Best of Israel – Part II, off the beaten path

In “Best of Israel – Part I”, I got as far as Caesarea, having reviewed my favourite spots in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In Part II, I want to take you to the roads less travelled, and into the wild, showcasing parts of Israel that are less frequently exposed.

  1. Mount Carmel
    The Carmel ridge is rising above the coastal plain, starting at Caesaria, and stretching all the way to Haifa, where it dramatically cascades to the sea at the Bahai gardens. It is a green, lush hilly area, carved by deep valleys and full of wildlife. The Carmel is one of the centers of the Druze population in Israel  and a visit to their communities is a culinary delight. An exceptional site is the Mearot stream, a UNESCO-heritage listed property, where prehistoric Homo Sapiens made his first works of art over 250 000 years ago. And maybe ate some Neanderthals, too.
    Panoramic view from the southernmost tip of Carmel ridge
  2. Acco
    A sleepy provincial town, that accidentally is one of the places with the longest running history of human settlement anywhere on Earth. Acco has a small coastal village charm, with its little fishing harbour and seaside restaurants. But beneath (sometimes literally) this humble facade there is a historical record of epic proportions. Acco has Crusader underground tunnels that would impress Indiana Jones, fortifications that defeated Napoleon himself, the residence and burial compound of Bahá’u’lláh, an exiled prophet that founded a whole new religion, a prison where Bahá’u’lláh was held and where both Jewish and Arab rebels against the British rule were executed, a mosque that houses a hair from the Prophet’s beard. Its a wonder Acco doesn’t crumble under the weight of its own heritage.

    Crusader wall remains in the harbour of Acco

    Crusader wall remains in the harbour of Acco

    Acco seaside restaurant

    Acco seaside restaurant

    Acco's harbour

    Acco’s harbour

  3. Nimrod Castle
    All the way up North, sitting on top of a mountain, is Nimrod Castle. It commands the valley below, offering stunning views, and is situated in an area of exceptional beauty. The hiking and other outdoors opportunities here are too many to number. Whatever you choose to do, you can conclude with a meal in one of the many countryside restaurants and overnight in a local B&B.

    Flowers - best part of Nimrod's castle

    Flowers – best part of Nimrod’s castle

    Nimrod's caste massive walls

    Nimrod’s caste massive walls

    Nimrod's caste - with secret passages and all the other castle's must have's

    Nimrod’s caste – with secret passages and all the other castle’s must have’s

  4. The Samarian hills
    Most of the time I spent in Israel I lived in Ariel, in Samaria. I still have many friends living in the area, and I of course visit them when I am in the country. The gentle rolling hills, some covered in olive groves, others barren and rocky, with thorny bushes are genuine, true and pure Biblical landscape. I think it is impossible to get a feel of Israel without a first-hand experience of these hills, where so many stories of the Bible are set.

    Classic Biblical landscapes in Samaria, the heart of Israel

    Classic Biblical landscapes in Samaria, the heart of Israel

  5. Ramon Crater
    I have spent a significant amount of time in the Negev – Israel’s desert. And I’m lovin’ it. For me, the summum of the Negev is the Ramon Crater, a huge hole in the ground which is actually an erosion cirque. Besides the “usual” thousands of years of human history like prehistoric dwellings, ancient water storage systems and Nabatean Incense Route, Ramon Crater is jam-packed with geological sights. Pretty much everything about how the Earth was formed can be seen here, right on the surface. And since its the desert, there are few of those bore-some plants obscuring the view of the beautiful rocks. OK, I’m a geo-nerd, what’d you expect?

    Ammonites are common in Ramon Crater

    Ammonites are common in Ramon Crater

    Ramon Crater is desert in classical Western style - ol' school

    Ramon Crater is desert in classical Western style – ol’ school

  6. Timna valley
    Almost all the way down to Eilat, just 25 kilometres from the Red Sea’s coral reefs, lies a magical, mystical valley. Here at Timna lie the copper mines, where the metal for the copper treasures displayed in the Israel Museum (see Part I) was mined. This valley is as barren as it gets, and it is astonishing. Thousands of years of copper mining left here traces of pretty much all ancient religions. And the wind and water have eroded spectacular structures in the sandstone – King Solomon’s Pillars, The Mushroom, The Arches – if that doesn’t make your blood run faster, I don’t know what else will. Nearby kibbutz Elifaz offers lodging in comfortable air conditioned rooms or on a campsite in huge communal tents or in your own tent.

    The Mushroom rock formation in Timna Park (photo by Tiia Monto)

  7. Masada
    OK, this is not exactly off-the-beaten-path, as it is one of the biggest tourist attractions of Israel. But any “best of” list of Israel has to have Masada on it. Here’s why:A mighty king builds a magnificent palace in the desert, to serve as his refuge, a last resort, his ultimate fortress. After his death, the country rises in rebellion against his masters, the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Rebels take the palace and make it their stronghold. The empire strikes back (they really do), sending its best generals and strongest legions to crush the rebellion. The rebels are defeated, their country is in ruins as they retreat to the desert fortress. The empire’s legions lay siege on the fortress but the rebels hold out. Eventually, the sheer numbers of the empire’s soldiers win and the rebels are facing an imminent defeat. On the night before the final battle, which the rebels know they will lose, they choose to die as free men rather than live as slaves. The empire’s soldiers storm the palace, only to find the dead bodies of the rebels, and just 3 survivors who tell the horrible tale of that last night.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWl1HrmWhV0This is not a Hollywood scenario. This is Masada. And this is Israel – stranger, stronger, more fantastic than any fiction can ever be.

    2000 years old camps of Roman legions around Masada are well preserved in the desert air

    2000 years old camps of Roman legions around Masada are well preserved in the desert air

    Masada's Northern Palace

    Masada’s multistore Northern Palace

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A not so splendid isolation

Never was so much messed up for so many by so few. That pretty much sums the Brexit experience.

The post-Brexit referendum reality turned out to be worse than the gloomiest predictions. British stocks have taken a beating, the pound fell through a dark hole and the repercussions are being felt around Europe and the world. Nevertheless, these are the first panic reactions and it is best to wait for a while and see if things will be settling down. The long-term consequences are still unclear, but as a mental experiment, it is useful to try and catch a glimpse of what the future holds, based  on current trends. Fasten your seat belts, hold on to your hats and join me as we fast forward to… let’s say the year 2020.

Independence
The main slogan of Leave was “taking our country back”. What they did not mention was that “back” meant “300 years back”. Brexit meant independence alright. Scottish independence. As the negotiations between UK and the EU lead to nothing, Scotland voted to leave and declared its independence. Since it had already implemented all EU regulations and satisfied all demands, Scotland was welcomed immediately into the EU, on the condition it will join the Euro zone within 5 years. Empowered by Scotland’s success, Northern Ireland held  a similar referendum, with an extra question – join Ireland or become an independent state. They joined Ireland. Welsh nationalism saw a surge after Wales’ surprise victory at Euro 2016. English-Welsh tensions are reaching boiling point, as both countries are set to meet in the semi-finals of Euro 2020 at Wembley. Oddly, these developments “fix” the old mismatch. Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales were always members of UEFA and played international football while technically not being fully independent. As the UK and Britain are now history, the football countries now match UN member countries.

The economy
What economy? The economy of England has been annihilated. London banks left to Frankfurt, Paris, Dublin and Amsterdam. The credit rankings of England were slashed, leading to massive rise in national debt and falling pound caused a runaway inflation, only held in check by plummeting housing prices. Having failed to negotiate a trade agreement with the EU, England is now facing steep tariffs and taxes, pushing up the prices for imported goods like food and medicine. With the supply of Europe’s brightest students and staff to English universities cut off, tech companies are fleeing to the continent. Chinese, Indian and American students also no longer come, not wanting to study in a country that is cut off from its continent.

Immigration
Oh my. Brexit did stop EU immigration into England. With no agreement in place, EU citizens in England were given two years to apply for a job permit or leave. Not that most of them wanted to live any longer in a country plagued by the biggest recession in 300 years. EU countries each set their own rules with regard to English residing there. Most were lenient, bot some viewed the English pensioners as an easy prey and a cash cow, imposing new taxes on their savings and property. Many retirees were unable to meet the new regulations and returned to England, putting an extra strain on the NHS, already desperately understaffed after the doctors and nurses left to the EU. Tensions in Northern Ireland and Scotland caused massive English immigration into England, with the best and most capable choosing for Canada and Australia instead. Young and educated English are massively immigrating to Ireland, Scotland and mainland Europe, usually via the “Scottish route”, where they discover their Scottish roots that grant them the right to Scottish citizenship and free movement in the EU. The flight of the creative class has left parts of London, Manchester and other English cities ghost towns, only partly filled by remigrating pensioners.

All this is of course a doom scenario. The worse that could happen. But I’m afraid even 1/10th of the above will be devastating for England, Britain and possible Europe as well.

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I’m sorry, Boris…

In a few months, maybe even just a few weeks, Boris Johnson, PM, will be in Brussels, knocking on the door of the office of Jean-Cleadue Juncker, President of the European Commission.

– Come in, Boris (says JC).

-I come to negotiate (goes Boris).

-The terms of your surrender?

-Ha ha, very funny, JC. No, the terms of our new trade agreement.

-Oh, well, it was worth a shot. Have you handed in the forms that go with the application to withdraw from the EU, according to Article 50?

-Erhmmm… No, I haven’t. Is it really necessary?

-Well, Boris, let me see what I can do for you (pretends to be typing on his computer). I’m sorry, Boris, but COMPUTER SAYS NO!

At which point all other government leaders hiding in the corridor and eavesdropping through the door can’t hold themselves and burst in roaring laughter.

I hope someone will be smart enough to install a hidden camera. The look on Boris’ face – priceless.

 

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To Brexit or not to Brexit?

The Brexit referendum is looming, and this may (or may not) be a major milestone in European history. I was planning to write a serious, thoughtful article about this whole Brexit thing. How it might mean the end of the UK, with Scotland leaving to join the EU, and Northern Ireland following suit. I thought of mashing up that ridiculous, fear-mongering article Boris Johnson wrote about the Scottish referendum. You know, the one subtly titled “Scottish independence: Decapitate Britain, and we kill off the greatest political union ever”. Like, rewriting his article and replacing “Scottish” with “British”, and “Britain” with “European Union”. Would be fun to read Boris’ writing along the lines of:

Brexit: Decapitate the EU, and we kill off the greatest political union ever

By Boris Johnson

The British are on the verge of an act of self-mutilation that will trash our global identity.

Right: it’s time to speak for the European Union. If these polls are right, then we are on the verge of an utter catastrophe for this continent. In just 5 days’ time we could all be walking around like zombies – on both sides of the English Channel. I don’t just mean that we will be in a state of shock, though that will obviously be true: most people (especially the British) have yet to think through the horrific financial and constitutional implications of a British-EU divorce.

As I sat down to write my article, I started with a bit of background research. What is the referendum question, whether it is binding or not, that sort of things. Naturally, the first place I went to for information was Wikipedia. And then I realized, that I don’t need to write much about Brexit. One paragraph from the Wikipedia article about the Brexit referendum tells the whole story.

A Remain vote is supported by the British government, most economists, the leaders of the USA and the rest of the EU countries, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the G20, the IMF, and all living past and present Prime Ministers. The Leave campaign is supported by Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, UKIP, the UK fishing industry and James Dyson, the founder of Dyson.

So there you go. The UK government, the world leaders, financial institutions, thoroughly British businesses such as Rolls Royce and BAE Systems, historians, economists, healthcare professionals and scientists, and so on and on and on, all support Britain remaining in the European Union.

On the other hand, UKIP, the Communist Party, the majority of British fishermen, Aspall Cider (cidre manufacturing company), Go Ape (outdoor adventure company) and the Portsmouth City Council are in favour of Britain leaving the EU. And of course Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are also in favour of Brexit.

Dear Britons, in a few days it is up to you to decide on the future course of your country. Make up your own mind, and in case you’re still in doubt, the full list of endorsements is here. But do think of this – are a few more tons of fish worth it? Do you want to have a passport control booth on the border with Scotland? Is Putin the best of friends? When was the last time you agreed with the Communist Party? Right. Now stop being silly, would you?

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Best of Israel – Part I

Whenever I come to Israel, which is about once a year, I tend to go to the same places. Some out of habit, some because of friends and family living there, some because I just like them so much. Over the years, I’ve come to refer to these places as my “stations of the cross”. This is in parallel with the  14 stations of the cross in Jerusalem, the “points of interest” on the route Jesus supposedly walked on the Via Dolorosa, carrying the cross to the place of his execution.

  1. The Temple Mount
    No visit to Israel is complete without it. I usually get no further than the Western Wall, as a visit to the Temple Mount itself involves an early rise, a long wait and an extensive security check. But it should go without saying that if there’s one place that can not be missed in Israel, it is this one. A tour of the Western Wall Tunnel is highly recommended.

    Everybody visits The Wall

    Best of Israel 11 Best of Israel 10

  2. Church of the Holy Sepulchre
    I’m not a Christian, but I doubt a visit to the holiest place in Christendom would leave anyone without a lasting impression. The place is a maze of passages, halls and tunnels, dimly lit by candles and filled with smoke, singing and rituals at any time of day. The notorious Immovable Ladder symbolizes the state of confusion religion can lead to. My favourite spot of the Church is the Ethiopian monastery on the roof – just trying to find it is a sport on its own.
    Best of Israel 7 Best of Israel 6

    The Immovable Ladder

    The Immovable Ladder

    The Ethiopian monastery

    The Ethiopian rooftop monastery

  3. The Old City Walls Promenade
    The medieval walls of the Old City of Jerusalem can be walked almost along their entire length. The total ~4 km hike is actually quite challenging as it involves climbing up and down ladders and squeezing through narrow passages. From the height of the walls, you get a unique perspective into the Old City and its surroundings, and can get an intimate look into how this dense, congested (physically and spiritually) city lives and breathes.
    Best of Israel 9 Best of Israel 4 Best of Israel 3
  4. Israel Museum
    This huge institution in Jerusalem is worth visiting if only to see for yourself the Dead Sea Scrolls. The museum is full of treasures, depicting the ancient and modern history of Israel and its neighbours, presenting classic and modern art, preserving and presenting Jewish heritage and so on. Besides the Scrolls, my personal favourites are the copper and gold treasures from the Chalcolithic period and the interior of the Paramaribo synagogue.

    The Shrine of the Book, in the Israel Museum, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are preserved

    The Shrine of the Book, in the Israel Museum, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are preserved

  5. Tel Aviv beach
    In sharp contrast to the devotion and piousness of Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv beach line combines the best of Miami and California, with a Mediterranean flavour to it. It is one of Israel’s biggest treasures and a unique selling point, as depicted in countless commercials. For me, what makes this beach so much fun is the mix of people on it. The elderly locals come up early for their morning coffee, the tourists  bake in the sun during the day, the party people come out at night. Bikini’s and bourkini’s share the waves, the gay beach is next to the religious beach, where men and women come on different days. Best part is of course the drum jam sessions on Dolphinarium Beach, on Friday afternoons.

  6. Dr. Saadya
    Every Israeli is sure he/she knows the best falafel place in the country. This one is my pick. More than “just” falafel, its a symbol of Tel Aviv and its turmoil. Its a warm city, that lives on the streets. Dr. Saadya falafel is on King George Street, one of the main drags in town, connecting the upper class Northern neighbourhoods to the Carmel Market. Whenever I am around, I always come in for a falafel, a strong coffee, and some small talk with the owner and the regular customers, as the flow of people is rushing up and down the street.

  7. Caesarea
    The Romans left a wealth of heritage across Israel, and Caesarea is the most prominent example of Roman legacy. Its sunken harbour still holds numerous treasures, as witnessed by recent discoveries of thousands of Fatimid era golden coins and late Roman bronze cargo. Imagine discovering a hoard of gold on your regular snorkelling swim! The fit visitors can hike into town along a challenging track, following the course of the aqueduct all the way from the water source in the hills. The hike is like a tour of history, stretching all the way back to the Neolithic period.

    Not every underwater wreck in Caesaria's harbour is an ancient treasure

    Not every underwater wreck in Caesarea’s harbour is an ancient treasure

    Caesaria overview

    Caesaria overview

    Walls and moat of Crusader Caesaria

    Walls and moat of Crusader Caesarea

To be continued…

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Leiden on a cloudy day

I’ve happened to be in Leiden last week, on a wet, windy, grey day. I wandered through the city, snapping random pictures, with my son sleeping in the stroller. The Leiden marathon was held that day, and the few people who were outside, gathered around the route to watch the race. The images, empty of people, make it seem like I had the whole city to myself on that Sunday in May.

Leiden 1

Leiden 2Leiden 3Leiden 4

Leiden 5

Leiden 6Leiden 7Leiden 8Leiden 9Leiden 10Leiden 11Leiden 12Leiden 13Leiden 14

Leiden 15

Leiden 16

All photos are made using my LG G3 phone, in automatic mode.

 

 

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Best of Holland

When writing the city reports for http://www.talesmag.com, I’ve had some difficulty filling in the part about the highlights and advantages of living in a place. Where do you start, when you’ve lived somewhere for over a dozen years? I have given it some thought, and tried to imagine what would I miss most, if I moved to another country. These are the things which to me make the Netherlands a pleasant place to live in.

  1. Cheese
    The Dutch cheese is world famous. But I’m sure many people will wonder “Is cheese something really worth raving about? How fascinating can Dutch cheese be?” I guess it’s one of those things you need to learn to appreciate, over time. Before I moved to Holland, I had no idea that plain ol’ cheese can be so diverse and so damn good.

    Alkmaar cheese market

    Alkmaar cheese market

  2. Museums
    The Netherlands has the highest museum density in the world. There’s a museum for everything here. Tobacco, Jenever, Taxes, Dredging – it can’t get any weirder. And I’m loving it. I’m a museum freak, and even though I enjoy the classic big museums, I get the greatest satisfaction from a visit to one of these obscure museums, where you actually learn things no one else knows. Nothing like small talk about dredging to break the ice at a party.
  3. Cycling
    To the Dutch, cycling is second nature. Some local children learn to cycle before they learn to walk, I kid you not! In fact, the cycling culture and facilities were one of the reasons I chose to come to the Netherlands in the first place. Cycling here is something completely different and it would take a lot of getting used to, should I live anywhere else.

    Cycling in Amsterdam

    Cycling in Amsterdam

    Cycling in Rotterdam

    Cycling in Rotterdam

  4. Location, location, location
    So yes, the Dutch weather sucks sometimes. There are no mountains here, no empty spaces. But one of the major advantages of living in the Netherlands is that its so easy to leave the place. Jokes aside, it is hard to rival the Netherlands in terms of connectivity. In a radius of 1000 kilometres from where I live lie the capitals of 15 other countries, all accessible by a cheap flight of 1.5 hours. Best of all, its possible to board a train in the morning and be in Berlin or Paris by lunch, or even at the Med by the evening.

    Budget airline - use with caution

    Budget airline – use with caution

  5. Efficiency
    A couple of weeks ago, I’ve noticed one of the light poles in front of my house was corroded at the base. I took a photo, uploaded it at the municipality’s website and ticked its location on the map. The next morning, city workers were on the spot, and a new light pole was installed before noon. That kind of efficiency is hard to beat.

    Fixed within hours!

    Fixed within hours!

What are the things that make your small European country a pleasant place to live in? Add your comment, or, if you feel inspired, I’d be happy to publish your guest contribution here.

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