People who prefer independent travel to packaged tours often balk when it comes to striking out on their own in Israel. Buses dominate the tourism scene, and Israeli officials do little to encourage people to visit and explore by themselves.
As a senior couple, my wife and I encountered incredulous questioning from airline security personnel before boarding our flight in New York and Israeli customs agents when we landed. Neither could believe that -- lacking Israeli-based close friends or family -- we had flown there simply to see the country.
Nevertheless, after exploring Israel mostly by ourselves, we decided our trip was well worth the effort.
Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial and cultural capital, is a dynamic, scruffy, essentially secular city that's just 104 years old. It provides quite a contrast with Jerusalem, which is 40 miles southeast, 3,000 years old and has a prominent orthodox and Chassidic Jewish presence.
On our first morning in Tel Aviv we set off from our beachside Dan Tel Aviv hotel bound for the Bauhaus district. Also known as the "White City," it's a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its collection of some 4,000 Bauhaus structures, arguably the world's largest in one city.
Most were erected during the 1920s and 1930s, when the Bauhaus architectural movement that had flourished in Germany was brought to Tel Aviv by German Jewish architects fleeing the rise of Nazism. The area covers many blocks, where a surprising number of homes clearly need repairs. Also here is a Bauhaus Museum that details the movement and Tel Aviv's extraordinary collection.
One Bauhaus gem is the original and now restored Tel Aviv City Hall, which houses a wonderful collection of photos, documents and the preserved office of Meyer Dizengoff, the city's first mayor. From there we leisurely walked to Rothschild Boulevard, one of the city's most famous streets. Here we paid an extended visit to the Independence Museum, where David Ben-Gurion officially declared Israel's creation on May 14, 1948. The actual room where he spoke and a film showing the event are highlights.
From there we walked the mile and a half up Rothschild, which is divided by a narrow urban park full of bicyclers, kiosks selling refreshments, children in carriages and comfortable sitting areas. Rothschild ends at the plaza where, at the Bronfman Concert Hall, we thoroughly enjoyed an Israel Philharmonic program
Other extended walks took us to Allenby Street; the fascinating Carmel Market stuffed with fruit, vegetables and crafts; the burgeoning Yemenite district, where extensive renovation is creating new living quarters; the trendy Neve Tzedek neighborhood; a revitalized old railroad station that is now an arts center; and the five-block-long Levinsky Market that features spices, dried fruits and a wide range of appealing foodstuffs.
Another great strolling area is Jaffa at Tel Aviv's southern tip. Inhabited since the Bronze Age in part due to its fine harbor, the city of Jaffa long pre-dated Tel Aviv's creation in 1909. Then 66 families purchased seaside land from a Jaffa sheikh and won specific sites based upon wining a lottery.
Today there's a tourism-focused section of Jaffa that features a 19th-century church and ancient amphitheater. Even more interesting was the nearby home of sculptor and furniture-maker Ilana Goor, packed with her works along with her international sculpture collection that includes pieces by Henry Moore, Jacques Lipchitz and Alberto Giacometti. During our visit we were fortunate to meet her on the premises and to spend a half-hour discussing art and Israeli history and politics with her.
Then we moved on to another outdoor market filled with everything Jaffa citizens need for daily living. For lunch we enjoyed shakshuka -- an Israeli creation featuring spicy tomato sauce cooked with poached eggs.
Traveling on our own allowed us to explore several extraordinary museums at our own pace. These included David Ben-Gurion's modest home, which is full of photos and mementoes from Israel's early days and wars, and the Diaspora Museum, which focuses on the nearly 2,000-year history of Jewish people and the places they landed following their second-century expulsion by the Romans after a failed revolt.
During our Tel Aviv stay we rented a car and took an overnight trip to Caesarea, the city developed by Roman ruler King Herod. Roads are excellent and the drive took a tad more an hour each way. There we saw a huge hippodrome, theater, imposing aqueduct, public baths, and palaces and villas with fabulous floor mosaics
Having the car and staying nearby let us visit ancient city sights during the day then return in the evening after the tour buses rolled away. That let us mingle with local Israeli families and enjoy this extraordinary site as we dined at fine seafood restaurants.
We took a comfortable, inexpensive train from Tel Aviv to Haifa. Here the main attraction is the sprawling mountain-descending Bahai Gardens, which are accessible only by a local tour. Haifa's other prime appeal was its Carmalit, an under-the-mountain six-unit cable car that links the seaside port area with upper, upscale residential areas.
Here the strategy is to walk downhill whenever possible but to count on the Carmelit to get back to your topside hotel. The alternative is a serious uphill climb or a city taxi. Bus schedules and reliability seemed to be unpredictable at best.
The Carmelit -- like buses and rail throughout the country (as well as all international air service) -- all shut down in advance of the Jewish Sabbath. Closure usually starts late Friday afternoon, and transportation does not restart for 24 hours or more.
From Haifa we also used taxis to get to and from Acre, some 15 miles away. It is best-known for its Crusader Castle, vast underground city, Turkish baths, extensive city walls and former caravanserai that will ultimately be returned to their role as meeting places and trading centers.
There's a real old city here with a needs-oriented market where Israeli Arabs work and live. While the Crusader attractions draw tourist crowd, the market and surrounding streets give a real sense of how ordinary people live.
Inner-city taxi fares are comparable with those in New York, and they can also be a reasonable option for moderate-distance, city-to-city travel. For visits to sites such as Acre (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), they can be significantly less expensive for two or more people than a standard-issue tour-bus excursion.
WHEN YOU GO
Dan Hotels offer comfortable well-located properties in Tel Aviv, Caesarea and Haifa: www.danhotels.com.
Halutzim 3 is both the name and the address of an inventive Tel Aviv Florentine district restaurant. Multiple small tapas-like dishes add up to an extraordinary meal.
Hanamal 24 is one of Haifa's best restaurants: www.namal24.rest-e.co.il.
El Al Airline: www.elal.com.il
For general information about Israel: www.goisrael.com
Robert Selwitz is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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