Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Christmas in Israel

While being away from family during Christmas is very hard and always produces a few tears, visiting close friends in a place you never thought you would see definitely makes it a whole lot easier. With our time in Europe possibly coming to an end (more on that later....), we decided to spend the holidays not in the States or even Europe. On the generous invitation of Jay and Galit who allowed us to crash with them and their adorable daughter, we found ourselves in the Middleastern country of Israel! And, wow, what a country! And what a trip! While Israel is the home to many important religious sights, it is also a lively country with great diversity and cultures. The beaches, restaurants, and weather also fantastic. Thanks to Jay's intense clipboard of fun, we saw and did so much. In this post (or over a few), I am going to try and cover all the details (ok, at least the highlights). So, here it goes....

Day One- This crazy, event-packed day started with a walking tour of Jerusalem's Old City. This tour covered the four quarters (Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian) of the Old City. While there is no distinct seperationg between the quarters, the architectural and cultural differences are noticable. Some of the highlights of the tour include The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the sight where Jesus was crucified, buried, and then rose from the dead), Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount (and Islamic Shrine), Via Doloroso (the route Jesus walked from the place of trial to the site of his crucifixion), and the Western Wall (considered the most important Jewish Shrine). We also briefly saw the room of the Last Supper, Tomb of David, and a traditional Arab market. The tour also included an amazing, all-you-could-eat lunch at an authentic Arab restaurant...we will talk about this lunch for a long time! After the tour concluded, Jay took over guiding duties and showed us around the Shouk (traditional outdoor maket selling a bit of everything) as well as the outskirts of the Old City. Dinner was some Shwarma in the Old City. The day ended with a a tour of the Western Wall Tunnel. This tour allows visitors to go underground (you are actually walking below houses!) and see parts of the Western Wall that cannot be seen from the main plaza while getting detailed information on the Wall's construction and significance.
Day Two- An early start again, day two opened with a free, muncipality-sponsored tour of Jaffa. A neighborhood just outside of Tel Aviv, Jaffa is mentioned in the Bible as a connection with many significant events (Jonah set off from Jaffa before being swallowed by a whale, the cedars used in the construction of Temple passed through Jaffa on their way to Jersalem) and is home to one of world's oldest ports. Today, Jaffa houses individuals from every religion and has both a thriving artist community as well as a popular flea market. In Jaffa, we also enjoyed a delicious lunch of Shakshouka and veggie couscous. Here, we also met up with Galit's Dad (who runs a business in Jaffa) for some coffee and pastries!
Day Three- The Vad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust history memorial museum, is an amazing place and a must see for anyone visiting Israel. While the museum is free to all visitors, it is worth the money to hire a private guide. Otherwise, it would be almost impossible to nagivate the grounds and understand many of the exhibits. Although she kept calling Jiggy "Gigi" and had me married to Jay by the end of the tour, Hazy not only lead us through the museum but also shared some amazing stories on many Holocaust survivors. After an emotional but educational morning, we lightened the mood with a long lunch followed by an evening light show at the Tower of David.
Day Four-Every trip needs a day dedicated to shopping! After three full days packed with programmed activities, day four of our trip was the perfect day to head to a few of Tel Aviv's popular markets. After wandering through the flea market, we then headed to Nachalat Binyamin. An artists outdoor market, Nachalat Binyamin is special as all the artists are required to man their own booths. So, you get to talk to all the artists about all their various creations. Jignesh walked away with a modern painting by a Spanish guy and I scored some great earrings made of seashells. The day ended with a sunset on the beach!
Day Five- Day five brought an untraditional Christmas to say the least. Instead of enjoying Santa's gifts and a huge meal, we visited the Dead Sea! The ride to the Sea led us through the Negev Desert where we saw some traditional Bedouin houses and stopped to take some pictures of young boys on donkeys herding the family's camels. Now, on to the Dead Sea itself. First, you need some you need to know some facts on this world wonder. Also called the Salt Sea, it borders Jordan to the east an Israel and the West Bank to the west. Its surface and shores are 1,385 ft below sea level making it the lowest elevation on the Earth's surface on dry land. With 33.7% salinity (8.7 times more than the ocean), it is a harsh environment where animals cannot live (hence its name!). We certaintly were not the first visitors as it is recognized as one of the world's first health resorts. The experience of floating (swimming is almost impossible) is undescribable and one of the strangest things I have ever done. You feel like you are wearing a life jacket as you have to make no effort to float. In fact, for older people who may not have strength in their legs, it is quite difficult to change from the floating to the standing position! It is perfect for people like Jignesh that usually need a few noodles and multiple life jackets to feel comfortable in open water. You cannot go to the Dead Sea without covering yourself from head to toe in the therapuetic mud! So, we joined all the other tourists and spread the sulpher smelling mud over every inch of exposed skin. What an amazing Christmas!
Day Six- Our last full day in Israel was a relaxing one. We started with a late breakfast and then headed to one to small, quaint neighborhood where we did some windowshopping. After bumming around for a few hours, we had a tour and tasting at Carmel Winery (Israel's largest producer of wines). Before reluctantly calling it a night for our early morning flight, we enjoyed a stroll and some hot chocoloate at a beautiful marina lined with restaurants and shops.
We cannot think Jay and Galit enough. They were amazing hosts and the trip would not have been the same without them! They opened up their home for us and went out of their way to show us all the different aspects of Israel. Thank you so much!
Au Revoir!

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