Traveling to Israel…

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One of the easy and exotic destinations that Kiev offers is Tel Aviv, so we decided to try it for the long 1st of May weekend (I love how Labour day is celebrated by not having to work!). Anyway, we packed our sunscreen and turned up to the airport 3 h before to enjoy a 3 day weekend in a place both of us had’t been before

Day 1

Israeli airlines fly at night, so we enjoyed our first night partly in the airplane, partly in the airport, and it is amazing to go out at night to a 17 degrees Celsius weather! For the first day, we decided to spend in Jerusalem, as distances between places are very small, and from Tel Aviv airport there is a direct „shared taxi” to Jerusalem. It leaves from platform 2 once it gets full, and cost 64 NIS to your place of destination – it is a bit expensive compared to the Egged bus, but the latter is not direct from the airport and it was still nighttime.

Therefore we arrived bright and early – around 7 o’clock in Jerusalem. We first explored the market, which was just opening up, and had a nice breakfast in a nearby cafe. The prices are quite high, comparable to Western countries, but the quality was good.

The local market is a space where you can find almost anything, from herbs to shoes, from tea, cheese and sweets to a barber’s shop.

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It felt refreshing to see all those people starting the day, and thought it would be a contrast to the Old city. Oh, how wrong was I… After enjoying a fresh orange juice, squeezed just in front of us, we slowly made our way to the centre, passing by the Russian church and the former British consulate. Everyone in Israel speaks English, from the elderly to the smallest child, and the British mandate which is still within living memory must have something to do with it.

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Not far away, the sight of the Jerusalem fortress makes its appearance. Once entering the small streets, you are lost into a labyrinth of alleys that form a bazaar. Armed with a map (that you can get for free at the airport or any tourist information centre you stumble on), we tried to make our way through. What surprised me the most was that even though the quarters are marked distinctively on the map – Christian, Jewish, Muslim – in reality there is no delimitation, you stumble from one to the other and you find all kinds of people everywhere – we saw Jewish people in the Muslim quarter, Muslims in the Christian one, etc.

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Once we arrived at Via Dolorosa, which in my mind it was a place of pious pilgrimage, I was struck by how tourist-y it was, with lots of shops to sell icons, stars of David or Arab carpets if you’s like, and even outdoor places where you could grab a beer! Groups of chanting pilgrims merged with local children doing tricks on bikes, outdoor vendors and cars coming from both sides!

We have also made our way (slowly, as it is not a stroller-friendly place!) to the Wailing Wall, where religious Jews (divided into male/female) were singing continuous chants. There is security to enter the site, but they didn’t pay too much attention as we had a baby, and once you were in, they were not strict on taking photos, or approaching the Wall to say a prayer and touch it, as long as you were respectful – that goes for women, for men it is harder to blend in, if you don’t wear the appropriate hair covering.

The second main attraction for that day was going to the Chruch of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the most important Christian pilgrimage sites. While I was impressed by the grandeur and the structure of it, the little church where the Tomb of Christ is believed to be was a bit disappointing. The queue is huge, but you can skip in if you are a group of clerics (that happened to us) or elderly and bold, and once you patiently wait in line, you are rushed by a priest that only gives you „10 seconds”. Everything happened a bit fast, but I felt lucky I managed to arrive there.

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For the end of the day, we decided to step into the Armenian Quarter, visibly quieter, and then we witnessed an incredible episode. As Sabbath was starting (you feel it once shops and museum start closing) all religious Jewish people were preparing to go to the synagogue, wearing their traditional clothing, carrying their children by hand, and we saw ourselves slowly making our way back to the Wailing Wall. The sensations were amazing – the place was coming to life, in the light of dusk, the ceremony was carried away and songs were sung. It was really a sight to behold.

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With that image in mind, we made our way to the place where the buses where living to Jerusalem, a small street next to the Russian Church. I was a little uneasy as all public transportation was closed, but these buses ran quite often at only 16 NIS the trip.

Once arriving in Tel Aviv, the atmosphere was really different. Long were the old stones, cahedrals and secular landmarks. But a new, modern city had carved its way. Our hotel was located by the beach and we arrived there with the impression we had lived two lives in a whole day, and with the desire to see more the following day

Day 2

It was a slow, quiet day. Waking up to a sunny and warm day, we took our time getting breakfast and then the aim was walking along the beach and turning into Jaffa. Jaffa is a historical town that was built over 4000 years ago, which made it the oldest place we had ever set foot until now, and which was generally run by the Palestines. The Jews thus built Tel Aviv and the latter got so built up and spread until it came to the outskirts of Jaffa, and now the whole area is known as Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

We stopped along the way on the beach, and had a nice lunch at a local Fish and chips place, where they served fresh shrimps, calamari and other type of fish. After lunch, we took a boat that took us out in the sea from where we enjoyed a nice view of the city of Jaffa.

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The day was enjoyable and passed in a slow way. As the Sabbath was still ongoing, Jewish shops were closed, but Muslim and Christian ones not. That was a contrast to Day 3, where the latter were closed, but the Jewish one, including the tourist information centre had reopened.

Day 3

We checked out of the hotel quite early and actually  had only half a day to explore the cities more. We hit the beach again and what I enjoyed most, besides the fine sand, warm and clean sea, and the fact it was free, were the playgrounds for children and shelters in the shade, which made the place really child-friendly for us.

Enjoying another Jaffa orange juice before we left, and discovering new nice places to eat – one has to be careful not to fall for the tourist traps or get ripped off – we slowly had to say goodbye to the Mediteranean sea and make our way to the train station, passing through Jaffa historical centre.

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The train station is located in a quite idle place of the city, there are no real shops around, and itself is very small and packed with security, which makes it pleasant only for short stays. The trains are quite modern (German trains going on British tracks) and we arrived at the airport quite early, but necessarily so, as Israel has one of the most complicated and cumbersome check-in procedure, that includes proflling.

Therefore, the 3 h ahead were just enough to run to Terminal 3 for check-in although our flight was from Terminal 1, and therefore we got back there, where we enjoyed one of the largest duty free areas in the world!

The trip was a great success, and we are already looking forward to going back, but strangely enough, I did not like Israel for the reasons I imagined. I always thought of it as a pilgrimage site, the equivalent to Mecca for Christians and Jews, but it revealed itself as a place buzzing with life, where the separation between different cultures and religions is not clear at a first glance. It reminded me of America, without the sense of belonging to the same identity, and that surprised me.

Personally, I don’t know if I would be able to live in such a multicultural place – a bit too much even for me – but I was happy to find such a place existed, and in Israel of all places!

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