There can be few experiences more unusual than wading into the Dead Sea. At 1,388ft below sea level, and said to be the lowest point on Earth, it’s not long before the salty, gravity-defying water works its magic and you find yourself bobbing on its surface like a discombobulated cork.
Disconcerting at first, you then realise that this is actually quite a pleasant sensation, recline into a sort of carefree starfish position and enjoy the oddness of it all.
A visit to Israel is full of this sort of unusual experience: you’ll see vineyards growing in the middle of deserts; iconic ancient monuments that are much bigger than they at first appear; and throbbing nightlife in this most religious of countries. Of course, the heart and soul of Israel is Jerusalem – and the simple act of walking through its lanes is to traverse through layers of history. With the remains of some 3,000 years crammed in its walls, the past lives cheek by jowl with the present.
A place of pilgrimage for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, the Old City is a sprawling patchwork of cultures and architecture – walking from the Jewish to the Muslim quarter is like entering a different city, broad open streets and squares turn into narrow lanes crowded with bustling market stalls.
There is always something that catches your eye – whether it’s a Bar Mitzvah party parading through the streets; groups of Hasidic Jews with their austere black dress and ringlets, or the excavated remains of the city’s ancient past laid bare.
The depth and immediacy of its rich history becomes apparent in as simple an act as arranging to meet someone – there is no other place on earth where you can say “We’ll meet at the ninth station of the cross on the Via Dolorosa”, the street where Jesus is said to have been paraded on his way to be crucified.
The road ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the spot where Christ is believed by some faiths to have been crucified.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re religious, it’s impossible not to be moved when walking down to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount – better known as the Wailing Wall – to see the faithful praying at the foot of it within sight of the golden dome of the Second Temple, built originally by Herod, but now used by Muslims.
However a visit to Israel doesn’t have to be all about the holy or historical. The Dead Sea is known around the world for the health-giving properties of its waters, climate and, perhaps most famously, its mud. It can bought in packets for home use, while hotel spas offer hot mud treatments, in which they liberally smear you in the stuff, allow it to partially dry, then rinse it off and apply aloe vera, leaving your skin silky smooth.
High above the Dead Sea sits one of Israel’s most historic and culturally important sites: King Herod’s mountaintop stronghold Masada. Built between 38BC and 31BC, Masada is best known for the siege that it underwent in 66AD at the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War. A group of Jewish rebels known as the Sicarii were trapped in the fortress for three years as they watched a Roman legion methodically build a massive ramp at one side of it, knowing that they faced a terrible fate when they reached the top. When that day came, rather than place themselves at the Romans’ mercy, they committed mass suicide. To this day, the site is a symbol of heroism and resistance for Israel – army cadets come here to swear an oath that “Masada shall not fall again”.
Our travels also took us into the Negev desert in the south, which despite what you might expect, is not a Sahara-like sea of sand, but is made up of wide-open rocky terrain. It is also not as barren as its name suggests: certainly, you will drive for miles through vast, empty stretches, but then suddenly come upon huge plantations of date palms – the fruit is one of country’s major exports.
You wouldn’t expect to find a winery either, but Carmey Avdat Farm, founded by Hannah and Eyal Izrael, sits on the ancient Spice Route that dates back to biblical times in the Highland region. The region’s climate with its cold spells and dry summers make it ideal for producing wine.
To portray Israel as a country rooted entirely in the past would be wrong. But if Jerusalem is the fulcrum of the country’s history, then Tel Aviv is its most modern city. Established in 1909 as a garden suburb to the ancient port of Jaffa, this sprawling conurbation is the wild kid brother to Jerusalem’s elder statesman. Cosmopolitan, cultured with a 24-hour lifestyle, Tel Aviv is the place to go if you are looking for a party.
Overlooking the Mediterranean, the city boasts a thriving beach-lined waterfront and cafe culture, with plenty of shopping opportunities.
For devotees of modernist architecture, don’t miss Rotheschild Boulevard. One of the city’s prettiest streets, its broad pavements are lined with pristine examples of Bauhaus style.
Tel Aviv is a good base for a trip to Israel located a 20-minute drive from Ben Gurion International Airport. There are more than 7,000 hotels and the major tourist sites are all within reach. Jerusalem is less than a two hour drive away, while the Dead Sea and the coastal resort of Eilat can be reached by a 30-minute flight.
Ben Gurion was also sadly our point of exit for the trip. We felt we had crammed a lot into a short stay, but we hadn’t even scratched the surface of this fascinating country. But it’s unlikely that, having visited Israel once, you won’t return.
El Al (0207 121 1400, www.elal.uk) has flights from London Luton to Tel Aviv from around £399 per person or from London Heathrow to Tel Aviv from around £426pp. For further information on Israel, tel: 207 299 1100 or visit www.thinkisrael.com