Category Archives: Travel

Cycling is Tel-O-Fun in Tel Aviv

Welcome to Tel Aviv – the flagship of the Middle East in bicycle friendliness

Bike Citizens Tel Aviv 3_v1_2

Tel Aviv’s compact layout, flat geography, mild climate and young population all combine to create a city that was destined to become a cycling hub. Cycling in Tel Aviv is fun, and nowadays it not just fun but also easy thanks to Tel-O-Fun, the city’s public bicycle program. The project was scheduled to be launched in 2008, but was delayed until the Israeli helmet law was amended in 2011. Once the mandatory helmet age was curbed to 18, Tel Aviv immediately launched the long-awaited Tel-O-Fun, and ignited a true cycling revolution. Bicycle rental stations popped up all around the city, and in a fortnight, the bicycle became a real alternative to the car in Tel Aviv.

Read more about Tel Aviv’s successful bike sharing program in my latest article in Bike Citizens Magazine.

Bike Citizens Tel Aviv 1_2

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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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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.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNk8kgdtRGE
  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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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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When the New York Times tries to be positive about Israel

A blog post by Jesus (aka Tony Wolkovitzky) pointed my attention towards an article in the New York Times dedicated to the urban culture of the Israeli city of Haifa. The article is titled “In Israeli City of Haifa, a Liberal Arab Culture Blossoms”, and boy, its a hilarious one. In Haifa, the NYT preaches, “30,000 Arab residents, around 10 percent of the population, include equal numbers of Muslims and Christians, and they are generally wealthier and better educated than Arabs elsewhere in Israel”.

DSC_3242

Haifa is a gorgeous city on the Mediterranean sea

According to the NYT gospel, “This makes Haifa a comfortable place for liberal Palestinians who want not only to escape the constraints of conservative Arab communities but also to be among their own people.” Surprisingly, the place where they can “be among their own people” turns out to be… drums… Jewish neighbourhoods!

“”If you live in a Jewish neighborhood, you are a stranger, and that gives you freedom as an Arab woman,” said Fidaa Hammoud, 32. […] She and her partner live together in a Jewish neighborhood where they run a Palestinian cafe called Rai. “I couldn’t do this anywhere else,” she said.”  The emphasis is mine, as you probably guessed. From the murky description of their relationship I guess Ms. Hammoud is either unmarried or gay, and living in an Arab neighbourhood would be a nightmare for her, even in Haifa.

Essentially, what “makes Haifa a comfortable place for liberal Palestinians” is living alongside a significantly larger Jewish community. It is the Jewish community where they can escape to and where they enjoy the liberties and tolerance. Sadly, both the “liberal Palestinians” and the NYT fail to thank Haifa’s Jewish community even in a footnote.

But hey, what can one expect from a newspaper that produces a headline like “Israeli Woman Stabbed Amid West Bank Exchanges of Violence”, leaving it to the readers to guess, even after reading the article, that the pregnant woman was not “exchanging violence” with anyone but was stabbed by a Palestinian terrorist because she was Jewish.

Back to the Haifa article, the funniest part was the subsequent criticism of the article from Ayed Fadel, the owner of Kabareet nightspot, who is quoted by the NYT as  saying “We want a gay couple to go to the dance floor and kiss each other, and nobody to even look at them, this is the new Palestinian society we are aiming for”. Mr. Fadel’s complete rant is available here, but basically he is pissed about having “been totally used as a “pink washer” with the quote above!!”

The thing is, Kabareet was among the bars and cafes that held screenings for Kooz Queer, the first Palestinian gay film festival. The only place in the Middle East such a festival is even imaginable in is Israel. Yet somehow, for Mr. Fadel, Israel still gets to be the bad guy for allowing the festival to take place. And the NYT pissed him off by not mentioning the “pinkwashing” angle of Kooz.

Let me get this straight (pun intended). A Palestinian LGBT-themed film festival is held in Haifa, Israel. One of its most important topics is the Israeli “Pinkwashing” – the supposed exploitation of the idea of Israel being LGBT-friendly to promote public perception of Israel as a cute and cuddly country. But doesn’t the festival prove exactly the opposite?

First, it shows that Israel is a gay-friendly place – just think how the public and the state would react to a similar event in any of Israel’s neighbouring countries.

Second, it demonstrates quite clearly that Israel is not trying to “pinkwash” itself. Its not like the festival was promoted by Israel as a proof of Israel’s cuddliness. Mr. Fadel probably sees this lack of attention as “being silenced by the Zionist oppressor”, but he’s not going to be satisfied either way, I guess.

Third and finally, by allowing a festival with “pinkwashing” smear theme to take place in a major Israeli city like Haifa, without as much as a grumpy face from a single Israeli official, shows that Israel respects the freedom of expression and opinion, no matter how obnoxious and detached from reality this opinion may be.

I’m not the first nor the only person to note that in the Middle East, this sort of liberal, secular and gay-friendly scene could take place only in Israel, under Israeli laws and protection. The NYT was apparently sufficiently concerned by the criticism to publish not one, but two responses by Margaret Sullivan, the NYT public editor, who “handles questions and comments from readers and investigates matters of journalistic integrity”.

According to Ms. Sullivan, Diaa Hadid, who wrote the original story, disagrees with the claim that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where openly gay persons have freedom and safety. Ms. Hadid points out that “Beirut has a fairly vibrant gay scene”. Perhaps to prove her point, Ms. Hadid can, once she gets the chance, report from a gay film festival in Beirut? In fact, I’d be pleasantly surprised if Ms. Hadid has something positive to report on gay issues from any Arab capital. In the meantime, I wish her all the best exploring the diverse subcultures that peacefully coexist in Israel.

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Alsace and Schwarzwald – a photo essay

Alsace has been described as “where France crashes into Central Europe”. I don’t know about Central Europe, but it is definitely where France and Germany collide, albeit today the collision is much more peaceful than it was in the past. I just came back from a two-week vacation spent in Alsace and its German counterpart – Schwarzwald. Since I am a bit short on time to write about the trip, and since I have some great photos, I will just show you where I’ve been.

Classic Alsatian views in Colmar

Classic Alsatian views in Colmar

Toy museum in Colmar is fantastic

Toy museum in Colmar is fantastic

Dozens of trains in the Colmar toy museum

Dozens of trains in the Colmar toy museum

Colmar itself is not bad at all

Colmar itself is not bad at all

OK, the weather in Colmar helped a lot, too

OK, the weather in Colmar helped a lot, too

Hiking with children in France...

Hiking with children in France…

...and in Germany

…and in Germany

The vineyards in Freiburg are right in the city

The vineyards in Freiburg are right in the city

Sweet grapes of Alsace are ripe for the picking

Sweet grapes of Alsace are ripe for the picking

Smelly Munster cheese goes great with Gewurztraminer

Smelly Munster cheese goes great with Gewurztraminer

A Schwarzwald kindergarten

A Schwarzwald kindergarten

A young farmgirl :-)

A young farmgirl 🙂

Freiburg market from the catherdral tower

Freiburg market from the catherdral tower

Alsace and Schwarzwald 6

Radhaus square in Freiburg

Unmistakably Gothic  Freiburger Münster cathedral

Unmistakably Gothic Freiburger Münster cathedral

 

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Am I practicing what I preach? Hell yeah!

I have written on a number of occasions how I find it strange that people who travel are in such a rush. As an alternative, I suggested taking the time, going to less places and staying longer in one destination. But I wondered whether I practice what I preach? To check whether I follow my own recommendations, I looked at a recent example – the Grey Wave camper vacation in Western Europe, and at an older one – the big Round-the-world trip.

“Grey Wave tour”

Our trusty camper

We’ve spent a whole week on this camping and would have stayed longer but they were closing for the winter

Let’s start with the recent trip. In September of last year, we rented a camper van and traveled for 3 weeks, going to Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and France. Four countries sounds like a lot, but its less than it seems. Firstly, we’ve been to all these countries before, so we were under no pressure to see as much as possible. Secondly, we stayed mostly in the border region of these countries, which limited the travel times.  All in all we stayed in 5 different locations – on average, that’s 4 nights at a place. So not bad, for a short trip to familiar places, I would say.

Our route for 3 weeks

Our route for 3 weeks

Our big Round-the-world trip took us to 4 continents, 15 countries and countless destinations over a time span of about 10 months. But we managed to stay calm and never (well, almost never) rushed around.

First leg – Europe and the Middle East

Starting with a day in London, just to board a plane, we went to Ukraine, spending almost two weeks spread between Crimea and Kiev. From there we went to Israel for a few days with the family and crossed to Jordan just to see Petra. Excluding the week in Israel, where we were on a family visit and basically just dragged along, we’ve been to 4 ‘destinations’ in two weeks.

Second leg – Indian subcontinent

After a few days in Delhi to acclimatize, we went for a couple of weeks to Rajastan (Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur), and then to Rishikesh. From Rishikesh, we went on a trek to Hemkund and then left India, going to Nepal. In Nepal we mostly hiked (Around Annapurna and Annapurna Base Camp treks), and spent the remainder of our time in Pokhara, Kathmandu and Chitwan. We then returned to Delhi for a few more days, before flying out to Bangkok. All this took us 3 months, with a total of ~13 ‘destinations’, depending how you count them.

Third leg – South-East Asia

Here we’ve been a bit more mobile, going to no less than 5 countries and a variety of destinations I will not bother listing (“the banana pancake trail”). Sufficient to say we’ve spent about 3 weeks each in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. With a few days in Singapore, I count ~17 ‘destinations’ in 3 months, which is a bit busier than our time in Nepal but we were certainly not in a rush.

Fourth leg – Oceania

Most of our 3 months in Oceania we spent in New Zealand, where we drove a lot around, camped on remote beaches and hiked a variety of tracks. After New Zealand we spent three weeks on a remote atoll in French Polynesia, and stopped by at Easter Island. The ‘destination’ count does not really work on this leg, but I can tell you we were in absolutely no hurry.

Pearl farming

Pearl farming can feature on Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs”

Fifth and final leg – Peru

Originally our plan was to make a brief stop in New Zealand and spend more time in South America. We chose the comfort and safety of New Zealand though and cut our final leg down to Peru only (hurray for flexibility!). Our two weeks in Peru were split between Cuzco and Lima, with side trips to the Nazca lines and Macchu Picchu.

 

Sure, we sometimes stayed in a place just for one night and moved on. Overall though, we usually spent between 3 days and a week in a place, taking day trips and/or longer tours before coming back to the “base camp”.

Conclusion

Having critically reviewed my own travel habits I can now safely claim to live according to my own preaching. Of course, sometimes I do travel at a faster pace. But most of the time, I do my best to slow down a bit. I’m not saying this gives me the right to claim moral superiority or something. But I think I can safely say I know what “slow travel” means. Its not like I avoid the tourist highlights. I just not limit myself exclusively to them.

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