This Guest Post from Sally Hunt takes us along on her tour of Israel, from shopping in Tel Aviv, to the old city and beach promenades of Jaffa to the markets, pilgrimage sites and ancient walls of Jerusalem.
I travelled to Israel for a short stay but with big plans to cram as much in as I could while my partner was working. When he found out he had to do some business in Tel Aviv he asked me if I would like to come with him and then we could tag a couple of days of sightseeing in Jerusalem on the end. Sounded like a plan, but what I didn’t bargain for was being a lone blonde female touring a city where I couldn’t speak the language – with NO VOICE!! I had a slightly sore throat when I flew out on the Monday but by Monday evening when we settled down at the Crowne Plaza City Centre, my voice had completely gone.
Hey ho, nothing was going to deter me and I planned my day. The Crowne Plaza was right next door to a huge shopping centre but I had my walking and exploring head on and I decided department store type shopping could wait! I caught a taxi straight outside the hotel lobby and showed the taxi driver the map – pointing out where I wanted to be dropped off. I had based my initial starting point on a guidebook in the hotel room which said there was an interesting market here and a nice shopping area with some unique boutiques. It took about 20 minutes to get across the city and when I got out I found myself panicking slightly…. It was all well and good holding a map but would I be able to read the street names? … And I certainly couldn’t ask for directions!!
However, I quickly got my bearings and realised that the street names were written in English too. I was just off Allenby on the pedestrian-only section of Nachlat Binyamin. A Tuesday was a good day to visit as the biggest Arts and Crafts fair of its kind in Israel takes place there on Tuesdays and Fridays. There are around 270 stalls which offer original arts and crafts made of wood, glass, cloth, plastic, metal, paper and stone, all made and designed by the artists standing at the stalls.
From here I made my way to Rothschild Boulevard, an impressive street with high rise modern buildings, financial institutions and many buildings of architectural interest. This has become one of the trendiest areas in Tel Aviv and indeed I returned here that night to eat in an Israeli restaurant.
I hadn’t had breakfast and as I first turned into the street I spotted an American café/shop called Max Brenner and as I was nervous about my lack of voice I decided I could read the menu (written in English) and then just point my choice out to the waitress!
My journey took me down Sheinkin which according to the guidebook is one of the best shopping areas to visit in the city. I had to pick my way round cones and barriers as there were some quite major roadworks going on but I did pop into a few of the shops, some of which were owned by Israeli designers. There were lots of nice cafes down here too and I stopped and got a coffee.
From here I walked down King George Street where I was fascinated by such sights as the rollerskating Orthodox Jew who whizzed past me pushing a buggy. The dog park also made me stop and take pictures. Bang in the middle of this bustling city people were letting dogs off their leads in a cordoned off play area, specially made for our canine friends. You could almost see the dogs high fiving each other, they were that excited to be there!!
I had planned to walk to the Tel Aviv Marina but when I got there I still had loads of energy so decided to carry on to the port. By the time I got to the Marina my confidence had grown so I stopped at a beach bar and had a beautiful tuna salad.
On my walk to the port I passed several beaches including one where people were allowed to take their dogs known as the ‘gay beach’ apparently. Another one where bathers were segregated – women on certain days and men on others, but apparently women can go topless on their days because no-one minds!
The port is a bustling area with shops and restaurants and seemed less touristy and mostly full of locals on the day I was there. I didn’t explore it much as for some reason I felt slightly intimidated and uncomfortable here. After this I caught a cab back to the hotel and went straight to the swimming pool. With a slightly naïve jolt I was quite surprised that men and women were separated in the pool, even in an International hotel .
The next day I asked the cab driver to drop me off at Alma Beach, again on the recommendation of the guidebook. I wanted to try the award winning Manta Ray restaurant renowned for its seafood but when I walked in and sat down I nearly fell out my chair at the prices so walked out again!! Today’s plan was to explore the old city of Jaffa and as I walked along the beach promenade I had lovely views ahead and could see the outline of the old buildings – a sharp contrast to the high rise modern buildings and hotels I was leaving behind. There were a lot of students from the Israeli Defence Forces about and I wondered if they were visiting the Etzel Museum (a military museum) which I walked past.
As I entered Jaffa I took a step back in time. The old winding alleys, beautiful stone buildings and ancient fortifications mix together both middle eastern and European ambiance. There is an abundance of restaurants, shops and cafes and feeling a little lost I followed the crowds, past the Clock Tower in Clock Square and up a main road to the flea market. I carried on past here until I reached the top of the hill and the impressive St Peter’s Church. This steeple has for over a century been a signal to sea-weary pilgrims that the Holy Land is near. I came up to it at the back and stopped at a tourist information office there for a look around. On the way back down the hill I realised this was the ‘scenic route’! The path meanders downwards and there is a beautiful view to your left, over the sea, the promenade and Tel Aviv’s high-rise skyline. Coupled with a mosque minaret, this is definitely one of Tel Aviv’s most romantic spots. There are several benches along the way and a few small cannons from Napoleon’s time still there.
We stayed at the gorgeous Harmony Hotel in the Nahalat Shiva district of Jerusalem and booked a guide for our tour of Jerusalem’s walled city for Friday, so on Thursday we decided to explore the newer part of the city. The hotel receptionist gave us a couple of ideas for things to do so we set off, first of all to see King David’s tomb. The map was hard to follow and we walked miles, getting there in the end. Unfortunately it was a bit of an anti-climax as we couldn’t work out which bit of the tomb King David was buried in! Right next to it though was the room of The Last Supper which was one of the sights I particularly wanted to see. Annoyingly on the way back we realised there was a much shorter way! We were so close to the walls of old Jerusalem but didn’t want to wander in there and spoil the tour planned for the next day.
In the afternoon we walked West along Jaffa Road. It was interesting to see the new Jerusalem Light Rail, just a few months old, operating smoothly. Typical tourists that we were, we hadn’t researched this part of the city, just the older part. We spent a couple of hours wandering round the Mahane Yehuda Market, an indoor and outdoor marketplace popular with locals and extremely busy because it was a Thursday. More than 250 vendors were selling goods ranging from fish, meat and cheeses, nuts, seeds, spices, wines, liquors, clothing, shoes, fresh fruit and vegetables, housewares, textiles and Judaica.
We had lunch here and being so boringly English we opted for the stand that said: ‘fishenchips’…. They were delicious and luckily no upset stomach the next day! It was only on my return to England that I found out that this area has been targeted by terrorist attacks in the past.
The next morning our guide picked us up and we were joined by five other people in a minibus. We parked in a car park just outside the walled city and we walked in. He started by telling us a lot of the history of the city. He explained that there were four quarters of the city, the Muslim Quarter, the Jewish quarter, the Armenian Quarter and the Christian Quarter. As he told us this we had entered the Muslim quarter and he warned us that we needed to be out of here by 11am as there would be tension later in the day! He said as it was Friday the prayer leader in the mosque would be inciting hatred in the worshippers and when they came out there would be tension with the Jews. This all sounded a bit scary and we all hurried along that bit faster.
He took us to a tiny little café down a remote alley for lunch. Probably his relative we thought, but the kebab we had was amazing, better than anything in our local Ali Kebab shop!! We looked at some more sights, which I won’t go into here as they are in any guidebook and on every Jerusalem website.
Except for one which must be the most spiritual place I have ever visited. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This was built on the site where Jesus was crucified and his tomb is in there. There were long queues to go into it so we didn’t, and the way the guide described it to us was that nothing here was real but just representing the crucifixion and the burial. It was hard to get your head round it but we were so moved by the pilgrims that had come from all corners of the earth to be there. Just inside the entrance is The Stone of Anointing which tradition claims is the spot where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial. People were falling on their knees to pray on this stone and laying out various religious artefacts. Some people were weeping with emotion and it was obvious that to many people this was the most Holy place on earth.
Later, we realised we were once again in the Muslim quarter. It was about one o clock. I don’t think any of us really realised that something was amiss until we came to a crossroads in the alleyway and there were a bunch of armed police standing there looking very menacing. This is an undercover area and the alleyways are very narrow and there isn’t really anywhere to hide except in a shop or keep going. Our guide hurried us along and said there was trouble between the Jews and the Muslims and we must get out of here. As we approached the exit a group of police in full riot gear holding shields out in front of them raced past us.
We saw the exit up ahead and the guide went ahead of us to speak to two security guards. He turned to us and said sorry but we weren’t allowed to leave!! Apparently there was stoning going on at the Western Wall which was our next port of call. The only way out was another exit which took us to the Wall. Our guard in his wisdom decided we would be safe if we didn’t go right down to the Wall. As we went through security into the Wall we were searched and let through as they decided we represented no danger. My partner bravely went down to the wall with most of the others from our tour group, but I decided to sit at the top of the steps with the guide. Once again feeling conspicuous being the only blonde, western female I could see I felt I would stand out like a sore thumb.
The guide explained to me that the Muslims had got up behind the Wall and were dropping rocks on the Jews. It had been happening as we got there but I was looking downwards expecting people throwing stones at each other – not being dropped from above! I have never been so terrified in my life. There were armed police everywhere but it was difficult to take photos as I had read in my Jerusalem information never to point a camera at a military person or I could be arrested. I did however manage to surreptitiously take a couple. When we got back to the hotel the conflict was on the news on the internet and we found out that it had been simmering for weeks and that two people had been killed in it a couple of weeks before. The weekend before we had visited a group of Christian tourists had been stoned by Muslims. Scary stuff – why weren’t we warned?
Despite the drama of the afternoon the bus continued up to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. This felt very holy and the tree that Jesus lay under when he was betrayed by Judas is still there. I was constantly searching through my memory of Sunday School days and wished I’d read up on the scriptures a bit more before I came. However most things are quite well explained and it makes a big difference having a guide.
I didn’t mention my lack of voice any more in the story but what was starting to come back became a frightened squeak for a couple of hours on that Friday afternoon in Jerusalem!
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