Ali arrived on the Wednesday evening and first thing on Thursday, we jumped on the bus to Jerusalem. Israel is not very big, so the drive was quick and we got out at Mount of Olives to have a look across the valley over the cemetery of the old city (where many old aristocrat kings and rulers are buried).
Our tour then took us to one of the entrances of the old city: Zion Gate. We navigated through the narrow alleys in the old city, stopping at many sepulchres and prayer rooms. It really was quite magnificent to see. The whole area was also full of tourists and religious activities for the passover ceremonies.
The tour guide started to tell us about the 14 “stations” of Jesus’s crucifixion. I can’t quite remember which ones were when He dropped the cross for the first or second times or when He stopped to talk to Mary but they were all there and it was quite moving! We made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which was magnificent and Ali and I had a fun time just exploring the inside of the building. It was a little bizarre as there was a gathering of Roman Catholics who were holding a ceremony, but all of the tourists were allowed in the same space so people were not particularly respectful of their privacy and rather stood to ogle at the proceedings.
Ali stood in queue to kneel before and to touch the stone where the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’s clothes. It was also impressive to see the large marble stone where Jesus’s body was laid after He was brought down from the crucifixion - this stone is particularly relevant for the Sepulchre and people kept bring perfumes with which to anoint it. They also brought scarfs and jewellery to place on the stone in the hopes that the Holy Spirit would pass to these items. Lastly, as Ali and I were about to leave, the Catholics closed the door for a special part of their service. While some ushered all of the tourists out of the way, others held a proceeding around the same stone. Some strange chanting ensued and a somewhat cult-like performance had them mesmerised around the stone. After the initial unease at being trapped in the now crowded entrance hall, we just decided to hang by the back and let the camera wielding tourists harass the staff wielding priests.
The rest of the tour was fairly straightforward. We were ushered into a fancy jewellery store that was tailored to capitalise off the religious aura that besets the area but all they needed was me to mumble something about being a student before they moved on to fleece someone else. We went to the Western Wall to witness some more religious performance (this time on the Jewish side) and as we were there on a Thursday, there were many Bar-Mitzvahs taking place which was fun to see.
We ate some hummus for lunch (this is possibly one of my favourite things about Israel - I simply love it) and spent the afternoon wandering the winding streets in the old city. It really has a magnificent feeling to it and it easily transports you thousands of years back with the tight streets and the bustling markets. In the evening we made our way over to the Mahane Yehuda market which is excellent. It is clean yet busy and bustling. I love the markets here in Israel and this one certainly didn’t disappoint. We bought many baklava, tasted some fresh beer and ate loads of yummy fruits and treats. Ali also got a pasta and rice mix from a spice store and apparently these mixes are just as good as well!
We spent the night at the Jerusalem Hostel on Jaffa Street which is nothing special but it is central and it got the job done for the stopover for the night. An early start took us over to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. We did stop at Aroma, the Starbucks of Israel, to grab some cappuccinos and bourekas (delicious savoury pastries with potato, cheese or spinach fillings) and with filled bellies, we were ready to tackle a macabre morning at the museum. It is definitely worth a stop when you visit Jerusalem but don’t expect to feel particularly existentially positive about humanity after the visit.
Ali and I needed some cheering up before leaving Jerusalem so we stopped at the market on our way back to grab some beers, to have some more snacks and to have some giant freshly squeezed juices. Ali opted for the “super-sized” pomegranate juice and impressed me by finishing the 500ml very filling drink.
We were invited to join Ofra, a friend of mine who was doing her postdoc at Harvard while I was there, for the Pesach Seder with her family. It was really kind of them to include us with their celebrations and we had a really excellent dinner with her family. The food was spectacular (with the salmon taking the cake for us) and Ali and I left after having eating far too much (this is a standard for me at dinners such as these when there is just too much amazing food to try).
Saturday morning is usually quiet in Israel due to the Sabbath but with passover this weekend this Saturday was particularly dead. Ali and I wandered the deserted streets of the Hatikva market and where Levinsky market is usually bustling. We made our way to Jaffa and luckily found an open bakery to grab another few bourekas for breakfast. Sorry Aroma but this one wins in my eyes. We really just wandered through the old city of Jaffa and along the beautiful coastline. Eventually we realised the time and started to get excited for lunch. With options limited and an open hummus spot nearby, I was not even having a discussion about where we would go - there was only one option in my eyes. Luckily, google maps was correct for once and Abu Dhabi hummus was open and they served some of the best hummus I have tried to date. Theresa has accused me of saying this every time I try a new hummus; there might be an inkling of truth to this.
With nothing else to do that evening, Ali and I had planned to get to Masada that evening and apart from a particularly unpleasant experience with Europcar (they were unnecessarily combative and rude) we started our road-trip with no hiccups. The drive out to Masada was magnificent. It is quite something to drive through the stark landscape and to see the brilliant blue of the Dead Sea contrasted with the hard brown of the desert and surrounding mountains. I thoroughly enjoyed the drive down to the -430m altitude.
Shay had lent us a tent and given us the “local’s suggestion” of where to camp for the night. With one part relief that we found the spot and one part awe at the scenery that we could now enjoy, Ali and I setup the tent and settled in with a beer or two for a relaxed evening before the 4am start.
The hike was fairly straightforward. After doing some research into the route options, I decided that I’d rather not fight the tourist busses that deposit their loads all over the Snake Path and that we would rather take the slightly longer “Runner’s Path” for the ascent and we’d loop around on the neighbouring mountain to descend along the Elazar path. This was a great call as we were alone on both paths and we easily made the fortress for sunrise. The final approach to the Roman Ramp is special and it is quite something to think back 2000 years to imagine the construction of this ramp up the side of the mountain. The story of Masada is a fascinating one that symbolises the bravery of Jews who chose to take their own lives rather than fall captive to the Romans who had besieged the fortress for over a year by the time that the defences eventually fell. However, Masada also has a more modern significance for the Zionist movement where this story of bravery and symbolism was used as a ideological centrepiece for some of the Arab/Jew fighting that occurred in the ’70s. Regardless of the historical significance, it is well worth seeing as the ruin is impressive and the views from the top are breathtaking. Ali and I enjoyed a packed breakfast of boiled eggs, tahini and pita and watched the rising sun wash the Jordean mountains in the golden morning light.
We made our way to the Dead Sea and despite some fairly miserable weather with strong and cold winds and clouds that were insistent on blocking the sun, we had a fun time floating about and enjoying the texture of the water. Firstly, the feeling of floating higher in the water than what you would normally expect was thrilling in and of itself, but the strange silky texture of the highly salinated water was just as exciting to experience. From my days kite-surifing and surfing along the Cape or Durban coasts, I know only too well how the sea water can sometimes feel harsh on the skin after a long day out. It was therefore a surprise to me to experience this soothing texture of the Dead Sea water. A strange experience that I definitely plan to repeat!
Our last experience before Ali flew back to SA was to find dinner on the Sunday night. We were both exhausted after our 4am hike, the sights and experiences of Masada, the Dead Sea and the drive home. A side note is that driving in Israel is not to be taken lightly: The drivers have the mentality of “Vietnamese moped madness” but it makes for a lethal combination when combined with the infrastructure that allows fast travel. So with the drive done and not much else planned, we were ready to find a close and easy place for dinner. We found a spot near the Hatikva market which came at a recommendation and also got good reviews online. However, with the menu in Hebrew and the waitress speaking very limited English, we really had no idea what we were ordering. What eventually came was a delicious cauliflower, some side of tahini and a host of raw fish and meat dishes! Wow… That was surprising. I managed well with the fish tartare but the steak tartare was a challenge. Ali, bravely got the food down, and while we both acknowledged it was tasty, it just felt a little like we were blindsided by the raw meat meal.
Anyway, strange meal aside, we had an amazing trip and for such a small country, Israel sure does have a lot of amazing things on show. It was also such a treat to travel with Ali - I look forward to the next time we get to do that!