Mediterranean Odyssey: Israel
The next port was Ashdod to visit Jerusalem and other ancient sites in the land that is holy to three of the world's oldest religions.
First off, we'd have to get through Israeli security and even the captain of our ship appeared obliged to announce that they had no control over how long this would take. The cruise ship staff had liaised with shore side border control to issue all passengers who wished to go ashore with day permits prior to our arrival in Ashdod but this was no guarantee that our planned trips would go ahead.
In the end it was much simpler than it sounded and passengers were ushered into one of the ship's lounges to be 'optically identified' by border officials from that country – scary as it sounded, it simply meant they wanted to see each and every one of us and hand us our visas in person.
Before arriving in Ashdod, we had seen a video presentation of the excursions available; once again there was no scope for going ashore independently. Unfortunately, all the information seemed to suggest that I would not be able to participate in the visit to Jerusalem and what seemed to be a two hour route march over cobbled streets through the city – the tour was recommended as being for the 'more active' passengers only. The alternative excursion to Jerusalem appeared to consist of sitting all day on a coach, with only a few 'photo-stops' throughout the day. That didn't appeal to us at all.
Reluctantly, I had to agree with my husband that the options available for me probably wouldn't work and we went down to the customer services desk a few days prior to our Israel visit to see if they could suggest an alternative.
Masada and the Dead Sea, we were told, would easier under foot as the coach and the cable car took visitors very close to the site and walkways provided a flatter surface for the less mobile visitors.
Masada is perched high on a plateau above the Dead Sea and the western Judean desert and, according to the 1st century Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, was the scene of a mass suicide by its Jewish populace under Roman rule around 73-74 AD in protest of their oppression by the Roman Empire. Our Israeli guide told the story as we followed him around the historic site, which had steep steps and no handrails.
Built by previous rulers, Herod the Great occupied the fortress around 31-35 BCE following a power struggle. The stronghold which consisted of at least one palace, storerooms and barracks, was used as a Roman garrison in the early part of 1st century AD/CE and witnessed a great siege in 73 AD/CE when Israeli rebels occupied the fortress during a series of Roman-Jewish wars at that time. A huge siege ramp was constructed by Roman troops in a bid to destroy Jewish resistance to their rule but upon entering the stronghold it was found that almost all the citizens had committed suicide or killed each other. Josephus reports that there were only seven survivors (five children and two women) and that 960 people died there but recent archaeological evidence suggests that there were fewer than 30 victims.
Israeli schoolchildren are encouraged to visit Masada to help them understand the history of their people. The challenge of scaling the cliffs that can soar over 1000ft at Masada and exploring the scorching wilderness that surrounds the ancient settlement is a regular ambition for college age students, we were told.
The cliffs at Masada are actually at sea level in comparison with the Mediterranean Sea, but the Dead Sea is one of the lowest points on Earth and lies well below sea level, giving the appearance of cliffs and is the reason why the Dead Sea is six times saltier than the Med.
Breathtaking is a word that comes to mind – in more ways than one. The Biblical landscape and the blistering heat of Masada and the area surrounding the Dead Sea was awesome and exhausting all at the same time. People with walking difficulties were advised to take a less challenging descent down a slope to meet up later while the tour continued. Several of our party used walking sticks and took the opportunity to do just that. Due to my visual impairment, I had found some of the tour quite difficult, so I joined them.
Back on the cable car and the bus we headed for lunch at the David Hotel
on the shores of the Dead Sea. The beautiful, modern hotel led out to a swimming pool and then directly out on to the shores of the Dead Sea.
Suffice it to say, it was one of those 'must do' experiences and the rest of our coach party were no slouches when it came to dipping their toes in the water. As it is so salty, it is virtually impossible to swim in the Dead Sea, the buoyancy of the salt rich water means that you simply float everywhere and it is very hard to put your feet back down once they've left the sandy seabed.
Have you ever been inspired by a schoolteacher? Way back in the 1960s, one of my primary school teachers brought some of her holiday slides into school and, with the aid of a projector, she showed us some pictures of her holiday in this beautiful sunny place. One showed her husband sitting upright, bobbing about in the Dead Sea while reading a newspaper. As a class of eight or nine year-olds, we all laughed at how much fun this looked. From that time onwards I'd wanted to go there.
It was just as I'd imagined. Lots of giggles ensued as people bobbed around and posed for silly pictures as we all tried to get to grips with strange sensation.
Due to the heat we were warned not to stay in the sea too long, about 20 minutes was the advice and there was an outdoor shower near the hotel pool to rinse off once you had finished your dip. Changing rooms around the pool area were also available.
A final visit to a gift shop enticed us to spend the remainder of our shekels before boarding the coach for the two hour journey back to the boat. The guide provided more information about Israeli agriculture while we observed camels grazing in a field by the motorway on our way to Ashdod.
So, I didn't get to see Jerusalem, but despite my disappointment, it turned out to be a really nice day and another experience chalked up.
The next day we reached Limassol, Cyprus and it was time to fly home.
This was our first cruise and it was an amazing adventure across six countries with the journey between them plain sailing – most of the way although it was pretty exhausting at times. Would I do another one? Absolutely, but not sure my seafarer husband could be persuaded – at least not until he retires.
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