Tibby and I went to Israel from 23rd May to 6th June 2010.
We flew El Al and were impressed by the levels of service. We were further impressed that our taxi driver into Tel Aviv not only knew the current rates of exchange against the major currencies but also knew the recently announced inflation rate in the UK. And what was impressive was that throughout our trip most people we dealt with were fluent in English.
Monday 24th May
The day was largely focused on visiting Masada and the Dead Sea. We headed south from Tel Aviv through Jaffa, past Ashdod and Ashkelon and then east past Beersheva and Arad. It quickly became apparent that most of the seven million population live in apartments. Each of the towns we passed had series of apartment blocks with very few individual houses. It was interesting to hear that Beersheva and Arad had been relatively small undeveloped desert towns until they were populated, in the last twenty years, by large numbers of Russian Jewish refugees. In the Judean Desert we saw clusters of tin shacks and were told that these were built by refugees from Iraq and Iran. The coastal strip was relatively green, albeit with comprehensive irrigation, but as we turned east into the Judean Desert the vegetation almost completely disappeared and we were in real desert. Distances were relatively small with the Gaza strip being only about 70kms south of Tel Aviv and Masada being about 180kms from Tel Aviv.
Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea, is a mountain separated from the range around it with 300m steep sides and a relatively flat top of about five hectares. An early settlement was built there in 70BC which Herod expanded into a comprehensive residence including a large bathhouse and a temple just before the birth of Christ. It is not clear whether he used it much. From about 30 AD for about three years a group of almost a thousand Jewish zealots were besieged there by legions of the Roman Army. The Romans built a ramp to the top and eventually broke the siege to find that every Jewish man had killed his wife and children and in turn been killed by his colleagues with the last person committing suicide. This has become a legend in Israel with the oft repeated cry that ‘Masada shall never fall again’ being a metaphor for the state of Israel.
A cable car carries one to the peak, although one can walk up. The ruins have been well excavated and to some extent been rebuilt. With the help of models it is easy to envisage the settlement that was once there and to also understand the siege. The view from the peak is of barren desert running down to the Dead Sea.
I was intrigued to discover that the level of the Dead Sea has dropped by several metres since a dam was built upstream on the Jordan River. In fact the Sea has been split with a completely dry section for some distance with water only reaching the lower part by means of a man made canal. With strict instructions not to let water into our mouth and not to lie on our fronts, we floated on our backs in the mineral filled and salty water of the Dead Sea.
We then headed north and west to Jerusalem travelling most of the time through the West Bank. I started to gain a better appreciation of the problems facing Israel and the Palestinians as I noted the patchwork of separate areas on the map representing the West Bank and then to understand that within the West Bank there are areas controlled by the Israelis and others controlled by the Palestinians. One passes a thriving Israeli village in part of the Israeli controlled West Bank followed two kilometres later by a struggling Palestinian village in Palestinian controlled West Bank. This seems to me to be apartheid by another name.
Our UK based travel company, Superstar Holidays, has booked us on a tour, run by Consolidated Tour Operators, which has 25 British, American, Dutch, Australian and New Zealand participants. We have been told that a further eight will be joining us tomorrow and that some of the group will leave us on Thursday. We are staying in four hotels. It appears unlikely that we will get close to anyone. Our guide, Avi, speaks good English, is well informed and provides a comprehensive if uninspired service.
It is a curious experience to be in a new country and yet be so familiar with events that occurred there. A few times each hour Avi reminds us of an event in the bible and then tells us that it occurred in the area that we are passing through.
Tibby and I had dinner alone at Olive and Fish. We both had a tasty eggplant starter. Tibby had a lamb and beef kebab as a main meal which she enjoyed while I had a tasty chicken breast in Middle Eastern spices. We drank a 2007 Barkan Reserve Merlot, from vineyards in the Upper Galilee and in the Golan Heights, which was lovely. The shock was the bill which came to the equivalent of £85.
Tuesday 25th May
The morning was spent in New Jerusalem. We first went to the statue of the menorah outside the Knesset. Avi explained the significance of elements this particular statue. He also pointed out that the Knesset building had been built following the lines of a Greek temple to emphasise the link back to the birthplace of democracy. Next was the Israel Museum where we studied the large (30m across) model of Jerusalem in AD69 and viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The rest of the morning was spent at Yad Vashem, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It tells the story of the rise to power of the Nazi party, the introduction of institutionalised anti-Semitism in Germany, the declaration of war, the treatment of Jews in newly conquered countries, the first deportations, the siege of the Warsaw Ghetto, the death squads, the concentration camps and the liberation of the camps. The new building inaugurated in 2005 has ten exhibition halls and includes 2,500 personal items of victims and survivors as well as a lot of personal testimony. There is also an archive where I knew I would find the record of my great-grandfather, Mozes Stodel, who died on 31st December 1944, two weeks before the camp was liberated. This was a very personal and moving experience for me.
A curious fact about this tour is the very real relevance to the main religions and their people’s lives. I have Jewish ancestors but my great grandmother and her descendants were brought up in the Christian faith. I went to school with many Jewish children but never really understood their beliefs. Avi does a very good job of making the ever present history of the Jews relevant to modern life and helping us to understand the important elements of that life. That is inevitably linked to the importance of the creation of the modern state of Israel. So much that we see is real and important to the Christian belief and way of life which Avi is conversant with. And of course the events of the Old Testament are relevant to the Muslim religion which is thriving all around us.
And then we wasted an afternoon by going to tacky Bethlehem. It is only nine kilometres from Jerusalem but is in the West Bank area controlled by the Palestinians. Avi, as an Israeli, could not go with us and so we picked up a Christian Palestinian guide who immediately took us to his curio shop. When we escaped from there to Manger Square we were besieged by street vendors. I am not a religious person and am not familiar with the ways of the Armenian Church but found the church at the birthplace of Jesus to be worn and garish. We queued while 150 people in front of us filed past the birthplace and church security guards spoke to their friends on mobile phones. I found the experience to be very unsatisfactory and I am sure that if I had been religious I would have been even more unhappy, although I noticed that some people were quite emotional. The adjoining Catholic Church was absolutely beautiful. As we left the church there was a call to prayer from the mosque across the square. A reminder of how these religions are living cheek by jowl. Something I found shocking was the three metre high wall that has been built by the Israelis around elements of the West Bank. It reminds me of the Berlin Wall.
The buildings in Jerusalem all look similar. During the thirty year rule of the British they decreed that all buildings in Jerusalem should be built in stone. That has become more difficult as buildings have got taller so most buildings are now built from concrete blocks and then faced with a stone solution that gives the impression of stone. The result lacks architectural variation but does make the city very attractive.
In the evening we went with the group to a viewing point near the Church of Gethsemane and in the bright moonlight had a wonderful view across the graves in the valley to the wall of Old Jerusalem near the Temple Mount. We then crossed the valley and looked back to the Church of Gethsemane and Avi highlighted the likely route of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. We moved on to the pedestrianised Ben Yehuda Street in New Jerusalem with many shops still open at 9 at night including a shop for us to buy our dinner of lamb schwarma and beer. Finally we drove around Mea Shearim which is a quarter inhabited exclusively by ultra-Orthodox Jews (haredim). The area was built in the late 19th century for Jews from Poland and Lithuania who have maintained the dress and way of life they had in Europe and have rejected modern life completely. We have seen many of them already on our tour but in this area everyone was dressed in this way. Some of them are very aggressive to those who do not live their way and they are often in a state of tension with the state. Avi told us that the previous week there had been riots against the police and that the City Council workers were too scared to enter the area to clean up the garbage that had been strewn across the streets. As he spoke we rounded a corner to find some such garbage had been set alight and there were several burning fires in the street. The police were present and there was tension in the air. We left quickly!
Wednesday 26th May
We started this hot day at the Wailing Wall. As the Muslims occupy the Temple Mount the Western Wall supporting the Temple Mount is the closest place the Jews can get to this holy place. And so they pray there and as their prayers are often sad the wall has become known as the Wailing Wall. It is about 100m long and about 20m high. There are separate male and female sections. The male section is dominated by orthodox Jews praying for a long time against the wall. I also passed by two different American Jewish Family groups who had brought their young teenage boys (possibly celebrating their bar mitzvah) to the Wall for the first time.
We queued for 45 minutes to go through Israeli security to get into the Temple Mount which is controlled by the Muslim authorities. In the 6th century BC the Second Temple was built on a hill in the same place as the destroyed First Temple. At around the time of the birth of Christ Herod significantly expanded the area around the Temple by supporting a platform around it by four walls. In AD 70 the Romans destroyed the Temple in a blaze. The Muslims ruled Jerusalem for over 550 years from AD 638 and as they believed that Mohammed had ascended to Heaven from the rock under the destroyed temple they cleared the rubble and built the Dome of the Rock Mosque (AD 691) and El-Aqsa Mosque (AD 705). We walked around the outside of these attractive mosques but, as non-Muslims, could not enter.
Just outside the Temple Mount is the Via Dolorosa and we then walked the 700m of the fourteen stations of the cross, stopping at each to learn what had happened to Christ on his route from being condemned, carrying his cross, his crucifixion, death and burial. Stations ten to fourteen are now in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which is shared between the Catholics, Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Copts, Ethiopians and Syrians. Five people at a time are allowed into the small tomb (within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) where Jesus was buried and thus we queued for 45 minutes to get in. We all have our own expectations of experiences like this and I found that the route of the stations was shorter and more urban than I had imagined with it, even then as now, passing through narrow alleys of stalls and houses. We then visited the tomb of King David, the shrine where Mary, mother of Jesus, closed her eyes for the last time and the scene of the last supper. After five hours of walking on a very hot day we were very pleased to stop and have lunch!
After lunch we drove over Mount Scopus which is the watershed for the area with water flowing to the Mediterranean and the Dead Seas respectively. It was amazing to see the desert start at the foot of the mountain, so very close to Jerusalem. Shortly thereafter we descended from the coach on the peak of the Mount of Olives and had bird’s eye view of the Temple Mount. From there four of us walked about a kilometre down the hill, along the apparent route of Christ on Palm Sunday and then joined the rest of the group in admiring the Church of Gethsemane (or Church of Nations) built relatively recently (for Jerusalem) in 1924.
As a non religious person, but with a reasonable knowledge of the major events in the bible, today has brought this history alive for me. Many historical events are now far clearer for me. However, I recognize that for many people the places I saw today are very significant in their beliefs. At many of the sites we visited today we waited while groups read aloud from the bible or sang hymns or prayed.
We decided to have a special dining experience and so we followed our guide book to Arcadia off the Mahane Yehudi market, down an alleyway and through a courtyard garden into a pleasant, but not special, restaurant. Before we were shown the menus we were served with a delightful platter of cold cucumber yogurt soup, yogurt, tahini, white soft cheese, eggplant carpaccio and gorgeous strips of bread. I was slightly disappointed that the beef tartare I ordered was more like a slice of beef carpaccio hidden by potato salad but Tibby delighted in her very tasty fish soup. We both had Mishmishia for the main meal which was a lamb stew with apricots. It was served without vegetables or rice, was tasty but the meat did not seem to be high quality and at the end we were left with a pile of bones and gristle. For dessert I had a wonderful cheesecake with pumpkin while Tibby had Kdaif (which is difficult to describe) with mascarpone cream which was also special. I chose the cheapest red wine on the menu (NIS239 or about £55) which was Kahanov Merlot 2006 and which had a full bouquet and colour and was like silk to drink. Twenty three year old Dan, working after his military service and before university, made up for his slight lack of organisation by being attentive, pleasant and eager. The evening was pleasant but expensive at NIS1,040 (About £190).
Thursday 27th May
We headed east from Jerusalem quickly entering the West Bank and the Judean Desert. After an hour we could see the northern part of the Dead Sea and near Jericho turned north. We were driving at times next to the boundary fence with Jordan. There is a security area several kilometres wide between the fence and the actual border at the River Jordan. Avi told us that a peace gesture several years ago had resulted in Israel pumping water from the Sea of Galilee to the area of Jordan across the border. We could see a huge swathe of green crops and trees on that side of the border compared to the complete desert on the West Bank side. And then we left the West Bank and re-entered Israel and it was like switching a light switch. Suddenly the land was green, fertile and productive. Clearly the water from the Sea of Galilee had got here too.
Our first visit of the day was to Beat She’an which has ruins spanning 4,500 years. It was on the north-south trade route and flourished through the reigns of Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius. Ruins that are clearly identifiable include the amphitheatre, main street, bathhouse and pleasure palace.
Then on to Nazareth where we visited the very modern Basilica of the Annunciation which includes the cave where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and a church with lovely stained glass windows upstairs. The neighbouring Church of St Joseph, where he had his carpenter’s shop, includes a granary and well under the church. We then walked a short distance in this Arab town to the ancient town well where Joseph apparently met Mary. Heading further north we stopped in Safed (or Tzfat) which is viewed as the world centre for the Jewish sect of Kabbalah. Kabbalah is a set of esoteric beliefs and practices that supplement the traditional Jewish interpretations of the bible. We visited the Kabbalah synagogue where Avi taught us about Kabbalah and also more about traditional Jewish practice in a synagogue. We wandered among the surrounding artists’ quarter.
As we headed further north through the Hula Valley Avi told us that it used to be a swamp with mosquitoes which discouraged settlements. The Israelis completed a huge project to drain the swamp and today the valley is covered in crops.
Visibility got steadily worse during the day as a haze seemed to descend eventually limiting visibility to less than 500m. Avi explained that winds over the desert were carrying sand into the air.
We finished the day at the kibbutz, Kfar Giladi. Avi explained to us that the original concept of a Kibbutz of ‘one for all and all for one’ worked very well when participants, often refugees from Europe, were poor and motivated to build a strong Israel. Household tasks like cooking and laundry could be done centrally by a few people, with others caring for children, thus releasing everyone else to work in agriculture. The kibbutzim were dealt a double blow in the 1960’s when the EEC imposed tariffs on farm products from outside the Union to protect members like Spain, Portugal and Greece and the next generation were not keen to work in agriculture. Many of them introduced light industry and the kibbutz we stayed at had manufactured sun glasses until they were undercut by producers in the Far East. The modern kibbutz runs a hotel and a cement plant and is now run more as a cooperative permitting members to work out of the kibbutz and employing others who do not live there. And so we stayed in this large hotel with an indoor swimming pool, bar and restaurant. The quality of the hotel and the restaurant was not great although the service was the best we had received so far in Israel.
I have concluded that my initial judgement of our guide was wrong. Avi (Abraham) Hochner (63) was born in Kazakhstan and immigrated, with his family, to Israel, when he was two years old, in 1949. He grew up in Haifa and was doing his military training when the 1967 war broke out. He was fighting in the Sinai Desert, along the coast, and arrived at the Suez Canal after other units which met less resistance inland. He spent three years in a kibbutz and in the 1973 war was in a reservist unit in the second wave on the Golan Heights. He had a career as a water engineer and must have been involved in some very interesting projects. In 2000 he changed career and became a tour guide. We found him to be extremely knowledgeable about Israel and the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions. He is understandably a patriot and a believer in the Israeli way and intolerant of the ways of the Palestinians. However, he believes strongly that if people work together they will understand each other more and fear each other less which will make for peace. So he supports projects where the Israelis work with the Palestinians. He likes people and is broad minded and open in his approach. He is very humorous in his observations of life. We have concluded that he is an excellent guide. He does a trip like ours about once a month for CTO but normally does tours in his own mini bus with smaller parties of up to seven people and can do tours in English, Spanish and German. I would recommend him as a guide. His contact details are 60/5 Hachalutz Street, Jerusalem 96269; email firstname.lastname@example.org; tel/fax +972 2 643 3770; mobile +972 50 599 2775.
Friday 28th May
The kibbutz is in the very far north of Israel and the Lebanese border is about two kilometres to the west and about ten kilometres to the north and east. As recently as 2006 four thousand rockets from Lebanon fell on the Galilee. No real damage was done to the kibbutz but Avi showed us a memorial close by where twelve reservist soldiers were killed by a rocket landing amongst them.
We drove south to the Sea of Galilee to the Mount of Beatitudes which is generally accepted to be the site of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. A beautiful modern Catholic church built in 1938 has many octagonal features representing the eight virtues. This is a tranquil place with beautiful gardens and (when there is no sand in the air) a lovely view of the Sea of Galilee. Close by, down the hill, is Capernaum where Jesus spent three years in the house of Simon Peter during his active ministry. There are ruins here which include buildings that might have been there in the time of Jesus, as well as older buildings when the site was a pilgrimage site and the remains of white limestone synagogue possibly dating from the third century AD. There is a simple but attractive walkway along the sea.
At Capernaum we saw a stone olive oil press which might have been used for hundreds of years. Avi explained that once the olives have been pressed the oil is separated from skins by adding water which causes the oil to rise above the water and the skins to drop. The top oil that is taken off is the purest and known as extra virgin oil. The next oil taken off is known as pure virgin oil and the three following take offs are identified by numerals as the proportion of water in the oil increases. The five fruits that have been grown in this part of the world for centuries are olives, grapes, dates, pomegranates and figs. The Israelis have introduced mangos, avocados and bananas.
A few kilometres away at the kibbutz at Ginosar we boarded a boat, which was supposed to be similar to the fishing boats of the time of Jesus, and went for a 45 minute cruise on the Sea of Galilee. This was a wonderful experience. The day was lovely. The sea was calm. The mood was right. They played music which included the national anthems of all the nationalities present, hymns and Israeli songs. Many of us were singing along.
We popped into the scrappy resort of Tiberias to visit the tomb of the medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimondes; visit a diamond jewellery store and have lunch of St Peter fish by the seaside. A wind picked up and cleared the desert sand haze and gave us wonderful views across the Sea of Galilee.
We returned to the northern shore to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes built in the 1980’s at Tabgha which is supposed to be the site of the miracle. This was a simple attractive Benedictine church. Every site which can claim to be associated with Jesus or one of the other major biblical characters has a church of some sort. Entrance to most of these churches is free and without real congregations, these churches must be supported by their international organisations.
Capernaum, the Mount of Beatitudes and Tabgha are all just a few kilometres apart.
There is very little rain in the Galilee and although there is plenty of water in the Sea it could not be pumped up the hills in the time of Jesus, as it is today. The hills also have a lot of loose rocks making the establishment of fields difficult. So in the time of Jesus this must have been a very barren area which explains the importance of fishing at that time.
At the most northerly point of the Sea of Galilee we crossed the Jordan River into Golan Province. The River Jordan was the boundary between Israel and Syria between 1948 and 1967 but the Golan, which is about 55kms by 10kms, was annexed in the 1967 war. The previous boundary along the river was extensively mined by the Russians in the 1960’s and remains a no go area. As the road climbs one notices how rocky the area is thus requiring army tanks to stick to the roads. We saw many Syrian defensive positions which had been bombed by the Israelis and stopped at a memorial to the Israeli 79 Tank Regiment which had held the Syrians back in 1979 at great cost in lives.
The Golan Heights is a large plateau with occasional hills. We reached the Syrian border and looked down on a UN Observer force camp and a kilometre further a Syrian army base. We could see far into Syria. On a hill behind us the Israelis had a huge bank of listening devices and antenna focused on Syria.
We entered the northern Golan which is very mountainous and attractive and the home of 20,000 Druze Arabs in four towns. The Druze religion had its roots in Islam but they are generally not considered to be Muslims. There are about one million Druze in the world with most located in Syria and Lebanon. Druze, supported the Israelis in 1967 and are the only Arabs in the Israeli army. We bought cherries from a roadside vendor and headed home to our kibbutz.
On the tour we are mainly spending time with David and Valerie Ball from near Tunbridge Wells in Kent, England. On both our nights in the kibbutz we ate with them in the kibbutz restaurant and then the four us sat out on the lawn talking until late in the balmy temperature. We went to bed happy after a very interesting and special day.
Saturday 29th May
Our son, David, turned 20 today. He finished his first year exams at Durham University yesterday. When we spoke to him on the phone he didn’t seem to be missing us and was planning to watch a marathon of football and rugby on TV with his friends.
Our first stop was at Akko (or Acre) best known as a major Crusader port on the Mediterranean shore. The Crusader city is very well preserved beneath the Ottoman additions. There is an amazing subterranean world of knight’s halls, storage rooms and a refectory. These then lead out into the old town which is a maze of narrow streets on the edge of the old port. Things were relatively quite as this was the Sabbath but I imagine that it is a hive of activity on a working day.
An hour later we were on the peak of Mount Carmel overlooking Haifa, the busiest port in Israel. And then down the hill to the church of the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery with its beautiful paintings and windows. Below the church is an altar to mark the place from where Elijah is said to have lived before defeating the prophets of Baal. A baptism of a four year child was happening as we were in the church which generated a lot of joy to both family and onlookers.
South of Haifa the beaches stretched for ever, the weather was hot, most people were off and the beaches were packed with people. Since we arrived in Israel the weather has been well above 20°C most of the time. The evenings in Jerusalem were a little cool but not uncomfortable.
Our next stop heading south along the Mediterranean coast was Caesarea. We stopped to look at the remains of the Roman aqueduct and also the reconstructed Roman amphitheatre with a lovely view over the sea. They were putting the last touches to the arrangements for a concert tonight.
We passed through Tel Aviv on the coastal highway to Jaffa and St Peter’s Church which dominates Old Jaffa. The church has been destroyed and rebuilt several times and has been a beacon to pilgrims arriving by sea in Jaffa. We looked from on high on to the old harbour which used to be the main Israeli harbour until ships increased in size and the port of Haifa was built.
And that brought us to the end of our organised trip. It has been an intense six days of sightseeing with few breaks. People are tired and had difficulty in getting enthusiastic about the lovely St Peter’s Church that we have just seen. But we have had an outstanding introduction to Israel. And, of course, Avi has made a huge difference. The highlights for me were Yad Vashem, Old Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. I would have liked more time in Yad Vashem and time to wander in Old Jerusalem. I would also have liked to have visited a wine estate.
In the evening we got together with David and Val from the trip and went to dinner at Margaret Tayar Restaurant at the entrance to Jaffa. Our guide book described the restaurant as unpretentious which was an understatement. Most of the tables are outside in a courtyard garden but we sat inside next to seven cases of peppers. We shared a starter of six plates which included three variations of eggplant mixes, a tomato based one and hummus type dips, which was a great way to start. Three of us then had yellowtail which was lovely. We washed it down with a Gamla Merlot 2006 and then walked, on a lovely warm evening, along the sea promenade for about a kilometre to our hotel in South Tel Aviv.
Sunday 30th May to Wednesday 2nd June
We spent the next four days doing very little in Eilat.
We had to answer about forty questions from the security staff at the Tel Aviv domestic airport particularly about whether we had met with or received any parcels from people in Bethlehem and Nazareth. We flew on a fifty seat propeller plane for fifty minutes to Eilat. As we approached Eilat we could see that it was an oasis on the coast in the desert with desert mountains close by. The airport is in the middle of the town. The hotels are huge and stretched along the beach or one street back. The beach is just a continuation of the desert and is not attractive especially as there are many fast food outlets and water sports kiosks. For about a kilometre along the north beach there are about 200 stalls selling every kind of tat imaginable.
Fortunately our hotel, the Isrotel Royal Beach (the Isrotel Group have eight hotels in Eilat), was magnificent. It is a large hotel with fourteen floors. Architecturally it is very attractive with a triangle creating an atrium and views from several floors across the pools to the sea. There are two large pools for general use with hundreds of sun beds and two kiddies’ pools. The dining room is large offering the choice of sitting in air conditioned comfort or outside on the veranda. Both breakfast and dinner are served buffet style with a huge variety of choice at both meals. The lounge area is inviting and comfortable and extends to a huge veranda outside as well. Our standard room was modern and large with a sitting area and a balcony. The service was the best we had in any of our hotels. This was a perfect place to chill out after our busy week.
We ate one night in the hotel, and then at the Boston Fish and Grill and the Ranch House which were all good meals. The best meal, however, was on the last night at Eddie’s Hideaway in the town. It is well hidden and has a casual air to it but we had a wonderful meal of goose liver in date sauce followed by steaks, one with a Dijon sauce and another with a creamy mustard, curry and brandy sauce. This all went down very well with a Yarden Syrah 2005.
We have noticed in restaurants that most diners do not order bottles of wine. Many people drink soft drinks or beers and may drink a glass of wine. In general only Israeli wines are available and they are normally above £25 per bottle in restaurants and quickly get over £40 equivalent. We have drunk Barkan, Gamla and Yarden which were all great wines. The latter two come from The Golan Heights Winery which has fifteen vineyards in Golan and Galilee.
One night we went to the Isrotel show Wow at the Isrotel Royal Garden. This ninety minute show has some spectacular circus acrobatics spoiled by silly costumes, curious scenery, inappropriate music and a useless and embarrassing clown.
When we stepped out of the plane the humid 34°C heat hit us and was like that every day. At midday, even in the shade, it was uncomfortable to stay out too long. Someone told me that in July it felt like your lungs were burning. The evenings cooled a little but we still preferred to eat inside in the air conditioning. Sometimes we felt the hot desert winds sweep through the resort.
We should have explored Eilat more because there appears to be a lot for the tourist to do both on land and on the sea. Some people crossed the border to Aqaba in Jordan which is at the end of the Eilat beach, and others did a day trip to the ruins of Petra. We just lazed.
Thursday 3rd June
We rented a wreck of a car from Avis and drove 210kms from Eilat to Ein Bokek on the Dead Sea. There was a good road all the way which was entirely in the desert. Without knowledge or justification I had feared that the road would be lonely but in fact it was extremely busy. There was almost no vegetation on the route but there was sand and rock and lots of hills. Most of the time we driving near to the Jordanian border with constant warnings not to approach the border fence. As we drove the temperature climbed and we arrived at Ein Bokek on the Dead Sea with a temperature of 39°C.
In general the hotels have been a disappointment. We stayed at the Dan Panorama in Tel Aviv which was worn and dated. The furniture in the lounge reminded me of the lounge chairs in my parent’s home in the 1950’s. The Dan Panorama in Jerusalem was even more dated. There has clearly been no updating of this hotel for a few decades. The kibbutz hotel at Kfar Giladi had basic rooms that had not been renovated since being built a long time ago and their buffet dinner was very poor quality. The exception was the Isrotel Royal Beach in Eilat which really was splendid.
We found a new low at The Dead Sea where the Leonardo Plaza reminded us of the communist hotels we stayed in in China in 1985. Everything is worn but they are not bothered because there is no competition. The Leonardo group seem to own four hotels here. There had clearly once been an easy chair in our room because there was a coffee table standing alone. I asked for a chair and a plastic garden chair was delivered. The bath used to have a fixed shower panel but that clearly broke and the frame has been left. The bath has dropped a little in the middle so the resulting space between the top of the bath and the old tiles has been stuffed with mastic. There is water damage on the inside of the bathroom door causing the lower part of the veneer to splinter. The toilet seat is chipped. They have been unable to clean off the coffee that stained the desk lamp shade a few years ago. They thought that they would tile over the old balcony floor but got tired and stopped laying tiles once they had laid two rows. We have a lovely view from our second floor balcony of the Dead Sea but immediately below us we have a view of large industrial pipes and machinery (possibly related to the hotel’s air conditioning) as well as a selection of rubbish which is too much trouble for the hotel to clear. The passage and lift lobby outside our room is so dingy one fears that one will be mugged. The furniture in the dining room was probably made from the wood of Noah’s Ark soon after he left it. (Now I am exaggerating. They were probably made a few years later than that.) My swimming towel had been worn thin by the 1,000 people who had used it before. The old pool bar has been boarded up and the new one is not functioning, probably because there are too many people in the hotel. Seventy percent of the loungers on the beach cannot have their backrests lifted because the mechanism has broken. I went to sort something out at the reception desk. There two staff members behind the desk and one was busy with someone else. The other looked at me, picvked up her cigarettes and went off for a smoke break. Am I exaggerating? No. Am I being pernickety? Yes. Do I deserve a shabby hotel because I paid a shabby price? Absolutely not! The next three days at the Dead Sea will be our most expensive in Israel as we bought a VIP Opera package. To their credit they have shipped in a lot of beach sand to cover the otherwise stony entrance to the sea.
The one positive thing that all the hotels had was a very impressive breakfast buffet. There is normally a large salad section, a selection of herring and other fishes, hard cheeses, several bowls of cream cheeses, a variety of pastries, muffins, pancakes, a huge selection of bread, cereals, fresh fruit, stewed fruit, dried fruit, a selection of yoghurt and a counter for the fresh cooking of eggs and omelettes (but no bacon!).
A bugbear throughout the trip has been the provision of internet in the hotels. At the kibbutz hotel it was available at computers they provided, or by wireless, only in the lounge area, but it was free. At all the other hotels it was provided by an IT company called Smartnet at cost of about £13 per 24 hour period. If we wanted to connect two laptops, we could not use the same login one after the other but had to buy two logins. Smartnet had technical difficulties in Eilat and I kept losing the signal. They then had a malfunction and lost all the login information, causing me to waste an hour until I called them to discover that I was not a complete fool but that they had lost the login information and not advised their clients. In a country as technically advanced as Israel I would have expected cheaper, if not free, internet connections in major hotels. Wi-Fi was free at the Tel Aviv domestic airport.
The spirit that built Israel is not a spirit that serves other people easily. And so we found that the level of service in hotels, restaurants and shops was generally poor and sometimes downright rude. The staff at the Jerusalem Dan Panorama, particularly, the reception staff takes the prize for shocking and uncaring service. Service at the Isrotel Royal beach was generally good except for Eden who clearly believes that her life would be so much easier if there were no customers! The service at the kibbutz hotel was uniformly great. Some young students serving in restaurants recognised that good service generally led to a better tip.
Mobile phones are pervasive worldwide but they seem to reach new heights in Israel. At the pool, in restaurants, at the till, everywhere people are on the phone. And when the phone rings it is picked up irrespective if the receiver is serving you in a shop or at a hotel reception or even, dear Avi, presenting a tourist attraction to us. Our coach driver around Israel was happy to drive the coach with one hand along winding roads while conducting a conversation on his mobile phone in his other hand, until I complained. A barman in the lounge at the Leonardo Plaza managed to take our order for a cappuccino and an espresso, make them and produce the bill for our room without interrupting the mobile phone discussion he was having with his girlfriend.
The Israelis love children and seem to have big families. At the kibbutz hotel and in Eilat they were everywhere. In most restaurants we went into there were children dining with their families until past 10pm.
The roads throughout Israel have been impressive. Many of the main roads are dual carriage highways. Road signs are normally in both Hebrew and English. There are regular places to stop off for drinks and food. I felt comfortable driving a hire car. I might hesitate to go into the Palestinian controlled West Bank by myself in a car.
In the evening we went to the forty minute sound and light show on the western side of Masada. In a temperature of 28°C at 9pm we watched an introductory film narrated by the archaeologist who led the excavations in the 1960’s followed by the sound and light show on the two major events at the mountain i.e. the construction of the palace by Herod and the Roman siege of the Jewish zealots. Tibby was less impressed than I was. Admittedly the personal audio system translating the Hebrew commentary to English had poor reception. It also helped that we knew the story from our visit last week Monday. They lit up Herod’s palace on the northern elevation and showed us the walls extending the full length of the top of the western elevation. The Roman camp fires glowed red in the night and gave off smoke. They lit the huge earthern ramp that the Romans built against the mountain. We saw the arrows of fire that the Romans fired and we saw the walls catch alight in flames and smoke. And we heard of the death of the 960 zealots. I thought that it was well done and certainly seemed to be an inspiration to the coach loads of young Israelis attending.
Friday 4th June
We spent a lazy day floating in the Dead Sea, swimming, reading and emailing.
In the evening we went to a concert by Jessye Norman. This was part of the festival being organised by the Israeli Opera at a venue built for the occasion in the desert about one kilometre from the eastern elevation of Masada. This was not an event for the ladies to go in high heels as we walked from the coaches to the entrance over the stony desert. We entered an enclosure of about an acre in size which was a holding area for the 5,000 audience. And what a holding area! There were hundreds of sofas, coffee tables, dining tables, dining chairs, bar tables and stools with people relaxing and drinking either side of an avenue to the auditorium which was marked out by mock pillars. We had paid for good seats and discovered that this entitled us to entrance to a VIP area where the tables were laden with bowls of olives, oranges, bananas, plums and watermelon! Small snacks were served and wine flowed. And all this was on the desert sand beneath the star filled sky in a temperature of 28°C.
Trumpets sounded and we were summoned to our seats. Masada was large and lit up behind the stage. The Israel Symphony Orchestra with conductor, Rachel Worby, was on stage. Over the course of the evening they played nineteen pieces from Mozart, Sait-Saens, Puccini and Verdi through Gershwin, Bernstein and Ellington. The music soared. The lighting of Masada changed in colour and intensity. It was glorious!
The disappointment of the evening was Jessye Norman. Sixty four year old American Norman has had a long and distinguished career as a soprano and also as a spiritual singer. I am not competent to judge the quality of her singing but I do know when I find a performer entertaining. And Norman was not entertaining. I do not know whether she was being precious or was in poor health or was too old and frail to perform but she could have been singing in a studio without an audience. She did not engage us at all. In the first half she sang only every second piece played by the orchestra but was a brooding presence when not singing. Her movements on stage indicated someone who was frail beyond her years. She picked up in the second half and after one break she sang five Duke Ellington songs one after another with more enthusiasm. The audience, however, were unforgiving and at the end of her published programme many of them headed for the exits. Norman forced three encores on us, even as the aisles were full of departing patrons. Ironically her two best performances, in my humble opinion, were Summertime and Somewhere which were sung as encores. She sang these mainly seated as if exhausted by the performance. By the time she had finished the audience was fearful of applauding too much for fear that she would sing again and so the conductor and the orchestra did not get the thanks from the audience that they deserved.
As we left the auditorium I was amazed to see the simple but effective organisation that had been put in place to get the 3,000 people staying in Ein Bokek, fifteen kilometres away, back to their hotels. Signs separated us from those who were going elsewhere. Through the use of temporary barriers they had created seven channels. They allowed one coach load of people into each channel at a time and the channels then led us down to points on the roadside, one coach distance apart. That permitted seven coaches to drive up, be filled and drive off at the same time. It did not take long for the fifty or so coaches to clear the crowd. Each coach then stopped at seven places in the village. We arrived at our hotel at 01h30 to find that the opera organisers had laid on an early morning feast of fruit, pastries and sandwiches. Plates were piled high and a happy crowd dispersed to bed.
Saturday 5th June
We attended a lecture by Iain Scott, a Canadian opera expert who highlighted ten things that we should know about Nabucco, the opera that we will be seeing this evening. In this Italian opera written by Verdi in 1842 the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco), returns to Jerusalem in 586BC to quell a rebellion of the Jews. His adopted daughter, Abigaille, who had been a slave, conspires to take over the throne while the other daughter, Fenena, has fallen in love with the Jew, Ismaele, and converts to Judaism. When the king pronounces that he is God he is struck down and by lightning. Abigaille acts as regent and persuades the now insane Nabucco to sign a warrant for the death of all Israelis, which he remembers too late, will include Fenena. When Nabucco realizes that Fenena is about to be executed he prays to the God of the Israelites for forgiveness and his sanity returns. He regains his throne, Abigaille takes poison and Nabucco tells the Israelis to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. The opera is known as the Jewish Opera because of it’s focus on the Jews and the inclusion of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ , Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate / “Fly, thought, on golden wings”, a chorus which is regularly given an encore when performed. I am looking forward to the performance tonight.
There had been a diary clash between the opera lecture and a Barkan wine tasting. I persuaded Barkan to stay open until the lecture finished and so we tasted their lovely Merlot, Shiraz, Pinotage (unusual outside South Africa) and Cabernet Sauvignon. Two opera singers sang to great applause. We overstayed our welcome as we chatted to the marketing manager, Carmi, and her charming assistant, Avia. We departed in a happy mood carrying a Barkan apron and two Barkan wine openers for our London and Cape Town homes.
The trumpets summoned us to Nabucco from our sofas in the desert. And then we were delighted. The orchestra under the passionate and masterful direction of Daniel Oren welcomed us. Tibby is far more knowledgeable than me on matters musical and she told me that the voices were true and passionate. Nabucco was sung by David Cecconi and Abigail by Baysa Dashnyam. The costumes were ornate. The scenery was bare until the last act when we had a blazing arch followed by a huge burning menorah. There were chariots and horses and even camels on stage. When the temple was razed Mount Masada glowed red. I felt that the chorus was not lit properly at times but most of the time the lighting was dramatic. The thunderbolt was convincing. The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves was sung beautifully. There was an encore of the Chorus. And then a second encore where the conductor invited the audience to sing along. They responded in full voice. This is a special opera for the Israelis. To have this opera performed at Mount Masada made it even more special. This was a wonderful finale to our trip to Israel.
Sunday 6th June
We drove 160kms round the north of Jerusalem to Ben Gurion airport. It took us two hours to drop off the rental car and get through the extensive security. The service on the El Al flight to London did not match the outward flight.
A visit to Israel is not like a visit to any other Middle Eastern country. It is a country that is important to many religions and for me, certainly brought to life many of the events in the bible. The battle to build and maintain the nation of Israel gives the Israeli people an attitude and zest for life that is invigorating. This was a wonderful country to visit.