Updated: Mar 31, 2019
I headed to Israel from Aqaba in Jordan. I had been considering skipping it altogether, partly due to time constraints and partly because I just don't support Israel in terms of politics. I was also aware of the reputation of the country for strict border controls, tight security, high military presence and lack of hospitality. The Palestinian issue of course is thorny and difficult, and I'll leave that for another blog. Anyhow, I decided to give it five days and visit Eilat, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem - admittedly not enough to give a very fair overview of the country, and certainly not enough to get a handle on the Palestinian situation, but enough to get a flavour of both. I was planning to backtrack from Jerusalem to the Sinai peninsula and into Egypt, my final port of call in this Middle East trip. The Sinai peninsula was actually part of Israel for fifteen years, from 1967-1982 - after the six day war, when it's territory almost doubled in size. It was handed back over to Egypt though and since then the two countries have signed a peace accord, leading to an uneasy truce between the sides. The stunning coastline from here to the border is lined with beach camps which used to be frequented by young Israeli soldiers mainly, in search of a bit of r 'n r, but which now lie sadly empty because of Israeli paranoia about kidnappings and bombs. Travel in this part of the world is made extremely complicated because of what's known as 'the Israeli stamp stigma' - which means that if you want to visit Syria or Lebanon and Israel, you have to do it from north to south, coming through Syria/Lebanon first and Israel last. Why? If you have an Israeli stamp in your passport, you are simply not entitled entry to those two countries. In fact, one of the questions they ask on your visa application is "do you plan to visit occupied Palestine?". A positive answer to this question will also preclude you from going there. Not that entering Israel with Lebanese and Syrian stamps in your passport makes life easy. In my guidebook, it said that Israeli border guards are "rather circumspect" about seeing them. In reality, this means a 30 minute grilling by a border guard on every aspect of your trip, where you plan to go in Israel, what you do, who you know and how long you've known them. They then proceed to inspect everything in your bag with a fine toothed comb, look at what books you are reading and even read your diary. A couple of books on travel in the Middle East (especially one on Iraq and Afghanistan) caused more than a raised eyebrow and several more minutes of questioning. There is a saying that Israeli's are like prickly pears - sharp and somewhat hard to handle on the outside and, well, sweet on the inside. I'd experienced the former immediately on arrival, and hoped to see the latter before I left.
Eilat - limited appeal
In all it took three hours to cross the border. As a result, I missed my bus to Jerusalem and was stuck in Eilat, a coastal town with all the attraction of Las Vegas by the sea. Full of ziggurat-like hotels, malls, expensive bars, casinos and arcades, Eilat is a million miles away from the laid-back ambiance of most places I'd visited so far on this trip. Also, it had the most central airport I had ever seen in a city. I was literally at the end of the street, next to the beach. Planes were constantly roaring overhead, almost close enough to touch, and it gave the place a tetchy, nervous vibe which you wouldn't normally associate with a holiday resort; I didn't feel at all relaxed all of a sudden. A German guy I met on the bus and I attempted to hitch-hike out of there, but cars were choc-full with families and possessions, making their way home for the holy day of Shabbat. I didn't feel too happy about this, and was even less so when I discovered that the religious holiday of Yom Kippur was coming up - which meant all public transport would be off and the border closed, necessitating an early exit and further shortening my stay in Israel. An uninteresting and expensive evening in Eilat followed (typical beer price in a bar - $8) and a stroll along the glitzy, mall-lined promenade did nothing to raise the spirits, and the restaurants were depressingly expensive, so I was forced to eat uninspiring street food and whatever I could find in the few shops that were open. The prices in Israel are out of all proportion to the rest of the Levant - for backpackers, it's another reason to, if not avoid, then visit the country sparingly as I was doing. They are in line with western European prices - not very different to the UK - so it comes as a huge shock after travelling inexpensively for weeks and being able to sustain a relatively agreeable lifestyle. Trudging back to my insalubrious hostel at 11pm, I was wondering if I had gone there by mistake.
Tel Aviv - slice of American pie
An interrupted sleep in a packed and smelly dorm room didn't lighten my mood, and I was up by 7am to get out and improve my hitherto unimpressive Israeli experience. The hostel owner was grumbling I'd only stayed one night when I left. A visit to the bus station revealed that no buses would run until 4.30pm to Jerusalem because of Shabat, and so I hopped on one to Tel Aviv instead, after an hour's wait. Forward planning is always a good travelling tip. Once on a bus, you get an idea of the military control of Israel; there were four armed soldiers sitting on the bus in their distinctive khaki uniforms, looking tense and nervous. To enter any bus station in Israel (except Eilat for some reason), you need to go through an airport - style check in with your bags and have a body frisk to check for guns and/or bombs. I later realized that this was also the drill for any shopping mall, tourist site, major hotel or posh restaurant. I guess you get used to it, but it seems tremendously intrusive, and if that's the price people have to pay for their security and peace of mind, good luck to them. It'd be a living nightmare for me to live through that every single day though. The journey to Tel Aviv was slow and through arid, desert country - it passed through some non-descript small towns and one particularly large, ugly place called B'eer Sheva. The atmosphere on the bus was strangely tense - not just because of the soldiers (and on my part anyway the vague thought that if a bus-bomb was to occur anywhere on this trip, it would happen here), but because of some restive Arab Jew youths who appeared to want to cause as much disruption as possible, winding people up playing their phones too loud, smoking and arguing with other passengers. Strangely, the soldiers did not get involved. One thing that seems to divide Israeli society (one of many) is the difference between the European Jews and those who moved there from other Arab countries in the region (often to do construction work) - they obviously form an underclass there. It was a relief to arrive in Tel Aviv mid-afternoon. Tel Aviv has a lot in common with Beirut, just up the coast in Lebanon. Western-facing, European / American in character, it is populated mainly by high buildings, wide boulevards, large hotels and lots of people rushing around trying to get somewhere fast. It's a new city, entirely built in the (mainly late) 20th century to house and administer all the incoming Jews after the creation of Israel.
It's more American in flavour than anything, like Eilat, and clearly designed along the lines of a Miami style city by the sea - unusual in European countries to have capitals which double as beach resorts. Strolling along the beach front, with the city's youth flaunting their stuff in bikinis and tight shorts, you feel as far from the Middle East as it's possible to feel, and it's all a bit bizarre after seeing women covered from head to toe in black for weeks. A pleasant bizarre, granted, but still. Tel Aviv's main tourist attraction, in all honesty, is its beach and marinas with bars and beach-side cafes. Hanging out, having a (pricey) beer or coffee by the beach or going for a sunbathe or swim is the archetypal Tel Avivan experience it seems, and I could do that at a thousand other beach places. Saying that, it'd be a lovely place to live with it's virtual year-round sunshine. There is some moderately interesting art-deco and bauhaus architecture there, and architecture buffs would probably get a kick out of the amount of modernist buildings that have sprouted up. but aside from that, it's not a place to hang around - it's also very pricey - so I got the bus out of there and to Jerusalem later that evening - a mere 90km down the road. (Israel's diminutive size is one of its main advantages as a traveller). I'd have liked to have sampled the famous night-life there, but at the end of a long trip, pushed for time and money, I just didn't give it much of a chance.
Jerusalem, when I arrived, didn't look anything out of the ordinary. The new town is like any new town, and from it's bus station I hiked down the main drag - Jaffa Road- which was being dug up to make way for a tram line. I made my way to east Jerusalem - the Palestinian quarter and to the cheapest hostel in town (Faisal) which is famed on the backpacker scene in the Middle East for it's feisty political atmosphere and common room which is an arena for heated middle eastern debate. Murals of Rafa city under seige and declarations of Palestinian solidarity decorated the walls, which was a statement of its political intent - I wonder how long a similar hostel would last in Jerusalem supporting the Israeli side. When I went to the common room though I was disappointed to find there only an over-eager Canadian gap-year student, desperate to impress people with all the amazing places he'd been. I retired to my bunk-bed before going out briefly for some falafel. I later got talking to a grizzled old guy from Germany who had been travelling continuously for seven years and who was convinced of the presence of evil spirits in the hostel. Another guy, Swiss, who was walking around with a profound limp had been living in the hostel for three years. He was an expert on the Eurovision song contest, and was genuinely surprised when I told him that all Britons treat it as a joke. He filled me on some surprising news however that Cliff Richard is currently in court trying to get a positive verdict on the 1967 competition when he came 2nd with 'Celebration' - the Spanish entry had been voted for by Germany on political grounds or something and therefore won the competition ahead of him. I discovered over the next two days that Jerusalem is probably the most interesting and possibly the most beautiful city I'd seen on this trip - certainly up there with Istanbul and Damascus. It oozes history at every corner, and you get a tangible sense of the drama and spirituality of the place, even when you are an unbeliever as I am. There is a well - known psychological condition known as 'Jerusalem Syndrome', and this accounts for a small but not insignificant number of people who come to the city, apparently sane, and go away (if they are allowed out of the asylum that has been built for them), believing they are Christ, or the new Messiah. They are, it is said, overcome with the significance of the whole thing, walking down Via Delarosa, sitting in the Garden of Gethsemane or looking down on the city from the Mount of Olives, and they go in to some kind of trance. This condition only lasts a few days on average, and people who have it go away and don't usually suffer any further psychological trauma in the future. A minority persist and are taken care of. I, happily, did not find myself believing I was the resurrection, but I was hugely moved by the city.
Watching the devout orthodox Jews praying and wailing at the Western Wall, stuffing their written prayers on little pieces of paper into its cracks; climbing Temple Mount to see the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine which remarkably Jews also venerate; and moving around a city which has endless labyrinthine alleys and side streets to explore, you can't help but feel a little overawed. One of the great things about the city, and it's something which has probably been said many times before, is how it embraces the three monotheistic religions and allows mutual tolerance. The Jews who pray at the western Wall are just a stone's throw from the sacred Muslim place of worship Haram ash-Sharif (and indeed the mosque is built on the site of an ancient Jewish temple), and if you go a couple of blocks through the Arabic quarter, you are in the Armenian and Christian quarters, which contain some of the world's oldest and most venerated churches - the Church of the Holy Sepulchre being the main one, built on the site of Mount Golgotha, where Christ is said to have been crucified. The queues of religious pilgrims stretched out of the gates of this place, and there were many in stunned disbelief or tears.
The best view of Jerusalem is from above, and this can be done from several vantage points - the best ones being the Mount of Olives, Mount Zion, or the city ramparts, from which you can march around the tops of the city walls and see it from all angles. Hearing Muslim Muezzin calls, church bells tolling and wailing Jews at the western wall in one moment is an experience you can't get anywhere else in the world - and it's without doubt the most spiritual of experiences I've had on the trip. The inevitable crowds of tourists on pilgrimages do slightly spoil the effect, but nevertheless - well worth it. Without sounding too hippy and idealist, I came away from Jerusalem hoping there could be a solution to the Palestinian problem, because from what I saw, these people can live together. Whether the extremists in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Israeli hard-liners can ever come to any peace agreement in government is another thing entirely. I may not have done justice to Israel, and certainly spent more time in other countries on the trip, but if there's one unmissable place in all of the Middle East, Jerusalem is it. I did not regret braving that border grilling for a moment. Had I experienced superb hospitality and got beyond that prickly Israeli stereotype? Well, let's move on..
Like this? Then like us on our Facebook page, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram. Also, sign up to our website above so you don't miss any future posts!
This blog is part of a series. To see the previous/next parts, on Jordan and Sinai/Cairo in Egypt respectively, please go here: