ISRAEL BLENDS ANCIENT & CONTEMPORARY
If you're going to visit Jerusalem, Friday is the day to do it, to best witness the transition from a bustling, vibrant city to one settling down for 24 hours of pure rest over the Jewish Sabbath. It was Friday afternoon when I walked around the Old City of Jerusalem, marvelling at the tall limestone slabs that constitute its ancient, majestic walls. It was winter, which meant the Jewish Sabbath would begin early, at sundown. By 3pm, the city was literally shutting down as people disappeared into their homes for prayer and family meals, buses ceased operation, stores closed their doors soon after lunch and an aura of peace and spirituality descended like a mist over the city.
The walls of Jerusalem's Old City are a spell-binding sight, particularly on a Friday late afternoon, when the city is bathed in silence.
It's hard to find a place that doesn't have deep, historical significance in the Old City. I strolled through the Christian quarter, where Arab street peddlers were selling freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and a hot, milky beverage called Sahlab. Despite the proliferation of tourist shops selling gold and silver trinkets, this was no ordinary marketplace. It was the Via Doloroso, where each of the nine stations en route mark Jesus' journey from trial to crucifixion.
The Via culminates at the striking Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where pilgrims stand in a three-hour lineup to enter Christ's tomb while others prostrate themselves before a marble slab, said to be the place where Jesus' body was prepared for entombment. Today there's a complicated arrangement between the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church as to who holds services and when, but nothing can change without the agreement of all the parties involved. My guide Rivka pointed to a wooden step ladder leaning against the wall of an upper-level window. "That ladder has been there 150 years because the different churches cannot agree who it belongs to or what to do with it!"
A 150-year-old ladder rests against stones at upper floor windows of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Winter in Jerusalem can be chilly, but to escape the cold I only had to venture an hour or so south, to the Dead Sea, arguably the world's most unique body of water. Located in the Judean desert, the Dead Sea has a 33% salt concentration (compared to 3% in any other sea) and looks just like any other lake until you try to swim in it - and realize you're unsinkable. It's a bizarre feeling indeed to immerse yourself and experience the buoyancy and the feeling of the oily, slippery water on your skin. Afterwards, swimmers dip their hands into vats of black, mushy, mineral rich mud from the floor of the Dead Sea, smearing it over their exposed skin. It's a great reason to get dirty and one that leaves the skin feeling tingly and fresh.
It's a tradition for bathers at the Dead Sea to smear their salt-crusted, exposed skin with therapeutic mud taken from the sea floor.
To see a completely different side of Israel, spend some time in Tel Aviv. Here, in the shadow of towering glass hotels and new residential complexes, kite surfers cavort in the Mediterranean surf and locals play beach bats and volleyball on the sand, even in the winter months. Trendy neighborhoods abound, where old buildings have been reincarnated into boutique galleries, clothing and jewellery stores.
My favorite of these is the old city of Jaffa, its ancient alleyways and picturesque arches housing innovative artists and designers. From Jaffa's historic cobblestones you stroll down the street to Abouelafia, an Arab street-side bakery that has served baked delicacies in the same spot since 1879. A delicious symbol of Arab-Jewish co-existence, it's a landmark bakery and quite possibly the best place to order pita bread with zaa'tar, a Middle Eastern spice.
With your pastry in hand, you find a quiet, sunny corner overlooking the Mediterranean and gaze out at the ocean in one direction and at the bustling city of Tel Aviv in the other. It's a place where ancient meets modern, with a soothing timelessness that quells all restlessness. That aura of spirituality hangs so thick in the air, you could almost touch it.
IF YOU GO:
PHOTOS: by Lauren Kramer
1. The walls of Jerusalem's Old City are a spell-binding sight, particularly on a Friday late afternoon, when the city is bathed in silence.
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