Short Trips Around Small Countries: Israel

I first visited Israel in 1963, lived here as a student in 1964-6 and again on sabbatical in 1976-7.  I visited many times over the years, since my in-laws were living here since 1985 and my daughter and family since 1991.  My wife and I moved here in 1996 after I retired in the US. I could write reams about Israel. Let me say that Jerusalem is a unique experience and that everyone should visit Jerusalem at least once in their lifetime. As far as I am concerned it is the most amazing city, even more so than Rome or Athens. But, I will try to completely avoid the major cities of Israel, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, and write about some of the less well-visited places.

Starting in the far north, there is the settlement and nature reserve of Dan, that is the main source of the Jordan river.  The Hula Valley south of Dan is a lush swampy area that was once drained to fight the mosquitoes, but since their eradication (Palestine was the first place in the world to be sprayed in the 1920’s) it was subsequently re-flooded and is the stopping off point for millions of birds making the annual migration from the far north to Africa. This is a premier bird-watching location.

On both sides of the Hula Valley there are mountains, to the east the Golan Heights, and to the west the hills of upper Galilee.  By the way, the name Galilee comes from the Hebrew word for wave, gal, evoking the rolling hills of Galilee.  On the Golan Heights is the impressive Nimrod’s Castle, thought for many years to be a Crusader fortress, but now known to be of Arabic construction.  Also further south in the Golan are the ruins of the biblical city of Gamla, that was mentioned by Josephus in his “Jewish Wars,” describing the capture of Judea by the Romans, in which Gamla was the first Jewish city besieged and put to the sword.  It was constructed of black basalt rock that is found locally on the Golan.

To the west of the Hula is a winding road that leads to the heights above, where there is the fortress of Metzudat Koach (Strong Fortress).  This was one of the many Taggart Fortresses (about 70), named after the architect Charles Tegert, built by the British Occupation force around Palestine during the Mandate (1922-1948), with which they expected to control the country.  This fort was considered impregnable, but was captured by the Jewish forces in 1948 during the War of Independence with the loss of 28 lives.  It is a memorial and historical museum now.

Picturesque route 899 meanders along the Lebanese border thru Sasa to the Mediterranean coast.  On the coast adjacent to the border are the famous sea caves of Rosh Hanikra, that can be reached by a cable car.  Just south is the pleasant seaside resort of Nahariya, where German can still be heard spoken by the founders and their descendants.

Further south along the coast is the major port city of Akko (Acre). This has the huge impressive Crusader fortress that was used by the British as a major prison for the Jewish and Arab rebels.  The famous break-out in 1947 through the adjacent old Turkish bathhouse (Hamam) was shown in the film “Exodus.”  Nearby is the entrance to the underground Crusader city.  The story goes that when Saladin recaptured Acre from the Crusaders, instead of destroying the city they had built, he buried it in sand, thus inadvertently preserving it.  This underground city is definitely worth visiting, including the huge Hall of the Knights and the escape tunnel they built to the port.

South of Haifa is the small town of Atlit.  There is a Roman ruin there, but it can’t be visited because it is the site of the Israeli submarine base.  At the entrance of Atlit is the detention camp that was used by the British to imprison Jews who entered Palestine illegally.  It was so similar to the German concentration camps that it was detested by the Jews, although Jews were not deliberately murdered there. There was a major break-out in 1945 and the camp was abandoned by the British.  It is now a Museum and has a visitor’s center.  Inside there is also one of the ships that was used by the Jewish underground to transport illegal immigrants into Palestine.   One of the best fish restaurants in Israel is the Ben Ezra that is tucked away inside the secluded town.

Further south along the coast is the main seaside resort of Israel, Netanya.  It has magnificent beaches and cliff walks, but no historic remains, being a new city founded in 1929.  But, it has plenty of hotels and restaurants.  One notable incident that occurred there was the kidnapping of two British sergeants in 1947, when the British were pursuing a strongly anti-Jewish policy and had been flogging and executing captured members of the Jewish underground.  Under the orders of Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Armed Organization) the two sergeants were hung in a forest in the eastern side of Netanya and the forest has been preserved and is known as the Horshat Ha’Sargentim (Grove of the Sergeants).

Further south on the coast is the resort of Ashkelon, where there is a national park containing the ruins of the ancient biblical city of Ashkelon, that was a capital of the Philistines.  In the center of the Negev desert is the city of Be’er Sheva, famous in the Bible as the place where Abraham finally settled and dug a well (be’er).  It was the site of the famous 1917 battle, that proved to be the turning point in WWI between the British and Turkish forces (with German officers).  The famous charge of the ANZAC light horsemen is considered to be the last horse charge in history.  They captured Beer Sheva and this opened the way to the capture of Jerusalem by Gen. Allenby’s British Army, the first Allied Victory of WWI.  There is a bust of Allenby in a small park in the Old City, and in 2017 on the centenary of the battle, a museum was opened by the PM’s of Israel and Australia that is a gem to visit, adjacent to the British war cemetery.

I’ll finish this short synopsis of sites to visit in Israel outside the three major tourist cities by describing one of the main geological sites in Israel, the Ramon Crater.  South of Beer Sheva is the town of Mitzpe Ramon (View of Ramon) that sits on the northern edge of this amazing huge crater.  At the edge is a modern luxury hotel called Bereshit (Beginning) and in the town is the Ramon Inn.  The Exhibition Center on the crater edge is a must visit, and there is a movie about the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon who died in the Columbia space disaster.  The view from the top of the crater is magnificent.


Short Trips Around Small Countries: Jordan IV

Quite separately from my previous experiences visiting Jordan in 1995, my wife and I visited Petra in 1998.  We drove down to Eilat and had a short vacation there, then crossed the border at the Eilot border crossing and were picked up by a bus on the Jordanian side and driven to Aqaba.  We toured Aqaba, visited the old palace, captured by Lawrence of Arabia in 1917.  Then we drove into the desert, visited the so-called Seven Pillars at Wadi Rum, a series of massive red sandstone pillars in a wide desert valley.  Lawrence’s book was entitled “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” based on this monument and the seven tenets that Islam is based upon.

Then we drove north to the small town of Wadi Musa that is adjacent to the ruins of the famous Nabatean city of Petra.  This is named after Moses, who the Arabs believed took this route to Mt. Nebo further north, where he is said to have died.  We stayed overnight there and early the next morning walked into the Petra National Park and thru the amazing very narrow canyon that leads directly to the famous so-called Treasury that is carved out of the sandstone rock.  Excavations under this have revealed a series of caverns and tombs and now it is thought to have been a burial site for the elite of the city.

The Nabateans were a tribe that controlled the so-called spice route across the desert from Arabia to Egypt and the Mediterranean.   They had cities that are now in Israel, Avdat and Mamshit in the Negev Desert.  From this transport they earned a lot of money and were able to build these cities.  But, they depended on the water supply, that in Petra came from outside the city thru a series of small channels.  The Romans were able to conquer Petra easily by cutting off their water supply.

Once inside Petra the area opens out impressively into a wide valley with many buildings carved into the rock and built onto it.  The architecture is clearly different from the common form of Arab/Muslim building.  The erosion of the striations on the red rock were beautiful.  We took a tour around the site and up to a height where there was an old Arab man living, who served us coffee. I must say that Petra was one of the most impressive archaeological sites I have ever visited.  On the way out we were so tired we hired a donkey and cart to drive us out, it was quicker, but quite stinky.  The following day we returned to Eilat.




Short Trips Around Small Countries: Scotland

One day in 1990 I received an unexpected visit from the Director of the Institute where I worked (National Cancer Institute) and he had with him an elderly, distinguished-looking gentleman.  He asked me if I could accommodate this gentleman, who was Professor Sir Patrick Forrest from Edinburgh, in my office.  My name came to mind for two reasons, first I was from the UK, although from London, and second I was known to have several computers, and he urgently needed access to one.  Under such circumstances who could say “no,” but I was pleased to be of help to the visitor.  It turned out that the Director had made no arrangements in advance for Sir Patrick, so I was “it.”

Sir Patrick was Chairman of the UK Committee to decide whether or not British women should be screened for breast cancer, and their Report was just about to be published in the UK  (“Breast Cancer: the decision to screen,” Sir P. Forrest, Nuffield Trust, 1990).  I gave him a computer and he immediately sat down to write various letters.  He shared my office for several weeks and in that time we became friends.  I showed him what I was doing, studying breast cancer cells grown in culture and he toured the labs to meet other scientists.  When he left he made me promise to go and visit him in Edinburgh, hence this visit to Scotland.

With my wife, we took the fast train from London to Edinburgh and there rented a car.  We found Sir Pat’s home situated in a suburb of Edinburgh.  It was a small castle built of gray stone, as all Scottish castles seem to be, with a small turret and with a bright green hilly lawn.  We took various tours of Edinburgh, including the famous Castle, but even in the summer it was quite chilly.  I had to buy a tartan scarf on Prince’s Street against the wind. We had great meals and a party with Sir Pat and many guests that he invited.  I still treasure a copy of his Report with a nice inscription inside thanking me.

From Edinburgh we drove north, across the famous bridge of the Firth of Forth, then through the city of Perth, and through the hilly Cairngorms National Park.  We were surprised at how bald and tree-less the hills were, but it is quite far north.  On the way we saw a small castle that was in the travel guide, so we stopped.  The gentleman mowing the lawn in his kilt was the owner, so he gave us a personal tour.  We stayed overnight in Inverness, arranging B&B’s by telephone on the way.

Then we circumnavigated Loch Ness, the long thin lake south of Inverness.  No sightings of Nessie.  Nearby is the site of the battle of Culloden, 1746, the last battle fought on British soil, between the Jacobite supporters of the Stuart claimants to the throne of England and the English forces.  The Scots, mostly Highlanders, were badly beaten and afterwards they were massacred, known euphemistically as the “Highland clearances.”

From there we headed west to picturesque Kyle of Lochalsh, the ferry access to the Isle of Skye.  This was where Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart pretender to the English throne, escaped after the Battle of Culloden, as in the song “Sweet bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing, onward the sailors cry, carry the lad that’s born to be King, over the sea to Skye.”  He lived a life of luxury and decadence at the court of his cousin the King of France, and never did come back again.  We chose not to cross over.  We bought beautiful local knitted sweaters for our family there.

Then we drove down the west coast of Scotland, in extreme summer heat, through beautiful rugged scenery for miles down a one-lane road, though Glenfinnan, Oban and past Loch Lomond (no sightings there either), and eventually to Glasgow.  In Glasgow we stayed in a B&B that was an 18th century house that had been modernized, and since we were the only guests we had the run of the place.  We drove into the center of Glasgow and wandered around and ate in an  interesting pub (the name long forgotten).  From there we drove back into England and went to visit my cousin in Leeds.

Short Trips Around Small Countries: Japan

One could argue that Japan is not a small country, because it has a very large population for its actual size.  But, in this case I describe only a small portion of the country.  I have in fact visited Japan several times, but here I will describe some highlights only on the main island Honshu and off the beaten track.

One time I stayed in Tokyo in the busy Shinjuku district in a hotel that was a tall building consisting entirely of tiny rooms for businessmen.  The “room” was actually a plastic box, no bigger than an average bathroom, that included a bed, a toilet and a shower. Minimal. Most tourists are content to view Mt. Fuji, the amazing cone-like volcano that dominates central Honshu, from nearby Tokyo. But, with a Japanese friend I actually drove up the road that takes you about 2/3 of the way to the top.  At the base is a beautiful shrine where one gives prayers for the journey, and then at the end of the road there is a large wooden château, with a restaurant and other facilities.  We climbed a bit further, but it was misty, so we could not see the view and the ground is like cinder, treacherous.

I had an amazing unique experience when I visited one time, my former student’s pupils were getting married, and since he organized the wedding (that’s how they do it there, someone outside the families is responsible) he invited me. First the bride and groom wore sedate Japanese kimonos and everything was very Japanese.  Then after a break they reappeared thru a mist in Western dress, he in tuxedo and she in white bridal gown, to loud American-style pop music.  It was weird.  They gave out place maps, showing where everyone was to sit and in the middle in English it said “Prof. Jack S. Cohen.”  Since I was his teacher (the sensei of the sensei) I was given much honor.  I was asked to address the guests.  I gave my speech which was translated, I said that every country is famous for something, Germany for its cars, France for its wine, America for its movies, England for its literature, and Japan is famous for its brides!  This was tongue-in-cheek, but I suppose they took it literally.  Anyway it was a wonderful experience.

One of the most interesting cities in Japan is Nara, the old capital, that has many interesting historical wooden buildings, including the oldest in Japan dating to 768 ce. Unfortunately, most of them burnt down over time and were usually replaced by exact replicas.  There are few original castles in Japan, since most of them were destroyed on order of the Emperor during the Meiji restoration in 1868 ce, but Osaka Castle is one of the few original ones remaining and worth a visit.  Kyoto is the jewel of Japan, supposed to have 1,000 temples, and the old palace of the Emperor before he moved to Tokyo.  I remember that the wooden floors were made to deliberately creak so that no assassin could creep up on the Emperor or the Shogun, his military commander and the actual ruler of Japan until the Meiji period.

One time I went south to Hiroshima, and of course visited the Memorial Peace Park commemorating the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945.  My host took me to the other side of the river and on the stony beach there were still ceramic roof tiles that had been melted by the atomic blast, one of which I kept.   From there I took a boat out in Hiroshima Bay to the tiny island of Miyajima.  This is one of the seven famous beauty spots in Japan that all Japanese are supposed to visit.  I was lucky to arrive when it was misty and I saw the large red wooden gate or Torii rising dramatically out of the mist.

Another time I went north to Sendai, a very attractive modern city about 200 miles from Tokyo (unfortunately it was badly damaged in the tsunami of 2004).  By the Shinkansen, the bullet train, this takes only about 1.5 hrs.  In the City museum there is a display devoted to the famous warrior, Date Masamune, who was one of the first to unify Japan in the 1600’s.  His suit of armor is exhibited, including his famous helmet surmounted by its distinctive inverted crescent.  Out in the bay is another famous beauty spot, Matsushima, with hundreds of small green islands. One night my host and his students took me out for a meal, up into the mountains to a special restaurant that served only sea creatures, snails and things you had to extract from their shells.  I think they wanted to see how far I would go.  When they put a long black thing on the plate before me, I stopped, I said no, I can’t eat that! Luckily I didn’t, it was a delicacy, porpoise penis.

Once I went as far east as you can go from Tokyo to Choshi, a major fishing port, where the Yamasa company makes soy sauce.  I visited their factory with a former student. They import most of the soy beans into the port, and and as far as I remember they then mash them and put them in layers between sea weed, then let it ferment in tanks and then squeeze the soy sauce out.  Here I stayed in a ryokan, a Japanese inn, where everything is done in traditional Japanese style.  I had a geisha (servant lady), who prepared my meals served in Japanese style, on the floor in small trays.  She offered to give me a bath, with hot water poured into a small tin bathtub (in which you have to bend you legs), which I politely declined.  I slept on a futon on the tatami flooring.  One distinct feature of this ryokan was that it was actually built on the rocks, and it was a wonderful experience to view the sunrise, with the waves splashing over the rocks and the fishing boats sailing out into the bay.

I am not a religious man, but that doesn’t prevent me from having spiritual experiences.  One of the most memorable of these was when I visited the large Hozen-ji Buddhist Temple in downtown Osaka.  A priest entered and started to tap a wooden stick at an ever-increasing rate.  Then a double line of monks entered slowly singing in deep voices and then chanting a service.  Although I could not understand anything, the atmosphere, the location and the deepening dusk made the whole experience ethereal.

Short Trips Around Small Countries: Denmark

I visited Denmark many times, partly because I was collaborating with a colleague at Copenhagen University.  In Copenhagen, the main attraction is the Tivoli Gardens, one of the first amusement parks in the world, opened in 1843. One of my favorite memories is attending a meeting of the Benzon Foundation (Benzon is a large Danish pharmaceutical company) that was organized by my colleague.  The attendees were housed in the top floors of the SAS high-rise building (at that time the tallest building in Copenhagen) adjacent to the Tivoli Gardens.. When they had their daily fireworks display it was a novel experience to watch it from above.

Every Day the Danish guards in their tall bearskin hats and smart blue uniforms parade through the city from their barracks adjacent to the Rosenborg Castle (at 11.30 am) to the Amalienborg Palace (noon), where the Danish Royal family reside.  The Rosenborg Castle is relatively small and is really a gem to visit near the center of Copenhagen.  Just north of Copenhagen in Hillerod is Fredericksborg Castle that by contrast a really large Castle .  It is well worth a visit, but in the winter it is very cold, because there is no heating and lighting inside.  The Castle Church has a colorful display of the shields of all the noble families of Denmark going back 1,000 years.  It includes that of Karen Blixen who wrote the famous novel “Out of Africa.”

Kronborg Castle further north in Helsingor (Elsinore) is the site of what was supposed to have been Hamlet’s Castle.  Also on the way north is the Louisiana Art Gallery, which features the interaction of nature and art.  Note that the old castles have the three crown symbol of the Danish monarchy, when they ruled not only Denmark, but also what is now Sweden and Norway.  Not many people are aware that southern Sweden was in fact part of Denmark and wars were fought for hundreds of years between Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Going west from Copenhagen one first comes to Roskilde, where there is a museum containing a magnificently preserved Viking boat.  To reach the mainland of Jutland one has to cross the island of Fyn (pronounced fun).  Its main town is Odense, from where Hans Christian Anderson came.  On the south coast near Svendborg there is the estate of Broholm, with a castle containing an unusual collection of antiquaries collected by several of its owners.

Crossing to the mainland of Jutland, one can see many old estates with windmills.  Further north there is the second largest city in Denmark, Aarhus.  I stayed there with the family of a friend.  It is a very busy industrial city with a large port and university.  It’s main tourist attraction is the Old City Museum that contains part of the original Old City, part restored part rebuilt, as it was hundreds of years ago.

Driving north from Aarhus as far as one can go brings you to the famous village of Skagen (pronounced Skayen) on the very northern tip of Denmark  This was an artist’s colony where the famous Danish artist Michael Ancher had a studio and a house that is very well worth visiting. Nearby is the buried church that is sinking in the sand dunes. Skagen is where the North Sea and the Baltic Sea meet, and the currents are very unpredictable.  Also, the light there is supposed to be special.

Returning down the west coast of Denmark one goes thru the small towns of Ringkobing and Ebsbjerg (lovely names) and then to the Danish border with Germany. Of course, Denmark used to be much larger, until in the 1860’s Germany (Prussia) occupied the southern Danish counties of Schleswig and Holstein and then annexed them  The Schleswig-Holstein question vexed Europe for many years, but now it is a forgotten issue (as one day will be the West Bank).  Ah, well, all is peaceful there now.

Short Trips Around Small Countries: Wales

An American friend of mine came back from a short visit to the UK and said he turned on the TV and they were speaking a completely incomprehensible language.  He had no idea what it was.  It was Welsh, one of the original Celtic languages of the British Isles, before all the Latin, French and German speakers came along and changed it to English.

The Celts now only reside in the periphery where they were pushed by the invaders, in Wales and Scotland and Ireland, where they speak Gaelic.  Wales is a small, hilly country which was the first “colony” to be conquered by the Norman French invaders in 1282.  Welsh is now only spoken as the first language in the northern-most mountainous regions of Wales.   There is a Welsh nationalist movement called Plaid Cymru (Cymru being Welsh for Wales) and a devolved National Assembly that meets in Cardiff, the largest city in Wales.

Just over the Welsh border on the River Wye are the atmospheric ruins of  Tintern Abbey, one of the most famous Church establishments that were destroyed by Henry VIII in the 16th century on the establishment of the Church of England.  Its ruins have been celebrated in poetry and art.

A trip to the lesser-known sites of Wales should include a visit to Hay, that is the village in the county of Powys, near the English border, that has the largest number of book stores per capita in the world.  There are hundreds of book stores and they have a famous literary festival every year in May that is a must for bibliophiles (ironically it is all in English of course).  Nearby in central Wales is the lovely town of Llandidrod Wells (remember that “ll” in Welsh is pronounced “th”) that is the capital of Powys.

On the north-west coast of Wales is the famous Harlech Castle, that was built in the 13th century by the Norman invaders under King Edward I.  There was a famous battle at this castle that is memorialized in a national Welsh song, “Men of Harlech.”  It is well-known that the Welsh love to sing, especially in choirs.  Every year they hold the National Eisteddfod, that is part celebration of the Welsh language and part music festival.

Further north along the coast is the fantastic village of Portmeirion, that was constructed from 1925 by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in the form of a Mediterranean village, supposedly modelled after Portofino, but all the buildings are built in about 2/3 normal size.  It is a really charming place to visit, highly decorated and very unique.  One of its attractions is its highly decorated pottery with colorful flowers, butterflies and insects.  The Village is famous for having been the location of the British TV series of the 1960’s called “The Prisoner.

On the north-west corner of Wales is the Island now known as Anglesey, but in Celtic times it was the center for the Druids, the indigenous pagan religion, but was destroyed by the Romans.   Nearby are two magnificent castles built in the 13th century by the Normans.  Their masterpiece castle,  Conwy Castle and Caernavon Castle, a beautiful site where the Prince of Wales, the heir to the English throne, is invested.  This was begun by Edward I to ensure the loyalty of the Welsh to the English monarchy.

Over the border in England is the wonderful city of Chester, that has some of the most intact Roman architecture in Britain.  But, that’s another story.

Short Trips Around Small Countries: Holland

When I was a scientist working for the US Government I had the opportunity almost every year to take a trip abroad and visit some well-known and also some not so well-known places.  Because of the limited time I had on these trips I could not spend too much time as a tourist.  After some years I thought of writing a travel book with the above title.  But, since I never got around to actually writing this, I thought I would describe some of the less-visited, more interesting places I have visited.  This was partly a result of a discussion I had with some Dutch people I met, when I reminisced about visiting their country.

Everyone who visits Holland goes to Amsterdam, and it is a wonderful city to visit, especially taking the boat tours around the canals (can you say Keisersgracht in Dutch?)  But, relatively few people visit central Holland, a chance I had when I drove with my wife from a conference in Copenhagen to another in Amsterdam via Hamburg.  After crossing the Dutch border we stayed a few nights in a beautiful little city called Appeldorn.  The reason for staying there are the local treasures, the Palace of Het Loo and the Kroller-Muller Gallery that sits in the middle of a forest and has the second largest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world (the largest collection is at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam).

The Palace of Het Loo (that roughly means “in the woods”) was built in 1686 in the French Baroque style by King William II of Orange.  But, after his death the ownership passed to King Frederick of Prussia, since all the Royal Houses of Europe were related in some way.  Eventually it was returned to the ownership of the Dutch Royal Family, until it was finally bequeathed to the Dutch Nation.   It is an impressive Palace well worth the visit.  Its gardens are magnificent, in the French style, outclassed only by those at Versaille.  The gardens had fallen into ruin, but were reconstructed in the 1970-80’s to their original design from contemporary drawings.

The Kroller-Muller Gallery was established in 1938 from the collection of Helene Kroller-Muller and her husband Anton.  She was principally responsible for amassing this fabulous collection and was one of the first to recognise the genius of Van Gogh.   The gallery itself is a modern glass-fronted building that is in the center of a large forest.  This forest,. the Hoge Vuluwe, is unique in Holland, being the last wild forest left.  During WWII it was refuge for many hiding from the Nazis, which included youths of Jewish and Scottish ancestry.  (Prof. McLean of the Free University of Amsterdam was one of them and he told me his story; there is a community of Scottish Protestants in Holland, who escaped Catholic persecution in the mid-1700’s).  They were fed by the local farmers and were never captured.