Worried about heading to the Middle East? Here are some thoughts on media vs. reality in the region based on our experiences.
Wondering if group travel is a good option? Check out our experience in Israel with two different group operators.
En route to Jerusalem, we stop at the famed site of Masada, along with Qumran, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and take a muddy dip in...
For our final day in Northern Israel, we're heading up, up, up to the border, with a glimpse of the Golan Heights.
Exploring Northern Israel: replaying the Sermon on the Mount and sailing the Sea of Galilee.
I’m Shannon, a twenty-something island dweller with a passport at the ready and a never-ending bucket list. I didn’t start as an island dweller. I started as a California resident – a newly minted grad – and in 2009, I embarked on a journey. I left my home in California to begin graduate school in the UK and at that moment, life changed. Since that time, I have had an amazing opportunity to see parts of the world I never imagined, meet incredible and inspiring people, and enjoy…
My wrap up for our Israel trip is finally coming to a close and I have so much more to share about our holiday trip to New York and some upcoming adventures that I’m really excited to experience. I would be remiss to not touch on one final topic though, one that struck me early on during our time in Israel, and one that I knew I had to share: media vs. reality on the ground when it comes to visiting Israel (and the West Bank and Jordan, for that matter).
When we were gearing up for this trip, there was one common sentiment expressed by friends and family before our departure: be safe.
Had we been jetting off to Paris or to the Amalfi Coast, we would have likely heard things like, “Amazing, enjoy!” or “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go there, have fun!” This trip was different, though. Not one person said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go there!” Instead, most people said, “Now? Why?” Or, from supportive friends and family who still thought our actions were a bit questionable, we’d hear the universally shared sentiment: be safe. I’m sure people genuinely hoped that we would have fun but what people felt and shared was a deep-seated concern for our safety in the region. Be safe as you go to the Middle East, an area that the media has told us is replete with terrorism, human rights violations and a million other soul-draining realities. None of that was said, of course, but mainstream media would lead us to believe that these are realistic concerns on the ground as travelers.
I get it. I really do, because none of us are really immune to that feeling; that concern over venturing into unknown territory where linguistic and cultural barriers exist. I still have those feelings when I hear about my LSE comrades traveling to Syria with the UN or doing development work in Afghanistan. I can’t help but think, be safe.
Here’s the reality though – and it’s really not a shocker as we all know how the media loves to sensationalize stories – we never really felt unsafe. There were two occasions that I will say we felt a touch of tension: during our time in Hebron, a hotbed for conflict; and during our time on Temple Mount when there was clearly tension between a large Muslim group on Temple Mount and a Jewish man who entered (he was escorted off the premises by IDF soldiers). Those were the only two moments where I felt a bit more aware of my surroundings and a bit more vigilant. The rest of the time I felt the same that I do visiting any other beautiful, culturally rich locale.
Now, that’s not to say that it’s 100% safe. It’s not, as most large cities in general are not completely safe. Temple Mount was closed the day after we visited due to tension and a shooting that happened in relatively close proximity, and we heard about the saddening murder that happened in a synagogue after our return to the US. That being said, those two events got a fair bit of publicity both within Israel and internationally. And yes, those are horrible incidents; I will never downplay the significance and sadness of either. Let’s ask ourselves though: how much crime is there in Chicago? NYC? Los Angeles? Are we honestly that concerned for safety when we visit any of those cities?
We hear major concerns, like news of the Gaza War this past summer, and can’t help but extrapolate. If there is this great loss of life in Gaza, then Israel is broadly unsafe, and naturally the West Bank is even less safe since it’s Gaza’s weirdly distant sister.
The reality is that the majority of Israel is totally safe (I mean, their military is insanely strong which is worth keeping in mind) and that you won’t walk down streets looking over your shoulder. Instead, you’re likely to be visiting a hip Jerusalemite restaurant, shooting the breeze with some gorgeous young Israeli who is serving you local spirits from behind the bar and encouraging you to join in on the round of Arak shots (gross, by the way). You’ll navigate the Old City’s narrow streets, sipping freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and slowing your pace to accommodate a cane-wielding older Palestinian who negotiates cobblestone steps with utter mastery. You’ll visit a shop, pop in for a brief moment, only to find that you’re sitting there with a cup of Turkish coffee having a conversation with a shopkeeper in broken Arabic. You’ll gobble up so much homemade hummus and pita that you’ll swear vegetarianism would suit you just fine. You’ll watch the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee and feel like you’re transported to another world where the sun shines so bright and so vibrant that you’ll want to pause it for eternity. Read More
Our experience in Israel was the first time that we opted for a group travel experience vs. a totally independent journey. I typically prefer to craft my own itinerary, prioritize my musts and work on my own schedule. After all, sometimes the most magical moments are unplanned. Being that we were heading to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan where the history is so rich, the culture is so different, and the logistics can be a bit complicated, we opted to experience a fair bit of Israel through tours.
For those that are in the same boat, thinking group travel or day tours may be the better route to go, here are some thoughts and takeaways from two distinct experiences during our time in the Middle East.
I can’t speak highly enough about our experiences with Abraham Tours. If you’re not a ‘tour person’, this is the right choice for you if you want a fun, educational experience and are wary about traveling independently in the region. These were half-day and day tours, which meant we woke up early, had breakfast on our own, headed out, and made it back in the afternoon or evening to explore Jerusalem solo. We weren’t tied to a group for the week which meant we could blend independent travel and group tours to build out the ultimate Israel experience. One of the tours was just six or seven people, small enough so that we got to know each other over the course of the day. Even our two-day Jordan tour was only 15 or so people, all of whom we got to know on a first name basis. We interacted with each of our guides and got to hear their stories which made the experiences much more rich. The majority of the travelers we met on these tours were very well-traveled; adventurers looking to experience the culture of the area and see the human face of a place. The tours were much more real, raw and educational than I expected, plus having the logistics handled made it much easier for us to move across borders and checkpoints.
If you can’t afford to hire a private tour guide, this is the way to go. The groups are small enough so you can ask questions and get some great insight, and the tours are very unique, allowing you to see parts of Israel and the West Bank that may seem intimidating to travel to independently. Major thumbs up to these guys – fabulous experience. Read More
We said our goodbyes to Northern Israel, eating breakfast while the sun rose over the Sea of Galilee for final morning. We were making our way south, heading to Jerusalem with a number of stops along the way. I was in for a big bucket list experience: testing my buoyancy in the Dead Sea.
Our first stop for the day was Masada, an ancient fortification that sits on top of a rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. Visitors enter at the base and have the option to hike to the top (about an hour) or opt for the quicker, far easier route: the cable car. In truth, I had intentions to climb to the top to sneak in a bit of exercise and get the full Masada experience. We were limited on time though and our group was taking the cable car up so we could tour the compound and hear the story that makes the fortification one of the most popular sites.
Herod was the man behind Masada and it’s no surprise that this compound was his brainchild. After seeing some of his insanely over-the-top buildings strewn about the Israeli landscape, this one fits the bill. Even if you don’t know the story of Masada, you can’t help but be impressed. Workers built what was (and still is) an incredibly complex site on top of an isolated hill-top to act as Herod’s vacation home. All of the tools and supplies had to be carried to the grounds and then other important resources (you know, like water) had to be routed here to make it a functioning space. Herod went so far as to have wines from Italy shipped to Masada (which meant they literally went by boat, then were carried over ground that then up this hill/mountain top to make it to his dinner table). If you’re visiting Masada, what makes it most interesting is its post-Herodian tale. The Cliffs Notes version is essentially this; the Jews who occupied Masada revolted against the Romans. When the Romans (who outnumbered the Jews greatly) finally laid siege on Masada, the Jewish population worked out a lottery system to kill each other off – including women and children – so they wouldn’t be slaughtered by the Romans (the last man committed suicide since he was solo). Legend tells us that they left their foodstuffs in plain sight so that the Romans would know that they chose death, and that it wasn’t forced upon them by lack of resources. It’s said that upwards of 1000 Jews were killed on that day, but archaeologists tell us it was maybe more like 30 people. Regardless, it’s a sad tale that somehow evokes a sense of courage and pride; for most Israelis, it’s viewed as the heroic ‘last stand’. Until recently, Masada was the graduation site for IDF forces who would take that special moment to swear that Masada would never fall again.
Many people who visit Masada do it during sunrise, when the weather is crisper and the experience is magical. Abraham Tours offers one of these early morning tours (275 NIS, about $70) and the travelers that I met that had gone through with the 3AM wake-up call were happy they’d gotten up early and done the hike. From the ground the hike looked incredibly steep and intense, but from up above (in the comfort of our cable car), the path actually looked very doable. If you’re going during mid-day, be sure to pack plenty of water as it gets extremely warm by late morning. Read More
Our third morning in Tiberias marked the start of our final full day in Northern Israel. We had one last day ahead of us before we would begin the scenic journey to Jerusalem to finish out our trip. Our first stop for the day was Nazareth Village, a tourist attraction that was vaguely reminiscent of those old forts that you’d visit on an elementary school field trip (you know, the ones where people are dressed in Puritan garb and teach you to make candles from wax?). Locals – children and adults – were replicating what we’d expect life to be like 2000 years ago. The purpose is essentially to see what Nazareth, now a crazy busy city, would have been when Jesus was alive. I’ll be honest: this was way better and cooler than I thought it would be. I imagined something over-the-top kitschy, but the guide was great; informative but not verbose, which we all appreciated. We walked through olive groves, glimpsed ladies making yarn from cotton (something I legitimately had never seen done before), and watched woodworkers honing their crafts.
If you were traveling solo, you could conceivably spend time beyond the tour roaming around and sitting at the various workstations with the artisans. We were with a group so we visited each station for long enough to take a glimpse, hear the history and cultural significance, ask questions, and move on. Also, if anyone’s wondering what olives straight from the tree taste like, Scott decided to try one that was on a harvest-ready olive tree. I wish I could have captured his face after trying one just to confirm that you cannot eat olives straight from the tree. Well, I guess you can, but they’re less than palatable without being properly prepared. It’s a shame – we thought we had hit the jackpot with these bad boys in Israel – olives everywhere! Read More
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5: 5-6)
For most Christians, even the moderately religious among us know the Beatitudes. There are eight Beatitudes listed in Matthew, and as many of us will remember, the Beatitudes were revealed during the famous Sermon on the Mount. To start our second day in Northern Israel, we headed to the Mount of Beatitudes on the northwestern short of the Sea of Galilee. I’ll be honest: despite my overall meh attitude towards tour groups, our time at the Mount of Beatitudes was probably the highlight of being part of a group like this. Unlike nearly every other place we visited where throngs of tour groups descended onto a space, this felt special. It felt like it was our group and the world, with our pastor giving a sermon of his own while we looked on. Other groups were in sight, but they were doing their own things (much like we were) tucked into disparate areas of this religious site. We went through the Beatitudes, with different members of our group reading each verse. My instinct is that this is exactly how the Mount of Beatitudes should be experienced. We didn’t see many solo travelers; most belonged to at least small groups where they were recreating their own sermons.
It’s hard to believe that 2014 is coming to a close. The holidays seem to creep up just a little bit faster every year, and while it doesn’t really feel like the holiday season with our 80 degree sunshine-y weather, it’s still a nice opportunity for us to step back and remember the people and experiences that make life wonderful. A big thank you to my friends around the globe – new and old – who make me smile. Thank you to both of my families for centering me and bringing so much joy to my life. Thank you to every person that reads this blog and keeps it going – it’s much more fun having readers than sending thoughts into some cyberspace abyss. A big thank you to my awesome husband for putting up with my endless planning and daydreaming, for traveling the world with me, and for bringing so many happy days to my life. I can’t even begin to express how grateful that I am for being able to have seen so many wonderful and different places this past year. We’ve had some really amazing, once-in-a-lifetime, perspective-altering journeys, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Wishing everyone an extra wonderful Thanksgiving with lots of love and happiness! Cheers to a wonderful holiday season ahead.
Following our time with Abraham Tours, which was nothing short of spectacular, we headed up to Tel Aviv to meet up with Scott’s parents and a larger church tour group from California to embark on a 9-day tour of the holy land. We would typically never join a tour group of this size (there were two large tour buses for this), but due to logistics and perceived safety issues before leaving, we thought a tour group would give us a sense of security, plus a more layered experience with deeper insight. I’ll do another post at a later time candidly detailing both tour experiences (with smaller-scale Abraham Tours and larger-scale Inspiration Tours) to provide a bit of insight when you’re booking your own trip.
We had no time in Tel Aviv, and that was intentional. We arrived around 10:30PM and departed the next day at 7AM or so. Tel Aviv, a super cosmopolitan beachfront city, is a draw for many, and the feel is entirely more Mediterranean than Middle East from our brief encounter. For us, coming from a beachy home, the goal was to have a more cultural experience than a beach getaway. With limited time, Tel Aviv was cut from the list. (We also didn’t get time in Haifa, which was unfortunate, as Haifa looks to be a stunning area!)
So, it was with excitement and a bit of trepidation that we loaded up our bus the next morning, not really knowing what to expect of a tour. We had to wear those goofy little ear pieces – you know the ones that hang around your neck and make you look like a Secret Service wannabe – each time we disembarked the bus so we could hear our guide (they call these gadgets ‘Whispers’). We also had name tags which I rather defiantly refused to wear (though I did keep it in my bag in case I was called out). Some people enjoy tour groups, but I find them kind of embarrassing at times and I didn’t want to be marked. So, loaded up on the bus with 48 friends, we headed north up Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
Our first stop was the town of Caesarea, not be confused with Caesarea Philippi which is a totally different thing entirely. Caesarea is a pretty seaside town with a few Roman ruins, but mostly a really beautiful view. The water here is classic Mediterranean, that deep sapphire blue that washes up against the sand and the beige-colored buildings. Had we been traveling here independently, it would have been a great place to sit out with coffee or lunch, actually somewhat tranquil despite the number of tourists. We only had about a half hour to explore and no free time to do our own thing which limited our adventures in the area. For those who have longer to enjoy the seaside town, there’s a golf club and a winery nearby.
Despite the fact that we’d been in Jerusalem for about a week, we had yet to see the glistening Dome of the Rock and some of the other iconic sites in the Old City. We’d been staying at Abraham Hostel and using that as our home base to explore the West Bank and Jordan. During our first full day to explore on our own, we walked the Via Dolorosa, explored the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and spent time shopping in the Muslim and Christian Quarters. We’d missed the small window within which non-Muslims are allowed on Temple Mount/al-Haram ash-Sharif to see the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque.
During our second day exploring the Old City, getting to Temple Mount was our mission. I was not going to leave Jerusalem without getting to see Jerusalem’s iconic buildings and holy sites. We headed out early in the morning, about 7:30AM, to stand in line to enter Temple Mount. There’s one entrance for non-Muslims and the line can be long since visiting hours are limited. During our first day in Jerusalem, we naively tried to enter Temple Mount from Muslim-only entrances. Kids tried to shoo us away and locals kept telling us to turn around but we didn’t really understand why. It wasn’t until we reached a small gate guarded by local security that we were told that those entrances were only for Muslims. As we rather embarrassedly walked away, I wondered, how do they know we’re not Muslim? My head was covered and while we perhaps don’t fit the traditional profile for the region, it seemed like profiling to me. What? Two blonde-ish kids can’t be Muslim? Naturally, I Googled the matter only to find that people (presumably just people that look questionable) have to recite verses from the Quran to prove their faith and gain entry. Makes sense.
So, we waited in the line this time. Ladies, if you’re non-Muslim, you don’t have to cover your head to enter though we did see many wearing head scarves out of respect. After about an hour – maybe an hour and a half – of waiting, we went through security, showed our IDs (bring at least a drivers license with you!), smiled at the guard and made our way in. Finally. We made it.
The Dome of the Rock is probably the most recognizable site in all of Jerusalem and it’s even more brilliant in real life. The colors, dazzling gold and vibrant cerulean, were like a beacon on an otherwise neutral colored slab. Abrahamic religions find this place holy as the rock is said to be the slab on which Abraham was set to sacrifice Isaac (Muslims believe it was Ishmael not Isaac). Additionally, according to Muslim tradition, Muhammed was said to have ascended to heaven from this very slab, making it one of the holiest sites in all of Islam.
Interestingly, the day we were up there, we could sense some tension. It was the first moment – though brief – that we felt a bit unsure about safety during our stint in the Middle East. We could hear chanting in Arabic and there was a horde of people walking together towards a Jewish man who was on Temple Mount. IDF forces escorted him off the premises (see below). The following day, though I doubt there’s any connection to this particular incident, Temple Mount was closed to non-Muslims for the first time in 15+ years after escalating tension between Israelis and Palestinians. Had we tried to go a day later, we would have missed our opportunity.
We spent the rest of our day exploring the local souqs. We’d seen the holiest sites in the city, we’d walked Via Dolorosa and experienced Mahane Yehuda market. We searched for the best hummus and sampled the best kanafeh (go to Jafar’s on Khan el-Zeit Street in the Old City for Anthony Bourdain and Yotam Ottolenghi-approved kanafeh). I’d boosted my antioxidants by slugging fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice at every turn and dined at some of the coolest restaurants we’ve ever experienced in the world. The one thing I had left on my agenda was to pick up something from Jerusalem (a souvenir for me and a few things for family) to take back home with me. I don’t really get behind buying kitschy souvenirs — the cheesy tees and keychains don’t really do it for me. The one thing I do allow myself (rather, Scott allows me!) is jewelry. I love cool jewelry (not diamonds luckily for him) that tells a story; a statement piece that brings back memories every time I put it on. I have handmade jewelry from Kenya and cool Incan pieces from Peru that I wear on a daily basis, little pieces that connect me to the places that we’ve been and the places that have shaped our perspectives on the world. I wasn’t going to leave Jerusalem without something special.
I should say that there are endless shops from which to buy really cool jewelry in the Old City. The city is famed for their Roman glass, which are cool pieces of green-hued glass with patina that jewelers buy from the Israeli Museum, craft into unique pieces, and sell. Each piece should come with a certificate from the Israeli Museum so if you’re going that route jewelry-wise (or buying jewelry made of authentic old coins), you should get a certificate with it (though I sometimes wonder how authentic certificates of authenticity really are). You’ll see a number of shops selling Roman glass, jewelry made of old Palestinian or Bedouin coins (some authentic, some not), chunky cuffs, major statement necklaces, and simple chains with a hamsa hanging (the classic palm-shaped amulet you see extra zen people wearing).
All of these shops deserve a look, but Sinjlawi is the ultimate shopping experience for any jewelry lover. The store is comprised of three rooms, and that’s just their showroom. The family that owns this place has been in Jerusalem for over a millennium and have owned this store space for 380+ years. They’re jewelers, all five brothers and one sister, and it’s a trade that’s been passed down for generations. You’ll see all of the siblings’ work in the store, all very different using different mediums. In addition to the items they make, they have an incredible selection of old jewelry, heirlooms that have been passed down for generations and then sold to them. These are one-of-a-kind pieces – incredibly unique – with some of the items featured in collector’s catalogues. In total, I think I spent about 6 hours in this store (I’m not kidding) and I didn’t regret one second. Their collection is unbelievable. Chain necklaces handcrafted in Bethlehem 450+ years ago, old headdresses worn by tribes, and cuffs so intricate that you can’t help but wonder how anyone would have the patience to craft these pieces by hand (many were made before having advanced tools). I was in awe.
Naturally, I had to buy a piece. Plus, the shopkeepers were the coolest, kindest guys – no pressure, just helping us and chatting with us about what brought us to Jerusalem. As you can imagine, after hours there, we learned a fair bit about each other. The family owns an olive grove north of Jerusalem producing thousands of liters of olive oil annually. They use about 150L of it personally. The rest they give to the poor, people who can’t afford to buy the oil on their own. As Yussef, one of the owners, said to me, we’ll never sell a drop of oil – we use it, and we give away anything we cannot use. What a concept, right? Honestly, conversations like this — chatting with people, hearing their stories and building genuine connections — remind me why I love to travel so much. Yes, part of it is about the sights and seeing the world, but a hefty part is about the people. Too often, people from foreign countries (especially non-Western countries) are thought of as ‘the other’. They’re different than us; they look different, they worship differently than us, and they speak different languages. I think one of the most important thing that traveling teaches us is that most of us are fundamentally the same. We want to live good, happy lives, want to give back in whatever way we can, and want to build something great for our kids and future generations. It’s true – the more you travel, the smaller the world gets.
I’m going to finish recapping our time in Israel after this post – there’s still so much more to share! – but thought I’d break it up with a different destination that perks everyone up just a bit: Paris. After saying our sad goodbyes to Israel and to Scott’s family, we arranged for an early morning wake up call (if you can even call 1:45AM ‘morning’) to have sufficient time to get to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Our flight was slated to depart at 6:10AM, with a connection in Rome, having us arrive in Paris at around 12:25PM. We were going to have an afternoon and evening in Paris, which we were looking forward to – it would break up the long trip back, plus give us an opportunity to experience the City of Lights together (we’ve been independently – you’ll remember my trip with my sister and dad back in 2010).
As luck would have it, El Al was looking to bump a few people from the flight to Rome and had a direct flight to Paris leaving at the same time. We gladly took them up on the proposed arrangement and napped our way to Paris, arriving over two hours ahead of planned time. Major score.
In March, we learned the art of the long layover (we spent a day in London on our way back from Nairobi), and this time, working in a 24 hour layover in Paris wasn’t by accident. Here’s one of the most important pieces of the layover puzzle: find the Left Luggage counter in your airport. We did this in London and we successfully did it again in Paris. For 34€, we were able to leave two 50 pound bags for up to 24 hours, which seemed like a deal to me (the rates vary depending on number of bags and length of layover). If you don’t have a hotel room for the night (e.g. your layover is more like 10 hours), then the Left Luggage counter is really non-negotiable. In our case, we had a hotel room arranged in Paris, but lugging two massive bags was unnecessary and would be cumbersome when negotiating public transport. For us, this was an easy decision and I think for most people, it’s a step that will make your layover much more pleasant. Pack your carry-on accordingly — we packed our toiletries, a change of clothes and other necessities in my rolling carry-on, and placed all other unnecessary items in our checked luggage.
This is based on personal preference and my travel style, but here’s a suggestion on the hotel front: If you have a mere 24 hours in a city, location trumps luxury. If I have $200 to spend on a hotel room, I’ll be picking a mid-range hotel with smaller rooms in a central location over a spacious luxury hotel set further away from the city’s hotspots. This is true for me almost all of the time anyway, but it’s even more critical when you only have a day to enjoy a city’s main sights. Plain and simple: you don’t have time to waste dealing with transportation. You’ll want to be able to head to your hotel (ideally with easy access to public transport), drop off your carry-on, quickly freshen up if need be, and then walk out to the city’s main highlights.
In Paris, we chose Hotel Saint Paul Rive Gauche in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district of the city (6th arrondissement). Scott and I had agreed beforehand that Saint Germain or the Latin Quarter were our preferences for a hotel, and Saint Paul Rive Gauche’s boutique quality, price point and location fit the bill. We took public transportation from Charles de Gaulle (RER B) all the way to Luxembourg station (9,50€ each), exited the station, and walked a short 5 minutes to our hotel. Armed with a map provided by the concierge, we hit the road, ready to explore on foot.
The weather was working in our favor, sunny with just enough crispness in the air to make the long day of walking comfortable. We wound our way through the Latin Quarter, where I tried to find the place that my sister, dad and I had eaten four years earlier. I remember being utterly enchanted with the Latin Quarter, telling myself that if I were to return to Paris, I would stay in this area (mission accomplished). I had been daydreaming of a perfect Parisian lunch, and meandering the streets, we stopped at Cafe Panis to get our fix. We only had a brief period of time in the city, so I was taking mental snapshots of the moments, and this was a perfect hour spent dining on a corner near Notre Dame. Nestled into a teensy tiny table with a glass of rose and a Croque Provencal, I switched off between chatting and people-watching through the window. There’s something about Paris that is so unequivocally picture perfect that even the most mundane day-to-day activities somehow seem entirely more glamorous.
Once we’d finished lunch, we began our walk along the river, taking in the sites, and making our way toward the Eiffel Tower. Though it had been over four years since my last visit, I was surprised by how much I remembered of different pockets of the city: an iconic fountain in the Latin Quarter, the way the gold on Les Invalides glistened, a book shop on a rather nondescript corner.
When I had visited last, the weather was terrible. It was cold, rainy and drab, yet the city still managed to look captivatingly beautiful. I remember standing in front of Notre Dame, umbrella over my head, wearing my dad’s jacket and literally shivering with the cold. This time around, with the sun shining, I was pretty confident that Paris, with its architecture, history and art, had to be one of the world’s prettiest cities.
We walked past bridges with love locks, which are soon to be banned due to the weight the locks are placing on the bridges. We walked by art vendors on the streets selling old maps, paintings, books, and sketches of Paris’ iconic vistas. Finally, like a beacon, we could see the tip of the Eiffel Tower poking through behind the buildings directly in front of us. We headed to the Palais de Challiot, the best place for the ultimate Eiffel Tower views, where we were going to meet up with the guide from City Wonders to make the most of our brief time in Paris.
I’ve said this time and time again – Scott and I are not tour people, but I wouldn’t really classify our time with City Wonders as a tour. It was the ultimate way to maximize our time in Paris and involved a VIP Eiffel Tower Tour + a Seine River Cruise. With a start time of 4:30PM (meeting with the group at 4:15PM), we’d be done by 7PM and get a glimpse of Paris’ iconic monuments from the sky and from the water.
Our guide, Randa, a US native, expertly led the tour, showing us the best spots for pics of the iconic tower, and giving us some interesting insight into the tower’s history (it was originally built in 1889 for the World Fair and was only supposed to be a temporary structure, standing for six months), plus a bit of Parisian history to accent the monuments. After having been on tours for the past week in Jerusalem, I found her commentary refreshing – interesting and engaging. We made it to the Eiffel Tower where our group was able to skip the line (this saved us about two hours), and jet straight to the second level where the views are jaw-droppingly beautiful. It provided us with an incredible layout of the city. We could see beyond the bounds of Paris itself, plus could see sites like Les Invalides, the Louvre, the Luxor Obelisk in the distance. The sun was beginning to set and the sky was turning pink behind the city skyline; totally beautiful and a reminder as to why Paris is always top of mind for romantic cities. We had been given our Seine River cruise tickets in advance, and the tour officially ended there, on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower. At that point we had the ability to go to the summit if we wanted (there’s a champagne bar there!) or to the first floor to walk along the glass and glimpse the views below. I was pleasantly surprised – the tour was enough to give us the info that we needed and to allow us to skip the line (I can’t even describe how incredible this part is), but wasn’t rigid. Ticket holders could stay as long as they wanted and explore any parts of the tower they desired.
We had tickets for a Seine River cruise as a part of this City Wonders tour, as well, but didn’t have to go as part of a group. The tickets were valid for any departure, with the last one leaving around 11PM. By 6PM, night had fallen, the Tower was lit up, and Paris was beginning to get cold at this point. We wanted to board a cruise as soon as possible to avoid the biting cold later in the evening. We arrived just in time to catch a 6PM cruise, leaving from the base of the tower. The night was chilly (bring a coat and scarf to stay warm!), but the city was stunning at night. The cruise is an hour-long tour, pointing out main sights along the Seine with a bit of commentary to make it more informative. At the back of the boat was a bar doling out snacks and beverages. Armed with a hot chocolate, we sat at the back of the boat, saying goodbye to a twinkling Eiffel Tower as we made our way down the river. On my last trip to Paris, I hadn’t seen the tower lit up at night and definitely didn’t get to see it twinkle at the turn of the hour. It’s magical.
Even without the tower, Paris is magical at night. The lighting in the city is just perfect; utterly romantic and picturesque. We made our way slowly down the river, passing glittering lights, and restaurants built into boats. After having seen the city from the second floor of the Eiffel Tower, we had a better idea of the Paris’ layout which made the river cruise an even better experience. We departed the cruise at 7PM, just in time to catch the Tower’s glittering encore as we hopped in a cab to make our way back to our hotel.
After having experienced the Eiffel Tower and Seine River Cruise tour, I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who has limited time in Paris, especially for first-timers that haven’t had a chance to see some of the main sights. Even if we didn’t have limited time in Paris, I would still have gone this route purely for the VIP Eiffel Tower entry. I don’t know about you, but spending two hours in line is one of the last things I want to do on vacation. During our last trip to Paris, we had opted out of going up because the lines were too daunting and would eat up too much time during our brief few days in the city. Getting to skip the wait made tour worth it in and of itself. The river cruise is a really fun add-on and a great way to see monuments and get a bit of historical insight in the span of an hour. Plus, it’s a great way of gaining a bit more perspective and a better understanding of the city’s layout. If you do have limited time in Paris, like we did this time around, this is an incredible way to add more depth to a brief experience.
For a brief 24 hours, we left feeling as though we’d confidently maximized our time in the city. We made it home by 7:30PM after our Seine River cruise. Tired after an early morning, ready for a good night’s sleep, and not wanting a heavy French dinner, we walked to a Vietnamese restaurant two blocks away, packed with Parisians, doling out piping hot pho. After a cold evening, it was the perfect way to warm up and to finish out our night in Paris. We fell asleep by 9PM, saying good night to Paris and goodbye to an incredible two-and-a-half weeks away.
xo from Paris,
Hebron, a city in the West Bank, is an interesting study of co-existence between Jews and Arabs, and is also the area in which the concept of settlements and the understanding of Israel’s role in the Palestinian Territories comes to life, perhaps more so than any other city.
Guided by Eliyahu McLean, one of the founders of Jerusalem Peacemakers, we visited Hebron on a dual narrative tour in search of a deeper understanding of life in the Occupied Territories. Our tour provided us with an incredibly unique perspective in that we were able to learn about Hebron, its living conditions and everyday life from both the Israeli and the Palestinian perspectives. As you will see, these are markedly different narratives.
Before I get into details and our experience on the tour, it’s worth understanding Hebron in more depth in order to really have a better idea of the city’s composition. It’s incredibly complex – and that’s saying something when we’re talking about an already astoundingly complex region. Hebron is home to 750,000 people and is a unique city within the West Bank in that it doesn’t fall under A, B, or C designations like the rest of the area. Instead, after the Hebron accords were struck at the Wye River, Hebron was given two desginations. Hebron is essentially divided into two parts, H1 and H2. H1 is controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and comprises about 80% of Hebron, while H2 is administered by Israel, accounting for the remaining 20%.
We had spent time in the West Bank before on two separate occasions, but entering Hebron felt entirely different from Ramallah, Jericho or even Bethlehem. There were far fewer tourists here; in fact, we saw just a handful of other small groups visiting. We were entering an area that was far from a tourist center despite the religious and historical draws to the city. As our guide, Eliyahu, explained, we were about to hear stories; personal narratives allowing us to understand the conflict from two different perspectives. Naturally, neither can be taken as fact as there are inherent biases, but after this tour I hoped that I would be better equipped to have some sort of stance; to have an opinion that I could legitimately justify.
We began our tour in H1 with our Palestinian guide, Mohammed, an ambitious 25-year-old born and bred in Hebron, splitting his time between Palestine and Dubai. He would spend the next three-plus hours guiding us through H1, sharing the highlights and introducing us to locals who would share their personal stories.
Hebron is perhaps most famously home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, the burial site for Abraham, making it a holy site to all three Abrahamic religions. The space was once solely a mosque, but has since been divided into two distinct spaces: a mosque and a synagogue, the only place in the world where a mosque and synagogue exist under the same roof. For 10 days a year, Muslims have full control of the holy space, and the same is done for Jews, allowing each to commemorate their holiest of holidays at the site. This was our first stop with Mohammed as we entered the Muslim side of the cave.
On the day we visited it was quiet, nearly empty but for a few people worshipping, facing Mecca. The inside of the mosque was beautiful and bright, though not ornate. In the back of the mosque sat a small glass-covered opening leading down into the cave where it is said the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried. Within the mosque are tombs – facades that represent where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca are buried. Mohammed briefly explained an infamous incident that took place in 1994 that was the impetus for discussions on Hebron’s status (H1 and H2 designations) and the division of the mosque and synagogue in this holy space. Jewish-American Baruch Goldstein, a member of the Kach movement, walked into the mosque and murdered 29 Palestinians worshipping inside, injuring over 100 others (read more here). I found it interesting that he explained the story without the emotion that I would think it would evoke (sadness, anger); rather, he made this reference as if this were a normal part of existence, another sad blemish on Arab-Jewish relations.
After exiting the mosque, we walked down to the main market which we’d heard was a fascinating, interesting and raw experience. It was all of that. We didn’t shop - we didn’t have time and there wasn’t anything particularly captivating in all honesty. It was clear that we were in a place that wasn’t touristed. We continued walking until we made our way to a shopkeeper that shared his story along with the story of the market itself. immediately above us was a metal netting that captured garbage; literal rubbish that was thrown from people into the market below. If the netting didn’t capture the garbage, heaping piles would accumulate in the streets below. We were told by the shopkeeper that the garbage was thrown by Jewish settlers and IDF forces. A competing story would have us believe that the garbage was thrown by other Palestinians. I can’t be sure which story is true but I do know that the garbage represented an incredibly thick layer of trash, piled up directly above us, a dreadful sight for tourists and an even more disheartening sight for those that would have to look at it on a daily basis. Whether it’s thrown with hatred, anger or a pure disregard for one’s surroundings, the result is a sad environment.
We left the shops and made our way to a family residence where we talked with a child in an affected family, a nine-year-old accompanied by his two-year-old brother. The boy explained his situation to us, being situated in a space where IDF forces overlook their home from above and below. His mother had a number of children, and the youngest child, a baby, was murdered by forces that entered their house.
One of our last stops on the Palestinian side was a home where we would enter and meet with a family residing in Hebron. We made our way down a quiet pathway until we entered a residential space where we were to have coffee and hear the personal story of someone highly affected by living in Hebron with IDF forces present. The man we sat with explained to us the realities of living as a Palestinian in Hebron. While Arabs make up the ethnic majority, he argued that the Jewish population with IDF forces made their strength known in the region. Curfews could be implemented and enforced by any one of the 2200 soldiers that resides in Hebron to guard the population of Jews. This man, in a home that many North Americans wouldn’t look twice at (location aside, it was a modest home), explained that he was offered $4M for his space. Anyone wanting to reside in Hebron cannot build – your option is to buy if you want to live in the area. He turned down the money because the home – the land – mattered more to him, had sentimental value and the notion of selling would simply be a dishonor to his family. Instead, he stayed, only to have his wife killed (shot in the head five times) and his son blinded after being burned. I couldn’t help but wonder: what price do you have to pay? Why not sell and move to a place where you family – your kids – have opportunities to live a normal and prosperous life?
We ended our time in H1 at another home, noshing on maqlub – hot, plump rice, chicken and veggies in a heaping pile – in a gorgeous courtyard. We said our goodbyes to Mohammed as we ventured to H2 to hear the Jewish perspective. Read More