Tel Aviv, a city of beautiful people, dogs and scooters.

The morning started with a simple of breakfast in the dining area in the foyer of the Olympia Hotel. Helen was flying out this morning so goodbyes were said and photos exchanged with our fellow travellers. The remaining six of us in our little band of explorers had decided to get back to Jerusalem to visit the Israel Museum to see The Dead Sea Scrolls. We asked the girls at the desk which buses to catch and how to get to the bus terminal. Because it was Shabbat timetables were different and some buses weren’t running so it became more difficult that it would ordinarily have been.

After consulting maps and deciding we could manage the walk, we set off to the central bus station. The 45 minute walk was hot going. Confusion met us when we arrived as everything was very quiet, not a bus to be seen! We noticed a line of people over the road at a bus stop so we scurried over and joined the queue. But after chatting to others in front of us we decided we were in the wrong place to catch a bus to Jerusalem. We managed to hail another type of bus and were driven to the other central bus station. The driver told us which small bus to catch and we were off when another couple of travellers boarded. Hooray!

We arrived in Jerusalem and had no idea where we were even after Amanda, the main map reader, consulted her map, turning it this way and that. We managed to grab a very comfortable large taxi to take us to the museum. The driver was very happy to also take us back to Tel Aviv and so we arranged to meet him two hours later for a good price.

The museum foyer was very stylish and welcoming and especially good for us as our seniors card was recognised and a discount was applied! Bonus! We wandered through the grounds and headed straight for the Shrine of the Book, the specially built structure housing the scrolls. It is architecturally stunning and designed with lots of symbolism at heart. The atmosphere inside and out is vital to the preservation of the scrolls that are rotated every three months or so.

We wandered around the outside exhibits for a while and grabbed a coffee and pastry in a small cafe. A quick visit to the museum shop filled in the last few minutes before we met our driver for the trip back to Tel Aviv. After our return to the hotel we walked across the road to the beach. Wow!! So many people enjoying the sun and water. Beautiful people parading, exercising and paddling or sailing out on the water. We walked out onto the breakwater and watched small craft coming in after a day on the water. Loud music playing, and a jet flying overhead, and scooters whizzing past added to the vibrancy of the area.

We decided to have dinner at a beachside cafe, Gordo, where we initially enjoyed a refreshing beer and cocktail. The sunset was subdued lacking the intense reds and oranges but it was gorgeous anyway.

As we walked home people were still on the foreshore playing beach volleyball, scootering along the pathways and generally living the life in this vibrant precinct. Tomorrow we have the day to ourselves as we don’t leave for the airport till late in the afternoon.

The Road to Bethlehem

Day three of the tour but it’s actually our second full day being guided by Azmi. (This page is out of order because I’ve just noticed that it didn’t publish at the time due to poor wifi. It should have been posted on 9th April)

Driving in our very comfortable bus up to the Mount of Olives this morning provided us with some spectacular views of Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock glistened in the sunshine like a jewel. Following a meandering path beside an Old Jewish graveyard decorated with wildflowers, and down the hill to the Garden of Gethsemane was significant because it is reputed to be the path Jesus took to enter Jerusalem triumphantly, on what we now refer to as Palm Sunday.

The Garden of Gethsemane was going to be my personal highlight and I was really looking forward to seeing it. Unfortunately it is not possible to wander in, but gazing on olive trees, with gnarled and twisted trunks, that have been carbon dated to prove their age of 2000 years is just staggering.

Beside the garden is a superb church, the Church of All Nations, also referred to as The Basilica of the Agony, where a Mass was in progress for a small group of pilgrims. Three stunning mosaics adorn the walls at the sanctuary end of the church with simple and dramatic stained glass windows running along the side walls. The ceiling was made up of many domes carrying intricate mosaics depicting the olive trees of the garden next door. It really did not disappoint.

Passing through security and into the West Bank was uneventful. Our first stop was the Banksy Hotel, called the Walled Off Hotel, situated beside the huge concrete wall separating the West Bank from the rest of the country. The wall is covered in political graffiti and clever street art providing us with much to ponder as we walked along a hundred meters or so.

Afterwards we enjoyed a couple of cappuccinos and an earl grey tea from vintage china cups in the quirky front room decorated with Banksy art.

Manger Square in Bethlehem was the next stop where we entered the Church of the Nativity but bypassed the three hour queue to see the spot where Mary is said to have given birth. Instead we had a look around the church, which had beautiful mosaics and lots of ornate lamps hung from the ceiling. We then spent a bit of time in the church next door and in the tombs beneath, where St Jerome is reputed to have translated some of the gospels from Hebrew into Latin in the fourth century.

Lunch for the eleven of us was the famous Bethlehem falafel sandwich which was delicious and surprisingly cheap. We would have loved to have more time exploring Bethlehem but we had to head back to Jerusalem to meet up with another guide who was going to take us on a walking tour in West Jerusalem.

The tour started off quite well but as it progressed our guide seemed a little lost and uncertain as to what she might show us. We passed through a delightful area of very expensive homes in the Yemin Moshe district then onto the YMCA which shares the same architect as the Empire State Building.

A quick visit into the foyer of the King David Hotel opposite where presidents, prime ministers, actors and other famous people stay because of the security available was interesting. A couple of things we were supposed to see, the Mamilla Pool and a public art space that was on the list seemed to evade the guide and even stopping to ask people in the park, didn’t help her.

We eventually got to the vibrant main shopping malls of the area with cafes spilling out onto the streets, wide promenades and buskers. Following Jaffa Road with its light rail travelling up and down the centre we were led into the colourful Machane Yehuda market with its food stalls of fruit, spices, pastries and all sort of delicacies.

We were happy to bid farewell to our guide for the afternoon. Some of us found a great little bar where we enjoyed a couple of drinks and some delicious sweet kanafeh, which is a sweet and crispy dessert. The bar had fantastic wifi which we all happily used.

Halva
Sweet delights
Meat and fish stalls too
Enjoying a drink together

We managed to figure out how to buy tickets for the light rail and after much laughing the seven of us got off at the right stop and enjoyed a dinner at a cosy restaurant, Al-Mihbash, not far from the hotel.

Tomorrow we head out to the desert to visit Masada and then onto the Dead Sea to enjoy, we hope, a float in the salty water.

Farewell and Shalom Israel

Our last day in Israel. Our transfer is at 6.15pm so we have a full day to wander about. Breakfast at the hotel and then we caught a taxi for 50 shekels up to the old port city of Jaffa. Unfortunately the sky wasn’t blue today so our photos don’t have the gorgeous contrast of the stone against azure blue. We enjoyed fika in the Basma cafe…it’s the one with the blues shutters and little tables outside that caught our eye as the taxi took us into the centre of the old city.

There were many little alleys to wander up and down in. Cute ceramic plaques held the names of the narrow laneways. We eventually figured out that the signs of the zodiac were being used.

Because it was pretty early, 9 o’clock, the shops selling jewellery and art work were closed. However we managed to pop into a Yemenite jewellery maker who was pleased to serve us and took delight in showing the workshop. I do believe that three pairs of gorgeous earrings were purchased by three very discerning customers!

We walked on into the main square and managed to get into St Peter’s Catholic Church. It was closed when we came through the square a couple of days ago. A beautiful ceiling was eye catching.

A market is always interesting and the one we found just off the clock tower square was no exception. Lots of copper pots, clothing, carpets, jewellery and trash and treasure. A couple of shops had some beautiful things that took our fancy.

We decided to try our luck at getting an outside table at Aladin’s restaurant for lunch so we set off with fingers crossed. Sure enough we got the last outside table! A delicious lunch from mixed platters sitting in the sun, over looking the Mediterranean was a perfect lunch.

We took a taxi back to sit and rest up in the hotel foyer for an hour or so then walked up Ben Gurion Boulevard to have a look at the shops and cafes in that area. Sitting in the sun enjoying a beer and watching the bustle of Tel Aviv race by was a good way to spend another hour or so before our transfer arrives. Back to the hotel to freshen up, air drop some photos and write the blog took another hour or so. Nothing to do now but wait! A two hour layover at both Istanbul and Singapore airports and then home. What a great friends abroad trip we’ve had with lots of laughs, wow moments and fabulous memories.

To Tel Aviv on the coast via Caesarea.

Our last full day on our tour of Israel was another day full of wow moments. We were packed and ready to go by 8.30. A short walk to the bus parking area and we set off to Haifa, the third biggest city in Israel, to see the Bahá’í Gardens. Azmi explained about the Ottoman and German times in the town and the effect they had upon the architecture and also about the Bahá’í faith and its leader that the memorial in the Bahá’í Gardens was built for. I had heard of the gardens but had no idea they were laid out in such a formal and eye catching manner. The gardens are made up of terraces that flow smoothly down the hill separated by little white fences of pillared balustrades and white urns of geraniums. The lawns are manicured, hedges clipped perfectly and the garden beds full of colourful annuals. Pencil pines and magnificent date palms rise majestically in a symmetrical pattern around the site. The centre point of the gardens is the magnificent golden domed Shrine of the Báb, glorious in the sunshine.

The next stop was to see an aqueduct built by Herod and then added onto by Hadrian in the coastal town of Caesarea. Gee, that guy got around! The sweeping arches stand proudly along the coastline as families play on the fine sandy beach and men try their luck fishing.

Close to the aqueduct stands the ancient remains of Herod’s summer palace, presenting a glimpse into the life of the king and the citizens of the town. A magnificent amphitheater, a hippodrome, bath houses, and streets running through the town with superb mosaics to appreciate, among other buildings, make this a really interesting site to visit. A few shops and cafes make the visit even more enjoyable. We all had lunch at a cafe on the water’s edge with Azmi and our driver, Diab, joining us for our last lunch together.

A short drive into Tel Aviv and the old port of Jaffa finished our tour. We had a group photo taken at the lookout with the buildings of Tel Aviv in the background. The group was really fun with everyone getting along really well. We tended to spend more time with Helen, from Cornwall, Principal of an International school in Manila and soon taking up a post in Riyadh; Amanda, a nurse from Albany in Western Australia, and Grant and Sue who are in the furniture business in New Zealand. We had great fun together exploring the restaurant scenes in each town or city we visited and trying hummus somewhere different everyday!

We bade farewell to Azmi and Diab after we checked into the Olympia Hotel over the road from the beach. It is a great little boutique hotel in a convenient spot to the beaches, shops and restaurants. We wandered around the immediate neighbourhood, finding a little street cafe to have a coffee in the sun. Tel Aviv is a very cosmopolitan city and from what we could see this afternoon, a dog lovers city. A guy on a skateboard being pulled along the footpath by two dogs, husky style and people on bikes and motorised scooters sped past on the cycle tracks as we sat enjoying our coffee. We walked up the road towards the beach marvelling at all the people on the beach, browsing the shops as we went and deciding that a Kilkenny draft beer at Molly Malone’s would be a good idea. Irish music from the musicians playing in the front room filtered out to the outside tables where we sat.

We all met up in the hotel foyer at 6.30, airdropped a few photos, exchanged emails and set of for the restaurant strip for dinner. It was a fun night at a busy cafe serving delicious food and drink. Back to the hotel by 9.30 we decided to go back to Jerusalem tomorrow to see the Dead Sea Scrolls at the museum. Helen leaves to go diving in Egypt after breakfast so it will be six of us sharing the drive in. We’re all looking forward to see what tomorrow brings when we’re left to our own devices.

Up north to the border

After a simple but lovely breakfast in the dining room of the convent, we checked out their delightful chapel and the terrace on the third floor with fabulous views over Nazareth to the skyline. We walked down to the bus at 8.30 and left for Rosh Hanikra driving past forests of oaks, olives and pistachios and through towns that displayed lots of building work in progress.

On arrival we stopped at a lookout so we could gaze over the Mediterranean coastline. An Israeli warship was sitting calmly in the waters close to the yellow markers signifying the border between Lebanon and Israel. Israeli soldiers were on duty at the gates and were happy to give us a wave as they drove past in their UN vehicle. Walking on further we came to the yellow and red cable cars that would take us down to caves and grottoes where the sound of rushing water whooshed though the tunnels. Pigeons happily swooped from the cliffs playing in the sunshine.

Tunnels lit up dramatically made for great photos.

There were many “wow” moments at our next stop, the fascinating complex of buildings used by the Knights of St. John (the Knights Hospitaller), the Crusader Citadel in Acre, Akko in Hebrew. This site is spectacular! Walking through the dining hall, the market place, the crypt of an ancient church and an underground passage that their rivals, the Knights Templar, used, we were spellbound by the size and grandeur of the site. It is presented in the form of a museum that makes the history come alive.

After the citadel visit we walked through the old port town of Akko with its market place and port area, having lunch that consisted of delicious hummus made right before our eyes. Azmi used a code of “It looks like rain” to warn us to be careful of pickpockets and for the first time he used it today while we were walking through the maze of stalls selling delicious looking foods as well as lots of junky souvenirs.

At the edge of the market place we went down into tunnels running to the port that were only discovered twenty five years or so ago. These tunnels filled with water at high tides and were used to smuggle goods into the town so that taxes could be avoided. Who knows what else might lie beneath these streets.

The port area looked to be a vibrant place with cafes, shops and spectacular views. Lots of school children seemed to be on excursions over the last two days and today we were often just ahead of groups of excited kids and their frazzled teachers.

Wanting to avoid the horrific Nazareth traffic, we left Akko to be back in Nazareth by 3.00 for a walking tour from Mary’s Well, into the church that now houses the diverted springs and then to the magnificent Basilica of the Annunciation. The Basilica has two floors and is also built over the ruins of a village excavated by archeologists. It contains magnificent mosaics depicting Mary and Child made by and donated from countries all over the world. I’ve put in a photo of Australia’s mosaic showing the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she was going to become the Mother of Jesus. The architecture of the Basilica has a demanding presence that can’t be resisted as far as taking photos goes, with the delightful blue sky framing it perfectly.

This is our last night in Nazareth. Eight of us walked down to a foodie precinct for dinner and settled on Meshwar. This was not a highly successful choice as the staff appeared to be very disorganised and unprepared. The food was ok but the drinks left a bit to be desired, with the white house wine coming out with ice in it!! We’re guessing they didn’t have any cold so an attempt was made to chill it. Some of us came back to the convent while the others went back to where we had dinner last night, Alreda, for a few more drinks. Curfew for the convent is 10.30 so off to bed at a reasonable hour after packing our things to leave for our final destination of Tel Aviv tomorrow.

Today was another fabulous day filled with contrasts and fun.

To Nazareth we go.

We said goodbye to our cheerful rooms at the Azzahra Hotel in East Jerusalem this morning and began a day’s travel ending in Nazareth.

One last view of Jerusalem from the bus as we sailed past, with the Dome of the Rock taking centre stage in the landscape but not quite glistening in the sun like it did when we visited. Bedouin camps popped into view along the roadside as we drove through the desert, stopping at the sea level marker for a photo opportunity.

Jericho didn’t present itself very well looking quite untidy and run down, however we stopped beside a gorgeous little spot with a huge sycamore tree set in a well maintained garden with fruit sellers’ wagons parked nearby. This tree is reputed to be the tree, or another planted in its place, that Zaccheus climbed to see Jesus as he moved through the town.

There were a few workmen painting some of the trees with a white paint of some sort that prevented ants getting into the trees and killing them. This guy with the groovy haircut was scraping away the old layer ready to apply a new coat. Azmi told stories about Jesus as he traversed the countryside, at each of the spots we stopped at during the day. We continued on a short way to Hisham’s Palace where we were horrified not only to see that electrical equipment was getting set up for a concert but also to see a school group of teenage boys scrambling all over precious stone ruins and irreplaceable mosaic floors and running around it as if it was a fairground. Their teacher was in fact encouraging the boys to climb up onto a signature piece for photos. Azmi was horrified and so were we!!

Back into the bus to continue though the Jordan Valley to our next destination of Capernaum, we were on the lookout for a picture of a shepherd guarding his flock of sheep that I wanted for school. Often cries of “shepherd!” were heard as we drove along causing us to search the horizon and snap away. Can you see him?

The area we drove through appeared to be a food bowl with kilometres of date palms, grape vines, corn, mangoes, banana trees and poly tunnel after poly tunnel. We drove along the border fence between Israel and Jordan for a period of time and saw a couple of Israeli jets announce their presence. Driving past the Sea of Galilee with its blue water sparkling in the sunshine we stopped at Tabgha to see the church of the Primacy of St Peter, Mensa Christi. This is a beautiful and simple church right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee with a couple of outdoor altars for small groups of people to celebrate Mass. There was a Mass being celebrated in French for only three people! This church is all about Jesus choosing Peter and ‘on this rock I shall build my church’. Luckily we got to see the church and the banks of the Sea of Galilee before a couple of bus loads of tourists arrived to destroy the serenity.

Capernaum was fascinating with a modern church said to have been built over the ruins of Peter’s house which can be seen through the glass floor in the centre of the church. Beside that is the site of two ancient synagogues, one built on top of a more ancient one. One could surmise that when Jesus stayed with Peter at his house then he would have visited the synagogue next door.

The town of Safed (Tsfat) is one of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities and is also Israel’s highest city at over 900 metres above sea level. Here we spent some time having lunch and wandering along a street full of artists’ shops selling paintings and jewellery. A few purchases might have been made! Asmi told us that the traffic in Nazareth was horrendous and he was so right! It took us almost an hour to move four kilometres up the road into Nazareth.

It was past six o’clock by now and we parked our little bus and walked the short distance to the Sisters of Nazareth Convent which provides accomodation. What a fabulous place this is. We unpacked our cases for the two night stay and walked to a restaurant that Azmi loves going to. Delicious food and good company was the end to a great day.

Oh, I guess you noticed that the convent has wonderful wifi and photos are being shared so easily. Hope you enjoyed them.

Into the desert

An 8.00am start as usual saw us boarding the bus for Masada, King Herod’s winter palace. Driving through the desert provided us with fantastic views of stark landscapes with occasional crops of majestic date palms in various stages of growth. Shepherds and their sheep, goats and camels meandered across the hills dotted with simple Bedouin houses.

The complex of buildings atop the outcrop was much larger than I thought it was going to be. Tourists from all over the world filled the cable cars for the two minute glide up to the top. What a view! Herod certainly knew how to position a house! The ingenuity of the inhabitants was evident in the water cisterns and storage facilities that kept the community thriving. The two narratives of Masada, King Herod and then the rebels’ battle with the romans was explained simply and logically by our wonderful guide Azmi. Little snippets of information made the stories come alive.

The weather was fabulous and we were glad to be leaving the ruins by eleven o’clock to make the drive to Qumran for lunch in a very large cafeteria. It was beginning to get very hot up there. The cable car ride was very smooth with fantastic views.

After a tasty lunch of a falafel sandwich and a cold drink we drove ten minutes or so to the Dead Sea. It was an imposing sight driving along the body of sparkling water for such a long time as we made our way to Masada surprising everyone as to how big it was. Sadly though, Azmi told us that with global warming it is in danger of disappearing entirely in a couple of generations. The gradual receding of the water was plainly visible!

Another amazing place! Kalia Beach is a fantastic sight. At 418 metres below sea level, Kalia Beach is the northern most beach in the Dead Sea and offers visitors great views of the surrounding desert and loads of fun and laughs as you venture into the water. Holding onto the rope is the only safe way to get into the water to ensure that you don’t end up with your face in the water. It was delightful bobbing around in the refreshing water and chatting and laughing with friends with the sun shining from above.

After our dip, showers on the sand washed off the intense salt and we made our way up to the bar, the lowest bar in the world, to enjoy a drink, a couple of large Heinekens and a lemonade. The prices for the drinks weren’t low though by any means! Reggae music playing from the bar was perfect, camels sitting gracefully by the path and the hysterical experience of changing into our bathers, and then back into our clothes, in front of many, many strangers, helped make the whole experience a highlight of the trip.

A stop at the Monastery of St. George on the way back to Jerusalem through the Judean Desert, but still in the West Bank, was fascinating. In the middle of nowhere a magnificent collection of buildings was established by monks who sought solitude in the deep crevices of a large canyon. Hawkers tried to sell us jewellery and scarves as we got out of the bus to listen to another fascinating history from Azmi. They were disappointed when we left without making any purchases.

A half hour drive back through security and back into Jerusalem to our hotel for a couple of hours before we all went out to dinner at the Legacy Hotel, only a ten minute walk from the hotel. It also happened to be Sue’s birthday so we made it a memorable celebration. It was a great night with fabulous food and views over the city to match.

So tomorrow we check out of our comfortable and cosy hotel in Jerusalem and head towards Nazareth where we’ll be staying in a convent established by an order of French nuns in the mid nineteenth century. It’s promising to be another unforgettable experience.

Amazement

So many amazing things to witness and wonder at on day two of our tour. We enjoyed a much simpler breakfast at our cosy Azzahra hotel and left at 8am for our walk into the Old City with our guide Azmi. The crowds of the day before hadn’t yet arrived and it was a direct route through the streets, past security and into the Wailing Wall Plaza. The wall is amazing with a constant sound of chanting, murmuring and a clatter of plastic chairs as people moved to get close to the wall. The men’s section was very busy but we had no trouble finding a space sliding our little notes in the tiny crevices between the stones in the women’s section.

After a time there we joined a long line, which only took three quarters of an hour, through more security up into an enclosed timber ramp and in through the Al-Magharbeh Gate to Dome of the Rock. This is a stunning structure and amazing to see. Azmi gives us interesting information about each of the sights but most of that goes in one ear and out the other!

Exiting though St Stephan’s Gate we made our way to the crusader Church of St Anne and the Pool of Bethesda. Superb acoustics resulted in glorious singing from a group of pilgrims arranged in front of the sanctuary.

Continuing along the Via Dolorosa, we started following the Stations of the Cross meandering through the laneways. Lots of separate groups of pilgrims making their way along the route made for some crowded sections, some carrying 90kg wooden crosses and chanting or singing as they went. The culmination of the stations is the amazing Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, died and buried. What an imposing sight. The atmosphere of the church was dramatic and awe inspiring. Many people were jostling for space and trying to move through to the structure built over the burial cave.

Outside the Church of St. Anne
Lots of narrow laneways and not particularly tidy

After lunch we were driven to the Yad Vashem museum, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. A moving and very somber place set in a magnificent building, brutal in its simplicity but a superb memorial to the millions of people murdered during the war.

Dinner with the group, which is very friendly, at our hotel restaurant and into bed to prepare for another busy day.

Wandering around.

Waking up this morning to a pretty smear of pink across the sky was our welcome to Jerusalem. Breakfast in the dining room was amazing. So many different fruits, cheeses, hard boiled eggs, gefilta fish, frittata, pastries, breads and cakes just to name a few. The variety was mind boggling and must take the staff ages to prepare and set out.

Just a fraction of breakfast delicacies on offer

We then walked around the district for a couple of hours. Because of Shabbat, everything was closed and the streets were deserted except for many Jewish guys walking to Synagogue, praying from their prayer books as they went.

Checking out and then taking a taxi to Hotel Azzahra, which is only a ten minute walk to the Old City, took no time. Our first experience of the traffic with our friendly Jewish driver took us into East Jerusalem, a Muslim area. A cacophony of tooting filled our ears as chaos reigned on the streets with cars, taxis, motor bikes and pedestrians jostling for space.

A street in west Jerusalem


Local graffiti

Before we headed into the Old City we found a great place for lunch overlooking the old city walls and enjoyed some delicious hummus with breads and olives. Then into the Old City we went…through the Damascus Gate.

What a melting pot of humanity. We were absorbed into a throng of people and surrounded by many different languages. It was full of market shops selling all types of ‘stuff’. A lot of junky two dollar shop type of merchandise with spice, fruit, clothing and pastry stalls thrown in. At one stage we were caught in the middle of a four way intersection where we had to stick tight and just squeeze our way through!

Finding a spot for coffee wasn’t too difficult and we sat for a little while watching the world go by. Finding our way out was a different matter but we eventually got back onto familiar ground and made our way back to the Azzahra Hotel to check in.

We have a double and a single room which we’ll rotate so we can all have a turn at solitude. We laughed when we struggled up the stairs with our cases; thump, thump, thump up to the first floor. We’ll take up the offer of help when we leave.

At 6.00pm our little tour group of eleven met in the foyer for our tour briefing. Our guide’s name is Azmi and seems terrific. He took us on a short familiarisation of the immediate area, giving us a few hints about cafes that we might have dinner at and also the all important ATMs and which ones are safe to use. Six of us went to the Holy Land Hotel rooftop restaurant for dinner and a great view over to the city wall. The food was great but Cath had to wait an age for her pumpkin risotto.

The atmosphere was provided by a guy playing a lute, we think, setting the scene for a great night. By the time we left around ten o’clock the restaurant was full, our musician had kept playing without a break, and the smell of cigarettes hung in the air. Obviously smoking at dinner tables is still OK here and with the amount of smokers around I wouldn’t like their chances of bringing that in! A girl from Geelong, one from Rio and another from Cornwall made up our group. There are two couples, one from Corowa area, and another woman on her own who decided not to come on the walk. I guess we’ll get to know them all over the week but first impressions are that it will be fun.

Tomorrow Azmi takes us into the Old City with the first stop being the wailing wall. Can’t wait!

Jerusalem

After 32 hours of flying and waiting around airports we arrived at the very modern and sleek looking Tel Aviv airport. Huge and airy with creamy sandstone walls. Everything worked just as it was intended, our baggage arrived after accompanying us on the three flights… crossing your fingers really does help! All of our flights were full with Jerusalem getting busier by the day as the town ramps up for Easter. We’re home by then and will miss all the extra people and traffic on the roads and in the airports, gladly!

Moving to our tour hotel tomorrow morning after spending the first night at the Crowne Plaza will be a little bit of a nuisance but at least we get to see a different area. We had to book an extra night due to the closure of the old Istanbul airport and couldn’t get an extra night at the tour base hotel, very close to the Old city of Jerusalem. It’s Sabbath tonight and tomorrow resulting in many restaurants and cafes being closed, so we’ve arranged to have dinner and then breakfast in the morning at the hotel dining room.

From our balconies a sea of creamy brick apartments, offices and homes decorate the hills. A dramatic gateway type structure, called King David’s Harp, rises up into the sky signalling the trams’ route. Hopefully it will be lit up tonight in glorious colours waiting for a photo, or two or three, to be snapped.

Istanbul airport was very busy, and not particularly sparkling in Singapore airport style, but added to that was the fact that the shop owners were packing up and getting ready to transfer all their stock to the new airport tomorrow. Passing through the new airport on the way home will be interesting but due to our arrival a few minutes after midnight we may not get to see too much of the new setup. A funny sight this afternoon was watching a couple of guys cleaning the windscreen of the aircraft from the boarding gate. We wondered if they had to spit and polish all the other windows too!

So tonight will consist of dinner followed by a collapse into bed! For those of us who find sleeping on planes almost impossible, a bed is looking very inviting. Tomorrow presents us with a new day to venture out into a city that promises to be rich in history with lots of fascinating things to see and wonder at. A meeting at 6.00pm will signal the start of the tour and a chance to meet the other members of our ‘intrepid’ band of explorers.