I spent the summer of 1976 as a kibbutz volunteer in the far north of Israel. While I was there I travelled around the country, visiting Jerusalem, Haifa, the Golan Heights and many other places. It was one of my first ever foreign trips and I’ve never forgotten the impact Jerusalem had upon me – it has always featured in my mental list of “top 5 cities in the world”.
A travel writers’ conference in Jerusalem was the ideal opportunity for a return trip, but I was full of questions. Would I still love Jerusalem just as much when I had so many more places to compare it with? And how would the country have changed since my last visit?
Israel Then And Now
The picture below is of me outside the Damascus Gate, when I was very much younger…
Although I remember Jerusalem as magical, my experiences on that earlier visit were not wholly positive. One thing I recall vividly was the level of harassment I was subject to, whether I was on my own or travelling with others. A problem that was exacerbated by the fact that local women seemed to be absent from the streets of the towns and cities.
Of course, the world has moved on since 1976, and my perception is that this has now changed significantly. In Jerusalem at least, women now walk the streets as freely as men. And one of our tour guides, a young(ish) resident of the city, told me she always felt safe wherever she went in Jerusalem.
Then there was the political situation. I feel that this is both better and worse now than it was back then. Worse in the sense that in 1976 there were no security walls or fences, and you could travel to places like Bethlehem or Hebron without any need for passports or checkpoints.
But in some ways better. There is still a considerable amount of mistrust and suspicion between Israelis and Palestinians, and between different religious and political groups. And there are still rights and wrongs on both sides. But this time I met people who were willing to look at all aspects of the situation, and I saw evidence of initiatives to break down barriers. (Read more about the amazing diversity of Jerusalem.)
Discovering Jerusalem’s Food And Culture
I am no longer a penniless student, so the comparison may not be entirely fair, but it seems to me that one thing that has improved immeasurably is the food. Especially for vegetarians: I remember eating little other than salad and falafel last time. (Read more about Eating out in Jerusalem.)
And there is now a thriving modern cultural scene, with bars, restaurants and luxury hotels. There are Innovative museums, trendy shopping centres, and colourful street art. Other things have changed too: Jerusalem is much cleaner than it was in 1976, but it is also much more crowded.
Jerusalem: A Modern City Destination
Of course, tourists still flock to the old city of Jerusalem, as a place of religious pilgrimage, or to discover 3,000 years of history. But, as with any other modern city destination, they also come for food and shopping, culture and relaxation. And to explore the surrounding towns and countryside.
For myself, despite the crowds, Jerusalem was still a place of mystique and inspiration. I enjoyed revisiting familiar sites, and discovering new ones. There was a walk around the old city walls, an exploration of the street art, and the sculptures of the Billy Rose Art Garden. And a fascinating insight into traditional Jewish culture at Shabbat of a Lifetime.
I was a little disappointed that I didn’t find time to travel further afield, particularly into the Palestinian territories. But there is always next time…