|Jaffa - looking towards Tel Aviv|
Of course, I was prepared for heaving crowds at all the major sites, so that was no surprise and I was prepared for the sight of cars rather than camels, roads rather than dusty tracks. I was even prepared for the River Jordan to be a narrow winding affair, little more than a stream in places. But, aside from that, so much has been a revelation. Nor was I alone in this. Although he was better prepared than me - having lived in Tel Aviv for four years during the Eighties - my husband was awestruck at the vast network of motorways and tunnels which have transformed transportation in the larger cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In fact, he barely recognised the area he used to live in! Multi-national companies were conspicuous by their absence in his day. Now they are everywhere. House building has increased substantially and there is a curious preponderance of Russian, occurring on some explanatory and directional signs as the second language (following Hebrew and before English and Arabic).
With so much upheaval, war and negative reporting over the years, I fully expected to find armed guards on every street corner, total segregation of Jews and Arabs and a general undertone of menace everywhere I went.
Instead, I found a multicultural, international society, vibrant and growing. OK, with a long way to go I grant you, but the green shoots of increased integration seem to be there. Since my husband's time, skyscraper hotels have sprung up all over the place, bringing with them thousands of jobs with Israeli Jews, Palestinian Arabs (both Moslem and Christian) working side by side. In my opinion this lays the foundations for far greater cross-cultural understanding and religious tolerance for the future. I hope I'm proved right - even if it does take a generation.
|Leonardo Hotel, Jerusalem. One of many large hotels to have sprung up in recent years|
I also wasn't prepared for the relatively short distances between the major historic sites. Tel Aviv has sprawled into Jaffa, and Bethlehem is almost a suburb of Jerusalem as it is right next door. But here there is a great divide. The horrible, infamous high wall, houses Border controls permitting no Israeli citizen to enter. Its elected Mayor (this year, for the first time, a woman), must be Christian. There is graffiti - lots of it on the Palestinian side of the barrier. Most of it is political, but not all - slogans and artwork praising Leila Khaled rub shoulders with three foot high letters 'Make Hummous not war' and 'Olive trees shall be our borders'.
|Graffiti on Palestinian side of the wall, Bethlehem|
A surreal episode for me was our trip up the Golan Heights (on a tour bus). Practically at the top, we parked for a photo stop. Our view was of Syria, with Damascus just 45 miles away.
|Syria from the Golan Heights|
Acre (or Akko) was the biggest revelation to me. Its 12th century Crusader fortress is enormous, extending underground to the Knights Halls which were accidentally discovered by a prisoner held by the British in 1947 (during the British Mandate). He was trying to dig his way out and accidentally found himself in the long forgotten subterranean chamber.
|The Knights' Halls, Acre|
Israel is a country the size of Wales and is an archaeologist's dream. Everywhere you go there are excavations. It is also a gastronome's delight. Fresh fruit and vegetables abound and I have never tasted orange juice like it. A creative array of salads accompany a delicious range of fresh and saltwater fish and the desserts were light, varied and extremely naughty!
I'll put another post up on other aspects of our wonderful trip within the next week or so, including a feature on the most unusual YMCA you will ever have seen - I guarantee it. Not only is it unusual, it was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize!
|The international YMCA, Jerusalem|