ISRAEL

UPDATE: Around Christmas 2018, I visited Israel again. Combined with day trips to Taba in Egypt and Petra in Jordan. Read more near the bottom of this page.

Finally, a place I always hoped to visit but never thought I would. Throughout my youth, I had heard nearly zero good things about Israel and the whole Eastern Mediterranean region. Needless to say, the news is not a good source to base your world view on. So I chose to always go and see a place before making any broad generalizations and clinging to my prejudice. I found the time to fly to Tel Aviv on a Thursday. The return flight would be on Sunday. The return ticket was 100 Euros with WizzAir. Then as I arrived, I took a shuttle bus to Jerusalem for about 20 Euros. About an hour later I arrived there. Directly I walked into the city, along the light rail. I sat down for a coffee and enjoyed the people-watching. I saw soldiers eating ice cream, children playing and office workers riding electric bikes. Very calm and enjoyable to watch. I wish the media would show this side of Israel as well. I got to the Jaffa Gate and visited a tourist center. Asking some general questions, the lady said 'Thank you for being in Israel'. There were public toilets at the most convenient places. Drinking water all over the city (and the rest of the country, as it turned out). People were friendly all over the place. It's an incredible city, where cultures and religions met for thousands of years. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was one of the most intriguing places I've seen, especially knowing the history and sensing the energetic vibe the place has. 

It's convenient that there are buses to Jerusalem every few minutes. They're quite affordable and leave once full. An excellent way to travel. It's just over an hour between the two cities. An excellent guide on traveling by bus is on this Wikitravel page.

I stayed in Roger's House Hostel in Tel Aviv, which was filthy, with cockroaches and dead insects in the bed when I checked in. I suggest you don't stay there because it was close to a health hazard. The place has some good reviews but don't be misled. Roger's House Hostel should be closed down for as far as I could see, being a fire hazard with barred windows as well. Not to mention the moldy smell and pidgins under the roof and squeaky doors that will keep you from your sleep. Most people giving this place a good rating have probably not stayed in other hostels, as most in Europe are actually pretty decent. Better spend twice the money and get a place that's actually clean, which is the most important. Tel Aviv is a big city with plenty to do. Most action is around the boulevard, on the coast, so obviously that's where the hotels are more expensive and so are the restaurants. Yet I found the beaches to be quite affordable, with just a few Euros for sunbed, an umbrella and other such equipment. It's incredibly gay-friendly and there's even a gay beach. I guess that would be a good place to go on Saturdays, as the other days it seemed to be visited by families mostly. To conclude, it's one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world and definitely the most gay-friendly in the Middle East. Some of the places to eat and have drinks on the beach are pretty good and it might be worth it to spend the money for the experience. Tel Aviv is expensive either way and unless you're fine with eating falafels or do groceries at a market, be prepared to spend a lot to visit this city. And even more if you want to go out and drink alcohol. That doesn't mean no deals are to be found, these will however take some research, of, for example happy hour and combinations with meals.
 

On Tourist Israel I booked the Masada Sunrise, Ein Gedi & Dead Sea tour. Well worth its money (69EUR at the time, excluding about 7EUR entrance at both Masada & Ein Gedi). We left Tel Aviv at 2:00 AM, to arrive at the foot of Masada at 4:30. We then climbed up to see the sun come up over Jordan and the Dead Sea. Then Ein Gedi, the oasis with some fine waterfalls. The Dead Sea was an interesting experience as well. I had always wondered what it'd be like to float on the water. It really is the way you imagine it to be, it's even hard to get your legs down in the water once you float. Applying some of the mud and letting it do its work is apparently also good for the skin, but never put it on the face because it will react strongly resulting in a bad skin reaction for most. I got some of the salt water in my face and it caused my sun screen to get into my eyes, so the fun was over sooner rather than later. Nonetheless a unique experience that I wouldn't have wanted to miss. I then enjoyed a coffee overlooking the Dead Sea and the gorgeous desert mountains.

I haven't felt unsafe in Israel for even a moment. As is often said, there's no good moment to visit Israel. Only a less bad moment. So it's worth it going if you want to, there's no cause for concern if you follow the latest news. You can always get caught up in something but that's a risk I was willing to take. It turned out fine and just know the odds are very largely on your side. Your visit will most likely be trouble free. Unless you have stamps in your passport of some Arab countries, then be prepared to get questioned at the airport for hours. My border crossing was fine, I did get some questions about why I visited Turkey but with some quick and neutral answers, the crossing was no hassle. If you're concerned about how, for example, your appearance, country of origin and stamps in your passport may be perceived, do some further research and surely arrive about 4 hours before your flight leaves Israel.

Enjoy this country, it can offer a lot!

UPDATE: Around Christmas 2018, I visited Israel again. Combined with day trips to Taba in Egypt and Petra in Jordan. Read more near the bottom of this page.

JERUSALEM

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TEL AVIV

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SUNRISE AT MASADA FORTRESS

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EIN GEDI OASIS

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This part is about Eilat, with day trips to Taba in Egypt and Petra in Jordan

Getting to Eilat and where to stay

At the end of 2018, I wanted to find some sun as it was quite cold in Bulgaria. Fortunately, there's always some sunny destinations within close reach. I found a Wizzair flight from Sofia to Eilat Ovda, for 10EUR one way. I booked two ways. Ovda airport is about an hour from the city by bus. Although Eilat itself has a very centrally located airport in the middle of the city, Wizzair doesn't fly there. The Eilat airport itself is so central that planes fly right over the beach at a quite low altitude. The hour bus ride from EIlat Ovda airport is quite pleasant, through the Negev desert. It's bus 282 of Egged, Israel's bus company. It brought me right to the central bus station, and after about a minite walking I got to my hotel. I stayed at Motel Aviv, which I quite liked. Excellent, basic but very clean rooms. Showers with unlimited hot water and a small pool. Coffee and tea at the reception, included in the price. A water filter to fill bottles. Cookies at breakfast time. Nothing more I could wish for, for about 50EUR a night. About a fifteen minute walk to the sea.


What a cool town. Israel's southernmost point, Eilat, is absolutely worth a visit. Even in winter, although it was quite chilly in the evenings and nights. In summer I'd like to see it as well, it's probably packed with some good parties but the prices are a lot higher. In winter, I found it quite manageable. Israel is known for being on the higher end of prices but you do get something in return - excellent food and good service. I had dinner at several restaurants in town which I all loved. Breakfast at the beach for just over 10EUR, with a fresh orange juice and a large cappuccino. It might seem expensive but if you look around a bit, it's quite alright - although never cheap. Especially alcohol is expensive, keep that in mind. I've had plenty to do in Eilat. Went to Mosh Beach, which was great, especially because it was quiet. Visited the Underwater Observatory and then went to the Egypt border. This is all done with bus 15, leaving from the central bus station or various other places in Eilat.

Day trip to Taba in Egypt

After getting off bus 15, I crossed the border on foot. If you want to cross into Egypt, bring a pen because you'll have to fill out a paper with some details about your stay. The few pens the officers have at hand tend to be in use by other travelers filling out the forms.

 

I paid the exit tax for Israel, which is applicable for overland borders. No visa for Egypt as long as you stay within a certain zone. It's possible not to pay the exit tax for Israel if you visit the casino in Taba, in the Taba Hotel and Nelson Village. You'll need a stamp from the casino on the receipt of your exit tax, and once you return to Israel, ask for the manager of the Israeli border post to kindly claim the amount back. It was about 25EUR in December 2018 and as I didn't visit the casino, I just paid it. After the smooth border crossing, I walked right to the Taba Hotel and Nelson Village. I didn't visit the casino but made a deal to use the beach for the afternoon, for 35USD. I got a sort of private cabin at the beach, with a towel and a box with chilled drinks and cups. Some cut melon as well. The guys working at the hotel were incredibly friendly and hospitable. I was one of the few guests, it seemed. The hotel was part of Hilton earlier and it was popular with Israeli tourists. It got targeted in a terrorist attack in 2004, Thirty-four people died and hundreds were wounded. The hotel lost much of its tourist flow and in 2017, was purchased by Deutsche Hospitality and re-opened as part of the Steigenberger Hotels and Resorts - the Taba Hotel & Nelson Village.

I found it a very pleasant stay and although there is little reason to spend 25EUR on an Israeli exit tax, 35USD for beach use and seeing nothing of Egypt while there, for me it was cool. I liked chatting with the people as they were all Egyptians. I bought some souvenirs and had a few beers. The people were happy having me as a guest. It was just a first time in Egypt and I'm tempted to come back for more. Please note that the Taba border crossing has been targeted at other times as well and there's a risk of terrorist attacks occurring again. Check your country's ministry of foreign affairs before traveling and read the advice for all places you'll visit. This counts for other countries as well - including Israel and Jordan. If there's no information available, feel free to check the US or UK government advices. I hope for stability to return to Egypt as it's a wonderful country deserving the best.

The Red Canyon

Back in Israel, I had another day. I spent it at the beach and decided to visit the Red Canyon a bit later in the afternoon. It was bus 392, about a twenty-five minute ride. Do tell the driver you'll get off at the Red Canyon because the intercity bus (to Beer Sheva  I believe) will otherwise drive past. You'll be dropped on the side of the road and will have to walk for about twenty minutes down the sandy path, to the car parking. From there, the Red Canyon can be reached with two trails. The upper and lower one. I took the lower one as I'm a little afraid of heights. On the way back I took the upper path instead of walking the same way back and I wouldn't say it's safe. You can hold yourself sufficiently but if you fall you'll be in big trouble. If it's busy, the canyon might be too full to go. Always check the weather before you go because the canyon is at risk of flash floods. This can happen without prior notice. The canyon was absolutely stunning. I walked back out but there was no bus coming back. I hadn't looked up the schedule, which was a bit naive. I decided to hittchike and this being the Middle East, cars don't just stop for you. It's a dynamic area to say the least and people are careful. After at least thirty cars passing, it got dark and I just had the light on my phone to wave at cars. One couple stopped and drove me to Eilat safely, for which I'll be forever thankful. An excellent trip for a part of the day, but best not do it too late in the afternoon.

Petra in Jordan

With Tourist Israel, I booked the day tour to Petra. I was picked up at the hotel in Eilat. The stay at the border was quite long, as everyone had to pay their exit tax for Israel and visa for Jordan. Then it's over 2 hours inside Jordan to get to Petra. An interesting drive through the desert with a stop with a fantastic, wide view inbetween. When we got to Petra, I felt we had just a very short time to see a limited amount of sights. Then there were some issues with the payment of other travelers and we spent 2 hours extra at the restaurant, which regretfully we could have spent enjoying Petra. All in all I found the day trip to be a bit hurried but I don't regret it, as it was absolutely stunning. I chose to be dropped off in Aqaba, where I stayed in the Crystal Hotel. For the price I paid, it was quite alright. Clean and comfortable but a very weak stream of water from the shower. Nothing to complain though, staff was fantastically friendly too. A great view from the roof terrace. The next day I did some more shopping, gotr the outlines of my beard shaven at a barber and got some tea. Then took a taxi to the airport and flew back to Sofia with Ryanair, again for 10EUR. An awesome trip that I can highly recommend anyone.

 

EILAT, UNDERWATER OBSERVATORY AND RED CANYON

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DAY TRIP FROM EILAT TO TABA IN EGYPT

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PETRA AND AQABA IN JORDAN

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