Having grown up with a Jewish grandmother, eating Matzo, learning Hebrew sayings and singing traditional songs I have always been fascinated by Israel. When a friend from university moved to Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv, my friends and I jumped at the opportunity to visit him.
I had no idea of what to expect in Israel, but Tel Aviv managed to exceed any preconceptions I had of it being a traditional Middle Eastern city. On our first full day in Tel Aviv, we head straight to the beach to soak up some much needed sunshine after a solid week of rain in London. The beach promenade is lined with bars, restaurants and even outdoor gym equipment. One could easily mistake it for a California or Florida beach.
After a day on the beach, the evening drew in and we ventured south of Tel Aviv to Jaffa, one of the oldest towns in the world and a stark contrast to the beach. Jaffa is an ancient town mentioned in both the old and new testaments of the Bible and is supposedly where the prophet Jonah was swallowed by the whale. There are many cafes and restaurants serving the ubiquitous houmous, falafel, pitta and tabouleh overlooking the sea and there is an ancient feel to the cobbled alleyways.
After a couple of days relaxing on the beach, exploring the bustling street markets and drinking far too much of the traditional Middle Eastern drink Araq, we left the ‘secular city’ and began our journey to Jerusalem, the Holy City, an hour south of Tel Aviv.
We stayed in the Citadel Hostel, which is in a spectacular position, situated in the old wall of the city, which creates cave-like rooms lined with warm rugs and cushions. We were fortunate enough to be able to sleep on mattresses on the roof terrace, complete with amazing views out over the city. After a surprisingly good sleep we were woken bright and early by the hot sun and bells from the many synagogues, churches and cathedrals in the city.
We explored Jerusalem on a free walking tour with our Israeli-American tour guide Ori who took us through the Armenian, Christian and Jewish quarters in the old town. He led us to the Wailing Wall which is the Western Wall of the city and the holiest site in the Jewish world. The wall has been a site of Jewish prayer and pilgrimage for centuries and it is traditional to place prayers into the crevices in the wall. My Jewish friend Cara had received strict instructions from her mother to pray for a nice Jewish husband, so we placed our crumpled prayers into the cracks in the wall and all secretly hoped that a knight in shining armour, preferably one resembling Brad Pitt (this was long before I met Pete), would miraculously appear the minute we stepped off the plane in London.
On the last full day of our trip, feeling like the ultimate tourists we went by tour bus to Massada in the Judean desert, another ancient site of importance for the Jewish people. Massada is a mountain settlement overlooking the Dead Sea, built by Herod the Great between 37 and 31 BC.
After exploring Massada we were ready to float in the Dead Sea and slather ourselves with the invigorating mud. Feeling ten years younger with silky smooth skin we returned to Herzliya for one final night with friends and another Middle Eastern feast.
The following day, slightly sunburnt and suffering the infamous Araq Attack after one too many Araq shots we said goodbye to our friends and made our way to Tel Aviv airport to catch our flight back to London. An hour of thorough and individual security later, we realised our mistake had been buying tubs of Silan (date honey) as gifts for our families! Top tip – don’t try and bring date honey through Israeli security.