In Florence, Visit the Basilica of Santa Croce, Spy the Duomo, and Eat Gelato

We were in Florence just for the day but it was so lovely and yet so crowded. We met up with friends doing some work here and that made it even more fun and very negotiable. They knew where to take us and where to eat though we did have a few things on our list.

The Duomo, although wonderful to look at, had a very long line to get in so we just took pictures from the outside and kept walking. Florence is a severe tourist destination.

We went and looked at the Tempio Maggiore Israelitico Synagogue but did not go in.

Italian friends from home sent us to Corona's Cafe for the truly best gelato ever. We were not disappointed and they had several vegan gelato options.

To end the afternoon, we went to the Basilica of Santa Croce and saw the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli...pretty amazing, really. The Basilica has a Star of David at the top. Odd.


Traveling by Bus in Bologna, Italy

We're visiting Bologna, Italy, for about a week and a half. Here're some tips for when you go...
buy a bus pass. It's the best, easist, fastest way to get around. Get a bus map. But here's a hint: no one checks the pass so, take that how ever you will. There are different bus routes on the weekend, and the buses don't go into center of town because it become a wonderful walking mall. There is no need to rent a car in Bologna.


Connectedness and Technology in Israel

We set out for a three-week trip to Israel loaded with a rented local cell phone, our iPad, a rented mobile wifi device, and our trusty Garmin. This post is meant for people traveling to Israel and desiring to lead themselves around and not get (too) lost.

If you have a car GPS, load it with maps for Israel before you leave. The maps on our Garmin were fine, it's just that there can often be five ways to spell a word that is translated from the Hebrew. So, that's why we also iPad.

Our iPad has 3G but we were advised to not use it while in Israel. What we did bring along was a mifi hotspot, rented from TravelCell. This little unit (shown above in the lower right corner) picks up cell towers to give you wireless connection. And cell service everywhere in Israel was perfect. While driving, we had the iPad frequently on with one of several map apps (shown to the left). This double tech effort helped to minimize getting too far off the path and we could check email and websites along the way.

Another tool we rented in advance, also from TravelCell, was a cell phone.  We got a phone that we could use to call local Israeli numbers yet also call numbers in the U.S. I don't think it was all that expensive.  TravelCell sent us the cell phone and mifi device before we left on our trip and once we returned we sent it back to them.

One more thing, a helpful app when in Israel was the Converter+ app. The sheckles-to-dollars conversion was hard for my head to figure out so this was great, especially when we were trying to figure out the cost of overnight accommodations.


The Dead Sea, Qumran and the Essenes and the Heat

We woke up early and headed in the direction of the Dead Sea. We traveled through the territories. Nothing major to report here. As we drove we saw sea level signs as we descended into the Dead Sea valley.

First stop on our way - Qumran National Park - which ties in nicely with seeing the Dead Sea scrolls exhibit at the Israel Museum. As many of the park her have, there was an interesting video on the people who lived here and wrote and hid the scrolls. They were Essenes, ascetics who were like Jewish monks. They were men (only) who studied, worked communally, took many ritual baths (of course, because it is crazy hot!), and wrote prolifically. We were roasting hot and I cannot see living there let alone thinking much about anything other than being hot. By the way, this National Park has a huge dining hall and is a popular spot on the tour bus circuit.

We then drove past our housing accommodations (the Youth Hostel) to get to a place listed in the Lonely Planet guide book as a the easiest and cleanest place to get into the Dead Sea. It was not a highlight of the trip. The water was as hot as the air (~ 40 degrees C), it stung our skin, it smelled of sulfur, and there was no easy place to spray off. Yes, we were buoyant. But we could have skipped this and been fine. See how happy we look?!

That evening we stayed at the Ein Gedi Youth Hostel. It had a great view of the eerily quiet Dead Sea. Most lakes of this size that I've ever witnessed had at least some boat activity. Not the Dead Sea. It's aptly named.

Dinner was pretty good. Yes, there were loads of young people on Birthright trips but some people our age were staying so don't stress about being a non-youth in a youth hostel. The princes of anything else are out-of-sight. For instance, a night here at the hostel cost ~ $150 USD. Oh and again, the same single bed, bunk bed sleeping arrangements as in the Field School housing.


Israel Museum in Jerusalem

Start your trip to Israel off with a long visit to the Israel Museum. This is advice we did not take from the Lonely Plant guide and should have. We've been here almost two weeks. Dear traveler: go to this museum first. It is fantastic! We barely scratched the surface of all the offerings but here you will set the historical context of all that has gone on in the land of Israel .

We saw the King Herod exhibit, a recommendation from our rabbi back home, and it was incredible. What this person accomplished in his short time as king, rebuilding the Temple (the 2nd Temple), Caesarea, Masada, Herodonia, Jericho, is mind-boggling and sets up all that one sees within Israel.

The life-cycle of a Jew section was also quite interesting, from birth to marriage to death and all the ritual involved from around the world, the Diaspora is diverse! Makes me want to go to the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.

Cochin India
There are several relocated and rebuilt (or maybe reproduced) synagogues from around the world. One from Suriname looks a lot like the synagogue in Barbados with a sand floor and wooden Torah arc. Cochin India allowed women to learn Hebrew and the walls were colorfully painted. Eastern Europe representation was only photographs. In a black room. It was quite moving. But pictures are all that remain and what was interesting for me to see were that the synagogues looked like log cabin chalets...and they were all destroyed.

There was a Dead Sea Scroll exhibit and a full scale model of the Second Temple.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre
After the Israel Museum we were hungry and we went in search of more falafel on our way to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We saw pilgrims kissing stone blocks and praying along the way of the Stations of the Cross. We saw a small group of American women making a video along the Stations of the Cross for the folks back home. It seemed odd that such a holy place is wedged into such a small area in crowded Old Jerusalem.

In shopping in Old Jerusalem, we found more Hebrew pants, some for daughter and some for son. A great and tremendously full day.


Sorek (Stalactite) Cave Near Bet Shemesh

More time in the dark...this time in an incredible, natural cave system and now part of the Israeli National Parks - Sorek Cave or Stalactite Cave, was not only beautiful, it was very close to our rental house in Moshav Aviezer. It's way up the hill from the road, keep driving, it's worth the trip. No flash photos but the path is lit. Here are pictures:


More Cave Time in Mey Kedem and Acco

We got up early and drove from Binyamina to Mey Kedem for a guided walk in a cave with water flowing in it. I didn't take pictures in the cave. This cave was part of the water system put in place by the Romans and King Herod to supply water to Caesarea. We saw the aqueduct yesterday and today the tunnel. Great to have that continuity and I did not realize that this was part of the same water system built so long ago but, of course, it makes sense. The kids loved it. We needed flashlights!

Then we drove north to Acco (also Acre) to see this walled city on the Mediterranean with a mix of Arabs and Jews. When we got there and parked, we noticed there was a lot of festivities going on, especially prominent: very fast, horse-drawn carriages zooming about the narrow streets. Not really sure what it was all about and I don't think it was a holiday.

First, we hopped on a boat that took us around the Acco harbor. You get a nice view of the walled city from the outside, some kids were jumping off the wall in the sea. It takes about a 1/2 hour and was worth it. Walled cities are good (like Old San Juan, Puerto Rico) and still have an appeal in the days of sea level rise.

Then we got off and had a fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, tart but terrific, ate hummus, tabuli, mushroom salad and Greek salad at restaurant right on the water. Delicious food, I should have gotten the name. We then strolled our way back to the car and shopped along the way. We found, what our daughter calls "Hebrew pants," pants she has been looking for for several years and hasn't found them in the States. I call them MC Hammer pants, others have called them Genie pants. I loved the shopping in the old city, so many beautiful dried goods for sale. My daughter also discovered a new favorite...a Nutella quesadilla.

Then we cruised down the coast road in search of wind surfing. There is a place just south of Caesarea where you can not only wind surf, there's sea kayaks, kite boarding, SUP and surfing. Who knew!?! And it's not all gross and over-run with tourists. As a matter of fact, it has a locals-only kind of vibe. The sand was fantastic. 20 scheckles to park. Food for sale. Very casual. Now THIS was like places in Barbados. Only thing missing were the Jet Ski guys. If I can find it on the map, I'll load it up here, but right now, I can't find it in the Google. Here's a picture instead.


Caesarea, the Mediterranean Sea and Zircon Ya'akov

We drove to the Mediterranean today. It's my first time seeing it and I was a little excited. We accessed the Sea via a National Park - Caesarea. Caesarea was built by King Herod in about 25 to 13 BCE. Like so much of Israel, there's a long history here. This park was set up a little more like Disneyland than the other parks we've been to. There was an overly dramatized movie to watch, that showed the long history of Caesarea. There were shops. There was the beach, which was basically gross, but we could get a beer and hummus plate delivered to our umbrella (all overpriced, mind you). It weren't no Barbados.

One cool thing about Caesarea was the aqueduct. Herod built an elaborate and quite long aqueduct to bring fresh water to Caesarea and the above-ground portion is still visible here.

That evening we stayed in nearby Binyamina at a terrific bed and breakfast or tzimmer called Grushka B & B. Like most of our trip thus far, we found this sweet and clean place in the Lonely Planet guide. The AC worked great and we walked to our best falafel yet, though I could not tell you the name (see the photo).

Then in the early evening we went to Zircon Ya'akov to walk down the promenade. There were a lot of cute shops. There was a great paper artist there. Street musicians. And the best ice cream shop I've ever tasted...Aldo's Ice Cream. Though we heard that this was the place of early Zionists, we didn't get that feeling, probably because we weren't there long enough.


Archaeology, Take 2

We visited a real archaeological excavation. Thanks to our friends, Rich and Lisa, who told us about the National Park Beit Guvrin, we went to an ongoing, archaeological dig and found real things!

All around Israel, archaeological findings are everywhere and those locations are called 'tels,' like what we saw in Tzippori. But here at Beit Guvrin the materials from the civilization being excavated were 2,000 years old, during the time of the Maccabees.

Run be We Dig Israel, you get into the park and you pay extra to do the dig but, let me tell you, it is so worth it! There is a guide who gives you a thorough over view of what you are going to do, why you are doing it, what's been done before, what your 'work' will go towards, what the background is for this area. We went into a lighted cave. There are, apparently, 5,000 other underground excavation sites just like the one we went into but on this some hill in this park. They gave us all the tools we needed (bucket and shovel and our hands). Then we were told to go to work! We found pottery, bones, shells and charcoal. We believe that we were digging into a former kitchen. There were buckets for 'finds' and buckets for dirt. Then once are digging time was up, we had a bucket brigade to take all the dirt and finds up to outdoors. From the outside, we then sifted all the buckets of dirt and found even more stuff that got added to the investigation. This was not a free-ride tour; you really had to work!

As an added bonus we were shown another cave, one yet to be excavated. It was lighted by candles and there were pigeon holes, small cuts into the walls of the cave where birds were kept.



Today was a sleep-in day. But it's been so hot, it was really difficult to get comfortable sleeping, plus the bed is super hard. We also did some laundry.

This is our place in Moshav Aviezer.


Israel is for Archaeology

With the Bar Mitzvah celebration over, we packed up, left the nice cottage and went to the nearby Tzippori Nation Park. Our friend, Rachel, during graduate school, helped to excavate the "Mona Lisa of the Galilee," the floor mosaic that is part of the park and we got a bit of a personal tour from her. At the park, there are two episodes of civilizations and excavations: the Romans and Greeks. It is a fascinating, on-going and unfolding story. Not a Roman outpost, like Hadrian's Wall, but perhaps a rich person's or dignitary's home with elaborate mosaics revealing the significance of the Nile, the importance of water, larger beasts attacking smaller beasts, and Amazons. Really,...Amazons!?!

The grounds here at the National Park offer many interesting places to poke around, including a covered excavation site, a building housing an excavated home, a large outdoor theatre, and a water/irrigation system.

We then went caving with a tour guide in Rhuma (which could mean Roma but the guide, Michael, was only hypothesizing about that) where human-made caves were discovered.  It is thought that these caves were built so that the Caesar could meet and talk with the Rabbi of Tzippori (the one who was redacting and re-creating Judaism for modern times). But no one wanted the other's people to see these meetings so they met in secret, in the caves. Then, we were told, the caves were connected cisterns and filled in with tunnelled-out material. These caves were used as hiding places for Jews when the Romans came by during the Bar Kochba revolt (132-136 CE).  Roman soldiers used to wear spiked shoes (ouch!) and you could hear them coming as they clomped along the limestone.

Came back home tonight, back to Moshav Aviezer.


Siman Tov and Mazal Tov!

What a beautiful place to celebrate a simcha. Again, this is Tzippori Guest House. It was a wonderful day with fantastic food and a sweet setting.