When I boarded the inaugural direct flight from New Delhi to Tel Aviv, which, for the first time, flew over Saudi Arabia, it meant more than just cutting short the route by two hours. It was my first visit to Israel, a country that always appeared different to me looking at casual young Israelis visiting the Kullu valley of Himachal Pradesh.
The trip opened up an altogether new Israel for me. People in Israel are cautious, conscious, high tech, but with history and faith inscribed deep in their minds and life. Located on the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe, Israel is certainly a connoisseur’s delight, which offers a contrast of old world charm and modern city living.
It is a small country with a population of eight million people. Travellers can easily interact with locals as language is not a barrier in Israel —with Hebrew, they learn English too.
I went to Israel in a group and our tour guide Eli Meiri furnished the finer details of places. Meiri specialised in accessible tourism — facilitating visitors with disabilities. The non-stop vibe of Tel Aviv greeted us as we entered the modern city, driving from the nearby Ben Gurion International Airport.
Founded by 60 families in 1909 as Jewish neighbourhood near Jaffa, Tel Aviv (meaning hill of spring) has developed into a trendy destination and is a city of start-ups. It is the second most populated city in Israel after Jerusalem and it is expensive.
We went to the narrow streets in Neve Tzedek, the cultural centre in Tel Aviv that houses the Frederic Mann Auditorium, Helena Rubinstein Art Museum and Habima Theater. The night life in Tel Aviv is a must-visit for tourists.
The busy Carmel market is another attraction, as it offers a range of food, spices, clothes, fashion and electronics. The hustle and bustle in the authentic market was more as we were there on Friday afternoon, when Shabbat (holy day, rather one of the most important holy days in Judaism) started.
All public offices in Israel are closed on Shabbat, as are private businesses, such as stores. One must keep in mind that Israel’s work week is from Sunday to Thursday. The southern and oldest part of Tel Aviv is the ancient port city of Jaffa, which is also popular for oranges across the world.
The city and its port on the Mediterranean Sea have a history spanning over three millennia. The port, which has a mention in various ancient books, is now functional as a small fishing port with restaurants and cafes dotting the street facing the sea.
An hour’s drive from Tel Aviv took us to the capital city of Jerusalem, which rests upon four hills, including Mount Zion and Mount Moriah. It’s near the border of the Judaean desert. The historic and holy city has an elegant white look as all buildings are made of pale limestone, found in abundance locally.
Jerusalem is said to be 3,000 years old and is home to three monotheistic faiths and culture. The history of Dome of the Rock (Islamic shrine), the Wailing Wall (sacred place for Jewish people) and the “holy site” for Christians in the old city lends much curiosity and insight to even casual tourists. Jews outnumber the population, followed by Muslims and Christians.
The Mount of Olives gives one a wide view of city from one point. It being a weekend (Saturday), we walked on Jerusalem’s streets at night to have a feel of life. The most exciting part of the journey came when we descended from 754 metres above sea level (Jerusalem), to 458 metres below sea level at the Dead Sea. It takes more than an hour’s drive. The Dead Sea connects to Jordan on other shore.
The sea is without waves, has a very high salt content and that’s why even non-swimmers don’t have any risk of drowning. We took a break, had a mud bath and enjoyed the geographical marvel. The beauty products made from Dead Sea minerals are very popular in Israel. A concern, however, is that the Dead Sea is shrinking and there are sink holes all around the beaches. We went to Masada, a rugged natural fortress along the Judaean desert overlooking the Dead Sea.
Masada is a symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel, its violent destruction and last stand of Jewish patriots in the face of the Roman army in 73 AD. I visited Israel in March and the weather was varied.
It was hot in Tel Aviv, drizzling in Jerusalem and windy towards Judaean desert. We discussed about Palestine and Israel during the three day trip, but could not feel the conflict.
However, what actually made me rethink was a “security question” at the airport. “Did you receive any gift from anyone in Israel?” “No,” I said. The Israeli girl reverted, “I am asking you as someone can even give you a dangerous gift.”