The airspace above Israel is a bird superhighway. At least 500 million birds in 200 different species fly through there each spring and fall, headed to and from Asia, Africa, and Europe. It’s one of the top spots for birdwatching in the world.
A Middle Eastern country lapped by the Mediterranean Sea, Israel is a country with two very different personalities. In Tel Aviv, hip young people pose on the beachfront and street artists decorate city walls; Jerusalem, on the other hand, is the beating heart of a biblical Holy Land.
Although still closed to Irish citizens, the country has now opened to UK travellers. And there is much to explore.
The bohemian neighbourhood of Florentin is home to many of Tel Aviv’s famous visual artists and is known for its abundance of graffiti. The sides of concrete buildings play host to important messages communicated by street art, which feels appropriate, given the tensions that besiege the country.
Weave your way down dingy alleyways and tiny side streets, past grey walls splashed with yellow, blue and pink artwork, and meet artists who are setting up their own creative spaces. Then relax in one of the area’s many courtyards and enjoy traditional Israeli treat, malabi – a silky, smooth milk pudding.
Then head to the ancient port of Jaffa, the oldest part of Tel Aviv. It’s a wonderful place to amble through, eyeing up shops brimming with Israeli gold, or finding bargains in the local flea market. Stop for lunch at tiny food outlet, Hummus Elijah, where the chef brings out bowls of creamy hummus, spiced falafel, tangy shakshuka, soft and pillowy flatbreads and lemony mashawsha.
A short distance from Tel Aviv, this wilderness of the Judean Desert – a sacred world of yellow rock and sandstone. Squeeze into a cable car and ascend a tall cliff face to Masada, a fortress built by King Herod, which served to act as a garrison to protect the spice road to Asia. Built in 73AD, Masada is now a Unesco World Heritage Centre, but it’s not just for history buffs; it’s a beautiful location, and gives impressive views for miles over the Dead Sea, and all the way to the Jordanian mountains.
After leaving Masada, travel by 4WD to the centre of the Judean Desert, until you reach a plateau. Some say it’s the most peaceful place in Israel. It’s difficult to feel anything other than peace, when surrounded by such vast emptiness and beauty.
Equally restful is a journey to the Dead Sea. A cavernous salt lake and the lowest elevation on Earth, the Dead Sea has a saline content so high, it stops plant and marine life from flourishing. However, combined with the sulphur-scented clay from the banks, scooped up in large handfuls and slathered on bodies, it is said to have healing properties for the skin. Wade into the warm water and lay flat on your back, floating effortlessly.
A journey to Jerusalem is a journey to the heart of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. This is a picture-book perfect biblical city, where it’s easy to visualise the famous stories.
Walk past lemon trees and stone walls draped in bouquets of lilac wisteria and cerise bougainvillaea. The gorgeous, heady scents of lavender and herbs fill the air at Jaffa Gate, one of the entrances that leads into the walls of the old city. The area is home to many religious sites, such as Temple Mount, Church Of The Holy Sepulchre, Via Dolorosa and the Church Of The Condemnation.
For food, the Mahane Yehuda market is a must-visit. Troughs of black dates, golden sweet apricots and nuts sit alongside silver urns containing Tunisian rosebuds and white jasmine tea. Trays of freshly baked tarts and pastries encrusted with crystallised fruits and honey, compete with baklava brimming with lime green pistachio nuts.
But for an evening meal, The Eucalyptus is a good choice. Waiters bring out endless platters of rosemary focaccia, Jerusalem artichoke soup and glasses of hibiscus tea. Moshe Basson, the chef and owner, wanders around the dining area, proffering fresh herbs for customers to taste, picked from his kitchen garden.
Jerusalem is a hub of sensuality, from it’s visually beautiful and well-maintained courtyards, to the sound of prayer and floral scents that fill the air. Just like Israel itself, there is so much beauty to discover.
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