Israel is one of those places that leaves no one indifferent. It arouses all kind of passions, both pro and against it; its geography and History is deeply embedded in our culture, and its modern politics has been used as a proxy for other debates for decades. So, there are a number of motives to go there; mine were mostly to visit a historic place so important for our own history and culture and to get to know its present-day reality first hand. Of course it’s not possible to become sufficiently knowledgeable about a country after a one week visit, but I came back certainly more aware of the real Israel than I was. I had my opinions about it, and they are not much changed, but they are somewhat more solid now.
We arrived at night, and after a surprisingly quick control at the airport (we had been warned they were worse than the US immigration, but it was not our experience, maybe because we were Portuguese Caucasian tourists), spent a night in Tel Aviv and collected a rental car in the morning. We left the city and headed North by the coast.
The first impression one gets from Israel, from Tel Aviv, its suburbs and the villages along the road (and later confirmed in the countryside) is how new and dynamic it looks. There’s building everywhere, houses and apartment blocks, the roads are in excellent state, everybody is rushing about their business. The new buildings are usually ugly, one gets the impression of people caring about practicality over esthetics, a little like Portugal in the 70s and 80s. The driving is aggressive and careless, worse than here, and it didn’t surprise me to pass several road accidents, some of them quite serious.
The first touristic stop was at the ruins of Caesarea, by the Mediterranean, a small site well preserved, with a beautiful aqueduct and lots of tourist excursions. We also passed a few luxury villas neighborhoods – as someone from facebook had put it: “where the rich and famous live” – and then met for a coffee a very nice and interesting Israeli lady living at Binyamina. It was our first long conversation with an Israeli citizen and, as later meetings with others would confirm, they often have very eventful life histories and experiences that are so alien to our own “normal” and protected lives, and help to understand the meaning of the state of Israel.
We then crossed the Carmel hills on the way to Haifa, passing several lively Druze villages – again the sensation of new and old mixed, the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity of a Western Mediterranean country with Middle Eastern touches. Haifa is a busy modern city with a big harbor, we just passed it and headed towards Akko.
We arrived after dark – in Israel the sun sets too early for the season, we later learned it was because the religious conservatives don’t want to change the time zone – and wondered through the narrow streets of the old city until we sat in a small Arab restaurant by an arcaded square and treated ourselves to a gorgeous Middle Eastern meal – the food in Israel is delicious, a combination of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, with some influences from Northern Eastern Europe.
The next morning, we strolled along the old city of Akko – Acre of the Crusaders, the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the fall of Jerusalem. It’s an incredible place, a maze of narrow cobbled streets, shady arcaded squares, restaurants and cafés, minarets and small mosques, a lively souk and a beautiful harbor. The most impressive thing is that, unlike other well preserved medieval cities I’ve been to, this one is totally lively and lived in; you see the people going around on their daily chores, poor houses, ruined and renewed ones, and all the bustle of a busy neighborhood, which probably gives a more true sense of how life was in these cities centuries ago than the cleaned versions we see elsewhere. I loved Akko.
Leaving Akko, a careless driver bumped into our car while unparking; “in Israel we never call the police for things like these!” he said, and after settling the affair with the car rental company, we went on to Tsfat. It was extremely interesting leaving a lively predominantly Arab city and arriving in a lively predominantly Jewish one. Tsfat, the ancient Safed, has been for centuries the capital of Kabballah studies, and so it’s a center of Jewish Orthodox students and latter-days/New Age American hippies. Perched on a hill, with beautiful panoramic views all around, Tsfat is a beautiful place. We strolled through the Artists Quarter with its cafés, modern sculptures and American tourist/hippies, then the old Jewish quarter with souvenir shops and the old synagogues – we visited one of them, the Ari Ashkenazy synagogue. It was funny, after the Arab souk in Akko a few hours before, the Jewish souvenir shops, and the flock of Jewish kids, students at some Yeshiva, in his black hats and with their characteristic hairdos rushing for a fast food meal after class, as in any other Western city.
From Tsfat, we took a road along the Jordan valley, green and peaceful in Spring weather, towards the Golan Heights, where we stayed at the Merom Golan, formerly a kibbutz, now an inn. After an excellent dinner at the local restaurant and a good night’s sleep, we watched the landscape over the Syrian border and towards Mount Hermon, a beautiful green country. We then travelled across the Golan Heights, passing the imposing old Crusader castle Nimrod Fortress, adequately named Belvoir in the old days, until Metula, the northernmost city of Israel by the Lebanese border.
From Metula we drove south towards the Sea of Galilee, passing the village of Rosh Pinna, where we stopped for a lemonade and some sightseeing. At the margins of the Sea of Galilee, we passed the ugly Tiberias, a tacky summer resort, and continued south until the Roman ruins of Bet She’an, by the Jordanian border. It’s an impressive site, the old Roman city of Scythopolis, destroyed by an earthquake in 749, one of the best Roman ruins I’ve seen so far. From Bet She’an, we drove directly to Jerusalem, where we arrived at night after a huge traffic jam.
Jerusalem, at last, the uberfamous city. It was different than I imagined it, for the better. Old and modern, a cauldron of different cultures and religions – a cliché, but true. The first day, we went to visit the Yad Vashem, the impressive memorial to the Holocaust. An excellent museum, and the eerie Children’s Memorial, I went out overwhelmed as always with the enormous pointlessness of such atrocities, and wondering how on Earth anyone could still believe in a God of justice after what had happened. We met then another Israeli lady from Ashquelon, after a pleasant stroll in Mount Herzl, she treated us to a nice lunch in the beautiful neighborhood of Ein Kerem. We went back to the city center and took a stroll along the lively Jaffa Road, before meeting two Israeli guys for a beer, and another pleasant conversation.
The next day, we headed to the Old City. Traditionally, we went in through the Jaffa Gate, and walked along the touristy King David Street, a mix of Arab souk and souvenir shop street. The Old City is an incredible place, a maze of narrow streets, where in a few hundred meters one goes from a Muslim neighborhood to a Jewish one, and with churches and monks and nuns in the middle. Crowdy and touristy as it is, it still keeps the atmosphere of a cultural, religious and ethnic melting pot, very lively and surprisingly clean. We headed towards the Western Wall, the holiest of the Jewish places. It was full of people, mostly Jews and a lot of tourists. I don’t know if it was a special day, because there were a lot of Jews celebrating some religious initiating ceremony for young kids – they arrived chanting and dancing, then dressed them in religious garb and walked around chanting and taking pictures. I’m totally non-religious, but enjoyed watching the sight of happy people celebrating their culture, particularly meaningful after the morning at Yad Vashem the day before.
We left the Old City through the Dung Gate and climbed the stairway up the Mount of Olives, from where we enjoyed the spectacular view over Jerusalem, with the beautiful Dome of the Rock – the most beautiful building in the city – dominating the sights. On the top of the Mount of Olives we visited the small and neglected chapel of the Ascension, and then went back down and reentered the Old City by the Lions Gate.
I had not noticed the Temple Mount had a visiting schedule, so we got there just after closing time, and since the next day was a Friday, I wasn’t able to visit the Dome of the Rock or the Al-Aqsa Mosque – a good reason to go back to Jerusalem! But I saw the golden Dome of the Rock, and it’s as beautiful as I ever imagined it. So we wondered through the Muslim Quarter and the Via Dolorosa until the church of the Holy Sepulchre.
It is not a particularly beautiful church, but it is an impressive one. We watched the pilgrims kissing the Stone of Unction and queuing for the Sepulchre, and visited the deep Saint Helena’s chapel. I dreamt about the old times and the riots brought by the Holy Fire ceremony in the old days. We then had a pomegranate juice at a café nearby and headed towards the Jewish Quarter, with its Roman ruins, synagogues and tourist shops, and had a cappuccino at the Hurva Square.
The next day, we walked through the new city of Jerusalem – Rehavia, the Knesset, Jaffa Road, and the Mahane Yehude Market. It is a lively and cosmopolitan city.
From Jerusalem, we took the bus to Tel Aviv. It is a very modern city, no men in kipas as in Jerusalem, lots of café terraces and people walking their dogs; it was Shabbat, so most of the stores were closed. We crossed a quiet city and spent the morning in Neve Tzedek, an old European quarter founded in 1887 near Jaffa, with some interesting buildings and nice cafés; and HaTachana, the old railway station turned a pleasant zone of cafés and street performances. Then we walked along the seaside to Jaffa, the ancient harbor – again lots of café terraces, the marina, and the old quarter. Then, back to the city center, spotting some of the numerous Bauhaus buildings on the way.
We spent the last morning in Israel enjoying the café terraces and taking a look at the Carmel Market; then the taxi driver that drove us to the airport was a fitting final meeting – a talkative 40-something from Be’er-Sheva who had been all around the world in a series of jobs from trucker to male strippers manager.
All in all, it was a very interesting trip, and I liked the country very much. It was a good experience being in a young country where people are patriotic, so unlike this old and decadent Portugal, where history and the present are both so intense and all pervading. I sincerely wish them to solve the problem of the Occupied Territories, they’re such an indomitable and admirable country in so many ways, its very existence and democratic character quite a feat in such a troubled area, the occupation in its present form is hardly worthy of them. Guess things are changing though, with the coming of age of a mostly secular youth. I hope to go back – and still there is Petra, another place I always wanted to see.
By Paulo Santos
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