I visited Essaouira as part of my trip to Morocco. I hadn't travelled anywhere other than Venice before and wanted to get away somewhere interesting. A friend recommended Marrakesh and I found this company called Naturally Morocco who I booked with. They were just amazing. They are experts in Morocco. They support small businesses and so provide unique and interesting holidays that are flexible and affordable. I think I was spoilt with them and this is honestly what triggered my love of unique and interesting holidays and accommodation when I travel, always trying to support smaller businesses if I can. I only had a week so they suggested Marrakesh, Essaouira and a one day camel trek which was perfect. They gave so much good advice about local people, tipping, what and where to eat etc. which for someone who has not travelled before was invaluable. The riad we stayed in was stunning as was all the food we ate there. It was the first time I tried slow cooked tagines that had been cooking for hours. The camel trek was quite short, just down the beach from Essaouira, but we got to see a lot that we wouldn't have otherwise and stay in a Berber tent for the night. Essaouira is beautiful. We stayed in the medina (walled old town). It has a long windy beach which attracts all sorts of wind sports, and a working harbour with loads of beautiful traditional blue boats and fisherman returning each day to sell their fish. There are lots of art galleries and a buzzing market - it is difficult to not buy anything. It is a beautiful sleepy place and a complete contrast to Marrakesh!
Morocco was one of the first places I ever travelled to. When I arrived in Marrakesh I didn't know what hit me. Scooters hooting and constantly trying to get past me. Navigating narrow streets to try and find our riad. Stray cats everywhere. It was crazy. And it was probably what triggered my travel bug. The markets were so incredible. The main square with its snake charmers and dentists practicing out in the open. Freshly squeezed orange juice. The tagines. The constant stream of smoke rising above the food stalls. The incredible hammam massage. The colours and smells of the market. The spices. The mint tea. Memories etched in my brain... until the next time.
We had less than a day in Tel Aviv so had to make the most of our time there. We stayed at Abraham Hostel again (the Tel Aviv one is much newer than Jerusalem). When we woke in the morning it was pouring with rain. We waited it out a bit and then went out and walked around. My best friend put me in touch with one of her friends who is South African but married an Israeli and now lives in kibbutz in Israel with her husband and children. She recommended a walking route with lots of food stops which we did and enjoyed:
- Walk along King George Street - find the mall and go south from there.
- You can go right up Bograshoff street for a looksee, then back down, and continue back down King George.
- Stop at Falafel Ratzon on your right, 6 shekel falafel - yummy
- Continue until you get to a big intersection with burger ranch on one corner and Aroma on the other. (From the intersection Shenkin Street and Allenby Street are cool for shopping and good fruit shakes).
- Go straight through the intersection and through the market (Shoek ha Carmel). In the market is a brilliant little South African cafe called Bunny Chow
- After the market keep leftish, toward Neved Tzedek - a most gorgeous old school and boutique neighbourhood
- You will then reach Jaffa, the old town with its quaint buildings and market - Shoek Ha Pishpashim. Shakshuka (baked tomato, onion eggs) at Dr Shakshuka is a must.
- Make your way back to Tel Aviv via the beach/promenade.
From Jerusalem we drove about 50 miles towards the Dead Sea... all downhill! Our first stop was Masada, an ancient fortress, sitting on top of a rock plateau. We caught a cable car up to see it. It was first built around 35 BC as a palace for King Herod the Great, and later the location where 960 Jews in hiding committed mass suicide at the end of the first Jewish-Roman war. It is impressive how much of it is well preserved. There are also views of the Dead Sea. After Masada we visited Ein Gedi, which is literally an oasis in the middle of desert land. The whole area is so dry and so hot and there are these natural springs and waterfalls with people swimming in them. We saw Rock Hyrax (known as Dassie in South Africa) and Ibex, a species of wild goat. And finally we visited the Dead Sea. This was an interesting experience. Obviously I learned about the Dead Sea at school and I was really excited to get to see it, and swim in it. It wasn't really that great an experience. Where we visited (and I'm sure this was just the tour we were on), was quite a dirty little beach with rubbish and cigarette butts. It was part of a restaurant so wasn't a rural part of the sea but wasn't well maintained at all. The Dead Sea is 423 metres below sea level and is nearly 10x as salty as the ocean. The ground all around it is incredibly hard and if you don't have shoes to protect your feet in can take some time to make your way in. Once we were in it was fun... you literally float on top of the water. I've never felt anything like it. It is unbelievably salty though... you can't get it on your face on near your eyes. We did the whole mud pack thing and covered ourselves in mud which felt amazing afterwards...
Once I traveled
Along the shores of the Dead Sea
With a blind poet.
I wanted to describe the sights
And I was quiet.
We did our dead sea tour with Abraham Tours.
Jerusalem is one of THE MOST incredible cities I've ever been to. It is utterly fascinating. I still can't believe I finally got to go. I apologise now for the epic blog post. It was just such an amazing experience... there is too much not to share. We spent 3 days in the city, walking until we couldn't walk anymore, exploring, seeing, listening, taking it all in. We arrived on a Saturday just as Shabbat was ending. Everything was quiet and the restaurants were just starting to open up again. We found a little Kurdish restaurant called Ishtabach. It was buzzing. They served Shamburak, which was made in an open kitchen with a large pizza oven. Shamburak is a sort of meat-filled calzone with a long list of choices of fillings up on the chalk board. I went for beef cheek and Chris had brisket with sweet potato, spinach and all the sides. It was soooo good!
After a few days exploring the North of Israel we were back in Jerusalem. After checking into our hostel we headed straight to Machane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem's biggest and oldest restaurant. It is a fabulous mix of colours, smells and sounds. It has rows and rows of market stalls interspersed with mini restaurants and bars. I was in heaven. We bought pastries, fruit tea and olives from a guy from Hackney in London! After the market we found a trendy houmous bar called Arbes. They served bowls of warm houmous with different toppings and pitta bread. Chris and I are both crazy about houmous, so this place was just incredible! The staff were so friendly, the decor was fun and the food was great. Israel turned out to be surprisingly expensive, so we headed back to our hostel (which had a huge bar and social room) for a beer.
After a quick breakfast on our first proper day in Jerusalem we headed to Jaffa Gate to join our Old City walking tour. Our tour guide Ryan led us through the Arab market stalls and to the Western Wall. It was fascinating. I remember my dad having books and maps about Israel and the temple and the tabernacle within the temple. The Western Wall is the remaining wall of that temple, and the holiest place where Jews are allowed to pray. It was fascinating just watching, people washing their hands, praying, walking away from the wall backwards, Jews in their kippot, black hats, shtreimel (large furry hats), army uniforms and plain clothes. There were a lot of Bah Mitzvah's happening so there was dancing, singing and the sound of the Shofar (ram's horn blown to make music). This was fascinating too watching these young boys going through their ceremonies to become men. The woman and men have separate sections at the wall, so I watched mom's hugging their sons over the barrier.
After the wall we queued to get in to see the Dome on the Rock. This is the big mosque with the gold dome behind the wall. They only allow visitors twice a day for 3 and a half hours in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. We were lucky to be on the walking tour otherwise I think we definitely would have missed it with the strict time slots. The Dome on the Rock is one of the most holy sites in the Islam religion. The mosque is built over the rock that their prophet Muhammad's journey to heaven started from. This is the same rock that Abraham in the bible attempted to sacrifice his son at, so is an incredibly important place for both Muslims and Jews. The mosque itself is incredibly beautiful! It is a very peaceful place to be.
Our next stop was the Via Dolorosa, the route that Jesus carried his cross. There are 14 stations of the cross that are part of the Catholic devotion commemorating Jesus last day on earth. Nine of these stations are along the Via Dolorosa. So many people walk this route... groups of nuns, tour groups, churches. On Fridays and Easter there is a procession that you can follow where they carry a wooden cross and stop at all the stations to further mimic Jesus walk.
We stopped for a very good falafel pitta and pomegranate juice for lunch on the way. At the end of the Via Dolorosa you arrive at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is an enormous church with a mish-mash of architectural styles. It bears the scars of fires and earthquakes, deliberate destruction and reconstruction over the years. It is built over two of the holiest sites in Christianity - the site where Jesus was crucified and his empty tomb. The church is owned by three major denominations - Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Armenian Orthodox. The Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian Orthodox communities have rights to use certain areas of the church. The Ethiopian monks live in a kind of African village on the roof, which we walked through to get in.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a vast space with over 30 chapels and worship spaces.... definitely not your standard church. The remaining 5 stations of the cross are all inside. There was a stone that people were kissing and rubbing their scarves on. A queue of people waiting to see Jesus tomb. In one stairwell there were thousands of tiny crosses carved into the walls. Stairs. Caves. Singing. Whispering. Chanting. Silence. Incense. Darkness. Candles.
After the holy church we went to see the tomb of David. On the way we bumped into Paul Hollywood who was filming for a new series. I thought it was hilarious! Definitely not someone I expected to bump into in Jerusalem! And that was the end of our Old City walking tour. Chris and I headed back to the Western Wall again, mostly out of awe and fascination, to take it all in again. There was a huge group of young army soldiers all standing in a circle singing. It was getting dark, so we headed to Machane Yehuda Market again to see what we could get for dinner. We ate at a tiny place called Jahnun Bar where we tried Melawach. Melawach is a Yemen pastry type wrap with a vegetarian filling. We had ours filled with all sorts (houmous, egg, salad, crispy onions etc) and they were literally one of the best things I've ever tasted! In the evening when the market stalls have closed and it is just the bars and restaurants open you can see all of the art painted on the market stall shutters. It it great to check it all out - a different side to Jerusalem! After dinner we stopped at a barber so Chris could get a haircut and went back to the hostel for a beer and bed!
On Friday morning Chris and I decided to split up. He caught the tram to Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum, and I wanted to just walk around the city again. I knew Friday was a busy day in Jerusalem with the Muslims, Christians and Jews. It was also the start of Shabbat. I went straight to the market again and what a buzz there was. Everything is properly closed on Saturday and everyone was preparing for their Friday night meal. There was such a buzz! Being in places like that excite me so much! When I left the market there was someone playing violin outside and there was a bench in the sunshine across the road. I sat on it for a while. This old Jewish man who'd been listening too came to sit next to me. He offered me some nuts and seeds that he'd bought at the market and a shot of Johnny Walker which he pulled out of his jacket. I couldn't quite stomach it at 10am, so had to pretend. He told me about his 9 month old baby and his 5th wife, a Russian lady who had him locked up the previous week. And then it was time for me to move on... :-)
I walked back into the old town and bought some spices and gifts. Went back to the wall to watch again. Walked the Via Dolorosa again and watched another church procession carrying a cross. I had falafel and pitta for lunch and got stuck in an alleyway for about half an hour as thousands of Muslims rushed past me to the mosque for prayers. I walked through the Arab market and all the stalls were closed, with just a stick blocking their entrance. My phone nearly died and I got lost. Two young girls showed me the way back to Jaffa gate.
At Jaffa gate I met up with Chris and we joined a walking tour to see the Mt of Olives. It is very steep, so we caught a taxi to the top and made our way back down. Our first stop was the Muslim chapel of ascension, a shared Christian and Muslim church/ mosque that is believed to mark the place where Jesus ascended into heaven. Then the Paternoster church where Jesus wrote 'Our Father who art in Heaven'. The prayer is translated into over 100 different languages on the walls. As we walked down the hill we could see thousands of Jewish graves and an incredible view of the old city in Jerusalem. Next was the Dominus Flevit, a tear-drop shaped church which is in the place where Jesus wept and then the Garden and Basilica of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed. Our last stop was the Grotto of Gethsamane (also called the cave of Betrayal) and the Church of Sepulchre of the Virgin Mary, which are next to each other. The Grotto of Gethsemane was interesting as it was really small and dark, in a cave, with a few chairs. It is supposed to be where Judas kissed Jesus on the cheek and betrayed him. To access the Church of Sepulchre of the Virgin Mary you have to walk downstairs. I don't think I've seen that before in a church. It it where Mary and Joseph are buried. It was beautiful! Lanterns everywhere and some amazing colourful paintings. This is where the tour came to an end and we were totally churched out!
We made our way back to the old town and saw hundreds of Jews heading to the wall for their Friday evening prayers. On our last night in Jerusalem we had a Shabbat meal with a Jewish family. Someone had recommended it to us as it is such a huge part of the Jewish religion and way of life and there is a company called 'Shabbat of a Lifetime' where you can book to have a meal with a Jewish family. Our meal was with a young couple called Mandy and Etan. They were from New York and had been living in Jerusalem for about 3 years. Etan met us and the other guests on a street near their flat and welcomed us in. They shared what a traditional Friday night would be for them. They said their prayers, blessed their children and sang songs. We had a meal of houmous, aubergine, tahini, cold salmon, chicken soup with matzo balls (Jewish penicillin), rice, beef and a chocolate pudding with dried fruit and nuts to finish. They were very open and encouraged us to ask questions about anything... Judaism, Jersualem, politics, their lives. This was such an interesting experience as there had been so many things we'd been wondering and usually Jewish people are very closed. It was an amazing evening to be part of!
Our second day trip to explore North Israel started with a visit to Capernaum, an ancient fishing village next to the sea of Galilee. It has two excavated ancient synagogues and was the home town of some of Jesus' apostles, and the centre of Jesus' activities in Galilee during that time. Next stop was the Mount of Beatitudes, a hill where Jesus delivered the 'Sermon on the Mount':
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
If you can get past the coach loads of people, it is a lovely peaceful place with a Roman Catholic chapel and a view looking down onto the sea of Galilee. After that we stopped at Banias Nature Reserve to see Banias Falls, the biggest waterfall in Israel. It would have been a nice place to have a bit more time to do some hiking and see the ruins and maybe some of the wildlife, but it was a good stop to see some of Israel's nature. We had lunch at a basic street side cafe. I had a sort of thin pizza bread folded into a wrap with a tomato and curd. After lunch we did a wine tasting at a boutique winery called Odem Mountain Winery. Obviously Israel was known for wine in the bible times, but not now. I never see Israeli wine... but there are a number of small vineyards who are working on establishing vineyards and Israeli wine now. It was really good and not something I was expecting on this trip!
Our final stop was Israel Occupied Golan Heights. Most people probably know about it, but I didn't. We visited Mount Bental which is in the middle of the Golan Heights. It was beautiful, fascinating, sad and scary. It has panoramic views across Galilee and the plains of Syria. Mount Hermon opposite was covered in snow which I was surprised at given how warm Israel was. It has a cafe and a metal sculpture garden by Dutch artist Joop de Jong. It is also the site of the battle fought between Israel and Syria for the Golan Heights. There are old army bunkers that are open to the public. Mount Bental overlooks a Syrian rebel camp and Israeli army camp where rockets are still occasionally thrown now (I think there was one a week after we visited!). There are UN Peace Keepers there constantly monitoring what is going on, and who were happy to answer the many questions our group had. Also, randomly, apparently Chuck Norris was there about half an hour before us!
Another interesting day in this beautiful, fascinating, conflicted country!
In case you're interested, we did this tour with Abraham Tours. It was by far one of the more reasonably priced tours that we looked at (and it was well organised and run!)
From Nazareth, our first day trip was to Haifa, Acre and Hanikra. Haifa is the third largest city in Israel after Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The main reason we stopped there was to see the Baha'i Temple and Gardens. These impeccable gardens start at street level and extend a kilometre up the side of Mount Carmel. The temple and gardens are part of the Baha'i World Centre which is a UNESCO world heritage site and destination for pilgrims of the Baha'i faith. Our second stop was Stella Maris Monastery, a Catholic Carmelite Monastery.
Next was Acre (or Akko) for lunch. Acre is one of the oldest cities in the world and a port city with well-preserved city walls. We walked around the city, down to the bustling port, through the market and to a busy restaurant where we sat outside and had fresh fish with pitta. Our last stop for the day was Rosh Hanikra, which is at Israel's northwestern tip, at the border with Beirut. We got the cable car down to the sea reserve with its beautiful grottoes and turquoise water.
It was a lovely and fascinating day, discovering parts of Israel, religions and towns I'd never even heard of before this visit!
We did this day trip with Abraham Tours. As we didn't hire a car, we had limited options for getting around. This tour was ideal for us as it was a reasonably priced self-guided tour where travel and basic advice was included but we explored ourselves as we would if we'd driven ourselves there, and we got to meet some interesting people at the same time!
I've wanted to go to Israel for as long as I can remember. When I was still in school one of my friends went and stayed on a kibbutz and came back with all sorts of stories and made me a meal with houmous and pitta and lots of little dishes which we ate sitting on the floor! My dad was a strong Christian and talked about Israel a lot. I remember him having books and maps of it. He wanted to call my brother Israel! Well, earlier this year in-between changing jobs I finally went. I was going to go on my own, but at the last minute Chris decided to come with me. Our first stop was Nazareth where we based ourselves for 3 nights while we travelled the North part of Israel.
We booked to stay at the Fauzi Azar Inn, in the old town, but as we were booking so late it was full and they put us in Simsim guesthouse around the corner but we had breakfast included at Fauzi Azar, so we popped over there each morning. Fauzi Azar is a 200 year old arab mansion which is now a guesthouse run by the same family. We also made friends with a couple of Afrikaans sisters (who had been volunteering in Jerusalem and were about to do the Jesus trail) who invited us over for tea and cake. It is a beautiful house built around an open courtyard, with frescoes, balconies, vines and high ceilings... it really is lovely.
Nazareth is mostly Arabic with majority Muslims and Christians, unlike Jerusalem which is majority jews. In the bible, Nazareth is where Jesus spent his childhood. We spent our first afternoon walking around the old town to see the main sites. It is not that easy to get around as most of the streets lack names. They have numbers which are not really used by anyone. Luckily its a small place!
The town is obviously a lot bigger and higher than what is was all those years ago. There are no more dirt roads or donkeys wandering around. The old town is all little alleyways and cobbled streets. All sorts of churches have been built around areas of significance. The Basilica of Annunciation, the biggest church which most people go to see has been been built at the site where (according to Roman Catholics) the virgin Mary's house was and Angel Gabriel told her she was going to have a son. The Greek Orthodox church believe this happened when Mary was drawing water from a spring, so this is where the Greek Orthodox Church of Annunciation is built. St. Joseph's church is popularly believed to be where Joseph's carpentry shop was. It also has some very old steps down to an underground cave that once served as a grain store. Mary's well is a symbol of where the well might have been. But in Israel it is often the symbolism that is important.
We did day trips to the Sea of Galilee, Haifa and Golan Heights over the following two days which I'll do separate posts about. As part of one of these trips our first stop was the Mount of Precipice which is just on the outskirts of Nazareth and has some brilliant views of the city. On our last day before heading to Jerusalem we joined a walking tour around the old city in Nazareth with Fauzi Azar Inn. This was brilliant. We started in the grand old house and heard about the history of the house and of Nazareth. And then walked through the old cobbled streets, the souq (market) where we stopped at a coffee shop and bought some cardamom coffee and a stall selling olive oil soap. We visited the Elbabour Galilee Mill, a spice lovers dream, and a beautiful traditional clothing and make-up shop. One of our last stops was Abu Salem cafe. An unmarked cafe in the old town, frequented by its regular all-male elderly clientele who have been going there since they were young men. They drink coffee, smoke and play backgammon round the back. We tried their 'inar' a naturally sweet hot cinnamon drink topped with nuts... it was sweet and tasty!
We had some really good food in Nazareth. A lot of things, especially drinking turned out to be really expensive in Israel, so we didn't do much of that. We did go to the Liwan culture cafe though, which was below our hostel and tried some of their Palestinian beer. They had good music and great decor. We were mostly the only people in there. We tried the following places:
- Kitabon - This was our first Israeli food and we had a feast! We had a bowl of houmous, pitta, aubergine and tahini, roasted cauliflower and tabbouleh... we were both in food comas afterwards.
- Breakfast at Fauzi Azar consisted of pitta, salad, curd, boiled eggs, herb pizza bread, halva and leftover cake from the day before
- Hani Restaurant - We were looking for somewhere to try shwarma and this place was packed! We joined the queue and being the only tourists looked totally lost when we got to the front. They spoke English and went out of their way to explain the menu and look after us. The shwarma was good too.
- Falafel Khazen - We were served by a cute old couple and ate falafel in pitta with freshly squeezed orange juice, on little wooden chairs in the old town. SO GOOD!
- Alreda - Slightly more pricey Arabic Restaurant. It felt like stepping back in time. Good music. It had an old world charm with its decoration, old furniture and people smoking at their tables (there was a note in the menu to say if you don't like it you're better off finding somewhere else). The food was interesting... not the best I've had, it was really unusual flavours. The reviews on trip advisor are all 5 star though, so I think you just need to know what to order!
- Abu Ashraf Restaurant - Our hostel recommended this to us. It looks like an old-style antique shop packed to the roof with all sorts of interesting things. The old man who runs the shop stands in the window every morning preparing katayef (the stuffed pancakes he is famous for). When we went it looked like he was closing up but he stayed open just for us. He told us what he thought we should have which we did. We had lamb shwarma, freekeh, houmous, pitta and salad with a mint tea and katayef to follow. We had one with nuts and cinnamon and another with goats cheese, both drowned in syrup. Great experience!
- Almahdi Sweets - Arabic sweet shop very close to the Basilica. For someone who loves sweet pastries this place is heaven. Rows and rows of all sorts of different pastries. We shared a couple with coffee. Yum!
- Liwan culture cafe - This was a lovely cafe below our hostel with good music and great decor. We tried some of their Palestinian beer. We were mostly the only people in there.
- And of course Abu Salem cafe with their pensioners and sweet 'inar' cinnamon drink, which I've already mentioned :-)