A Travellerspoint blog

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DAY 7 - Akko and Haifa

We decided to head north today, toward Haifa, to see the old coastal city of Akko in the Western Galilee region.
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The age of this city is somewhat contested. Historians know of an ancient city with a very similar name that may have been this city. If so that would make it 3,500 years old. Akko is mentioned in the New Testiment, so it is at least 2000 years old. It is known most historically as home of the The Crusaders of the Templars order.

The town has over 40,000 people still living there. It is one of the oldest, continually inhabeted places in Israel. The most notable area is the walled fortress of the Crusaders.
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They settled in Akko in the 12th century AD after the fall of Jerusalem, and built a fortress on the south-west corner of the old city. The Knight’s Hall is one of the highlights of the site. It is supported by numerous of these massive pillars.
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It was impressive, however, the holiday of Sukkot was this week and they were setting up for some event. The spot lights, microphones and speakers kind of took the antiquity out of the experience.

The best part for me was secluded from the holiday events. It was the Templar Tunel. They cut a half-mile long tunnel into the rock to connect the fortress to the port, located on the south-eastern side. The secret tunnel was recently discovered, cleaned and opened to the public.
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The tunnel is only a few feet tall. And here we are.
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The city is a great place to take photos.
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Nearby is a beautiful mosque. It’s name is the Great Mosque of Al-Jazzār. Just the name sounds cool. Inside was impressive.
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And the courtyard area was very peaceful with the sound of birds that make this area home. You can see the outline of the mosque in the shadow.
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After our day in Akko, we stopped by Haifa for dinner. The city is one big hill with the BaHai Gardens at the top. Warning: stock photo alert.
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We stopped at a nice place Steve knew about and ate some local cuisine.

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It may not look like much, but it was really good, and a nice way to end our day.

Posted by thetodd 17:11 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

Day 8 - Our first night of camping in the desert

I'm going camping! I’ll bet it’s just like summer camp in middle school. Only there are no camp counselors and it’s in the middle of a desert. The trip began as an idea from Steve’s friend Ranan. Initially, he was going with his girlfriend, her brother and the brother’s girlfriend. Their trip was already planned and eventually Ranan invited Steve and I.

When we take off from Tel Aviv and head out, I can hear the TV game show announcer describing our trip in his deep announcer voice.
“Congratulations! Your just won a four-day three-night stay in the desert. From Tel Aviv you will descend by car through the valley of the dead sea. You will arrive at you luxury accomidations where you will sleep on the ground and share a communal bathroom with 50 other people! This all could be yours if the price is right.”

OK, so it’s not luxurious, but it was quite an experience full of the unexpected. The first of the unexpected was finding out where we were sleeping at the first campsite. The other four traveling with us reseved a room with air conditioning and their own bathroom. However, since we did this last minute and it was the holiday of Sukkot, all rooms were all gone. There was a chance we could get a large, pre-built tent, but no guarantees. So we packed tents and sleeping bags just in case.

On the drive down to our campsite, we were more or less surrounded by sand. It was still a scenic drive.
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On the way we made a stop for some food at a small town. We found a store that had the essentials.
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There was also a general store with an interesting sign. Did I just have an Israeli Elvis sighting?
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We bought our groceries, including the staples of bread and water. Throughout Israel the bread is always fresh.
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To get to our campsite, we would drive past The Dead Sea. You know you’re getting close when you start seeing the altitude signs.
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We drove right past the Dead Sea on our way to the campground, so we decided to stop for a quick look. This isn’t the beach area to hang out in. We would do that later.

It was both eerie and beautiful.
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Dead Sea Landscape 1

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DS Landscape2

You can see the salt accumulations all over.
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Salt

We finished exploring while the sun started to set. Better head to the campsite.
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Me Dead Sea Day 1

After some time in the car we finally make it. The campground told us there was a large tent available for us with sleeping matts. The tent was big enough for six, but we had it to ourselves. When we get there, it’s not exactly a tent. It’s a sukkah! A sukkah is a hut built for the holiday of Sukkot. One would build one to sleep in and make the roof semi see through so you can appreciate nature, the stars and the moon.
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Camp Sukkah

How cool is this! For the first two nights of Sukkot, we get to stay in a sukkah! For those not familiar with the holiday… acording to Wikipedia “Sukkot was regarded as a general thanksgiving for the bounty of harvest in the year that had passed.”

And “The sukkah is intended as a reminiscence of the type of fragile dwellings in which the ancient Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Throughout the holiday the sukkah becomes the primary living area of one's home.“ Sukkot is considered a joyous occasion and staying in a sukkah was a great addition to the experience.

After our night in the sukkah, we will wake up earlt to get a head start on Masada.

Posted by thetodd 18:28 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

Day 9 - Two Hikes in One Day - Masada and Ein Gedi

We got an early start today to get as much done during the cooler hours of the morning. The plan was to take the cable car up to Masada and hike down the famous Snake Path.

We park the car and walk up to the main entrance toward the cable cars. We get our tickets, fill up on water and head to the mountain.
The cable car ride had great views.

Masada is where the Sicarii, a group of Jewish rebels, made their final stand against the Romans, before committing suicide once the Romans takeover was imminent. They preferred death to slavery or even Roman rule. See, I told you they were rebels.

Some of the most interesting parts were the cisterns, large pits used for storing water. The developed a very creative way to collect water that trickled down the mountains. You can see one of the cisterns just behind me here with the ruins further back.

This is where they kept their trained pigeons.

The area was so well protected against attack that the Roman’s decided to build bases around the mountain while planning to overtake the area. This was the most interesting part to me. Overlooking the walls of the city, you can see remains outlining the Roman bases. I can only imagine what it was like to live in a place where you are surrounded on all sides by Roman armies planning your demise.

After two hours of walking around the old city, it was time to hike down the mountain. About half of the hike was stairs and the rest was steep, rocky paths. How did the pizza delivery guy ever get up here?

It was a tiring day of hiking, but we finally made it to the bottom. We needed a cold drink, so Steve and I grabbed a couple of Gatorades. They were $5.50 each! The Israelis have become experts at taking something historic and converting it to a tourist monetary extraction device.

Well, that was awesome and hot! Three hours in the sun was enough to wipe me out, but well worth it…What’s that, Ranan?...You want to go on another hike today?...haha…you’re so funny…huh?…so your serious?…Ein Gedi huh?...Oh boy.

And so it goes. We’re off to Ein Gedi. It sounds wonderful, but when you’ve already spent several hours hiking in the desert sun, it was tough for me to be excited about more hiking. The park accepts it’s last hikers at 2:00, so we rush away from Masada to the Ein Gedi National Park.
“Ein” means spring and “gedi” means goat. Therefore, if you translate it, we were going to the goat spring. As soon as we get there we understand the goat part. There were a ton of them. This was not to far from the parking lot.

Before we enter the park, we stock up on more water. Other than that, we didn’t waste any time. Let’s hit the trail! I’m still tired from the previous hike, but I was able to enjoy the view.

You can see a distinct valley split down the middle by a stream. If you take a middle route there is some water to walk through about 2 feet at its deepest. Or you can take the highground on the right with nice views of the landscape. The left is too steep for hikers.

The near by natural spring made this trail much more lush than Masada.

Eventually we find the water.

We get a little more then half way to the end of the trail and I really don’t feel like hiking anymore. The sun is winning the battle of endurance. I stop for a rest and tell the others to go ahead. Steve, being a good friend, decides to hang out with me. After some rest and a lot of water, we head back.

On the way back, we see the “gedi” of Ein Gedi.

On the other side of the divide, these long horn goats start walking toward us. It was amazing to watch them, because the other side is almost a cliff. These ibex are very adept at maneuvering up and down the very steep rocks.

They were playful too.

We watched for about ten minutes and continued back. After a bottle of water and some Italian ice I am feeling better. One of our fellow hikers didn’t fare as well. She stayed in the rest of the night, but felt better in the morning.

After getting back, we cook our dinner of pasta and relax at the campsite until tomorrow when we will visit the Dead Sea and the middle-sized of the three main craters. More about the craters in my day 10 and 11 posts.

Posted by thetodd 09:12 Comments (0)

Day 10 - The Dead Sea and The Middle Crater

After yesterday’s extensive hiking, I was looking forward to lazily floating in the Dead Sea. We went to he Mineral spa. There are several of these spas, that most people go to because of the beaches and free showers.

I knew it was easy to float, but I didn’t know that “not” floating was difficult. In the deeper water, I had to work a little to stay upright. Of course floating is more fun than standing, so I didn’t fight it much.

After defying gravity for a while, it was time for some mud. If you don’t know about the Dead Sea, it’s not just known for being salty, it’s also known for a very rich, skin-enhancing mud. There was a designated area for people to mud up.

There was a sign in about one foot of water that said “today’s mud.” We dug in. The mud was very dense and, as you can see, virtually black. It felt like a soft clay. After a little while of the sun baking it in, we washed it off and felt our newly rejuvinated skin.

After a quick lunch at the spa, we headed off to one of the three big craters. We drove by the small one and tomorrow we will hike in the big one. Today we are going to a look out point for the middle one.

It was basically a mini hike. The drive was a bigger adventure than the hike. It was a very crooked dirt road that wove up a few hundred feet. You can see the barrels outlining the road.

As we drove up, we could see the massive amounts of geological activity that caused this crater.

We had a nice view.

This is the path that lead to the edge of the crater.

Here, you can see the edge of the crater.

Steve is about a foot from falling over the edge, but he got some impressive pictures.

On the walk back the sun was setting behind some of the only clouds I saw on my entire trip.

It was a good day.

Posted by thetodd 09:13 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

Day 15 - Simchas Torah

This day came about as an amazing, last-minute, scheduling snafu and twist of fate. It’s a long blog entry of a long day, but there is a bit of a surprise ending. It was a night I will never forget. I hope I can take what happened to me, and put it into words that will let you share, or at least understand, the experience I had my first night in Jerusalem. But before I tell you about my night, I will start with the day leading up to it.

As the last days of my trip were approaching, I was thinking of what was left on my to-do list. I’ve seen Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Akko, Mispe Schelem, Masada, The Dead Sea, Ein Kerem, Yad Vashem, Mispe Ramon, and went camping in the Negev. What’s left you ask? How about the piece de la résistance…The holy city of Jerusalem.

Yesterday (Tuesday) I made my plan. I would do some shopping and site seeing on Wednesday, then go back on Thursday to tour the major sites. Finally on Friday (my last day) I would stay in Tel Aviv and go to the airport with Reut and Steve. It sounded like a good plan until…[enter the snafu stage left]…I didn’t realize Steve and Reut were leaving for a vacation on Thursday. Time to get a hotel and quick.
My first thought was to get a hotel for Thursday night when they would be gone, but…[enter snafu number two]… there were complications getting back to Steve’s place on Wednesday and also problems going to Jerusalem on Thursday. The problem was the holiday of Simchas Torah. All busses are scheduled to stop running at 5:00pm on Wednesday and resume at 8:00pm on Thursday.

OK, change of plan. I guess I need to leave Tel Aviv on Wednesday before 5:00 if I want to make it to Jerusalem. So that’s what I did. I booked a room at the Jerusalem Gold Hotel for both Wednesday and Thursday nights. Now I just need to figure out what to do once I get there.

So let’s rewind to Tel Aviv at 10:00am. The hotel room was reserved and all that was left was getting to the bus station before 4:00 to catch the last bus to Jerusalem. There wasn’t much to do with the time left, so we decided to get some food and pick up some last minute travel items.

For lunch I wanted to go back to the Brasserie. Both my Fodors guide and Steve say their lunch specials are top notch. Reut however was a wee bit hungover from a farewell party her work gave her. Being around all those smells and food was something she didn’t want. So we compromised. Steve and I said we would get a tiny “breakfast” with her and then go to Brasserie right after for lunch without her.

For our “breakfast” Steve and I shared a round bread/pastry treat I forgot the name of. Our lunch was a beautiful 220g burger. We ran some final errands and then went back so I could pack. After packing, Steve took me to the bus station and I was on my way to Jerusalem.

At 3:50 I catch a bus to Jerusalem. About half way there, we stop along side of the highway. But there wasn’t any problem, that’s just where the bus stop was. In Israel you will find bus stops on large roads and highways. I guess it’s better than having to take the exit ramps.

After a one hour ride, I arrive. The great thing about my hotel is the proximity to the station. My guess is 200m.

After checking in, I decide to be spontaneous and get a cab to the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City. Jerusalem is pretty big, but on the east side is a walled area called the Old City. It ‘s a smaller, very historic area that has four very distinct quarters: Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian. I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially on a holiday. For all I knew, nothing would be open.

Here I am outside the walls of the old city.
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As I walk closer...
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...what a great decision! Simchas Torah was drawing quite a crowd. I wasn't sure what to do or where to go, so I just followed the masses of people. First I enter the souk.
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It’s basically a mile-long alley of shops selling cheep trinkets I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting and lots of food. There are hundreds of shops all selling more or less the exact same things like cheesy wooden statues of Jesus, tin menorahs, silver-plated religious ornaments and clothing.
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There were also several juice stands. Most sold a popular treat of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice.
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Don’t forget… at this point I have no idea where I‘m going or what is ahead. I’m just following the general path of other people. I did manage to find a restaurant that said they would be open until at least 10:00, so I knew I had a dinner option. At this point I almost stopped for a bite, but decided to keep going.

I see more and more Orthodox Jews starting to all move in the same direction. I was originally headed to the Christian Quarter since I assumed that was the best chance to find open shops and cafes during a Jewish holiday. However, the waves of black coats and large hats intrigued me. I decide to follow the flow of Orthodox men to see what was going on.

After a long stretch of narrow alleyways, I’m thinking I made a mistake. All the other tourists seemed to head in other directions. I almost decide to turn back, but I figure I must be close. The thin alleys open up and without a doubt in my mind I know where I am…
The Western Wall.
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Chills come on quickly and I feel like I’m in a dream. I know the significance of this place and here I am experiencing it for the first time completely unexpected. If seeing the Wall weren’t enough, I am here during the joyous occasion of Simchas Torah. I slowly walk toward the wall which was about 1000 feet away. There are ramps to the left and right leading down to the wall and if I walk straight, there is an area that looks like an observation deck.
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As I walk forward to the observation deck, I look over the rail and see hundreds of men (mostly Orthodox Jews) singing and dancing. What a wonderful sight. The air is vibrant. The scene is alive!
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I take a couple of quick photos before my curiosity gets the best of me and I start walking down one of the ramps.
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I’m waiting to get stopped at any minute because I am wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a “hey-look-at-the-tourist” backpack. I plunge forward. Getting wrapped up in the excitement, and about half way down the ramp, without thinking, I pull out my camera. I know that taking pictures at The Wall is not “kosher” on a holiday, but I’m so in awe of the scene my etiquette got distracted.

Before taking any snaps, a chabad rabbi walks up to me and says, with a big smile, “Hag semayach” Which I know means "happy holidays," but I interpreted it as please put away the camera. Chabad rabbis are always very nice to visitors and Rabbi Shmuli Weiss was no exception. We engaged in some pleasant conversation and I met his two children, who looked about 2 and 4. He even knows Rabbi Mendi Dubrowski in Tampa. A few minutes later he says “come” and leads me down the ramp into a sea of black coats and hats being worn by the orthodox men.

“There is much celebrating tonight, but before the fun, I recommend walking to The Wall. Say the Sh’ma and pray for your friends and family to have good health and a good holiday.” So, I wade through the festivities toward the infamous Western Wall. As I get closer, the background noise seems to fade even though the party behind me is only 20 feet away. There are many men praying, but I am able to find a spot on The Wall. I say a few things, absorb the moment and slowly turn back to the festivities.

Rabbi Shmuli finds me and quickly leads me through the masses to a group of 30 or so men dancing in a circle around three other men in the center. These three men are raising torahs up and into the air. There is loud singing and exuberant dancing. I’m instantly in the thick of it and it blew me away to be part of this special occasion.

Then without any warning Rabbi Shmuli urges me closer to the center and hands ME the biggest of the three torah!!! I’m so dumbfounded and elated all at once. There I am, dancing, while lifting a torah, in the holiest city in the world, in the holiest place within that city and being the center of attention to a group of rabbis and Orthodox Jews. In a lifetime you only get a few moments like this. This is one night I will never forget.

After some more dancing and singing, I thank Rabbi Weiss for his kindness and say goodbye. I grab a bite at one of the few restaurants open and head back to the hotel. So here I am, later the same night, in my hotel room, writing my blog. I need to get to bed early enough to be energized for my tour of Jerusalem tomorrow, but after a night like this it might be tough. The bus comes at 8:00; I better try to get some sleep.

Posted by thetodd 10:39 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

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