Israel – 7 days
Places to see: Tel Aviv, Nazareth, Sea of Galilee, Golan Heights, Jerusalem, Dead Sea, Masada
Things to keep in mind:
- Israel is safer to visit than the popular opinion. However, before planning the trip, please check for any local incidents which might affect the security situation there
- Avoid going near Gaza border
- If you have enough time and are looking to explore cities in Jordan, it is convenient to do so because few hours of drive will take you to Jordan where you can explore ancient cities like Petra
- Local transport (buses and trains) stop running on Friday evening and don’t resume until Saturday afternoon due to Sabbat (seventh day of week, which is considered day of rest). Taxis are available though.
Few countries have been so much controversial and have generated so much curiosity as Israel. A tiny piece of land on the Mediterranean coast, which can practically be covered east to west, north to south in a few hours drive, is almost constantly in news worldwide. This ancient land is home to holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam religions.
On a Sunday afternoon, I zoomed out Google maps and was searching for places for my next solo trip. Suddenly, the scrolling stopped at Israel. After doing some research and watching some videos, my inquisitiveness increased further. I decided to visit Israel and applied for a tourist visa. It was not as easy as I thought it would be. I was asked to visit the Embassy for an interview. After spending couple of hours there, I got the visa and was set to pack my bags for the trip.
I boarded the Ethiopian Airlines flight from Delhi to Tel Aviv via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After around 12 hours, I landed in Tel Aviv. What countless movies and stories had taught me about middle east was that it is a totally dry area with sand storms greeting the cities every evening. To my surprise, I found Tel Aviv to be a very modern city with infrastructure mimicking that of European capitals. Located on the Mediterranean coast, the city is known for its night life and sprawling corporate hubs. After about an hour, I reached my Airbnb host’s place. I found people in Israel to be very warm. For hours, I was talking with my hosts on all sorts of things, ranging from politics to economy to night life in Tel Aviv. It was heartening to hear that many Israelis come to India for a long trip after completing their mandatory military education.
The next morning, I hit the beach. Mediterranean waters are usually very calm, a great place to chill, relax and recharge your batteries. During the day, I visited Bograshov and Alma beach. I was also able to attend the Pride Parade in Tel-Aviv, the only one in middle east. That was the first time I attended any pride parade. There was a beach party organized after the parade along with some performances. The energy levels were soaring in the event. In the evening, I set out to explore Jaffa, an ancient port city which is now a part of Tel Aviv. This part of the city is spotted with many Arabic music bars and eateries. Apart from beaches and pubs, Tel Aviv has many museums which will interest you if you are interested in arts and history.
Next place on my list was the Arabic city in Northern Israel called Nazareth. Since Israel is a small country, a bus can take you there within 2 hours. In Nazareth, I chose to stay at a hostel in the old city, called Fauzi Azar Inn, which was probably the best hostel I have ever stayed in anywhere in the world. It is an old house which has been converted into a hostel and the family is still involved in running the place. Nazareth has very important Christian sites, most notably the Basilica of Annunciation, where it is believed Virgin Mary was told that she would conceive Jesus Christ. The city has a sprawling market which reminds of the middle eastern shots in Indiana Jones movies or Arabian nights stories. The people of Nazareth are very friendly and do not hesitate to help the tourists. Next day the hostel organized a walking tour of some parts of the city. They covered local shops and markets and told us about the city’s history.
Nazareth is very close to Golan Heights and Sea of Galilee. Local tour operators organize day trips to both the places.
Sea of Galilee:
Another holy site for Christians in Israel, Sea of Galilee is located near city of Tiberias. It is believed that Jesus walked on the water here. From a touristic perspective, there are lot of restaurants, games, pubs on the promenade. So, you can enjoy the delicious food while looking at the beautiful Sea. Boat rides are also available if you wish to see the other edge of the Sea.
It was time to head back south, this time to see the holy city of Jerusalem. It is a 2-hour drive from Tiberias to Jerusalem. The city is considered both blessed and cursed. Blessed because it is an ancient city with saw prominent religious figures from 3 religions present in the same city at some point of time in history. Cursed because there has been so much bloodshed over the control of the city in the past centuries. Numerous holy monuments are present in the city. But the most prominent ones are in the old city of Jerusalem. The city is divided into 4 quarters: Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim quarters.
During the tour of the city, our guide told us stories and the ‘Layers of Jerusalem’. Layers are the visible walls and foundations that are seen layered onto one another, signifying the various times in the history of the city. One layer signifying one era, while the layer on top signifying the succeeding era. The holiest site is Temple Mount complex which has the Western Wall, Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In Judaism, the left over Western wall is a part of the larger wall which formed the foundation of the old Jewish Temples. Temple mount is the holiest site for the Jews. Since the temples were destroyed centuries ago, Western wall is the de-facto holiest site in Judaism. Al-Aqsa mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and it is believed that Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven from this place.
For Christians also, Jerusalem has a lot of significance. It is believed that Jesus Christ walked his last steps in the streets of Jerusalem and was crucified in this very city, on the spot where the current Church of the holy Sepulchre now exists. The church is divided into various portions that are maintained by different followers of Christianity: Greek Orthdox, Armenians, Catholics etc.
Walking around the streets of the city is like walking in time. After walking out of the walls of Jerusalem, I went to see the Mount of Olives. It is not far from the holy city and has been used a Jewish Cemetery for a long period of time. I was told that the space for a grave there is very expensive because many Jews want to get buried there.
The old city is a great place for buying souvenirs as well. There are lot of small shops in the narrow alleys offering food, juices, gift items etc.
Dead Sea is located not far from Jerusalem, and makes up the border between Jordan and Israel. It is famous for the high salt concentration water and the mud, which is believed to have skin healing qualities. An interesting thing about Dead Sea is that you can’t drown in the water and float automatically. This happens due to the extremely high salt concentration. Another fact about Dead Sea is that it is the lowest point on Earth. I took a bus from Jerusalem in the morning to Dead Sea and got down at the Northern tip of the lake. There are many resorts there which let you swim in the Sea and provide washroom and towels etc after paying some fee. If you want to swim without having to pay anything, southern tip of the Dead Sea is the place to go to.
At the southern tip of the Dead Sea is Masada, a flat top mountain in the desert which was an ancient fortress used by the Jewish rebels against the impending Roman attack. The story of Masada is one of both defiance and tragedy. In 31 BCE, a number of Jewish rebels captured the Masada fortress from the Romans and made it their base. Romans sent a large infantry to re-capture Masada and laid siege to it. The Romans engineered an artificial ramp on which they rolled up a siege tower that shattered the defense walls. Next morning, when the soldiers walked up the ramp to enter the fortress, they found around 1000 soldiers and civilians dead. They had apparently committed mass-suicide in order to avoid getting captured by Romans and made their slaves. The mountain is visited by many tourists wanting to see the remains of the fortress.
It is said that traveling gives you perspective, but there are not many places in the world that give you so much perspective about religion, humanity, culture within a week. Israel is definitely one of them.