Tel Aviv and Family
Patti's family in Israel began with European refugees -- her grandfather's nephew (or mother's cousin) and the family that grew to the now four generations established in and around Tel Aviv. It made sense to start the visit there, reconnecting with family. Yona and Shmulik and Avi and Maggie took us on initial visits in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and Rishon LeZion, giving us our land legs back. We walked everywhere, learned the bus system, Patti reminiscing about previous visits and how much things have changed, John learning very basic Hebrew. And of course we indulged in the very best felafel and hummus. Tel Aviv is a cosmopolitan city (skyscrapers and everything) right next to the sea, and the original buildings and neighborhoods from the early 20th century are being gentrified everywhere.
The highlight was Doron and Or's wedding
We spent almost a week in Jerusalem and still felt that we only scraped the surface. How do you absorb thousands of years of history in a week? We started with the free Saturday morning walking tours offered by the city. Three hours with a knowledgable guide help set the stage. The first one we took focused on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City, the second to the Mount of Olives, just outside. In between we walked through every sector of the Old City, outside the Old City up Jaffa Road to the Machaneh Yehudah market, the Nachlaot neighborhood (where we stayed), to the Israel Museum, and via the light rail to the Yad Vashem memorial museum. The photos here are not even a tenth of those we have -- Jerusalem is a very photogenic subject. See the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa mosque, the Lion Gate, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, church of the Flagellation, Mary Magdalene church, Church of All Nations, and the Western Wall.
Outside the Old City -- Jaffa Road, the market, the Israel Museum including the Shrine of the Book, and a couple of photos from outside Yad Vashem -- the Holocaust Memorial and Museum. The train car is an actual transport car from Europe. Perhaps one of the most difficult and emotional memorials is the Valley of the Communities. Carved into rock and set in a maze-like formation are the names of 10,000 cities and towns from which Jews were taken and Jewish life exterminated. Krzemieniec (Kremenitz) is the town Patti's grandfather left before WWII.
The Southern Deserts
We rented a car for a couple of weeks to cover the country outside the cities. For a country the size of New Jersey, there is an incredible diversity to the landscape. The south is mostly desert -- the Negev and the Arava. While the cities are crowded, the south (which begins just an hour south of Tel Aviv) is very empty. Every once in a while we would see date groves and vineyards that are 'making the desert bloom'.
We started our explorations near Sde Boker, staying in Midreshet Ben Gurion. Buying a National Parks Green Card in Ein Avdat, we proceeded to visit over a dozen parks and archeological sites over the next two weeks. At Ein Avdat we visited the graves of the first Prime Minister of Israel, Ben Gurion and his wife, and hiked the Wadi Zin, with the ibex that found the water here.
This part of the desert was on the 'Spice Route' of the ancient Nabateans, as they traveled from the east through Petra, Jordan to these parts, and on to the Mediterranean. Avdat was one of their towns.
Maktesh Ramon is a huge crater in the Negev. Though we planned to hike through several sections here, Patti's bad cold limited our ramblings. So, we took some short walks -- one to the ammonite fossil wall where you can see lots of these old sea creatures.
Our next stop was in Paran, a small farming community in the Arava. We stayed in a shipping container that had been outfitted as a small apartment. (Yes, it was air conditioned.) Our hosts couldn't be nicer, showing us their pepper farm, inviting us to join the family for dinner, and helping us fix a tire (during the holidays when just about everything is closed.) With Paran as our base we traveled further south to Timna, another desert park with beautiful rock formations and ancient copper mines. The colors here were completely different from those of the more northern deserts.
Our last stop in the south was Masada, near the Dead Sea -- the desert palace of King Herod and the location of the last stand of the Jews who fought for freedom from the Romans. The dramatic story of Roman siege and the heroism of the last inhabitants is told very well in the new museum at the base of the mountain. We did go at dawn to walk up the snake path to the palace -- but it rained that morning (in the desert!!) so we did not get to see the sunrise. It is hard to believe what people accomplished building this place 2,000 years ago, and we cannot believe that it is all still here for us to see now.
The North -- from the Golan and the Galilee to the Mediterranean.
In less than a day we drove from Masada to Rosh Pina in the Galilee, which became our base for exploring the north. We took full advantage of all the natural and historical sites here, starting with the Hula Valley (where we looked for the bird migration -- but must have been too early), continuing into the Banias near Mount Hermon, where we saw waterfalls and rushing streams -- quite a contrast to our week in the desert.
We drove on to Nimrod Fortress, a beautifully preserved mountaintop citadel, built by the Arabs during the crusader era. Again, we are amazed at what continues to be standing there.
Driving through this region, we are constantly reminded of the recent wars of 1967 and 1973. There are signs warning of mines, and flags indicating war memorials. We took one day and drove in the Golan to Mount Bental, where we walked through the bunkers. UN observers were there the day we visited. A welcome spot on the mountain was Coffee Annan (a tribute to Kofi Annan) where we could stop and warm up.
Archeological sites are everywhere in Israel, and some of the best are in the north. Among our favorites are Bet Shean, a Roman town south of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret) and Zippori, west of Nazareth. Both of these sites are still being excavated. Bet Shean has an amphitheater, two main roads lined with columns (a cardo), baths, and mosaics. We climbed the hill to get the best view.
Zippori is full of surprises. The highlights here are definitely the mosaics -- from a synagogue, houses, baths and other public areas. We were floored by how intact these were, even though people have known of their existence for hundreds of years -- they weren't destroyed or looted.
Caesarea is another of King Herod's masterworks. Unfortunately, much of this ancient city's archeological remains are being squeezed out by the new restaurants and shops added to the site. These is still lots to see, the amphitheater, the palace remains, mosaics, and the aqueduct, but it is less of a 'find' and more of a tourist attraction.
Akko is an Arab city on the Mediterranean. Everyone has been here -- Romans, Crusaders, Arabs. We lingered here one day eating at a cafe on the water -- happy to smell the sea again. The highlight was definitely the visit to the mosque -- what an incredibly beautiful building. St. John's church was also visible from many angles -- stark white against the blue sky.
After our return to Tel Aviv, we spent some nice lazy days walking in the city again. Our last tourist outing was to Haifa, the mountain city on the sea. With cousin Brenda, we raced up the hill to visit the Baha'i Temple, which was going to close at noon! We soon found out we were in good enough physical shape to do that -- but just. Let's just say that sitting later on the train back to Tel Aviv was welcome.
Five weeks in Israel. A whirlwind. But unforgettable!