When I have told my friends, I was going to Israel, they were asking me why am I going to the Holy Land, when I am being an atheist. My answer was - Israel is not all about religion! Jews from more than a hundred countries came here bringing their own traditions and culture. In combination with the Arab population and many small ethnic groups, the culture is very complex, but interesting and infinitely rich at the same time. In combination with a great food, nature, and interesting political history there is much more to explore than you may think…
It is easy to get to Israel
People say Israel is a very expensive country for travelling. This is true; however, I believe that it is all about proper timing and planning. When I have decided to travel to Israel I was searching for the cheapest flights, which in my case were the ones to Eilat. After booking my flight, another question popped out - how I am going to get to Tel Aviv?
In the beginning, it looked like a mission impossible without hiring a car or booking an expensive tour. I have searched the internet for hours and there is no helpful or detailed information about transportation from the airport. In fact, there are several ways to choose from: you can either take a shuttle from Ovda airport to Eilat bus station, take a taxi (which is very expensive), or take a local bus number 282 (with the price 21,5 NIS/pp it is the cheapest option). From the bus station, there are two buses going to Tel Aviv, however, take the bus 390 which is the express one (the journey itself takes around 5 hours so believe me, you don´t want to go with the regular bus). Those busses are leaving every hour so unless you are travelling during Sabat (Friday afternoon, Saturday), you will get to Tel Aviv without any problems. 😊
From Eilat to Tel Aviv
I always prefer buses and trains to travel from one city to another, as you can see the country. This was also the case of Israel. You will see various types of sceneries, from the Jordanian mountains and desert in the South, through tiny roads in the Israeli mountains (with the views of the Dead Sea if you are lucky enough) and green fields around Tel Aviv. The only thing that may be a bit disturbing is the way Israeli people drive but you will survive and get used to it quickly. Don´t worry. 😉
Tel Aviv is a business centre of Israel. The city looks big but in fact it only has around 450,000 citizens, and what is more, you can walk on the beach from one side of the city to another in just 1,5 hour. What I really liked is that the Old Jaffa is completely separated from the new part of the city so big buildings and city rush are not disturbing you in enjoying the beautiful tiny streets like the ones in Venice. There is also a small park with the sea and city view, church, port and even a ´wishing bridge´ with the zodiac signs (the legend says that the wish of the person, who touches his zodiac sign, while looking at sea will come true, so let´s see 😊).
After enjoying the historical sights, it was time to wander aimlessly through narrow streets, where all the life is – markets! Walking around the Flea Market made me a bit hungry so I have entered the first coffee place that looked decent - a tiny little place on the corner with the smell of fresh bread and coffee. Immediately after I stepped in I was greeted by the owner called Shy, and addressed with words: ´ What would you like to eat? When you are in Israel you must eat hummus, falafel and shakshuka (popular Middle Eastern food made of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, and onions, spiced with cumin). I don´t have hummus, I don´t have falafel. But I have the best shakshuka in town with the coffee and salad included! ´
Well, as you could have guessed, the desire for trying something new while having coffee included made me decide very quickly. Now I can say that I have tried this dish in other places too but Shy´s shakshuka really was the best one! On top of that, Shy made me a great company. After finishing my meal, he told me he would like to treat me with something special, if I let him. After my agreement, he brought me a piece of fresh, still warm chocolate and apple pie! If you have a chance, you should go and try Shy´s food, because this guy knows exactly what you need (I couldn´t move for the rest of the day, honestly!).
However, Tel Aviv is not only about the markets and historical places. You can also freely enjoy the rush of the city on the Rothschild Boulevard, walk on the seafront, enjoy a beer or a coffee on the beach, or simply go shopping. I liked to enjoy my coffee with the sun in my face on the roof of the Florentine Hostel, where I was staying. For the record, the hostel was really nice and in a walking distance from all the places you want to visit. Also, these guys were amazing, offering not only free breakfast, but also free dinner (sushi for example), or free shisha, and great company for the evenings 😊Though, small voluntary donations were always welcomed.
Jerusalem is the next stop
Getting to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv is very easy. The buses are, again, running on a regular basis. The fastest way is to take the bus 405, leaving from the 6th floor (port 607). The journey takes around 50 minutes and costs only 16 NIS/pp. When I entered Jerusalem, I immediately felt and saw, that this city is nothing like Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is the heart and soul of Israel. The Old city is fortified by a wall and divided into four quarters – Christian, Arab, Jewish and Armenian. It is not very big, so if you have time you can walk around all quarters and explore how people with different backgrounds coexist together.
Where everyone cries
The place I was the most excited about was the Western Wall. It is a remnant of the outer wall that was surrounding and protecting the Temple Mount. Today it is the most sacred place of Jews, where they can pray and mourn over destruction of the Temple. When entering the Western Wall, it is necessary to pass the security first (it is a routine procedure everywhere you go in Israel).
I finally got in standing in the middle of the square, that is considered to be a synagogue, watching all these people praying with their heads and hands touching the wall. I took a couple of minutes to breath in the atmosphere while having goose bumps all over my body. People from all around the world come to the Wall to pray and leave a tiny piece of paper with their wishes hidden in the rock. No matter, whether you believe in God or not, everyone has some secret wishes he would like to come true. I took my piece of paper, and went to the public part of the wall. I slowly walked closer, and when I have found myself standing in between two crying women praying in Hebrew I was touched. It is important to remember that you don´t want to disrespect this place with your clothing, neither with your behaviour, so when you are leaving the area you shouldn´t turn your back to the wall! You will also see all the people reversing, therefore you will be reminded to do the same thing. It was an amazing experience!
Fancy a Jewish class?
When I got out of the area I have seen some people taking pictures on the roof facing the Temple Mount. I liked the idea, so I have decided to find a way up there. I was asking a policeman to show me the way, when one young American girl, who was walking by, offered taking me there. She was staying in Jerusalem for the past couple of years and she was on the way to a class in the Aish Hatoram World Center.
We talked while we were walking up the stairs and when we got there she invited me join her for the class about Judaism and moral issues. I found it quite interesting, so I have agreed to go with her. It became one of the funniest memories I have from Jerusalem! The discussion was led by rev. Galorie Freedman and he had the gift to make all the students in the room laugh at his stories. He explained many life situations with a humour, and I have even gained some new knowledge about the Jewish culture (did you know Jewish shouldn´t shake hands with the opposite gender as the touch is very powerful and saved for their life partners?). The lecture took about one hour but it felt like five minutes, I really felt sorry for not staying in Jerusalem longer, to come again!
There is more to see in Jerusalem!
Except the Temple Mount, Jerusalem has much more to offer - Church of the Holy Sepulture, Via Dolorosa, or Mount of Olives (beautiful view of the whole Old city and huge Jewish cemetery). All very religious places, however most of them is underground and feels completely different to explore them to visiting regular churches.
The difference also lies in the number of tourists and queues you have to face. Especially Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism, the third holiest site in Islam and a revered site to Christians, is very specific. The opening hours for non-Muslims are very strict! In the winter you can get in from Sunday to Thursday: 7:30am to 10:30am and 12:30pm to 1:30pm (in the summer it is all moved plus one hour). The only way to get inside is through the wooden bridge (there are more entrances, but those are strictly for Muslims), you need to be properly dressed and pass the security control once again, which can be tough, because it can take more than hour just to stand in the queue.
Same thing happened to me, when I only got inside for two minutes because they were already closing the area, and there was no compromise with the guards. I had to come again early the next day to have more time to look around, which cost me precious time.
The last, and my most favourite, difference is the people, who love to joke! You shouldn´t be surprised if there is a local guy proposing you right on the street, or offering you a ´Jesus taxi´ (which is how they call a camel). 😃
The food is the problem
Despite the historical sites being breath-taking, my biggest problem in Jerusalem was the food. As I was spending quite a lot of time in the Old city, I was struggling to find a delicious and affordable food. When you go to the Arab quarter you can find a great falafel for a good price (usually around 12-15 NIS), or shawarma - beef, chicken, or lamb marinated, roasted slowly on a spit, and cut into thin slices (a bit more expensive choice, but the meat is so soft, that is definitely worth trying).
However, there is another option. As I was trying to keep my budget low, I have discovered an Israeli fast food – COFIX. Everything in this place costs 6 NIS, and no, don´t expect hamburgers. Salads, soups, cous cous, croissants, ice cream, coffee, fresh juices and even sushi. There are a variety of options you can choose from, and it is the cheapest way to eat in Israel (or at least it was for me)! You can either google the branches to see their location or head straightaway to the one located in the beginning of Jaffa Road.
This city is a fascinating place and it is not true anymore that only religious people travel to Jerusalem. Except for the historical side, Jerusalem is also a ´gate, ´ from where you can travel anywhere you want in Israel – Bethlehem, Jericho, Nazareth, Eilat, or Dead Sea.