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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.

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.

The Dead Sea credit: iStock

Israel: Best of the rest

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 ( 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

Originally written in 2011