Israel …comes out top
Israel & the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) have always fascinated me. A somewhat turbulent past long held the region back from reaching the top spot on my ‘to do’ list, yet the more I learnt about this area of the Middle East, the more eager I became to visit.
I spent a week touring Israel, starting in the modern metropolis of Tel Aviv. From here I made day trips to the ancient ports of Old Jaffa and Caesarea. I then continued north to the biblical sites of Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee before finishing in Jerusalem, a city central to three of the world’s major religions.
I travelled in February, during the rainy season (October to April), and although we did have a bit of rain, it was also very pleasant at times. One of the beauties of travelling at this time of year is that the landscape is a brilliant green. The dry season is between May and September, when it can get very hot and the scenery changes to become more arid and desert-like.
Tel Aviv surprised me with its creativity. The city is packed with quirky cafés, top notch restaurants, cutting-edge art galleries and contemporary museums such as the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History. To top this off there is a waterfront promenade overlooking sandy beaches.
View of Tel Aviv waterfront
We stayed at the contemporary Royal Beach Hotel, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Apart from the superb views, the hotel also served up one of the best breakfasts I have ever experienced in my 23 years of travelling, but be sure to avoid Shabbat if you want fresh coffee, cooked eggs and toast! Shabbat is Judaism’s day of rest, commencing when the first star appears in the sky on Friday evening through to nightfall on Saturday evening. Many places close and services may not operate in the same way as on other days of the week.
The Royal Beach Hotel is also in an ideal location for visiting Carmel market (the Shuk Hacarmel), Tel Aviv’s largest food market. Just a 10-minute walk away from the hotel, this is the perfect spot to see local life in action. People come to do their weekly shop on Fridays and Saturdays, browsing the many stalls selling all manner of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. There are also an increasing number of small eateries and boutique stalls selling craft beers.
Spices on display in the market, Tel Aviv
Old Jaffa & Caesarea
We took a guided tour around the narrow streets of Jaffa, one of the oldest ports in the world. As we explored, my guide recounted stories of Jaffa’s past. The pretty Church of St Peter’s was a particular highlight, where Napoleon is believed to have stayed during his campaigns in Egypt and Syria in 1799.
Old port, Jaffa, Tel Aviv
Just an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv are the remains of another fascinating port city. Caesarea was once the largest city in the Roman province of Judea and at one time its port was able to accommodate a hundred ships. When the Roman empire fell into decline, it was partly destroyed. In the 1940s, the importance of the site was realised and today it is one of Israel’s major archaeological sites. Our enthusiastic guide brought the place to life; we saw the enormous Roman amphitheatre, which can seat 4,000 and has been restored to host summer concerts, as well as the hippodrome and the ruins of the palace of Herod the Great.
Ruins of the Roman city of Caesarea
My next stop was Nazareth. We visited the Church of the Annunciation – a beautiful church with a lower level sanctuary built around a small house, believed to be that of Mary’s parents and the site where Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel. We also visited the Synagogue Church, a small Christian church which is thought to have been the village synagogue in Jesus’ time, followed by the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation (Church of St Gabriel), located over an underground spring, believed to be where the Virgin Mary was drawing water at the time of the Annunciation.
Facade of the Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel
The Sea of Galilee
There are several important religious sites around the Sea of Galilee, all within a short drive of one another. Our first stop was the Mount of Beatitudes. A beautiful church and gardens mark the spot where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.
We continued for about 10 minutes to the former fishing village of Capernaum. Here we visited the ruins of two ancient synagogues, built one on top of the other, and a former house that has been turned into a church. Said to have been the home of Saint Peter, it was here where Jesus performed many of his miracles and where he met five of his future disciples: James, John, Peter, Andrew and Matthew.
Ruins of Capernaum, Sea of Galilee
Another 10-minute drive took us to Kibbutz Ginosar, where you can view a fishing boat that dates back to 1st century AD. It was found in 1986, preserved in the mud of the lake. The boat was carefully excavated by surrounding it with expanding foam before it was lifted out of the water. It was then sprayed with a concoction of chemicals to help preserve the wood. A video and exhibitions in the room where the boat is on display explain how the boat was discovered and the incredible process of salvaging and preserving it.
We carried on a further 20 minutes to Yardenit on the River Jordan. This is where Jesus is believed to have been baptised. Large crowds of pilgrims gather here to do the same. Even if you don’t want to be formally baptised, you can still dip your toes in the water!
Christian pilgrims being baptised in the River Jordan, Yardenit
Whatever your beliefs, you can’t fail to be touched by the religious and historical significance of this ancient city. We visited the Western Wall where I placed a prayer within the cracks between the stones; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was crucified and buried; and the empty tomb, where he rose from the dead. Here I touched the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus was prepared for burial. It’s said to be lucky, so people come to rub their belongings on it to give to family and friends.
Old Town, Jerusalem
Another essential visit is the Israel Museum, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. These ancient Jewish manuscripts date back to around 200BC and are some of the oldest and most important religious texts in the western world. They were found in caves on the shores of the Dead Sea in 1947.
Apart from the city’s historical and religious significance, Jerusalem is also known for its excellent street food. We went on a street food tasting tour around the Mahane Yehuda market. We sampled all sorts of dishes from a variety of vendors: burgers; deep-fried rice; potato and vine leaves; bread filled with cheese, beans and potato; smoothies; beer with popcorn; and ice cream!
Mahane Yehuda market, Jerusalem
We rounded off our visit to Jerusalem and an unforgettable week with an evening visit to the Tower of David night spectacular show. This 45-minute sound and light show narrates the story of King David using images projected on the interior walls of the citadel.
Israel & the OPT offers an exciting combination of the ancient and the new. Yes, security was a concern of mine, but I was pleasantly surprised at how safe I felt throughout my stay. I’m so glad that I didn’t delay any further on a trip to what is now one of my favourite destinations in the Middle East.
Discover Israel & the OPT with Cox & Kings on our Treasures of Israel small group tour. Alternatively, if you are interested in private travel, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.