I’m SO excited to share this trip with you all. It was one of my most favorite trips for so many reasons and I would gladly go back to Israel in a heartbeat. Not only was the scenery great, but the company was even better. It’s a long one (yet again)…so, let’s get into it!

Our flight to Israel was definitely the most tense of all of my travels. Rose and I had our layover in Rome so we had to run across the airport to pick up our connecting flight, but fortunately we did make all of our flights on time. Sophie was on our flight from Rome to Tel Aviv, so we all reconnected in the Tel Aviv airport. We took a taxi from the airport to the Airbnb where we checked right in, got settled, bought some groceries and relaxed for a little bit. For dinner, we met with my longtime friend, Nofar, as well as some of his friends and we went for dinner and drinks. We all had a blast sitting, talking about random things and laughing a lot. It really felt like the closest to home I had ever been.

For the next day we had booked a day trip to Jerusalem and Dead Sea and we were all SO excited. Rose, Sophie and I dressed in Shabbat appropriate wear since we would be there on a Saturday. We first started our tour on Mount Scopus where we go a panoramic view of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. It was interesting to see that the mountains were more so hills, but they still offered beautiful views. We then rode down past the Mount of Olives and around the outside of the walls around Old Jerusalem. We started in Jewish Quarter which was very quiet due to Shabbat. All businesses were closed since during Shabbat you really can’t do most things including writing or even tearing toilet paper when you use the toilet (random fun fact). We soon arrived at the Wailing Wall or the Western Wall where there were many women praying, reading the Torah, singing, dancing, or swaying front and back (depending on if you were on the male or female side). We wrote blessings and prayers (which we quickly got scolded for by a patron for writing in that area) to place in the cracks of the wall. These notes are collected, prayed over and are burned in a religious ceremony. It was very cool to see in person. Once we left the Jewish Quarter and went into the Muslim Quarter, it was a whole new world. There were so many smells, foods, shops, people and life was in full swing. Our group went into a coffee shop where some sampled coffee with cardamom (I had mint tea since I’m caffeine sensitive) and our guide bought us some sort of huge and sweet bagel-like bread to share. It was soo good! Once we made our way through the market, we came to the Via Dolorosa in the Christian Quarterand saw the Stations of the Cross. Ironically, the Christian Quarter isn’t much different than the Muslim Quarter – lots of shops and still lots of people of all religions.  It was very understated and if you didn’t know where to look or what to look for, you’d probably miss it amongst the busy shops and the hustle and bustle. However, having a guide made it extremely helpful as he explained these points among the madness. We made our way to the Holy Sepulchre and we able to buy rosaries and other items to bless before we entered. The church was huge and covered so many floors since it was built over such a holy site, but it was beautiful and ornate. First, we went to the stone that Jesus’ body was laid on and we were able to bless our rosaries and other items there and therefore make them holy. From there, we were able to see the outside of Jesus’s tomb as well as be able to see where others were placing their hands in the hole where the Jesus’s crucifix was placed in the ground. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to spend there and therefore didn’t get to wait in line, but we were able to see the holes in the ground from the three crucifixes in the ground from underneath. Seeing those was the most poignant part for me and I felt the most connected there. After seeing this site, we went to have delicious shawarma on a roof top restaurant, to walk around the Armenian Quarter (we didn’t get to see it because it is very small and we didn’t have much time) and to head back to the van to head to the Dead Sea!

During our ride down to the Dead Sea, my ears popped as we go further below sea level! The Dead Sea is shrinking 1 meter per year, and once we entered the flat part of the valley, you could see where the sea once existed (as well as the city of Jericho and camels you could ride) which was sad but also super interesting. Once we arrived to the sea, we were given a demonstration with the sea salt scrubs they offered, and the feeling was so strange. The mud is quite oily so once the salt was washed away, my hands felt so soft and almost slippery! The weather was perfect and the water temperature felt great. Walking into the sea was pretty painful because of the huge (and I mean massive) hunks of salt underneath the mud. It was also very uneven in some places and at one point I was knee deep in the ground! They also only let us go out so far because it is very common for people to drown even in shallow waters. They wouldn’t be able to stand and start drinking the salt water and therefore would be become extremely dehydrated and die. However, once we got in the water, however, we just sat down and started floating around. It was the coolest feeling since when I would turn over to be perched on my toes, I would be pushed off of them and be constantly buoyant. The mud felt really good at first on my skin and I decided to cover my face and arms. However, after about 10-15 minutes, it started to burn because of the salt water so I had to run out and wash it off. While leaving, I got some of the water in my eye and actually felt like my eyeball was burning in my socket. Not a pleasant feeling, but my eyeball did survive. We had about an hour and a half here before we had to be back in the van to head back to Tel Aviv. I couldn’t say enough about how wonderful this tour was and was so glad to be guided around by a native and an expert. After we returned, Sophie and I went out for a walk, tried a tasty desert called Malabi and had some drinks with Nofar before we came back and had a long and well-deserved sleep.

The next day we spent in Tel Aviv walking along the coast, trying on bridal gowns and taking in Yafo (also known as Jaffa) as well. I woke up a bit earlier and took a nice walk along the beach in the morning. Soon after the girls woke up and we took a walk along the coast to where we had a light lunch. Afterwards, we went to my bridal appointment at Limor Rosen’s flagship store! It was such a cool opportunity to be able to go to the source and try on these beautiful designs so I couldn’t help but live the real bridal dream. All of her designs are custom made so I wasn’t able to purchase anything there or take any photos, but the experience itself of squeezing into model sizes (which I miraculously fit into some of them) was so cool. I found some great options, but I’m not going to give any spoilers ;). Once we left the bridal shop, we walked back down the coast towards Yafo to check out the town and see the market. I loved this area because of the mix of religions and people living peacefully and coexisting. At one point, I was facing a church while hearing the call to prayer from two different minarets. It was so beautiful! We spent the afternoon walking around the town and the open market. Eventually we went to a restaurant a friend recommended to me called “The Old Man and the Sea” and it was bottom line amazing. They start the meal with 20 different kinds of salad, fresh squeezed mint lemonade and fresh pita and from there I had delicious fresh caught sea bass. We sat outside along side of the marina and watched the sunset while eating our meal. It was so beautiful and perfect. On our walk back, we had a mini photoshoot with our phones with the sunset in the back ground. It was absolutely stunning and we caught some amazing memories. In the evening, Nofar took us to a very chic and understated prohibition era style cocktail bar. The design of the place was so cool. I felt like I was in an hotel lounge in the 1920’s. We eventually took a photo and said goodbye to Nofar. I was so happy to meet up with him and to hang out after all of these years. Hopefully I will be back one day to meet with him again – maybe with Alex this time!

I’m truly thankful to have had this experience. To me, it was one of the most important trips I have taken thus far. I learned so much not only about religion but also about people, how to coexist when it seems impossible and when to not trust what you’re told (especially over media). The people I’ve met on my travels in Israel, whether it was the man working at the souvenir shop, our tour guide, or Nofar and his friends, have been some of the kindest people I have ever met. Never have I been told “welcome to my country” by a complete stranger after telling them I am from the United States, and to be honest, I didn’t realize that it would make me feel so good.  This country will always have a special place in my heart and I can’t wait to return one day hopefully soon.

-Stephanie in Spain