First, let me wish everyone a wonderful Passover, Happy Easter or great Vernal Equinox (or whatever).
(Currently in Istanbul)
I thought I would start this week with the typical emails I receive after each posting. These were last week’s along with my answers:
Hey, you’re going somewhere. We’re in the same place every day. B&B
- Yeah - That’s what we figure
I’m glad you’re keeping your wits about yourself as well as your “head on”. T&E
- I try to be a wit, but sometimes only manage half that quantity
When I cruised east to west on Holland America one year, they changed the clocks at noon and it made all the difference in the world. RC
- Yup - there are some things worth copying
Enjoying your writings. As I know that you will probably incorporate them into your book, I noted a glaring error. Gibraltar is attached to Spain, not Morocco. RN also AT sent a similar note
- Point well taken – I write too much in the early morning hours – too many time changes, not enough time ?
Thanks for pointing it out. I’ll make the change ASAP. BTW, all errors or omissions are gratefully accepted
Generally agreed that presence or absence of a vaccination has little impact on your likelihood of carrying the virus. Having had the disease more likely means you won’t carry the virus.
Where is the science about validity of wearing a mask. rs
- So far the strategy has worked for us. Whether luck/security blanket or beneficial, if it ain’t broke, no point in fixing it. Like chicken soup when you have a cold, might work (probably does), but won’t hurt
Thanks for the update, Jeff. Keep up the good spirits, and enjoy the ports you actually stop in! KR
- Always like a pat on the shoulder
And finally, from someone clearly not prepared for the eight years worth of episodes (26 per year) of McCleode’s Daughters, an Australian soap opera, that we binge watched during COVID season ? :
When is this cruise to nowhere over with?…/DV
- July 5, 2022, back home in the Big Apple
It’s a shame that the cruise line didn’t substitute an additional day in Ashdod, Israel during the time saved by not making the call to Malta, which would have allowed people to see bioth Masada and Jerusalem, despite the delays inherent in the first port of call in Israel during the COVID pandemic. The day before our landfall at Ashdod Israel and the entire ship, passengers and crew, have PCR tested COVID-free. We will receive another PCR test from Israeli authorities’ tomorrow morning and we will have to wait until the results are in before being allowed into the country – delaying entry by a number of hours.
Considering that we have been numerous times in Jerusalem over the years, the shortened day and the fact that it is Palm Sunday and the Old City will be packed with pilgrim we will instead be heading to Jaffa (Yafo) for lunch and the afternoon.
Once every couple of weeks the resident Argentine tango couple puts on an evening show. They are both former ballet dancers who migrated to this genre and the gymnastics performed by the young lady, whose physique resembles Barbie’s, threaten to knock out ceiling spot lights and kick herself in the back of her head. The lighting fast footwork involved baffles me that they neither trip, nor hurt each other.
While the entertainment staff of ships like the Queen Mary II run over 100 strong, with separate staff for things like passenger games during the day, the entire entertainment staff on our ship consists of the following:
1 Cruise director to coordinate entertainment (and who participates as an actor if required)
2 Dancers (the above tango couple) who lip-synch (as both have extreme Argentine accents) when the “visuals” require more singers
2 Female singers – one easy on the eyes with a “gifted” voice, the other “flashy” attractive
looks/personality with an OK voice
2 Male singers – one with a great voice, one with an OK voice (but currently on family leave)
For live music, there is a string quartet and a five piece jazz/general combo
The entertainers, during the day run the various games and activities with the cruise director taking the main “trivia” game. Pretty sparse, but there is a top-shelf guest entertainer each night and the entertainment staff members are talented enough to fill the rest of the nights with their own solo shows (The female singer with the great voice has already performed full shows of each featuring Lady Gaga, Adel and Disney pieces – not to mention tango pieces in Spanish during dancers changing outfits – and hitting every note perfectly).
I woke early in the Israeli port of Ashdod and looked out the cabin window and was taken aback by the creepy name of a bulk carrier ship out of Singapore – the “BAD SUCCESS”. I had to blink twice to realize that the first word was spelled “BAO” ?.
One thing I’ll say about the Israelis is that, while their process for clearing us for entry is a bureaucrat’s delight of paperwork, mobile COVID passes and pre-testing the Israeli nose and mouth swab PCR test routine was almost a pleasure compared to that given by Oceania. A pair of Q-Tips – one inside the mouth and the other around the entrance of both nostrils, rather than a pipe cleaner shoved up the nostril en-route to poking through the back of the head.
Once everyone on the ship was tested, we waited until Israeli Immigration was ready. Then a bus ride to the terminal to be processed and than brought back to the ship.
Once all the PCR tests were processed, we were free to take the 1PM shuttle bus out of the port.
Boy – that was a joke! Today could have been Tel Aviv or Jerusalem day (actually planned on Jaffa/Yafo), but between Israeli security paranoia, COVID paranoia and just plain incompetent chaos, they managed to waste the whole day. I won’t bore you with the details, but I can’t remember the last time I saw so many idiots in one place outside of an insane asylum. Long story made short, our first day in Israel consisted of taking a 30 minute bus ride at 3:30 in the afternoon to a two-bit shopping mall near the Ashdod main bus depot where the high point of the visit was walking to a supermarket a block away and then catching a 5:30 bus back to the ship in time for dinner.
Over the next few days, we had to show our passports more times than during some years. Israel is one of those countries where tourists have to carry their passports at all times and just getting to the ship at the port – or getting through the port from the ship required document inspection no fewer than three times in each direction.
We rented a car (from Hertz) at a great price. Then it turned out that my US credit card debit card were no longer accepted at gas pumps (they had been in the past), so at the end of the rental I was forced to pay for the whole tank of gas at about $10US a gallon.
Haifa (Golan, Galilee) Israel
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land. ~G.K. Chesterton
I had reserved a car from Avis in order to take a drive around northern Israel, but they called me to let me know their office would be closed and the rental was canceled. We hired a licensed Israeli tour guide for $700 for his services. Using his new SUV, which seats six, was still much less expensive than the ship for our ten hour tour through the Golan Heights and the Galilee.
We started at 7:30 with a drive from Haifa, past the ancient Arabic city of Acre and Queryat Shmonah to Metula at Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. From our vantage point in the town, we could see deep into Lebanon, as well as the Friend Gate and the wall separating Israel from Lebanon. When, over a decade ago, Palestinians and Hezbollah shot rockets into northern Israel, the Israeli Army occupied the southern 40km of Lebanon as a buffer zone, the Christian Arabs used to cross the border to work inside of Israel, but the gate has been closed for many years. The roads through the Golan Heights are lined with “Danger – Mine Field” signs to this day.
Turning east, we drove up into the Golan Heights, stopping at the small Druze village of Mas’Ada where we had delicious falafel, shawarma and Druze coffee at Vali 9 (+972-52-22 66 990). The Druze are an offshoot of Islam who are traditionally loyal to whatever country they live in. They frequently have blue or grey eyes, the men wear heavy knit scull caps and the married women wear very long white head-scarfs. The ones within the original boundaries of Israel join the Israeli army, but the ones living on the Golan Heights frequently opt for becoming policemen.
We drove 9 minutes further to Kibbutz El-Rom where a guy named Dudi showed us a moving 22 minute movie called “OZ77” (at NIS20 each) about the story from the 1973 Yom Kippur War about how 45 Israeli tanks held off (at the cost of 42 of them) about 500 Syrian tanks at a pass known as “The Valley of Tears”. Interestingly, one of the participants (presented in the movie as the driver of the lead tank) turned out to be a friend of mine for the past two decades.
Afterwards, we drove to the Valley of Tears itself to look at the vistas overlooking the valley that is still dotted with scattered bunkers as well as both Israeli Centurion and Syrian T-55 tanks left from the battle and chatted with a couple of assault rifle/grenade launcher toting uniformed kids from the Israeli army.
Our route took us past Kibbutz Merom Golan to Mount Ben-Tal (at 3,400’/1,100 meters) to the restaurant of Coffee Anon (means “cloud” in Hebrew, but a play on the former UN leader’s name) and where there was a bunker complex overlooking the Syrian landscape as far as Qunetra. This spot is only 40km from Damascus – much closer than it is to Jerusalem. The border on the Syrian side is now controlled by the Al Nusra Front (rather than the Syrian government), and there are occasional dull thuds from distant artillery as well as a pair of UN observers from Canada and Holland who were gazing into Syria using huge turret mounted pairs of binoculars.
Backtracking down off the Golan Heights, past the Crusader vintage Nimrod Castle, we crossed the Arik Bridge over the narrow (at this spot) River Jordan and pulled into the ancient town described in the New Testament of the Bible as Capernaum to explore the ruins of the 4th century synagogue built on the spot which was occupied by the synagogue Jesus preached at. Since this is a complex owned by the Franciscans (in competition with another purporting to be the same historical site about a mile away, but managed by the Eastern Orthodox religion from a pink domed church) it is not surprising that a statue of St. Francis of Assisi greets one when you enter.
From there we continued south along the Sea of Galilee through the resort town of Tiberius, stopping to thrust our hand into the hot springs in front of the Tiberius Spa and driving past the elaborate beachside water parks. Our last stop in the Galilee, as the Jordan River leaves the southern of the Sea of Galilee as a robust torrent, is the Yardenit where baptisms are held. This place is a bit of a tourist factory and everything from white robes to changing rooms are for rent. Our guide arranged to have a member of our party get ahead of the que and, after renting a white robe, have a formal dunking which gave her the thrill of a lifetime.
The way back passed a huge oil refinery centered around two huge cooling towers reminiscent of nuclear facilities, which was very nearly hit during the Iraqi War when Saddam Hussain launched Scud missiles at the area. As the shadows lengthened, we wove back into the city of Haifa which wends its way along the slopes of the Carmel Mountains and climbed to the top of the incredible Baha’i Gardens, giving us a view of the landscaped gardens protected by their olden dome, the sweep of the city below, the entire harbor as well as the tiny Prinsendam far below. The Gardens are free to tour, but only run an English language tour at noon. That said, the golden domed temple is only open until noon, so the smart play is to come earlier to the top and walk downhill through the gardens to the Temple. Starting at the bottom is for the fit and mountain goats only!
The Fattoush restaurant, at Sderot Ben Gurion 38, is a nice Lebanese place within walking distance from the pier. Taxis can be difficult to find in Haifa. There is overnight metered parking available at the train station next to the cruise pier. Transit cards are required for local buses and trams.
Well, for a couple of days in the country, we saw quite a bit, but based on our previous trips, the country needs a month to be completely seen in any sort of detail. Some of the missing sites include a trip to the Judean Desert to be inspired by the mountain-top fortress of Masada and a trip to Beit She’an National Park to see the ancient ruins of a Roman theatre and Byzantine bath house.
Reachable for about 10 shekels by train at only an hour away, Tel Aviv and Jaffa (Yaffa) are worth days of sightseeing. While Tel Aviv has far more to see, Jaffa is special. The historical port city of Jaffa is easily reached from Tel Aviv by foot or car. Its inhabitants have included notable biblical, Greek and Roman figures, and its name is said to have been derived from Japhet, Noah’s son or alternatively based on Jonah’s saying “Yaffe Po” (It is pretty here) when the whale spit him out. Archaeological finds indicate that Jaffa existed as a port city 4,000 years ago, serving both Egyptian and Phoenician sailors on their sea voyages. There’s the Dead Sea and the oasis resort of Ein Gedi, the beach resort on the Red Sea of Eilat, the kabbalist center of Safed, dozens of archeological digs and much, much more.
One of the challenges for Israel is that the relatively small religious political parties are the swing votes determining which of the major parties retains the office of Prime Minister. This allows them to bully the government into allowing illegal settlements on Arab owned property on the West Bank of Palestine, allow religious theological students to avoid military service, provide copious amounts of public financial assistance and so on. While it is their political problem and not mine (and our political issues provide ample amusement), it provides an interesting backdrop to our visit.
Safed (Zfat, phonetically), Israel
“When overseas you learn more about your own country, than you do the place you’re visiting.” – Clint Borgen
The trip from our spa hotel on Mount Carmel to Safed is a scenic mountainous one which follows paths taken for millennium by traders, nomads, crusaders and other invaders. They must have had better instructions than we had, but with only one short detour, once more we were able to find our hotel amidst the rat’s nest of streets that passes for the town of Safed.
Here again, we are in a classy place – the Palacio Domain. The hotel is the labor of love of the owner “Jean Yves”. It is created out of a thousand year old mameluke governor’s palace. Jean Yves, who came to the US from France as a kid, built a fashion empire based in NYC running eleven factories. He sold his business in the 1980’s, immigrated to Israel and bought this building in Safed. He says running this hotel of eleven rooms is far more challenging than running his fashion businesses.
When he acquired the extensive ancient building, it was in ruins. Over the next decade and a half he cleaned, restored, built and filled the place with a fabulous mixture of wonderful, but extraordinarily eclectic antiques, plaster moldings and lighting fixtures. The first floor has ancient domed Arabic ceilings (one from an ancient hammam with the typical window holes), a 25 meter deep stone well providing the original house’s water supply (and an opportunity to drop a coin – supplied by Jean Yves - and make a wish). The walls are decorated with renascence tapestries as well as numerous paintings by Jean Yves himself (generally of women with haunting eyes which Jean Yves explained are Kabalistic in nature). I have no idea what this effort cost him, but clearly this 11 room boutique hotel will not provide anything near reimbursement.
Drinks (both soft and top shelf hard liquor and wine) are included in the tab. Our supper was catered as we arrived on Friday night and the kitchen was shut, but was wonderful. Breakfast was, once more, the awesome spread that we now take for granted at Israeli hotels. Jean Yves regaled us with stories about a number of his more famous clients. As this is, by far, the most desirable hotel in the Galilee as well as near the Kabalistic center of Safed, many of his clientele would be recognized by most readers (but will remain confidential here out of courtesy). While this hotel will never get a five star rating (it has no pool, parking spots or even an elevator), the quality of the stay is certainly at the high end of that vaunted level and is head and shoulders above any other accommodation in the area (and there are about 100 channels of TV in a number of languages including 9 news channels – the last hotel had only a handful with the only English news being “Fox Extra” which was a bit limiting).
We are located in the artist’s colony deep in the old city. Real estate prices here have skyrocketed to about $8,000 per square meter. Many of the streets turn into stone staircases or narrow alleys. Synagogues, religious schools and ruins are scattered amongst the galleries and shops. The skyline is ragged with the stone houses, stairs and the occasional minaret from an abandoned mosque. It is Friday night and everything is closed up tight. Hordes of Chasidim dressed in what look like black silk bathrobes, white silk knee high stockings, tassels hanging out of their clothing at the four corners of their body and strummels (cylindrical mink hats, about 18 inches/43 cm in diameter and about 6 inches/14 cm high) rush along the streets and up the stairs to pray. Where we heard the calls to prayer coming from the minarets of Yaffo last week, here the rhythmic oriental chanting of Hebrew reaches down the streets from all directions.
Safed, a town that is closely linked to the development and the study of the Kabbalah attracts those with an interest in becoming adept in the study of this mystical technique. It is also up in the hills and therefore tends to be cooler in the summer (as well as the winter, when snow is not uncommon) and attracts many on holiday who are looking to avoid the heat of much of the rest of the country.
Safed has had a rough time of it over the ages (for details, punch it into Wikipedia and read its history). The development of the Kabbalah, a technique of pulling mystical information out of the scriptures by arithmetic manipulation has recently spread to be somewhat of a fad among some movie stars and other glitterati which form an unusual group when compared to the more usual Chasidic students.
The Galilee is Israel’s most fertile region, with valleys, forests and farmlands. Lake Tiberius (also known as the Sea of Galilee and the Kineret – the harp/violin – in Hebrew) is an area closely associated with the life and times of Jesus, making it a religious center for both Christians and Jews - and the area is full of religious shrines and historical sites of interest. The city of Tiberius was built in honor of the Roman Emperor after who it was named and has played an integral role in the history of the Jews. Not only did it serve as an important spiritual center and as a site of the compilation of the Talmud (along with Babylon and Jerusalem), but early pioneers also established some of Israel’s first kibbutzim (collective farms) around Tiberius. Today it is a popular vacation spot, offering year-round water activities, hot springs, health resorts and national parks. Since it is Saturday and everything is shut, we will be going to the beach in Tiberius (where I can try walking on water – probably won’t work, but worth a try).
Today is Saturday and everything in Safed is shut tight, so we decided to drive to the beach on the Sea of Galilee. The views, as we switchback down from the mountains, were fantastic and the sight – encompassing virtually the entire Sea of Galilee from up above - takes your breath away. We pass signs which refer to passages of the bible and the hills are dotted with ruins and ancient walls, any of which could pre-date biblical times.
Once you are out of a city, (and off of a mountain) the roads are actually pretty good. The problem is that the signage is lousy. It is very easy to miss a turn-off, especially at night. The good news is that, in Israel, within an hour, you’ll hit a border, the sea or an obviously incorrect city. While I wasn’t surprised to see lots of date palms, I was surprised to see large banana plantations. Israel exports lots of agricultural products as well as flowers but I hadn’t realized bananas were part of the mix (because of the amount of water I thought they required). We headed past a sign indicating the Mount of the Beatitudes.
We ended up parking at “Bora Bora”, a private beach. The cost was about $7.50 a person which gets you a chair a patch of grass under a date palm, a rocky beach on the Sea of Galilee and a lifeguard. The Israeli girls and guys lie in the sun in skimpy bathing suits without sun block (they will learn in a decade or two why this is not too bright) as the beach’s loudspeakers, aided by significant subwoofers, blast out rock and roll music. The water is refreshing and we can watch the skidoos, sailboats and tour boats pass on the large fresh water lake. In the past, we have stayed slightly north of here at a kibbutz named Nof Genosar which has a wooden boat on display that they found (which was built about the time of Jesus) has a nice guest house and is worth staying at if you want a reasonably priced place directly on the Sea.
After three hours at the beach, we drove about five more minutes south into the town of Tiberius itself and ate in a seafood restaurant on the boardwalk and watched a group of chanting Nigerian pilgrims coming back on one of the Sea of Galilee tour boats. After lunch, we headed back up to Safed – about a half hour drive to the hotel. In the past, we have taken one of the tour boats which generally give a ride of 2-3 hours around the lake with commentary largely of a religious nature. It is a nice boat ride. The news reported today that Israel bombed the Gaza strip in retaliation for yesterday’s missile attacks.
Our friends were invited out for a dinner by some of their friends from the UK (a whole group of them had come over en masse to attend a wedding last week in Tel Aviv). Since I had the car, we tagged along. The dinner was being arranged at a guest house on the Golan Heights. Since Israel is so small, getting from our place in the Galilee to the top of the Golan Heights was just a matter of a short drive. This is an area which, while part of Israel since it was “acquired” in 1967, is still claimed by Syria.
The drive to the restaurant was at dusk. The views of the Sea of Galilee were spectacular from the heights. The road to the Golan Heights has bursts of bright pink azalea colors from time to time from a large flower covered tree. We passed abandoned crusader forts and bare topped hills which were clearly tels and got there in about ½ an hour from Safed with no problem, arriving as night descended.
The dinner took place at a “guest house” (actually a wonderland of guest houses joined by paths with bridges over burbling brooks – was very attractive) named “Invito” located in a town called Had-Ness (One Miracle) in the Golan Heights (for those who are unfamiliar with this area’s history, I encourage you to look it up). The owner had studied cooking in Italy and enjoys preparing Italian meals. This was a BYOB affair, but the food was absolutely outstanding (not cheap - $110 per couple, but included a number of hot appetizers for each person, a salad, a choice of pasta – I chose a perfectly al dente linguini with a wild mushroom in yoghurt sauce, choice of main course/veggies, limoncello aperitif, choice of desert, tea/coffee/cappuccino/etc. and was worth the expense). While I heard that the cooling of the guest houses was spotty, based on seeing their interiors and eating this meal, I would feel comfortable in recommending this place if you happen to be in the neighborhood (but call first to see if the guy feels like cooking that particular day as apparently the restaurant isn’t opened every day and is by appointment only).
By the time dinner was over, a little past eleven, it was dark. We arranged to have the restaurateur call to open the street-wide security gate to let us out (It is closed at 11PM), but we got lost in the town and by the time we reached the gate, it had closed and we had to phone him to open it again. At about the halfway mark back to Safed, my trusty navigator got confused and told me to take a right instead of a left and we headed down a completely empty, but well lit, highway. A while later my wife mentioned that we had passed Qiryat Shmona and were nearly to Metula on the Lebanese border. So I did a “U-turn” and headed the other way.
After a considerable length of time, we became nervous that we had, once more missed a turnoff (where hostile border frontiers were within a few minutes’ drive) and we exited to ask at a gas station. I put some fuel into the car (26.42 liters of diesel fuel – cheaper than gasoline - at a cost of 200NS – I’ll leave the math to others, but I’d round it off to about 7 bucks a gallon). Anyhow, the attendant confirmed to my wife (official translator here) that we were on the right track. Shortly afterwards, I finally saw a sign for North Safed and jubilantly took it. We had always entered South Safed, but how much difference could that make? Similar to the roads in the Golan, before I got to the highway, these were unlit and very twisty as they climbed the mountain along ancient routes causing me to use my hi-beam headlights, but continually toggling them off when cars came towards me.
We got a bit turned around and came up behind a police car next to another vehicle (presumably writing a ticket). I was a bit nervous because I would have to cross a solid line on the road into the oncoming lane to pass the cop, but I did it anyway. Well it turns out that this was a roadblock because there was a horse charging up and down the street with two Israeli policemen trying to lasso it and a car on the side with a smashed windshield – presumably from the horse. Anyway, we moved on from this scene, suitable for a Fellini movie, and my wife asked a cab driver for directions. He said that he had just received a call from near the hotel and that I could follow him.
What ensued was a high speed chase through the twisty streets and hairpin turns of the few miles to our destination as the driver tried to lose me and I terrorized anyone dumb enough to be on the streets (or in my vehicle), as I raced after him in the SUV, neatly pulling into a parking space outside the hotel (and telling everyone they could open their eyes now) – total time for the return trip was 1 1/2 hours.
Well, it is going to be another scorcher today with temperatures pushing up towards 104F/40C degrees. After breakfast, we decided to sightsee in Safed before it really heated up. This area of the city is known as an artist’s colony (which means that it is too expensive for artists by now and is full of expensive galleries selling works of questionable artistic content). In the midst of these are ancient synagogues devoted to the study of the Kabala. I went into one and was embarrassed into giving charity to the door master, who then winked, pointing to my Vermont fly fishing shirt and said “Caught one” with a smile.
After a couple of hours of pointless shopping (not really looking to buy anything, just popping from store to store), we hopped in the jalopy and headed north to the Banias. As we cruised through Qiryat Shmona, in the Golan, I noticed the children’s playground was graced with three former Syrian Soviet issue tanks painted bright red, blue and yellow for kids to climb on. Further up the road into the Golan Heights are photo stops overlooking the entire Galilee - spread before us like a tableau. These were Syrian artillery emplacements designed and built by the Soviets and were the reason that Israel felt it was so important to take the heights in 1967 (the reader should look up the story about the Israeli spy Eli Cohen for more on this).
We drove eastward along a road lined with mine field warnings on both sides continuing towards the Banyas, the spot on Mount Hermon where the main branch of the Jordan River emerges from the rock in ice cold streams (the ice cream stand sells tacky plastic bottles for a buck and a half each labeled “Holy Water from The Source” for those who want a souvenir). The site was used as a Hellenic temple for hundreds of years dedicated to the half goat god Pan (but, since the Arabic dialect spoken locally does not have the “P” sound, the name changed over time from the Panias to the Banias). Further down the timeline, this pagan temple was renamed Caesarea Philippi and figured in the story told in the Gospels. There was a tour bus full of Spanish priests here on a pilgrimage. There is a fairly easy hike of about 45 minutes down a well-marked trail, under a Roman bridge, to a waterfall.
On the way back, the navigator once more zigged instead of zagging and, while I realized that we were not driving through a mine field, I instead noticed that we were heading through a former Syrian town close to the border. Pretty much all the store signs were in both Hebrew and Arabic, but the people here speak Arabic as their first choice. The only radio stations I could pull in were in Arabic (though I could not tell if they were Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian or Israeli) as we were driving along the border. Pretty soon we found a road heading further west and found our way back to Rosh Pina for calzones and Middle Eastern salads. While it was dark when we hit Safed, we were now practiced enough to be able to figure out how to find the hotel in its rat’s maze of streets.
I evaluate our hotel in Safed with mixed feelings. The furnishings and ambiance truly make you feel like you are staying in a French chateau and the proprietor, John Yves, is chatty and pleasant. The included breakfast is more than sufficient (though with only about ten rooms, the spread does not compete with those of hotels with 10 or 30 times as many and the only omelets are plain ones). Chen (“ch” pronounced like in chutzpa, so this is like the beginning of the word henna rather than sounding like a Chinese name) , the beautiful, dark eyed, one woman army of versatility keeps things smoothly running (though interestingly is never seen in the same room as the hotel’s pet black cat). That’s the good news. The other news is that, while we did not have any problems in our room (The Queen), two other guests in the larger rooms with balconies complained about bumping into furniture in the night and weird room layouts.
The style of “Kabalistic” painting done by Jean Yves, which hangs on most walls and appears in every room, tends to be of women with “extreme” eyes which feel like they are following you around the room. This can be a bit creepy. For those who depend on such things, there is no room service. While Chen is willing to help and occasionally there is a guy named Amir (I think) around, there is a reasonable likelihood that you will be carrying your own bags to and from your room (including negotiating the long, winding marble staircase to the second floor). While there are a small handful of local “on the street” parking places, and we always found one, if these 4-5 spots were filled when you needed a spot, it could get pretty lousy. All in all, this hotel is better than any other in Safed and offers sufficient eclectic entertainment to be on the keeper list, though the recommendation comes with the stated qualifications.
If you want to flatter Caesar, build the epitome of a Roman city and name it after the Roman emperor. After it was built, Caesarea joined the far more ancient ports of Gaza, Ashkelon, Yafo, Acre and Tyre as a major shipping destination along the Judean/Philistine coast.
Caesarea (40km or 25 miles north of Tel Aviv) was the culminating vision of Herod the Great (37 b.c.–4 b.c.), who created a new, spectacular classical Roman city by the sea to rival Alexandria as the greatest metropolis of the Eastern Mediterranean. Since it had no natural port, he built a vast artificial harbor. On the empty sands, he constructed theaters facing the sea, temples, hippodromes, palaces, colonnaded avenues, and markets. A thousand years later, the city was reborn as a Crusader fortress, but after the Crusades, the ruins of the city were covered by sand and forgotten.
Today, the romantic ruins by the sea have become Israel’s most photogenic and lively archaeological site, dotted with fancy eateries in the midst of the ruins. Nearby, there are beaches, wineries, and the artists’ village of Ein Hod
The remains of Caesarea (Qesarya, in Hebrew) are spread along a 3km (1 3/4-mile) stretch of Mediterranean beach adjacent to one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. Admission to Caesarea National Park is good for both the Crusader city and the theater and you can enter by either gate (pick up a map when you enter). You can enter the city for free after 5pm closing time to visit the restaurants that have sprung up inside the park or stroll the ruins, but special exhibits are closed at night.
Admission (including the Roman Theater and Crusader city) is NIS 40 for adults, NIS 35 for children; save your ticket for the interactive audiovisual Time Trek tour. Hours are Saturday to Thursday 8am to 4pm (until 6pm Apr–Sept), and Friday from 8am to 3pm. Call tel. 04/636-7080 for information.
There is an excellent, inventive Audiovisual Presentation that brings the site to life with re-creations of what Caesarea would have looked like at different times in its history.
The excavations you see today are only a very small part of what’s still buried here. New finds are constantly being unearthed. In recent years, ruins of a massive temple dedicated to Roman gods were uncovered and attributed to the King Herod. Other highlights include the Roman Theater, constructed in the time of Jesus, and used today to host summer performances). Test the acoustics by sitting in the stands and listening to someone speak or clap hands on stage.
You enter the park through the Crusader Gate, you cross the deep moat on a bridge, then walk through a gatehouse with Gothic vaulting. Emerging, you’ll find yourself in the large fortified town, far smaller than the great Herodian/Roman city. Especially noteworthy are the foundations of the Crusader Church of Saint Paul (1100s), down toward the sea, near the little Turkish minaret (1800s). The citadel, next to the group of shops, was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1837, as was most of the balance of the Crusader city.
Herod’s harbor was one of the largest harbors of the Roman world, mentioned by historian Flavius Josephus as an especially amazing feat of engineering because it was a total creation—built without the usual benefit of a topographical feature such as a bay or cove. Historians did not find the harbor until 1960, when a combination of aerial photography and underwater archaeological explorations revealed the ruins sunken offshore. Historians and archaeologists believe that the harbor structure probably sank vertically downward as a result of an earthquake.
The excavation of the underwater ruins is an important international project. At the Old Caesarea Diving Center in the Old City (tel. 04/626-5898; www.caesarea-diving.com), at the site of the ancient harbor, you can join a guided dive with equipment supplied starting at NIS 275 for 1 hour (you must be certified). Snorkeling tours can also be arranged. The dive explores ruins of the ancient harbor, and passes by ancient shipwrecks, classical statues, and fragments of a once-great lighthouse. Reserve ahead, although dives can’t be guaranteed if sea conditions aren’t good.
The Port of Sebastos, a dockside part of the Crusader port, extends from the Crusader city into the sea, but King Herod’s harbor at Caesarea, completed in 10 b.c. and also named Sebastos, extended at least three times as far as what can be seen today. It curved around to the right, where a separate northern breakwater extended to meet it, roughly where the northern Crusader fortification walls meet the sea. The breakwater was also a wide platform, with room for large quantities of cargo, housing for sailors, a lighthouse, colossi (gigantic statues), and two large towers guarding the entrance gates to the harbor. The harbor could be closed off by a chain stretched between the two towers, preventing ships from entering.
Fifty meters (164 ft.) east of the Crusader city entrance, behind the little snack shop, is the Byzantine Street, or Street of Statues, which is actually part of a forum. The statues depict an emperor and other dignitaries.
Head east from either the Byzantine Street or the Roman Theater to reach the massive hippodrome, in the fields between the two access roads. Measuring 72[ts]288m (236[ts]945 ft.), the hippodrome could seat some 20,000 people. Some of the monuments in the hippodrome may have been brought from Aswan in Egypt—expense was no object when Herod built for Caesar.
Largely residential, the modern city of Caesarea is notable for its very worthwhile art museum, the Ralli Museum, located on Rothschild Boulevard (tel. 04/626-1013. Mon-Tues and Thurs-Sat 10:30am-3pm. Free). The museum contains a large collection of works by Latin American and Spanish artists (including artists of Sephardic origin); is housed in a spacious, beautifully designed new building. The collection also includes sculptures by Dalí and Rodin.
This national park is located less than an hour southeast from Haifa. The word “Tel” refers to a city which has been destroyed multiple times and forms a higher hill, each time it is rebuilt on the rubble of the previous iteration until the accumulated rubble has formed a flat-topped mountain. Tel Megiddo was created by thirty different civilizations stretching from the Neolithic period up until about 500 BC during the post-Babylonian Persian period.
Tel Megiddo commanded the main road from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Sometimes the inhabitants were allied with one side, sometimes with the other, but regardless, the two empires regularly duked it out at this location. The Tel got a reputation as the natural place where the “Powers of Good” would fight with the “Powers of Evil” so it was a natural pick for the final battle predicted by the Book of Revelations when it refers to Armageddon – a Greek corruption of its name.
The most interesting part of the site is the vast water system, apparently from the days of King Ahab (9th century BCE). The system was intended to bring water into the city without having to go outside the walls. The inhabitants of Megiddo dug a huge shaft, 25 m deep (currently 187 steps down), from which they quarried out a horizontal tunnel that extends 70 m to a spring in a cave outside the city walls. Not far from the shaft of the water system is the “gallery” – the name given to a narrow, hidden passage leading from inside the walls to the spring at the foot of the city. The passage is covered, so as to conceal those passing along it. The gallery shortened the way to the spring. Before it was built, the residents had to go out of the city gate on the other side of Megiddo.
The main finds from the Canaanite period are the city gate (15th century BCE), and the original stone paving from the period that leads to it. Alongside it is the Canaanite palace – the remains of a vast structure of rooms built around a central courtyard. In one of the rooms gold objects, hundreds of pieces of decorated ivory jewelry, and a washroom paved with shells were found.
The earliest remains of the site were found in the temple area, excavated by the early archaeological expeditions at Megiddo. The temples were used as a ritual site for some 2000 years, until settlement by the Israelites (12th century BCE). In the large section, which was excavated down to the bedrock, 30 layers of settlement were found.
In further excavations, a pit was found above the temple area in which there were the remains of an underground structure. The structure, which had an arched ceiling, was found empty and it is hard to date it or draw any conclusions as to its use. It appears to have been constructed in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age, and may have served for ritual purposes, or as a burial chamber.
Not far from the Canaanite gate, a city gate from the 10th century BCE early Israelite period was found appears to have been built in the days of King Ahab when the city was part of Israel’s fortifications. Long stables containing troughs, and beams for tethering animals were found at two different sites at Megiddo and were apparently also built at this time (though they have also been attributed to Solomon).
Large buildings constructed of ashlar stone were used by the city governors and were Megiddo’s public buildings. Near the Eastern Palace parts of a residential neighborhood have been excavated, including a four-room house – a building in a style characteristic of Israelite construction during First Temple times. The Southern Palace is a block of public buildings in a style that was common in the 10th century BCE interior, known as bit-hilani (house of pillars). Buildings of this kind have a large courtyard surrounded by rooms built on a number of stories, a magnificent entrance hall, and a large “throne room”. Also from this period is a large round pit public granary, whose walls are faced with rough stone. The excavators found grains of wheat in it.
An Assyrian quarter was also found, with six straight streets. This quarter served as a residential neighborhood after the Assyrian conquest (732 BCE). Nearby, the remains of a magnificent building were found, the only one of its kind in Israel, similar in plan to Assyrian palaces, although on a smaller scale.
I strongly recommend reading Michener’s “The Source” to get an in-depth context about the history of a Tel.
Beit Shean, Israel
Only a half hour drive from Tel Megiddo, Beit Shean is one of the oldest cities in Israel. Like most places in Israel it has several names – Scythopolis, Tel Beit Shean, Tel el-Husn, Tel el-Hosn, Beisan, and Nysa. It is in the Galilee region of northern Israel where the Harod Valley and Jordan Valley meet. It’s 27km south of the Sea of Galilee and 5km east of the Jordan River. It is one of the country’s largest archaeological sites.
The area was settled as early as the Chalcolithic era, about 6000 years ago and has remained continually inhabited since then. Extensive excavation of a large mound has revealed over 20 layers of remains from ancient civilizations. Canaanite Temples pre-date Egyptian occupation of the region followed by Israelite rule and the Philistines during the Old Testament period. The name appears in the Bible several times and is famous as the site where King Saul and his sons hung from the city walls. The city remained a significant metropolis during the reign of King David and King Solomon. The Hellenistic period followed when the city was renamed Scythopolis after Dionysus’ nurse who was believed to have been buried here.
In the 1st century AD, Beit Shean became a flourishing multi-cultural Roman city. It was one of 10 cities in the Decapolis regional league. It was the Roman provincial capital in the 4th century AD. Following an earthquake in 749 AD, the city never truly regained its former status. Since then the Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, British and finally Israelis have each settled here.
Today the main attraction is the Archaeological National Park where tourists can see the history of Israel through the archaeological remains from each historic period. On the elevated mound are remains of the Canaanite and Egyptian cities and at the foot of the mound are the extensive remains of the Roman city. The excavation and reconstruction offer a clear picture of what the city would have looked like. This former Roman metropolis was home to 30,000 to 40,000 citizens and covered approximately 370 acres.
We were on the first ship to dock at Izmir in 2022 after their COVID shutdown. Very few wore masks outside, but most did inside of shops.
Izmir, back in the ancient times known as Smyrna, has changed many hands – Greek and Roman – prior to becoming part of Turkey.
Around 200 years after the disintegration of the Hittite Empire, waves of Ionian immigrants began to populate Izmir’s region, creating a thriving metropolis comparable to its contemporary, Troy. Since then it has been occupied migrated to and occasionally destroyed by the Lydians, the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great’s Greeks, the Romans and then the Byzantines. The city was razed by a devastating earthquake in A.D. 178. Control vacillated between the Byzantines and the Arabs until 1390, when the region was stabilized under Selçuk, then Ottoman, rule.
A commercial center during the 15th century, nurtured by the liberal policies of tolerance practiced by the Ottomans, the city welcomed waves of immigrant Jews fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition as well as Greeks and Armenians and each has left its cultural imprint on the city. After World War I, the Greek occupying forces pushed eastward. The defeat of Greek forces by Atatürk’s national liberation army in 1922, was the defining moment in the establishment of national sovereignty; as the Greeks were pushed off the peninsula, at which point the city was nearly entirely razed by fire. The city has since been rebuilt into a modern city.
The Asansör quarter (also known as Karatas) takes its name from the passenger elevator installed to provide access between the cliff-top neighborhoods and the sea-level streets below. Before the completion of the tower-enclosed elevator (asansör is the Turkish equivalent of the French word for a lift, residents were faced with a 155 step climb. The view from the top, 50m (164 ft.) up, is fantastic, and can be accompanied by a glass of tea or a meal at the Teras Restaurant Café.
Redevelopment of Izmir’s waterfront also benefited the neighborhood of Konak. Besides the neighborhood’s wide-open plazas, there’s a restored Customs House built by Gustave Eiffel which has been turned it into a shopping mall, complete with cinema, high-end shops, cafes and waterside restaurants.
An elaborately decorated clock tower overlooks Konak Square and has become the symbol of Izmir. Designed in a late Ottoman Moorish style, the Clock Tower was presented to the city by Sultan Abdülhamid in 1901 and stands over 24m (79 ft.) high.
Konak’s Ottoman bedesten has been a successful draw since its restoration, not just because few can resist a town bazaar, but also because the prices are amazingly competitive for the stocks of sumac carpets, water pipes, camel bone, and jewelry. Of special note, Ebru Camkiran’s shop at Guzelyurt Mah. 920/1Sk. No.27 (+90 555 580 7180, EbruCamkiran35@gmail.com) creates fabulous hand-painted ceramics at reasonable (negotiable) prices and has been awarded the title of “Tile Artist” by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
There are multiple banks and ATM’s in the market, but exchange rates at banks, as well as ATM fees may vary more than in many countries.
Ever since the completion of the waterside promenade, the Kordon has become Izmir’s de facto center for restaurants and breezy cafes. This is a great place to go for a stroll and meal.
At the “top” of the bazaar, constructed during the rule of Alexander the Great, the Agora is today mostly in ruins. (Call ahead to make sure it’s open, the entrance is currently 25 lira or under $2US) After an earthquake devastated the original in A.D. 178, it was rebuilt. Later, Byzantines and Ottomans both used the space above it as a cemetery, leaving the ancient remains remains of the area undisturbed and, as a result, it is one of the best-preserved Ionian agoras in the world. The open-air museum contains the remains of three of the four main gates, some recognizable stalls, and a three-sided perimeter of porticos. Excavations of a monumental gated entrance to the Agora among other objects, uncovered a treasure of statues of Greek gods and goddesses (housed elsewhere). More recent excavations of the Roman basilica have brought to light graffiti and drawings (in the basement), plus inscriptions of the people who provided aid after the earthquake of A.D. 178.
There are a number of synagogues about a block into the bazaar, across the street from the Agora. All three of the ones we sought out consisted of a simple locked door in a wall with a small sign indicating their presence.
Day trips to Ephesus and Pergamum are easy (and inexpensive – current price to take the one hour drive to Ephesus is about $15US). Both are ancient Hellenic/Roman cities and worth seeking out
Multiple operators service this route
Yeni Girne Taxi, WEBSITE: yenigirnetaksi.net PHONE: +90 2323635474
Izmir Spor Taxi, WEBSITE: onlinetaksi.com PHONE: +90 232 255 24 19
Iskele Taxi. WEBSITE: onlinetaksi.com PHONE: +90 232 445 66 18