of all, free. We simply strolled down to the sea and placed our belongings in a highly visible spot (apparently petty theft is rife on the beach) and carefully waded in to the extremely salty water. It is truly mind boggling how buoyant a person is in the Dead Sea! A list of rules advised us not to attempt to submerge our heads, and if the water was accidentally swallowed, to seek immediate emergency help. We heeded the advice and took some silly photos of each other in our various floating positions. A friendly guy named Ian introduced himself to us and offered to take a few photos for us, and we started chatting him up, finding out he hails from England and was on Falafel Bus tour. He was headed to Tel Aviv next and was staying at our hostel (the Florentine Backpackers Hostel). When he found out we were headed to Masada next, he kindly offered us a ride which we accepted. After rinsing off and heading back to our ride, we found that Ian’s driver had no intention of returning back to Masada, so we ended up catching our original ride with Muhamd. The site of Masada is a desert fortress on an isolated plateau 450 meters above the Dead Sea. We were strongly advised to take the cable car up which cost us 54 NIS each (for a one way ride including entrance to the site). It was money well spent as we were absolutely sweltering in the heat. Masada is famous for being the site of the last stand of a group of Sicarii (Jewish Extremists) who were in a siege against the Roman Empire after the First Jewish-Roman War. As the Romans breached the wall of the fortress with a battering ram, they discovered a mass suicide where the defenders of the fortress drew lots to kill each other in turn rather than admit defeat to their enemy. The only reason why we know of this story today is because two women and five children hid inside a cistern as the killings were occurring, and as a result, became the only survivors left to tell the tale. Today, we were able to visit the entire plateau complex, complete with numerous towers, storehouses, water cisterns that ingeniously collected rainwater (we checked out the replica model that showed us how this is done), an armory, barracks, palaces and thermal baths. Ian had advised us that we might want to consider spending upwards of 3 hours or more exploring the site, but we were fine with just 2 hours of wandering about. Our plan was to hike back down the plateau, but we discovered that Snake Path was closed due to “inclement” weather (the temperature was too high to allow hiking). As a result, we were forced to ride the cable car back down the mountain much to our chagrin. However, the bonus was that since we made such good time getting down the plateau, we were able to catch a return bus to Jerusalem with mere seconds to spare. Back in Jerusalem, we opted to stroll back from the Central Bus Station along Jaffa Road towards the old city, stopping for a pizza deal (30 NIS for a large cheese pizza…yum). Just outside of Jaffa Gate, we walked through the ritzy Mamilla Mall, where dozens of sales and discounts on big name brands were going on. Despite the discounts, all we could afford to do was window shop, and afterwards, we returned back to our hostel where we crashed for the night. It is hard to believe tonight is our 5th and final night in Jerusalem…how time flies!
19 Aug: After a quick breakfast, we decided to stroll through Jerusalem and head out of Lion’s Gate towards the Mount of Olives. Since it was Friday, the streets were packed with Muslims on their holy day. We had a hard time walking down Via Dolorosa with wall to wall bodies jammed on each other, but eventually made it past the security checkpoint (they were only being stringent with people wanting to enter Jerusalem, not exit). Once out of Lion’s Gate, it was a short walk to the Garden of Gethsemane and Church of All Nations, complete with its glistening golden mosaics. The Garden of Gethsemane is an olive garden that is believed to have been the spot where Jesus was arrested. Some of the world’s oldest olive trees are there, with 3 of which have been scientifically dated to over 2000 years old. After our short visit to the Church of All Nations, we hiked up the Mount of Olives for a fine morning panorama of Jerusalem, along with the Russian Orthodox Church with its golden onion domes. The sunlight was simply perfect, and the entire city of Jerusalem was laid out before us in a wonderful collage of sights. After spending some time here admiring the view, we pulled ourselves away to enter the Old City via Dung Gate, where we took back roads to the Citadel Hostel where we grabbed our bags and checked out. The first bus that came by was bus 60 and it took us close to the Central Bus Station where we hopped on the first bus to Tel Aviv. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t realize we weren’t going to the main bus station. Rather, we ended up at the Terminal 2000, which is at the intersection of Arlosoroff and Namir Road and we ended up lugging our heavy bags for over an hour until we realized that we were way further north of the city than we wanted to be. After flagging down a taxi driver who was reasonable, we negotiated a price of 35 NIS to get dropped off at the hostel. By 1:15 pm, we wearily pulled into the Florentine Backpackers Hostel where we met Gadi, who helpfully checked us in and showed us our double bed in the ac dorm room…awesome. This hostel was already impressing us far more than the Citadel as it was clean, cheery and well equipped. Our first mission was to head down to the Florentine district (an industrial area with an up and coming bar scene) where we stocked up on lunch and dinner supplies since it was going to be the start of Shabbat later this afternoon. After dropping off our supplies in the kitchen, we walked over to the Old Jaffa district, which is a quaint area that definitely warrants a stroll. The beach scene was lively and we could see everyone out having fun…perhaps something for us to do tomorrow? We wandered through Jaffa, took some photos and after killing a few hours there, headed back down to the beach to people watch before finally heading back to the Florentine to prepare dinner (mincemeat with rice and vegetables). After dinner, we hopped on internet for a bit before drinking some of our vodka mango-orange mix which was tasty. Since it was Ian’s birthday today, we joined him for some drinks in town, heading to the October Bar on Florentine Street. We ended up meeting Bar and Barak, two Israelis who were quite fun to talk to. Barak is training a Seeing Eye dog and Bar was keen on doing the trans Africa trip after we told him of our experiences. Little did we realize but we ended up chatting with them until about 2 am. By 2:30 am, we were ready to call it a night so we headed back to the hostel and fell fast asleep.
20 Aug: It was a lazy morning with a snooze until 9:30 am when we finally got up for breakfast. By 11:30 am, we were ready to hit the beach. We went to a popular stretch, and were able to find a piece of real estate to lay our sarongs on. The current was dangerously strong so it made swimming in the ocean a bit tough. We were perfectly content beach bums until 3:30 pm, slathering on SPF 50 at regular intervals as neither one of us wanted to get sun burned! By 4 pm, we couldn’t take it anymore, so we headed back to the hostel for a late lunch of tuna fish sandwiches with hummus and tomatoes…yum. We ended up taking a brief siesta before heading down to Rothschild Street to see a protest where hundreds of Israelis had pitched their tents up along the main boulevard to express their disgust on the extortionate cost of living accommodations in Israel. The entire street was quite lively and we spent some time checking out the displays and the Bauhaus architecture. We splurged for a chocolate milk beverage for 12 NIS and it was amazing. Back at the hostel, we concocted a simple dinner using the rest of our ingredients and it was delicious. After stuffing ourselves silly, we ended up staying up past midnight Skyping with Dowelly, Matt and Lars, working on internet and chitchatting with Ian.
21 Aug: Two new hostel members were quite loud at 6 am so we didn’t get much of a lie in. At 9 am, we finally roused ourselves out of bed to pack our stuff and have a quick bite for breakfast. Ian was heading back to the UK this afternoon so we bid him farewell before heading over to the train station. Despite it only being a 20 minute walk from Florentine Backpackers, we were absolutely soaked by the time we reached the station where we bought two tickets for the 11:30 am train to Haifa. Thankfully we were able to get two seats as the train kept filling up and many passengers had to resort to sitting on the floor or else standing for the duration of the ride. The directions to Haifa’s Port Inn were spot on, and thankfully it only took us 3 minutes to locate our accommodations for the next two nights. So far, the hostels keep getting better and better. The Port Inn is a spotlessly clean hostel with a cozy garden, ample kitchen, large refrigerator, several bathrooms and showers and well maintained dorm rooms. We checked in and were given a map of Haifa along with several tidbits of advice on what to do in the local area. Our first priority was to stock up on dinner supplies, so we head over to a nearby supermarket where we stocked up on some food (chicken, pasta, chocolate milk, a massive tub of hummus for the bargain price of 12 NIS, and veggies) for the next couple of days. After returning to the Port Inn, we prepared tuna sandwiches with hummus, tomatoes and carrots for lunch before heading out to see the German Colony section of the city. This smart neighborhood lies at the base of the UNESCO world heritage Baha’i Gardens, and is meticulously presented and maintained. A very helpful tourist information office provided us with more maps of the city as well as advice for tomorrow’s visit to Akko. Our next stop was to the lower section of the Baha’i Gardens, which only allowed access to one of the 19 terraces. From here, we decided to hike uphill to the Stella Maris Church, as it looked like it was only about 2 KM away. It was a decent trek, and by the time we finally reached the church, we were completely soaked with sweat. Stella Maris Church is a neo-Gothic style one, and was originally established back in the 12th Century as a crusader stronghold. It is also famous for having been used by Napoleon in 1799 as a hospital for his troops. We spent a few minutes checking out the painted ceiling, particularly the frescoes on the dome. Afterwards, we headed over to the Ursula Malbin Sculpture Gardens which had statues in everyday positions situated in a peaceful park. From here, we backtracked so that we could see the Baha’I Gardens from its uppermost vantage point, and then we strolled along the Louise Promenade to the mall at Dan Panorama hoping to check out some movies. It appeared that they were all Israeli movie in Hebrew, so we decided to head back to the Port Inn. The easiest way back down was via the underground Carmelit, which is Israel’s only underground transport. For 6 NIS, we were able to easily make our way back to Paris Square, where we stopped at the supermarket so Robby could by some beer. Becky wanted ice cream but decided that since we don’t have a freezer in the hostel, we should forego this treat as it wouldn’t keep. Back at the hostel, we whipped up a massive dinner in no time at all (tomatoes, carrots, hummus, pasta with chicken, veggies and tomato sauce, corn on the cob and chicken broth). It was a relaxing remainder of the night as we showered and did a bit of laundry before calling it a day.
22 Aug: We slept in till 8:30 am and had leftovers for breakfast…yum! Since there was only one English speaking tour of the Baha’I Gardens every day at noon, we had some time to kill so we hung out at the hostel until just before 11am, using some free wifi network to check on bus and train information to Akko and Galilee (our next two destinations). At 11, we rode the Carmelit underground subway to Carmel and had an easy stroll to the meeting point of the English speaking tour. Since the receptionist at Port Inn advised us to be there by 11:30 am at the latest, we heeded her advice, but it appeared to us that it didn’t really matter if we were there 30 minutes prior as latecomers (those arriving at noon) were still accepted for the tour. Entrance to the magnificent gardens, which have earned UNESCO World Heritage status, is free and the daily tour is free as well. Since there were so many English speakers keen on a tour, our group was split into two, and our group entered the garden complex first. Our guide gave us some interesting historical background facts and details about the Baha’I religion, why the region of Haifa was chosen for the Shrine of the Bab, and informed us that this new religion is one of the fastest growing religions in the world today, with over 7 million followers. The concept of Baha’I is actually quite impressive, originating in Persia with a belief that all mankind, irrespective of race, color, sex, or social status is equal. It is a monotheistic religion, and its leaders are voted by members of the congregation, despite the fact that no politicking for these positions is allowed (apparently leaders are chosen based upon their contributions of furthering the Baha’I religion worldwide). The garden complex was built entirely on donations from Baha’I members, and it truly is an architectural marvel. We started from the top tier of the 19 terraces and were able to see half of them, ending at the terrace just before the golden dome of the Shrine of the Bab, which was currently closed due to ongoing renovations. The gardens are symmetrical and kept in immaculate, pristine condition. It was a very interesting and impressive 40 minute tour, and we were so glad we made the effort to see Haifa’s most spectacular sight. After leaving the Gardens, we followed our guide’s directions for the quickest path down towards the German Colony, veering off towards the Port Inn where we grabbed our packed lunch for Akko and headed for the train station for the next train out there. The ride only took about 30 minutes, and we were deposited off around 2 KM outside of the old city. It was an easy 20 minute stroll (once we figured out where we were going) to reach the main road (Weizmann Street) leading to Old Akko. Despite the relatively short distance from the station to the old city, we arrived at the city walls completely covered in sweat. After entering the old city, we walked along the Eastern land wall promenade which offered us nice views over the city and along the coast back to Haifa. Next was a stroll to the Citadel, touted as the best preserved Crusader fortress in the world. There, at the ticket booth, we were able to sweet talk the lady selling tickets into giving us a discount for the combination ticket, which allowed entrance into multiple Akko sights. She liked us and hooked us up with a ticket to 4 sites (Citadel and the Knight’s Halls, Okashi Art Museum, Templar Crusader Tunnel, and the “Treasures in the Wall” Museum) for only 24 NIS each, good value considering entrance into the Citadel alone was over 20 NIS each! Since we were already at the Citadel, we entered this section of Old Akko first, learning about the Hospitaller Fortress. The Hospitallers were a monastic military order established to treat the sick in the Holy Land in the 12th Century. In 1191, the order moved their headquarters from Jerusalem to Akko, where they remained for a hundred years. The Hospitaller complex consisted of the Knights’ Halls which served as their headquarters, the Central Courtyard (1200 square meters of open space to include a well), the Northern Hall, the Sugar Bowls Hall (the Hospitallers were renowned for their development in the sugar industry. A storeroom with hundreds of pottery items known as “sugar bowls” was discovered in this hall), the Hall of Columns (the most impressive section of the complex which served as the order’s dining room), the Pillars Hall (1300 square meters under 15 identical cross vaulted ceilings), and the Prisoners’ Hall. We enjoyed discovering the well-marked fortress on our own, and our tour culminated with a long walk through a tunnel complex that led us out to the Turkish Bazaar area (most of the stalls were closed due to Ramadan). From here, we walked to the Al Jazzar Mosque but didn’t enter because there was a 10 NIS entry fee and the call to prayer was about to commence. Instead, we headed over to the Okashi Art Museum showcasing the work of Avshalom Okashi, who is one of Israel’s most famous artists. He spent much of his life in Akko and as a result, painted quite a few abstracts of the city. Next up was the Khan al Umdan (Inn of the Pillars), a large granite columned caravanserai built near the port. This area was built up in the late 18th Century by Ahmed el-Jazzar, and today is open to visitors (for free). An entrepreneurial pomegranate juice seller was making brisk business selling juice on such a hot day in the courtyard of the caravanserai, but we couldn’t afford the tasty treat, so instead, we went next door to access the Templar Crusader Tunnel. The Templars were a monastic military order that guarded European visitors to the Holy Land to visit Holy places. The order’s main fortress in Akko was built at the western entrance to the tunnel, and the tunnel was carved from natural stone for a distance of 350 meters. The result is an underground passage linking the Templar Fortress to the Port, which provided the Templars with a strategic architectural accomplishment. Since we exited near the port, we decided to wander around the city walls along the ocean front. Some young boys were jumping off the walls into the water which was a bit crazy because the water didn’t look too deep, and tourists were being wowed by their daredevil antics. We headed down to the colorful harbor for a few photos, and saw a beautiful, young couple taking their wedding photos by the waterfront, which looked really cool. Since we had time, we strolled through the colorful Market Street to head back to the Al Jazzar Mosque, where we paid the 10 NIS fee to check out the 1781 mosque. While the exterior looks quite old, the interior of the mosque is completely modern, so it was a bit of a letdown as we peered inside. Just before leaving Old Akko, we dropped by the Wall of Treasures Museum but it was closed already (only open till 5 pm) so we headed back to the train station, where we caught a 6:16 pm train back to Haifa. Back at the hostel, we made dinner (Pasta with chicken, veggies and tomato sauce, corn on the cob, and hummus with tomatoes and carrots). Israeli hummus is truly some of the best in the world, and we were absolutely doing our best to glutton ourselves silly on it. After dinner, it was another relaxing night with a bit of laundry washing thrown into the mix. Since we sweat all day long in the August heat, its vital to rinse our shirts out each night before going to bed, and thankfully it dries overnight with the cool breeze out on our balcony.
23 Aug: After an 8 am breakfast, we packed up our gear and got directions from the hostel on how to catch public transportation to Tiberias. We had to catch two buses to get to the central bus station in Tiberias, and it cost us under 30 NIS each. Tiberias is the largest city on the Sea of Galilee, and we figured it would be a good base of operations to explore the Galilee and Golan Heights region of Israel. Our home for the next two days was the comfortable Tiberias Youth Hostel, and it was an easy two minute stroll from the central bus station. We were met by the friendly owner who showed us to our dorm room while informing us that our beds weren’t ready yet. We were surprised to find out that this hostel does not have any self-catering kitchen facilities, but at least we had a refrigerator in our room where we could store our groceries. We found out that it wasn’t a big deal to eat or drink in our room, so we whipped up some tuna sandwiches for lunch before heading out for the tourist information office. Finding the office in the middle of the archeological park was a bit tricky since we were actually on the wrong road, one block over to the west. When we finally did find the tourist center, it was a bit disappointing to realize that our helper spoke limited English at best, so it was a challenge to get all of our questions answered. We did find out that there is a free shuttle linking all the major towns around the Sea of Galilee together, running once every two hours, so that was an option to get ourselves up north to the town of Tabgha. More helpful was the information on how to get to Nimrod Castle and Banias Waterfall tomorrow, as we discovered we could ride a bus up to Kiryat Shmona and from there, hire a taxi or hitch the rest of the way. We split up after this as both of us were keen on doing our own separate thing this afternoon. Robby did a bit of sightseeing around Tiberias before the 2 pm bus to Tabgha. Mere minutes before he was to catch his bus however, one of his flip-flops broke, so he was in a rush about town trying to find a replacement. He was able to find a cheap pair of flip-flops in his size mere seconds before the bus arrived in a stroke of luck. Becky on the other hand was on a quest for some relaxing beach time. After changing into her bikini, she strolled down towards the Lido Kinneret Beach and ended up at “Music Beach” which was a fun, family atmosphere. With the music pumping out catchy tunes all afternoon, the sun shining and everyone enjoying the refreshing waters of the Sea of Galilee, several hours flew by quite easily. Getting in and out of the sea was a bit challenging as instead of sand, there are slippery rocks to contend with instead. As a result, most of the locals wore crocs into the water to save their feet. Meanwhile, Robby had arrived in Tabgha which is a town famous for several of its churches. The first one he visited for the modern Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fish with a famous mosaic depicting them on the floor under the altar. It was impossible to take a first hand photo of the mosaic, but Robby did find a postcard image that he could snap instead. From here, Robby headed over to the Church of the Primacy of St Peter. It is a waterfront Church that has a table like flat rock protruding from the floor known as “Mensa Christi” (Christ’s Table), where Jesus and his disciples ate fish from. Next, Robby walked up the hill towards the Church of the Beatitudes but he didn’t have enough time to check it out before the next free shuttle arrived. So, he settled for a long distance photo of it before hopping on a bus for the long ride back to Tiberias (the shuttle went around the entire Sea of Galilee rather than the shorter, more direct route). It took nearly 90 minutes to return to Tiberias and the two of us linked up in the early evening in search of some cheap food. Tiberias at night is quite a lively affair, as entire streets are transformed into open air markets. Every restaurant in the pedestrian area seemed to be overpriced, so we walked back towards the bus station and found a cheap shawarma stand where we ordered chicken shawarmas for 20 NIS each, which was still no bargain but a lot better than paying 50-75 NIS for a main dish at the pedestrian area. A decent sized supermarket was still open so we swung by to check out what it had to offer and settled on a 2 Liter jug of chocolate milk for 16 NIS. After having our fill, we head back to the Tiberias Youth Hostel where we met our fellow roommates in the dorm. Robby was invited out by a local to have a beer while watching Haifa’s soccer team compete in a match, but he was feeling a bit drained and declined. It was a comfortable sleep tonight as the air conditioning was on full blast and we had warm blankets to snuggle beneath.
24 Aug: It was an early morning with a 6 am wakeup. We had to have an early start in order to catch the 6:50 am bus from Tiberias to Kiryat Shmona. After packing breakfast and lunch snacks, we headed over to the bus station where we boarded the bus with no problems. The drive was straightforward and we pulled into Kiryat Shmona at around 8 am where we met a taxi driver who quoted us 120 NIS for a one way ride to Nimrod Fortress. The asking price was ridiculous, and we started bargaining, eventually settling on 95 NIS, which was still vastly overpriced but the driver had us exactly where he wanted us as we hadn’t a clue which direction Nimrod was in relation to the bus station. By 8:40 am, we had reached the fortress which is touted as one of the best preserved Crusader Fortresses in Israel. There was no one at the ticket office but the gate barrier was up, so our taxi driver drove on in and up at the entrance to the fortress, we met the caretaker who advised us to go ahead on in to explore the ruins and after we were finished, to pay for our entrance fee. Thus, we had the entire complex to ourselves to enjoy. We found a shady place inside one of the lower levels of the fortress to have breakfast, and spent about two hours here wandering through every nook and cranny. There were lots of shy rock hyraxes lounging about in the sun, but as soon as they caught wind of us, they jetted off into tiny crevices or deeper into the bush. After exploring to our hearts content, we headed back down to the ticket office where we paid 37 NIS each for a combination ticket which included entry to the Banias Nature Reserve/Waterfall. Since Banias was located a few kilometers downhill, we were able to successfully hitchhike a ride over to the entrance gate where we were handed a map of the nature reserve that had several multicolored hiking trails. We opted to do both the blue and red trails, which would take us past some old Roman ruins, a Pan Temple Complex, an Old Roman Bridge, three old water powered flour mills, waterfalls and rapids. It was an easy hike, and is obviously a very popular trail with Israelis, as the entire route was packed with locals enjoying themselves. We spent about 3 hours here, including a stop for a picnic lunch by the waterfalls. The main Banias Waterfall was quite picturesque, and no swimming is allowed to give the fish there a chance to thrive. Both of us commented that despite the Banias Nature Reserve being quite lovely, especially around the waterfall area, that Nimrod Castle blew it away and was the highlight of our morning thus far. The day trip from Tiberias was absolutely worth it, although it would have been much easier to attempt if we had our own car rental. After Banias, we contemplated hitchhiking back to Kiryat Shmona, but weren’t having much luck. By the side of the road, we noticed a lot of “Danger, Mine Field” signs and were amazed that there were so many mines in this area. A friendly taxi driver eventually stopped and offered us a ride back for 80 NIS, so we took his offer and were drive directly back to the Kiryat Shmona bus station where we were able to hop on the 2 pm bus back to Tiberias. By 3:15 pm we were back in Tiberias where we headed down to Music Beach for a bit of afternoon sun. It wasn’t as lively as the day before, but the cool water felt good and Robby can finally say that he’s soaked in the Sea of Galilee! After a few hours, we took off and strolled around the pedestrian area where Becky bought some baggy pants and a patchwork skirt for 90 NIS. We decided to have pizza for dinner tonight, so we ordered a family sized mushroom pizza from Arena Pizza for 55 NIS (their best deal) and added in a 2 liter box of chocolate milk…yum. Our dorm room was empty when we returned to the hostel, but we were joined by one other roommate for the night for a total of 3 of us in a 9 bed dorm. The free wifi signal in the room was a bit weak, so we went downstairs to the reception area to download and had screaming fast internet, definitely the best out of all the Israelis hostels we had stayed at. It was a comfortable night’s sleep again as we had plenty of warm blankets to choose from and we had relocated directly beneath the a/c.
25 Aug: We awoke at 7 am for a free breakfast spread, courtesy of Tiberias Youth Hostel. What a layout! There was an amazing selection of bread, boiled eggs, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, hummus, and chocolate spread, in addition to limitless tea, coffee and milk. Two thumbs up and we left this youth hostel feeling quite impressed with it, despite its rather lukewarm reviews online. By 8:20 am, we had checked out of the hostel and were on our way to the bus station, where we caught the 8:45 am bus back to Tel Aviv (40 NIS each). The ride took about 2 hours and 15 minutes, and this time, we ensured that we were deposited at the correct bus station in Tel Aviv. Upon arriving in the city, it was fairly evident that everyone had to enter past the security checkpoint through the bus terminal in order to exit the area. Robby was insistent on avoiding the security checkpoint as he didn’t think it was necessary, but although we circled the terminal as far as we could, we were eventually herded into a checkpoint area where our bags were opened and searched. From the terminal, we found Shelomo/Shalma Road and walked on it until it intersected with Elifelet Road, where the Florentine Backpackers Hostel was #10. It was an easy 20 minute stroll, and since we already knew the door combination, we let ourselves in and were able to check in at reception right away. Since we were a bit early, our double room wasn’t ready yet, so we stored our luggage and changed into our swim gear before heading to the beach. Since we hadn’t explored Tel Aviv’s northern beaches, we decided to have a quick stroll up along the coastline and finally settled on Banana Beach, which seemed to be quite popular with families and umbrella shaded loungers. Amazingly, one of the free, shaded beach shacks was available, so we plopped our stuff down and built up a makeshift sand chair to lean up against. It was quite comfortable being in the shade, and after snacking on leftover pizza for lunch, we spent a few hours relaxing and reading here. The water wasn’t as rough as the previous Tel Aviv beach we hung out at, and we could instantly see why this beach was more popular with the locals. That meant more crowds, but there was plenty of space on the beach for everyone to share. At 4:30 pm, we were ready to head back so we returned to the hostel and bought some dinner items on the walk back. In no time at all, Robby whipped up some rice with red bell peppers, eggs and tuna. On the side, we had two ears of corn on the cob and tomato with hummus and olive oil. Yum. We are absolutely going to miss Israeli hummus…it has been absolutely incredible and we have stuffed ourselves silly on it. After dinner, we lounged around waiting for one of the two showers to become available, but as it was a Thursday night, the rest of our hostellers were getting ready for a big night on the town and it took a while before the showers were available. Becky had downloaded “Fast Five” so we watched that action flick before looking up what to do in New Orleans in November. It was a relaxing last night in Israel, and we were really content that we had been able to see a majority of what this amazing country has to offer in our short time here.
26 Aug: At 7:30 am, we packed and left the hostel with the intent on catching the 8:45 train to the airport. Not a creature was stirring at the youth hostel, so we gingerly made our way around trying to keep quiet so the late night partiers could have a bit of a lie in. Since it was still early in the morning, neither of us were as sweaty as we reached the train station where we bought our tickets (14.50 NIS each for the 11 minute ride to the airport). Thankfully, we had scheduled 3 hours to get through the security checkpoints as it took us over an hour alone just to get through a baggage security screening section (where Becky’s carryon bag was flagged because of the 2 KG of dates she was carrying!). Checking in to our Air Sinai flight itself was a breeze, and we were able to get emergency exit seats with no issues. Once checked in, we bought a bag of pretzels (the cheapest thing we could find) and changed our leftover Shekels for Dollars before going through a second security check and passport control. Goodbye Israel! We can absolutely see the allure and will never forget wandering through the ancient streets of Jerusalem, hitting the Tel Aviv bar and beach scene, visiting Haifa’s gorgeous Baha’I Gardens and the crusader city of Akko, hanging out at the Sea of Galilee’s party scene, and exploring the Golan Height’s Nimrod Castle and Banias Waterfalls. What an amazing and diverse country packed into such a small, compact area! We thoroughly enjoyed Israel and can say without hesitation that if you have a chance to go, do it…you won’t regret it.