A memorable short break to Israel for Gillian Thomas incorporated the sights of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, yet it was a fish skimming water through a ray of sunshine on the Sea of Galilee that was to be her most treasured memory.
With Israel’s extraordinary mix of historic sites, synagogues, churches and mosques, side-by-side with tower blocks, beaches and a trendy food scene, particularly in Tel Aviv, there was so much to take in and enjoy that it was hard to know where to start.
We first based ourselves in Jaffa at Tel Aviv’s southern tip. An ancient harbour that dates back 5000 years, it has seen three fancy new hotels open in 2018, making it the place to stay.
A love of life and food
‘Israelis love to celebrate life and eat good food!’ exclaimed the exuberant young Tel Aviv guide we had arranged to meet at the entrance to the city’s Carmel Market to take us on a tour of the famous bazaar.
It’s a jumble of stalls piled high with every conceivable fruit, vegetable, spice and herb, all interspersed with shack-like cafes offering an exquisite range of tempting snacks. There’s so much to see and experience, we were relieved to be in the hands of an expert.
The Jaffa Hotel
A New York art dealer and a property magnate recently spent 15 years and 129 million dollars transforming a 19th-century convent building into the Jaffa Hotel.
Its lobby sports Damien Hirst spin paintings and part of a 13th century Crusader wall.
One hundred and twenty minimalist designer bedrooms overlook a leafy courtyard, two restaurants, an outdoor pool and spa (my oxygen-infusing facial left my face feeling miraculously rejuvenated) and a vaulted bar in the former chapel.
Managing – just – to tear ourselves away, we made good use of the hotel’s free bikes to pedal along Tel Aviv’s five mile seafront promenade. A new cycle path sweeps between sandy beaches and skyscrapers. Also out enjoying the sunshine were families with pushchairs, joggers, dog-walkers and skateboarders.
Jerusalem – a 45 minute drive away
If Tel Aviv is the face of the thriving, innovative young nation that is modern Israel, Jerusalem – a 45-minute drive away – is where you are whisked back into its complex past.
Here we were based at Villa Brown, a historic town-house turned boutique hotel in an up-and-coming area of town just a few minutes’ walk from the walled Old City.
Our guide was an expert in Biblical archaeology. We bombard him with historical and religious questions as he lead us along busy streets and narrow alleyways to the city’s ‘must-sees’: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall and Garden of Gethsemane, all teeming with crowds.
A 360-degree vista
For a 360-degree vista over the city we climbed the red sandstone ramparts of the Tower of David. Nearby, the golden Dome of the Rock, a shrine to the prophet Mohammed, stood out glinting in the sunshine.
Beyond it you can pick out a small patch of green hillside – the Mount of Olives. Just distinguishable on distant misty ridges are tower blocks, check by jowl, in the embattled Palestinian town of Ramallah.
Inside the restored tower, Jerusalem’s long and complicated history is imaginatively depicted through artefacts and state-of-the-art technology.
And so to Bethlehem
Next on our itinerary was Bethlehem, a hilly 15-minute drive to the north in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. Visiting it involves crossing a checkpoint and switching to a Palestinian guide.
From Manger Square a constant line of tourists, many of them religious pilgrims, made their way into the huge Church of the Nativity.
Jostling with the crowds past its fresco-decorated walls, we eventually reached a small doorway tucked behind one of the ornately adorned altars and filed down stone steps into a small grotto.
The crowded Church of the Nativity
Cameras were flashing and people kneeling at two small alcoves to kiss the very spots said to be where Jesus Christ was born 2000 years ago and Mary laid him in a manger.
Disappointingly, this frenetic scene left me unmoved, any sense of awe at standing in this iconic place dispelled by all the people and flashes.
Driving back towards the border in near-gridlocked traffic we spot the Walled Off Hotel (a play on Waldorf) opened recently by street artist Banksy. It is only a few metres away from the West Bank’s shocking eight metre high border wall which is topped by barbed wire and covered in protest graffiti.
The hotel has 10 rooms all featuring his protest artworks, a museum devoted to recent Palestinian political history and a gallery showcasing local artists.
We were keen to see famous Christian places
Later, keen to see some of the famous Christian places, many in the north of the country, we settled on a Biblical Highlights day tour by mini-bus. Another excellent guide explained what we were passing along the way, as well as guiding us around Nazareth, the hilly countryside of Galilee and the River Jordan.
Seeking out a quiet spot to take it all in I was standing alone under a palm tree on the pebbly banks of the Sea of Galilee when a slender tilapia fish happened to skim over the water through a golden ray of sunshine. My most treasured memory of the trip.
Cox and King 5-night B&B breaks to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, BA flights and guides from £2245: www.coxandkings.co.uk
Food tour: www.facebook.com/BeTelAvivTours
Biblical Highlights tour $93: www.rent-a-guide.co.il