Israel Part 1

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Israel Part 1…

and why you have to visit Holy Land…

Masada Fortress

Masada Fortress

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to travel to Israel. The feeling grew inside of me for many years. Connection with this country started only few years after my birth. For those who know me and a little bit of my personal history, probably heard the story many times. I was only few years old, when my parents took an opportunity and travelled to work and live in Israel. Early 90’s, Jaffa, it was different times back then. My mum and dad had a chance to move to Israel for work, back then you didn’t have to worry about visa to get work. Ok, you did to a degree, but you could still have got work as a cleaner or simple work in factory cash in hand. For those leaving grey reality of post-communist Poland behind, it was a different world. Not that I could comment, since I stayed back at home with grandparents but still, I remember the times we received parcels from abroad. I missed my parents greatly but help was massive. Receiving toys and sweets and clothes, that were just impossible to find in Poland at the time. To these days I have some letters and cards from dad, that he posted to me when I was only about 5 or 6. Seeing pictures of beautiful beaches, tanned people, exotic food – it was all so much different than what I knew in Poland.

Mum and dad never got to complete their original plan of moving further and emigrating to Australia, since my grandparents didn’t want to let me go, and my parents had no choice than to come back to Poland after few years of emigration. They always had a special bond with Israel, they always spoke about this place in only superlatives, to this day – even though they lived in Tel Aviv during one of the most serious conflicts – Gulf War.

Israel is a country that many people have mixed feelings about. There is so much history in such a relatively young country. There is also a lot of controversy. And finally, there is an ongoing conflict with Palestine. Due to all of the above many people would never even dream of visiting Israel or thought about this place as a holiday destination.

Dead Sea

Dead Sea

Still, Israel is a place that has a big meaning in heart of many across the world. Jews, Christians and Muslims from across the world have a special place in their heart for Jerusalem. It is a Holy Place were millions of pilgrims travel to each year.

I have finally got to travel to Israel in beginning of 2018, in spring, beautiful time of year – nature is coming to full life, flowers are blooming, sunny weather but not too hot. I instantly fell in love with this country and since my first visit, I travelled back 4 times in a period of just over a year. I could not get enough of the place, culture, people, food, beach, history. I have been doing a lot of reading on Judaism and history of Jewish nation. It is fascinating to see how the nation of Israel can be so diverse and so unique. Jews connected by motherly blood, yet so different in looks and heritage. Making Aliyah from all over the world, wanting to come back to their “home”.

More on the country itself. I was lucky enough to see Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and also a made a trip to Masada and Dead Sea. This I must say is a bare minimum to see, but still ahead of me will be visit to more places - Haifa, Netanya, Caesarea, Sea of Galilee, Negev Desrt, Timna Park and Eilat.

One of first places I have seen was Masada. Only an hour and a half away from Jerusalem. It is an ancient fortress, dating back to 30 B.C. and King Herod! Place you must visit. There are plenty of good local tours which are well organised and the positive from going on the pre-arranged tour, is the knowledgeable tour guide. The history of the place is so interesting and dramatic. Make sure you do some extra reading on this. One of the most shocking was the first Roman and Jewish war, during which Jewish rebels, the Sicarii overcame the Roman garrison. They protected the fortress for years to come, while Romans were building a ramp in order to attempt the attack. Eventually Romans did manage to enter the fortress, but only to find that defendants have set all buildings on fire and all Sicarii have committed mass suicide or killed each other – 960 men, women and children in total.  They preferred death than captivity.

Mount of Olives

Mount of Olives

From Masada it is only a short bus ride to Ein Gedi – spa resort at the Dead Sea. Sea which is in fact a lake. Just over 430 meters below sea level, it is the lowest elevation land point on earth. The saltiest lake in the world – nearly 10 times saltier than the ocean! It is so salty you cannot drown. It is the thing everyone should experience once in their lifetime – floating on water, you can chill to point of reading a book or playing on your phone, while drifting on water. Be prepared though, the water is so salty, if it gets to your eyes it will NOT be pleasant. Thank god I did not experience this, I was very careful, but I did lick my finger. Oh dear me - it was salty, it was disgusting, it was sickening. If possible, make sure you bring flip flops or any other water appropriate shoes, as the surface is very sharp. It felt like walking on needles. After all, it is all salt and other minerals you are walking on.

Dead Sea salt and mud are known around the world for their health and cosmetic benefits. Be wary though. Dead Sea is drying up! The level of the sea is falling by as much as 1.5 meter per year! It is happening at such speed that some resorts had to close down, as what used to be the beach resort now turned into a desert. The factories mining minerals by evaporating the water, also contribute to this story of destruction. Bear that in mind when purchasing next product deemed to be product of Dead Sea.

Back in Jerusalem, make sure you give yourself at least few days to discover all that is on offer from this amazing city. Old City is magnificent – split into four main areas. Muslim Quarter, Jewish Quarter, Christian Quarter and Armenian Quarter. Surrounded by ancient walls, Old City dates back to 4th century. You can get yourself lost in the city for hours or follow a trail. I chose one of the free tours organised by companies such as Sandemans Tours. They have very knowledgeable tour guides and operate purely on tipping system.

Must see in Jerusalem’s Old City include Western Wall, Church of the Holly Sepulchre, Dome of Rock, Temple Mount, Jaffa & Damscus Gate and more. Walk between tight streets, shops and markets. Try local food and drink tea while watching the crowds. Lose yourself in the moment. Appreciate the spiritual feeling of this city. On a Friday and Saturday respect the Shabbat – Jewish day of rest. Don’t get surprised – nothing is open from Friday evening to Saturday night. There are no buses, no trams, shops are closed – this is time for pray and rest.

Western Wall was quite a magical experience to me. Seeing all the people pray. I myself got to the wall and allowed myself to feel the power in the pray and mourning of others, even though I am not religious myself. Touching a wall that is dating back to 2 BCE gave me goose bumps. You can feel the power, you can sense the history of this place.

Old City Walls, Jerusalem

Old City Walls, Jerusalem

You will get some of the best views over Jerusalem from Mount of Olives. You can get a bus there from a bust station near the Damascus Gate. Views are magnificent but be prepared for very windy conditions. Rather than getting a bus back, there is a good walk down back to Old City. Walking pass the Jewish Cemetery, the most ancient and most important Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem. There are also quite a few amazing churches on the way back worth stopping by such as Church of Mary Magdalene a Russian Orthodox Church.

Apart from history Jerusalem has a lot of culture to offer. Make sure to visit Mahane Yehuda Market – there is a tram stop just outside The Shuk. Market is full of vendors with fruit, vegetable, local food including hummus and halva. You will find cafes and eateries inside. You need to make sure you try local sweets such as chocolate rugelach and baklava bites. Proper sugar rush, don’t be too greedy.

One thing that was a bit of a shock to me to start with, was the constantly present view of young soldiers – men and women (it is mandatory that all Israelis complete 2-3 years’ service in the army). The soldiers sit in cafes, laughing with rifles hanging from chairs! Coming from European country where police doesn’t even carry weapons, it was a little uncomfortable to start with. Very quickly though, I got oblivious to this, even more like it gave me the sense of security. The soldiers, the checkpoints, the security checks at the shopping malls and train stations. Rather than causing inconvenience - it made me feel safe.

Israeli people are specific. Such a mix of cultures, but majority obviously Jewish. Make sure you are respectful in Jerusalem. Big majority of community are orthodox Jews, they do not appreciate nosy tourists taking their photos or staring at them. Israelis can be loud, Israelis can be rude and they can be nosy. They come across like this and more, but at heart they are welcoming, strong and proud people. I have made many friends there over past couple years. I have learned you have to peel them like an onion. The more layers you get through, the more enjoyable that relation is. They are curious and warm-hearted people very proud of their history and nation. I respect that greatly!

I have decided to write a separate note on Tel Aviv, since this city made such an impact on me. I instantly fell like I found my place on earth when I got to Tel Aviv. See my commentary on Tel Aviv in the next note and in the meantime visit gallery to get a little flavour on what Israel has to offer.

Shalom!