Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Israel 2010, Part 6 (Final in this Series)

Israel, Part 6
©2101, By David Talbot
February 23, 2010

Galillee, Israel. The Galillee is a region of Northern Israel with so many sites of interest that it’s worth the effort, if you have the time, to rent a car and spend a few days in this region alone. At the time of King Herod, almost 3,000,000 people lived here in hundreds of small towns scattered around the region. We already mentioned Nazareth, one of the largest cities in the Galillee (See part 4 in this series). In this final part of the series, I’ll describe 3 other sites of interest: Capernaum, Jordan River Baptismal Site, and Bet Shean.

Capernaum. Located on the north shore of the Kinneret (Sea of Galillee), about an hour East of Haifa, Capernaum is home to Peter’s House and Jesus’ Synagogue, making this site a “Must See” for all Christian visitors. Most non-religious tour groups also visit this site for its historical significance.

The White Synagogue, built over Jesus’ Synagogue, has been partially restored here, as is the home of Peter. From Frommer’s Israel: “Capernaum was the home of perhaps four of Jesus’ other original followers; it was the place where Jesus began to gather his disciples around him...”

Although we are Jews, we found this site to be extremely interesting and a great insight into the daily life of our ancestors. Looking at the ruins of Peter’s house, you can clearly visualize how life must have been at that time. After visiting this and other sites like it, reading the bible will never be the same.

Jordan River Baptismal Site. This site is located in Teverya (Tiberius), on the Western Shore of the Kinneret. Teverya, built in 18 CE, by King Herod’s son, was an important location for Jews taking refuge here after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The Mishna and Jerusalem Talmud, critically important Jewish texts, were compiled here. This is also a good place to spend a few days to explore the Kinneret, Golan, and Galillee regions.

The original Baptism site for Jesus and his disciples was probably closer to the present day southern end of the Kinneret. Years ago, a dam was constructed on the Jordan River, and the flow was redirected by this location. Called Yardenit, it was established by Kibbutz Kinneret, sometime after its establishment in 1909. Christian pilgrims are able to safely immerse themselves to this day. A restaurant and gift shop where you can purchase containers of Jordan River Water, are also located here. This is a beautiful place to spend a few hours and contemplate the history of this region.

Bet Shean. Bet Shean is located about 45KM South of Teverya, and is described by Frommer’s Israel as, “A vast, Roman-Byzantine city with colonnaded streets and a theater that could house 5,000 at once…” To the east of the city, Inside Bet Shean National Park can be seen Tel Bet Shean. Tel is a Hebrew word meaning: a mound or hill created by successive layers of ruined cities. Artifacts from Egyptian, Jewish, Roman, Greek, Philistine, Turk, and Arab communities have been found Tel Bet Shean.

The main attraction for most visitors is the Bet Shean Archeological Park, which is still in development. The Cardo, or colonnaded Main Street of the city, takes you by bath houses, shops, and the Roman Theater.

The design of the city, with the main North-South street (Cardo) and secondary East-West cross street (Decumanus), is typical of Roman street design around the world. In the Old City of Jerusalem the Jewish Quarter is laid out over the Cardo.

Some final thoughts. Israel is a land of many contrasts. From Bedouins living in shacks in the desert to multi-million dollar mansions along the beach in Caesarea, the range is astounding. From ultra-religious Jewish communities in Jerusalem, to porno shops in Tel Aviv, you can see it all. From archeological digs 4,000 years old to 50 story modern condo complexes to dilapidated 70 year old hotels and pensions, there is a style and a reason for anyone and everyone to visit this country.

Israel is about the size of New Jersey. Yet there is more variety than larger countries in terms of history, geography, ancient sites, and modern marvels. You can go from the lowest spot on earth at the Dead Sea (1,200 feet below sea level), to the ski resort on Mt Hermon (summit at 6,630 feet above sea level), in less than 4hours. Walk the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem at 10:00AM, have a cup of coffee in Jaffa at Noon, eat dinner in Haifa at 6:00 PM, and be back for a night cap at your hotel in Jerusalem by 10:00PM. It is a place that many visit and few return home unchanged.

Here are some of our favorites (But do your homework, everybody’s taste is different):

1. Favorite Travel Guide: Frommer’s Israel.
2. Favorite Airline: Continental.
3. Favorite Apartment (Tel Aviv) (tiny rooms, but right on the ocean): info@telaviv-apartment.com.
4. Second Favorite Apartment (Tel Aviv) (2 blocks from the ocean): http://www.tel-aviv-rental.co.il/view_page_dyn.aspx?p=65 .
5. Favorite Beach Towns: Netanya, Caesarea, Ashkelon.
6. Favorite Hotel: Metropolitan (Tel Aviv) http://www.hotelmetropolitan.co.il.
7. Favorite Hotel (Jerusalem): Olive Tree http://www.olivetreehotel.com.
8. Favorite Market: Shuk Hacarmel (Tel Aviv).
9. Favorite Mode of Transportation: Sherut.
10.Least Favorite form of transportation: Taxi (Too Expensive, but they go everywhere).
11.Favorite Restaurant: Too many to pick a favorite.
12.Favorite Historical Sites: Old City of Jerusalem, Caesarea, Bet Shean, Masada, Ashkelon National Park, Old City of Akko.
13.Favorite Religious Sites: Old City of Jerusalem, Masada, Nazareth, Capernaum, Jordan River Baptismal Site (Tiberius).
14.Favorite way to get to Tel Aviv from the airport: Train from Terminal 3.
15.Favorite Rental Car: Budget (Tel Aviv or Jerusalem—not from the airport).
16.Favorite Mall: Dizengoff Mall (Tel Aviv).
17.Favorite Day for the Mall: Thursday and Friday mornings in building B—Food court days.
18.Must See One Time: Dead Sea (At the same time as Masada).
19.Favorite Day to Walk on The Beach: Saturday (Best for people watching).
20.Favorite Time to Eat: 10:00 to 16:00 Businessmen’s Specials at most restaurants—up to half off normal prices (Portions are huge anyway).
21.Most Over-Rated City: Daliyat-Al-Carmel Druze Village.
22.Most Over-Looked City: Ashkelon and its National Park and Historic Site.
23.Favorite Tour Sponsor: Gate 1 Travel (www.gate1travel.com)

There are many more towns, religious sites, and parks, that are left for us to explore here and that’s why we’ll keep coming back. I hope you have a chance to explore Israel some day. If you would like more information about this country and the “who, what, when, where, and how” of Israel, send me an email and I’ll be glad to share our experiences with you. Just remember it’s my opinion, so do your homework.


David Talbot

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Israel 2010, Part 5

Israel 2010, Part 5
©2010 By David Talbot
February 16, 2010

Tel Aviv, Israel. I was planning on writing about the Galillee Region this week, but got side-tracked by a visit to Jerusalem. So, we’ll chat about the Galillee in the next report.

Jerusalem (Getting there): There are several ways to travel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Taking a commercial tour is the best option for the first visit. There are lots of tours available through your hotel, the Israel Tourist Office, or online. If you have a car, Highway 1 is very good with excellent signage and gas stations at several points along the route. Another option is by train. Israeli trains are very comfortable, are reasonably priced, and run frequently between all major points in their system. Last, and the method we chose, you can go by Sherut (mini-bus).

The Sherut system in Israel is interesting, to say the least. In Tel Aviv, Sherut routes parallel the city bus system. So, from our apartment, we can take either the number 16 bus, or the number 16 Sherut, to the Central Bus Station. The big difference is that Sheruts only carry 8 to 10 passengers. When they’re full, they continue to the Central Station and only take on new fares as current passengers get off.

Another odd characteristic of the citywide Sherut system is the way you pay. Passengers get onboard and go directly to empty seats. They then tap the shoulder or arm of the person in front of them and pass the 5.80 shekels forward, similar to getting a hot dog at a ball game when you are sitting in the middle of a row. Everyone knows what to do. If possible, sit near the front of the Sherut and become a part of the cash going up to the driver and any change going back. It’s a hoot!

For inter-city transportation, you board Sheruts at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. And then, you wait. Inter-city Sheruts only depart to the destination city when they’re full. If you’re going to Jerusalem or Haifa, it may take 10 minutes or less to fill. If you are going to a destination less traveled, it could take 30 minutes or more before you depart.

Arriving in Jerusalem you discover the reason why it’s better to let someone else do the driving. Streets choked with traffic, impossible parking, wide boulevards that become turning and twisting little alleys, and other drivers with more death wishes than Charles Bronson, is why we take the Sherut.

The Sherut from Tel Aviv drops you off at the Jerusalem Central Station where you take the number 1 bus directly to the Old City. In fact, it circles the Old City so the visitor can depart at the most convenient of the four entrance gates for your destination inside.

To return to Tel Aviv, simply reverse the process.

Tel Aviv to Jerusalem costs 22 Shekels each way (About $6.00) and takes about 45 minutes.

Jerusalem (The Old city): Jerusalem, Israel’s Capitol, is the premier destination for the majority of travelers to the Holy Land. Every step you take here is in the footsteps of the ancient ancestors of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The Old City is divided into four areas, all but one open to visitors: The Armenian Quarter (Closed), the Jewish Quarter, the Arab Quarter, and the Christian Quarter. Each area has a distinct flavor. Regardless of religious preference, each is a “Must See” at least once during any trip here.

Each quarter is a fully functioning city with apartments, shops, restaurants, schools, etc. There are Synagogues, Churches, and Mosques, ancient and modern, throughout the Old City.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Via Dolorosa, Western Wall, and Dome of the Rock, are all within its walls, and open to visitors. All of these sites can be seen in one day, if that’s all you have. Alternatively, you could move here and spend a lifetime and still miss something.

On our current visit, we stuck with the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, having visited all the Christian sites, and shopped in the Arab Quarter on prior visits.

One thing we noticed on this trip: a lack of respect for the nature of the religious sites. When visiting the Western Wall, synagogues, mosques, or churches, please dress appropriately, and conduct yourself with decorum.

Most Israel tours spend 3 to 4 days in Jerusalem, with a half- day tour of the Old City included in the package. Many package tours also offer optional extended tours of the Old City, the entire Capitol, and specific sites of interest. If you are on a package tour and have a “free” day, consider a side trip to Masada (the fortress of King Herod, and the last stronghold of the zealots) and the Dead Sea (the lowest point on earth). These two are usually combined in one full day optional tour. If you are traveling on your own, you may book these tours with the concierge desk of your hotel, or online.

If you prefer, one day trips from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Masada, The Dead Sea, and Galillee can be arranged through the Israel Tourist office.

Next report: Galillee Region and some final thoughts.


David Talbot

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Israel 2010, Part 4

Israel 2010
©2010 By David Talbot
Part 4

February 8, 2010

Netanya, Israel. High cliffs overlooking clear turquoise seas, white sandy beaches hugging the cliffs, and warm light breezes off the water; a description of some island paradise in the South Pacific? No, this is Netanya, only 25 KM north of frenetic Tel Aviv. Long an enclave of French ex-pats and absentee owners, Netanya is booming.

Along the approximately five miles of Netanya’s coastline, high-rise condominiums, apartments, villas, and hotels are being built, or are in pre-construction sales promotions. Israeli tourism in December 2009 hit 225,000, an all time record. Increases in seasonal visitors have fueled increased demand for both short and long term accommodations, here in Netanya, and in other areas of the country.

The City is bisected by Highway 2, the major North-South traffic corridor, with the industrial areas to the East of the Highway and the mostly residential West side. The city is part Tel Aviv and part Paris. The beach promenade has been improved and is equal to ocean drives we’ve experienced in California, Hawaii, Auckland, and Florida.
Accommodations and restaurants in Netanya are available for every taste and budget.

As in Tel Aviv, public transportation is available throughout the city. In addition, train service is available on the rail line that connects many of Israel’s major cities, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.

While in Israel, Netanya is a perfect getaway for the ultra modern beach experience vacation before, or after, a tour of Israel’s antiquities.

Nazareth, Israel. On every secular or Christian oriented tour operator’s mandatory list of sites, is the city of Nazareth. Our group arrived here in afternoon of the first day of our tour, after lunch in Daliyat-Al-Carmel. The attraction is Mary’s Church of the Annunciation. The site is impressive to everyone, regardless of religious preference. And, it is a great example of how this “Jewish” country preserves religious sites of significance for every community that has called this land holy. This is in contrast to other nations that have not been respectful of all mankind.

Mary’s Church is beautiful inside and out, and services are conducted here daily. Appropriate dress and decorum is suggested, inside the church. Also, don’t miss the excavation in the floor of the church, where Mary’s personal Mikveh was discovered, and is preserved. A Mikveh is a place where Jewish men and women cleanse themselves at prescribed times according to the Torah. Your tour operator will point out how ancient civilizations built upon ruins, keeping them fully or partially intact to be discovered by future archeologists. Operators will also point out whether a site is “in situ” (exactly as excavated), or a replica of an ancient site, throughout the holy land.

The Galillee Region, Israel. In addition to Nazareth, most tours take travelers to the Eastern edge of the Galillee region to view Capernaum, The Jordan River Baptismal site, the Sea of Galillee, Tiberius, and Bet Shean, before continuing to Jerusalem. These sites will consume most of a day, and represent many periods of Jewish and Christian history. I recommend, Tiberius and the surrounding area as a possible place for a post tour stay of 2 or 3 days.

In the next report I’ll give you a few of the highlights of this region that have been of interest to us as we continued our tour.

More Travel Tips:

Cell phones: Confirm, in advance of your trip, that your carrier will have roaming service and telephone compatibility. On a recent trip to Israel, my T-Mobile cell phone didn’t work. There was a roaming network, but I had recently purchased a new phone which was not compatible with the Israeli network.

Water: Water is safe to drink everywhere except parts of the Dead Sea area.

Even if you stay in a hotel without cooking facilities, don’t miss the open air markets in almost every city. In Tel Aviv-Yafo, Shuk Ha Carmel, Shuk Ha Tikvah, and Shuk Ha Pish B’sheen, are great shopping opportunities for food and merchandise. Friday afternoons are very busy in preparation for the Sabbath.

Rental cars: All major rental agencies have facilities in Israel. Book your vehicle online for best rates. Renting a car at Ben Gurion Airport includes an extra “facilities” expense. Gas is expensive and public transportation is available almost everywhere. So you may not need a car for the entire duration of your trip.

Short-term apartment rentals: We have rented apartments on each visit to Israel. Off season rentals are available from December to March or April. Weekly or monthly rates are about half of hotels. We typically pay about $1,800.00 for a monthly rental, during January and February. With hotel rates running $150 to $300 a day, an apartment rental may be an attractive alternative. The closer to the sea the higher the price

Restaurants: What can I say? There are places for every taste, and every budget. But here’s a tip, look for businessmen’s specials. Most restaurants have them from 11:00 to 15:00 every day, and they are a real bargain, compared to regular meal pricing.
Shopping: There are malls and stores lining almost every major street in Tel Aviv and other cities. Modern grocery stores and a great variety of specialty shops can be found everywhere. In many smaller shops, owners expect the customer to bargain for the best price. Even if you are reluctant to bargain, simply walking away slowly may be enough of an inducement to reduce prices at some stores, especially in the open markets.

Dollar denominated transactions: Some stores may accept dollars for purchases, but a word of caution: have a general idea of the rate of exchange. Google “Currency Converter” to get an application to check world currencies. Also, if you have a bank or debit card, they will work in Israel.

Banking options: As a general rule, notify your bank, credit/debit card issuers, and other financial institutions, that you will be traveling abroad. Make sure you understand the daily limit of an ATM transaction: 500 shekels is about $135.00 (as of the date of this article). As an example, if your bank has a limit of $250.00, it may not authorize a 500 shekel withdrawal as it appears to violate the daily limit. Credit cards are accepted for payment here, as much as they are in the States. However, in addition to bank fees, most financial institutions also charge a “Currency Exchange” fee, usually 3%. To the best of my knowledge, Discover Card is not accepted anywhere.

Don’t forget to send an email if you have a question or comment.

Next Report: More on the Galillee Region.


David Talbot

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Israel 2010, Part 3

Israel 2010 Part 3
©2010 David Talbot

February 3, 2010, Akko, Israel

Akko. This ancient city is not on most tour itineraries. If you extend your stay in Israel for a few days (I recommend 2 weeks) it’s easy to get to by bus, sherut (minibus), or train. The Old City is a fortified complex of dwellings, mosques, synagogues, restaurants and shops. Entry is free and you can stroll through the city at your leisure. The Old City resembles Jerusalem, on a reduced scale. Mentioned by Pharaoh Thutmouse III about 3,500 years ago, the old city has been ruled by the Phoenicians, the biblical tribe of Asher, Kings David and Solomon, and Alexander the Great. The New Testament mentions that Saint Paul stopped here as did Julius Caesar (48 BCE). There’s more, but I think you get the idea. This is the rule here in Israel; it is an ancient land worthy of more than a casual visit.

Haifa. The city of Haifa, located about 90 miles north of Tel Aviv, is the second stop, the first day of most tours. But it’s a quick stop near the middle of Mt. Carmel, overlooking the beautiful Baha’i gardens including a panoramic view of the city. However, Haifa has many religious and secular sites of interest. It is a great place to spend a day or two if you extend your stay in Israel beyond the tour. While Haifa is not a major tourist destination, there are hotels to satisfy any taste. And, Haifa is an excellent place to serve as a base for the exploration of Northwestern Israel, including Akko, Nahariya, and the Druze villages along the edge of Mt. Carmel.

Haifa has malls, restaurants, beaches, markets, and holy sites that would take a life time to explore. In addition, Haifa is a model of diversity in that all three major, and several minor (in terms of numbers), religions are free to practice their faiths. In this city, employers ask, “can you do the work?” Religion is not an issue of employment. Public schools replicate that ethic.

Daliyat-Al-Carmel. About 25 minutes from Central Haifa along route 672, and winding around Mt. Carmel to the east, are the Druze Villages of Isfiya and Daliyat-Al-Carmel. Here’s where you’ll find all those unique souvenirs to bring back home to friends and family. At least that’s what the tour operators will tell you. My opinion? Shop carefully and keep in mind that Jerusalem markets, and the Old City, are chock full of hundreds of these shops, and competition keeps prices lower. Also, as time goes by, you’ll notice that gift shops begin to look alike and offer the same merchandise. Remember that Mexican cruise where the shops at dockside Ensenada were expensive? But in town things were much cheaper and open to negotiation? Same idea!

A few words about the Druze community, from the 4th edition of Frommers “Israel”: “The Druze are Arabic speaking people who are, however, not Muslims. …..The Druze were loyal to Israel during the 1948 war, and several of their brigades are highly respected detachments in the Israeli Army.”

More Travel Tips.
If you are planning your first trip to Israel, consider a tour. There are many tour operators available online, and in travel magazines. Prices vary considerably from one to the other, so shop around. Whether you go with a synagogue /church sponsored group, or a commercial tour, all the details are arranged in advance. The highlights of the tour are laid out and optional itineraries can be booked. The tours always include a daily Israeli Breakfast, which is reminiscent of a Roman Orgy of food, as you have never experienced. The trip from area code 575 is a long one. Having a personal representative greet you at the airport and take care of you throughout the tour is a great stress reliever.

A month or so prior to departure on our first trip, we booked an apartment, on the internet, to extend our stay in Israel Tel Aviv for 3 weeks after the tour. By then we were rested, felt comfortable in the country, and really enjoyed the city life. Most tour operators allow for extended departures.

Public transportation in Israel is safe and economical. If you extend your tour by a week or two, you do not need to rent a car. Besides the fact that parking in Israel is impossible, buses, cabs, and mini-buses (called Sheruts) are everywhere and are cheap. In addition, train service in Israel is available to most cities, and is also inexpensive. This trip we took the train from the airport to Tel Aviv. The fare was about $3.75 each (14 Shekels each). The ticket machines have an “English” option, and take Visa, MC and AMEX. A taxi from the airport is about $50.00.

Last tip this time: Continental Airlines fly’s direct to Tel Aviv from Newark, N.J. Most other air carriers have an intermediate stop in Europe. With no baggage fees for international flights, free in-flight meals for most flights over 4 hours, and lots of connections, they have become our carrier of choice to Israel. They also land at Terminal 3 in Ben Gurion Airport (TLV), where the train station is located, inside the terminal.

Next report: Netanya, Nazareth, Galillee, and more travel tips.

David Talbot