It’s 11am and I’m lying on Tel Aviv’s main beach, nursing a hangover purchased the night before in the many bars around the city’s Allenby district. As I lay softly groaning on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, trying to block out the Hebrew squawking of a persistent ice-cream seller, a squadron of jet fighters roars overhead to perform stunts for an appreciative crowd, in a display of military might. It seems wherever you go in Israel, reminders of the state’s precarious position, slap-bang in the middle of an Arab world, abound. However, while you can’t avoid it, there’s plenty to take your mind off a conflict that will probably never be solved.

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Carmel Market Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv credit: iStock

Twelve hours earlier, at our hostel in downtown Tel Aviv, me and my travelling companion, Ryan, run into an American, the shaven-headed Jordan from Colorado. His US Marines T-shirt is no fashion statement – he was part of the corps but left the States to take advantage of his Jewish ancestry and live in Israel. “The Israeli girls, man, they’re hard to crack,” he confides. “You’ve got more chance with the Russians. Don’t get me wrong, the Israelis know how to have a good time but they can be snobby with it. I gave up on them. It’s Russian all the way for me now.”

With that sterling advice and a list of bars to hit, we venture out into the city night. Tel Aviv’s nightlife doesn’t even start warming up until 11pm (still considered early) but when it does, you’re in for a treat. We spend the night and early morning in a host of pumping bars, from the Cheers Bar, which throws up all manner of rock tunes from Pearl Jam to Tool all night long to the super-hip, hard-to-find and underground (literally) Radio Bar (the pick of the bunch), with a live soul/ funk band, enormous bar, and surreptitious spliffs doing the rounds.

Beer’s on par with London, reaching near £5, but the locals are friendly, welcoming and interested without fault, the girls included. At 4.30am, we stumble back to the hostel, past kebab and pizza vendors, to crash out, dreaming of the olive-skinned brunette beauties we’ve met. Outside, people are still going strong. They may be living in the shadow of war but that doesn’t stop them enjoying life.

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Jerusalem credit: iStock

The next morning, after the aforementioned beach-based self-pity session, we catch an hour-long bus ride to Jerusalem. Having rocked up to Tel Aviv without a hostel booking, we figure we can do the same thing in Jerusalem. “It’s a bigger city, right?” we reason. But due to the religious holiday Sukkot, there’s no rooms at the inn, and we’re forced to stay in Wadi al-Joz, an Arab neighbourhood on the east side of town. We don’t mind, but getting lost late into our first night reinforces the old travelling adage of remembering landmarks. We muddle through dark streets with signs written in nothing but Arabic and locals without a word of English, just unhelpful shrugs and resentful stares. Israel’s never easy, but if we wanted easy we’d have taken a package holiday in Malaga.

Even on the taxi ride there, after some aggressive bartering, our Arab driver feels it’s fit to tell about the state of the nation. “Look, we hate them and they hate us,” he explains of Israel’s Jews. “But we get along because if we don’t it will be World War III and nobody wants that.”

Just then, a bus full of Orthodox Jews glides past, its occupants looking serious and pious in their suits, beards and pigtails. Our driver glares at them, shakes his head and sighs. We change the subject, talking about London, and his mood improves. Note to self: try to stay off the politics.

Twelve hours later, within the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, it’s good to see that the Jews, Arabs and Christians manage to exist in relative peace among the labyrinth of streets. Pilgrims mix with holy men, tourists with locals selling food and crafts. Every turn offers something new; another spicy food aroma, another colourful character jangling trinkets.

We follow the trail of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion walk, ending up on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, seeing the spot widely believed to have been where Christ was nailed to his cross and then later laid to rest in a nearby tomb. Christians quietly pray in anticipation of their messiah returning while tourists snap pictures of the impressive Ottoman baroque architecture. Outside, no one bats an eyelid when we play with life-size crucifixes, lugging them on our backs as a group of Indian tourists takes photos. 

Over at the sacred site of the Wailing Wall – the remnants of the ancient wall that surrounded the Jewish Temple, god’s supposed footstool on Earth, and one of the most holy sites in Judaism – thousands of Jews of all ages, mostly dressed in the black religious attire of the Orthodox sect, line up to take their turn to touch it.  

Speaking in Hebrew and reading scriptures on their approach up to the wall, the worshippers creep closer as the midday sun beats furiously down upon their black hats. Some bury their noses in the stacks of religious tomes that lay upon lecterns. Others work themselves into a fervour – chanting, rocking back and forward, heads bobbing up and down. 

I have to dodge to avoid a headbutt as one worshipper sways about a little too eagerly, two rows away from the wall. Although not a believer, I inch closer to see what the fuss is about and realise how it got its nickname. Hundreds of men  (there’s a separate section for women) are openly sobbing, mourning the Roman destruction of their ancestor’s holy site in 70CE. The wall’s cracks are filled with scraps of paper containing prayers. I think about making a wish for world peace but then realise it won’t happen, so save my breath for the winding journey back through the streets to our hotel, determined not to get lost again.

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Flag of Palestine credit: iStock

To come this far, especially after a stay in the Arab quarter, and not take the opportunity to go to Palestine would be a waste, but after our midnight wanderings among the locals, there’s no way we’re doing it alone. Tour buses travel to the border with regularity so we jump aboard one and snake our way towards another wall, this time the 8metre-high West Bank barrier. On the Israeli side, it’s cold and clinical, a solid grey barricade keeping terrorism at bay. 

However, after we’ve passed through the checkpoint in Palestine, leaving our Jewish guide behind, it springs alive with colour – the result of layers of graffiti thrown up over the years by the Palestinians. Vibrant splashes of spraypaint combine to create humans dressed in hearts; messages imploring the reader to “break through this wall”; odes to Jesus; peace signs; cynical, weary-looking cartoon characters; rainbows; and many more symbols of hope and frustration.

“Outside Israel, inside Palestine,” our driver says, as we speed past the wall. And then to reinforce there’s no ill will here, he says: “I am Palestinian. I welcome you.”

He casts one hand out the window while we tear along the uneven road. “It’s very safe here,” he promises. “You could sleep in the street, no problem.”

Maybe if you’re an Arab, I think as we rush past a giant painting of Laila Khaled, the poster girl of Palestinian militancy, responsible for a number of hijackings in 1969 and 1970, slyly smiling down at us as she brandishes a machine gun. In the streets, police in berets and camouflage gear lurk everywhere. Shopkeepers make bread next to stores selling T-shirts emblazoned with anti-American sentiments. 

We wind our way through the busy streets of Bethlehem to the Church of Nativity, the site claimed by Christians to house the birthplace of Christ. Once there, we are instructed to remove the stickers identifying us as tourists and keep them for later. It’s puzzling, but becomes clear as we near the church. The guard at the exit of the Altar of Nativity, Christ’s original entry point to Earth, has a little scam going, where he takes a ‘donation’ from the tour guide in order for ‘clients’ to enter the exit and avoid the hour-and-a half-long queue. After a nod to the guard, we’re in, sneaking behind a curtain and down a narrow flight of stairs to a cramped room where Christians get down on all fours to plant their lips on a silver star and pose for photos. Centuries of good and bad carried out in one man’s name and it all started here. Whatever your beliefs, you can’t help but marvel at the legacy that stemmed from this very spot.

Back in Israel, Masada, the former fortress of King Herod, set in the stark Judean Desert, beckons. We ride its cable car 400 metres to the top, wowed by how vast the desert is and how high we’re travelling. That the Romans who eventually managed to claim the fortress in the first century CE ever made it up here is a testament to their persistence. Their breach resulted in a mass suicide of the fortress’s inhabitants, who surely must – when they were alive – have wished for a dip in the Dead Sea, which can be seen in panoramic glory from the fort.

You don’t truly understand the Dead Sea until you’ve been there. The lowest place on Earth isn’t actually a sea, but a lake, 8.6 times saltier than the ocean and perfect on a hot day in the desert. Entering it is like being in one of those floatation tanks that were popular back in the Eighties, but without the feeling of claustrophobia. To float here is to obtain a sense of tranquility; it’s quiet, just a gentle hub-bub and splish-splash as people wash off the healing black mud they’ve slapped upon themselves. 

I lie on my back, arms outstretched, as the black gloop melts away. We will soon head back to Tel Aviv for more wild nights at the bars, for more political conversations, but for now, for this moment in time in Israel, all conflict is forgotten and a feeling of peace reigns supreme.

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The Dead Sea credit: iStock

Israel: Best of the rest

Jaffa
More than 4000 years old, the historic port of Jaffa has many winding stone alleys to explore. Combining both Middle Eastern and European influences, it’s a pleasant place to hang out overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Visit on a Friday and wander round the town’s famous flea market where you can get everything from exquisite fabrics to antique chairs to chess sets to carpets. Bring your haggling A-game – you’ll need it here.

Nalaga’at Center, Jaffa
While in Jaffa, watch a play performed by deaf and blind actors, who perform through the use of braille, touch and sign language. You can meet the thespians afterwards and then have a meal in the blackout restaurant, eating in complete darkness as blind waiters serve your food.

The Jewish diaspora museum, Tel Aviv

Brush up on Jewish history at this museum, which tells the story of Jewish communities from as far back as 2500 years ago, when the Jewish tribes were exiled from Israel. It’s a must-visit if you want to understand something about the country you are visiting.

Essential information

GETTING THERE: easyJet flies direct to Tel Aviv from London from £99 one way. The flight takes 4 hours 45 minutes.
WHEN TO GO: Israel’s good to visit all year round although the best months are October and May, when it’s not as hot. July and August are the hottest and what with the school holidays, should be avoided.
CURRENCY: Israeli shirkel. 1GBP = 4.98 ILS (10/08/2016)
ACCOMMODATION: For superior hostel accomodation, book in at Hayarkon 48 (hayarkon48.com) in Tel Aviv. It’s clean, spacious, and close to the beach and the party area of Allenby. There’s a pool table and big-screen TV and the staff are knowledgeable. From £20pn in a dorm or £63pn for a private room
SEE: goisrael.com

Originally written in 2011