Thursday, May 31, 2007

Heading home

Word to the wise: Don't be late to Ben Gurion airport. The justly-famous Israeli security is thorough and time-consuming.

But it isn't unpleasant, and within an hour I'm through the process and on to a cup of coffee and the airport wireless access.

Today I will spend most of the day heading home. Look for a fuller report from my trip in the Sunday pages of The Miami Herald's Travel section and online at in July.

Check back here in mid-June, when I'll be filing daily trip reports from China.

Meanwhile, share your thoughts, experiences and suggestions here; just Click to Comment below.

A fine last day

The dust inversion that has plagued Israel for the past few days has cleared, and the dawn appears with that perfect clarity of temperatures neither too hot nor too cold. Surfers catch the last waves along the Herzylia shore before heading off to work; retirees stroll with friends, human and canine.

We set off to the south to drive off-piste along the Burma Road, the supply route that kept Jerusalem alive in the 1948 War of Independence. For Israel, the history is essential, but for an outsider, it is today simply a place of beauty: hillsides planted with olives and almonds and grapes, fertilized by centuries of bloodshed.

Lunch is a tasty country meal at a restaurant called Tivlin, a picnic without ants in a glassed-in space peering into the woods. The scents of tumeric, sumac and cloves wafts from the adjacent spice shop to our table.

The next stop is Castel, a family winery that produces 100,000 bottles annually in vintages that have been lauded by Sotheby’s, among other experts. It is simply delicious, generous and full-bodied, and there's good news: It is distributed in South Florida by Royalty Wines in North Miami Beach.

At last, we wend our way over the Judean hillsides and through the olives to the simple home and cheese-making operation of Shai Zeltzer. It is milking time, and the goats queue patiently for their turn at relief. Zeltzer – noted worldwide for his cheesemaking – shows the cave where cheeses are aged. It’s breadmaking day, and a friend is kneading the dough that he will bake in the traditional over the fresh flame.

We slice a half-dozen cheeses, open a bottle of Castel’s cabernet blend, and settle in to chat and listen to the earth: roosters and hens crowing, goats bahhhing, a mourning dove cooing. A light breeze ruffles the olive trees as the full moon rises above them. The first of the loaves comes off the fire, and we toss aside our plans of an Arab dinner in favor of cheeses, fresh bread, plums and peaches just off tree.

“We live here according to the seasons,’’ says Zeltzer. “And everything changes with the seasons.’’

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Rural scenes

As in Europe and the U.S., herbal remedies and organic farming are held in high regard. Two took us to three natural farms.

At one, in Rosh Pina, former Chicagoan Mark Rubin and his family milk goats for cheese and bake crackers, breads and pies sold in local shops or used for catering.

At Supherbs, in the town of Tzippori, Roni Gan walked us through the demonstration garden used for teaching natural health students about the herbs that she and her husband Peretz grow here: calendula for skin nourishment, stinging nettles for arthritis and prostate and energy boosting, lavender for relaxation, medicinal sage for stomach aches. Originally, she says, healers looked to tradition to know which plants to use for an ailment; now science is trying to prove why they work. Says Gan, “You can’t argue with history.’’

Near Supherbs we stopped for a goat cheese tasting and lunch at the Ellis farm, where Tal Ellis – originally from Texas – and is wife Adi – originally from Minnesota – raise goats and make first quality cheeses for their company, Tzon-El. Their 25-plus-years as farmers in Israel haven’t often been easy…but they’ve stayed. Says Tal, “We try to do things with quality. We’re not Zionists like some people, but we feel like we’re contributing in our own way.’’

Top: Cheese-tasting and lunch at Tzon-El
Above left and right: Mark Rubin and a goat at the Rubin farm in Rosh Pina

The finest dining

Some meals are fuel. Some are pleasant interludes. And then there are those that are memorable experiences in which the memory of the tastes lingers, and you dream of making a return.

Such was our visit to Auberge Shulamit in the northern Israeli town of Rosh Pina.

The restaurant and elegant guest rooms above are set in a historic house that, 50-plus years ago, hosted Israeli-Syrian armistice conferences. Stone walls give way to an enclosed terrace with views across a wide valley to the Golan Heights. As one of my companions put it, you could be anywhere … Monte Carlo, Cannes, even San Francisco.

The cuisine here is managed by the extraordinary palette of Lea Berkuz, who owns the auberge with daughter Ruth Bar. The specialty is smoked dishes: lusty ribs, delicious goose, salmon and trout served hot or cold.

Along with smoked meats, we tasted the cold borscht (worth the calories), the grilled Portobello (topped with marinated vegetables and almonds) and extraordinary grape leaves filled with spiced meat and pine nuts that were simply unforgettable.

If you’ve not heading to the north of Israel, change your plans. This is worth the drive … and only two hours from Tel Aviv.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

On the Israeli range

Beyond its cities, Israel is largely a farming community. Grapes (for wine), olives (for olive oil), apples and peaches and sunflowers, goats and sheep and cows. (You can even pick your own grapes or blackberries within a couple of miles of the Syrian border.)

It only stands to reason that with cows, you need cowboys. And yes, Israel has them.

Proof: Lunch today was at the Cowboy’s Restaurant on the Merom Golan kibbutz in the Golan Heights. (They also offer horse rides and a simple bunk house.)

The restaurant sits in the curve of a hill next to a paddock of horses that – yes – are really used for cow herding. Started about 15 years ago in a railroad car, the restaurant has expanded, and today is comes complete with a bar whose stools are fashioned after saddles.

On the menu: chicken wings in a yummy sweet chili sauce, salads laced with mint and parsley, and of course beef. Filet mignon, entrecote, T-bones, New York strips….and burgers.

One of the things I miss after a few weeks on the road is a great burger. Most places you can’t get one; the water buffalo burger one year in Nepal was a sad and chewy substitute.

So how is an Israeli cowboy burger? Big…and very very yummy. It even comes with Heinz ketchup.

Monday, May 28, 2007

O for Olive Oil

Even in America, olive oil has become a cook’s basic. But the oil sold in supermarkets bears little resemblance to the nectar of a boutique olive oil operation, where citrus and spices and even apple flavor the richness of the virgin press.

These are the olive oils produced in Israel by companies like Natur from the Holy Land.

Eli Cohen, Natur’s owner and an industry consultant, filled me in on the process: How the olive’s variety, the soil in which it is grown, irrigation and other farming practices, the timing of its harvest and the milling method can combine to create a fine oil or destroy it. Oils labeled as “100 percent olive oil’’ are generally manufactured in large quantities and have little taste or aroma; virgin olive oils are generally added back in to give it those properties. (Ini other words, buy "extra virgin'' -- which has a low acidity rating -- or "virgin.'')

And good olive oil does have both aroma and taste, we learned. Like the wine from Amphorae, it is meant to be enjoyed with fresh local produce: freshly sliced peppers and tomatoes, cheeses, pita, hummus and, of course, olives. A lovely way to learn about the oil … and a great way to spend a few hours of a breezy afternoon in Israel.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Have you visited Israel?

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What is kosher wine?

Yhe rabbinical laws governing kosher designation for wines are far more complicated than those regarding food. Some of the rules – when you can first use the grapes, what other crops can be grown nearby – are fairly simple to meet. Two that are not so easy: The juice must be heated – a process that many vintners believe adversely affects taste. And during the process from crushing to bottling, only observant Jews can handle the product in any way, including tapping for barrel tastings, transporting and bottling.

Fruit of the Vine

In South Florida’s liquor stores, you aren’t likely to find an Israel wine section. Start tasting Israeli wines, and you will wish you could find them at home.

Most Americans think of Israeli wines in the same category as kosher wines. Kosher wines sold readily in the U.S. don’t usually rate Spectator points, and unless you or your guests keep kosher, you probably won’t want to bother.

Turns out that Israel offers a wide selection of high quality wines, some kosher and some not.

On this trip I’ve tasted a table red wine from Gamla (smooth and quite drinkable) and a superb oaky merlot-cab blend in a 2003 vintage from Yatir, which is located in the Negev Desert (yes, in the desert.)

Today I visited the Amphorae winery, north of Tel Aviv near the town of Zichron Ya’akov. The winemaker there is the highly regarded Gil Shatzberg, who trained in both Israel and California before opening his own winery with a partner. The winery’s first vintage was a 2000; the boutique operation (think hand cut grapes, wine bottled and labeled on premises) produces 70,000-80,000 bottles per year.

Israeli wines, he explained, have a high alcohol content – about 14 percent – thanks to strong sunlight that produces higher sugar levels. He seeks to make wines that fit well with the spices and ingredient in local foods.

The results are admirable. His 2005 chardonnay was fresh and crisp – much lighter than a California-style chard – and retails for under $20. His '04 Med.Red cabernet makes a good table wine and sells for under $15. The day's winner was his '03 cabernet (about $30) that proved to be dry and woodsy, with hints of coffee and chocolate.

Amphorae’s 2006 release will be about half its usual size. The vines themselves are located far to the north, near the border, and many were destroyed by tanks and hungry animals during last year’s fighting. He's calling the vintage Grapes of Wrath. To be a farmer, he says, “You have to be stubborn.’’

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Beginning of Tel Aviv

In Israel, the weekend revolves around Shabbat, or Sabbath, which is sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. And while only about 30 percent of Israel’s population are observant Jews, I’m told, most businesses follow religious rules that prevent commerce, cooking and other activities on the Sabbath.

As a visitor, this may mean no brewed coffee in the hotel and no eggs at breakfast. But it doesn’t have to mean quietude, either.

Today I visited Neve Tsedek, the Soho/Deco District-like historic neighborhood of shops, cafes and arts. And while many shops were closed, the place was lively. Young professionals biked the streets, families strolled. A few cafes were open – and yes, served yummy cooked foods, not just rewarmed dishes. Visitors streamed into the home of a pair of craftspeople who make and sell glass beads; others filled the small exhibition gallery of the Gutman Museum, a historic building featuring the words of an early neighborhood artist, Nahum Gutman, and other artists.

The highlight was a visit to the Rokach House. In 1887, Shimon Rokach was sent by his father from Jerusalem to manage the toll-taking on the road between Jerusalem and the port city of Jaffa. By then, Jaffa was already jam-packed. Rokach organized a new Jewish community outside the Jaffa walls in the sand dunes, a row of three houses called Neve Tsedek. Decades later, it would sprawl and then be engulfed by bustling Tel Aviv.

In the 1980s, Rocha’s granddaughter, artist Leah Majaro-Mintz, restored his home and transformed it into a museum filled with family furniture and photos from the city’s early days. “I wanted to show how life was 120 years ago. Here, for the children of Israel, it dawns on them that there was no electricity,’’ she explains.

The house is filled with her own work – ceramics and paintings of women, draped over chairs and each other, tired from the ceaseless endeavor of shopping, cooking, cleaning, caring. “Men show women very beautiful,’’ she said – but their depiction isn’t necessarily realistic. “I wanted to give a feeling of how the woman is in the world.’’


TOP: Neve Tsedek, Tel Aviv's first neighborhood, is now surrounded by towers.
ABOVE: Artist Leah Majaro-Mintz with a photo of her parents, Leon Majaro and Hanna Rokach Mararo, whose father founded Neve Tsedek.

Friday, May 25, 2007

An intimate, off-the-track museum

For the next several days, I’ll be exploring some of Israel’s nooks and crannies … sites less known by foreign travelers that help bring Israel’s complex spirit alive.

Today’s explorations took me to Tel Aviv's Rubin Museum, dedicated to the life and work of Israeli painter Reuven Rubin. Born in Romania in 1883, Rubin traveled and studied in Palestine (now Israel), Paris and the U.S. before settling here as part of a generation of new Israelis struggling to fit into an ancient homeland so longed for – but so unfamiliar.

For a foreigner, visiting here offers an insight into a nation’s growing pains, and Israel’s ongoing balancing act not only with fundamentalist Muslims but within it’s own society of secular and orthodox.

The painting is also enchanting – in some periods naïve. And with a small collection of 45 works, the museum offers a lovely snapshot that won’t wear you out.


Photo: Carmela Rubin in the artist's studio that has been preserved as part of the museum. JANE WOOLDRIDGE / THE MIAMI HERALD.

Dome of the Rock

My last day in Jerusalem, I visited the Dome of the Rock, the city's holiest Muslim site built in the 7th century. It is here, according to Muslims, that Mohammed ascended to heaven. The site is a cause of tensions: the Dome and another nearby Mosque are built upon the Temple Mount – the base on which the sacred Jewish temples were built in pre-Christian times. It is at the mount’s Western Wall that Jews today come to pray.

The Dome of the Rock is also Jerusalem’s most recognizable icon; from rooftops and surrounding hills, its golden dome gleams day and night, first in sun and later in man-made light.

Security is tight around the entire area. Visitors pass through airport-like metal detectors, and armed soldiers patrol the area. On Mondays and Thursdays, boys that have just been bar mitzvahed come for their first Torah reading, and the place brims with families and festivities.

From atop the mount comes a strange cacophony: the muezzin’s call to pray for Muslims, the blowing of traditional sheep's horns, or shofars, from the bar mitzvahs below. The political cacophony is even more confounding. Few here believe true peace will ever come, but many hope for truce at least.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Normal life

Because of recent violence in the Gaza Strip, I hesitated about going to the Palestinian territories of the West Bank.

Why would you want to go there anyway? Because a number of famous sites – including the Dead Sea, Masada and Bethlehem – lie in those lands.

I kept running into the same taxi driver, a Palestinian Christian named Avi, who kept asking me why I didn’t want to go to Bethlehem. Finally, I gave in.

It turns out that Bethlehem is only a 20 minute drive from Jerusalem hotel. And that these days, at least, getting there is a simple matter.

For $40, I could have booked a half-day bus tour to Bethlehem. Time-pressed, I went with Avi, who drove me to a souvenir shop in Bethlehem whose driver drove me to the Church where a guide was waiting. (Yes, it’s the full employment act, but Bethlehem doesn’t have a lot of tourists these days, and you can’t begrudge them for trying to make ends meet.)

We dashed beneath the low door of the Church of the Nativity and into the crypt beneath the alter, deemed the birthplace of Jesus, and the one-time manager where he was laid just a few steps away. It was about to close for morning prayers, and a few minutes later, as we wandered through the sanctuary we could hear nuns singing from below.

The church itself was founded in the 4th Century but burned, rebuilt and expanded over the centuries. The main sanctuary – shared by Armenians and Greek Orthodox – is an open soaring space over exposed wooden beams. Remnants of mosaic murals dot the clerestory walls, depicting stories from the life of Jesus.

The Roman Catholic sanctuary is newer, only 150 years, a pretty space with vaulted spaces. When you watch Christmas Day services on television, you are here, in this Catholic sanctuary, in Bethlehem, at the Church of the Nativity.


Later in the day I met up with Lin Arison, whose late husband, Ted, was an Israeli. After Ted retired as chairman of Carnival Cruise Line, the company he founded, the couple moved to Tel Aviv, and Lin has split time between Israel and the U.S. since his death in 1999.

We drove around Tel Aviv, by the lively beach whose chattahoochee sidewalks recall Rio de Janeiro, and stopped off in a cozy Soho-like café neighborhood called Neve Tzedek. Late-day traffic was like it is everywhere – dreadful. The whole experience feels decidedly normal – unlike what you expect after seeing news reports.

“That’s what everyone who comes here says,’’ said Lin.

That’s not to say that bad things can’t happen here. A year ago, a Fort Lauderdale teenager visiting here with his parents died from injuries sustained in a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv restaurant.

But on the average day, in an average neighborhood, life here is vibrant and surprisingly comfortable. Says Arison: "If I change one thing I would normally do, the terrorists win.''

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

In the Holy Land

Jerusalem is a city where faith dominates, and regardless of one’s own personal beliefs, it’s impossible to visit Old Jerusalem without being impressed by the devotion of pilgrims.

Today is a Shavuot, a holy day for Jews. The Western Wall has been filled with the devout, men in shiny coats and round fur hats, women in modest dress covering hair, shoulders, legs. Their written prayers are tucked into niches between the stones of the wall – all that remains of the great temple of Herod.

In the Upper Room – the room where Jesus and his disciples held the Last Supper – the devout meditate against marble pillers and the cold hard floor.

In the Church of the Holy Sepulcre, the faithful wait as much as two hours to touch the place that is said to be the tomb of Christ.

“We believe this is the right place,’’ said Paul Hewerdine, an American who has lived in Israel for a half-dozen years and works as a Catholic lay minister. “God is everywhere, but this is special, and He honors the effort to come here. It is a special way to honor God.’’


- Top, a Jewish man heads toward the Western Wall in Old Jerusalem
- Above, a pilgram prays a the tomb of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulcre


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Yad Vashem

I’ve read of – even talked with – people who don’t believe the Holocaust actually happened. A visit to Yad Vashem – Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum – should erase doubt.

Yad Vashem has always housed a memorial and archive to the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, and for the past decade or so its grounds have also been home to a memorial for the 1.5 million children who died. Two years ago, Yad Vashem opened a new museum designed to underscore the human dimension of the Holocaust with video testimonials, photographs and personal stories of the systematic attempt to exterminate Jews throughout Europe.

If you’ve visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., you have an idea of how emotional such a museum visit can be. Here is the videotaped story of a woman who carried her sister 550 miles by foot in winter as part of the forced women’s march, only to see her sister die. The story of a young man who pushed into a mass grave during a group shooting, surviving because the Nazis missed and he was able to claw his way out from the dead bodies. Remembrances of Jews who believed themselves more German than Jewish -- until they were betrayed by neighbors. Photos – a child, a wife, a family – tucked into the pockets of death camp victims shot just before liberation.

Visiting isn’t a cheerful experience. But it is an important one.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The kindness of strangers

Blame it on multi-tasking. Or maybe just a brain burp.

I arrived at my Jerusalem hotel, only to find (forgive the allusion)…no room at the inn. Which somehow seemed appropriate for an afternoon when nothing has gone exactly as planned.

Earlier in the day, I arrived at the Jordan-Israel border with plenty of time to spare before my flight. I’d been warned that the Israelis can be extremely thorough when you re-enter – “they give you such as hassle,’’ one friend told me – but all the formalities went delightfully smoothly.

And then I got to the airport.

The friend who joined me for a few days in Jordan – an American woman – and I were grilled by the security people. They asked about our itinerary, why I was here, who paid for my trip, how she and I were related, how long we’ve known each other, where we stayed each night. When I told them I’d stayed at two different hotels in Madrid, they seemed completely befuddled– until I explained it had to do with budget. (My boss told me to save money.)

We were questioned separately for about 30 minutes, then the two security people conferred. Then they asked each of us more questions. They asked me to sign on to the Miami Herald’s website; seeing my blog seemed to give them some assurance that I really am a travel writer.

They were infallibly polite and professional. Their biggest concerns, it seemed, were my friend’s detailed grocery list for an upcoming dinner party (code only for, “Honey, can you go to the grocery and get all this stuff before I get home?’’) and the idea that perhaps we had unwittingly fallen prey to evildoers. (We hadn’t.) But the security concern is entirely understandable, given the situation in this part of the world, and we were happy to let them go through our bags. (“You’re the most organized traveler I’ve ever seen,’’ the guard told me.)

Free at last, we hopped on our plane … only to be delayed. We boarded, then got off, then got on again, arriving in Tel Aviv about an hour late.

Next, the Nesher Shuttle to our Jerusalem hotel. Turns out we had just missed the previous shuttle, and another hour later we were at last on our way. We were, of course, the second-to-last people to get dropped off, just a few minutes before midnight.

Which wouldn’t have been so bad except for the reservation problem. There wasn’t one.

Turns out that I made the reservation for the right days….but the wrong month. At the very moment that I will be taking the 48-hour train from Beijing to Tibet, I was booked into the Little House in Bakah in Jerusalem. Ouch!

The two incredibly nice gentlemen at the Little House in Bakah called around and found us a room in a nearby hotel where the price was right. This was no small favor as Jerusalem is entirely booked for a holiday, and tomorrow night our digs are going to be a bit tight, to say the least.

But we will have a room; the two men at the Little House made sure of it. So here’s to the kindness of strangers.

Scenes from Petra


TOP: First glimpse of the Treasury at Jordan
CENTER: The famed Treasury
BOTTOM: Jane hails a desert taxi

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Petra: A world wonder?

Today I visited Petra, the 2000-year-old city cut into sandstone canyons and caves in Jordan. My Internet connection is limited, and I can't share much about it now...but I will tomorrow when I get a better connection.

Petra is one of 21 candidates in the running for the new seven wonders of the world. The Jordanian tourist ministry knows that getting named as one of the wonders could be a boost for business, and accordingly officials have set up computer terminals near the Petra site so visitors can go online and vote for Petra right on the spot.

Whether you choose Petra (it is one of my own choices) or not, check out the Seven New Wonders campaign.

Tomorrow I'm back to Israel. Check here for photos and more tales from trip.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Visit with a bedouin family

A string of camels appears in the distance of the rocky arid earth. They are headed toward a couple of Bedouin tents that seem the same beige color as the dusty ground.

We set off across the plain. Robert, my guide, approaches a twentysomething man and asks if we may visit the tent, take his photo.

The answer is yes. It almost always is, says Robert; “They are very friendly people.” But it is polite to ask.

We walk on.

An old man invites us to enter. We sit inside on a rug dotted with cushions; the pillows, we soon discover, aren’t for sitting but for leaning one’s elbow as one drinks tea or smokes a cigarette.

One of his nomadic neighbors, a fellow tribesman, is visiting. Out of deference to my status as a foreign woman, his wife joins us. It is the proper thing, we learn later; she sits between us. But when other men arrive, she moves into the women’s quarter.

The tent is made of grain bags and coarse goat hair fabric that allows filtered light – enough to see by but not so much as to blind or burn. There appears to be nothing inside save the fabric exteriors, a few rugs and some rough wooden tent posts; rope is used to keep the ridge line taut. It’s quite large – perhaps 30 feet wide and three times the length, with the women’s quarters separated from the rest of the space by a rug used as a curtain.

But what is here is family, we quickly see, and the incredible hospitality for which the Arabs are famed.

I am invited to the women’s quarters, where the old man’s wife is makes us tea, with help from her daughters and grandchildren. The baby is but 10 days old.

Back in the main living space, Robert and I sit with the men and chat. We are identified by our leader – we are from the country of George Bush, they from the company of King Abdullah. We learn that the Bedouins move locations twice a year in search of better grazing grounds for their many camels, goats and sheep; they have been in this place near the Desert Highway only a week. We discover that before the Gulf War, these nomadic people wandered freely to graze and visit family in Saudi Arabia; now they must have passports and get visas.

They serve tea, answer endless questions with good cheer, allow photographs. They smile and offer us a camel ride.

We rise to leave, and I slip to the back to give the wife a few dinars. A few minutes later, she chases me across the ground with a gift -- a bag of bread made with yoghurt. It is an expensive and dear treat, far more valuable than the few dinars I have given her. I am shamed by her generosity, and delighted.

“Even when they have nothing, these people, they will give you everything,’’ says Robert. “It is the tradition.’’

Friday, May 18, 2007

Crossing Jordan

Reading about the Middle East, it’s easy to imagine violence on every corner. But even small distances can be significant, it seems.

Last night: Tel Aviv. Front page headlines reported on four dead in strife in the Gaza Strip, 90 minutes to the south. Yet the newspaper’s entertainment section outlined activities for the week to come: a Shakespeare festival, a body movement celebration in the desert, walking tours of Old Jerusalem. Cafes spilled comfortably onto the sidewalk, and even at midnight, young women walked easily across the square in front of my stylish hotel.

Today, I crossed into Jordan. This proved to be a simple process. Pay a $17 exit tax on the Israeli side of the border, have your passport checked. Grab a shuttle bus ($1) to the Jordanian side. Get your visa, then hand in your passport for processing. The Jordanians snap your digital photo and fingerprint you, leaving me with the thought that I’m now in “the system.’’ After 30 years as a journalist -- having covered presidents, kings, queens and premiers -- I’ve never been fingerprinted before.

Tonight I am in Amman, Jordan’s capital. Jordan has become the Switzerland of the Middle East – on good terms with everyone. It’s not an easy role to play, but the young king and his countrymen appear to be making smart work of it. Iraq and Syria seem a million miles away. The country is hoping tourism will provide a future.

“Things are very different now even than they were 15 years ago,’’ said Bashir Daoud, managing director of Hermes Arabia, the tour company that has ably handled my arrangements in Jordan. “People are much more open now.’’

Terry Brechtel and Patricia Practhett of San Antonio, Texas, were touring the spectacular Greco-Roman ruins at Jerash after attending the International Women’s Forum held recently in Amman. “It’s very safe. We haven’t had any problems at all,’’ sayd Brechtel.


Kenes International: Arranged my journey from Tel Aviv into Jordan
Hermes Arabia: Jordanian tour operator



Top: The spectacular Greco-Roman ruins at Jerash, Jordan.
Center: Terry Brechtel, left, and Patricia Pratchett of San Antonio, Texas, at Jerash.
Bottom: Former members of the Jordanian army play bagpipes -- a traditional instrument here as in Scotland -- and drums for tourists at Jerash.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Israel: First impressions

Israel has always seemed a political war zone on a newspaper page, a location in the Bible. Like just about every place, it becomes real to me only when I have sniffed the air, battled the traffic for myself.

Now I'm here, just arrived after the flight from Madrid that was, of course, delayed (what flight isn't these days?)

"Your first visit to Israel?'' asks my seat mate, an Israeli in his 50s who lives in Chile much of the year.

The conversation turned to his Chilean base -- I've visited nearby; the peculiarities of Miami (a great city, I told him, except for the drivers, but not typically American) and his homeland. And of course, Iraq.

Will there ever be peace in Israel? I asked. His answer is no -- but perhaps separate states for Israel and Palestine can create a better situation.

He rode recently in a taxi with a Chilean who lives in Washington, D.C. His taxi mate asked him to describe Israel. "Efficient and arrogant,'' was his answer. Yet his eyes lit up when we landed. It's his home, after all.


Airport impressions: Oasis in the desert, with a waterfall cascading from ceiling to fountain in the retail court / departure lounge. Black-hatted, bearded Orthodox men in the passport line -- like mid Miami Beach on a Saturday morning. A young couple kissing on the sidewalk. Intricate Hebrew script running right to left ... just like the password I've typed into the hotel web login page. Familiar, exotic, unknown. Perhaps unknowable. Over the next days, I will at least know more.


I've made it a habit over the years to ask at the airport tourist info booth what a taxi should cost. About 100-120 shekels -- $25-$30 -- to Tel Aviv, I was told; I could take the train and then a taxi for less, but I couldn't see that it was worth the hassle to save $15. It's been a long day.

Hop into the taxi; the driver looks at his rate sheet, figures something in his meter, and tells me the price will be 317 shekels ... about $80 ... to drive 7 miles. I am appalled. "But the tourist desk said it would cost about 120 shekels,'' I tell him. He says no. We are already well on the way to Tel Aviv.

We get to my hotel, a cozy stylish boutique hotel built in an old cinema and called, naturally, the Cinema Hotel. The desk clerk is consulted. "100 shekels tops,'' he says. "That is the official rate. Maybe give him another 20 shekels for the luggage,'' he advises.

I return to the taxi. The taxi man complains this is not right. I suggest a call to the taxi authority. "My English, it is not good,'' he says. I drop the 120 shekels on the seat and go back into the hotel. A fair price is all I'm after.

Says the desk clerk, "The drivers, they don't want to use the meter. They are very smart, the drivers. They try to get more money.''

And why not? But next time, I'll ask for the meter.

The oldest restaurant

“Is this a tourist trap?’’ asked my dinner companion. And we figured that the oldest restaurant in the world, Madrid’s El Botin, probably was.

But who cares? The cozy 300-year-old eatery serves up historic ambience and traditional Spanish fare in equally generous portions, and there are bragging rights in having eaten where it all began.

We slipped beneath a beamed entry past a serving area stocked with wines where a man carved a smoked ham, past the richly tiled kitchen and up a slim stair to a rambling space decked with antique pottery and white-draped tables. We opted for two of the house specialties – Clams Botin, roasted in a light red sauce hinting of chorizo, and roasted suckling pig, which arrived with a crisp crackle of skin armoring the moist meat inside, all washed down with a sweet sangria. Service was all that we’d hoped: Efficient but not pushy.

The place was filled with tourists, and we did duty as guest photographer for several tables. But the meal was tasty and the price amazing right: about 30 Euros per person including a generous salad (shared), two main courses, a half-pitcher of sangria and an apple tarte for dessert. Well worth a visit.

Heading to Madrid?

Heading to Madrid in the next few days? Don’t miss the Tintoretto exhibit at the Prado – the first show dedicated to the 16th Century Venetian painter’s work since the 1930s. It’s a rare chance to see three of his Last Suppers together, along with near-riotous scenes from his early days. (Originally slated to close May 15, it's been extended until the 27th.)

Other Prado not-to-be-missed moments: Velasquez’s delightful portrait of the Infante Margarita as her parents pose for a portrait, and the fantastically lustful Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch. You can even take the sinful scene with you; the museum shop sells Bosch T-shirts for 43 Euros.

Whether you're hitting the Tintoretto exhibition or the museum's permanent collection, try to be there when it opens at 10 a.m. Lines seem to be shortest then.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A jetlagged afternoon in Madrid


Photos by Jane Wooldridge / The Miami Herald

Madrid, Israel & Jordan

For the next few weeks I'm on the road ... Madrid, Israel and Jordan. I'll be blogging here for the latest!

On this crisp crystalline morning, I arrived in Madrid. The city seemed strangely quiet -- so little of the infamous traffic -- and it turns out that it's a holiday, the day of San Isidro, Madrid's patron saint.

It's my first visit to Madrid -- long on my list of places to visit, but never managed until now. My hotel is the famed Ritz, built in 1910 at the behest of Kong Alfonso XIII to put Madrid on the luxury hotel-palace map. The hotel bears an air of understated refinement, but not so stuffy that I'm embarrassed to be rolling a canvas duffle still dusted with the red earth of a Christmas trip to Cameroon. I imagine they've seen worse.

They've also seen better: Everybody from Brad Pitt to the Dali Lama has stayed here in its suites with thick woven rugs, pink bedspreads, exquisite flowered wall paper and marbled baths. And high-speed Internet; even such traditional icons have to keep up with the times.

The budget allows one night only; tomorrow I'm off to the Best Western on a great Internet rate.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Travel Hot Button

This week's question:

Most major cruise lines won't book cabins to guests under 25. Is this a good idea, or not?

Post your comments here!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Travel Hot Button

We've moved the weekly Travel Hot Button questions here, to my blog, to make responding easier.

So, this week's question:

What's a fair price to pay for a basic hotel room in an urban center like New York or San Francisco?

Feel free to comment on last week's question:

What do you love / hate about Miami International Airport?

Let us know what you think. And feel free to suggest future Hot Button topics.

One-cent sale: Catch it quick!

Spirit Airlines has announced one of its famous 1-cent sales. Yup, for 1 cent plus those pesky taxes and surcharges, you can fly one-way from Fort Lauderdale to 11 destinations, most in the Caribbean. But you've got to buy by midnight tonight, and of course, the inventory is limited.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The future of travel

Pauline Frommer, daughter of the legendary Arthur Frommer and a expert in her own right (she's got a guidebook series), was recently contemplating the future of travel for an essay she's writing.

It's a murkey crystal ball, we both agreed. While travel has skyrocketed and, in some quarters, may surpass previous highs, there's always the danger that something in the world will go terribly awry. Another awful terrorist attack, God forbid, or a rampant disease like SARS, and Americans may again cling to their backyards.

I tend to take the Polyanna position, backed up by surveys: That Americans now view travel as a birthright rather than a luxury.

Given a rapid-fire pace -- long hours at work, kids activities, insane traffic, social commitments, friends and family that go too-long unvisited -- we need breaks. Desperately.

My views are fueled by passion: Traveling is, simply, the best thing I've ever done for myself and my relationships. The world is a marvel, filled with people and places and situations that I only begin to understand when I've seen, touched, smelled them for myself. Getting away -- even just to Miami Beach or Fort Lauderdale -- allows me to coccoon with my husband, stashing away the everyday hassles for much-needed moments of respite.

It's a sad commentary that Americans leave half their vacation days on the table, to be gobbled up by companies that dole out vacations not only because we've earned them, but because we need them.

Think you can't get away? As a workaholic myself, I'd like to encourage you: You can. Even if it's only for long weekends.

Can't afford it? I threw that idea out the window when I was young, figuring I'd rather go far and wide with a backpack than have an iPod, new car or new TV.

That's not the right choice for everyone. But it is a choice. My vote: Travel. The memories are irreplaceable.