Nov 20, Sun: Tel Aviv-Jaffa-Caesarea-Haifa
Our first full day in Israel began with an absolutely world-class buffet breakfast in Hotel Shalom where the service was impeccable and the choice mindboggling. I was delighted to find yogurt and muesli and I started on it as a first course with a smattering of dried fruit and nuts when the waitress came to take our order for eggs as we wished to have them. Both Llew and I chose omelets with the works—we got mushrooms, onions, green peppers and cheese in ours-- together with freshly squeezed orange juice and really good coffee (and even mimosas or a glass of champagne for those who wanted it. Needless to say, I who love champagne ordered a glass right away) My only regret was that we hadn’t given ourselves enough time to have a relaxed breakfast and as we hurried through it, I really did wish we were staying at the same hotel for at least one more night.
As it turned out, our guide Moti arrived a few minutes before 8.00 am, to shepherd us into the van that would be our traveling vehicle for the next week. We piled in our baggage and set off. We wished we’d had more time to see Tel Aviv, but as it was really nothing more than a very Westernized urban settlement, we were content to see the waterfront along which we drove as we took in the Sunday life of the city. There were joggers galore along a sea face that was beautifully landscaped with beach umbrellas, walking and jogging tracks and, on the other side of the road, a concrete jungle of modern hotels facing the sea. Little by little, we made our way to Jaffa which might really be seen as an extension of Tel Aviv itself.
Our aim was to catch the 9.00 am Mass at the Roman Catholic Monastery of St. Peter which was right at the waterfront. It is a beautiful church in the Italianate style, ochre-colored with yellow highlights on its exterior. Inside its Baroque style was reiterated by marble columns and a painted altarpiece. To our astonishment, we discovered, when Mass began, that the priest was a Keralite from India. Since it was a Sunday, the church was packed by the time Mass began.
It was during Mass and within a few hours of our stay in the Holy Land that we had a cultural shock when the camera of our guide, Moti, was shattered by a member of the congregation who objected to his attempt to take our pictures during Communion. The incident resulted in our efforts to make him accountable for his actions by following him to his vehicle after Mass where the five of us (Moti, Ian, Glen, Llew and I) met his domestic partner and tried to get Moti compensation for the loss of his property. By the time we returned to the rest of our waiting group, our mood of well-being had been shattered and we were all seething at the injustice of it all—not to mention our rather rude entry into the cultural nuances of Middle Eastern life.
However, we soon decided to try and put the matter behind us as we did not wish to dampen our own spirits and that of our guide. Following his prompts, we stopped by the water to take in the panorama of modern-day Tel Aviv as it lay in the distance, its skyscrapers contrasting strongly with the wayside shacks on the Jaffa waterfront. Moti explained that Jaffa was an ancient port, perhaps the oldest port in the world, and that every type of invader, conqueror and explorer from the ancient world such as Etruscans and Phoenicians, Romans and Greeks, Arabs and modern-day colonials, had sailed through its waves and arrived on its shores. In order to make this vision clearer, he led us on a guided walk through Old Jaffa’s Flea Market, a wonderful maze of little shops selling everything you could imagine from buttons and buckles to Chinese knick-knacks, from post cards to magnets (which we picked up) and to stalls selling freshly squeezed fruit juice such as pomegranate (which we ordered and tasted). We traded with Israeli Arabs clad in traditional robes and had our first taste of buying in the local markets of the land. In the main market square, we passed by the Clock Tower that created a busy traffic island.
A little later, having received an introduction to the Middle Eastern souk, we piled back into our van and started our drive along the West Coast of Israel with its multi-million dollar apartment buildings clinging to the waterfront that gives it a name--Gold Coast. It was not long before we arrived at Caesarea, a must-stop site for most tourists to Israel.
The Antiquated City of Caesarea:
Caesarea is a large National Park. After obtaining our tickets, Moti walked us to a shady spot to give us a short geographical lecture on Israel and its precarious position in the Middle East. He then led us to the highlight of the park, its Roman Theater. Having just returned from Sicily only a week previously, where I had seen similar Roman and Greek amphitheaters in Catania, Taormina and Syracuse, I knew immediately that this theater had received a great deal of refurbishment for the sandstone steps were brand-new and did not sport the antiquity of the authentic theaters I had seen in Sicily. Our guide confirmed that the refurbishment had occurred in the 1960s and that the theater is still used today. Evidence of this was easily available in a sound system outfit that was hard at work setting up for an evening’s show. Furthermore, going by the shape of the theater (semi-circular as opposed to a complete circle as in the Colosseum in Rome), I was also well aware that this theater had never been used for animal or gladiatorial tournaments, but was a theatrical venue for the performance of public plays and other such forms of declamation. However, I have to say that its location (being right by the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea) made it quite visually stunning.
We then walked through the thick original walls of the city (named, of course, after Emperor of Rome, Caesar—but not Julius Caesar. The emperor whose name is immortalized here is Caesar Augustus, a member of the original Roman Triumvirate that had included Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony).
Our next stop was the stirring remains of the Hippodrome where horse chariot races (as seen in the famed sequence in the film Ben Hur) had been held through the height of Caesarea’s fame. It was built by Herod—not the Herod who features in the story of the Holy Innocents in the Bible, but his son—in order to curry favor with Rome. For his pains, he was appointed as Rome’s vassal. Llew and I had seen a similar antique hippodrome in Sultanahmet in the heart of Istanbul in Turkey—a good indication of the spread and might of the Roman Empire in its heyday.
A short walk later in rather hot and uncomfortable sun, we spied the remains of Herod’s Swimming Pool—lapped today by the aquamarine sea water of the Mediterranean that was gorgeous in its clarity. It would have been a perfect location for a King’s swim! We also passed by the columnar remains of Herod’s Palace as well as the remains of a Byzantine Church that was built at the site once Christianity was accepted and established in the former Roman realm (through the efforts of Emperor Constantine whose mother, Helena, converted to Christianity and legitimized it). Indeed, the history of Caesarea is quite fascinating in terms of the vast numbers of clans who have peopled it through the ages and the archeological and architectural remnants they have left behind to proclaim their presence.
Our visit to Caesarea ended with a delightful film in the modern museum, built at the water’s edge, that traced this history quite effectively to give us a time line and to create context for the ruins through which we had traced our path. It took us through the centuries from the reign of Caesar to Herod to Pontius Pilate and eventually to St. Paul. We also went through the Time Travel Hall of Holograms which, once again, had we more time, would have taught us a great deal more about the importance of this settlement whose stones silently proclaim its use. I was quite fascinated also by a small exhibit in the museum that revealed a vast discovery of Roman gold coins unearthed only in 2016 from a Roman galleon that had been wrecked off its shores. It made me wonder how much more treasure lies buried in the deep still waiting to be discovered.
Lunch in a Small Town:
By this time, we were peckish and Moti obligingly took us to a small town where we stopped to have lunch. Deciding to eat as the locals do, we opted for Chicken Shawarma which came in pita rolls with salad and tahini sauce. It was perhaps the least appealing meal we ate on the entire trip, but it was quick, practical and portable. We also realized from the price of this modest meal that the cost of living in Israel is high—indeed higher than in the USA.
The small town was very similar in appearance to any Indian small town. Traffic was nuts, horns beeped loudly and, in the shops, the general sense of chaos (quite familiar to those from India) prevailed.
Right after lunch, we hit the highway again to pass by desert-like landscapes that were quite impressive in the amount of irrigational projects that allow date and banana plantations to thrive. Indeed, Israel has made the desert bloom and is almost self-sufficient in food production.
Arrival in Haifa and Seeing the Baha’i Temple:
Not too long after, we were skirting the modern city of Haifa that is on the north western coast of Israel. Best known for its Baha’i Temple, it is the main reason why visitors stop in the city today. The best vantage point for the Temple is a high mountain that our van negotiated with ease to drop us off at a balcony-like lookout point.
The city of Haifa lay beneath us in all its glory with the Baha’i Temple’s glorious golden dome dominating the scene. It has an incredibly beautiful garden that is landscaped in tiers that march down the side of the mountain in a lush oasis of green lawns and tall poplar trees. Although the interior of the Temple can be visited on a guided tour, there are specific times when this occurs. We had to be content with taking in the exterior of the building and the distant vistas that included the contemporary Israeli naval base. We could see ships in the harbor—both military and commercial ones--as well as the prosperous city that has mushroomed up around its economy. Deciding to get a better feel of the venue, we actually descended down several tiers on beautiful marble balustraded stairs to take in the pretty gardens. The vantage point allowed us glimpses of the entire Israeli west coast and gave us a good sense of its strategic importance for defense.
A Visit to an Olive Oil Pressing Plant:
Leaving Haifa behind, in our van, we arrived at the ancient city of Tiberius that is mentioned extensively in the Bible. It would become our base for the next three nights as we explored regions surrounding it. However, before we checked into our hotel, Moti led us to an olive oil pressing plant which is run on a small scale as a cottage industry. Having passed through many olive groves on our drive and seeing ripe fruit on the trees, it was quite fascinating to see the mechanized process as branches (leaves and fruit) are fed into the grinders for separation, washing and, ultimately, pressing of oil. Moti drew our attention to the number of local people who arrived with olives plucked from their own trees to have oil pressed for them. This plant is, therefore, far from the more commercial outfits that deal in larger volumes. Freshly bottled, the first pressing of the oil is like liquid gold for the people of this region as the Mediterranean diet thrives on the use of this magical ingredient that lends tastes while being polyunsaturated and retaining no cholesterol. Some members of our group bought bottles of oil—you can tell that they are genuine foodies who care for nothing but the best possible ingredients in their cooking!
Dinner at Decks:
Finally, at the end of an extremely packed day, we arrived at our hotel in Tiberius, The Galei Kinneret. Since it was dark by this point, we did not appreciate its location—right on the Lake of Galilee. In fact, in Hebrew, Galei Kinneret means ‘On the Shores of Galilee’. We checked in, got into our rooms and then decided to meet downstairs for pre-dinner drinks to be followed by dinner. Those who wished to imbibe were in the lobby sipping drinks and the rest of the company arrived soon enough.
It was decided that we would have dinner in the most reputed restaurant in Tiberius called Decks. Accordingly, Moti dropped us there and joined us for a Continental meal that was very delicious. However, the meal was really expensive—as I said, it was as expensive as those to be found in the US (for some reason, I had expected the cost of living to be lower in Israel). By the time we had finished our meal, the desserts of our choice were not available, but few of us had the room to eat anything more.
Moti drove us back to our hotel for a good night’s rest.