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Travel

Extraordinary Israel

At the heart of world-changing events for more than two millennia, the spellbinding atmosphere of the Holy Land enthrals Clive Nicholls 

As the sun rises over the Mount of Olives, the first rays of sunlight flash across the Kidron Valley and illuminate the rooftops of Old Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is like a magnet for the sun, the golden dome gloriously reflecting the start of a new day.

Jerusalem wasn't on my plan for today; my main visit will be later in the week. I'm in Israel staying in Tel Aviv and day-tripping out from there.

Today it's the Dead Sea but, as I'm passing Jerusalem early in the day, I can't resist beating the crowds and having one of the best views in the world all to myself.

Below me is the City of Jerusalem, thousands of years of history spread out before me. Just down the slope is the Church of all Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spent his last night of freedom. Time is pressing but I'm so close; I visit the church and Gethsemane and plan to make up the time later in the day. I'm so glad I did- Gethsemane has a sublime beauty that will stay with you forever.

Back on the road, it's a fair old run to the Dead Sea but it's downhill all the way. Signs at the roadside show when you drop below sea level and there's still another 422 metres to go to the lowest level on earth.

As I get to the northern end of the sea, a short division takes me to the caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were found- natural caves in the rick face that held on to their secrets for 2000 years. The Scrolls are now shown in their own museum in Jerusalem.

One more stop before I take to the water: Masada, Herod's palace and fortress ona mountain top high above the Dead Sea. The history is tragic. Amost 1000 Jews were beseiged here by the Roman Legions on the plains below. The Roman built ramps and seige towers but the night before the walls were breached the Jews took their own lives rather tahn become slaves to the Romans. To this day recruits to the Israeli armed forces take an oath that "Masada shall not fall again."

You can walk up to the mountain top, but start early before the heat of the day, or the cable car is an easier option. When you stand among the ruins of the fortress, it's hard to grasp the enormity of the history that has been written on the mountain top. Some restoration has taken place but the site is largely original. The views across the Dead Sea to Jordan are magnificent and the shimmering heat haze just adds to the atmosphere. Israel and Jordan just adds to the atmosphere. Israel and Jordan enjoy a food relationship and share a border down the middle of the Dead Sea.

Time is pressing, and I take the next cable car down; I must take a dip in the therapeutic waters of the Dead Sea. The water is warm silky smooth,and oh so salty. Float on your back and relax... the experience is amazing.

This is possible on a day trip from Tel Aviv but if you want a real taste of luxury, stay in one of the waterfront hotels, get up early, put your dressing gown on, stroll down to the beach and take an early morning dip. Life doesn't get much better than that.

Backing on to the Dead Sea is the Judean Desert. A Land Rover tour is a fun way of getting a taste of desert life and you will even come across what was a secret British airstrip on the plateau. You could spend a week in the Dead Sea and northern Negev are but I'm on a much tighter schedule; it's back to Tel Aviv to watch the sin go down over the Mediterranean.

In the morning I head north along the coast. First stoop is Caesarea, with its amazing Roman port, palace and amphitheatre. An inscription in the palace grounds bears the name of Pontius Pilatus and it was here that the Apostle Paul was imprisoned and baptised the Centurion Cornelius (Acts of the Apostles, Chapter Ten.) History drips from every stone and Caesarea catalogues the centuries from Herod through to the Crusaders.

A short drive north to the port of Haifa to catch the ferry to Acre (Akko). You can drive but the ferry is much more fun and you get good views of Acre as you come into the harbour.

Acre was the scene of bloody conflict between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade. There was almost a negotiated peace settlement but Richard got frustrated at the pace of the negotiations and slaughtered 2700 Muslim prisoners as a negotiating tactic. He didn't make many friends and it wasn't until 1192 that he finally defeated Saladin in a battle just north of Jaffa (the old town of Tel Aviv).

In Acre the crusader fort and subterranean  city have been excavated and are remarkably well preserved. Acre has great restaurants, more history than you can possibly imagine, a natural harbour, and is a great place to spend some time. Jews and Arabs rub along just fine and everyone seems welcome here; I want to stay longer.

Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem- again

Tomorrow I'm in Tel Aviv- it's brilliant. The old town of Jaffam the miles of modern seafront in Tel Aviv. The historic market in Jaffa offers everything from wonderful rugs to antique motorbikes; I'm tempted bu a beautifully made rug but the usual problem of getting it home put me off. I'm regretting not buying it now.

Carmel Market in Tel Aviv is huge and bustling. Food is top of the list here and you can buy anything from basic fruit and beg to exotic dished cooked and ready to eat.

Pushing and shoving is par for the course but it's good fun and an Arab gives me a toothless smile as he sees my look od astonishment as someone tries to manoeuvre a motor scooter through the crowds.

David Ben Gurrion, Israel's first Prime minister and inspirational leader, lived in Tel Aviv in a very modest house that is now open to the public- there's no charge to visit and you are made very welcome. When he retired, he and his wife Paula moved to a kibbutz at Sde Boker in the Negev. heir lifestyle was very simple and, though world leaders till came to visit his tiny house, he lived the life that he preached. He and his wife are buried close by, overlooking the Tsin Canyon- visiting their graves is a humbling experience.

Today is a big day for me; it's back to Jerusalem. I start with a Segway tour of the Hass Promenade, which gives great views over the Old City. Segways are the two-wheeled electric machines that you stand up on.They look a bit scary at first, but after a five minute lesson I'm hooked. They are great fun.

Back on foot, I'min the Old city in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site of the Christ's Crucifixion, Burial and Resurrection- for many the holiest place on earth.

Religious or not it's hard not to be overwhelmed y the enormity of what I'm seeing.

Pilgrims come from all over the world following the Way of the Cross (via Delarosa) and end their pilgrimages here on he site of events that changed the world forever. I watch as a mother and her young daughter light a candle and it's hard not to feel emotionally involved in heir private moment,. It takes a few minutes out; hummus, salad and bread in an Arab diner give me the perfect break. How can such simple food taste so good?

Revitalised, I continue my tour. the Room of the Last Supper and King David;s Tomb on Mount Zion. The fabulous Islamic Dome of the  Rock, the iconic Western Wall (Wailing Wall). Wherever you tread there are thousands of years of history beneath your feet: Jerusalem is truly remarkable.

My last day sees a change of pace; I'm visiting some of the rural businesses in the Gezer district to the south of Tel Aviv. First stop: the Bravado Winery near Ramla.

I had drunk a red wine of theirs a couple of evenings earlier, so it was good to visit its home. Wine tasting is a pleasant occupation and it's great to take a bottle home with you to relive the memories. Next it's the Ivri dairy at Hoshav Azarya where they have a real passion for cheese. An Iraqi family, they came to Israel in the Fifties. David's father ised to work night shifts at the airport and manage the farm during the day.

Today the main product is mozzarella and- yes- straight off the farm it tasted wonderful. Every Friday it's 'open house'; you'll get a wonderful welcome and cheese to die for...

My last stop is to meet artist Gadi Friaman who works in bronze castings and stone sculptures. His work is truly exquisite. It's too big for my suitcase and too expensive for my pocket but absolutely stunning and of international importance, and you couldn't hope to meet a nicer person: I've started to save up for one of his bronzes.

My whistle stop tour doesn't do Israel justice. Would need more time and a whole book to tell you about it. Israel is extraordinary- so much history, so many stories and wondrous sights all packed into a small country. The weather is pretty good too..

What do you think to this? Have you visited Israel? 

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