Gareth’s Blog

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Israel

It would be naïve to plan a visit to Israel without considering the possibilities political conflict can create. As a controversial nation from its creation, Israel has endeavoured through the challenges it has faced. Now it has passed it’s sixtieth birthday, Israel is rapidly becoming the mature nation that can only develop from the experiences of second, third and fourth generation inhabitants.

With all this in mind, and with a healthy sense of trepidation, I headed for a long weekend in the coastal city of Tel Aviv. With over 200 kilometres of Mediterranean coastline accompanied by the Middle Eastern climate, beach holidays are destined to become a large part of Israel’s tourist industry. As well as the Mediterranean coastline, there is also the southern resort of Eilat, which is already being heavily promoted internationally.

The flight to Israel was one of the best flights I’ve ever had the pleasure to take. It was well catered, comfortable and guided by stewards sympathetic to the various religious requirements of the majority of Israel’s visitors. Following the four-hour flight we were greeted by the monolithic wall of the generally spectacular Ben Gurion airport where, in contrast to the horror stories of inquisition with which I’d previously been regaled, I was met by a taxi driver recommended to me by a friend.

I hadn’t understood the recommendation originally, but a few minutes on the highways around Tel Aviv explained everything. Road markings, indication and courtesy to other road users are simply considered guidelines to be worked around. It is possible to hire cars easily in Israel, but prevalence of taxis and the custom of their drivers to offer their service as quasi-chauffeurs make the hassle of driving yourself unnecessary.

Herzlia Pituach view
I stayed about a fifteen-minute drive outside Tel Aviv in the marina town of http://wikitravel.org/en/Herzliya. The housing around the marina is designed to encourage long-term tourism to Israel, as the apartments are specifically restricted to purchase by non-Israeli citizens. There is also hotel accommodation along the beachfront in Tel Aviv with all the major chains represented. It’s also possible to rent beach apartments. Wherever you stay you will notice that almost all accommodation in Tel Aviv, even for those that live there, is in apartment blocks.

Tel Aviv beach
Tel Aviv, like much of modern Israel, was a surprise to me in its appearance. I was expecting the sort of place I’ve seen in postcards and news stories. Tel Aviv is in fact a modern European city. Walking through the tree-lined streets, it felt very much like Parisian suburbs on a particularly warm day. The only real difference being that you are only a few hundreds yards from Tel Aviv’s sweeping beach that stretches along its west side from Jaffa in the south to the new developments, like Herzlia Pituach, to the north of the city.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised by Tel Aviv’s appearance. A country so young in an environment so naturally harsh would have required a strong faith in technology to initially establish itself. This Israeli faith in technology has lead to one of the most medically advanced health services in the world. It was also heavily involved in the development of computer operating systems, computer hardware and software and many of the commonplace internet tools used by millions everyday. As a result of this technological ability, many of the world’s biggest IT firms have research and development headquarters in the country. As the famous growth of Silicon Valley demonstrated at the beginning of the internet boom, where technology goes so does money. And that money builds modern cities with all the luxuries that affluent employees desire. Tel Aviv’s modern appearance should have been less of a shock and more of an expectation.

Tel Aviv beach is as broad as it is long and at weekends can be very busy. I should also warn those of you who, like myself, aren’t blessed with the physique of an athlete, that many, if not most, of the people on Tel Aviv beach are blessed with the bodies of professional sportsmen. Compulsory military service upon reaching 17 years old plus a lifetime of irregular service encourages Israeli people to maintain their action ready frames. Not being a beach person at the best of times I opted for people watching from some of the many cafes and bars scattered along the beachfront. Starting at the northern end of the beach with lunch in London Café, it is possible to spend a long afternoon working your way down the length of the city taking small detours away from the beach occasionally and stopping regularly to escape the dry heat. Until a few years ago, if you really timed things right you could finish just outside Jaffa port in Sakaya, Tel Aviv’s multi-decked answer to Ibiza’s Café del Mar. DJs play the sun into the sea while the young and the trendy watch and party. Unfortunately this has now disappeared and nothing has quite managed to replace it.

Shopping in Tel Aviv is focussed on either malls or narrow streets of independently owned places. Dizingof, in the heart of Tel Aviv, is cleverly designed to trap you inside, forced to pass every store in the building. Security across Israel is unsurprisingly tight. Before you get into most places security guards search bags and wave their metal detecting wands over you. While intimidating at first, it soon becomes reassuring. If malls are going to be designed to keep you inside for as long as possible, feeling safe is important. These security checkpoints are also found at the entrances to all the marinas and leisure areas in and around Tel Aviv and all of Israel.

There is an Israeli saying that Jerusalem prays and Tel Aviv plays, and it would be wrong to visit Israel without making a trip to Jerusalem whether you are religious or not. The drive in itself is very interesting. Passing through the remains of tanks and bunkers on the roadsides, left behind after the Six Day War, the sense of history and importance hits you long before you reach Jerusalem.


Wailing Wall

Jerusalem looks like the Israel of my mind. Its narrow streets and ancient stone is the way I was expecting the whole country to look. The old city is the main attraction for any visitor to Jerusalem, often starting their visit at the same point I did. We passed security and followed the path along to the two entrances, segregated by gender, to the Wailing Wall. The stonework of this ancient temple wall is filled with rolled up scrolls of handwritten prayers and faced by the mumbling and singing faces of praying pilgrims.

Our tour guide, or taxi driver as his job description will be officially listed, lead us from here to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, home to five of the fourteen Stations of the Cross. Unusually, the ownership of this church is shared between five religious persuasions. There are queues to see most of these that are long but relatively fast moving. Although due to the limited space at the Tomb of Christ, getting into the narrow room can take a while. It’s also worth remembering that for most of Jerusalem’s religious attractions it’s important to be sensitive to generally accepted standards of respect, especially clothing. Women in particular should carry a lightweight long sleeve top with them, as what will be provided for you may not be so comfortable.

Dome of the Rock
A short drive from the old town is Olive Mount. From the hugely expensive and well-positioned cemetery there are views across to the spectacular Dome of the Rock, the large gold lined dome of the Muslim temple is apparently no indication of its interior, with the far less spectacular second dome apparently concealing the more beautiful temple. The cemetery itself can be quite an interesting place, assuming either you or someone you are visiting with can speak Hebrew. Some of the local residents are famous or infamous figures from Israeli and world history, ranging from ex-leaders to media magnates.

The Jewish Cemetery on the Olive Mount also offers a view of the barrier wall on the West Bank; a site that once again brings home the controversial nature of Israel and Jerusalem. Its stark presence is quite the juxtaposition to the beauty of the old town facing the cemetery from the other direction. It feels a little like the past and the present are being presented to you at once while the place you stand in highlights what can happen as result of religious differences.

Israel is undoubtedly a country of huge religious significance. As a result of this religious importance it has also become a country of political and geographic importance. There is no doubt that a visit to certain areas in Israel can have increased risk attached to it. There are however, many reasons to visit Israel regardless. A little care and sense will protect you as much as one can expect in any modern European city. The beaches, the people, the sites and the fact that Israel is yet to become completely overrun with tourists means that places like Tel Aviv offer fantastic opportunities to discover a section of the Mediterranean often forgotten as a holiday resort.

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