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Spine-tingling moments on a tour of the Holy Land
THREE brief moments on a whistle-stop tour of the Holy Land were enough to send a shiver down any traveller’s spine.
Standing in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is said to have prayed with his disciples the night before he was arrested.
Filing through the Children’s Memorial, at Yad Veshem, the candelit monument to the million-and-a-half young victims of the Holocaust.
And the densely-packed melting pot which is Jerusalem’s Old City, revered by so many of the world’s major religions and its pilgrims, a mind-numbing malestrom of belief and bloody-mindedness.
Little wonder that Easyjet, which has just launched a Manchester to Tel Aviv service, and the Israeli tourist board, are keen to foster a fresh perspective on this famed locale, away from Middle Eastern politics.
Look left, it’s the Western Wall, City of David, the Mount of Olives is on the horizon and the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s most sacred sites, where the Prophet ascended to heaven, looms overhead.
Outside the historical cavalcade though, it’s easy to lose sight of Jerusalem’s flipside, home to countless five star hotels, including the Leonardo Plaza which we called home, several modern restaurants good enough to put any European capital to shame and markets and bazaars too many to mention.
If my Russian was any better, I would have asked our fellow hotel guests, the Belarus national football team, who stopped with us on Prince George Street before beating their hosts 2-1 in the city's Teddy Stadium, if they agreed.
The pick of the bunch cuisine-wise, on a show of hands, was the Ha’chatzer, an unassuming Mediterrnean eaterie, a stone’s throw from Mount Zion, where we began with a superb mixed mezze followed by a buffet-style meat and fish courses featuring some sublime sea bass in coconut milk and lemongrass, filets mignon and red tuna sashimi witth chili and ginger, among a table packed with delights.
And if you can make kosher vanilla ice cream as creamy as Mrs Dowson’s, using just date oil and raw talent, I’m converted.
Just a word on the vino too – with around 30 wineries the often-overlooked Israeli reds are worthy of mention. Our travels took us to the Castel vineyard, in the Judean mountains, founded by Eli Ben Zaken, and he’s winning friends across Europe and the US with his cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec blends.
Wherever I’ve pitched up, venturing off the beaten track has always been a mission of mine, but fortunately we had a seasoned guide, Moshe Henzel, to help our understanding of this sprawling city.
How else would we have ended up at Yad Veshem, the Holocaust museum, instead of touring an art colony as planned? Or been taken to the Forest of the Martyrs, home to the Scroll of Fire monument, a circular history of the Jewish people.
The museum, and its various memorials, will live long in the memory, especially the Hall of Names, a living library of the victims, surrounded by an illuminated gallery of those who were murdered or left to die.
One of our party discovered records concerning her paternal grandfather from Vienna, who perished at the hands of the Nazis and it was a privilege to share that experience with her.
Once we recovered our collective spirits, and were handed commemorative pins by our guide Moshe, it was time to move on.
No-one was more surprised than me later, when we toured the Museum of the Seam, a gallery converted from an old army outpost on the former Israeli-Jordanian border, complete with bullet-holes in the façade.
Not the largest arthouse in the eastern or western world but their exhibition Beyond Memory, culled from video installations, soap sculptures and soundscapes emerged as a refreshing counterpoint to the ancient ambiance of its surroundings.