As we jump into the back of a 4×4 Jeep like something from a James Bond movie, our eyes become transfixed with what lies outside. Beyond the blacked-out windows that protect us from the blazing sunlight stands a city rich in a colourful past looming straight back at us.
Broken stone falls at the base of what would once have been significant monuments to this city, alongside modern developments and even the occasional large scale branded hotel. And the buildings soon become a talking point for us as we arrive in the holy land.
Inside the beautiful walls of the Old City, ancient gates house King David’s Tomb, the site and the Room of the Last Supper, and even the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Golgotha) — where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. A tourist hot spot, we battle our way through lines of visitors to check out first-hand a place of massive historical value. Although finding religion low down on our list of interests, being in a city that means so much to many, seen here through the tearful eyes of religious pilgrims, makes it a special place to be.
We stumble via marketplaces to a restored Roman cardo, housing quarters and schools, all surrounded by the sacred Western Wall. Standing for thousands of years, the wall separates males and females into gender-controlled areas to stand at its foot and place a wish or note inside the cracks in the walls exterior surface. Known to tourists as the ‘Wailing Wall’, it soon becomes clear why such a name exists. A place of significant worth, traditional headwear is advised and provided for guests.
Gethsemane, a garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where the disciples slept the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, offers the ideal postcard opportunity – a place recognisable for theatres fan thanks to the writing skills of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. Other points of interest for trigger-happy tourist include The Israel Museum – situated on a hill in the Givat Ram – the Christian Quarter, rebuilt Jewish Quarter, Yad Vashem – Israel’s primary memorial to the victims of the Holocaust – and the Sha’ananim Yemin and Moshe neighbourhoods.
In a bid to adjust to local time, we find ourselves in search of street food from looming merchants – falafel and fried chicken are aplenty.
Just over an hour’s drive from Jerusalem lies the Dead Sea. A mainstream tourist hotspot, spa and hotel resorts line the main strip that fronts onto the sea. A place where gravity seemingly knows no object, it’s a trunks and beach towel destination as you spend hours bobbing on the sea surface, with the sea being the lowest point on earth – 429m below sea level. The neighbouring mountain fortress of Masada, a towering spectacle that overlooks the therapeutic waters and houses infamous rejuvenating mud, is an ideal place for naturalist treatments. Fully tested by us, of course.
Private jeep tours offer an off-terrain adventure through the Judean Desert. A small desert, spanning only 1,500 square kilometres, it’s home to nature reserves and breathtakingly beautiful panoramas that surround the never-ending landscape as it falls off into the distance.
The Alpaca Farm in Mitzpe Ramon is a working farm that houses daily activities to dive into, from animal petting to horse riding, morning yoga across the desert and even talks on the process of yarn production, if that’s your thing. Ditch sunglasses for animal food and join this family business as you get in touch with nature out in the desert.
Being gay in Israel isn’t actually illegal. In fact, LGBT+ life on the Mediterranean shores is quite the opposite. In January 2012, Tel Aviv was also named the gay travel destination for 2011. A bold statement it might be, but having stepped (sashayed) inside the White City, it became clear why such an accolade was bestowed.
Standing with a population of 400,000, there’s a Western feel that lines the towering hotels and modern living quarters of Tel Aviv. With beaches covering the forefront of many popular areas and bars aplenty come nightfall, you might wish you’d come here a little earlier. Far from the cries of Jerusalem, LGBT+ flags line buildings and hotels, while gay couples embrace openly and freely.
LGBT+ Arab or Palestinian groups and communities might be smaller here than in London, but they’re boldly noticeable at night – with flyers and posters packing bars and nightclubs. When we inquired about visiting LGBT+ venues, one bar owner told us he’s proud the bars of Tel Aviv are ‘open to everyone’. When inside, that’s what we found with same-sex couples enjoying themselves freely, even when the party continued into the very early hours out on the streets.
LGBT+ life in Israel really is alive and present, but does vary depending on where your journey takes you. Attitudes change depending on the area and a sensible mind is needed at all times. And with Tel Aviv holding its own transgender beauty pageant that most recently saw a Christian Arab snatch the crown, we left with memories of fine food, kind people and the growing hope that the rest of Israel follows in Tel Aviv’s path – to match the beauty of its landscape to the beauty found inside all of its people. Shalom!
Gay Times flew to Israel on Monarch Airlines. Monarch operates year-round flights to Tel Aviv from London Luton and Manchester airports with fares from £99 one way (£172 return). uk.thinkisrael.com, monarch.co.uk, @monarch.