Silver Wind Middle East Adventure Day 12: Ashdod, Israel

Silver Wind Arrives in the Holy Land

Today, Silversea's Silver Wind docked in Ashdod, Israel - and I set out on an excursion to the holy city of Jerusalem. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Today, Silversea’s Silver Wind docked in Ashdod, Israel – and I set out on an excursion to the holy city of Jerusalem. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

After having visited ports of call in Oman, Egypt and Jordan, Silversea’s Silver Wind arrived in what is our fourth country on this 15-night Middle East voyage: Israel. Docking in the country’s largest port city, Ashdod, nearly every guest onboard was preparing to spend their time here exploring some of Israel’s most treasured sights.

Today was our first stormy, unsettled morning at sea...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Today was our first stormy, unsettled morning at sea…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...but that would quickly change. Note the fantastic paint job on Silver Wind's bow. No more rust! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…but that would quickly change. Note the fantastic paint job on Silver Wind’s bow. No more rust! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Here in Ashdod, Silversea offers 12 different shore excursions that cover Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Caves at Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park, Jaffa, a winery and a traditional “kibbutz” community, Masada and the Dead Sea, and private car and van options so that guests can create their own tours. The latter two options aren’t inexpensive, but I’ve seen numerous groups on this voyage make use of this service, which Silversea has dubbed “Silver Shore Privato.” The response has been good: guests are willing to pay a premium for an even more exclusive (and intimate) kind of touring experience. For the rest of us, even Silversea’s regular excursions are designed so that coaches are rarely packed, and guides are typically top-notch.

Our first stop in Jerusalem: the Mount of Olives, which offers an incredible view of the city. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Our first stop in Jerusalem: the Mount of Olives, which offers an incredible view of the city. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Our coach also made numerous photo stops going from one walking destination to another. This is the Russian Orthodox Church of Maria Magdalene. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Our coach also made numerous photo stops going from one walking destination to another. The Church of All Nations is in the foreground. In the background with the gold domes is the Russian Orthodox Church of Maria Magdalene. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

To make the most of my time here, I decided that I would take a tour to Jerusalem. Initially, I’d booked Panoramic Jerusalem (ASD-A, $199), but thankfully Shore Concierge Farida contacted me midway through the cruise: Would I like to switch to A Day In Jerusalem (ASD-B, $199)? She explained that A Day In Jerusalem was for the more active traveller, whereas Panoramic Jerusalem featured a greater proportion of sightseeing on the coach. I was glad that Farida let me know about that – I hate being on the coach, and like to get off and walk every chance I can get. Plus, the two tours were the same price, departed at the same time, and lasted nearly as long. She also had other guests to call; just to double-check with them as she had with me.

Our next stop...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Our next stop…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...if the cats would stop coming up to my camera...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…if the cats would stop coming up to my camera…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...is Dormiton Abbey on Mount Zion. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…is Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Inside Dormiton Abbey. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Inside Dormition Abbey. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Beneath the cathedral, in the crypt, is the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Beneath the cathedral, in the crypt, is the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The Dormition of the Virgin Mary, sans crowds. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The Dormition of the Virgin Mary, sans crowds. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The first thing you’ll likely notice about Israel: security is tight. This morning, guests had to meet in the Parisian Lounge via The Bar on Deck 5 at 7:30 a.m. for a face-to-face meeting with local immigration authorities. While most guests went up and were asked a few cursory questions, I was put through the wringer: Why are you here? Why are you travelling alone? Have you been to Israel before? Why have you come to Israel? Did you pick this cruise because of Israel? Why are you travelling alone? What do you do? What do you write about? Who do you work for? Where were you born? Have you always been Canadian? Why are you travelling alone?

So that was intimidating, particularly compared to Egypt which really didn’t seem to be all that vexed about security. Obviously, the Israelis have their concerns about the security of their country and who comes into it. Horror stories persist about Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, with reports of multi-hour grillings by security personnel. In that respect, I got off easy today at the port check that seemed to last forever but which in reality probably took five minutes. But as always, forewarned is forearmed: expect a great deal of scrutiny and numerous security checks in Israel, particularly if you are travelling alone.

Next stop: the nearby David's Tomb, situated in the remains of the former Hagia Zion. It is unknown whether the sarcophagus actually contains remains, but it remains a holy site nonetheless. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Next stop: the nearby David’s Tomb, situated in the remains of the former Hagia Zion. It is unknown whether the sarcophagus actually contains remains, but it remains a holy site nonetheless. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Also note that your passport is not stamped – unless you want it to be and you specifically request it. Having an Israeli stamp in your passport isn’t advisable for a number of reasons, particularly if you want to have freedom of movement throughout the world. Many Middle Eastern countries will bar travellers with an Israeli stamp in their passport from entering. Stamps are instead placed in a Tourist Control Card that you must keep with you at all times when ashore, along with your passport.

Having just passed through the historic Jaffa Gate in the rain...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Having just passed through the historic Jaffa Gate in the rain…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...and the sweet smells of freshly-baked bread...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…and the sweet smells of freshly-baked bread…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...we arrived in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and is also said to have been buried. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…we arrived in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and is also said to have been buried. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Visitors rub souvenirs...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Visitors rub souvenirs…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...on the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus is said to have been anointed before burial. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…on the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus is said to have been anointed before burial. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Getting off the ship involved a passport check at the gangway, a passport check in the terminal, and a full security sweep that involved scanning bags, removing belts, watches, wallets – the whole bit. Make sure you leave yourself lots of time before your tour departs when disembarking for your excursion.

I will say this: my 10.5-hour long tour to Jerusalem was absolutely spectacular, and well worth any hassle that I may have encountered in getting off the ship.

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

One of the oldest and most revered cities in the world, Jerusalem is also the focal point for three separate religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The city has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. With that kind of track record, you can appreciate while you’ll pass through metal detectors at every port, airport, and Western-style hotel.

Original flooring from the year 335. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Original flooring from the year 335. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

It’s also a huge city, with numerous districts and quarters and a population that exceeds one million people in the Metro Jerusalem area. As you might expect, religion plays a massive role in modern-day Jerusalem: a 2000 book of statistics notes that Jerusalem had, at that time, well over a thousand synagogues, nearly 200 churches, and 73 mosques within the city limits. The term “Holy Land” isn’t merely for show.

Wandering through Jerusalem's fascinating Bazaars. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Wandering through Jerusalem’s fascinating Bazaars. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

This is the part of the report where I admit that I’m not particularly religious, and some of the biblical stories that our guide assumed we all knew (and indeed, many guests did) left me a bit lost. However, I personally don’t think a religious affiliation is necessary to enjoy and fully appreciate Jerusalem, though undoubtedly those of the Jewish, Christian or Islamic faith will relish the emotional significance of these sites.

In ten and a half hours, Silversea showed us a city that is revered as one of the foremost birthplaces of civilisation. It’s overwhelming, awe-inspiring, mystifying, contradictory, and everything in between. Our magnificent lunch at the Hotel Leonardo also taught me the Israeli’s make pretty drinkable wine, and excellent beer.

A Famous Sight: the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall - the holiest sight in Judaism. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
A Famous Sight: the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall – the holiest sight in Judaism. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Jewish men and women come here to pray, but do so on separate sides of the wall. The wall surrounds the Temple Mount, or Har Habayit. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Jewish men and women come here to pray, but do so on separate sides of the wall. The wall surrounds the Temple Mount, or Har Habayit. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

But aside from the monuments and the historic gates and the wailing walls, the thing that affected me most profoundly happened at exactly ten in the morning: air raid sirens went off all across the city, their lonely wail inducing an almost primal fear into most. Synonymous with death and war, they rang out over the city to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, and to pay respects to those who lost their lives in the Holocaust.

Our bus driver stopped the coach in the middle of the highway, and he and our guide got out and stood at attention at the side of the bus. Every other vehicle on the road came to a dead stop where it stood. Drivers got out and stood motionless next to their cars. Pedestrians on an overpass in the distance froze in place. Adherence was total and complete. It was as if, for two minutes, life ceased to exist.

We were the lucky ones. After two minutes of silence, our lives were allowed to continue. Eight decades ago, few were given that same opportunity. It’s a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Israel came to a standstill today at 10:00 to remember those who died in the Holocaust. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Israel came to a standstill today at 10:00 to remember those who died in the Holocaust. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Silver Wind Middle East Adventure

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
April 5, 2015Muscat, OmanEmbark Silver Wind19:00
April 6Day at Sea
April 7Salalah, Oman13:0023:00
April 8At Sea
April 9At Sea
April 10At Sea
April 11At Sea
April 12Safaga, Egypt07:0021:00
April 13Aqaba, Jordan09:3021:00
April 14Transiting the Suez Canal
April 15Port Said, Egypt08:0017:00
April 16Ashdod, Israel08:0023:00
April 17Haifa, Israel07:0018:00
April 18At Sea
April 19Kusadasi, Turkey08:0017:00
April 20Piraeus (Athens), Greece07:00Disembark; Live Voyage Recap

Our Live Voyage Report aboard Silversea’s elegant Silver Wind continues tomorrow as we explore Haifa, Nazareth & the Sea of Galilee. Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.

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One Comment

  • I’d heard about the moment of silence somewhere else. What a poignant moment on your trip.

    Reply

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