A holy tryst

A holy tryst

Israel

A holy tryst

I’ll admit it. I’ve wandered off the straight-and-narrow. I was keen to visit Israel initially for the immense cultural history that she comes with. The cobbled streets of old-town Jerusalem for instance, sing with antiquity. Here — the Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim quarter. There — the enticing bazaars. Everywhere — monuments of the world’s three gigantic, monotheistic faiths. But I end up losing my heart quite as much to what lies beyond the city.

Ancient sights

I drive an hour-and-a-half out of Jerusalem to Masada — an ancient, iconic fortification in the Judean desert. Built by Herod the Great, Masada is striking by the quality of silence that enshrouds it. If you opt to take the winding Snake Path up (there’s also a cable-car ride), be sure you do so early — and well before sunrise to beat the heat. Standing at the top of the path, looking at the vast desert before me, it’s easy to feel that I am but a blip on life’s radar. An ibex appears before me, horns aquiver, another flutter in the sands. The stories of the tenacity of the Jewish zealots — who preferred suicide from here, rather than surrender to Roman soldiers — is famously recounted, amid the intriguing archaeological structures that distinguish the remains of the fortress.

The Dead Sea that appears tantalisingly in the distance, the lowest and saltiest spot on earth, has long been regarded as the travelling hajj. But once I have done my time — floating in the hypersaline water, book in hand, toes pointing to sky — in manner made famous by magazine brochures, I try the ubiquitous-to-these-parts mud wrap. Lying prone on a table, mud lathered on, firmly bound in cellophane, I rediscover the meaning of surrender.

To make the onward drive to Tel Aviv more than the sum of its parts, it pays to make a few stops en route. I am driving north along the Jordan Valley. Israel, which I’ve long associated with sweeter wines created for ceremonial purposes, has come of age with the discovery of both soil and climatic conditions that nurtured her growing vineyard scene. The boutique Tulip Winery for instance, does an excellent, spicy-vintage Syrah Reserve. As I nibble on the cheese and meat platter before me and take in the expansive views around, it’s easy to appreciate change. Finally, I’ve always thought about Caesarea in conventional terms — as the Roman headquarters of Herod the great; As the place to visit ancient and still beguiling (albeit in ruins now) temples and palaces along the waters of The Mediterranean. But in the Caesarea of today, golf is as big a draw card.

In Tel Aviv, two days later, white sandy beaches against a blue Mediterranean sky dictate a particular breezy vibe. Litanies of dance clubs punctuate the scene. But while partying all night to electronic music in a club or dancing to psychedelic trance on a beach — is the norm, there’s also a more introspective side of the city. The Sea Shore Promenade punctuated with people fishing, others out for a run, still others walking their distinctly dressed dogs, is a good place to feel this vibe. Rothschild Boulevard, with its unique Bauhaus architecture and cafés, is another. The picturesque alleyways of Old Jaffa, around the port and artists quarter, is the third.

A traveller’s delight

On the Old Jaffa trail, the Ilana Goor Museum is an essential stop. In Goor’s own art, as well as in her art collection (that ranges from sculpture to jewellery, furniture to etchings), is the striking presence of contrasts — the organic juxtaposed with the industrial, the geometric and the asymmetrical, the ancient against the more contemporary. This ability to hold binaries can also be seen in the theatrical scene that is inclusive. For instance, Social Commentary Theater is popular, and I run into a bevy of ladies on the streets, wearing only body suits, negotiating the politics of gender.

If there was just one theatrical experience not to miss, it would be booking a play at Nalaga’at. This theatre with deaf-blind actors is compelling in its mandate. I attend Not by Bread Alone, a play in which professional actors illustrate through a series of mini-acts, their inner world of silence and darkness. The beat of the drum may announce a new sequence, but the actors can only feel its vibrations, and neither hear nor see it.

Markets are the other good way to get under the personality of a city. I learn quickly that Israelis love a good debate. Ask anyone here who makes the best hummus for instance, and you’re likely to get involved in a long and animated discussion. Some chefs swear by the one with fava bean paste; for others the sesame seed paste is what makes it count; while still others are driven by the idea of chickpeas. That you can sample foods that, despite being suffused in their base ingredient with the warmth of the Mediterranean sun, have varied origins illustrates the diversity of populations for whom Isreal has become home. Persian-influenced chicken balls with chickpeas, sit alongside Eastern European dumplings, for instance.

But most of all, as I wander through these markets in pursuit of both food and craft: Armenian pottery, olive-wood camels and faith icons, I learn that the best way to make up one’s mind about any place is to go beyond received media feeds and actually visit. In conversation with Israelis, Arabs, Jews, Ethiopians, Muslims and Christians, stereotypes get dispelled, and my faith in the world as a resilient place is renewed.

Fact file

Getting there

Fly to Tel Aviv from any major city of India.
Apply for visas at the Israel Visa Application Center (isr.vfsglobal.co.in)

Other things to do: Golan Heights is the other Eden, with its profusion of pools, rivers and waterfalls.

Good-golly-gosh views of Haifa, spilling down the wooded slopes of Mount Carmel, are good introduction to a place that you may want to work into your itinerary, for both gardens and history.

Going around: Hire a car for a road trip.

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