Israel has treated us royally the past two days as we sip up the coast and head inland!
Yesterday we set out from Tel Aviv early, navigating the slightly hectic traffic and made our way out to Caesarea, a supposed archaeological site of an ancient port city from the time of King Herod. When we arrived however, it was quickly made evident that the “history” of the attraction had been conveniently renovated and “restored” with cheap imitation construction and design. We later learned that all this work was done by Bosnian refugees in around 1997 and there was little original architecture left on the well-manicured tourist site. We buzzed through quickly and made our way a bit farther up the coast to Haifa.
Haifa is an interesting city, sprawling along the shore but rising steeply up the mountainside. From far away one can easily spot the iconic Baha’i gardens and shrine, gleaming gold and perfectly symmetrical in the distance. Our hotel lay at the foot of the gardens in the relatively flat German Colony, a string of cafes and restaurants broadcasting the World Cup on large projector screens. We wove through the more local streets to find a restaurant recommended by Mama’s Israeli co-worker from Haifa, Ami. Mother Nabila, a small mom and pop eatery, was closed for the day when 3 starving Americans came knocking at the door. But in typical Arab fashion, they reopened the restaurant just for us and treated us to spectacular seafood, salads, dolma and stuffed cabbage. We left fat and happy after I practiced a little bit of Arabic, ordering our food and making conversation. The Arabic practice continued as we wove through the rundown Arab quarter of town. It’s interesting but not at all suprising that the Arab quarters and sections of Israeli cities are the poorer areas. Yet, we find them constantly rich with culture including endless markets and an open-air art initiative on the walls of small winding paths.
After getting lost trying to make our way to the funicular, we encountered a series of English speakers and Americans that helped us make our way to the top of the hill and along the promenade that featured spectacular views of Haifa, Akko (another city) and the terraced, symmetrical Baha’i gardens. Dinner came late after another adventure through the narrow winding streets of Israel, around 9:30 pm, yet somehow that is still early by Israeli standards! We made our way to Jacko’s restaurant, a small seafood eatery in yet another part of town. Hidden in an alleyway, we ate outside in the cooling night air, enjoying the sea breezes and the small pop-up open-air market teeming with young couples browsing the Hebrew book selection and picking up gourmet pastries and jars of olives. Dinner was spectacular, whole fish grilled and seasoned, bone in, and a staggering selection of endless mezze and salads. We made a show of ourselves as the only Americans by eating our mezze wrong, wanting to save it to have with the fish. Our waiter, a young guy who reminded us of a family friend, laughed at us as we stammered our way through the meal. But in the end, we sleepily walked home, bellies full as the Israeli locals set out to start their night.
Days here are long and hot and this morning we woke late after nearly 10 hours of sleep. Our hotel gave us a complimentary breakfast at the neighboring restaurant where we ordered an overwhelming amount of food. I again ordered a full Israeli breakfast which included a selection of mezze and dips, a fresh bread basket, eggs, a mound of cucumbers and tomatoes and a small parfait. Papa order shakshuka again, this time traditional poached eggs in a thick tomato stew, and mama ordered a traditional Arab breakfast of pita toasted with lebneh and zatar. Around 11 we finally made our way out of Haifa to Akko, a city that has been an active, occupied port for over 4,000 ears, dating back to the Phoenicians and surviving through the Greeks, Moslems, British and even Napoleon. It has witnessed pagans, Christians, Jews and Muslims. It has undergone destruction and reconstruction. Today sprawling development surrounds the city’s landlocked side while the old walls collapse into the sea, a tumble of impossibly ancient history. We began with a tour of the Old Citadel, cold stone walls dating back to the crusaders forming giant halls and tunnels beneath the level of the current city. Structures were once filled in with dirt and an entire other city built on top, replacing mosques with churches and synagogues and vice versa. The thick cool walls closed ys in from the baking sun and humidity outside (temperatures today reached 97 degrees with at least 70% humidity).
We also saw a small bazaar, bathhouse and the inside of a mosque for the first time. After veiling, we were allowed into the mosque itself where we learned about the history of Al-Jazzar, a vicious ruler and ex-mercenary who once killed all 37 of his wives because he couldn’t decide which one of them had cheated on him. The mosque was quiet and still compared to the chaotic souk we went to next, shopping at the many stalls for our dinner and snacks. I used Arabic with the vendors to buy knaffeh and baklava and cucumbers and saffron. Later, I used more Arabic when we were invited, with typical Arab hospitality, to have drinks with four men sitting in a small alleyway on their 3rd bottle of wine. Mama and Papa didn’t get this kind of experience in Jordan like I did and were a bit taken aback by having drinks with complete strangers on the side of the street but as the father cracked jokes about me marrying his probably 30 year old son, they began to laugh along as well. Ali Baba, the old man, spoke no English but the others did and with my preliminary Arabic ability I was able to maintain some sort of elementary conversation as they poured me glass after glass of white wine and tried to convince me to stay and get married tonight. We left laughing and slightly confused and finished up Akko with falafel and a stroll along the ancient sea walls that crumbled off into the deep blue water.
Tonight we are staying at a kibbutz, or a sort of Jewish communal living center/farm, one of many that dot the Israeli countryside. We are surrounded by cows and rolling green hills and sleepy towns all around us. Under the night sky and the setting sun we made a makeshift meal of local wine and goat cheese and some of our many market finds. It’s quite refreshing to make it out of the city for a night and experience some quiet.