I had the great opportunity to head back to Israel in February while trying to escape some of the snow here in Cleveland. Let me tell you about some cheap airfare. Roundtrip form Cleveland to Tel Aviv with a layover in Newark with United was a little bit over $800. Yes that is right! I’ve paid that for one way out of London into Chicago. After catching up on a Toy Story marathon and Marvel movies on the long flight, I landed in the early morning in Tel Aviv and was quickly processed through customs, shockingly done in 3 minutes and no line at 9 am. Because customs was so fast, I beat the driver for the transfer so was able to stop at the airport cafe for some coffee and a little bit of reading before being whisked to the Grand Beach Hotel in Tel Aviv.
The hotel staff was super accommodating by letting me check in early so I could get a little nap. Our tour guide called in to check on me. Jaja, remembered mom and myself from the last time we were there so he wanted to make sure I was okay by myself and actually get out of the hotel to explore the city. With some words of wisdom, I headed out to the board walk to take in the sights and sounds of the city. I was excited about how friendly people were to stop and talk to with me. They knew where Ohio was, more specifically Columbus with the Arnold Schwarzenegger Body Building Contest and the Israeli head coach of the Cavaliers were located. After meeting up with the rest of the group that night, we settled in for some pizza and Judge Judy on TV before heading to bed.
Starting Monday we headed off to Caesarea for a guided visit to the ancient city. Built by Herod the Great in honor of Augustus Caeasar and considered the traditional site of Paul’s imprisonment before his trial in Rome and the home of the first gentile believer, Cornelius and of Philip the evangelist; the theatre, aqueducts and Hippodrome serve as a backdrop for the events chronicled in the Book of Acts. Here you are also able to still make out the tile at the bottom of the pools. The waves coming off the sea were pretty strong that day and made for some excellent pictures.
Next we visited Megiddo, one of Israel’s most famous biblical sites and the traditional site of Armageddon. We walked through the archaeological park and biblical period waterways. It is a pretty steep walk so make sure to have some good sneakers and stop for a break or two on the mountain. It was pretty interesting to see the layers of cities that were built on top of other cities.
Then we made the journey to Haifa where we stopped for a quick picture at the Ba’hai Gardens, one of the holiest sites of the Ba’hai religion, located on Mount Carmel. We visited Acre (Akko), a UNESCO Heritage Site, for a multi-layered experience from the days of the Crusades through contemporary Israel. They had some talks about the most important mosques to Israel’s Muslim citizens. Yes, I was the only one asked to cover up inside. We stayed the night at Hagoshrim Kibbutz Hotel in the Upper Galilee where they have a wonderful walking trail around the hotel, spa and a nice bar.
Tuesday started with Jaja and my routine of going for the 6 am run. Yes, a 6 am wake-up call on vacation to exercise. It would appear that I don’t really know how to vacation correctly. However, I will say we did see some of the other tour members up and waiting for breakfast to be served. They declined to join me on my run though. After a hearty kosher meal, we headed out for a short walk by the Banias River at the base of the Golan Heights, also known as Caesarea Philipi where Jesus revealed Peter’s leadership role among the disciples. Here we met and talked to a Druze gentlemen selling drinks and bread by the waterfall. With some help we were able to learn a little bit about his culture and beliefs before we went for a drive through Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Here we visited Capernaum, the site of Jesus’ teachings and the remains of a 2nd century synagogue. Then we visited Tabgha, the traditional site of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, and the site of a modern church built on the remains of a Fourth Century church. The next stop was a pretty emotional trip for most of the group with a stop at the Mount of Beatitudes, the traditional site of Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. We finished the day with some singing and dancing on a Boat Ride on the Sea of Galilee before returning to the Kibbutz Hotel. What a lot of the group did not realize was that we were 3 miles away from Lebanon with our hotel location. It was peaceful the entire time we were there.
The next day, it was time to change up hotels and pack our belongings before heading out on Wednesday. It started out a little chilly and turned dusty. There was dust everywhere! This was a big day for half the group so we were not going to let that stop us. The first stop was at Yardenit, the baptismal site on the Jordan River. We met Todd from the states that performed the service for our group and were able to either rent or buy the robes for the immersion baptism. Afterwards there were warm showers for those than needed them and shopping for the others that stayed dry. I had a great visit with a cat that slept through the entire process and also with speaking to Todd about his experience living there and what it was like on a day to day basis. Then we headed over to the Church of the Annunciation of Christ in Nazareth. Here we were able to see the noon service that was in Latin and walk down to see the original building that was there. Then we were off to lunch which was right next to the Beit Shean National Park. Let me tell you about the shawarma. The best food I had was in that little shack where the price was reasonable and the owners where more than happy to sit and talk with us tourists. Afterwards we took the short ride over to Beit Shean National Park, one of Israel’s largest archaeological sites with its biblical period archaeological mound and on-going excavations exposing the vast Roman-Byzantine City. Here we met a family from Canada who was touring on their own so we invited them to join us for the tour around the site. We danced a little on the old theater stage before the dusty rain chased us back to the bus where we headed out for an hour drive to Jerusalem. There, we were off to dinner and check in at Prima Royal Hotel.
After the morning run through the German Quarter and breakfast at the hotel there was the steep, zig-zaging drive to the beautiful Mt. of Olives to behold the breath-taking panorama of the Holy City. Here we toasted to the city for peace and was able to get some windy photos to go along with it. Afterwards we headed over to Gethsemane with its ancient olive grove, where tradition holds that Jesus prayed prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Here we were also able to watch another service going on in Latin as well as touch a very old olive tree. After a little shopping from the trunk of people’s cars, we were off to the next stop. We visited the Upper Room on Mt. Zion where Jesus spent his last hours with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. It was also here that the Holy Spirit came upon the 120 on the Day of Pentecost. Directly under the Upper Room is the traditional site of the Tomb of King David. The Tomb is separated with men on one side and women on the other so be prepared to stay on your side of the little wall.
Next was the guided visit through the Old City of Jerusalem including sites holy to Jews, Moslems and Christians: the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We stopped for lunch in the little cave to eat and were visited by the man that can make your name in Hebrew into either a necklace or charm. So after placing the orders, some enjoyed the relaxation and coffee while others wondered and shopped. At the Western Wall there were some boys who were going through their bar mitzvah, again men and women separated but all the mom’s had chairs pulled up along the diving wall and were watching their sons and throwing candy at them. And I mean pelting them with hard candy that would sometimes come back and hit a bystander like myself. With no real causalities we took off to visit the Garden Tomb, a traditional Protestant site of Calvary. Here we met up with the guy to get our jewelry then had communion at the Tomb. Then it was back to the hotel for some Spanish Bingo with a little betting then dinner.
We started Friday with an audio guide to go through the Yad Vashem complex, the Jewish National Memorial to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, including: The Avenue of the Righteous, the new Historical Museum and a concluding Memorial Service. Afterwards we headed over to the Israel Museum, one of the most creative and innovative museums in the world to visit the Second Temple Model of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea Scrolls. My aunt could not hear too well and maybe Jaja’s accent was a little thick that day but she was pretty sure he was talking about dead squirrels. For the rest of the trip that is what we ended up calling them. No animals were harmed in the making of this trip. Later in the evening we visited the city of Bethlehem, site of the birth of Jesus and the Church of the Nativity. Now since this is located in Palestine territories Jaja and Odet were unable to take the group into the area, so a local guide and driver for the area came to pick up the group. Here’s where it gets a little interesting. You have to get past “Check Point Charlie” and do this crazy u-turn round about to get around the whole checked process. Then it was like a drug deal went down in front of the café where our bus pulled up and their bus pulled up and the guides both met in the middle to shake on the deal and exchange. Everyone was accounted for in the end so the drama was only in the commentary that occurred while it was happening. Then of course there was more shopping before heading back to the hotel for dinner.
The last full day as a group started out with a camel ride and photo op at the Sea Level sign on the way towards the Dead Sea. After getting to Masada and ascend this wilderness mountain fortress in a cable car, we walked through the remains of the palace, water cisterns and fortifications built by King Herod. Then we heard about the Zealots who lived here until the bitter end. After shopping and lunch at Masada, we set our course for the spa. Oh but not any spa, it was time to experience the weightlessness of the Dead Sea as we floated in its waters. It was truly super salty. Of course the first thing that happens when I get in is a mouth full of water. There were tubs of mud so you can get a little muddy before heading over the sulfur springs and having a little soak. At the location, there are showers so you can clean off and not stink up the bus for the ride back to the hotel and the final night as a group.
Mom and I did see of the group in the morning, but we stayed behind for a couple of days to meet up with some friends. Naama was excited to see her “American” friends and took us to the movies. My first question was if is it in English. It was but what I found interesting was that the subtitles were in 3D Hebrew. Then we had dinner at Benedict, which after eating kosher for the whole week having the option of bacon, egg and cheese on one place was the shining moment of the day.
I know that the news plays a major decision for a lot of people being worried about traveling to Israel with the constant stream of riots, kidnappings, mortars and bombings. However, you should not let that stop you from going. The news will always promote bad news over good because that is what grabs your attention. I went running through the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem by myself with no issue. I walked to the gas station to get some beer by myself with no issue. I’m not going to lie, there were a couple of dark alleys to get there but the only thing that crossed my path was a cat. If you want to go, go. Do not let anyone or anything stop you.
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