John-Paul Flintoff

In God's country

First time in Israel

Talk about a land of contrasts. To the left, a desert; to the right, a field of avocados. Here, snow-topped mountains; there the lowest point on the entire planet (the Dead Sea). Just driving around, I’m not sure whether to worry about thirst, over-eating, or getting a nosebleed. Israel is one of the newest states in existence, just 50 this year.

And yet its territory has a written history reaching back thousands of years; numerous and complex stories which ought, more sensibly, belong to an entire continent instead of a country smaller than Belgium. The contrast between new and old confronts you every time people open their mouths. Israelis are pioneers in biotechnology, computing and the cultivation of deserts, and yet they speak to each other in a language that for centuries appeared to be effectively dead.

Then there’s religion. Officially, Israel is a secular society, but it also happens to be the setting for the Bible. Yup, this is where it all happened, and that’s the reason most tourists visit Israel . But even those who aren’t remotely religious would be foolish to disregard this aspect of Israel ; or to think the country’s not worth visiting. There’s something extraordinary about travelling through real places only previously encountered in tales which, to be frank, always sounded a little tall. It’s with some satisfaction that I can tell you I’ve been through Armageddon unscathed. Other biblical attractions have less sinister overtones. At the river Jordan, where John the Baptist earned his name, I watched a group of 20 Christians preparing for rebirth, robed in white and up to their waists in water. (In the shop beside the baptism centre, I bought for a few shekels a tacky toy: a clear plastic bottle moulded in the shape of Jesus, marked “All Rights Reserved” on the back, and fitted to accommodate at His head a small cork.)

In Jerusalem – a holy city for Christians, Jews and Muslims – I went to watch the orthodox, praying at the Western Wall an hour before sunset on Friday (the start of their Sabbath). This is the most holy of all Jewish sites, last remnant of the Second Temple. On the left-hand side, men bowed and whispered into its crevices. In a smaller area to the right, women did the same. Turning to leave, I had to push through a stream of young men, most of them speaking English with American accents; and each one carrying a mattress. Too poor to stay in hotels, they arrive in droves from across the country, orthodox youths determined to stay in the holy city on this holiest day of the week.

Before making my trip, people had told me I’d be wiser touring Northern Ireland, where the different factions have at least started talking to each other. But Israel is not half so riven with sectarian hatred as I’d expected. How’s this for reaching across the divide: in the porch of a Crusader church, my Jewish guide David, a grizzled veteran of the War of Independence, fell into conversation with two Christian Arabs, then suddenly commenced a mildly competitive recital of verses from the Koran. When they’d finished, they laughed and shook hands warmly. Admittedly, this won’t settle the larger political conflict, but it came as a pleasant surprise.

With the sun setting fast, we quit the capital. According to the orthodox, Jews shouldn’t drive on the Sabbath, or indeed operate any kind of machinery. They’d like to see that enshrined in legislation, but that looks unlikely. (To make life easier for them, the lifts in Israeli hotels work automatically, going up and down all day, stopping off at each floor.)

Our next stop was Caesarea. Once a complex of amphitheatre, palace and state-of-the-art sewers – essentially Herod’s Milton Keynes on the Mediterranean – it is now little more than a heap of rubble. All the same, David had fun positioning us in the upper circle and demonstrating the fine acoustics. I was also somewhat relieved to check out ancient stones which did not, for a change, have the least religious significance. Nearby was Israel’s only serious golf club, and a hotel where some of Europe’s finest soccer teams come for pre-season training.

Further north, there was more for Christians, including the spot where Christ performed his miracle with the loaves and fishes. Of equal interest to me, trainspotter that I am, was a power station which pumps water half-way across the country, producing a miracle of a similar order: bountiful harvests on land which used to be barren.

Finally, returning south and sticking to the coast, we came to Tel Aviv. Here our guide was Shira Skolnik, an exceptionally energetic woman in her thirties, originally from New York, who shares a manicurist with Dana International, Tel Aviv’s transsexual Eurovision diva. Tel Aviv, Shira told us, is the antithesis of Israel’s capital. If Jerusalem is a little like Rome, then Tel Aviv, a city with practically zero historical or religious significance, is Sydney or Los Angeles.

Hemmed in to one side by some of the finest (if rather crowded) beaches I’ve ever seen, Tel Aviv is one of those rare big cities that also manages to be a seaside resort.

Israelis don’t drink a vast amount of alcohol, but in Tel Aviv they party all night. It’s absolutely routine to go out on a date at one in the morning (certainly, there were plenty of places open for food and drink when I turned in at 4am). Some of the hippest DJs in Europe play the clubs here.

The people who cater for Tel Aviv’s party animals have impressively entrepreneurial instincts. One of the most fashionable nightspots, Dvash -Moloko, is little more than a shed with surrealist decor, serving tables scattered over the vacant parking lots of neighbouring offices. Another is a vast tent in the middle of an industrial park in which customers sit on the floor to smoke scented tobacco from a hookah. Overheads at these hotspots are not high, but prices, as throughout Israel , certainly are. In one bar, a decent but not particularly special whisky cost US$ 22… for a single shot.

To get round the prohibitively high import taxes, yet another entrepreneur had the clever idea of running circular flights out of Israeli air space. For the price of a ticket, locals get to buy a whole range of foreign goods duty free. Check out the shop in the airport: selling everything from booze to washing machines, it’s not much smaller than the runway.