A couple of months ago Lauren received news that her sister and our fellow world traveler, Tiffany was planning a trip to Israel for a few days with her boyfriend, Dean. If anything, Tiffany is even more adventurous than us when it comes to traveling and has racked up an impressive number of countries visited that we have only surpassed recently. Not wanting to be overtaken again, we followed the old advice of, “If you can’t beat them, join them!”
Our trip consisted of the three largest cities in Israel which include Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. As the saying in Israel goes, Haifa works, Jerusalem prays, and Tel Aviv plays. What better way to get a full experience of Israel then?
Our plane arrived in Tel Aviv and we took a train north up the coast toward Haifa to meet Tiffany and Dean. Far from being a strange, dangerous, and sandy Middle Eastern country, walking out of the airport in Israel felt no different than stepping foot into any of the many European countries we have visited: no bombs going off, no military jets passing over our heads, just a slightly higher percentage of military personnel and therefore a slightly higher number of machine guns being carried around. We have long since gotten used to seeing those around. We also found that most people in Israel (besides much of Jerusalem) dress more or less like we do. Piece of cake! What we were not used to, however, was just how expensive Israel is! A 90$ lunch later, we met with Tiffany and Dean for the first time in over 7 months.
While the sight of her face was more than welcome, Tiffany’s visage had seen better days. Apparently, the night they had spent in Tel Aviv before we met them in Haifa had ended with a number of nasty bed bug bites on her face and hands! The poor girl was in a lot of pain from day one of our trip which she had to deal with the whole time, but all credit to her, she did not let them hold her back at all. Plus she was nice enough to give us 2 of her free nights at a five-star hotel in Tel Aviv that she earned from her harrowing experience. Thanks, Tiffany!
That night we stayed in a hotel at the pinnacle of the mountain that Haifa is built on, which provided us with some simply amazing panoramic views of the city and the port below.
The next day, we took our rental car from Haifa south toward Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel and place where Jesus reportedly grew up, studied, and lived much of his life. Though its association with Jesus is important and interesting, the city itself left much to be desired. We stopped at the first of our many holy sights in Israel at the Basilica of the Annunciation, the largest church in the Middle East which was built on top of the sunken grotto that according to Roman Catholicism is the place where the Virgin Mary received the announcement from the angel Gabriel that the birth of Jesus was imminent.
The large and interesting modern-day church atop the grotto is the fourth of its kind and built above the remains of churches dating back to Crusader and Byzantine times which can still be seen in the lower level of the church.
Not wanting to stay around longer than we had to, we headed south through the Judean Mountains to Jerusalem. While on the outskirts of the city we stopped at the Mount of Olives to get a panoramic view of the city and its iconic Dome of the Rock.
In Jerusalem, we got one of the more unique first impressions of a city. Walking the streets at all hours of the day are various practitioners of Judaism, from men and boys wearing kippas as the only sign of their faith to Orthodox Jews wearing full suits, black hats, and having long curly payots hanging down from their faces. Just a few hundred feet away you may find Muslim men and women exiting a mosque after one of their 5 daily prayers. Together, they live harmoniously amongst one another in a way that is unseen in almost any other city in the world. Jerusalem truly is a melting pot.
Jerusalem, besides being one of the oldest cities in the world, is the cultural and spiritual center of the Jewish people and a holy city in both Islam and Christianity. The city is home to the Temple Mount which is the most important site in Judaism where Abraham demonstrated his devotion to God by taking his son Isaac to be sacrificed, and third most important site in Islam where Muhammad ascended to heaven in the 7th century. The site has long been fought over by the two religions with violence happening there many times throughout history. Inside the Temple Mount is the beautiful golden Dome of the Rock which is accessible only by Muslims and is often called the most amazing Islamic monument in the world.
Through the winding Old City market streets, we walked from the Temple Mount to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which is the holiest Christian spot in the world. The church is both the location of where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and later where his tomb was found to be empty. For all its holiness, the church was excessively loud, chaotic, and crowded – it was a strange contrast to the orderly and quiet Temple Mount. The masses of people shuffling through the church while people prayed on every spare piece of ground was a truly surreal experience.
While in Jerusalem, we definitely had to take a trip to the Dead Sea. We drove to the northern tip of the Dead Sea and followed it south where we were guided along by beautiful cliffs on our right and the Dead Sea to our left. Before taking a swim, we stopped at an ancient fortification on a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea called Masada which dates back to the 1st century BCE. The views from the plateau were gorgeous and the history of the fortress is fascinating so I am more than happy that I braved my fear of heights to go up there.
The Dead Sea is so named because of its abnormally high salt content which does not allow anything to live there. Going into the Dead Sea is a strange experience. Stepping into the water, we found it to be abnormally warm, much more so than any ocean could possibly be. The salt content also gives your skin a strange oily feeling and can cause extreme discomfort to any open holes or cuts in your body, including the facial orifices which means it is extremely important to not put your head below water where getting the water in your eyes can cause temporary blindness. Leave it to me though to be the one to kick a rock under the surface, cutting three of my toes and leaving me in a lot of pain as the salt rushed into my open wounds.
The salt content also causes people to become more buoyant than normal which can make for some really unique pictures that you cannot recreate anywhere else in the world. The whole day was a really fun and unique experience and I found the Dead Sea to be way cooler than I honestly expected.
From Jerusalem we traveled pretty much directly south to Tel Aviv for our last couple of days in Israel. Tel Aviv is a great city if you want to party, sit on the beach or do both, but we had spent a nice long week traveling and opted to just enjoy some time on the beach. In the hot Mediterranean sun, we relaxed, soaking in some rays and spending some time cooling off in the water. It was a perfect way to finish off our hectic week in beautiful Israel.
Going to Israel was an incredible experience for us. Not only did it shrug off any preconceived notions we had about the region, it exceeded each and every expectation I had. Spending time with Dean and Tiffany was (except for a small, sister vs. sister spat) a smooth experience and I am happy to have gotten to sit down and talk to Dean for the first time. I found the culture of Israel to be one of the most interesting I have ever visited. The country is full of easily the most helpful people in the world who are all surprisingly laid back given all the strife that has happened in Israel over the millennia. I am so glad we got over the reservations we had before our visit and I would gladly go back in a heartbeat.