I’ve never been a religious person—unless you consider the brief period when I was 13 and wanted to be Catholic, like my best friend. I was enraptured by the mysterious rituals where bread and wine were said to somehow miraculously transform into flesh and blood.
On the coast of the Mediterranean, I arrive at my first historical site in Israel, King Herod’s Caesarea Maritima—supposedly named in honour of Caesar. Even though it’s an unseasonably hot day for May with a temperature over 30 C, I feel goosebumps. There is something extraordinary about walking down hand-hewn stone steps, past classical Roman columns, headless remnants of Roman statues and ancient burial sarcophagi, into an amazingly intact amphitheatre, knowing all were constructed more than two thousand years ago.
At the gladiator ring, my guide, Motti Saar, a proud sabra (native Israeli), points out where Herod’s viewing platform once stood. “It was by the end curve,” he explains, “because that was the prime spot to see the most crashes and bloody action.”
Earlier, I had been inland, below sea level, at the Scots Hotel in Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee, devouring a huge Israeli buffet breakfast consisting of olives, labane (yogurt-based cheese), breads, baba ganoush, tahini and Arab salad. And now, here I am in modern Tel Aviv. It’s easy to cover a lot of ground quickly in Israel as it’s only about the size of Vancouver Island. In Tel Aviv, I find the antithesis of antiquity with its boutique hotels, high-rises, surfing beaches, nightclubs, open-air cafés, and construction cranes everywhere I look.
Tel Aviv was only founded in 1909, so there is a lot of modernity, but there is a law in place that protects historical buildings. My favourites are the white Bauhaus-style buildings with their iconic curved corners. Constructed in the 1930s, there were originally more than 4,000 of them. Over a thousand remain, collectively called “White City” and declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
I stay at the Brown TLV Urban boutique hotel and walk a few blocks to visit the famous Carmel Market. Block after block, stalls sell the usual fruits and vegetables, clothes and housewares, plus an overwhelming selection of handmade breads, cured meats, cheeses, unfamiliar spices, herbal leaf teas, all sorts of olives, and halvah, the sweet, dense Middle Eastern tahini treat.
My market visit cannot be complete without trying fresh pomegranate juice, a regional speciality, so I order one and watch as the vendor chooses large, ripe red pome-granates, slices, then squeezes them with a special press until the glass is full. I drink it slowly, savouring its sweet, tart flavour.
In the Old City of Jaffa, now part of Tel Aviv, I see my first bomb shelter. I learn that since the Gulf War in 1991, these community shelters are no longer used, and each building must have its own “safe place.” Other than this reminder of Israel’s struggles, and the occasional military police strolling the streets, I cannot tell there is political strife here. I was expecting a war-torn country with checkpoints on every corner, not this normal, modern country.
INTO THE DESERT
After just over an hour’s drive, I’m at the edge of the Judaean Desert on the way to the Dead Sea. As I drop down into the desert I start to see the semi-nomadic settlements of the Arabic Bedouin animal herders. I have my heart set on riding a camel. Luck is with me when, at a roadside viewpoint, an enterprising Bedouin dressed in his traditional white robe and keffiyeh headdress advertises camel rides. For 20 shekels (about $7) Shushi the camel, with his soft brown eyes and long eyelashes, accented by beautiful multicoloured tassels hanging on his bridle, majestically lowers himself on his knobby front knees for me to climb onto his back, then docilely allows his owner to lead us around.
Just down the road at Masada, I see that King Herod had been at it again when, around 35 BC, he built a six-hectare fortress with not just one, but two palaces on top of an isolated 400-metre-high rocky plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. Incredibly, some of the original tiles and wall frescoes remain and restoration has been done so well. Were it not for the black line denoting the original ruins below and restored construction above, it would be tough to tell the difference. Although by most accounts King Herod was a hedonistic tyrant, I fall in love with his architectural legacy.
My next stop is the Premier Spa at the Dead Sea, located amid myriad modern hotel resorts. I enter the sea, and effortlessly float on my back. From here, I see Jordan across the way. I sink into the moment, enjoying the silky texture of the water on my skin and laughing when it takes me a few tries to lower my feet to the bottom of the dense salt water. I add to the sensuality of the experience by slathering therapeutic Dead Sea mud over my body and letting it dry before immersing myself again in the bath-temperature water. My skin is incredibly soft, but I can’t wait to get in the shower and wash off the slick, oily after-feeling.
A SPIRITUAL VISIT
The following day is my final stop, at Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world, and I have my first-ever stay in a kosher hotel, the Mount Zion. From the window of my large suite, I can see the walls of the Old City where the famous Temple Mount and the Church of Holy Sepulchre are found. It’s also where the Via Dolorosa (The Way of Sorrow) is located, the route Jesus walked to his crucifixion.
In Jerusalem, I see more of what I expected to see in Israel—Orthodox Jews garbed in black, with their big hats and long beards and more restaurants displaying kosher certificates. It feels far more conservative than Tel Aviv and I sense tension crackling in the air between the various factions of zealous religious worshippers. But nowhere did the energy of devotion emanate more than at the Western Wall where Jews worship. It’s considered a holy site because of its proximity to the nearby Temple Mount. I arrive here on Friday evening just in time for Sabbath and the place is packed. There is a constant loud hum of chanting, which gets louder as I weave my way between worshippers toward the wall to slip the small paper, on which I’ve written my wish (it must be for someone else, not yourself), between the cracks. It takes me several tries since there are already so many papers there, but finally I get mine to stay, and I turn back to watch from the sidelines before returning to my hotel for my final night here.
I’ve heard that some visitors to Israel are struck by something called the Jerusalem Syndrome, a mental phenomenon where they start to think they’re the Messiah. Although I’m glad I didn’t experience this, I have to admit I was enraptured by Israel’s culture and powerful spiritual history.
A number of airlines, including Air Canada, Air Transat and El Al, offer direct or non-stop service between Canada and Tel Aviv. Be prepared for an in-depth interview screening with a security agent whenever you check in at an airport.
About 75 per cent of the country is Jewish and follow the Jewish work week, which is Sunday through Thursday. Plan ahead for Sabbath (dusk Friday to dusk Saturday), especially in Jerusalem, as restaurants and shops are often closed.
Although most street signs are in Hebrew and English, many Israelis, especially the younger ones, speak English well.
If your budget allows, hire a guide as you will learn so much more about the country. (Guides are licensed and go through extensive training to learn 4,000 years of history.)
For more information on planning your trip to the Holy Land, visit israel.travel or call 416-964-3784.