A lengthy trip to the Middle East had been brewing in my mind for years. My husband Pete and I were on the brink of booking a trip to Syria about five years ago, but decided to put it off for a year. By which time, of course, the conflict had become so intense we were never able to make the trip.
Ever since, we’ve been dreaming about a visit. We knew it would only be by going to the region ourselves that we could get to know it for more than the conflicts that are endlessly catalogued in the media. We dreamt about getting to know the culture, the vast natural landscapes, the buzzing cities and rich cuisine we knew lay beneath the bad news stories.
Finally, that opportunity came when I was offered a week-long assignment with the Israeli tourism ministry for Traveller last month. After which Pete organised to come and meet me for another three weeks of adventuring, just the two of us. Exploring the length of Israel, the West Bank and most of Jordan, we were enchanted, confronted, educated and cracked wide open at every turn.
My journey began with two days in Jerusalem, one of our planet’s most holy places that’s a pilgrimage point for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Just the name of the place had always been shrouded in mysticism for me – a name that had wafted around in my mind ever since hearing it in scripture classes as a kid. And as we took our first jet-lagged steps through the laneways of the old city, we could feel the intense crackle of spiritual energy immediately bouncing off the ancient sandstone walls and pavements polished to a high gloss from centuries of wear.
At the Western Wall, we watched devout Jews worship and press prayers written on slips of paper into the gaps between the huge blocks of stone. On Via Dolorosa we followed a group of Italian Christian pilgrims carrying oversized wooden crosses on their shoulders in the footsteps of Jesus. And at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we saw the devout light candles and press their foreheads to the earth at the spot where Jesus was supposedly crucified.
But it wasn’t all about religious sites. We also shopped for hand-painted Armenian pottery, jewellery made using coins dating back to the time of Jesus, and wooden hummus pestles in the old city market. We walked up to the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice in the afternoon to take in the views over the rooftops as the cry of the muezzin rang out over the city, then headed back to our luxurious digs at the Mamilla Hotel to watch the sun sink below the horizon from the rooftop bar.
And we ate. Boy, did we eat. Israel is one of the world’s most diverse culinary destinations, with Israeli chefs creating sophisticated cuisine based on the traditions of northern Europe meeting with the heady spice emporia of the Middle East. Jerusalem in particular is now awash with fantastic gourmet restaurants, and we were treated to some of its finest (which, I should add, extended well beyond the expected hummus, tahini and Israeli salads). Two standouts were The Eucalyptus, where much of the produce is foraged by world-renowned chef and owner Moshe Basson, and hip Machaneyuda market-to-table restaurant. All ingredients are sourced from the nearby Machane Yehuda Market, which at night transforms into a teeming den of fantastic small bars that we explored on night two.
Bellies full to bursting, we continued our journey south to the lowest point on the planet, the Dead Sea, en route to the Negev Desert.
You probably already know that people travel from all over the world to bob about in the mineral-rich, hyper-saline waters at 400 metres below sea level, and slather themselves in the equally beneficial mud. But nothing can prepare you for the sensation of being in that water. Laying back with ears submerged and eyes closed, the thick warm waters swirling all around me, was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to being back in the womb.
After we’d washed the salt slick off our bodies (if you leave it on it stings like mad), we headed to nearby Kibbutz Ein Gedi, passing lush groves of date palms en route. Kibbutz, for the uninitiated, are basically communes; they started after World War I when young Jews starting coming to Israel loaded with socialist ideology, but not much money. They started these communes so they could grow their own food and build their own houses in a sustainable way.
Kibbutz still exist today but are, according to most people we spoke to, changing and dying out as Israeli’s become more wealthy and capitalistic. Whatever their future, Kibbutz Ein Gedi is a beautiful example. You can stay as a guest of the hotel attached to it, to get a taste of life in a kibbutz and to explore Ein Gedi nature reserve, which is the largest oasis along the western shore of the Dead Sea.
But it was the Negev Desert, of which the Dead Sea is the entry point, that truly stole my heart. I don’t know exactly what it is about deserts that I love so much – the wild open spaces, the dust, the high minerality in the air that puts you on a bit of a high – but I can’t get enough of them. On the work portion of the trip we stayed at a lovely farm and vineyard called Carmey Avdat, and explored small desert goat and olive farms and vineyards, all of which I’ll detail in future stories.
But the real highlight was when Pete and I headed back there for four days and stayed at beautiful Midbara. Our little mud cabin with its wooden outdoor tub was everything we look for in a getaway. Total seclusion, proximity to nature (you could hike or bike directly from your door out into the great nothing), a place you can really sink into as your own for the duration of your stay. We spent hours simply lazing in the tub, snoozing on the daybed, cooking dinners, and stargazing by the fire.
Stay tuned for Israel Part 2: Akko, Safed and Tel Aviv, next week. In the meantime, you might like to have a listen to my Land of Milk and Honey playlist, curated to help get you in the mood to book your own Middle Eastern adventure. I hope you enjoy!