For travellers, there is a heaven – and its name is Israel. It’s the laziest cliché in the travel-writing book to describe a place as a country of contrasts. Usually this means that – hold the front page! – a country’s got both a beach and a city.
And sometimes these weak words become weasel words, as when used about Brazil, the country with the largest gap between richest and poorest in the world. In this case, ‘a country of contrasts’ comes down to the fact that some people pick their teeth with golden gewgaws while round the corner, families literally live on, and from, rubbish heaps.
So I hope that you’ll forgive me when I use this creaking phrase about Israel – but how much more of a contrast could there be than spending a morning crying one’s heart out at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, and an afternoon sitting by the pool of a five-star hotel on the Dead Sea, sunbathing with neither fear nor sunscreen. Because, get this, the altitude is the lowest in the world, meaning that all those pesky little UA and UV rays that tend to cause skin cancer are zapped by all those extra layers of ozone.
The next day you’re in Tel Aviv, reeling at the sheer barefaced beauty of the Bauhaus buildings. And in Israel you can do all this without once feeling like a shallow, surface-skimming tourist, because this country sees the darkness of the past and the sunshine of the present as two sides of the same coin. ‘Yes, we’ve suffered – all the more reason to enjoy,’ is the overall impression you come away with.
Of course, you can get a combo of history, culture and cocktails in many countries. But they aren’t the size of Wales. Try and ‘do’ Italy in a week and you’ll end up bewitched, but also bothered and bewildered, which is why most visitors stay in one region; the same goes for France.
But in seven nights, my friend Nadia and I stayed in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Eilat and Tel Aviv. And though we came back determined to return ASAP, and well aware that there was so much more to see, in no way did we feel exhausted or short-changed.
I must stress at this point that Nadia and I are card-carrying philistines as far as holidays go; before Israel, our idea of fun in the sun was to roast from nine till five before staggering out in unsuitable shoes to dance unbecomingly to Euro-pop and swill blue cocktails.
Yet in Israel, we found ourselves crying at buildings, exclaiming over paintings and cooing over ruins.
It started in Jerusalem. Go out on to the balcony of David’s Citadel hotel and – well, ‘It’s not Kansas any more, is it, Toto?’ Nor is it the usual five-star view of sand, sea and ennui – instead, where normally a manicured lawn would lead down to a becalmed coast, are the real, actual walls of the Old City, complete with Jaffa Gate. Go to sleep, wake up and try to rub the dream from your eyes – and there it is again, in the broad daylight that begins in Israel at 5am sharp.
After breakfast, inside the living city that just happens to be straight out of the Bible, you get your first experience of Israeli decency. According to received wisdom, these are a para-fascist people crushing all before them; how odd, then, that Old Jerusalem is a model of pluralism, with its Christian and Muslim quarters, churches and mosques gleaming free.
Beauty Without Cruelty: it was the name of an English cosmetics company, the first not to test their wares on animals, but it seems so much to describe the attitude of Jewish culture towards others. If only the opposite were true; next morning, bright and early, Nadia and I were taken to Yad Vashem – the huge and, it must be said, beautiful memorial to the genocide of the European Jews in the first half of the 20th century.
I won’t try to describe it here. Enough to say that these empty-headed Englishers arrived at 9am and didn’t feel able to leave until 1pm. Our unimpeachable Israeli guide, the beautiful and brilliant Ms Ora Schlesinger, spoke to us softly after about three hours: “Julie, Nadia. I hate to have to say this. But we must go soon.”
We were uncontrollable in our grief; every time we thought we could move on, one of us would utter a cry of anguish and dart back into the darkness of the halls. When we eventually emerged, though, we felt calm and ready for anything. Come on, Israel – let’s do it! We were driven to the Dead Sea resort of Ein Bokek; I fooled around in the water, and it was just the most fun you could have outside zero gravity. Bobbing about, I felt a cheap metaphor coming on; against all odds, Israel stays buoyant. Nadia asked me if I didn’t want to go with her to have mud thrown at me in a luxury spa. “No, thanks,” I answered smartly, “I can get that at home!” Then next day, an hour’s drive to the Vegas of the Promised Land, the Cannes of Canaan – Eilat.
The Sheraton Herod’s Palace and Spa hotel in Eilat had a very amusing triptych of art in the rooms. I don’t know if they were meant to be sarky – probably not, as Israelis, unlike English, tend to be too straightforward for a sneaky thing like sarcasm – but my nasty mind took them that way. The first two show obviously Arab figures sitting around in a barren landscape, smoking hookahs, arguing, generally dossing about and wasting their lives.
In the third, the glorious white edifice of the hotel has fully risen from the parched landscape, and one robed figure is looking up at it. You can’t see his face, but you just know what he’s thinking: ‘Them Jews! – they’ve done it again!’ Meanwhile Nadia was downstairs having something called a hot stone treatment at the Herod Vitalis spa. She said it was the best thing she’d ever experienced physically without having to send her clothes to the dry-cleaners afterwards.
I’ve stayed at five-star hotels from Mauritius to Torquay, but this one really made me wish that ratings went up to six. (Oh, and I’ve stayed at the allegedly ‘seven-star’ Burj al Arab in Dubai too.) There are lots of lies told about Israel – some of them deliberate, others are mere misunderstandings.
‘It’s far away’ – no, it’s four hours by plane. ‘It’s dangerous’ – I’ve felt more physically threatened on Brighton sea front on a school night. ‘It’s expensive’ – a pair of this season’s Dolce & Gabanna sunglasses, for £27 rather than their usual £100-plus, would beg to differ.
If you want to believe them, go ahead, ignore Israel, and keep trotting back to the same old destinations you’ve visited a score of times. But you’ll be missing out on culture that makes Venice look like Milton Keynes, and weather that makes Tenerife look like Leeds – we were there in October, the first month of Israel’s brief winter, and in north and south the weather stayed in the eighties (high twenties), with never a cloudy day.
And you’ll be missing a people whose sheer beauty makes Catherine Zeta-Jones and Johnny Depp look like Dawn French and Stephen Fry. Oh, and you’ll be missing out on supporting, in some small way, a dazzling, good-hearted country surrounded by barren theocracies who’d rather it had never existed.
“You’re English, aren’t you? You’re a good people!” an Israeli said to me; despite the great wrongs done by this country to theirs leading up to the birth of their country, these people choose to remember the kindness over the cruelty, whenever possible.
“I would like to welcome British people to Israel – to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv and all our beautiful country,” said Israeli tourism minister, Gideon Ezra, recently.
While from any other politician it might have been dismissed as mere patter, with Israel it comes from the heart. Well, they’ve got me – after my honeymoon in Antigua next month, I can’t imagine ever wanting to go anywhere else.
The Jews say that there is no heaven – but on this occasion, I would beg to differ with this splendid people.
Because from what I’ve seen, albeit in the short space of a week, there is a heaven. And its name is Israel.
(Originally appeared in the Times of London)