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Travel Guide: Israel adventure: Explore Tel Aviv, beaches and Dead Sea

10th Aug 2016 12:00am | By Jahn Vannisselroy

Israel can be a challenging destination, but it offers fun and adventure for those willing to step outside their comfort zone.

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.