Tag Archives: Tel Aviv

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.

Into the Negev Into the Negev Into the Negev Into the Negev

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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Tel Aviv to Jerusalem Pietro Place

Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

Next day was a free day; a Sunday.  We got a limo and a guide and a bunch of us headed to Jerusalem.  That morning there were several news stories about some problems in the Old City and so we had some trepidation.  Yet in the interest of massive curiosity and fear of the CNN factor getting the better of us, we pushed ahead. We are in the travel business after all.  This is what we do.  It made the day even more exciting than it already promised to be!

Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a short journey of about 70 km or about 43 miles.  En route, we stopped to look at the settlements and take in the wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories.  A fascinating, albeit slightly strange, experience.  We drove up to Mount Olive for a view across the city.  The Dome of the Rock, the ancient Al-Aqsa Mosque, all sitting there in the distance.

Eventually we headed towards the inner city, lost the car, and walked the old town, the Souk (old market), and the Arab quarter.  We followed the Stations of the Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was allegedly crucified and where his body was laid to rest before wrapped in a shroud.  That shroud can now be found in Turin.

We stopped at the western wall and I touched it.  It was quite a magical feeling.  The guide, who actually was very good, managed to cover about 5,000 years in an hour and gave us the essential lowdown. There was just this sense that we were at this ancient vortex of civilization.  Arabs, Christians and Jews all played out in this incredible holy city.  It was sort of like Sunday school coming back to me as a field trip.  This holy place was loaded with stories and relics from the very beginning of civilization to the torturous modern history that still plays out in the streets every day.

Actually as a city, Jerusalem was lovely.  There were picturesque narrow winding streets, reminding me of a Turkish bazaar, nice people, and an intermingling of the old and the trendy.  Great food if you can adjust to hummus served all day long and pomegranate vendors squeezing fresh juice on every street corner.  Jerusalem was dramatic and iconic and left me with so many questions. I wondered how I had ever survived my religion class. Not to mention the politics in all of this which we started to touch on. But that would be another day and a walk through the modern twentieth century Israel.  Complicated doesn’t even get close.

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Tel Aviv to Jerusalem Pietro Place Tel Aviv to Jerusalem Pietro Place Tel Aviv to Jerusalem Pietro Place

Tel Aviv to Jerusalem Pietro Place

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

Late Flight to Istanbul Pietro Place

A Late Flight to Istanbul

The great thing about flying on Turkish Airlines from Boston is that they have a very late flight at 11:40 pm.  In addition, if you are heading onwards to Tel Aviv, as I was, connections are pretty good.  Package that with a business class fare that is not one of those jaw dropping dreadful price points that make you wonder who ever pays for those flights at full fare, and you have it.  Dinner at a good restaurant in Boston and a late night flight departure is a great way to spend the first part of a transatlantic flight.  The preparation at least is going to be decent!

Turkish Airlines, as I found out, unfortunately did not have flat beds, but staff were pretty good, seats were decent for business class and the rest I simply can’t remember as I took an Ambien! Next stop was Istanbul about 9 hours later.  Istanbul is a funky airport.  Old bits shoved onto sleek new bits makes for a decent transit stop.  Tel Aviv was next on my journey and flight time wasn’t bad.  Actually, service on the Tel Aviv flight and leg room was better than the long transatlantic flight.  They must know we all take Ambien for the long hauls!