Tag Archives: desert

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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Tel Aviv city report

A few weeks ago I’ve published a city report on Rotterdam, that I wrote for Tales from a Small Planet (http://www.talesmag.com). Well, I’ve been busy writing another one, on Tel Aviv, where I used to live, and where I am currently visiting. Allow me to introduce you to the city that never sleeps, “the bubble”, the one and only Tel Aviv.

An iconic view of Tel Aviv from the Jaffa promenade

An iconic view of Tel Aviv from the Jaffa promenade

What are your reasons for living in this city (e.g., corporate, government, military, student, educator, retiree, etc.)?
I came to Israel in 1991 (aged 12), with my family, in the big immigration wave from the Soviet Union, and lived there until 2003.

How long have you been living here? Or when did you live there?
As many young Israeli’s drawn to the big city, I’ve lived in Tel Aviv for a while, between 1999 and 2001.

Was this your first expat experience? If not, what other foreign cities have you lived in as an expat?
It was the first time I lived in another country.

Where is your home base, and how long is the trip to post from there, with what connections?
Nowadays, my home base is in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. I visit Israel regularly, as I have family and many friends there. Takes about 4.5 hours by plane.

What are the special advantages of living in this city/country (e.g., touring, culture, saving money, weather, etc.)?
The weather is great for at least 10 months. Its a unique opportunity to experience the place that gets so much attention, and see for yourself what the fuss is all about.

What have been some of the highlights of your time in this city/country?
This I’ll have to get back to in another post here – the topic is a bit too big for a short answer.

Just to give you an idea of the highlights - this is the Negev desert. Just two hours drive from Tel Aviv, and you're not on the edge of it - no, right in the middle!

Just to give you an idea of the highlights – this is the Negev desert. Just two hours drive from Tel Aviv, and you’re not on the edge of it – no, right in the middle!

What is the air quality like (e.g., good, moderate, unhealthy, or very unhealthy with comments)?
Good, most of the time the breeze from the sea clears the pollution. When the wind is from the East, can get very bad, but it’s only a few days in a year.

What is the climate like? Weather patterns?
July-August are hot and sticky humid. December to March is the rainy season, but it almost never rains more than 2-3 days in a row.

What kind of insect problems are there, if any?
Cockroaches. Big, flying ones.

Are there any special security concerns?
Uhm… Yes. Its Israel. BUT the crime rates are quite low compared to other Western countries, and besides – nowadays the chances of becoming a victim of a terrorist attack are higher in Paris, London or Brussels. The Israeli traffic is the most dangerous part, and even that is not as dangerous as it used to be.

Housing types, locations, and typical commute time?
Depends on what one includes as “Tel Aviv”. The city itself is small and housing is also small, the outer rings of the metropolitan area contain many typical “sleeping neighborhoods” with more spacious accommodation, but the commute time is also larger.

Is this a good city for families/singles/couples?
For singles the city center is the place to be. If your can find a good house in the city and your family can handle the city life – go for it. But prices are high.

Is this a good city for gay or lesbian expats?
One of the best, I hear.

Are there problems with racial, religious or gender prejudices?
Yes. But that’s the simple answer. Compared to the severity of these issues in the neighbouring countries, like Syria, there are none worth mentioning.

Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city? Comment:
Challenging. Sidewalks are crowded with parked bicycles and motorcycles, public buildings are not necessarily fitted with ramps.

What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “secret or hidden gems”?
The whole country is one big live museum of nature, culture and history. For Tel Aviv itself I’d suggest checking out http://www.spottedbylocals.com/telaviv/. As a former resident who has done his best to explore the city I can certify that the local “spotters” are doing a very good job unveiling spots that are usually under the radar.

Are gyms or workout facilities available? Costs?
Everything is available, from free public gym facilities at the beach to private teachers of every sport you can think of.

What fast food and decent restaurants are available? Cost range?
The American fast-food chains are present but who needs them when local fast food is abundant. Every Israeli has a favorite falafel place, and Tel Aviv has a lively dining scene.

What is the availability and relative cost of groceries and household supplies?
Everything is available but prices are ridiculously high.

What comments can you make about using credit cards and ATMs?
Credit cards are widely accepted.

What type of automobile is suitable to bring (or not to bring) because of terrain, availability of parts and service, local restrictions, duties, carjackings, etc?
I’d suggest bringing a tank, but the fuel prices would kill you.

Are local trains, buses, and taxis safe? Affordable?
Reasonably affordable and safe. The national railways do have issues with the unions, so sudden strikes can be a plague.

How much of the local language do you need to know for daily living?
Most of the local people know sufficient English to get by without knowing any Hebrew. Many signs are Hebrew-only, so learning the Hebrew alphabet is useful.

Size and morale of expat community:
That’s a difficult question, as it depends much on what is included in the “expat community”.There are millions of foreign-born Israeli’s, hundreds of thousands of (mostly Asian) foreign workers employed in construction, agriculture and nursing, tens of thousands of African infiltrators/refugees (depends on who you ask), a constant influx of volunteers working in the Kibbutzs and so on.

If “expats” include only Western diplomats and such, then its probably small, I can’t say much about the morale among them.

Are there decent job opportunities for expats on the local economy?
Without a job permit chances are probably low.

What volunteer opportunities are there?
Numerous. Not sure how diverse are the options without knowledge of Hebrew or Arabic.

What are some typical things to do for entertaining/social life?
The beach. Huge clubbing scene. Mountain biking is growing in popularity. Barbecuing.

Tel Aviv 3

What’s the dress code at work and in public?
At work – depends much on where you work, but usually “casual-plus”. In public “casual” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Believe it or not, this guy is actually at work. How's that for "casual"?

Believe it or not, this guy is actually at work. How’s that for “casual”?

Are there any health concerns? What is the quality of medical care available?
Israel has one of the highest life expectancies in the world, so healthcare must be good.

You can leave behind your:
Anything you thought you knew about the place and anything anyone has ever told you about it. Its nothing like you thought it is, no matter what you thought. And don’t bring your politeness either, it will go unnoticed at best.

But don’t forget your:
Balls of steel, elephant skin, all the sarcasm and cynicism you can find. A huge supply of sense of humor. And, of course, your hiking boots. Israel is best explored by foot.

Can you save money?
No.

Knowing what you now know, would you still go there?
Yes.

Recommended books related to this city (title, author):

  • “The lover”, A. B. Yehoshua.
  • Works of Bernard Lewis, such as “The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years”.
  • 1948: A History of the First Arab–Israeli War”, Benny Morris.

Take them all with a huge pinch (better yet, a bag) of salt – everyone’s view is politically colored.

Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
“Lebanon” – OK, it takes place in Lebanon, but its set exclusively inside an Israeli tank in Lebanon.

An Israeli tank close to the Lebanese border

An Israeli tank close to the Lebanese border

Any other comments:
Don’t be like the American presidents and Secretaries of State, who think that all it takes is for people to shake hands and stop being so childish. Its not up to you to bring peace, nor is it up to you to lecture the locals about how they should behave and think. Just try to enjoy the good parts, and ignore the bad ones – that’s what everyone else is doing.

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