I’m going to start this off with a warning. If you thought I was long-winded and wordy before – I personally prefer “detailed” and “verbose” – this and upcoming posts about our trip to Israel will not be your jam. This was an action-packed trip, in a land full of conflicting histories, religions, and politics. But I promise to offset the mass quantities of words with pretty pictures.
We owe the timing of this trip to friends of ours who went a few years ago. They also went at the end of December and told us it was the holy trinity of vacations in the off-season – great weather, lower prices, fewer tourists. So this year, instead of returning to the US for Christmas, we stayed in Budapest (and spent a low-key but wonderful Christmas Eve with two of our dear friends, Sophie and Reiner) and then left for Israel on the evening of the 26th. Luckily for us, El Al flies nonstop from Budapest for a pretty great rate. Their website said that it’s best to check in at least three hours early, and we quickly found out why. As we headed to check-in, we saw at least six guards carrying automatic weapons patrolling the area, in addition to a handful of rendőrség (Hungarian police) and quite a line. We were separated into groups by passport (Israeli passports and all others) and directed to an interrogator for the infamous Israeli security screening process. As Americans, our questioning was brief, direct, and simple. We were asked probably less than 10 questions, and we were directed to an area where they hand-swabbed our luggage for traces of explosives and inspected our electronics separately. Israelis, though, went through a much more intensive process. There was a girl who was at the start of the Israeli passport line when we arrived at the airport, and as we left the screening process about 45 minutes later she was still being questioned. This is one of the few times it appears to be better to be a tourist than a native, because once we were at the gate, the guy scanning boarding passes recognized us and pulled us to the front of the line again!
We arrived in Tel Aviv at 3 am and even at that hour, the airport was bustling. It took us awhile to get our rental car and GPS, but we are so grateful we got the GPS because without it, we would’ve had a much worse trip. Israel Travel Tip #1: Google Maps is completely unreliable. Literally every single location we tried to find by using Google Maps, we were led astray. If you’re planning a trip to Israel, make sure you have a GPS with local maps or acquire one at the rental counter. It’s essential.
We drove from Tel Aviv to Tiberias as the sun rose, located our hotel and checked in for a quick nap. Israel Travel Tip #2: Because so many flights arrive at odd hours of the night, hotels often have a policy for super early check-in (like ours, which allowed us to check in at 6 am as long as we paid 1/2 the room rate for that date). Call them in advance and see what they can do for you.
We started our sightseeing with the Sea of Galilee, the area where Jesus spent most of his adult life preaching and teaching. Our first stop was the Mount of the Beatitudes, believed to be the area where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7. A church was built on the site in 1937 to mark the spot, focusing on the beatitudes (or, on other words, the “Blessed are the…” phrases). The area was gorgeous, high on a hill overlooking the sea, and the grounds included plenty of benches and nooks for a quiet read.
Our next stop was in Tabgha, just a few minutes away, at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. I bet you can’t guess what happened there. My photos of this spot didn’t turn out well (despite this being the “off-season”, there were still hordes of tourists) but if you’d like to see the stone where Jesus allegedly laid the fish and the loaves before multiplying them, click here. The current church is built atop the remains of a Byzantine church from the 5th century, and its mosaic floor is remarkably intact.
As we were wandering the grounds here, we kept encountering a group of people wearing military uniforms with a patch of the Philippines flag. At one point, a few of them stopped and asked Richie to take a picture – we thought of them. But as he reached out to take the camera, they said no, they wanted him in the picture. I started to walk off, really confused – did they think Richie was a celebrity or something? But no, they wanted me in the photo as well! Richie started asking them a few questions and it turns out that they were on a day off from their duties as members of the UN peacekeeping forces in the Golan Heights, visiting the places Jesus taught and having a sunset mass by the waterside. They were so sweet and invited us to join their mass, but we didn’t want to intrude, so we kept on our path.
Just down the road from Tabgha is the small town of Capernaum, Jesus’s home base where he preached, healed the sick, and found some of his first disciples. Almost the entire town is encapsulated by a national park, and it’s incredibly small. We arrived so late in the afternoon that the Franciscan friar overseeing the tickets just waved us in, and we were still able to see all that we wanted. Archeologists have been able to find some amazing things here, including what is believed to be the home of St. Peter. They discovered many layers – the 1st century home, with 4th century and 5th century churches built on top of it. The current structure is a modern church essentially hovering over the visible remains of the 5th century church, which is shaped like an octagon.
They have also reconstructed some ruins of a 4th century synagogue (called the “white synagogue”, because of the color of the limestone), which was built atop the ruins of a much darker structure (called the “synagogue of Jesus”, except it was probably built a century after his time).
Nearby is the beautiful Monastery of the Twelve Apostles, which is Greek Orthodox. The monastery was built in 1925, and they have not allowed excavation of the ruins of Capernaum on the monastery’s grounds. While we were there, monks were chanting, incense and candles were burning, and dozens of peacocks were strutting around and calling to each other in the garden. It was a bit surreal.
After our tour of Capernaum, the sun had almost completely set, so we headed back to the hotel. Israel Travel Tip #3: Depending on what city you’re in, make sure to plan around Shabbat. While touring Israel in December is completely doable, the sun sets earlier (around 4 pm) and almost all attractions close at sunset. Additionally, we arrived on a Friday, and so Shabbat began right around 4 pm as well. Tiberias is a heavily Jewish town, and so the majority of shops, restaurants, and attractions close (the one helpful exception for tourists is hotels, which keep running). We had researched a few restaurants that advertised themselves as being open on Shabbat, and picked one on the boardwalk down by the waterfront called Galei Gil, famous for its St. Peter’s fish straight from the Sea of Galilee. The idea of St. Peter’s fish may be a tourist gimmick, but it’s a delicious one, cooked perfectly in butter and herbs and served whole. Richie opted for that, and I had my first of many bowls of hummus and laffa bread with lamb kebabs. Mmmmm. I could seriously eat Israeli food everyday. The combination of a hearty meal, a glass of wine at the hotel bar, and a full day of traveling and sightseeing led us to go to bed around 9 so that we could get up bright and early the next day for a trip to Nazareth.
Israel Travel Tip #4: Visit Nazareth in the morning. Most of the attractions in Nazareth open around 8 am, so we planned to get there at that time. This was a really good decision (and lucky for us, we’re normally not morning people) because at 7:30 when we were driving through the narrow, winding streets, there were barely any other cars on the road with us. An hour or so later, masses of tour groups in buses came through, and as we left the city at around 12:30, the streets were so jammed with people and cars that it took us almost three times as long to get out of the city center! It’s also a good choice for Saturday, as the sights in the city are largely Christian and remain open during Shabbat.
The sites in Nazareth are mostly centered around Mary, so while we thought it was interesting and enjoyed our visit there, spending 3 hours plus lunch was the perfect amount of time for the city. We started at the Basilica of the Annunciation, built on top of the place believed to be Mary’s home (and where most Christian denominations believe the Annunciation, when Gabriel spoke to Mary about becoming the mother of Jesus, took place). This is another church that sits atop older ruins, although in a bit different way than the church in Capernaum.
Next, we stopped at St. Joseph’s Chapel, built over what is believed to be the site of Joseph’s workshop. The crypts of the church house archeological excavations, which revealed water and food storage areas that were dated to the first and second century BC.
Our next stop was the touristy Mary’s Well, which is a modern building sitting atop… a spring that does not feed Mary’s well. It’s completely skippable, but it’s on the way to another site, so we figured we might as well stop by. It’s very underwhelming.
Our last stop in Nazareth was the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. Apparently they believe that Mary received the Annunciation while she was out retrieving water from the spring, and not while she was at home, so their church is built atop the spring (the real one, and not the faux one above with undrinkable water). They were holding mass but allowed tourists to enter, so we experienced about 20 minutes of a Greek Orthodox mass in Arabic while we tried to visit the spring without getting in the way.
We walked around the town trying to see a few other sites (namely a mosque and what’s called the cave of 40 holy monks), but both sites were closed, so we took a quick peek through the souq and had lunch at a nearby cafe. The highlight of lunch for me was the discovery of this delicious drink. It’s basically just mint lemonade, but the restaurants blend the mint with crushed ice and let it float on top of the lemonade. It gives the drink the perfect flavor and almost every restaurant we visited in Israel offered it.
With Nazareth checked off our list, we returned to Tiberias to grab our luggage and make the 2.5 hour drive to Jerusalem. There’s a couple of different roads you can take, and we chose route 90, which goes alongside the Dead Sea and traverses the West Bank, so you occasionally stop at checkpoints. For Israelis, the checkpoints can be a hassle, it seems, but for tourists who have a giant orange Budget rental sticker on the car, it was no problem – we were waved through without any passport checks.
For the sake of keeping everyone’s eyes from glazing over (too late?), I’m going to cut off the post here and pick up tomorrow with our time in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, if you want to take a look at all the photos I took in Israel (without captions, context, or much editing), click here. If you prefer the edited version with captions, you can check out my Facebook album for the trip here (you don’t need a Facebook account to view the photos).