Israel Part 3: The Dead Sea

Driving through Israel is an experience like none other. In the cities, there are narrow, winding streets with cars parked on both sides of the roads and masses of tourists flooding around your car every time you brake. Those previously friendly locals turn into maniacs, driving as though someone has programmed them with instructions to get to their destination as fast as possible, without regard for traffic laws or the sanctity of human life. Once you exit the city limits, though, both the scenery and the mood changes. You’re driving through the desert, watching sandy hills and rocks rise up to block your view of the city and, as you drive along the curves, the view of other cars. For some of the time, it appears that there’s absolutely nothing in any direction – no other cars, no cities, no wildlife, no trees. Every few kilometers, a brown sign with an arrow points off in the direction of something you’d love to see if you had a month to spend in Israel – Masada, the Ein Gedi nature preserve, the place where the Good Samaritan encounter supposedly occurred.

And for long stretches of Route 90, between the Sea of Galilee and the bottom of the Dead Sea, you see fencing to the east, just past the shoulder of the road. Sometimes a single layer of fence, with barbed wire at the top; sometimes double fences, one electrified. Some with yellow signs with a red triangle that warn in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: Danger Mines! As you drive along Route 90, to the east is the Jordanian border, and Israel has filled the small strip of land between the road and the border with what are called anti-personnel mines – land mines, preventing unauthorized border crossings. I was tempted to have Richie pull the car over so that we could take a picture, but surprisingly, there are no “scenic lookout” areas with car parking in areas close to the border. And while Richie probably would have happily pulled onto the shoulder for a close-up, it felt a little bit too much like we’d be tempting the fate of the Darwin Awards.

On Monday, we planned a day trip away from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea area, starting off with a wine tasting at an award-winning winery near the Yatir Forest at Mount Hebron. We set out from Jerusalem and drove south towards the Dead Sea, at one point reaching sea level.

The scenery just outside of Jerusalem mostly looks like this.
The scenery just outside of Jerusalem mostly looks like this.
Sea level!
Sea level!
So many signs to choose from.
So many signs to choose from.

To get to the winery, we drove almost to the very southernmost point of the Dead Sea, reaching 400 meters below sea level, then traveled west towards Mount Hebron, rising again to about 500 meters above sea level. As we drove, we noticed how much the change in altitude affected the weather. At the sea itself, the temperature was about 68°F, but at the winery, it was about 55°F.

Israeli wine isn’t well-known outside the region, partially because of its relative youth. Although there’s evidence of significant winemaking in the ancient history of Israel, as early as 1800 B.C. through the time of the Second Temple (70 A.D.), winemaking essentially ceased after the destruction of the Second Temple when the Jews were dispersed, and was later forbidden altogether as Islamic law doesn’t allow alcohol consumption. The first recorded winery was only opened in the mid-19th century. So there’s a strange dichotomy of both a rich history of winemaking and a lack of recent experience in the industry. Because of this, as our guide at the winery said, if you want to drink cheap wine, you’ll be drinking very bad wine. Luckily the wine that we tasted was excellent, and we learned a little about the making of kosher wine in the process. Interestingly, the major requirement for a kosher winery doesn’t have to do with ingredients or process, but the people – those involved in picking the grapes and producing the wine must be Orthodox Jews. In fact, as we were touring the winery, a man in traditional clothing and payot (the sidecurls in the hair) had to follow us from room to room to ensure that we didn’t touch anything that would compromise the wine’s kosher certification!

After our tasting, we headed back to the Dead Sea for lunch and sightseeing. The sea is actually split into two parts these days – an northern and a southern section. There are free beaches at both locations, but our guidebook said that the southern portion was nicer, so we camped out at En Boqeq (the public/free beach).

Desert landscape
Desert landscape
Lots of instructions for first-timers
Lots of instructions for first-timers

While we both brought bathing suits… the water was cold. Far colder than I was willing to float in. And I also made the rookie mistake of shaving my legs the night before we went. I walked into the water at just above ankle level and the salty water attacking the little nicks and cuts I had even around my ankles was more painful than I could have ever imagined. Israel Travel Tip #6: NO RAZORS before the Dead Sea! So Richie was a solo floater.

Do you see Richie floating in the distance?
Do you see Richie floating in the distance?
He floats! With no effort whatsoever!
He floats! With no effort whatsoever!
That water was FREEZING. No way I was going in.
The disparity in our level of clothing is pretty funny.
There are lots of warnings, but they basically boil down to "This water is salty and that can be dangerous." No sharks to worry about here!
There are lots of warnings, but they basically boil down to “This water is salty and that can be dangerous.” No sharks to worry about here!
A walkway into the sea
A walkway into the sea
We couldn't get enough of this view!
We couldn’t get enough of this view!

On our way back to Jerusalem, we made a quick stop at the AHAVA factory – they make skin care products with Dead Sea minerals, and their factory is just north of the Ein Gedi nature preserve by the northern section of the Dead Sea. Factory discount + VAT refund = much cheaper than the store in Budapest.

As we made our way back, we often noticed areas where it had obviously once been a river or stream, but was completely bone-dry. We have no idea how long ago those rivers dried up, but it was a little unsettling to know that water probably once flowed plentifully over lands that were now cracked and brittle in the sun. We also passed a lot of areas that had sand pits and sinkholes marked just off the shoulder, and signs every 100 meters or so warning drivers not to leave marked roads after sunset.

Up next: our trip to Bethlehem and the West Bank.

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