Encounters Travel’s Regional Manager Mariska Knoesen recently had the opportunity to try our 8-day Classic Israel tour, which explores the Mediterranean coast, Nazareth and the Golan Heights as well as the Dead Sea, Masada and Old Jerusalem.
Mariska’s Classic Israel Adventure
What can I say about my visit to Israel – the country where so many people of so many faiths and so many walks of life wish to visit? Neither one word, nor one sentence would suffice.
I took part in our 8-day Classic Israel tour that departs on Saturdays from Tel Aviv. Flying to Tel Aviv is quite easy. From the United Kingdom you will find low cost airline flights that gets you there in half a day. From the United States, South Africa and Europe Turkish Airlines for example, offers multiple flights per day.
When we descended over Israel, I noticed how many hills there were, and the shiny domes of the multiple holy places could be seen in all corners of the lands below. I suddenly had a deep sense of where I would be visiting and what I would be seeing. What was ahead of me started thousands of years ago and I would be walking in the footsteps of very significant people once I touched down.
The immigration hall at Ben Gurion Airport was somewhat overwhelming. Hordes of people were scrambling to line up in front of the desks with the shortest queues. Eventually metal barriers automatically caused order and soon after that it was my turn to present my travel documents to the immigrations officer. She asked some questions about my reason for visiting Israel and I was given a card that I had to use to exit the immigration hall.
Once I walked through the exit doors, I immediately spotted the bookshop that we advise our travellers to look out for and lo and behold, the driver was waiting for me with a clear sign displaying my name. We walked to the parking area and exited the airport.
I was mesmerised by the quality of the roads and the modernity of the billboards. Tel Aviv was a very vibrant and bustling city. Although it was Shabbat, most of the shops were operating.
The hotel we regular make use of in Tel Aviv is close to Gordon Beach. There are shops, ATM’s and restaurants in all directions. Gordon Beach is a great area, you’ll find street performers, people walking dogs and the locals making their way up and down the streets.
The Israeli hotel breakfasts were incredible. Each morning included a range of hard and soft cheeses, olives, fruits, Middle Eastern dishes and glorious breads on the buffet. It filled me with energy for the days where I would be visiting significant sights with both religious and historical importance.
On the second day of the tour I met up with the other group members and we were on our way to Caesarea passing by upmarket Tel Aviv residences. The coastal historical sight of Caesarea was very impressive with its intact amphitheatre that is still being used for concerts and performances.
A short multimedia presentation provided a valuable insight of how large this harbour city used to be when King Herod completed his vision. It housed a palace, hippodrome for chariot races and of course the amphitheatre that we visited. Not many of the other buildings remain however one can tell that its location was important – hence why it was conquered by so many forces.
We went from an old site to one of the sites that Israel is most proud of. The hanging gardens of Haifa with the Ba’hai temple were spectacular for us to look at from above.
As soon as it was early afternoon and signs of hunger showed up, we drove into the Druze Valley named Dar El Carmel, where a Middle Eastern feast was awaiting us. The local family restaurant welcomed 17 hungry guests. Our tables were packed with hummus, falafel, babaganoush, salads, kebab, stuffed vine leaves and hot pita breads. We all left the restaurant very content and somewhat lazy.
Before we headed to Lavi we visited the site of Meggido which is surrounded by the valleys of lower Galilee. This site is described to be the location where the Armageddon will take place. You can still see the remains of the stables of King Solomon’s horses today.
By late afternoon we pulled into the Kibbutz Hotel in Lavi. The grounds included beautiful gardens, recreational facilities and the rooms were lovely to retire to after a long day of sightseeing. Breakfasts and dinners in the Kibbutz were served in a large dining room and the food was wholesome. I also attended a lecture on the concept of a modern-day Kibbutz which was very insightful. It also rectified many misconceptions I had about this communal institution.
On our third day of the group tour we drove to the magical city of Safed (Zafed). The roads climbed higher and higher until we started driving the narrow streets of this artistic town. We visited an art gallery as well as an old synagogue before we had free time to explore the cobble streets and narrow shops with mostly handmade goods on offer.
A Bar Mitzvah was taking place in the streets while walking to a synagogue. A young boy was being celebrated while friends and family were clapping, singing, cheering and waving blue and white decorations. I had my first fresh pomegranate juice in Safed – one of many during my trip in Israel.
Our Classic Israel tour is considered a cultural tour which is made up of a mix of Biblical, Jewish and everyday sites. Our first Biblical site was at Capernaum which is known as the Town of Jesus. Here the guide took us on a journey back in time where the ruins that are on display here showed evidence of the fruits that were available in the Holy Land during the time Jesus was living there. We also saw the ruins of the synagogue Jesus taught at and what is known as the Church of St Peter. From this site I got to see the long stretch of water of the Sea of Galilee.
Before we headed to the Golan Heights, we stopped for lunch. The guide recommended shwarma or falafel – which is the national snack of Israel – and we weren’t disappointed at all. The food was prepared in a jiffy and it was filling too! Golan Heights is a large stretch of land where Israeli wine farms are found. We visited a winery where a walking tour of the premises included the distillery process and some wine tasting. We headed back to the Kibbutz in Lavi where we had dinner as a group and retreated to our rooms for a well-deserved rest.
The fourth day of the tour included several Biblical sights. The first was Sermon of the Mount site and the Church of the Beatitudes. We also drove to Nazareth to visit the Church of Annunciation which is built on the ruins of Mary and Joseph’s home. Our last stop after yet another falafel lunch was the incredibly well-preserved Mosaic floors of an ancient synagogue in Beit Shean.
As we drove through the West Bank, we passed Jericho in the distance and caught our first glimpse of the Dead Sea. The dusty rocks were soon replaced with buildings and before we knew it – surprise! Jerusalem was to the left and it was beautiful!
We gathered on Mount Scorpus where the guide read a Jewish blessing over Jerusalem and then we were dropped off at our respective hotels. There was still some sunlight left in the day, so I headed for the old city which was a mere 20-minute walk until I reached the Jaffa Gate. The Tower of David Museum was ginormous, and it is there where I teared up realising exactly where I was!
I walked through the Arab quarter and did some window shopping while I walked the narrow, busy isles before walking back to the hotel.
Day five of the tour was dedicated to Bethlehem and Old Jerusalem. After a scenic stop at the Mount of Olives where we looked over the old City of Jerusalem and its ancient walls, we drove to Bethlehem where we met our Palestinian guide and she guided us through the Church of Nativity. It was a very interesting site and it held special significance to Christians as it is known to be the birth place of Jesus.
When we left Bethlehem, we headed to Mount Zion to visit the Room of the Last Supper and the tomb of King David. We walked the old city streets past the Cardo and original walls. We spent some time at the Western Wall. I must say that touching that wall did invoke some emotions in me.
We then walked stations 5, 6 and 7 of the Via Dolorosa and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I stayed behind in the old city while the others were transferred to their hotels. I walked through the markets until dawn and quite enjoyed my leisure stroll back to the hotel walking past Independence Park where locals lay on the green grass.
Day six of the tour was dedicated to what is considered new Jerusalem. Our first stop was the Israel Museum where a perfect mini city was awaiting us. I could have stood hours imagining Jerusalem like it was displayed by that model.
We also visited the Shrine of the Book where the last remaining Dead Sea Scrolls are kept. It is a small room and you move through it relatively quickly, but it sure does hold great treasures. We visited memorials of fallen heroes of Israel and visited the Holocaust memorial before driving through the Orthodox neighbourhood of Mea Shearim.
In the evening we enjoyed a scrumptious Armenian meal of Middle Eastern dishes before we were mesmerised by the Sound & Light Show at the Tower of David Museum. On our way back to the coach, there were hordes of young army soldiers in the streets of the old city. Some group members were very concerned, however it is a very common sight in Israel. The young soldiers were doing training all over the country each day. It was important to know this as I didn’t want our travellers to ever feel panic when seeing army soldiers in the streets of Israel.
Our last touring day included a drive to Masada, where we went up the cable car to the large rocky mountain with its fascinating Roman history. We also visited Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and lastly, we had time to soak, scrub and float on the beach of the Dead Sea.
This is the lowest point on earth and the water is so salty that no fish or plants live here. We returned to Jerusalem where we bid each other farewell and I am sure the other members had to discover the impact of the Shabbat like I did that night.
In Jerusalem, Shabbat is very important and practised across the city. From around 16:00 on a Friday until about 21:00 on a Saturday pretty much all Jewish shops close their doors. Hotels also limit the use of electricity. You don’t have to worry that your electronic room key won’t work or that you may have to climb many stairs to get to your room – no, only Jews who observe Shabbat will not use electricity during the time.
The biggest impact on you as a tourist will be where you will find a meal to eat during this time. Some hotels offer special Shabbat buffets. These buffets are very costly though. The alternatives at other restaurants are just as costly, and supermarkets won’t be open. You should therefore plan and perhaps stock up on food the day before that you can keep in your room and fridge, or you should make dinner reservations in advance at any of the restaurants that will serve meals during the Shabbat.
On the Saturday before I departed for my onward flight, I walked back to the old city where in the Arab quarter, I found shops serving food and drink. I celebrated my last day with a refreshing pomegranate juice, walked up to a point as high as possible – passing Jewish schools and the Cardo – and overlooked this Holy Land city reminiscing on the days that lead up to my stay in Jerusalem.
The drive back to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport was short and quick. I can’t say the same for the security procedures. It is very important that you allow yourself ample time to get through the various security checks at the airport.
Before you check in for your flight and drop off your bags, you will be questioned about your time in Israel. This can be a few seconds to a longer interview. Once you have your boarding pass and proceed to the immigrations area, you will be asked to unpack all your electronics, including any cables, and the security staff will perform a thorough drugs and explosives test on each person. This is part of the process ensuring safety of all air travellers so smile and allow the process to be completed.
In closing, Israel is surely a country that every traveller should visit at least once in their lifetime. It is a land held together by both religion and history. It is a colourful land with tastes and smells that will spark a memory for many years to come.