We got into Tel Aviv about 11 p.m. after skirting the eastern border of Ukraine. Normally our flight from Helsinki would have gone directly over Ukraine but the airspace is closed. The plane got as close as 50 miles or so.
It was a good thing we got in late because Israel requires in-coming visitors to go directly to a PRC testing center and then quarantine at their hotel for 24 hours or until the test results come in, whichever is shorter. Bear in mind, we already had to get a PRC test 72 hours before departure. Talk about overkill.
The Tel Aviv airport was big and beautiful but after 30 hours since our departure we were in zombie mode as we headed to the temporary tent test facility. Surprisingly, our backpacks were there in the baggage claim area.
Watching hundreds of people stand in line to get cotton swabs shoved up their noses was dehumanizing to say the least. It’s just something to endure to reach the prize of finally arriving at your destination.
It’s kinda nuts what you have to do to travel internationally these days. Security, passport check, luggage, Covid test, more security, more forms, another passport test. It just goes on and on and on. We must have displayed our passports 25 times before finally walking out the doors and hailing a cab.
We were sitting ducks as we walked to the taxi stand. We were greeted quickly by a handler who then took us over to a taxi driver and quickly loaded our stuff. We were just too tired to haggle and it cost us an extra $50.
The driver flew down the Tel Aviv highways at 100 miles an hour, literally, arriving at our hotel near the beach in no time at all. We both took half of an Ambien and conked out like rocks.
The next morning was mild and clear and we headed out with our backpacks and walked along the Tel Aviv beach on the south coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The water was fairly clear and the sand was tan colored with a fair number of submerged rocks in the surf. Pretty, but nothing compared to what we’re used to along the Florida Panhandle.
We walked about seven or eight miles and had a nice Mediterranean lunch at an outdoor cafe before catching the bus to Nazareth.
The signage at the bus stop was all Hebrew or Arabic. We tried to buy a bus ticket but were instructed to download an app on our phones called the Hop On Rav Pass. This app proved to be critical to our ability to move around Israel inexpensively.
The app is basically an Uber for buses and trains. Type in where you want to go, it guides you by foot to the nearest bus stop, then creates your QR code ticket, tells you where to get off and the next bus to catch and then the foot path to your final destination. It was amazingly easy. And you can chart your progress every step along the way.
This is where having good local cellular data coverage is critical. Getting a local prepaid SIM card made all the difference in the world. Without it and the appropriate apps, we would have been fumbling around forever trying to find the right bus to take.
We arrived in Nazareth after a two-hour bus ride. We hopped off and headed to the hotel where we met the current Jesus Trail manager who gave us an hour tutorial on how to navigate the trail by displaying maps and photos on his laptop. We gave him a healthy tip, checked into our nearby hotel and headed to the restaurant he recommended.
Nazareth, a city of 77,000, is almost 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian. Other nearby cities may be 90 percent Jewish and 10 Muslim or any combination in between. Birds of a feather flock together. There are specifically Jewish cities and specifically Muslim cities. Nazareth’s high Christian population was very unusual since Christians only account for two percent of the Israel population. Perhaps this was an artifact of it being Jesus’ hometown.
Some basic facts on Israel: It has a size of 8,500 square miles, about a fifth the size of Mississippi. Israel’s population is 9.5 million, making the population density about 15 times greater than Mississippi. It’s 75 percent Jewish and 20 percent Muslim. The Mediterranean climate is mild throughout the year with summer highs in the upper eighties and winter highs in the low sixties.
Israel is wealthy, with an average per capita GDP of $50,000 (compared to the U.S. at $68,000 and Mississippi at $42,000. Along the coast and most of the country, it’s pretty and green with trees and forests. Only the eastern part is desert.
We walked to the restaurant along ancient cobblestone dimly lit streets. A sign on the restaurant door reminded us we were not in Kansas anymore: “EXEMPTION: Entrance to Alreda is not conditioned by curse or condemnation of Churchill, the Queen, her father, her son or their spirit.” Well ok den! (The food was outstanding.)
We had the hotel to ourselves. It was practically empty. There was a beautiful night view of the Nazareth skyline with illuminated mosques and churches. Being Ramadan, the biggest Muslim annual religious holiday, the call to worship blared out throughout the night from multiple loudspeakers atop the mosque minarets. If you’ve never been to a Muslim country, this is quite shocking to hear.
The breakfast spread was to die for. At least 25 different delicious Mediterranean items like eggplant, hummus, tahini and the like. All tasting so very fresh and delicious.
Then it was time to launch. As luck would have it, the first hour of the hike was straight up a 1,000 steps or so to the top of Nazareth, which is built on a small mountain. My heart was maxed out almost immediately and stayed that way for an hour. Well at least I don’t have angina, I thought.
The flight straight up didn’t faze my companion Jeff Weill, who I dubbed the Walking Man. Any other many stops and talks but the Walking Man walks.
“You know what Nazareth means in Hebrew don’t you?” Jeff asked me as we climbed yet another set of steps. “No, what?” I replied. “City of a thousand steps!” he said laughing. (Great sense of humor, this guy, I thought, as I gasped for breath.)
But I made it to the top, where we enjoyed a beautiful view of the pastoral countryside below. You could see beautiful meadows and forests dotted with hilltop towns.
Forty miles in the distance was our destination, the Sea of Galilee.