Getting to the heart of Israel

 

GO ISRAEL:Political outlooks, dogged preconceptions and safety concerns can obscure Israel’s appeal as one of the most fascinating, culturally diverse and historically significant places to visit in the world, writes CIAN TRAYNOR

At the country’s heart is Jerusalem, an epicentre of faith and tension where souls and soldiers co-exist. The best place to take it in is from the Mount of Olives, a 3,000-year-old plateau overlooking the sand-coloured four quarters of the old city – Jewish, Muslim, Armenian and Christian – where several religions have claimed a piece of sacred real estate.

There’s the Cenacle, an empty room of sweeping arches and stained-glass windows said to be the site of the Last Supper, and the gleaming Dome of the Rock, which stands over the point where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Add to that the Temple Mount and Western Wall, the holiest sites in Judaism, and the historical significance of the city is enough to pimple the skin, whatever your religious background.

Stepping inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally taken as the place of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection, is like ducking into another world. It’s a jumble of altars and chapels, brimming with incense and oil lamps, where each community adheres to a rigid schedule for times and places of worship.

That equilibrium is symbolised by a small wooden ladder resting above the graffiti-covered east entrance. The Sepulchre’s primary custodians are the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches. After the Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac Orthodox churches acquired periphery holdings in the 19th century, the 1853 status quo agreement forbade any further changes. The ladder has remained untouched ever since.

By contrast, the Western Wall, a site of Jewish pilgrimage for centuries, is sparse and heavily guarded. There are separate entrances for men and women, and both are expected to cover their heads upon approaching.

The sight is engrossing: Orthodox men dressed in black with wide-brimmed hats or sable-fur shtreimels,their children with side curls and skull caps, lining up to stuff slips of paper into the wall’s 2,000-year-old crevices. Each note contains a prayer, more than a million of which are collected each year and buried in the Mount of Olives.

There’s an unexpected sense of serenity as you snake through the streets of Jerusalem, even when navigating around processions of pilgrims retracing the footsteps of Jesus. If there is any fragility to warrant a constant state of alert, it wasn’t detectable during my stay. (However, within a week a bomb blast killed one and injured 30 – the first such incident in seven years.)

SECURITY CHECKS are a normal part of life in Israel. Privately hired guards protect the entrances to bars, restaurants, shopping centres and cinemas. At airports, the security process is considerably more thorough than either the US or Japan, and don’t be surprised if locals shrug off your tales of 20-minute interrogations as “not that bad”.

Having repeatedly promised to show me the best falafel in the country – a topic passionately argued over by most Israelis – my guide led me through the market stalls of the Muslim quarter to a grubby kitchenette unadorned with signs. People begin queuing here from 9am and the owner closes for the day as soon as the falafel run out, which was the case when we arrived at lunchtime.

Chunky hummus with olive oil, lemon juice, beans and cumin wiped up with thick pitta bread made for a filling alternative but, perhaps sensing an anticlimax, the owner returned with a grin and a plate of specially prepared falafel soft enough to melt in the mouth.

The influx of different cultures and ethnicities behind Israel means there’s no national cuisine as such, but more of a national fusion. At just about every hotel, breakfast involves tackling a buffet spread of figs, dates, salads, soft cheeses, onions, yoghurts, smoked and salted fish, grainy bread, shakshouka (a spiced egg and tomato dish), bourekas(puff pastry with savoury fillings), cakes, lemonade, juices and coffee.

Though there are plenty of restaurants catering to typical western fare, eating in a kosher establishment means either forsaking meat or dairy on the menu, as the two cannot be served together. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust, where there are separate canteens for each food type.

The museum documents victims’ experiences with a meticulously assembled collection of diaries, artefacts, photographs and testimonies – interwoven personal histories that make for a hard-hitting experience. Just as comprehensive is the recently refurbished Israel Museum, where a full day’s visit wouldn’t be enough to absorb the impressive array of art and archaeology, from Duchamp to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Dead Sea itself is a 90-minute drive away, beyond the West Bank town of Jericho, where the landscape begins to empty into desert. After winding past shanty Bedouin communities, crumbling sinkholes and the occasional burst of olive trees, you arrive at the lowest point on earth – 423m below sea level – where a white perimeter of crystallised salt lines the sea’s azure waters. Though the Dead Sea’s buoyancy makes for perfect floatation, its 33 per cent salt content will turn your swimwear into cardboard when left out to dry.

Some hotels, such as Le Méridien and the Leonardo Club, retain strips of the beach exclusively for their guests. Arguably the best time to take advantage is in the early evening, when the water is empty and still feels warm to Irish sensibilities.

Floating out in silence as the reflection of Jordan’s hills tints darker and darker in the dusk, the panorama becomes amplified. It’s a blissful experience only interrupted by the F-16 fighter jets that regularly thunder across the sky. “There go my taxes,” cries a voice in the distance.

At night, the area goes quiet. Beyond spa treatments that encourage caking yourself in mud, the biggest attraction is the nearby clifftop ruins of Masada. The fortress, built by King Herod, was where 960 Jewish zealots died by their own hand in AD 73 rather than surrender to a siege by the Romans. The views from here, imposing cliff-faces and fractured arid moonscapes stretching out for miles, are stunning.

Another two hours south lies Eilat, a Dubai-like resort town that cradles the Red Sea and draws 250,000 visitors per year. Built around a landing strip that qualifies as a domestic airport, its main draw is a 16 per cent tax break for shopping, as well as outdoor activities such as diving, biking and rappelling. But its plethora of five-star hotels, westernised restaurants and even a pyramid-shaped Imax cinema strips it of character.

FOR A TRUER sense of Israel, complete with cosmopolitan comforts, Tel Aviv makes for a laid-back Mediterranean idyll. Regarded as the country’s hedonistic capital, its Bauhaus architecture and crumbling stucco neighbourhoods have become a haven for bohemian twenty-somethings. Those I encountered expressed indifference to politics and religion, the city’s higher cost of living regarded as a worthwhile trade-off to occupy a “bubble” apart from the rest of the country.

For the visitor, to find pulsating nightlife just 45 minutes from 5,000 years of history is a welcome contrast. Even among the sky-scraping hotels of Tel Aviv, the ancient port of Jaffa – stuffed with cafes, artist studios and flea markets – is a 15-minute stroll along the beach. This year St Patrick’s Day coincided with the Jewish holiday of Purim, so leprechaun costumes represented two-for-one value as citywide celebrations kicked off.

Yet even as throngs of costumed clubbers spilled onto the streets in the early hours, the revelry was comparatively civilised. For all the insularity associated with Israeli identity, there was warmth towards a first-time visitor, an eagerness to challenge impressions of their country.

In a land where everyone’s looking for something different and where there’s a quality that can’t be captured in postcards or headlines, perhaps being open to such challenges is the key to making the most of Israel.

* Cian Traynor was a guest of of the Israel Government Tourist Office (IGTO) and El Al. See think israel.com

Get there

Arkia (arkia.com) flies from Dublin to Tel Aviv. Air France (airfrance.com) flies from Dublin via Paris. EasyJet (easyjet.com), British Airways (ba.com) and El Al (elal.co.il) all fly from London. A number of tour operators offer package holidays to Israel, including: Citiescapes Worldwide Tours (01-2041000 or citiescapes.ie); Club Travel (clubtravel.ie or 01-5005586); GTI (gti-ireland.com or 01-8434734); and Joe Walsh Travel (joewalshtours.ie or 01-2410800).

Israel where to . . .

Stay

Jerusalem: The Mount Zion Hotel, 17 Hebron Road, 00-972-2-5689555, mountzion.co.il. A boutique hotel within walking distance of the Jaffa Gate to the Old City. The staff are helpful, and the rooms and garden offer superb views of the Hinnom Valley. Rooms from €190.

Tel Aviv:Dan Panorama, Charles Clore Park, 00-972-3-5202552, danhotels.com. Just a short walk from the port of Jaffa, this 18-storey hotel overlooks the Mediterranean and has an outdoor swimming pool and a private beach. Rooms from €175.

Dead Sea:Le Méridien Dead Sea, Mobile Post Ein Boqeq. 00-972-8-6591234, starwoodhotels.com. The largest spa hotel on the Dead Sea features an array of swimming pools, 14 separate facilities for beauty and health programmes and even an in-house jewellers. There’s a private beach area for guests, though it is a 10-minute walk away. Rooms from €175.

Eat

Jerusalem:Colony, 7 Beit Lehem Road, Shchunat Bik’ah, 00-972-52-2600006. This bistro and bar has been converted from the train station that once housed the first Tel Aviv- Jerusalem line and is a favourite among government officials. The menu favours minimal sophistication but the steaks are unmissable. Meals from €20.

Tel Aviv:Kimel, 6 HaShahar Street, Neve Tzedek. 00-972-3-5105204. A rare veteran of Tel Aviv’s restaurants, Kimmel specialises in rustic delicacies such as mushrooms stuffed with gooseliver in port, fig and plum sauce and roasted duck in apricot chutney. Meals from €35.

Eliat:Santa Fe, adjacent to the Caesar hotel entrance. 00-972-8-6338081. An adept take on Mexican cuisine centred on succulent steaks, exuberant desserts and excellent service. Meals from €28.