Israel Inspires With Ancient History And Modern Culture

Photo: Caesarea aqueduct at sunset © Ellen Clark

- November 4, 2015

I wasn’t sure what to expect on my business trip to Tel Aviv, but the city definitely exceeded any possible expectations. Almost immediately I felt the energy and buzz of this modern and passionate city. Unquestionably the business center of Israel, it is also known for its happening cultural scene and, located right on the Mediterranean, its lively beach vibe. Though a relatively new city, founded in 1909, it isn’t far from its historic counterpart. While the modern rules in Tel Aviv, history abounds in the 4,000-year-old port city of Jaffa.

As lively and intriguing as Tel Aviv was, once the business part of my trip concluded, it was time to explore. One can’t visit one of the world’s most historic countries and miss seeing Jerusalem and Masada nor floating in the Dead Sea.

fresh bread just outside Jerusalem's walled city

Fresh bread just outside Jerusalem’s walled city © Ellen Clark

We could hit many must-sees as daytrips out of Tel Aviv, but decided to spend a few nights in Jerusalem. Given that Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city, pulses with history and things to see, I wanted time to absorb and reflect. So early the next morning, it was time to set off for one of the holiest cities in the world.

Before diving into Jerusalem’s center, however, there was a stop at the Mount of Olives to get an overview of the area. Though not particularly Bible-savvy, even I had heard of the Mount of Olives. The spot figured prominently in Jesus’ life and is said to be the place he ascended into heaven. One of the world’s oldest cemeteries is sited here, with an estimated 150,000 people buried on the mountain over a period of 3,000 years. But beyond its rich history, the mountain affords uninterrupted views of one of the world’s most legendary cities.

Daniel Kafri's Gate of Faith sculpture at the Peak Park in Jaffa

Daniel Kafri’s Gate of Faith sculpture at the Peak Park in Jaffa © Ellen Clark

In Jersualem, on the way from the hotel to the Old City, we walked through the recently opened pedestrian-only Mamilla Mall. High-end stores and alfresco dining stood in striking contrast to what we found beyond the Jaffa Gate. When I got into the labyrinth that makes up the Old City souk, the abundant hustle, noise, color and activity made me positively giddy. Merchants vie for attention, urging one to “just have a look.” Smells from tiny restaurants and spice dealers permeate the air, the crush of ethnically diverse shoppers overwhelms, and everything is for sale, from the tackiest souvenirs to religious icons, brass menorahs to belly dancing costumes. All prices are negotiable; haggling is not just tolerated but expected.

Four sections comprise the Old City: the Armenian, the Christian, the Jewish and the Muslim quarters. Predictably, the famous Western (Wailing) Wall is located in the Jewish Quarter, serving as the site for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage for centuries. As one of Judaism’s holiest sites, it remains the place where devout Jewish men come to pray. In keeping with the Orthodox tradition, this is a male-only activity, although women have a small section. I looked for a spot above the wall where I could observe the action. This turned out to be trickier than I thought, and I spent a fair amount of time taking wrong turns, winding up in narrow alleys and hitting dead ends. Finally, I found my way to an overlook which had a view of a large square, the famous wall and the constant flow of mostly men, mostly dressed in black, coming and going.

Wailing Wall

The Wailing Wall © Sean Pavone | Dreamstime.com

For foodies, check out Machane Yehuda Market, where locals have bought their food for years. Recently it has become the place to eat as well. Various chefs give culinary tours of the market, allowing visitors to shop and eat in one fell swoop. We signed up with Chef Tali Friedman and happily followed her as she led our small group through the market, educating us about unusual spices, produce and cheese while she shopped. The shopping completed, we retired to her studio apartment over the market where we all donned aprons and helped cook a sumptuous dinner. A unique experience and just too much fun.

Two final adventures: Visiting a 2,000-year-old fortress with a grisly past and taking a dip in a sea in which you cannot sink.

Masada, literally translated as “fortress,” perches on top of a steep hill, so most visitors opt to take the cable car to the top. The ruins are remarkably well-preserved, in part due to the climatic conditions, and provide lovely views of the Dead Sea. But in the year 70 this was the scene of a gruesome event that defined the site forever. When Jewish rebels, who had escaped to Masada and managed to hold off the Roman garrisons for three years, realized they would soon be captured, they chose mass suicide instead. Even though this happened long ago, as I walked around the ruins I couldn’t quite shake a melancholy feeling, as if the souls of the victims lingered.

Dead Sea float

Dead Sea float © Michelleliaw | Dreamstime.com

Before heading for the beach, I stopped at Masada Visitors Center’s extensive gift shop, where I couldn’t resist buying a package of black Dead Sea mud.

Fortunately, public beaches provide bathrooms, changing rooms and showers, so I changed, slathered the gooey mud everywhere I could reach and slid into the ridiculously salty water. And it’s true: You cannot sink in the Dead Sea, no matter how hard you try. But this isn’t a sea for swimming; and after we floated around for a bit, the novelty wore off.

Back in Jerusalem, dine at The Eucalyptus Restaurant. Owner/chef Moshe Basson’s interest in biblical culture led him to research and resurrect recipes from ancient times. The menu includes dishes made from ingredients indigenous to Israel, including spices and herbs grown locally. In Jerusalem, I can’t imagine a more appropriate dinner than one inspired by biblical times, just a stone’s throw from the Old City wall.

Israel Info to Go

Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s main airport, lies in the heart of the country, about 25 miles from Jerusalem and 10 miles from Tel Aviv. Its two main terminals handle domestic and international flights. Israel Railways, located on the lower level of Terminal 3, takes passengers to the Tel Aviv Savidor Central Railway Station in about 18 minutes. The airport is also served by regular intercity bus lines, limousine and private shuttle services, Sherut shared door-to-door taxi vans and standard taxis.

Where to Stay in Israel

Brown Beach House Hotel This boutique hotel, just a few minutes’ walk from the beach, boasts a hip retro design, a gourmet kosher restaurant, a sundeck with city views, a spa, business facilities and personalized service. 64 Ha’Yarkon St., Tel Aviv $$$$

King David Hotel Opened in 1931, the King David has hosted scores of luminaries from Barack Obama to Madonna. Besides outstanding accommodations and service, the hotel offers wonderful views of the Old City. 23 King David St., Jerusalem $$$$$

The Norman Tel Aviv Housed in two beautifully restored 1920s residences, this 50-room hotel offers a tranquil vibe and understated elegance. Enjoy an impressive modern art collection, a rooftop infinity pool and two gourmet restaurants. 23-25 Nachmani St., Tel Aviv $$$$$

Restaurants in Israel

The Eucalyptus Chef Moshe Basson serves a modern interpretation of biblical cuisine. Every dish has its origins in biblical scenes and uses spices and herbs grown, as in ancient times, in Jerusalem and Judea. 14 Hativat Yerushalayim St., Jerusalem $$$–$$$$

HaHalutzim 3 Eytan Vanunu, one of the most creative young chefs in Israel today, makes every element of his recipes by hand and serves them in a laid-back, intimate atmosphere. 3 Hahalutzim St., Tel Aviv $$$–$$$$

Machneyuda Restaurant Located in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda Market, the restaurant’s three chefs shop for ingredients in the market and prepare menus accordingly in their fully interactive open kitchen. 10 Beit Yaakov St., Jerusalem $$$$

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