Monday morning Raquel and I left for Jerusalem.  It’s only an hour away from Tel Aviv, but worlds apart culturally.  Jerusalem is the center of the Jewish people while Tel Aviv is the center of Israeli life.  It’s also a lot more diverse in Jerusalem.  There are more Arabs and Europeans, too.

Our first stop was Yad Veshem, the national Holocaust museum.  It is intense, overwhelming, really.  In one concrete building that looks like it might have been designed by Richard Serra, visitors follow the course of history.  The horrendous scope of the Shoah and th personal stories buried within it are the focus of the exhibits.  It is packed to the gills with info and artifacts.  We planned on spending two hours there but ended up spending three without really seeing it all.

We were exhausted after seeing Yad Veshem, it’s mentally and emotionally tiring. We started to get pretty hungry as well. Ou next stop was the Old City of Jerusalem. We were supposed to meet up with Avnar there. Because we drove in a direction that seemed easier, but was longer, he actually saw us in our car as he was driving. We parked in the Mamila mall parking lot and walked through the open air path through the stores.

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Avnar pointed out the walls of Jerusalem, remarkably well preserved. They look like they could be part of the mall even though they are around 500 years old. We came in through Jaffa Gate or more precisely, the opening made in the wall next to the Jaffa Gate for Kaiser Wilhelm II in the late 1800’s.

Our first stop was a falafel place in the Christian quarter of the old town. The old town is sectioned off into quarters based roughly on the original Roman cross-streets. Roman towns were always laid out around two main streets that cross in the middle at 90 degrees. One of those original streets, the cardo, is still visible and used. The quarters in the Old City are divided up among the Christians, Muslims, Jews and Armenians, although the Armenians have pretty much been crowded out by the others.

We checked to see if the Church of the Redeemer was open because the tower there offers a great view of the Temple Mount. It was closed however, so we didn’t have to delay our acquisition of a falafel. We sat in a plaza with a fountain and had a pretty good falafel from a little cafe there. We didn’t expect much and were happily surprised by the food. The waiter/proprietor/tout made odes to Raquel’s beauty and virtues which Avnar had to translate.

This was in the Christian section which looks remarkably European. We took a quick turn by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but didn’t go inside. This is the place where all the Christian factions fight with each other about who controls what part and who’s responsible for upkeep etc. It is such and intractable and byzantine situation that there is a ladder that was left on the facade during construction which will never be removed; no one can agree on who should do it. Once someone does something like that it could be considered precedent and then they would “own” that section. The key to the front door – the original key-to-the-city sized key – is held by a Muslim family who’ve been entrusted with it for the past six centuries.

Now fortified by falafel, we plunge down David Street towards the Kotel. David Street is the divider between the Muslim and Jewish sections and it is nothing but stalls, markets and restaurants lining either side and covered overhead. DSC_0034 It’s a pedestrian street not more than eight feet across. There are steps every so often and stone ramps strategically placed so that carts, handtrucks and, presumably, mopeds can go up them.

This street is particularly touristy, but turning off of it we start ascending through the twisted alleyways up to the rooftops. From there we have a view of the Temple Mount and the neighborhoods surrounding it. DSC_0022 It’s a bit of a surprise to Raquel and me that there are actually people living here in the Old City. We both thought of the place as full of monuments, ancient holy places and tourist traps, but not houses or apartments. Yet there is a functioning town within these walls.

From the rooftops we went back down, said goodbye to Avnar who was, after all, in Jerusalem for work, and went over to the Kotel. The Kotel is the Western Wall of the Second Temple. After passing through a security point, one enters a large plaza with the Wall dominating the view across the way. We start to approach it and Raquel gets turned away by a man because we are going down to the men’s side. The men’s side is about 2/3 of the open space of the Wall and the women are crowded behind a screen in the other third. DSC_0031

I put on a cardboard yarmulke from a bin and approach the Wall. There are Orthodox Jews in their wide-brimmed hats praying next to men with rifles and the obligatory religious tourists. I am approached by an Orthodox man who starts giving me a spiel about where am I from, etc. I’m fearing that he’s going to want me to put on tefillin and pray with him or something. Instead he starts talking about some project he has taking care of single mothers or something and asks if I’d care to donate. I tell him that I would not care to make a donation and he leaves me alone.

Raquel emerges from the women’s side (where they are much more observant of the tradition of walking away from the Kotel backwards) after a good while. We climb some stairs for more views of the Kotel and Temple Mount and then wend our way through the Muslim section and out of the Old City. DSC_0034

We’re ready for a drink after all of that. So, on Avnar’s advice, we head over to the Cellar Bar at the American Colony hotel. The American Colony is a cool, smaller hotel that used to be the center of American life in Jerusalem. It’s the place where diplomats, dignitaries, and other notable folks would gather at the end of the day. It’s also notable for having an almost exclusively Arab staff. The Cellar Bar is tucked away into series of low, vaulted rooms. I order a top-shelf manhattan which surpasses the last manhattan I had in Israel by several orders of magnitude. We’

re having a pleasant conversation and even nicer drinks, but we have to get a move on.

Reluctantly, we get back in the car and begin driving down to Masada. We don’t realize it, but we are actually driving through almost the entire West Bank. There’s a checkpoint in the road, manned by soldiers, that marks the border. It’s dark, but the road is actually quite well-lighted. We can see out over the darkness that is the Dead Sea to a line of lights in Jordan. We arrive at the “guest house” in Masada. They call the hostel there a “guest house” but neither term is really correct as it is a pretty nice hotel of recent construction. The room we get has its own balcony and they even have a swimming pool, although there are bunk beds.

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Masada is the ruins of a palace-fortress on top of a giant mea. The thing to do there is climb up in the early morning to see the sunrise from on top of the plateau. Sunrise was a bout 4:45 that morning, but we had gotten into the hostel around midnight. DSC_0054There was no way we could have slept for a couple of hours and then made the hike. The hike itself is up a trail called the Snake Path which is almost entirely switchbacks winding up the dusty sides of the mesa. Andrew has done it several times and always tries to beat his previous record. I’m feeling a bit weak from the lack of sleep and lack of a real meal for dinner the night before, so I’m happy to go at Raquel’s pace on the ascent. It wouldn’t have mattered too much anyway, because the sun becomes visible over the mountains in Jordan when we are only a third of the way up. In a race with the Sun, I’ve found that one almost always loses.

We make it up eventually. The ruins are quite interesting and well-preserved or restored. There are groups of religious and non-religious Israelis and even American birthright students. The ruins were once the Winter palace of King Herod, with a striking set of rooms built into several terraces along the wall of the mesa. It reminds me of the model of Minas Tirith from the LOTR movies. Masada multi-level palace

There is an exceptional view out in all directions, which is remarkable mostly for the uniform color of the surrounding countryside. It is parched, fissured earth, almost devoid of vegetation that is all dun-colored. DSC_0060We can see out to the Dead Sea and across it into Jordan. The lack of variety in the landscape makes it, to me, almost boring – you can see for miles, but it’s miles of nothing. Masada was the site where the last of the Jews held out against Roman conquest. The last remaining resistance fighters and their families were holed up there while the Romans lay siege to the place. When the end was certain, the Jewish families committed suicide rather than be enslaved by the Romans.  Take that as you will.  

We recharged a the rather nice buffet at the hostel and then drove North to a place called Ein Gedi.  There is a free beach onto the Dead Sea from there.  So, we walked down the path, observing the pertinent warning signs and ended up by the salty, salty water.  It’s actually so salty that the water cannot absorb any more.  As it dries (the sea is still evaporating) salt and other soluents are just being deposited.  

We floated, as you do on the Dead Sea.  DSC_0072It was a really neat experience.  The water doesn’t feel very different, but you don’t have to exert any effort to stay at the surface.  One can even get into a vertical position and float like that.  It was a very cool experience for Raquel because she actually doesn’t know how to swim.  Before I realized that, she asked me if she was going to sink and I answered her incredulously.  It’s pretty neat that there’s one place where even someone who can’t swim can be in the water with no fear of drowning.  The sea also leaves a film of salt on you that you have to rinse off.  Nicely enough there are showers right there at the water’s edge.

So, I emerged a slightly saltier seaman and we took off back to Tel Aviv.  along th way we stopped in a place called Abu Ghosh which is known for its hummus.  And, indeed, they make a mean one there.  A bowl of hummus topped with warm, garlicky whole garbanzos, pita, pickles and salad on the side, is a perfect lunch.  Afterwards the proprietor gave us little coffees on the house.  It was Turkish coffee with cardamon added.  I didn’t really like it, but Raquel thought it was nice with the flavoring.  

Following lunch we went back to the marina.  We made it just in time to set sail on the school’s teaching boat that Andrew had reserved.  It was a very nice sail.  Raquel did a great job behind the wheel as a first-timer.  There was a problem rolling the furling jib, but Andrew took care of it by going up to th bow and doing it manually.  That last part was yet another example of the sorry state that the school keeps their boats in.  It makes it annoying to take them out, because you can never be sure there won’t be problems.  On the other hand, you’re not responsible for them either, so that pressure is lifted.   

After sailing we went out to the Port for dinner.  We ate at a very nice place called Avi the Fisherman (or something to that effect).  I had th yellow snapper baked with olive oil and lemon – superb.  Then we had to say goodbye to Raquel as she headed off to the airport. 

A few minutes later, I called Ivan back.  (see below for details)

[I’ll add pictures soon; we’ve been having connectivity problems. Some pics are up on my flickr page already]

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