I am sitting on my kitchen bench in Suva, Fiji – the city I was raised in, where I thought I would ride out the Coronavirus pandemic in geographic isolation. I assumed life may maintain some semblance of normalcy if I stuck it out in the islands, and that in no time the world would return to normal, and I would have hopped on a plane back to Sydney.
Unfortunately, as I sit here on my kitchen bench, I am in lockdown. The virus swept up on our shores, shutting down first our second largest city, Lautoka, before making its way to the heartbeat of Pacific, Suva, and ultimately resulting in a nationwide night time curfew from 8pm to 5am everyday. The feeling of isolation is in equal parts daunting and liberating.
I have spent much of my time reorganising and decluttering my life in preparation for when this has finally passed. I have also been making a list of countries I must visit or re-visit when this is over. Travelling has always made me feel most human. The awareness and appreciation of difference within the human experience cannot truly be achieved any other way.
This finally brings me to the purpose of this article – Israel. I am most grateful for having made somewhat of a pilgrimage to what is referred to by many as the Holy Land in September last year with a bunch of wine drinking, good food finding, shady asf, supremely hilarious people, who are my chosen family. This travel article may not be your standard curated travel piece (although my Editor-In-Chief has given me some specific details which I’ll try to include) because it was not one of my standard trips. Israel is a place you visit for the history, for Tel (the Hebrew word for a hill with remnants or ruins covered inside its layers), but also for the journey of self, of sentiment, and of emotion. I’m not about to go all Eat, Pray, Love on you, but you get the gist.
Speaking of Tel, the first stop on our journey, like many Australians, was Tel Aviv. Aviv in Hebrew means spring, and that’s exactly what this fabulous city is. A new metropolis built upon layers of not just ancient ruin, but of tradition, culture, and history. We arrive off our Cathay Pacific flight and check into the beach side Carlton Hotel, Tel Aviv has many similarities to Sydney, from its beachside culture, dynamic fashion scene, and vibrant LGBTIQ community.
Fun fact, Tel Aviv has been voted the Gay Capital of the world by a number of sources, and I can 100% testify to that. The city is very welcoming of the community, and while the nightlife here is regarded as among the best in the world, the night scene for the LGBTIQ community is arguably a contender for the number 1 spot. Evita, just south of the trendy Rothschild Boulevard is one of the cities oldest gay bars, and a great place to find out what’s happening.
Our first stop, however, was the über chic Neve Tzedek neighbourhood, which plays host to some of the coolest boutiques, establishing Tel Aviv as a major player in the Middle Eastern fashion scene. We stumbled upon a cool label boutique called Holy Land where we dropped a pretty penny on some Israeli made fashion. How appropriate to have picked up some Holy Land in the Holy Land. Neve Tzedek by night sees its al fresco cafés turn into swanky live jazz bars and cocktail lounges, giving the area a totally different feel after sunset.
A must visit for foodies is the Sarona Market, which is Israel’s largest indoor culinary market. It is open 7 days a week and provides a lively and entertaining space where you can immerse yourself in the contemporary Israeli flavours. The casual eateries in the market are definitely the way to go for some authentic goodness that combines the old world and the new world.
From Tel Aviv we journeyed to Galilee where we spent two nights at the Scotts Hotel. The Hotel, a hospital transformed into a luxury 5 star resort is set amongst sprawling gardens that overlook glistening waters. From here we were able to visit some incredible historic sights, including, of course, the Sea of Galilee, the River Jordan, Nazareth (Israel’s biggest Arab city), and Roman ruins (in all honesty, if you even scratch the surface of Israeli soil you’re bound to find an ruin of some form – Tel). In my opinion, however, nothing came close to the magnificence and depth of Jerusalem.
In all honesty, I didn’t know what to expect. So far Tel Aviv, while being a spectacular city was just another spectacular city. Absolutely worth visiting for its unique take on the world, and its unique contribution to the identity of the contemporary world, but other than that it did not take my breath away. Galilee, while beautiful, was a lake side town with a beautiful charm. Every stop in between had also been a unique experience, and from my perspective, an illustration of a significant story in my life. But the minute we drove into Jerusalem (also Israel is not a very large country so I suggest you get a guide to drive you so you can see every piece of it), I was absolutely floored. The contemporary city has strict planning laws to ensure that structures, old and new, are uniform in a soft stone colour, and at low height restrictions to ensure that the charm and sentimentality of the city remains unchanged.
We checked into the American Colony Hotel, recommended to us as the absolute best place to stay in Jerusalem and it was beyond spectacular. The hotel is an Ottoman-era palace with a large open air courtyard where breakfast, lunch, and dinner is served daily (one of the few non-Kosher hotels in Jerusalem). The entire property oozes charm and elegance, and of course, this being our last stop in Israel, we opted for the suites, one of which featured a large lounge, and the other a beautiful terrace, where we spent much time gazing at what seemed like a never ending sky and drinking good wine.
Jerusalem has a complex identity, being the cross roads of he worlds three Abrahamic faiths, with each laying claim to the city as being one of significance in one way or another. And this is what makes it such a fascinating place in the world, and an absolute must visit.
The absolute highlight of Jerusalem is the entire old city, which still sits behind city walls. I could spend days roaming the old laneways and alleyways which lead you to treasure troves of Israeli made market products, holy relics, fine jewellery stores, and some of the best leather footwear you will find anywhere boys! We even managed to get appointments at Razzouk Tattoo – one of the oldest operating tattoo parlours in Jerusalem, dating back to 1300, and still owned and operated by the same family.
The laneways of the old city will take you through winding vegetable and everyday local markets that give you a strong feel for what everyday life in Jerusalem is like. They lead you through the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian areas, roughly defined by monuments, with historic or religious significance including the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the sprawling Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
All in all, Jerusalem is an assault on you senses in the most beautiful way. My recommendation here – get lost in this magnificent city. Get lost, and find yourself in the process.
That’s All Folks
So ends my pitch. Please, I implore you, when our lockdowns are done, when our planes are flying again, go to Israel. It will be the best decision you’ve ever made.
By Fuzz Ali