Tag Archives: Israel

Israel Crossing Pietro Place

Bad News Returning to Israel

The news was bad.  The rains had washed away the border crossing and so there was no way back to Israel at the southern crossing.  Instead, we had to drive north to the Allenby Bridge crossing and we had to leave our hotel at 3 am.  It was sort of exciting because that particular crossing required a visa from Israel because it originated in the West Bank and there had been some issues at the crossing before.

We stopped along the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side at an awful café where I had a falafel and a coffee and was convinced I would have dysentery within the hour.  I laced my coffee with a Pepto-Bismol to ensure I made it.  I popped into the bathroom but simply could not stay.  It was dreadful and I felt myself longing for the souvenir shops with the toilets the day before.  Jordan was no Israel and I realized we had to get to the border crossing.  It was our only hope!

We organized a VIP status at the crossing and that expedited most things.  Again, it was as if we were in a spy movie – passports were exchanged, we said goodbye to our Jordanian guides, jumped into a neutral vehicle, crossed over, and our Israeli taxi driver was waiting for us.  We drove across the King Hussein Bridge and there was a primitive bunch of roadblocks with nails to stop anybody from hurling themselves into Israel.  The actual drive across the Jordan River seemed to last forever.  We spilled into Jericho and then drove past the settlements, through the West Bank, and into Jerusalem for a late stroll and another plate of hummus.

I was beginning to like hummus with a cappuccino. Am I really saying that? We were back in Israel and the toilets sure looked good to me.

Israel Crossing Pietro Place Israel Crossing Pietro Place

Petra Pietro Place


It was cloudy when we left Aqaba but all of the forecasts predicted that rain would cease around midday when we were set to arrive in the ancient city of Petra.  Situated in the Wadi Musa, Petra was established by the Nabateans around 400 years before Christ.  In its heyday, it was home to 30,000 people.

What happened here?

The Romans came and colonized and built their amphitheaters, baths, and shopping colonnades and then the earthquake took care of the rest. It was a well-kept secret for over 1,000 years until a Swiss explorer rode into the city disguised as a holy man.  The game was up and it was on the tourist map.  But this is no ordinary place.  Cut into the sandstone and chiseled into huge blocks of pink and red cliff, this place has everything….except decent places to grab a bite to eat and a cup of tea!

Standing by the main palace entrance, walking into the tombs, or wandering down the narrow, towering vertical walls are some of those extraordinary moments in travel when you pinch yourself. Running through the Siq is one of the great walks of travel. It is a walk of anticipation that was made into a sacred way by the Nabateans who had their eye for a dramatic moment or two clearly.

You don’t know whether to put your camera down or just keep hitting the shutter.  Then you spill out onto the masterpiece called the Treasury. It is like a movie set.  It is a movie set and the tour has not really begun.  We spent the best part of six hours there.

The houses carved into the cliffs go on and on.  You can get lost as you wander down that valley.  Imagine that this place was practically shut down for 1,500 years?  No water (the aqueducts were broken) and no civilization.  Just a few Bedouin’s holding one of the great secrets of time. Somehow most of it hung in there.  If you have never dreamed of going to Petra, go!  We came in on a horse and we left on a camel.  Incidentally, it was only an hour ride on the camel but it felt like a month.  I had so much more respect for Peter O’Toole than ever before!

Back to Aqaba for an evening dinner and an early departure.

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Wadi Araba Border Crossing

The Wadi Araba Border Crossing

It was a bit like one of those spy movies.  You arrive in the car, there’s no one there, the driver waits and has a cigarette, we hang around, and then out of nowhere, a van appears and another guy comes out.  A conversation takes place, passports are exchanged, and we are all walked to the border.  This was the Wadi Araba border crossing.  Our helper guide was an English guy who lived in Eilat.  He clearly did this all of the time, mainly for day trippers from Eilat, but we were going deeper; three nights at Aqaba, Jordan’s Red Sea resort.  The crossing did not take long.  We woke up a few border guards, walked our bags across a dead zone, and men in black and white camouflage fatigues welcomed us on behalf of the Jordanian Army.  Pictures of the Jordanian royal family were everywhere and on the other end a transit van, driver, and guide picked us up and drove us to the Kempinski Hotel.

The Red Sea.  There it was in between the lights of Eilat and the distant lights of the Sinai in Egypt.  We were in Jordan’s 22 kilometers of access to the open sea.  Welcome to Aqaba. 
Wadi Araba Border Crossing

Aqaba Pietro Place

A Night on the Town, Aqaba vs Eilat

If Eilat is a sprawling, disco inferno, dance until dawn, restaurant-infused, party machine, then Aqaba is not.  There is a bazaar, a few terrible restaurants, a pub called the Rover’s Return named after the pub on Britain’s long running soap opera, Coronation Street, for some reason, and a scattering of Chinese restaurants.  Finding any place that accepted credit cards or served fish was going to be challenging.  Of course, alcohol was often in short supply.

So this is the Jordanian Riviera – a sparkling mosque, some run down restaurants, and a couple of hotels that looked out of business.  Tomorrow it would be the Wadi Rum and the day after Petra.  But this evening, it would be a dodgy Chinese restaurant and a warm beer.  How I long for the lights of Eilat.

Aqaba Pietro Place

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Into the Negev

Heading South into the Negev

The idea was that we would drive down to Eilat, the hedonistic playground for Israelis searching for even more sun, on the glorious Red Sea.  In between, we would stop and take in the spectacular scenery that featured heavily in my guidebook.  Of course, what we had not planned for was our driver who was a smart 70 year old man with 5 years of military history and had seen it all.  He had that clipped Israeli accent and his English was not brilliant.  Worst of all, he liked to drive fast – like 100 mph fast.  Getting the guide to stop at a vineyard here or a rock formation there was like bargaining in the bazaar.  In the end, I had to pretend that I was car sick to get him to stop at important historical sites.  He wanted to speed down to Eilat and dump us at the border crossing. I wanted to stop serendipitously because the scenery was so incredibly spectacular.  It would be a difficult day but the reward was that we got to see Avdat and the Makhtesh Ramon.

Today was about the Nabataeans and frankincense and myrrh in Avdat.  This was the desert where the incense traders moved their stuff from Yemen to Petra and across to the Mediterranean ports.  I have some frankincense in my spice jar at home and everything that sits inside of that spice jar reminds me of the scents of Arab lands like Morocco, Egypt, and all of these magical places I have been to.  So trying to imagine being on a camel 1,000 years ago, bringing the riches at that time for onward sale to the Europeans, was an amazing thought.  This is the land of David Ben-Gurion’s desert home; Ben-Gurion being the founding father of Israel.  It is a land of vineyards on carefully irrigated land.  It is a lunar landscape of “grand canyons” that reminded me instantly of the western part of the USA.  And I had to negotiate with the driver who clearly had seen it all before.

The Makhtesh Ramon reserve is the largest protected area in Israel.  It is vast with multicolored sandstone and volcanic rocks and is 300 meters deep, eight kilometers wide, and 40 kilometers long.  The visitor’s center was one of those strange places often encountered in Israel where the service was less than optimal again.  The information booth was staffed by pretty uninterested people and the lunch place had arguably the worst service we had encountered so far.  No one seemed to care and they just seemed tired of dealing with tourists.  The funny thing was that there were not that many of us!  No matter, we grabbed more hummus, took some fresh juice, and watched some crazy guys cliff diving.

It was difficult to leave but the driver could not wait to pack us into his fancy Mercedes and get us into the drop-off point by the border.  He spoke rarely except to point out the date palms which were prolific, the milk farm trucks which amazed me, and when we said that we were heading to Jordan, he looked back at us and said, “…Why?”  He will be back in Tel Aviv in less than two hours.  I think that he felt sorry for us.

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The Coastal Road

The funny thing about Israel is that the roads are so darn good; Massachusetts Turnpike should take note.  The exit north of Tel Aviv was very smooth and we passed a whole bunch of mega factories and Silicon Valley-type high-tech places on the coastal road, close to very upmarket residential beach areas.

Today we had elected to drive as far north as we could get to check out a town called Akko.  In between we would pass the principal port of Israel, Haifa, which had been written up in my Lonely Planet book as a “very picturesque city with spectacular views from the top of Mount Carmel.”  The views were pretty nice and there is obviously history in the hills.  The Bahai Gardens are world famous and stunning.  But, at least on first reflection, it seemed like a good place to move on from.  Anyhow, our principal destination was Akko which is very close to the Lebanese border.

Akko is a town that Marco Polo passed through and it was mentioned in sacred Egyptian texts and in Greek mythology.  From a history buffs point of view, Akko has it all – Alexander the Great, the Egyptians, the Romans, and the Arabs who conquered Akko in 638 AD until the nasty Crusaders came by and seized the city in 1100 AD.  It was the principal port of access contested by Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, and Philip II of France.

Today, Akko is a very mixed city – 70% of the residents are Jews and 30% are Arabs – but the population of the old city with its winding souks is about 95% Arab.  Akko has a seawall, ramparts you can walk on top of, and a dry moat.  We dove into the towering Knights’ Hall built 800 years ago and a tunnel just big enough for one person that leads out into the bazaar.  You can also take the Templar Tunnel which is around 350 meters long.  Suffice to say, this place is a treasure trove of history and worth a visit, if not an entire day.

We headed down to Caesarea to look at the amphitheater and the aqueduct and walk the sandy beaches.  In less than an hour, we would be back in Tel Aviv.  Everything in Israel is close by.  Every piece of history and every conflict is no more than an hour and a half away.  For better or worse, for richer or poorer.



Juant in the Desert

Jaunt in the Desert

The excursion spiel was that we would ride four-wheel trucks in convoy, in a jaunt in the desert.  It frankly sounded like the caravan of gondolas that you see when you walk across the bridges of Venice and look down as 100 tourists are being serenaded by disinterested gondolieri.  In other words, I had my gondolieri radar on high alert.  We put on our helmets, submitted our driver’s licenses dutifully, piled into a whole bunch of trucks, and off we went.  After all, we were in the West Bank and there was nobody around except for us.  It was amazing.  Not a tour I had thought.

We took pictures and of course there was, out of nowhere, a Bedouin and his son with two camels.  That took us on a short journey and back.  There were some caves, a lookout point across the hills to Jerusalem and on the other side to Jericho.  For some reason, we lost the light and ended up driving back in the darkness, passing a couple of Bedouin villages and feeling a little vulnerable I must confess.  A couple of the cars broke down but were easily repaired.  At some point, we had to bail out of the desert and get onto the super highway to cut short the trip because we had run out of time and daylight.  Imagine a trail of vehicles doing 20 mph on a 70 mph modern highway.  It was a funny end to a phenomenal day.  We concluded with a campfire and a typical dinner with what looked like roasted lamb but could have been goat and had been cooked in a clay oven.  That, and the usual lashings of hummus, and I must say, it was a perfect day.

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Dead Sea Pietro Place

The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is something that you just have to go to once in your life.  The surface is 428 meters below sea level – the lowest point on the face of the Earth.  It’s part of the Great Rift Valley and is fed by the Jordan River to the north.  Its salt content, because of the lack of outflow, is about 34% or 10 times more than the normal salty ocean that we swim in.  Essentially, it is two lakes held together by a thin thread in the middle.  There are “health resorts” on the Jordanian and Israeli side which promote all sorts of minerals that are supposed to make you young again.  Yeah, right.

There is actually nothing quite like going into this hyper-salty lake/sea.  It is very difficult to stand up and for the most part it is pretty uncomfortable to hang around for more than about 15 minutes.  If you shave the night before, you are in for a rough time, and if you have a cut, think pain.  There is no way out in this bathtub.  It will attack you wherever it sees a weakness and if you make the mistake of putting your eyes in the water, you will suffer temporary blindness.  Yep – it was a lot of fun.  Probably the greatest single moment was that moment when you get to stand under the fresh water shower and remove the salty deposits.  That will keep your hair looking strange for several days no matter what.

As for reading the newspaper, it is easy to do.  Swimming is impossible, floating is fun, and more importantly, if there is anybody in your party that cannot swim, they will overcome their fear of water and swim.  This has to be the place where Jesus walked on water.

There were Russian groups here that were all staying at the hotels by the beach.  You had to be a hardcore salt water person for that.  For me, been there, done that, great stories, funny photos, but I couldn’t wait to get to the shower.

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Jaffa Bride Pietro Place


How strange that we were strolling to Jaffa for an evening out and we caught a wedding!?  Jaffa is the oldest part of Tel Aviv and is the original settlement. It has a good flea market, an impressive clock tower, and lots of small, winding streets that lead to the hilltop for good views.  There is a train station that has been converted into trendy shops and a scattering of bars and restaurants.  It was the old train link to Jerusalem.  But this evening we caught a wedding. The photographers wanted us to be part of the photo shoot and so we dutifully cooperated. It was a great moment – the sun setting, old Jaffa in the background, and the modern Tel Aviv in the distance with the ever present beaches forming a crescent around the edges.  And a beautiful bride too.  Not bad for a stroll along the boardwalk!

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Masada Pietro Place


The funny thing about Masada is that the introduction video is really bad.  It is part 60’s Hollywood and part dreadful narration with such a bad accent that you feel like someone from Disney should come by and help them out.  But having said that, the place is breathtaking.

The story is a compelling part of our religious folklore.  Nasty Romans conquering Jerusalem, 1,000 Jews stuck on a plateau, a desperate last stand, and then death by the self-inflicted sword rather than the rotten Romans.  How was the news of this incredibly heroic sacrifice passed on?  It seems that there were a couple of people who were not quite buying into the whole sacrifice thing.  You can certainly count me as being one of those guys!

Masada sits around 500 meters above the surface of the Dead Sea with stunning views across the desert landscape.  The actual spot where the Romans made their successful approach is easily identifiable.  What is also interesting is that if you are strolling through the Roman Forum in Rome, there are three clear arches that stand out.  The smallest of the three is the Arch of Titus, whose design inspired the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and represents the victories of the Romans over the so-called rebels of Judea.

If you are fit and it is not too hot, you can take the serpentine foot path to the top of Masada, which takes about one hour.  If you fancy a luxury journey to the top then take the cable car.  It is three minutes, holds 65 people, and spares you the onslaught of the mid-day sun.  The visitor’s center is very good and there is free drinking water available in the fountains around so you can fill your bottles up too.

Masada is also a beautifully layered maze of Roman architecture built by King Herod.  He built a palace here complete with Roman baths.  This place is truly one of the most extraordinary places to visit.  It is sort of like Table Mountain in Cape Town with an iconic story and Roman architecture to boot!

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Israel is a strange place unlike any other place I have visited.  Locked in between hostile desert nations and four seas, it creates its own karma.  Everyone has a story here.  The modern history of Israel is tragic and brave and unresolvable at press time! The people are in siege mentality and you feel it.  It’s not that they are unresponsive.  Everything works really well.  The beach looks like Rio de Janeiro, but has no crime, and the market is old world charming.  The troubles here are “untroubling.”  Most locals put it down to rain.  Yes, we have some problems just like we have occasional rain but it never lasts too long and eventually it dries up.


Intercontinental David Pietro Place

The Hotel Intercontinental David

The hotel staff at the Intercontinental David were nice but not overly friendly – like they didn’t quite trust us.  The service was decent, but not brilliant, as if they had other things on their mind.  And obviously they do!  Everything was spotless and clean but there was an edge and you always had this feeling that you were an outsider.  And we were.

The guides went out of their way to put their point of view across and everyone had the same point of view.  It was logical and understandable but sometimes it formed a gulf as if they suspected that you were probably too sympathetic to the Palestinians.  But in spite of all of this, I started to like the place. The buzz of Tel Aviv got to me.  I liked the mix and the history and the California feel to the beachfront.  I liked the scene at night and unashamedly, the Bauhaus architecture.  The tension became part of the vibe and I was getting the hang of the place.

Welcome to Tel Aviv Pietro Place

Welcome to Tel Aviv

When we got off the plane, the guy with the sign was right there. Perfect. Welcome to Tel Aviv, ACIS and Pietro Place! The interrogation that I had feared was nonexistent and we were through and walking to the van in next to no time.

It is a short drive into the center and our hotel, the Intercontinental David, was in a nice neighborhood close to an old market place.  It was a 5 minute walk to the beach which honestly is never far away in Tel Aviv.  We met up with some friends and strolled along the promenade towards Jaffa, the old city, and had fabulous seafood overlooking the sandy beach and the Mediterranean.  It was dark, but it sure looked good to me.

Welcome to Tel Aviv Pietro Place