We arrived in Athens from Amman at 5:30 AM. We had about a 12 hour layover and tried to sleep for a bit at the airport before heading into the city. We didn’t get much sleep and ended up leaving the airport around 9 AM. We found a place to put our luggage in lockers in the city and went walking around by the Acropolis. We went by the Parliament building and took a picture with the guards. We saw a lot of people dressed in running gear and found out that the Athens marathon, 5k and 10k race was going on. This is one of the races I’ve actually always dreamed of racing. Going back to the origins of the race and running in the beautiful Greek countryside. We walked through the royal gardens to the Panathenaic Stadium where the finish line for the race was. We grabbed some free bananas and walked around the stadium. The Greek national team that was in Rio entered the stadium with the Olympic flag and you had a nice view of the Acropolis in the background. Next we walked to Smile Café to get some food. We got gyros and a salad and at first the gyro tasted really good but as we ate, we realized that we were just hungry and the food wasn’t that good. After, we went to Acropolis Hill to get some nice views of the Acropolis and the Parthenon. We were pretty exhausted having not slept so we decided to just go back to the airport until our flight at 5:40 PM. We got into Tel Aviv around 7PM, took a train to our Airbnb, then went to bed because we had to get up early for our tour tomorrow.
We didn’t do ourselves any favors after a full day of traveling the day before, but we only had two days in Israel so we had busy days. We booked a tour starting at 6:30 AM that left from the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel which was about a 15 minute drive from our place. The first part of the tour was in a regular van that fit about 12 people in it. The ride was pretty comfortable and we had our own seats toward the front. The first stop of the tour was Jericho. It really wasn’t worth it but it is supposedly the world’s oldest city which has some cache to it.
The second stop was a private beach along the Dead Sea which was one of the highlights of the day. The Dead Sea is a salt lake bordered by Jordan to the east and Israel and Palestine to the west. Its surface and shores are Earth's lowest elevation on land (1,412 ft below sea level). The Dead Sea is almost 10 times as salty as the ocean, and one of the world's saltiest bodies of water. This salinity makes for a harsh environment in which plants and animals cannot flourish, hence its name. However, the high concentration of salt also made it one of the world's first health resorts (for Herod the Great). People use the salt and the minerals from the Dead Sea to create cosmetics and herbal sachets. Recently, the Dead Sea has been receding at an alarming rate. Multiple canals and pipelines were proposed to reduce its recession, which had begun causing many problems. The Red Sea–Dead Sea Water Conveyance project, carried out by Jordan, will provide water to neighboring countries, while the brine will be carried to the Dead Sea to help stabilize its levels.
For our time at the Dead Sea, we had the entire beach to ourselves for about 45 minutes. Our tour group got in the water and took some great pictures and videos. It was a lot cooler than I thought it would be to float around. It felt like what I imagine zero gravity feels like. We were warned not to put our heads under water or get any in our mouth. But in a tragic turn of events, Diem got water in my mouth and nose while she was trying to get balanced and it was really horrible for me. I tried to stay in the water but had to rush out to the fresh water showers to flush out the sea water. Still, it was fun to float in the water and we scrubbed some of the clay mud along the shore on us to exfoliate. We met some cool Kiwis who were part of our tour and live in London. The rest of the group was pretty cool as well.
Next, our small little tour group met up with a larger group and we got on a big bus with uncomfortable seats for the remainder of the day. Our next stop was Bethlehem to have lunch and visit the Church of Nativity. We had lunch in Bethlehem at a buffet restaurant which was pretty good but a little expensive. After lunch we stopped for 20 minutes at a souvenir shop which we could have skipped but I guess the tour operators have a deal with the shop so we had to stay there. The line at the Church of Nativity was really long and went really slowly. The church was originally commissioned in 327 by Constantine the Great and his mother Helena over the site that was traditionally considered to be located over the cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus. The Church houses a fourteen-point silver star beneath the altar in the Grotto of the Nativity that marks the traditional spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. After a long wait, we finally got to see the star and altar and then made our way back outside. The Church is currently undergoing major renovations so the interior wasn’t much to look at with all the construction taking place.
The last stop on our tour was Jerusalem. We were running 3 hours late so we didn’t get to Jerusalem until around 5 PM and it was dark out. The tour guide said it was probably better because the city is pretty at night being all lit up and there are less people. I probably agree with him, it was really nice to see the city at night but the one issue was that our pictures of the city probably weren’t as nice as they could have been. Jerusalem has long been the center of religious conflict in the region. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faiths believe Jerusalem to be a sacred city. We started our tour at the Jaffa Gate and made our way through all 4 quarters of Jerusalem (Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian) with the highlights being the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Golden Dome, and the Wailing Wall. It really is a beautiful city to explore at night. We were lucky that it wasn’t too crowded. We never felt unsafe walking through the city and went through extra security as we approached the Wailing Wall (Western Wall). We finished the tour after taking some time at the Wailing Wall and made our way back to Tel Aviv around 7 PM. We wish we could have spent more time in Jerusalem to explore the city during the day and get to know more of the different quarters. It was a really long day and we didn’t get back to our Airbnb till after 10 PM.
On our only full day in Tel Aviv I woke up and went for a run along the beach. The beach area is really beautiful and there is a long walkway parallel to the sand that was perfect for bikers and joggers. We got lunch near our Airbnb and then went to the Camel Market. The market was nice but didn’t have that much food and wasn’t really what we were expecting. It was mostly small stands that sold homemade trinkets as souvenirs. After the Camel Market we did the Sandeman’s walking tour around Old Jaffa (Old Town) Tel Aviv. We started at the Clock Tower and made our way around different sites in Old Jaffa like the Jaffa Lighthouse, the Port of Jaffa, St. Peter’s Church, and the Old Seraya. The tour wasn’t that great, the guide told us some stories but feel like I didn’t learn that much about old town. After the tour, we got some shawarma for dinner then packed for our early flight the next day.
Overall, I think our time in Israel was a little too short. We really would have liked to spend some more time in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We would have also liked to visit the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth. Even though we’re not the most religious people, Diem and I were both raised Catholic and it was cool to see some of the important historical and religious sites. We would definitely like to do another trip back to the area.