On The Road: Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
After a leisurely brunch of waffles and chocolate at Max Brenner's on the boardwalk near Tel Aviv's lively port, I greet my brand new shiny Mercedes E350 Coupe. The exterior is sleek and streamlined in metallic silver, while the interior has that delicious smell of brand new leather. The front seats are egg-shaped, enveloping the driver in a space-module cocoon of slick design and cutting-edge technology. This Mercedes certainly sets the pulse racing.
There's a lovely breeze coming off the Mediterranean as I head for the main road to Jerusalem, just a couple of hours from Tel Aviv, and I'm eager to see what the V6 306 HP seven-gear engine can do. Just for kicks, I switch from automatic into manual - the transition is seamless. Settling into the comfort of the squashy leather driving seat, I'm looking forward to putting the car through its paces; so far it's pretty effortless and very comfortable.
Once I'm out of the city, the road runs inland through vast agricultural plains. Vineyards creep up the slopes of the Judea Mountain where my first stop is the Latrun Monastery. Built in 1890, the monks who make their living there as farmers and winemakers must take a vow of silence.
A little shop outside the monastery sells the fruits of the monks' labours and local produce such as olive oil. A small mural depicting Jesus with a radiant halo forms a semi-circle above the door to the chapel.
Inside, stained glass scatters coloured light across the face of a serene statue of the Virgin Mary. Even my breathing seems to echo within the chapel's solid stone walls as I sit for a while in quiet contemplation, the cool surroundings a welcome respite from the searing heat outside. The whisper of the Mercedes' engine doesn't disturb a soul when I whisk away on to Road 38 through the Valley of Ella, where the biblical battle between David and Goliath took place.
Suddenly out of nowhere, a herd of frolicking goats bursts on to the road, their shepherdess not far behind. I quickly take my foot off the accelerator and the car's predictive brake priming responds immediately, sparing a goat or two. Once the herd and their protector have crossed safely, I take a quick detour to a viewpoint in the Sataf nature reserve.
Here, bizarrely, I find a group of teenagers dancing in the woods to trance music. Further on, I come to the Forest of the Fallen, a memorial of quiet shady pines to soldiers who died in the Second World War. I spot some signs with an image of a goat and an arrow and follow them on to an uneven dirt road, deeper into the woods. The four-wheel drive suddenly comes into its own as the road narrows and wraps around a small cliff. I can't turn around; the road is too narrow to even attempt it. Luckily, the E350's agility control suspension automatically adapts to the tricky, uneven surface. There's no way out other than forward, but I feel in good hands.
Still, I breathe a sigh of relief when the trees open ahead of me, revealing a wooden farmstead nestled between two hills, everything built into the contours of the slopes. The world appears tilted.
This charming farm is overrun with sweet, nosy goats and offers a cheese delicatessen in a shallow cave behind, so I park in the yard to take a look.
An open cave illuminated by sunshine but still offering shade, it contains a glass refrigerator, a counter with kitchen equipment and a small table with two chairs. Despite its rustic appearance, the selection and quality of the cheese would rival anything I could find in Tel Aviv's delicatessens. Delicious, fleshy olives soaked in date honey are offered between cheeses. I try the rich labneh (a white, spreadable Arabic cheese) then soft white goat cheese wrapped in vine leaves, and a hard cheese called rekefet, similar to an aged parmesan, but creamier. There is solitude here, a tangible peace that feels a world away from either cosmopolitan Tel Aviv or historic Jerusalem.
The landscape has taken dramatic shifts from coast to vineyards through woodland, and now finally climbs to an elevated desert metropolis in the short space of 65km. Soon a small township on the edge of Jerusalem hoves into view.
Ein Karem is more a neighbourhood than a city. It's even built in the same style as some of Jerusalem's idyllic neighbourhoods: the German Colony in west Jerusalem and Peaceful Habitation (Mishkenot Sha'ananim), which is tucked between downtown and the Old City of Jerusalem.
Ein Karem has the same sand-coloured buildings and gardens spilling pink flowers out on to the streets. But this mini-city does have its own claim to fame, as it's believed to be the birthplace of John the Baptist. Today, it is a community of independent art galleries, restaurants and multiple Christian holy sites. Among them is the Church of St John the Baptist, which is built around the remains of an ancient mosque and an even more ancient Jewish holy place. Definitely worth a look, Ein Karem attracts over one million pilgrims a year.
At Mary's Well, there's a stone fountain built around the spring where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus's mother Mary met the mother of John the Baptist when both women were pregnant. Above the spring sits the Maqam, a century-old mosque. Here, in the areas around and inside Jerusalem, many religions have thrived and sanctified overlapping monuments for different reasons, weaving their narratives together for over a thousand years.
Across from the spring stretches a lush green valley, where traces of ancient agricultural terracing resemble a staircase to the sky. These picturesque slopes peppered with trees, brush and rocks are home to seven steepled churches and monasteries, including the golden domes of the Moscovia Orthodox Russian Church which shimmer in the late afternoon sun.
For a moment I listen to a black-robed Russian priest and a small choir of women wearing headscarves singing scriptures like they're opera. It is so ethereally beautiful that I turn back reluctantly to the car for the last leg to Jerusalem.
When the Holy City rears into view, you see the towering white peak of the new light-rail train that runs downtown, its cables drawn together towards the sky like an archer's bow.
Then comes the chaos of the outdoor market on Jaffa Street (the shuk) and towards the Old City's walls, the rows of restaurants, cafes bars and shops thronging with people. The Tower of David stands surrounded by this stone fortress and beneath that lies a labyrinth of tunnels.
The city of Jerusalem was established around 3,000 years ago and ever since has been repeatedly conquered, worshipped, dismantled and rebuilt on top of this centre. Ancient neighbourhoods - the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter and the Armenian Quarter are all physically intertwined, yet each remains distinct. Jerusalem, also known as the City of Peace, is stacked up in layers like a millefeuille. But modern-day Jerusalem is just a few blocks away where you can find cheap bars, drag shows, salsa dancing and a thriving music scene.
My road trip has shown perfectly a country of contrast and contradictions. After the beachfront chic of ultramodern Tel Aviv, the ancient city spreading out before me is a soothing sight, the Dome on the Rock glinting in the sinking sun. In Israel, adventures can be found in the simplest of things.
Mercedes E350 Coupe two-door
Six cylinder petrol engine with electric power steering ensures a smooth, swift and very comfortable ride
0-100 km/h: 6.2 seconds