The small Middle Eastern country bordered by Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon has been a meeting place of different cultures and religions since the beginning of history. The four major religions—Bahaism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all have ties to the region but the diverse country has also courted more than its fair share of controversy due to its ongoing dispute with neighbouring Palestine. Our writer Scott Balaam headed to Israel on a boutique tourism tour with Vibe Israel to discover this intriguing country in seven days, he started his journey in bustling Tel Aviv….
Having spent many years working and visiting the Middle East I was very intrigued about Israel, especially as the country has been surrounded with controversy since forming and generally only ever receives negative press.
After checking in and scoping out our new surroundings – the very cool, modern bohemian The Diaghilev, LIVE ART Boutique hotel (located in central Tel Aviv) – next was dinner with ‘Eat With‘ – an interesting concept where guests go to a local house along with locals and tourists and enjoy a meal cooked by the hosts. The lovely Aviya and Loran (known as Chipolina-Culinary Art) were our hosts and they provided us with a huge feast of a charcoal grill with crispy gnocchi and Parmesan in their back garden which was beautifully illuminated by candlelight.
On Friday morning it was time to explore Israel’s capital, Jerusalem otherwise known as the ‘Holy City.’ Our first stop was at Abraham Hostel where we met our fantastic guide Dvir Hollander. As we were driving we followed the tram lines where no mans land once stood, Dvir commented on the local Arab and Jewish communities; “They are like tadpoles they live side-by-side but don’t play together!”
For the main tour we wandered through the Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarters which included the Temple Mount. Entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we walked across the secretive rooftops which afforded us some spectacular panoramic views of the city. The world famous Western Wall was easily the main highlight though. After venturing through the tunnel to the Arab Quarter we were caught in a crowd of thousands leaving the mosque after morning prayer – to escape the masses our group headed along Via Dolorosa, a very spiritual place where it’s believed that Jesus walked carrying his cross.
After full day in Jerusalem it was time to explore Tel Aviv – a very unique city pulsating with energy. After devouring one of the best breakfast’s of my life (Eggs Florentine with a side dishes of peppers, aubergines, salmon and herrings) we explored Tel Aviv’s port before taking some city bikes for a ride along the beachfront to Jaffa. It was interesting to find that the beaches were split into different categories including religious, family, gay friendly and one for dogs! Jaffa is the old part of the city with Carmel Market being the main hub of activity.
Next Alternative Tel Aviv Tours took us on a Graffiti & Street Art tour of Florentine and Neve Tzedez where we learnt about Israeli urban artists such as the legendary ‘Adi Sened’, ‘Know Hope’, ‘Klone’ and ‘Zero Cents’. For the last leg of the tour we headed North to Rosh Pina where we visited the Mizpe Hayamim Spa, a place set in beautiful surroundings with an onsite organic garden and diary farm. I opted for the ‘Galilee Magic’ – a cleansing and refreshing body scrub followed by a massage which I have to admit was really was ‘magic’!
In the morning, we experienced a taster of Qigong (an ancient health care system that integrates physical postures, breathing techniques and focused intention) in a school which overlooked the sea of Galilee, famous for being the area where Jesus apparently walked on water. It was a truly special and tranquil place – somewhere where all your daily worries would just melt away.
Before I arrived I really did not know what to expect from Israel but I was amazed how energetic and alive it was – it’s a country where people really do live life to the fullest. It was tough getting in and out of the country (as you can imagine security was very tight) but it wouldn’t put me off returning. If I had to use a couple of words to describe Tel Aviv it would be without a doubt ‘pure energy!’
All words and images by Scott Balaam, Scott was a guest of Vibe Israel but all his opinions are his own.