Israel For Two


Welcome to our tour of Israel (and a side trip to Jordan). 

For those of you who haven't "traveled" with us before, our blog enables you to see the sights, partake of the food, and experience some attitude as we explore -- without the expense, travel hassles, inoculations, or the risk of Montezuma's revenge.

Some of you may recall that Wendy and Emily went on the dual narrative trip to the region sponsored by Hands of Peace in October, 2014 (through Mejdi Tours). That trip was ably led by Husam Jubran and Yuval Ben-Ami. This time just the two of us are traveling (no group!), but we were lucky enough to once again secure Yuval as our guide. So we had complete say so over where we are going and what we will see. However, to help you visualize, here is politically-questionable map (complete with misspelling of Mediterranean) from a sample itinerary that pretty much covers our route.

For reference, Jerusalem is at 31 degrees north latitude. This is about the same as Marrakech, Morocco (our last trip) and, in the U.S., New Orleans. The time is 8 hours ahead of CST.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Tel Aviv

We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport around 10:30 am after a 10 hour flight from Toronto. Our tour includes VIP treatment which meant we were met at the gate by an airport security person. She took us to a private elevator, down to ground level, where we got in a van which whisked us to a special passport control area. There she gave our passports to the agent, who quickly issued our visas. Then outside to a waiting car. Ten minutes from plane to the car!

Got to the Dan Tel Aviv Hotel around 11:30. It was clear we were in Israel by the sign in the elevator:

Our room overlooks the Mediterranean. However, unlike views we've had from places like Nice and Capri, we were looking at a very angry sea. Huge waves and white caps as the wind was blowing at least 30 mph. The palm trees were bending in the wind and the Israeli flags were starched straight out. The sky was slate gray.  We got settled in and planned to walk off some jet lag and explore the area. Went downstairs.....took 20 steps from the front of the hotel and could barely walk through the wind gusts. Turned around and went back to the room to look at options. By the time we got back up, it was pouring sheets of rain! We chose wisely. Waited about an hour (the rain had stopped) and tried again. Got about 30 steps this time before retreating to the lobby. Decided to take a taxi to Roladin bakery to partake of the sufganiyot; special filled donuts for Chanukah. 

Even though early dinner was only an hour away, Wendy could not resist (what a shock).  She chose a chocolate ganache filled dipping-dot-covered hunk of calories.  Worth every one.

The bakery was right next to a large mall, so we went in to check it out. Always fun to see local stores and products (like "The Giving Tree" in Hebrew), and of course there was a McDonald's and a Burger King.

Back outside, it was not windy at all, so we decided to walk toward the sea and our dinner restaurant. Along the way we stumbled upon the Carmel Market....a large semi-enclosed soukh. Lots of great veggie and fruit stands (with huge figs and pomegranates), and nuts, spices, flowers, and halvah, along with more local items.

When we came to the end we kept heading west toward the water. As we got closer, the wind picked up and it began to rain again! Arrgghhh....we were soaked (had decided to leave our umbrellas in the room since we figured they would have been shredded by the wind). Luckily we were able to snag a taxi to take us to Manta Ray restaurant. Wendy and Em had gone here before, so we knew it would be good. They had been able to eat outside; obviously, we were not as fortunate.

Started with the most amazing bread, and mezzes of eggplant hummus (which we have made at home), cauliflower salad, greens with salmon. Wendy ordered the same bass as last time and Wayne had scallops and shrimp with bacon mash! Yes....a real trayf meal.

Sadly, no room for dessert.
A cab ride back to the hotel, and we managed to stay up until 6:30 before crashing.
Tomorrow, our first day of real touring with Yuval.

Happy to have you along.
W and W

Tel Aviv and Jaffa

Thursday, December 15, 2016

We started the day at another one of those hotel buffets. But Israeli buffets are not just ordinary...they tend to be amazing. We had heard about this (and Wendy had experienced them) and the Dan Tel Aviv did not disappoint. Delicious and incredible --salads, smoked fish, cheeses, blintzes, cheese and potato turnovers, cheesecake, halvah, yogurt, fruit, shakshuka, and any possible dairy dish you can imagine.  Luckily, they had small and large plates! And one of us filled both!

Israeli breakfast fare is somewhat familiar to us--the smoked fish (above) from our Eastern European Jewish (Ashkenazi) roots and the Shakshuka (a spicy tomato egg casserole which is becoming trendy in the States) from our past Israel trip and obsession with Mediterranean and North African recipes. The other items (Israeli salads and assorted breads) are also familiar and very yummy.  What's missing, you may ask? Bagels as we know and love them--not a one to be found! And no donuts at breakfast (but we'll compensate for that later).

Wendy was reunited with Yuval as we met him in the lobby at 8:30. His plan was for us to experience  "the real Tel Aviv" by walking through its various neighborhoods. It was chilly, but the wind had almost completely died down and no rain was in the forecast, so we set out.

Yuval first told us that most tourists see Tel Aviv as a beachfront resort town and venture no farther than the street their hotel is on. But there is much more to see in this vibrant metropolis that is home to people from many different places in the world. While the majority of the residents are Jewish, even within them is a variety of languages, customs, and origins--the diaspora at work.

He then explained that Tel Aviv is a relatively new city, established only 100 years ago on land just north of the ancient city of Jaffa by newly arrived Zionists hoping to create a Jewish homeland / state.
The city does not have that distinctive "Mediterranean" look that we have seen in other places. Part of this is due to the large number of Bauhaus buildings. These were the work of a group of  German immigrants in the 1930s. The goal of this school of architecture was to unite art with technology, and this idea appealed to and was enthusiastically supported by the Zionists for its clean simple lines and modernistic feel.

Hitler outlawed the Bauhaus style, so ironically you will not find many examples in Germany. Thus, Tel Aviv has the largest complement anywhere in the world.

We walked up Dizengoff Street, the main shopping street of the city. It is named for Meir Dizengoff, the city's first Mayor. There we saw the "Fire and Water Fountain" of Yaacov Agam (whose work has been an inspiration for some of Wayne's quilts). It is named accurately, because it is a water fountain during the day and shoots flames of fire at night (we'll have to take Yuval's word for that!).

Next we went down Ben Gurion Street to see the home of Israel's first Prime Minister. Ben Gurion lived in this modest house for many years, even when he held office, and now it is open to the public. It reminded us of our grandparents' apartments in the 50s and 60s.

Then on to see a memorial to another Prime Minister: Rabin Square, where he was shot and killed in 1995. 

Yuval gave us the complete historical context; his dad worked for Rabin so the story was particularly personal.  Speaking of Rabin (the peace-maker), we had decided to travel with Yuval because he shares our political views about Israel.  While many, including Netanyahu, believe the Israelis are destined to be in conflict with the Palestinians into perpetuity, Yuval is hopeful and shared some other more encouraging perspectives.  (Unrelated, we have had one question about our incoming president so far.  No comment!)

Next stop was at the near-by Monument of Holocaust Memorial and Resistance.

It was built with two steel interlocked triangles and was constructed in a way that it looks like a star of David from above. The Israeli artist, Ygal Tumarkin, created it in 1974 when this place was still called Kings of Israel Square. The Memorial now has an ecological water pool on the side and symbolizes life with hundreds of Israelis walking around every day.

Next we walked up Rothschild Boulevard, one of the city's original "upscale" areas, to Independence Hall. This was originally Mayor Dizengoff's home, but after he died additions were made to it, and it eventually became the Tel Aviv Museum. It was here on May 14, 1948, just a few hours before the British Mandate was set to expire (and the Brits would leave), that Ben Gurion convened a meeting of the Provisional State Council and declared the establishment of the State of Israel. Their Declaration of Independence was signed and the new National Anthem, Ha'tikvah, was sung. As part of our tour, we listened to the actual audio tape from that day.  Wendy has sung Ha'tikvahs before, but never in Israel.  Very emotional.

After our visit to Independence Hall (the name of the museum was changed in 1948),  we journeyed out of Tel Aviv to Jaffa and Abu Hassan's Hummus restaurant. Yuval said that he never takes groups there; it is small, authentic, and a real experience (made easier by being with a local).  The menu listing on the wall is all in Hebrew and there were only a half dozen dishes listed. The main feature is Palestinian-style hummus. On each table is a plate full of pita, raw onion segments and dishes of garlicky oil to mix into your hummus (if you wish). They also have French fries for dipping. Yuval ordered for us, and within 30 seconds we each had a larger than life-sized bowl of the most delicious hummus ever.

It had a lot of cumin, and one third was covered with mashed fava beans (think Mexican refried beans). Yuval explained that hummus originated here. (and don't even ask if it is Palestinian or Israeli in origin, although Yuval's fiancée is researching that very question!). And, no, we were not in the clean plate club! Unlike some cafes (i.e., coffee shops), the mantra here is order, eat, and leave.

Speaking of coffee shops, Yuval told us that there was a Starbuck's in town, but that it had to close because it did not create the atmosphere of the real cafes. In those, one can eat breakfast, sit and talk with friends, eat lunch, sit, eat dinner, and then dance to music at night! This is a hold-over from the European café culture.

Next we walked through Jaffa. As it is an ancient city, there are many narrow, winding streets. We walked through the flea market section....street stalls plus shops selling all kinds of items, from large appliances to the oddest of miscellany. The epitome of this was a store that sold only items from when the British were here (70 years ago!). Tools, instruments, toys,'ve never seen such an inventory!

And this was the sign outside the door:

The city is built on a hill ("tel" in Hebrew), and offers a great view of the sea and Tel Aviv just to the north. As it was a clear day, we were able to see all the way to Caesarea, about 30 miles farther on.

Around the edge of the hill are synagogues, a monastery, and several large churches; these reflect the variety of faiths of the people who have lived here over the centuries. In fact, the hill is not natural. It is the result of building and rebuilding on top of ruins from previous inhabitants.

Finally, back to south Tel Aviv. Yuval lives in this area, so he was able to give us his unique perspective. He told us that there are many immigrant groups (from Europe, Arica, etc.), that all live in harmony, though still somewhat separately. The area is being gentrified as people from the north side of the city ("the rich side") are moving in to take advantage of cheaper housing costs....which in turn makes this area desirable, which raises the housing costs!

He then took us to see his mother's studio. She is a world famous artist, Orna Ben-Ami, who works in iron! One of her pieces is called "Open House". It is a bench with a person sleeping on it under an iron quilt! She actually cut and then welded each square!!  Here is that work, in place.

Orna has upcoming exhibits at the U.N. (depicting the refugee crisis) and at a private gallery elsewhere in Manhattan.  Coincidentally Wendy will be in Manhattan  at the same time so she will be able to see it.

That was the end of touring for the day. We had planned to have dinner at a chi-chi Asian restaurant, but after getting back to the hotel we realized how tired we were (perhaps some jet lag plus the Fitbit showed we walked 6.5 miles!). So we decided just to eat in the hotel.  No worries, foodie fans, plenty of blog-worthy meals to come! Once again, it was a huge buffet with a lot of choices (this time including meat!). There were a lot of families in the dining room....each seemingly with at least 3 children. And very strange: at breakfast, each and every dish was clearly labeled in Hebrew and English. At dinner, nothing was labeled! The best part was dessert. There was a fantastic chocolate mousse, and mun cake just like grandma used to make! Yum!!!

Tomorrow we leave Tel Aviv and head north to Caesaria, Haifa, Akko, and the Galilee--including lunch with our friend, Rana Haddad!

love, w&w.........

Caesarea, Haifa, and Akko

Friday, December 16, 2016

We said good bye to Tel Aviv (well....we will be back there again in 10 days) and headed north up the coast to Galilee.

The forecast said a high of 60 and cloudy, but it was quite chilly and already raining as we left the hotel. In fact, we heard they're setting records for cold weather.  Luckily we're prepared!

Our first stop was Caesarea. This was originally a Phoenician port, but its prosperity as a major port and wealthy city really began under the Roman rule of Herod the Great around 25 B.C. As we entered we were reminded of another Roman city, Volubilis, that we visited at this very time last year in Morocco (click for that post). As we recall, it was very hot and bright that day. Quite the opposite today! Although there were similarities in the architecture and columns and layout, there is very little left of Caesarea (at least from the 5% that has been unearthed so far).

The most impressive ruin is the amphitheater, which could seat up to 4,000 people. It is still used for concerts and performances today. 

 Then there were the public baths with their beautiful mosaic floors.

Additionally, we walked through the remains of the hippodrome--not as well preserved as what we saw in Istanbul but interesting nonetheless.

The city declined in the 7th century and stayed that way until the 12th century when the Crusaders came to the area and rebuilt it. They added a new larger wall (including an impressive moat) to make the city area bigger. The first picture below shows the interior of the wall at the main gate.

We then drove a mile or so inland and stopped at another excavated ruin. This was once the home of a wealthy family, but all that is left is the amazing mosaic tiled floor with many different kinds of animals, but mostly birds. Incredibly, there is no restriction or barrier against walking on it to get great pix, and it is totally exposed to the elements. Here is just a small sampling.

Yes....these are all mosaics. And the stones are the colors you see; zoom in to check out the incredible detail.

Next it was on to Haifa (please don't confuse this with Jaffa!). This city is built on and below Mt. Carmel and is Israel's third largest. Once again, it features a large very active port, but also has a lot of industry. Additionally, in Haifa there is a lot more successful mixing between Palestinian and Jewish Israelis than in other cities across the country--though discrimination is still a sad reality. The  sole attraction for us was the Baha'i Shrine and Gardens. As Wendy and Emily had previously visited here (click), and as it was cold and gray and raining, AND as we were nearing Shabbat, we could not climb the 16 terraces nor see the gardens from the bottom. We could only view it from the top (although from there it was clear how beautiful they are) and take this requisite picture.

You can see the gold dome of the Tomb of the Bab, and the sea in the distance. We learned that all the Baha'i people who tend the gardens are volunteers and that, per the Baha'i council, they can only stay in Israel for two years. Why? They feel that there is enough friction and they don't want to add another group to the mix. Very wise.

Back in the car for the ride to Akko. We first stopped for lunch in the newer part of town. Yuval took us to "the best shawarma restaurant in Israel". Muhammed our driver agreed. Too bad we can't pronounce or translate the name!

They featured massive amounts of beef cooked in lamb fat, so we each got one in a pita, that also was filled with onions, pickles, tomatoes (for some of us) and tahini or mango sauce. YUMMMM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Once again, neither of us was in the clean plate club--though one of us came awfully close.

Afterwards we drove a short distance to the old part of town. Like Caesarea, Akko has a long history of ups and downs under many different flags, kingdoms, and armies. It began as Acre in the Hellenistic period over 3,000 years ago, then declined in importance for centuries. Eventually the Crusaders took over in the 11th century, then the Muslims under Saladin in the 13th century, then down again until the Ottomans came in and built a new citadel (much of which still stands); they eventually fought off an invasion by Napoleon in 1799.

The clock tower, built about 100 years ago has four faces: one with traditional Arabic numbers, one with Roman numerals, one with Hebrew numbers, and the last with modern numbers.

Of course, there was the obligatory walk through the market. Yuval told us that Akko has no great religious significance, and no other real "attractions" (it is primarily a fishing village), so it does not get a lot of tourists. So this is truly a market for the locals. And much of it was dedicated to selling the fish (some of which we've never seen before) that were caught only a few dozen yards away! Strong smells--but not like the market in Saigon.

There were also stalls of spices, veggies, olives, candied nuts, coffee, halvah, and even one for hookahs!!!! Just can't get enough of these markets!

We took a quick stroll through what had been a well-preserved Crusader castle/fortress/community but is in the process of being repurposed into a Crusader museum.  Yuval shared that Akko was the center of the Crusades and a well-curated museum would be valuable--but this museum needs some more work.

Finally we went to the Mosque of El-Jazzar. El-Jazzar is not really the name of the 18th century Ottoman ruler. It literally means "the butcher", so he was obviously not a nice guy if you got on his wrong side. But he was a prolific builder. He built this mosque in 1781, the only one of its kind (Ottoman style) in the country. The courtyard actually contains columns taken from Caesarea!!! Also in there is a gazebo containing a fountain for the ritual ablutions, and his tomb.

Inside the mosque (below).  Apparently, in the pulpit is a vial with a hair from the Prophet's beard.  There is also such a relic in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. 

Touring was over for the day, but we still had a 1 hour drive to our hotel. It is outside of the town of Hazor Haglilit, on the top of a mountain in the Galillee. As we got nearer Wayne remarked that there were still cactus plants this high up. Yuval agreed that the sabra was very hearty. This was confusing as we thought "sabra" was the term for an Israeli-born person, so we asked. Yuval explained that, yes, this was true, and here's why: unlike the immigrants who initially came to settle the land, the children born here were tough and prickly on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside, so they were nicknamed "sabra" after the cactus!

The hotel is called "Bayit Bagalil - The Galilee Estate". It was dark when we checked in, so no pix of the hotel itself. It is rustic yet elegant. After we got to our room they brought us this platter of goodies:

At 7:00 we went to the dining room for a special and massive Shabbat dinner.  By all rights we could fast tomorrow based on the amount of food we consumed.  We sat down to a beautiful challah with sun dried tomatoes and olive tapenade.  Then, presented in rapid succession were:  a green salad with walnuts and sweet vinaigrette; roasted eggplant slices with a tahini glaze; veal carpaccio; St Peters' fish fillet with bell peppers Moroccan style; then zucchini soup. We put in an excellent performance with these warm-up courses, but we felt a little guilty leaving so much.  Next, came our mains (which we got to choose).  Wayne had braised beef with mushroom sauce and Wendy had osso bucco.  We could have selected salmon or goose leg confit but we figured we had blown our calorie count for the year anyway, so why choose the light entrees? Oy.  We finished off with molten chocolate cake for Wayne and fresh fruit with sorbet for Wendy.  We're good to go for at least another eight hours. (Will this vacation eating ever end?  And then Yuval texted us that they found the perfect famous restaurant to take us to tomorrow night.  And this is the trip Wendy decided to diversify her wardrobe beyond elastic waist pants.  What a mistake!) 

Here are some of the courses up front and personal...



Astute readers may have noticed that we have eaten salad and fresh fruit several times. This is because we were told that (unlike many other places we've been) the water is safe to drink here. So we've been taking advantage of normal teeth-brushing and showering, and enjoying the locally grown veggies. So far, so good!

Can't believe we're only finishing Day 2 of our adventure! We also can't believe that this is our third post and we're not even in Jerusalem yet--so much to share. 

Until then
love, w&w....................