Travelling in Israel
I have had the privilege of travelling extensively in Israel and the Middle East, beginning in 1958 when tourism was hardly heard of. The notes that follow are based on many years' experience, though of course I should warn you that what works for me and my personality will not necessarily work for you. The ultimate responsibility for your comfort and security is in your hands.
The comfortable way to see the Holy Land is to join a guided tour where you will stay in plush hotels, be waited on hand and foot, and hustled through all the interesting places at just the time when they are crowded with other tourists. You see what the tour leader wants you to see rather than what you want to see, and you go at his pace, not yours.
I prefer to do it all myself. I organise the accommodation, I read the guide books, I buy (and cook) the food. It is neither as easy nor as convenient as the full board, escorted holiday, but I can go at my own pace and see the things in which I am interested. I can rise as early and travel as late as I please.
There is no question but that El Al makes a good introduction to Israel. When you see the Jews in their phylacteries and prayer shawls praying in the aisle or watch them craning their necks for their first glimpse of the Land of Promise — Eretz Yisrael — and dancing the Hora as the plane crosses the coast, then you begin to understand something of this land's appeal.
Unfortunately El Al is not always the cheapest and you may find yourself travelling by charter flight. Apart from price, there is little to recommend such a course. There is a total lack of leg-room and some, at least, of the ground staff have yet to encounter the word "courtesy".
Security on flights to Israel, particularly if you are flying El Al, is very strict and you can expect to be body-searched and have your luggage opened. So long as everyone is treated the same — and they are — there is nothing to complain about. Above all, don't do anything stupid yourself. Don't accept parcels to carry with you unless a) you have known the giver since he was so high and b) you have unpacked, unscrewed and tested everything in the parcel, down to the batteries and timing device.
Try for a window seat and take a nap — or, even better, book with an airline that has in-flight moving maps displayed. If you are lucky enough to have clear weather you can get some wonderful views over Greece or Turkey, with islands like green jewels strung across a setting of lapis lazuli. Aerial photography is an art in itself. The best advice I can give you is: don't rest your camera lens against the window of the plane or your shots are sure to be ruined by the vibration. Trust your light meter, even if the reading seems impossibly high. (If you have a digital camera with the notional ASA set to 800 or so, it is a good idea to put this down to 100. The sun is much brighter in the Middle East.) Light in these Mediterranean lands is brighter and more intense than the watery stuff we get in Britain. From five miles up, however, the results are unlikely to be entirely satisfactory.
You circle high above the orange groves outside Jaffa and then land at Ben Gurion airport. The heat will hit you as you leave the plane and join the queue at passport control, so if it's cold at your point of departure, wear a jumper or coat, not a woolly vest that you can't remove without performing an impromptu strip-tease on the runway.
Just in case you want to travel to Arab countries afterwards, ask the person who deals with you to stamp the Israeli visa on a separate piece of paper rather than in your passport. (The magic phrase is "No stamp, please.") They are always happy to do this, but keep a close eye on the young lady. Habit and an animated conversation with the girl in the next booth can result in an unthinking application of the rubber stamp. (This is less important for the tourist these days, with peace treaties between Egypt, Jordan and Israel, the countries you are most likely to want to visit but be aware of the problem if you intend to visit Syria, Lebanon, or popular holiday destinations in north Africa.)
There is a new terminal at the airport and many of the facilities that used to be before customs are now in the more normal place after customs. For example, the banks used to be before customs but are now inside the airport building but after customs.
You will have to change some money at the airport to pay for the trip up to Jerusalem (unless you hire a car immediately) but only change the bare minimum as the exchange rate is not likely to be as good as elsewhere. No matter where you change money, always ask about bank charges, as a favourable rate may be cancelled out by higher charges.
Also before you leave the airport stop at the Tourist Information desk and get a map of Israel. Although Tourist Information exists primarily to book you into a hotel, the ladies behind the desk are most helpful and will go the second mile to get you the particulars you require.
The car hire offices are now in the terminal building. It is worth while shopping around the different offices, as prices and special offers can vary. For example, last time I was in Israel all Avis cars were air-conditioned (an important consideration if your visit is in summer), Eldan was cheapest for a single day, while Budget was best for week-long unlimited mileage.
The only problem with hiring a car is that you might stray into an Arab area and be stoned. Your insurance will not cover the resulting damage. As a basic guide, the central route is now completely closed, so you cannot drive to Bethlehem south of Jerusalem or Ramala to the north. To reach Galilee in the north or Beersheba in the south you must either go down to Tel Aviv and along the motorway, or down to the Dead Sea at Jericho and take the road along the Jordan Valley. Do not turn off either route until you are north of Afula (you can turn left at Beit Shan on the Jordan Valley route if you wish). Nablus, Sebaste and Hebron are out of bounds.
This is just a general guide, but ask for specific information at the car hire place and do not accept the bland assurance you may be given that "You can travel anywhere in Israel". It is not true. Indeed, on my last trip I was even warned not to travel after dark!
Also beware of the new toll motorway, which is undoubtedly fast but is also expensive and bypasses most of the interesting places.
Do not take a taxi to Jerusalem unless you can get in a sherut, a sort of shared taxi. Ask at the Tourist Information desk — or the airport police if it is closed — for advice on this; in particular, ask about the price. Be prepared for the driver to consider you a gormless newcomer whom he can cheat with impunity, and do not pay more than was agreed at the airport. Failing a sherut take the bus, which is cheap but slow. The train is even cheaper (the station is in the airport) but slower and the chance of getting on the wrong train is high as none of them are signed with their destination and none keep to time, so the timetables are useless.
The cheapest places to stay in Jerusalem are undoubtedly the various hostels and doss-houses for pilgrims and impecunious students. Accommodation will be spartan and security for your belongings nil. If your church runs its own hostel security is likely to be better, but many Christians have the curious idea that austerity is good for the soul. The beds in these places usually reflect this belief.
The YMCA (known locally as "Imka") fronts King David Street. It used to be quite reasonable but has recently gone up market and prices have risen accordingly. If you are rich, the Moriah hotel, also just round the corner — well, a couple of corners, to be strictly accurate — will give you all the luxury you can desire. Even more convenient (and expensive) is the Olive Tree Hotel just north of the Damascus Gate and the nearby American Colony Hotel, which has some interesting history to go with it. It may also be worthwhile contacting the Palestinian Hotels Association where Mr Yusuf Daher can advise you on a Palestinian hotel to suit your requirements. Prices are reasonable but the standard of luxury is not as high.
All the hotels can provide full board, but then you are tied to returning to them for your mid-day meal. It is cheaper and more convenient to go bed and breakfast or half board at most, and cater for yourself.
In Jerusalem hunger pangs can always be assuaged by felafel and Arab bread. The Old City is full of vendors who sell these delicious fried chickpea rissoles — with salad, if you have a cast-iron stomach. I even saw one such shop where you could have your pitta bread stuffed with felafel and chips!
Considerably more expensive but more reliable and familiar is food from the Israeli supermarkets. When it comes to travelling through the country you will probably find that supermarkets are the best source of food. Remember that Saturday is the Sabbath and everything Jewish will be closed. Exotic foods to watch out for include chocolate and hazelnut spread in large plastic containers, and mango or guava nectar in large glass jars or frozen in small canisters. Sesame halwa, plain or chocolate, can be bought by the kilo in a shop on the east side of Suq Khan ez-Zeit in Jerusalem. Delicious.
Israelis have only recently discovered breakfast cereal and mainly eat the chocolate-flavoured variety. Unless you are staying in hotels the whole time, it is a wise precaution to take a bowl and some cutlery, plus a plastic bag full of your favourite muesli, pre-mixed with powdered milk so that all you need to add is water. A container of salt is also a good idea. You will probably be sweating more than usual, so you need to keep your salt level up.
Be careful in what you eat. Only eat cooked food that is straight from the stove. Avoid raw food unless you have personally peeled or washed it. Even if I were not a vegetarian, I would not eat meat in the Middle East, where inspection facilities are scarce and easily avoided.
Tap water is drinkable in Israel but bottled water (the same stuff but in plastic bottles) is readily available. Remember to carry a water bottle at all times and use it! Drink plenty of water, particularly if your visit is in the summer. Follow your taste buds with regard to salt.
To buy all this food and drink you need money. Only a fool who wants to test the efficiency of his embassy's repatriation service carries cash, apart from a few American dollar bills or five pound notes for emergencies. (Foreign currency coins are virtually useless as well as heavy to carry, so don't weigh yourself down with coins!) The alternative is plastic and most shops and hotels accept Visa or Mastercard and banks with ATM machines are frequent though not always reliable. (I recently spent three days in Tiberias and never managed to either change money or find a functioning ATM.)
The best exchange rate I have found in Jerusalem is in the Bank Mizrahi in the Jewish Quarter. Go to the Cardo to where the Roman pillars stand in the open air. Get up on the road that overlooks these pillars and walk directly east away from the Cardo. This will bring you to an open plaza, Hurva Square, at the far side of which, on the left, is a nice modern bank with friendly staff. Unfortunately it keeps funny hours, so beware and don't get caught short. (In general, bank hours are 8.30-12.30 and 4.00-6.00 on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, but mornings only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.)
Visa cards are accepted in most tourist shops, supermarkets and garages, but will be especially useful for car hire (where credit cards are virtually de rigeur) and hotel bills. You have no control over the exchange rate, however, and Visa will never disadvantage themselves.
If you have difficulty in arranging tours, taxis, hotels, etc., contact Dakkak Tourist Agency, 27 Saladin Street, Jerusalem. (Saladin Street is directly opposite Herod's Gate and Dakkak's is near St George's Hotel.) They have recently opened a new, ground-floor office just round the corner to the left as you go up Saladin Street.
Hilmi Dakkak is a very nice Arab gentleman, married to Sylvia, an American lady. Olivia, their daughter, has the disconcerting ability to switch in mid-sentence from English with a strong American accent to flawless Arabic. Since the Jews built their ghetto a number of the Dakkak staff have been unable to get to work so you are most likely to encounter Willeke, a cheerful Dutch woman married to a Palestinian. All of them will bend over backwards to be helpful. They will be happy to organise all your hotels and tours for you and will do you an honest price, probably better and certainly no more expensive than you could do yourself.
Don't forget to confirm your return flight a couple of days before you are due to leave. Provided you have made your travel arrangements through them, Dakkak will be happy to do this for you, otherwise there is a small fee. They can also advise you on how to get a sherut to pick you up and take you to the airport, though be aware that booking a sherut and actually having it arrive to pick you up are two different things. (You can also book a sherut through your hotel, which will probably be more convenient. Most sheruts are now in the hands of Israelis and will not venture into East Jerusalem at any price.) Allow more time than you need and have the phone number of the sherut office so that you can contact them to discuss the non-arrival of your pre-booked car!
Airport security in Israel is very tight, and justly so. You will be questioned (twice) at length about your reasons for coming to Israel, where you have been, with whom you stayed, what you purchased and so on. There is nothing to be afraid of in all this. Keep smiling, tell the truth and be grateful that the Israelis are so keen to deliver you safe back home instead of via a long stay on the tarmac in some unfriendly country.
It is true that some of the security personnel are less than courteous: this is a national Israeli trait and much to be deplored. Nonetheless I have very few unpleasant memories of the many times I have passed through the airport and on the whole the young people in the airport security have been friendly (though abrupt), reasonable and helpful.