Why Israel an amazing place for a holiday, far more than a bible story

Post Header Image
The classic image: Jerusalem has the sort of skyline that fits into a bible story

The classic image: Jerusalem has the sort of skyline that fits into a bible story


Time for a Christmas ‘Where are we?’ quiz.
Identify the place recently named as the World’s Best Gay City (it’s also in the top ten of the world’s Ultimate Party Cities). It’s packed with nightclubs and cocktail bars – and it has a seaside so excellent it’s been dubbed ‘Miami Beach on the Med’.

You may be surprised to learn that the place in question is Israel’s second city, Tel Aviv.

Really? Israel is a deeply religious country, you’re thinking. After all, this is where some Orthodox Jews take their religious observation so seriously that they are unable even to turn on an electric light on the Sabbath.
For Christians who view Israel as the custodian of some of their religion’s holiest places, the idea that the country is turning into Party Central may be a little uncomfortable.

In the run-up to Christmas, many of us will have been singing about Royal David’s City or O Little Town Of Bethlehem, and listening to the story of Mary and Joseph finding no room at the inn while shepherds watched their flocks by night in chilly Judean fields.

But what are the Middle Eastern spots mentioned in the New Testament really like? In our mind’s eye we see Christmas card images of camels and donkeys, desert valleys, palm trees and locals wearing flowing robes. Yet in truth we hardly know the real Holy Land at all.

In terms of flying time, Israel is not that much further than popular destinations such as Turkey and Cyprus, but Israel is a country that until now has barely been seriously considered by modern travellers.

In the 19th Century, despite the protracted journey and the potential hazards along the way, the Holy Land was a best-seller for Thomas Cook’s tours. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, Israel enjoyed brief success as a sun-and-sand destination when package holidays boomed to the Red Sea resort of Eilat (this business subsequently shifted lock, stock and barrel to Sharm-el-Sheik and other more affordable Egyptian places).

Now, improbably, Israel is on the threshold of a major comeback to the UK holiday market.
Last week easyJet announced it was adding a Gatwick flight to Israel to its network (it already flies to Tel Aviv from Luton and Manchester).

And, whisper it, Israel’s tourism ministry was offering broad hints earlier this month that Ryanair is about to embrace Israel – airline boss Michael O’Leary must be quivering with delight at the wacky photo opportunities this offers.
Is Israel ready for a new tourist invasion? And is there more to the country than the Holy Land places? I had good reason to go and find out because some 40 years ago, it was here I almost met a violent death.

I have a very vivid memory of the hairs at the back of my neck prickling at the Sea of Galilee. I was aged 14 and on a Christmas tour of the Holy Land with my aunt. On our way back to Jerusalem from a visit to the place where Jesus is said to have delivered his Sermon on the Mount, our tour party stopped for a meal at a somewhat shabby seaside restaurant.

After declining most of the menu – vegetarianism was not a well-understood concept in the 1960s, particularly in Israel – I took the chance to break away from the rather suffocating ambience of the group and wandered alone on the seashore in the gathering dusk.

For someone who had been a reluctant Sunday School attendee, who went to church unwillingly every Sunday with his family, who was required to attend chapel every Thursday (and who had to study Religious Knowledge at O-level – I passed!), being in the Holy Land was surprisingly heady stuff.

Here I was by the very sea upon which Jesus had miraculously walked and where two fish were caught which he then used to feed the five thousand. Perhaps it was this that might have sent a sudden chill down my spine.

Actually, it was an uncanny whoosh that made me suddenly nervous. The quiet of the evening was occasionally interrupted by a whining noise of something passing quickly over my head. A waiter from the restaurant appeared behind me on a break, puffing on a cigarette.

‘What’s that noise?’ I asked him as the whining happened again. The waiter smiled. ‘Bullets,’ he said, pointing towards the Golan Heights. ‘The Syrians fire their guns hoping they might hit something – they rarely do.’ Rarely? I rapidly headed back to the safety of the restaurant.

Visiting Israel in 1967 in the aftermath of the Six Day War was probably not a brilliant idea. It may have been officially a ‘Six Day War’, but clearly, some six months after it had supposedly ended, hostilities were still very much in evidence – there were burnt-out tanks and bullet-holes everywhere.

Forty-six years later I returned to Israel to see what the country is offering now as a holiday destination.
I admit that I had suffered some degree of anxiety. ‘You’re going to Israel?’ a friend queried incredulously. ‘But it’s a war zone.’

You could forgive anyone for thinking so. In the past 40 years, Israel has regularly cropped up on our evening news bulletins, but rarely in an encouraging light. From the Gaza Strip to the Lebanese border, Israel strikes the casual viewer as an area of constant strife.

But when I visited last week, Israel seemed about as troubled as the genteel Cotswolds town of Chipping Campden. My drive north from Tel Aviv to Acre – mostly on a toll motorway – was smooth and fast.

I was surprised by what a compact place Israel is – from Jerusalem to the Lebanese border is about 100 miles, or less than a two-hour drive. In fact, nowhere here is very far from anywhere – Jerusalem is only 45 miles from the Jordanian capital Amman (not that it’s a journey many undertake, it has to be said).

On the drive north, I did not see any soldiers or policemen (there were, however, lots of speed cameras). Actually, I didn’t see a soldier until the fourth day of my trip.

Acre (known locally as Akko) looks like the sort of charming, small Mediterranean seaside place that you find in Sicily. But there are no towns in Sicily that feature a stunning underground Crusader city – a perfectly preserved complex that’s so vast, I can scarcely believe that I saw it.

The other big surprise is that the town, like Israel itself, is much more mixed than you might expect. Acre is half-Jewish and half-Arabic, and we were roused from our beds at 5am by the muezzin’s call to prayers.

Our early rising was somewhat mitigated by the fact that we were accommodated in the sublime Efendi Hotel, a magnificent restoration of a historic building – the ceiling decoration and elaborate light fitting in our bedroom could be exhibited at the V&A Museum.

The hotel has been a huge project undertaken by Uri Jeremias, chef and proprietor of the famed Uri Buri restaurant (he looks unnervingly like Israel’s answer to Father Christmas).

Which brings me to the food. It was superb at Uri Buri, of course, but brilliant throughout Israel: even the most humble places offering houmous, tahini and tabbouleh were never less than excellent and very affordable.

There was also lots of surprisingly good wine on offer. The Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the Six Day War and the scene of ferocious fighting in 1973, is now famous for its wineries. A sign of the times.

One of the most interesting sights was Megiddo, also known as Armageddon. It’s not clear why Revelations nominated Armageddon as the setting for the final battle between good and evil – probably because for more than 5,000 years Megiddo has been the location of 25 major battles – but a nicer spot for the world’s end could not have been chosen.
There are extraordinary experiences everywhere: try bathing in the Dead Sea where the massive salt content in the water makes you absurdly buoyant.

However, some of the religious sites are fairly dull. Nazareth, for example, turns out to be a bland modern town with a bland modern cathedral. In contrast, Nazareth Village, a biblical ‘living history’ park, sounds dreadful but is actually rather sweet.

The Sea of Galilee is well worth visiting, not to see the site of the Sermon on the Mount nor other key biblical places, but simply to enjoy the pleasant ambience.

In Tiberias, I stayed at the extraordinary Scots Hotel, a property owned and managed by the Church of Scotland. You might be in Dundee but for the fact that you have the Sea of Galilee spread out before your hotel window.

Jerusalem has a long list of important religious sites – for Christians the main attraction is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site of Jesus’s Crucifixion. The building is ancient but claustrophobic, and chaotically run.

As a city, Jerusalem is fascinating and compact. There are plenty of good hotels here too, making it a perfect place for a short break.

Of all the religious sites, I was most moved by Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, built over the Grotto of the Nativity where Jesus is said to have been born. Access is tricky (dim light and difficult steps) but reaching the silver star set in a marble floor – which marks the exact spot of the manger – was unexpectedly affecting. On the drive back to Jerusalem I suddenly felt very Christmassy.

How far is it to Bethlehem, asks the carol. The answer: ‘Not very far.’ And, really, this is the truth – the Holy Land has never been more accessible. It’s a must-see for 2014.