By Lee Foster
Suppose you had 10 days to devote to exploring Israel, roughly eight days of sightseeing and two long fly days on either end. What would be a good itinerary strategy?
On a recent trip to Israel I decided to approach the country asking this itinerary question, which may be useful to some of Israel’s 3.5 million annual visitors. I decided to base myself in Tel Aviv at a comfortable hotel and make day trips to the northern and central areas. Then I traveled south to explore, locating myself in Eilat on the Red Sea. I was with a small group of people, so we engaged guides and a van for transportation during the trip. Israeli guides are highly-educated professionals, certified only after extensive studies and justifiably proud of their role.
Tel Aviv, a beach city of the shore of the Mediterranean, merits attention in and of itself, especially the attached old city of Jaffa, a 4,000-year-old-port, now good for a stroll through its art galleries and an orientation to its rich history. This port united Europe to the land now called Israel.
Starting in the late 1800s, a new city, Tel Aviv, emerged adjacent to Jaffa. Tel Aviv was the site of early Zionist energy as Jewish families began to return to Israel. About 60 of the first Jewish families built homes on Rothschild Boulevard, a wide avenue. Later, as many German Jewish architects immigrated to Israel, Rothschild Boulevard became a showcase of Bauhaus Architecture, a movement sometime also called the International Style.
Tel Aviv is widely recognized as the most exuberant city in Israel. One saying is, “Jerusalem prays, Haifa works, and Tel Aviv plays.” We savored the inventive food at a modern small-plates restaurant Vicky Cristina and entertainment from singers Sagiv Cohen and the Suzanne Dellal dancers. Beyond high end restaurants, we thoroughly enjoyed the abundant falafel stands offering pita bread sandwiches with vegetable and meat fillings.
North to Caesarea, East to Galilee
We spent another day traveling north to the Roman city of Caesarea, with its aqueduct and amphitheater. The ruins are impressive in this Roman capital for the province of Judea.
Then our guide led us further north to Haifa, where the splendid gardens and temple of the Baha’i religious movement drape a hillside.
From there we drove east to the Galilee, with a stop to plant a tree at the Lavi Forest in the Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park. The Jewish National Fund has been instrumental in planting millions of trees in the country, instituting major reforestation benefits. Our guide had to choose the rest of our Galilee day route judiciously because going all the way to the water’s edge of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount, required a long drive back. We did get to Nazareth, boyhood home of Jesus, and saw the Church of the Annunciation.
East to Central Israel
On our East-from-Tel Aviv day, our first interesting stop was at the Ayalon Institute, a kibbutz used secretly to make bullets in the 1940s. Israel was controlled by the British Mandate before the independence of Israel was declared. The British wanted to keep all the disputing parties among the Jews and Arabs unarmed, so Israelis had to set up clandestine munitions factories, this one literally underground, to gain independence in this Arab neighborhood. Another intriguing stop that day was the Sorek caves, with their stalactites and stalagmites. Nearby, one of the many emerging wineries in Israel, Villa Wilhelmina, was a tasting stop for us to sample some delicious Rieslings and Cabernets.
Southeast to Jerusalem
A Jerusalem visit is a cornerstone of all Israel trips because the city is holy to three great monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jerusalem was our subject for the fourth day excursion. Highlights included a panoramic view of the walled city from the Mount of Olives ridge, showing the Al-Aqsa Mosque (familiarly known as the Dome of the Rock) and the walled city. After a walk through the Garden of Gethsemane, we proceeded to a close-up visit of the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall) to immerse ourselves in the intense spirituality of the city. Walking the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we retraced the path associated with Christ’s walk, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.
After leaving the old city via the Jaffa Gate, we drove to the Israel Museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and a scale model of Jerusalem at the time of Christ. The Dead Sea scrolls, discovered in 1947 at Qumran near the Dead Sea, show second-century biblical documents, including the intact book of Isaiah, in the same Hebrew language readable (and now spoken in daily use rather than just in prayers) in Israel today. Many other art objects merit attention at the Israel Museum.
South to Masada
We then departed Tel Aviv with our guide for four days of exploring in southern Israel, basing ourselves at a hotel in the Israeli resort town of Eilat on the Red Sea. We stopped on the long drive south at the mountain fortress known as Masada, the single most visited attraction in Israel. Here about 960 Jewish zealots withstood a Roman siege for three years, 70-73 A.D., before succumbing, finally choosing death rather than slavery. Masada has become a symbol of Jewish resistance. Masada was originally built by the powerful King Herod as an impregnable fortress, outfitted with the sumptuous baths, frescoed walls, and wine-filled storehouses that Herod appreciated when in Rome.
We swam in the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, now about 1,300 feet below sea level. The water level here is dropping about 3 feet per year. Mineral content in the Dead Sea is so dense that we literally floated on the water.
A nature hike at the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve showed us abundant water at a desert oasis, rich with wildlife such as the deer-family ibex and a rodent-sized elephant-family mammal known as a hyrax.
To Petra in Jordan
From Eilat we enjoyed a day of sailing on the Red Sea in an excursion boat and snorkeling to see the abundant reef fish for which this body of water is famous.
Then, on another full day, we crossed into neighboring Jordan to see the remarkable spice-trade city of Petra. Petra flourished in the centuries before and after Christ as camel caravans carried spices, incense, and silk from Asia to Europe through this territory. The most impressive building in the narrow river canyon at Petra, carved into the red cliffs, is known as the Treasury, but actually was a mausoleum to the Nabataean kings. Israel has had a peace agreement with Jordan, starting in 1994, which encourages cooperation on tourism and other industries.
The Negev Desert
A day of exploring in the Negev Desert was our final goal. Much of the future growth of Israel is tied to the desert. We passed many high-tech agricultural enterprises, such as the Yotvata kibbutz, where Israelis are cultivating ever more food production from each drop of water.
We also visited in Be’er Sheva the Weizmann Institute of Science, an intellectual leader in science research in Israel. Our visit included a tour of the stately Bauhaus-style home of Chaim Weizmann, one of the founders of the state of Israel and its first president. Weizmann was both a prominent scientist and a political leader. Be’er Sheva is a major university town.
We passed many Bedouin encampments and saw an unusual geologic feature, Maktesh Ramon, a crater caused by water dissolving the limestone cliffs. At an historical park, Avdat, the ancient Nabataean culture had flourished, as at Petra, when precious cargoes, including the gold, frankincense, and myrrh of the bible stories, came through here to Mediterranean Europe via camel caravans.
Everyone in our group felt they came away with a better understanding of the political struggles engulfing Israel from several centuries before Christ to the present. The more we learned about the complex overlays of history and the modern grievances on all sides, the less satisfying was a simplistic analysis of the contemporary situation. For thousands of years this crossroads territory uniting Europe, Africa, and Asia has been contested. It will take wise leadership and vision on all sides to resolve the current political situation.
Anyone interested in history and religion, including encounters ranging from well-presevered Roman ruins to the high-tech future of agriculture, will find a cultural look at Israel today a fascinating adventure.
Israel: If You Go
The main tourism information source is Israel Ministry of Tourism, www.goisrael.com.
We stayed at the Dan chain of hotels, the Dan Panorama Tel Aviv and the Dan Eilat.
The Israeli El Al airline carried us from North America to Israel.