Israel with Sheila Swerling-Puritt (August 11, 2008)
by Sheila Swerling-Puritt
I was fortunate enough to be a guest in Israel in 2006 and again in 2007, checking out their food, wine and tourism. It exceeded all my expectations! Most importantly, in contrast to the harsh images in the media, I felt safe and welcomed during my travels. More to the point, I was introduced to Israel's fabulous new dining and wining scene. The surprise due to my ignorance was that Israel isn't only the Middle East, but must definitely be considered the Mediterranean which is definitely reflected in their food and wine and hotel facilities.
Israel is a long narrow country that, if turned sideways, would fit along the north shore of Lake Ontario stretching from Toronto to Ottawa. Technically a part of Asia, the country stands at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. It's bounded on the west by the Mediterranean Sea, on the north by Lebanon and Syria, on the east by Jordan and on the south by the Red Sea and Egypt.
Despite Israel's preoccupation with security for its citizens and tourists, life goes on as usual. Most visitors to Israel arrive at Tel Aviv's beautiful Canadian-designed Ben Gurion International Airport. (If you fly in on the Sabbath sundown Friday to sundown Saturday the airport will be nearly empty.) According to information given to me by the Israeli Consulate, "Canadians traveling to Israel will need a Canadian passport which must be valid for six months beyond the date of return departure from Israel. No vaccinations or shots are called for and dress code for the most part is casual." Thanks to the signage in English on highways, you won't get lost.
North American visitors find Israel conveniently familiar. ATMs are everywhere. Public phones operate with calling cards on sale at hotels, post offices or newsstand throughout Israel. Unlike many tropical destinations we Canadians travel to, Israel's drinking water is safe, and so are fruits and vegetables washed in it. Voltage is 220 volts as in Europe. Most Israelis speak English. "The country's compact and varied geography, from Swiss-style conifers and waterfalls in the north to the desert in the south, can be sampled in complete comfort with all the amenities today's travelers expect and demand."
Israel is a culturally diverse place, a good thing for the country's cuisine. Its citizens hail from more than 80 countries, making their country a genuine culinary melting-pot. In fact, I was told that France's legendary Gault-Millau food critics consider Israel one of the world's major food destinations. "It is a culinary crossroads, where European, Middle Eastern and North African cuisines blend together, resulting in a diversity of original Mediterranean and ethnic-style foods."
Despite three thousand years of history, Jerusalem pulses with energy in the interplay of ancient and modern, holy and secular, earthly and spiritual. Your senses risk overload from the sun reflected off the golden dome, the church bells tolling, and the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer five times a day and I'm sure for many, their DNA kicks in when they hear the strolling klezmer bands.
Because the three monotheistic religions are interwoven in the fabric of Jerusalem, pilgrimage to the various holy sites in the city is a must: Jews to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, Muslims to the glorious mosques on top of Mount Moriah and Christians of all denominations to the many churches built upon the sites where Jesus walked as well as Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa and the Holy Sepulchre.
The new museum complex at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum, lets you know who Israelis are by showing where they came from and what they endured. Over 21,750 individuals have been recognized as "Righteous among the Nations" (those who helped saved Jews during the Holocaust) and more than 1 million people visit annually.
Art lovers can seek out Marc Chagall's tapestries at the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) and his famous stained-glass windows at the Synagogue at the Hadassah Medical Center.
Now on to food! Visit what many consider to be the best hummus and falafel restaurant in Israel. Abu Shukri is located across from the 5th station of the cross on the Via Dolorosa. Prices are rock bottom, but make sure you have cash (no credit cards taken here). Warm freshly baked pita, hummus and spicy falafel balls and tahini with an Arabic salad and a drink of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice all provide pure regional joy.
Tel Aviv, an hour's drive west of Jerusalem, is now regarded as more swinging than South Beach, Florida! The city is blessed with miles of sandy, golden beaches gently washed by the blue Mediterranean. With temperate weather in spring and autumn, hot dry days in summer (don't worry; there's air conditioning) and cooler winter temperatures with moderate rainfall alternating with fine, sunny days, there's no real bad season there.
Incorporating ancient Jaffa, from where Jonah set off for his close encounter with a hungry whale, Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 as "The White City." "UNESCO recognized it as a heritage site and its colonial legacy includes a large collection of Bauhaus-designed buildings designed by European-trained architects."
New York, Chicago, eat your heart out: who would have believed chefs in Tel Aviv could cook as well if not better in some cases? Without a doubt Mul Yam (translates as "facing the sea"), while expensive, was a highlight for me. Once I had tasted Chef Yoram Nitzan's delicious and innovative food, I knew I had to return to the restaurant owned by Shalom Mahrovsky. Yoram made ravioli out of thinly sliced scallops and filled them with baby shrimp and napped them with lobster veloute. His take on Eggs Benedict was pure heaven. The egg whites were whipped into clouds, as you would find on an Ile Flottant, and placed in a form; the yolk was then dropped into the center of the whites and cooked slowly. The towering egg was then placed on slices of Nova Scotia lobster atop a slice of brioche, and of course rich Hollandaise sauce was added. What divine decadence.
Chef Daniel Zach's restaurant Carmela Bistro is located a few steps from the Carmel shuk (market), allowing him to serve dishes that are based on daily offerings from the market. Carmela consists of a series of sun-drenched rooms in a renovated Ottoman mansion. Try the sea fish tartar with onion and tomato with yogurt sauce and fried seaweed or his stew of veal in a date honey sauce. Definitely make time to visit the market to buy fresh za'atar spice which you can purchase in Canada, but it's so much tastier purchased at the shuk. My treat from Daniel was to be introduced to the inner pits of the apricot for snacking, costly but absolutely delicious and oh so addictive.
Manta Ray, located on the Beach, is without a doubt a must. Unpretentious dishes like filleted grouper served on organic red rice with mango and chili butter are delicious, and the restaurant's view is good for the soul. Owner Ofra Ganor will welcome you like a long-lost friend. A definite favourite of mine for early morning breakfast, if only to watch the waves of the Mediterranean, wash up onto the beach.
"Located between Tel Aviv and Haifa, Caesarea started out life as a Roman coastal community. Today, Caesarea offers a wealth of interactive activities enabling you to experience life during the various eras." The displays are truly amazing. I have seen nothing to equal their interactive exhibit here in Canada.
Caesarea boasts not only Israel's first 18-hole golf course, but also art and craft galleries, where some of the most modern jewelry is crafted and sold. If you are there in the late afternoon you can watch the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea.
Reading an Israeli travel brochure, this quote caught my eye: "Ever since the hot springs at Tiberias became the focus of Israel's first spa resort 20 centuries ago, and the Dead Sea's curative waters were shipped by camel caravan across the Sinai Desert to Cleopatra's palace, Israel's been a spa hotbed." If floating on the salty Dead Sea is not for you, try the cozy European-style Relais & Chateau Mizpe Ha Yamim Spa at Rosh Pina, situated on the slopes of Mount Cana'an. Overlooking the Sea of Galilee with the Golan Heights in the distance, the area is made up of fragrant gardens, fruit orchards, and an organic farm which supplies the hotel restaurants. You can walk or have a sauna, play tennis, swim, drink Israel's best wines accompanied by gastronomic dinners or perhaps just bird watch.
There is a saying: "Next Year in Jerusalem" ...but I don't plan to wait that long!
Tour Guides in Israel
The following contacts I found to be absolutely professional, knowledgeable and, even more importantly, delightful traveling companions.
If food and wine is your interest, Eldad Levy, wine editor of Al Hashulchan, a gastronomic monthly magazine, is the man to plan your gastronomic tour of Israel.
972 52 530508, Eldad11@isdn.net.il or www.fat-guy-net/30924/tours
If you're interested in history, archeology and architecture, then Mrs. Paule Rakower is an Israeli gift for you.
972 3 5464917, email@example.com,
In the North American travel industry, after numerous trips to Israel, Brian Stein is one of the very best travel agents to plan your trip. K Walsh & Associates, 1 800 467 6209, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mul-Yam, Hanger 25, Port of Tel-Aviv 63501
972 3 5469920, www.mulyam.com or email@example.com
Carmela Bistro 46 Hatavor St.
972 3 5161417, firstname.lastname@example.org
Manta Ray, Alma Beach
972 3 5174773 www.mantaray.co.il
Abu Shukri, 63 Al Wad Rd. (near Damascus Gate), Jerusalem
972 2 6271538
Mizpe Hayamim Reservations 04 69994555
922 4 6268823, www.caesarea.org.il