Safed, Galilee, Masada and Tel Aviv

January 5, 2013

Safed or Zefat

We headed out of Jerusalem on a clear, bright and warm day and drove north toward the city that is revered as the spiritual heartland of Israel — Safed. This is the city where the Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism originated and so I thought if Jerusalem had all these holy people and places this place must be …. I really didn’t what to expect.
Safed (it has several spellings) clings to the side of a mountain and you wind your way up a curvy looping road, trying to read small road signs until you enter a normal looking small town. So far the place looked normal …. whatever that is. Safed is a helter-skelter collection of mediocre art galleries, inns, falafel joints and pizza parlors. One of the “must sees” is a cemetery that has separate paths for men and women leading to it. For all the build-up of this as a “holy place” well, I just didn’t feel it. As far as I could see it was a tourist town with over priced restaurants, pizzas without pepperoni, service people who could care less about service and buses full of “birthright” kids — young Jews brought (many times free) to Israel from other countries to experience their homeland. Strangely this small spiritual town did have, I’m not sure how this ties in with the Kabbalah spirituality, four small kiosks selling lottery tickets. It seemed like a lot of lottery outlets for such a small town. I guess spirituality isn’t what it used to be. We did take a hike and Climbed up Mount Meron. At 1,208 meters (3,963 ft) above sea level, Mount Meron is the highest peak in Israel. Of course many of you come from states with taller mountains and this can be best described as a “sort-of” tall mountain. Anita was thrilled that her new knee was working wonderfully and she could hike without a problem

After three days in Safed soaking up Kabbalah spirituality we drove south down along the Sea of ​​Galilee, what is part of the “Jesus Trail.” Jesus came from this land and there are many cities and areas mentioned in the Bible. Buses of Christians drove up and down the roads stopping at cities and holy sights mentioned in the new Testament. The land is quite green and beautiful with rolling hills. We stopped in a bustling little city of Tiberias and walked around on the board walk. This was December and it was very unbusy. From there we drove to Beit She’an and stayed a night at a hostel where we were two of four people staying there. The place could hold a hundred people or more. Again, December is slow tourist time in this part of Israel. This is a place where Anita thought she had died and gone to heaven — they served salad for breakfast. Heaven for her, purgatory for me.
We did go to a great ruin Beit She’an, (see pictures) It is one of the best ruins of its kind we saw so far and really unknown and empty .

Masada

Next day we headed out early to another hostel near the Dead sea and at the base of the famous mountain plateau called Masada. (In case you don’t know, Masada is the place where a small group of revolutionary Jews fought off the Romans in an uprising circa 77 AD. The 900 or so people killed themselves rather than be taken prisoner by the Romans. The place has special meaning for Israelis (I liken it to the Alamo for Americans.) The view from this place overlooking the white earth of the desert, the delicate brown desert sands and the turquoise of the Dead Sea is wondrous You can take the “Snake Trail” up to the top of Masada or a tram. We took the tram. Many people journey up there in the dead of morning to see the sunrise. We took the tram around 8 am after a hearty breakfast and some salad. Masada is quite something and well worth the trip if you are in Israel. Just don’t go up there in a windstorm or in the dead of summer. You are on top of a mountain with very little cover.

While we were there at the hostel at the base of Masada we drove some miles away and swam in the Dead Sea. Indeed you do float quite high in the water due to the salt content. Plus there is a high mineral content to the water which coats your body with a slick oily residue. Some Australian young women, always the daring nationality, went topless. The lifeguards on duty (guys) didn’t say a word. They did carefully monitor the women with binoculars to make sure they didn’t drift away and drown. We also hiked up a narrow canyon to see “David’s Waterfall” at the gorgeous Ein Gedde Nature Preserve. Then we took another really steep seriously difficult trail that wound up into the rocky clifts above. Anita was thrilled to be able to do this. Again the views of the Dead Sea and surrounding desert were fab. I did notice that the water that cascaded down the waterfall was pumped up in large hoses.
Tel Aviv.

Having our fill of Masada and the desert we headed for Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv was a pleasant surprise. Anita thought the place would be just another large city. It is not just another city. Compared to Jerusalem it is Sodom or maybe it is Gomorrah. I always get the two mixed up. Tel Aviv is a NEW city in Israel, it was founded in 1909.Today is is a city of about 350,000, so not really too big and very walkable. The city is bustling with restaurants, shops and a young hip population that spends night and day in cafes and more time walking the streets with cell phones attached to their ear, more cell phone users than any place we have visit so far. I understand prices for phone service are very low and everybody, I mean EVERYBODY, has a phone.

An interesting aspect of the city is Tel Aviv’s White City , designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, comprises the world’s largest concentration of Bauhaus buildings. (See pictures) In the 1930s many architects fled Nazi Germany and settled in Tel Aviv and consequently designed many of the apartment buildings. There are very few single family dwellings, and the ones that exist are small. As I mentioned Tel Aviv was a pleasant surprise and a great city. If we return to Israel this place deserves more discovery and exploration. It easily would be a place to spend some time. BTW everyone spoke English in Tel Aviv.

Shalom

I have been posting only a small selection of the many, many photos I have taken. I have stored my photos on Dropbox and if anyone would like to see them just let me know and I will give you access to them and tell you how to see them.

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In the Holy City

December 20, 2012

JERUSALEM

Random thoughts: This is a more interesting city than I thought it would be.  It is a livable city with a population of about 800,000. Traffic is bad in the narrow streets of the city center and the city is dirtier than I expected with lots of garbage on the ground.  There is no feeling of danger, rather it seems quite safe.  When you think of Israel and Jerusalem you think — bombs, bullets and bloodshed. I saw  none of that. Army soldiers (of both sexes) walked around the streets with their weapons slung over their shoulder, not on patrol but walking home or whenever they are off base. Nothing makes a young girl hotter than a M-16 hanging from her hip.  I can’t imagine some or most American girls in the army and carrying an M-16 instead of an I-Phone. The city shuts down completely on Friday afternoon until Saturday night for the Sabbath. I mean completely with even the metro stopping, no restaurants, nothing.

We spent a lot of time in the Old City, where all  the world’s three main religions (collide) have holy places. The Old City is comprised of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian quarters. The reason the Armenians got a place was because they were the first country to adopt Christianity. The Jewish part has many restaurants, the Muslim part has gift shops and is a big bazaar, the Christian quarter has more gift shops mostly Muslim run and the Armenian area has only churches and residences. The only and best time to see the Old City Jerusalem is at night when the shops close down, when the tourists have gone. No worry about security walking down the silent and empty streets, there are security cameras every 50 feet staring down at you. Israel security is awesome.

On Friday night we went to the most holy spot for Jews — the Western Wall. It is partitioned by sexes — men one side, women the other. The men’s side is larger. I guess men have to pray more although the women’s  side seems to always be more crowded. Jerusalem is the home of ultra orthodox Jews and on Friday night they were singing and dancing by the wall. So were the women on their side, but not as loudly as the men. The men came in groups distinguished by the different black hats they wore. Some men even looked like they had stepped out of a Chagall painting wearing high socks, long coats and large round beaver hats.  See pictures.

The area of the Temple Mount (originally the site of the great Jewish temples 1 and 2) around the Dome of the Rock (Islamic) is a large and quiet area. If you wander in and look like a religious Jew you will have a police escort to make sure you (the Jew) doesn’t do anything crazy and start a war.

Wandering the Old City of Jerusalem and looking at all the churches, holy spots and sacred places( I might offend some of the Christian readers of this post by saying this) but it is really hard for me to believe that 400 years after Jesus was there, the Christians show up and can KNOW where all the holy places are. We went to Mary’s tomb? and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where there were rocks that supposedly had Jesus’s hand print or a rock where they laid his body after removing it from the cross? In Turkey there was also a supposed tomb for Mary.  AND they have in a Turkish museum ( I have seen it) the staff that Moses used. Surprisingly the stick looked in pretty good shape for HOW OLD?

We went to visit the Holocaust Museum and it was a moving experience. If you go to Israel I suggest you take the journey (sad) through the exhibit (no photos allowed). I did have a most strange sensation as soon as I walked into the exhibit. We had just walked into the first exhibit hall and it was crowded with Israelis including young soldiers. I was standing there in this crowded area and became somewhat anxious. The exhibits have TV screens and narration in English. I looked around and observed I was the whitest and most Aryan looking guy in a crowded room of maybe 100 people. I felt people were staring at me with suspicion. All the time there is a narrator talking about the Nazis and showing pictures of Nazi leaders and compared to the rest of the crowd with generally dark hair and darker complexions I was the tall, white Germanic Aryan.  I wanted to say out loud I was Irish American and then start singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” Really it was a weird sensation.

Food is expensive for the most part except street food like Shwarma and falafel. For some reason yogurt is very expensive. What cost about a $1 in Mexico or the US for a small carton of plain yogurt cost close to $5 in Israel. The Israeli dairy farmers I imagine keep the price high, but I don’t know that to be true.

The women’s fashions in Jerusalem are pathetic. (My wife tells me.)  We are going to Tel Aviv and maybe women dress a little more stylish. Shalom Amigos.

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Turkey – Tea, Tobacco and Ka-Bobs

November 28, 2012

Turkey – It seems many people in this country run on two things…tea and tobacco. For three weeks we were in Istanbul, the largest population of any city in Europe. The country is demographically young, the average age is around 26 years. There is a struggle going on for the hearts and minds of the Turkish people. On one side is secular Turkey — modern dress, progressive ideas and looking toward the future. On the other side is the conservatism of the government and the Islamic clergy, bound and determined to stay in the 14th Century, cover the women and pray 5 times a day. It is an interesting point that the Imams, the Islamic clergy, are paid by the state even though there is supposed to be a separation of church and state. Istanbul is not that crowded for such a large city, at least we didn’t find it that way since we weren’t driving. The number of cars I’m sure is limited by the cost of $7 a gallon gas. The Metro that runs throughout the city is fast, relatively cheap and efficient and we used it to get around. One thing I took notice of was the lack of women drivers. With an unscientific count it appears that 85% of the drivers are men. I don’t know why this is. Unlike Saudi Arabia where the women can’t drive, the women here can drive, but just aren’t on the roads, strange. But, as I said, it is an unscientific observation. There are not many art galleries in Istanbul, the people here (according to a gallery owner we met) don’t buy nor appreciate art for the most part. We also found that nearly half the art galleries listed on a city directory were vacant store fronts. We did find some very high end installation art spaces supported by local bands. So it goes. The exception was the Istanbul Modern Museum. It was  large, interesting, a must see if you are in Istanbul. The museum collection rotates and they have an eclectic mix of post modern art. We did find a fab restaurant across the Bosperous, on the “Asian side” of this divided city that served Anatoli type cuisine. The food is yummy, stewed meats, stuffed onions and eggplants, vegetables, salads that are varied and delicious. Not a ka-bob in sight. See pictures. Istanbul has a lot of cats living on the streets, not feral cats, buts cats fed by local people. On our street we had at least 11 cats hanging out in front of our apartment building. later at every ruin we stopped at there were cats. Dogs are considered dirty, but cats are tolerated. Never saw a rat.
We did the tourist thing and visited the Blue Mosque (it is not blue, the tiles inside are blue) and the Hagia Sofia museum. The Hagia Sofia was a church originally built by the Byzantine emperor Constantine, later converted to a mosque when the Ottoman Turks ruled, then it became a museum. These two are must sees. Expect long lines to get in when the large cruise ships are in port. The Ottoman Empire was ruled by Sultans who ran the show here for over 800 years. All of these sultans seem to have the words “conquerer” or “exhaulted” or “magnificent” after their name. There was never Sultan the Mediocre or Sultan the feeble. One of the very well known places in Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar. The place has store after store selling rugs, candy, spices, clothing, you name it. Alas… The Grand Bazaar faded from greatness years ago and is well past its prime. The place is an over-priced, well lit tourist trap where the fake friendliness of the vendors is at best ingratiating. Don’t bother. There is no grand in this bazaar. After our three weeks in Istanbul we took a tour of the rest of the country. The problem with a whirlwind tour of 12 days and 8 hour a day is the sights all start to run together in your memory. Cappadoccia ( A region in Turkey with unique rock formations akin to Bryce Canyon in the US) was beautiful but, alas, it rained the day we visited. There were several ruins that stood out — one of the best was the ancient city of Ephesus. It is the most popular place to visit, and the most restored. Many cruise ships stop there. (See pictures) One of the biggest disappointments was the “unreal landscape at the “Cotton Castle” of Pamukkale with its white terraces of limestone deposited by thermal waters through the ages. It is an UNESCO world heritage site and in lists of sites to visit before you die there are photos of amazing turquoise blue pools of water in white limestone. Fact: The pools are dry because the hotels upstream wanted the hot water for their pools. The water that remains is now a faded blue. The reason all the ancient ruins are ruins is because of earthquakes. Pretty much all the ruins were destroyed by tremors. The city of Troy, probably the most famous city on the tour was a disappointment because there is nothing left to see — little more than rubble and some stone walls. The city was founded in 1900 B.C.E. and actually was a series of fortresses (9 in all) built on top of previous cities during the ensuing centuries. There is historical disagreement when and if there was a Helen
and if Troy ever went to war against the Greeks. Likewise the wooden horse story is open to question. You could miss this place unless you wanted to say you saw Troy, or what was left of it.

Anyway we enjoyed Turkey and it was nice to be in a more affordable country, the shopping was good, unfortunately we had no room in our suitcases to buy much. I am tired of blogging, go to pictures. Happy Ka-bobs.

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DUBROVNIK-Pearl of the Adriatic

October 15, 2012

Dubrovnik, one of the few totally walled cities left in Europe

Dubrovnik is unique among the cities of Croatia for many reasons. It was a city state and was never occupied through the centuries, because with its skill in diplomacy was always ready to forge alliances against foreseen threats. (Minor note—Croatia was the first country to recognize the new country of the United States of America.)

Dubrovnik is the hottest of the hot cities in Europe to visit. We’re talking over 1 million visitors have come to the walled city by mid August this year. We are visiting this city at its pinnacle of success and popularity. There can be 5 cruise ships and 10,000 visitors on any one day, flooding through the narrow streets and along the wall taking pictures, eating ice cream and doing the “touristy things.” My biggest worry about the place is…what’s that Yogi Berra joke—the place is so crowded people won’t go there anymore. Success can kill you just as easily as failure. But the “Pearl of the Adriatic” is far from a failure. I would suggest if you want to come here and don’t enjoy crowds (I don’t) I would visit from November to April. Vacation here, July/August/September and October? Forget ‘bout it!
The city was under the influence of Venice for two hundred years and the people have a strong business sense they acquired from the commerce savvy Venetians — consummate traders and merchants of the 16th and 17th Century. So what is the business of Dubrovnik. As mentioned above the city and the country has sold out to tourism. 87% of the economy is tourism. Within the walls of the city are enough restaurants, gift shop, ice cream stores, clothing stores, and tourism venues to handle maybe double the millions of visitors they receive. To open a business here is a simple process. The good/bad news is the modern day consummate traders of the world, commonly called multi-national corporations, many American, are NOT here…yet. No Starbucks, McDonalds, Domino Pizza or WalMart. The largest franchise we saw was a small United Colors of Benetton. Of course the dominate universal American culture of music, film and television are everywhere playing in the background.
The young Croatian women dress as well as any woman in the world. The Croatian men? Well, most guys just put on clothes. See pictures.
So much for the cultural report. What did we do? We wandered the narrow streets and passageways of this city. We walked the wall around the entire city in two hours (A must.) If you come here and stay expect to climb stairs, lots of them. It would be very rare if you found an apartment within the city walls that didn’t have stairs. (102 stairs up from the plaza to our apartment, 42 stairs down from the street above us—just for the record). The apartments outside of the old city have even more steps up to them. We took a boat ride out to nearby island and spent the glorious day walking around and sitting by the ocean. We took two excursion bus trips to the city of Mostar in Bosnia, heavily hit in the civil war in the 1990s. We took another bus trip to the neighboring state of Montenegro and toured the cities of Kotor and Budva. Montenegro is the favorite spot of Russian and Ukrainian tourists. They are quickly taking over the country via summer homes and luxury hotels and own 60% of Budva. See pictures. We went to two concerts, the symphony which was surprisingly good and a concert of sitar and tabla music. We went by bus to a lovely little village down the coast for an afternoon and took a boat ride back.
In Dubrovnik the ice cream is fab—Anita is addicted to the flavor Don Vito and there are stores selling this gelato everywhere. The curio shops sell the same kitsch you always see around the world. There are hundreds of restaurants and coffee bars. One restaurant recommend by a friend who lives here 3 months of the years is Nishta, it is a vegetarian place. Beside the good food, the bathroom doors have Ken and Barbie dolls on the front to distinguish a boy or girl room and they have Ken and Barbie clothes and paraphernalia in the toilet stalls. Cute, no? A word about prices, not inexpensive, this is a tourist town and the prices show it.
All in all, even with the gangbuster tourists all about, we are staying in an unbelievably quiet apartment several streets UP from the main drag (no cars, roosters, dogs or cojetes). We will undoubtedly miss the quiet. Our next stop is Istanbul. No quiet there I’m sure.

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A Jew in the convent

October 3, 2012

Mertola, Portugal. The city is located in the far southern part of the country. On a map find the city of Faro on the Mediterranean southern coast and go inland, north and east a little on a map to find this village. The village is about 8000 people. Occasionally tourists wander in, but no tour buses or herds of tourists. Don’t worry the village has 4 ATM machines and three, count’em, Chinese plastic imported junk shops. All with as much Chinese plastic weird STUFF you can do without. The main tourist attraction is a castle that dominates the city. The castle was Moorish and the Christians conquered it in the 11th century. Lots of history was there in this small town, a former trading post for many civilizations. (See pictures.)

The artist residency —Convento Sao Francisco —is a quaint and lovely little hideaway. If you go to Lonely Planet they have an glowing account of the place and the the people who run it, two are artists. The place is an oasis of quiet. There is no road noise, no sounds at night except occasionally one of the six dogs barks a time or two. The Convento has a lovely garden and one of the owner’s sons, Louie, spends all his time as ground keeper. The entire property is 40 hectares in size. Anita has spent more time painting there than at any time in her life. I wrote about 6 hours a day. I just finished my first rough draft of a murder mystery, part of it is set in Ajijic.
We celebrated our anniversary here and we have been married…forever. No, 14 years.
This is a dry and undulating hilly country. Crops include olive trees (what else?) citrus and grapes mostly. The days have been hot, 90 plus degrees . The land yearns for rain. All is crackling dry and the drought tolerant flora and fauna are being put to the test. (Again, see pictures) Two days before we left some rains came and you could hear the land absorbing the moisture almost.
Odds and ends: In Portugal every meal served at a restaurant comes with olives, bread and olive oil. I think it’s a law. Before every meal at a restaurant they lay out a basket of bread, the above olives in a small plate, some butter and cheese. The first I thought this was free. It isn’t. When the bill came we were charged for what we ate. One place it was 10 euros, as much as a dinner. I guess you don’t have to eat it. Also I just learned three days before we were to leave that Mertola has scorpions, just like in olde Mexico. Never saw one though, but did see lots of mosquitoes and flies.
This entry was written in Dubrovnik, where we currently are.

Since FB has suddenly stopped putting in a link to use for photos, I am hoping this will work. Let me know if it doesn’t.

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