That Sunday, I headed over to my parents’ hotel pretty early to get a good start on our road trip. Mark and I hopped in a cab and headed over to the car rental agency, picked out a car (with a free upgrade to a larger model!) and were soon on our way back to the hotel to pick up my mom. It was a little strange to travel with parents after having gotten used to traveling with a group of twenty-somethings for almost a year now- usually, I throw a couple of t-shirts in a backpack and am good to go. This time, we loaded an entire suitcase in the car and I had to ensure that we actually had a place to sleep reserved- with comfortable beds.
The last time that I ventured to the north (which I have yet to write about!), we took a series of highways that maneuvered around the western edge of the West Bank, since rental cars are strictly forbidden from crossing checkpoints. This time, the rental company let us in on a little secret: Road 90, which is a freeway that basically follows the border between Israel and Jordan, is allowed! Most people assume that you can’t use it, thinking that the West Bank shares the border with Jordan, but apparently this isn’t the case. The road is completely Israeli-controlled, making it usable for everyday tourists like us. So, we stocked up on gas and snacks, got directions from a nice English-speaking man at the station, and hit the road.
Only about 30 minutes into the drive, we might as well have been on the moon. Signs of civilization were left behind as we were suddenly launched into giant sand dunes and tan rolling hills. Road 90 had seemingly been carved right through the huge dunes of the desert, with no consideration for the land around it. We drove for a good 2-3 hours, taking in the bizarre landscape around us. First sand, then huge groves of palm trees, fully grown and organized in flawless rows. Finally, the hills slowly turned green with lush foliage, and soon we were surrounded by beautiful fields of trees and flowers. For the majority of the ride, the land to our right was blocked off by a pretty imposing fence complete with barbed wire, video cameras, and electrical charges. Looks like they really don’t want anyone hopping the border into (or out of) Jordan! At one point, we were stopped at a checkpoint- I was pretty confused at first, and wondered if we had accidentally driven towards the West Bank or Jordanian border. Apparently, they were just checking cars and credentials to ensure that everybody there was actually supposed to be in Israeli territory.
As we approached the north, I began calling out road names and numbers from the map that the rental company had provided us. Before long, we knew that we had made it to Tiberias, the first stop on our trip, by spotting the Sea of Galilee. Tiberias is kind of a strange place- it’s supposedly one of the four holy cities of Judaism and home to tombs of sages, but you wouldn’t know it from a visit there today. Now, it’s a touristy holiday spot, complete with high-rise hotels and a few abandoned water parks. Nonetheless, the land along the sea is beautiful, and I knew of a great restaurant there to grab a bite to eat. We stopped at a place called Deck’s, which juts out over the water and offers great food, and a priceless view of the Galilee. After some salad, bread, drinks, and carpaccio, we hopped back in the car and drove around the perimeter of the sea, stopping at the other side to admire the sea, grab some rocks as souvenirs (they’re beautiful and colorful!) and do our best impressions of Jesus walking on water. It had started drizzling a little bit at this point, so we were soon ready to hop back in the car and head towards our next destination: Tsfat, the home of Kabbalah.
Tsfat (also known as Safed, Zefad, or Sfat) has a long history of Jewish mysticism, and is known for its artists’ quarter. It’s perched on top of Israel’s third-highest peak, which provides some amazing views for the drive up. It has been populated by the Crusaders, Spanish immigrants fleeing the Inquisition, Russian Hasidic Jews, and more Hasidic immigrants of the 1980’s. Today, with the popularity of Kabbalah thanks to various celebrities, the town has enjoyed a new influx of tourists. We hopped from one freeway to another through the ascending hills, surrounded by lush fields of grass and flowers, and a priceless view of the Galilee below us. The drive itself made it worth the trek. As we approached the town, signs pointed us through a winding labyrinth of roads making tight turns through the hills, slowly leading us in the direction of the city center and artist’s quarter. I had never been there before, so we eventually just chose to park the car and wander.
The town looked like most other traditional orthodox Jewish towns, with men in black suit jackets, white shirts, and big black hats leading a string of kids through town alongside groups of conservatively-dressed women out running errands. We happened upon a set of stairs that led us down into a small courtyard, with a line of artists’ galleries on one side, and a museum showcasing all of the work on the other. Our first stop was a shop inside an old building with stained glass windows and vines growing up the banisters. The artist there was a woman who spoke very little English, but was excited to show us her work and pick out a few pieces that she thought suited us best. Her father, an old man in a fedora and worn suit, stood by giving advice (of course, none of it in English) and watching proudly. After looking around for a bit, we promised to come back on our way out and continued onto the other shops.
The walkway of galleries provided art of all shapes and sizes- sculptures, jewelry, paintings, and even stencil work. The farther we walked, the more shops cropped up, some more pricey than others. The town itself wasn’t too crowded, but you could tell that the new presence of tourists had played a role in its current look- some of the shops sold evil eye trinkets just like the ones that you could find in the Old City, but for three or four times the usual price. Mark and I ended up grabbing some ice cream as my mom browsed the galleries before reuniting to check out one last sight- the cemetery. We walked down a few flights of cobblestone stairs, which fed us out into a street overlooking the hills below us and series of graves. Groups of schoolkids and families passed by us, taking in the history of Tsfat as they admired the view. Satisfied with our visit, we made our way back to the car, but not without a stop back at the first artist’s gallery. It was my mom’s birthday that week, so she indulged in a painting from the woman and her father before setting out to make our way to our last destination of the day. Artwork in hand, we hopped back in the car and set our sights on Nazareth.
There isn’t exactly one straight-shot road from Tsfat to Jesus’s old stomping grounds. We ended up hopping from freeway to freeway, winding our way down the hills and through various towns to get there, and ended up approaching it from a different angle than I was used to. This resulted in a little confusion (and the only time we got lost during the road trip, thank you very much!). After driving down the same couple of streets over and over again, I knew that we were in Nazareth, but just couldn’t get my bearings right when it came to finding our home for the night- the Sisters of Nazareth Convent. I knew that it was near the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is a huge church that’s pretty hard to miss. We spotted its pointed ceiling eventually and made our way there, just as it started to rain.
The Convent ended up being literally right across the street from the Basilica. It was an absolutely beautiful old building centered around a courtyard, with walls separating it from the usually busy streets of the town. The woman working the front desk could not have been nicer- she helped us check in before showing us our rooms, and kept the place spotless. The stone courtyard was full of trees, plants and flowers, with a statue in the center and columns around the perimeter. A large cafeteria was full of visitors talking, laughing, and sipping tea on its western side. The Convent itself is a landmark- it has an ancient Herodian tomb sealed by a rolling stone under the courtyard. I had reserved one room for my parents, and just booked myself a dorm-style bed in the Convent, but ended up getting ridiculously lucky and having the entire 10-bed room to myself, complete with my own shower and bathroom. Score! The entire place was spotless and everyone that I spoke to there was lovely.
After freshening up for a bit, we headed out to find my favorite restaurant in Nazareth, Tishreen, for dinner. Nazareth is known for having some of the best food in Israel, and this place really lives up to that standard. Literally everything there is delicious- you can’t order something and not be completely satisfied with it. Again, I had a little trouble situating myself and finding the place, which resulted in us walking around the streets of town for a bit and asking directions every few steps, but hey- I got to practice my Arabic! We finally found the place and settled in, ordering great seafood and some mean mint lemonade. Mark and I treated ourselves to some chocolate dessert and ice cream before heading back to the Convent for the night. I settled into my huge room and fell asleep almost immediately.
The next day, we did a little bit of sightseeing in Nazareth before setting out for the Dead Sea. Nazareth is kind of a strange place- historically, it’s known as Jesus’ childhood home, but today it’s the largest Arab city in Israel. It’s also rumored to have the region’s most beautiful women, supposedly because many of them are related to the Virgin Mary. First up on our sightseeing tour was the Basilica of the Annunciation, right next door, which is where the Virgin Mary’s house apparently stood when the Angel Gabriel informed her that she was pregnant with Jesus. It has the title of ‘largest church in the Middle East,’ and is one of Christianity’s most holy shrines. The church itself is a pretty modern place, created in 1969 under orders to create something “modern, multinational, and mysterious”, and is most notable for the murals that various countries all over the world have donated, each with its own interpretation of Mary and baby Jesus. It’s really interesting to see how the Virgin Mary is imagined to look in places like Japan and Indonesia, whose murals reflect the physical appearance of their people. The place is beautiful- we even got to stand by and watch a group of German visitors finish up mass there before seeing the facade of the land where Mary’s house stood, and eventually making our way upstairs to see the main room of the church. As we finished up our visit to the Basilica, we wandered outside and made our way towards the supposed site of Joseph’s house, which is surprisingly nearby- only a minute or two away on foot. A much smaller church stands there to memorialize the spot.
Our visit to the Basilica and Joseph’s church lead us in the direction of the souks, where small shops sold everything from nativity scenes to crosses to scarves. We wandered down a few streets of shops, browsing the goods and picking up a few souvenirs for friends and family back home. As we walked, it began to rain, so we quickly made our way back to the car and set out for the Dead Sea. A few more winding freeways eventually lead us back to Road 90, which we followed back down the border until we ran right into the Dead Sea. I was a little confused, because my Lonely Planet guidebook had said that about half of the sea was under the control of the Palestinians, and half Israeli, which I assumed would make it difficult for us to get there by rental car via the north. For some reason, though, we were able to drive right along the shore and stop at whichever entry point we wanted. A series of resort-y stops offered sea access, but only after shelling over an entrance fee. We picked one of the first ones we saw, grabbed some silly souvenir towels (which only had Israel labeled, with no borders or reference to the Palestinian Territories), changed into our swimsuits, and made our way to the water.
The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth. It’s ridiculously salty, meaning that you automatically float, and if you get it in your eyes, you will not be a happy camper. It’s also supposedly pretty good for your skin, especially the mud from the sea bottom- the stuff sells big in beauty supply stores. The “dead” part of its name comes from the fact that it’s so salty that no life can exist within its waters. The area around the sea is also supposedly home to where Jesus was baptized (according to some believers), and where the Dead Sea Scrolls (the oldest copy of the biblical texts) were found. When we arrived, it was still a little overcast, so there weren’t many other visitors to the seaside except for a group that appeared to be having a great time floating and coating themselves in mud. We made our way to the water, threw our belongings on a bench, and set out to float the afternoon away. One major challenge stood in our way, though- getting to floating position from the shore is ridiculously difficult! The Dead Sea mud that everyone raves about is mushy, slippery, and almost impossible to walk on. We slowly tried to enter the water, sliding all over the place and waving our arms in the air like maniacs in an attempt to maintain our balance- this was one place where I definitely did not want to fall face-first into the water. We looked like complete idiots, but I have to admit that it was a ton of fun. Giggling like little kids, we squealed at the squishy mud beneath our feet and flailed along until we had gotten about knee-deep in the water.
At this point, the lifeguard seemed to have had enough of us. “SIT. DOWN.” suddenly blared at us through a megaphone. We all looked up, perplexed at the suggestion, until he sighed and repeated the instructions. “TURN. AROUND. SIT.” Finally, we obeyed the commands, slowly squatting and lowering ourselves into the water. It was a bizarre sensation, and a little bit terrifying for a second- as soon as you sit, the water holds you up in a relaxed, leaned back sitting position. You couldn’t sink if you wanted to. We all let out a simultaneous “Ooooh!” as the lifeguard finally turned away from us, freed of his duty. I have to say, the Dead Sea is a ton of fun. I expected it to be cold, way too touristy, and kinda gross, but it was none of the above. Apparently, the water never gets very cold, and the resorts keep it clean and under control. It is pretty touristy, but it embraces it and provides a good time for everyone. We floated around for awhile, testing out swimming, floating on our stomachs, and covering our skin in smooth mud. A group of older visitors next to us had literally covered their entire bodies in mud, and were having a great time taking pictures and trying to make their way back to shore to rinse off. We took the obligatory touristy photos and finally made our way out of the water as the sun began to emerge from behind the clouds.
As the afternoon wore on, more tour groups showed up, and we had a great time just watching them enter the sea for the first time. I think it’d be a ton of fun to be a lifeguard there- it’s physically impossible to drown, and you just watch silly tourists all day. A big group of Americans soon showed up, and it was kind of nice to hear American accents and watch them squeal and laugh just as we had done an hour beforehand. A seaside cafe sold food and drinks, playing silly 80’s and 90’s music and deeming itself the “Lowest Bar in the World”. Eventually, we showered off, redressed, and hopped back in the car, ready to take on the world with freshly exfoliated skin. We took off towards Jerusalem, and about half an hour later were back to Ben Yehouda Street, near the hotel. My mom and I decided to run inside to ask the staff where the best place to park our rental car would be, while Mark drove around the block to stall. We ran in, and were back out to the street within a matter of minutes, but Mark was nowhere to be found. Five, ten, fifteen, and then thirty minutes passed, with no sign of Mark or our rental car. As time went by, it got a little colder outside, and I was still in a t-shirt and flip flops, as was appropriate for the Dead Sea, but not so much for downtown Jerusalem. My mom and I soon started to get antsy- it was cold, we were hungry, and we had no way of contacting Mark. After awhile, we questioned if he had gotten into some kind of trouble or an accident, or if he really had just managed to get lost. Almost forty-five minutes later, we had our answer. A series of one-way streets and traffic had caused him to detour almost all the way back to my dorms- thanks, Jerusalem traffic!
Mystery solved, we managed to park the car safely and headed over to grab some comfort food- McDonalds. It had been a long couple of days, so we parted ways for the night, planning to meet up again early the next morning to celebrate my mom’s birthday on our last day in Jerusalem.