Not unlike most Indians who have reservations and apprehensions about travelling to Israel, I too harboured doubts about the destination, thanks to the negative media coverage of the country. The general perception of the destination is that it is unsafe, orthodox, and has nothing much to offer tourists, barring pilgrimage. However, I was proven wrong the moment I landed at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, the city from where we started our tour of Israel.
Discovering Tel Aviv
Created by settlers who moved from the old Jaffa area, Tel Aviv is a metropolitan city that never sleeps. Even at 3 am, I could see traffic jam right outside my hotel. The Tel Aviv promenade stretches along the Mediterranean Sea. Surfers on the waves and bikini-clad women at the beaches are, surprisingly, a common sight in Tel Aviv.
We began our touring from the Ha Tachana - Hebrew for ‘the station’ - which refers to the Old Jaffa Railway Station at Manshiya. The railway station was inaugurated in 1891 and closed down in 1948. This was the first railway station in the Middle East and served as a terminus for the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway. Today this place makes for a perfect location for wedding photo shoots. During our visit, we saw three couples shooting at various locations at the station, braving the strong winds of the Mediterranean.
The Independence Hall, originally the Dizengoff House, is where Israel's Declaration of Independence was signed on May 14, 1948. The Independence Hall is a true reflection of the struggle of the Jews for their right over their own land. It is located on the historic Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. The Rothschild Boulevard is now a party hub for locals and foreigners alike. It is also one of the most expensive places of residence in Tel Aviv.
To get a feel of the local life, the Carmel Market is a good start. One can find all varieties of fruits, vegetables, home accessories here, and is the best place to get a taste of the local street food ‘falafel’, a traditional Middle Eastern food.
The Na Laga'at centre was an experience like never before. Na Laga'at in Hebrew means ‘Please Do Touch’. It is the first Israeli deaf and blind theatre company. It houses two restaurants. Café Kapish is a dairy restaurant where the entire staff is deaf. The menu and tablecloths feature basic sign language tips. The other restaurant is Blackout Restaurant, where the staff is blind and food is served in complete darkness.
Also on the itinerary for the first day was the Rabin Square, formerly Kings of Israel Square, where former Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
Redefining Lifestyle in Israel
Jaffa, also called Japho, is the oldest part of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa area. It is a small, sleepy town that is an ideal place for couples to hang out. A must-visit attraction here is the St. Peter’s Church, where attending the mass is a blissful experience.
At the grand entrance to Old Jaffa is the Jaffa Clock Tower, built during the Ottoman period to commemorate the silver jubilee of the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II. At a walkable distance from the Clock Tower is the flea market, where one can get good bargains. After the flea market closes at sundown, Old Jaffa seems to undergo a transformation, with the opening of small, cozy restaurants where people throng to spend a peaceful evening.
The second day of our tour commenced with a visit to Caesarea, which is located between Tel Aviv and Haifa. The scenic port city was rebuilt by Herod The Great, some time during 25-13 BC. He renamed the city in honour of the Roman King Caesar Augustus. The remains of entertainment facilities like the Roman theatre, bathhouses, temples, and the Caesarea aqueduct can be found here even today. The modern city of Caesarea houses Israel’s only 18-hole golf course and also features the country’s most high-end luxury apartments.
Next, we were driven to the Tishbi Winery, where we tasted different types of wines and learnt about the methods of producing wines and brandy. Following that, we made a quick stop at Daliyat al-Karmel, a Druze town.
The Old City of Acre, (aka Akko) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, one will discover a perfectly preserved Crusader city, located directly under a relatively modern city. Here one can find the walls and fortresses, knights’ hall, churches, synagogues, and mosques that are reminders of the city’s conquerors, right from the Canaanites and Romans to the Crusaders, Turks and British.
During the tour of the country, we were told about the Kibbutz (plural - Kibbutzim), which means gathering. It is a style of living where everything is shared. Their traditional occupation is agriculture. A member of a kibbutz is called ‘kibbutznik’, and one of them even showed us around their locality, which seemed quite self-sufficient. However, now, a lot of the kibbutzniks venture out of the community in search of a better livelihood and give a percentage of their earnings to the community for its betterment.
We stayed over the night at Leonardo hotel in Haifa, and the next day resumed our tour, starting with a visit to the Baha'i Gardens. This is one of the most visited attractions in Israel. The golden-domed Shrine of the Báb lies in the centre of the Gardens, and is the resting place of the Prophet-Herald of the Bahá’í Faith. Here, a staircase will lead you to 19 terraces, from where one can get a panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea, the Galilee Hills, and the entire Haifa city.
Dead Sea & Masada
A visit to a spa definitely serves as a refreshing and welcome activity, and more so when the spa is a natural one with miraculous healing properties. We had the opportunity to visit one such, in the form of the Dead Sea. It is one of the saltiest water bodies in the world. The salt of the water cures various illnesses, and tourists swarm to this place for the same. In fact, hotels in the neighbourhood offer heated pools, for which the water is drawn from the Dead Sea. The increased salinity of the water of the Dead Sea offers buoyancy, so one need not have to be a swimmer to take a dip. What makes for a spellbinding sight is watching the sunrise at the Dead Sea.
Masada is a fortress, built by Herod, King of Judea, which overlooks the Dead Sea. Masada was the last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters against the Romans. Its fall signaled the violent destruction of the Kingdom of Judea. The tragic events of the last days of the rebels at Masada transformed it into a Jewish cultural icon as well as a symbol of humanity’s continuous struggle for freedom from oppression. During its time, there were provisions made for rainwater harvesting and thermal baths in a desert area. Here, one can buy authentic Dead Sea products at a good price, though these are available in plenty across Israel.
Seeking Divinity in Nazareth & Jerusalem
Nazareth is the childhood home for Jesus and hence a pilgrimage centre. A must-visit attraction here is the ‘Basilica of the Annunciation’, also known as the ‘Church of the Annunciation’, which houses the Grotto of Annunciation. The Grotto is believed to be the original remains of the childhood home of Mother Mary. Nazareth is also the cheapest place to shop for woolen wear, artifacts, and other local items.
One of the oldest cities in the world, Jerusalem should be in every history buff’s bucket list, irrespective of which religion he/she belongs to. However, the city is considered holy for three major religions, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, is located in the old city of Jerusalem. The Wall is considered to be closest to the Temple Mount, which makes it the most sacred site recognised by Judaism outside the Temple Mount itself.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also called the Church of Resurrection, is where Jesus was crucified. The place of his burial is also located here. The Holocaust History Museum, Yad Vashem is a memorial to the victims of Holocaust. After the Western Wall, Yad Vashem is the second most visited place in Jerusalem. It is a must-visit, especially for those interested to know about the brutal past of the Jews during World War II. The museum gives a glimpse of how the Jews survived a difficult past and how they prospered despite that. We also visited The Israel Museum, which houses Dead Sea Scrolls and artifacts discovered at Masada.
Having had a first-hand experience of the country, I can now confidently say that destination Israel is a must-visit for travel enthusiasts. It is not just a safe and versatile destination worth every penny spent, but it can also be easily covered in six to seven days