Israel has continued to sing to me across the seas since I’ve been home these past two weeks. For a country so tiny (365 times smaller than Australia, to be exact, which it takes just six hours to traverse top to tail), it has the ability to stir up such intense emotions in its visitors and just… gives so much.
Our journey to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and the Negev Desert continued as we headed back up north to Akko, one of the most important cities of the ancient world. As we arrived on a sun-soaked afternoon I was immediately charmed by the raw, distressed aesthetic of this 4000 year-old port city.
Perched on a spit of land jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea, Akko is all ancient sandstone ramparts, delicate minarets (it’s 99 percent Arab and mostly Muslim) and blue and white trimmings.
Weaving through the narrow laneways we discovered ancient caravanserai, explored secret underground passageways dating back to the 12th century, the time of the Crusaders, and stopped for lunch in the buzzing market when the smell of eggplant roasting on hot coals and freshly smashed sesame tahini proved too much to resist.
The highlight, though, was our night spent at the Efendi boutique hotel. A stay there is reason enough to visit the city. With its 1200-year-old wine cellar and 400-year-old Turkish bath, its round Ottoman windows, opulent chandeliers and original 150-year-old ceiling frescoes, the preservation of the building was truly inspiring.
Sipping rosé on their rooftop terrace, as the call to prayer drifted from the minarets and floated out with the tide, was a moment to remember. A moment only surpassed by dinner at Uri Buri, a fish and seafood restaurant you’ll hear whispered about all through the country, that’s owned by the same gentle bearded owner of the Efendi, Uri Jeremias. I still can’t get Uri’s melt-in-the-mouth anchovies and house-made sorbets off my mind.
After an all too short 24 hours, it was time for us to head north to the mystical mountaintop city of Safed, a centre of Kaballah mysticism since the 16th century.
We arrived on the Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, by happy accident. Since devout Jews who observe the Shabbat aren’t permitted to do any chores including driving, shopping, cooking or cleaning, we were able to walk around town soaking up the special spiritual energy that filled the air as the sun made its way towards the horizon. As we did, we observed Hasidic families wandering the streets, the men in their heavy black coats and rabbit fur hats, the women in modest long-sleeved blouses, ankle-skimming skirts and turbans, often with four or more children in tow.
As tempted as we were to spend our days simply wandering around Safed, with its quaint art gallery-lined streets, stained glass windows and mixture of new age hippies and devout locals, we had come to the north to explore.
Each morning we prised ourselves away from our gorgeous digs at The Way Inn, and spent our days wrapped in nature. Hiking through the Yehudiya Nature Reserve, where we swam beneath the hexagonal basalt columns and sunbaked on the smooth rocks beneath a gentle waterfall. Driving through fields of olive trees, grape vines, blushing oleander bushes and purple globe thistle flowers, before devouring a sunset meal at Gan Eden restaurant overlooking the whole of Safed. Swimming in the Sea of Galilee (Israel’s largest freshwater lake where Jesus supposedly walked on water) for an afternoon. Venturing up Mount Bental where we looked over the border into Syria, just a few hundred metres away, and talked to UN soldiers about the daily realities of the conflict.
Our Israeli odyssey finished with a bang in Tel Aviv. As one local we met put it, “you come to Jerusalem to pray, but in Tel Aviv you come to play.” A city crammed full of some of the most forward-thinking, creative people I’ve ever met, that merges big city shopping, dining and culture with laid-back beach vibes in a way that made me promise myself I’d return here, again and again.
We spent our time exploring Old Jaffa and the fantastic flea market there. Riding the city’s green bikes through the chic, boutique-lined Neve Tzedek neighbourhood. Watching life buzz by at the Carmel Market, then getting filled up with interiors inspiration at artist Ilana Goor’s house and museum. Sunbaking on the beach as some of the best-looking people on the planet frolicked (and indeed they did frolic) and sunbaked and sipped beers all around us.
If I can leave you with three things not to miss in Tel Aviv, they’re watching the sun set over the ocean before grabbing a cocktail across the road at the Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar, whiling away an entire morning at the Lewinsky food market, and indulging in an intimate, sustainable dinner at Halutzim 3 restaurant.
There’s so much more to be said about this fascinating, beguiling, delectable country. And I will say it, in the many stories I’ll be sharing over the coming months.
In the meantime, I created this short video of my journey, to give you a taste of what to expect when you get there yourselves. Which I’m convinced you all need to, as soon as you possibly can.