Travel Notes – Israel & Italy April 2012

This trip was a retracing of our honeymoon exactly 8 years prior, except this time with 2 kids in tow. First Israel for Passover, and then Italy. This edition of travel notes will emphasize the eccentricities of travel with small kids.

Alitalia to Israel via Rome was not bad although there is really no security in Rome for the Tel Aviv flight. Alitalia has a deal where for an extra 50,000 miles you can upgrade to business class across the Atlantic on a reasonably priced coach ticket if you book far in advance; we booked 11 months out. The A330 is a nice plane. Their business class seats are configured differently in each row, with some together and some far apart but their lie-flats are true lie-flats. Strollers must be on the plane if you are going to need them to transfer in Rome as the plane parks on the tarmac and a bus takes you to the terminal. The bathrooms in the Rome airport were really gross. B-Class seating on the Rome/Tel Aviv run is not worth it as the seats are the same and just a divider in the middle seat; just go to the online check-in early and get a seat in the first 9 rows of the plane and you get the same added leg room as the first 5 rows do (which is what we did).  In Tel Aviv, it took almost an hour for the strollers to be offloaded from the plane because Alitalia throws them all the way in the back. Same thing happened in Rome on the way back, but in NY they get them off fast. Ben Gurion airport has an arrival assistance service where for a fee they will walk you past passport control, help you with baggage, put you in a car and get you to your hotel. Jeremy had to be carried through passport control entering the country since he was so messed up after the long flight (and he had a tantrum exiting the country as well for good measure).

The Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv is a personal favorite; I’ve stayed there several times over the past 25 years. It is independently owned and you get good value for money. The Hilton was insane to deal with, twice the money, and I don’t care for it since it is a pain to get in and out of that property. The Carlton is ideally located just south of the Hilton and very easy to get in and out of. We had a very nice room on the lounge floor atop the hotel; hotel lounges are a real croc in this country for families with kids. In virtually the whole country, hotels don’t allow kids under 18 in the lounges and we couldn’t take food out of the lounges back to the room. (We complained and made a deal with the hotel that we would select food from the lounge and they would bring it to our room, but that was clearly an exception they were making for us.) Also, in this country virtually all the good hotels require that you take a separate hotel room for your kids as they only allow 2 people to a room. These rules are a damning indictment of how people act with kids in this country and it makes the country rather expensive for traveling families and I don’t have to deal with such rules anywhere else. The hotel is a bit more of a boutique than a place to go with kids; no TV channels for kids and the concierges were pretty clueless about matters such as parks. The area near the old port (north of the Hilton) had an indoor play area for kids that they loved called Dayara. We had a hard time finding parks in the city. Yotveta has a great menu for families and it is a good standby for me (just south of the Dan Hotel along the street facing the beach). Along the beach are exercise areas and the kids enjoyed them. All hotels we stayed at in the country lack dual voltage shaver outlets or any outlets in the bathrooms, for that matter. We had gelato by the beach and the breakfast at the hotel was excellent, the pool atop the hotel was freezing cold; they just built a new spa and gym.

Ra’nana is an affluent Anglo-oriented suburb 35 minutes drive from central Tel Aviv; further than I thought. Very nice park there. Prices approach Manhattan real estate. Best to take taxis with flat fares; they tend to get you there faster that way. Visited Old Jaffa; Ablulafia has a wonderful bakery for the better part of a century right on the main street. Lots of redevelopment work going on in Jaffa and it is pretty to walk around. Kids doing great parkour in the city square. Then a short ride to the Carmel Market at the end of the day, which is the best time to go there with kids. Dinner at Regina’s in the Old Jaffa Train Station which is now known as the “Tachana” which is an outdoor shopping and pedestrian area with restaurants. Regina’s is Mediterranean with stuff like Iraqi meatballs. Something a bit different and kosher restaurants in Tel Aviv are still few. I took the kids there the next morning to see the old trains there on display.

2 ½ hour drive from Tel Aviv to Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the northern Galilee. Highway 6 has a rest stop along the way with a shopping plaza, but it is only a small part of the trip up north. It is fun here at Passover time to see everything kosher for passover – all the groceries, snack bars, soda machines – and the food doesn’t taste like the awful passover food you get outside Israel. At the kibbutz is a hotel called Pastoral Kfar Blum, it is roughly a 3 star property on an international standard. Rooms differ; get a suite if you want to be sure here and if you want to be close to the main building. We were here on a Passover program that included probably half of Ra’anana; all Anglos here either living in Israel or flying over to be with family in Israel for the holiday. Cost of the program was high and it is hard to get in; people tend to come every year and they get first refusal on the rooms so book in October/November for the holiday. The food was excellent and the kids loved being on a kibbutz which basically meant to them that there were no cars and they could go wherever they liked. A security guard said that the kids usually return to the dining room at meal times. Jeremy loved eating jello (which we don’t allow at home) and of course shnitzel was popular with the kids. They have a big swimming pool there along with a kiddie pool (but it was only heated for the holiday). Our kids found plenty of other kids to socialize with. My wife’s late father was a founder of this kibbutz and Karen found an 86 year old person who knew him who could reminisce with her about him. They didn’t have cameras in those days at the kibbutz so all he had was stories about them working all day and dancing at night. Life was hard; they slept in tents and then built the first building for little children so that people could bring their kids to the kibbutz since they had left them elsewhere at the beginning. At the Passover Seder, I told our kids how in our family, their grandfather had left the threat of death in Europe for a life of freedom in Israel and how we were celebrating our first seder in Israel at the place he had come to build.

For us, 3-4 days here was enough. We did one activity per day for a few hours and then veggied around on the kibbutz. Things you can do here: on the property there is kayacking (must be age 10 and the water on the River Jordan is very cold); there is an area where you can walk up high along ropes. There is a walkway along the Jordan River with picnic areas (and boy do the Israelis litter) and stones along the walk that refer to Biblical verses about the Jordan River. A few minutes drive away is Derech Ha’Chalav, a dairy where you can take a one hour tour and learn how to milk a cow, feed the calves, and see how things work in a dairy. Manara is an attraction about 15 minutes away with a cable car to the top of the mountain near the Lebanese border; an alpine slide, arts and crafts at the top of the mountain for kids; and trampolines. You can also take a trolley ride around their kibbutz. Tel Hazor has archeological ruins; Karen went there at night and it was not lit well and she fell. At the emergency room, they don’t bandage you up; they just take a picture, determine if you are alive and send you home.

We drove to Jerusalem; it is about 3 1/2 hours from here. Gangaroo is in Beit Shean (a small park with Australian wildlife) along the way; and we had lunch at an Arab village known as Neura where my friend Mohammed lives. He thoughtfully went to Afula and got us a bunch of kosher for passover food to eat at his house. A discussion of political matters is described in this month’s edition of Global Thoughts. We got a glimpse of the Dead Sea as we took route 90 along the Jordanian border and cut east to Jerusalem. This road used to be very scary but they kept telling me that they renovated it. What I noticed in renovations is basically that every mile or so they had a big sign telling you that the road has dangerous curves and that you should drive carefully.

Jerusalem – we spent a week here. First to the Mamilla Hotel which has a good price point for families because you can take one room and put everyone in it. The food here ranges from very good to awful (but mostly very good); my main beef is that it is very shi-shi and dark everywhere and the bathrooms are awful. The shower has no door except for a pane of glass 6 inches in front of your face so the water goes everywhere and you are freezing. The bathtub is very elegant but the water takes forever to come out. There is no electrical outlet over the bathroom sink. There is no nightlight over half the bed and there isn’t enough light to read a newspaper sitting in your bed if you’re on the wrong side. There is a very nice rooftop restaurant but make reservations before you arrive because unless you get a manager to intercede you won’t get a table there at the last minute. Managers and not concierges at that hotel are the ones who make things happen for guests. The gym is very nice. There is no lounge anymore at the hotel but they have a sorta lounge that anyone can pay for and which is open part of the day. There is an outdoor terrace which is very nice for breakfast.

We visited Efrat which is about a 25 minute drive from the city. Efrat nearly borders Bethlehem and Palestinian territory starts at the bottom of the hill. Israel has spent millions of dollars building these bypass roads and tunnels with walls alongside the roads. They have basically put terrorists out of business and the Israelis really like it. You basically bypass Bethlehem and you can see as you drive around it how the Israelis have basically put a wall around it and completely caged in the Palestinians. For all intents and purposes, the Palestinians have a state now with borders. It’s just that it is a bunch of cantons loosely connected with parts of Israeli-held territory spotted around them. I don’t know if the Palestinians are happy with this, but the Israelis are basically telling me that the arrangement suits them just fine and that there is quiet all around, and that the Palestinians are doing well under the current situation with enough stability to warrant internal investment, and that it is not worth their while to resort to violence and risk their gains.  Back in the 1980’s I predicted exactly this outcome and it seems to be the fact on the ground, whether or not it is in fact the product of a bilateral negotiation.

After our visit to Efrat to visit friends who live there we went to center city Jerusalem which is hurting from the various shopping malls but otherwise is not doing bad. The light rail is operational and it has hurt the city center as people can no longer drive through the city on the main roads or park their cars, but the Mashbir department store just moved into the Zion Square area and may hope to revitalize the city center. More gelato stores these days than falafel joints. And you can buy hats at Horowitz on King George Street too. The light rail actually works rather well and you can go all over Jerusalem and its outskirts using it. Once you buy the ticket the first time from the ticket machines, it’s not so bad but there is only one or two machines for each station. We found few toy stores in center city and few parks for kids with good equipment; donors might want to consider more parks and fewer statues. One morning we walked through the Arab market at Jaffa Gate down toward the Western Wall; it was perfectly safe and we even bought a few things for the kids. It is definitely the fastest way to get their from Jaffa Gate. At the Wall, Jeremy ran around the tunnels and the kids put notes with their prayers into the wall. On the home page at present you can see the notes they inserted to the Wall — Elizabeth prayed for peace in Israel and wrote that she hoped that her mum’s leg would bet better; Jeremy wanted a speed train. The Mamilla has an indoor pool which we used before transferring down the street to the King David Hotel. Some bellboys took our luggage on a rack and walked it down the street!

The King David is still one of the best hotels in the country and it has a special charm about it. If traveling with kids, be sure and ask for “connecting” and not “adjoining” rooms. On the newly renovated 6th floor, room 643 is a corner with views on two sides and lots of light. The room next door is a small room in the same price category. The rooms do not connect; you need to connect 642 with 641 which is a mini-suite (meaning you can put a rollaway in there) which actually is not as nice as 643 which is in a lower price category. In this hotel, every room is unique meaning if you don’t like the first room, try again because you never know. As I said earlier, the King David is insane about not letting kids share rooms with their parents except at a significant premium. The King David offers nice gardens in the back and during the holidays they had inflatable slides and play things that were put out every day. Our kids spent hours each day playing around at the pool and in the gardens (there is a kiddie pool and a pool with chairs in it). There is a poolside restaurant and you can have hamburgers, hot dogs and grilled stuff (and of course lots of popsicles) which is much more fun and less expensive than eating at the buffets. The buffets are insanely expensive and they charge almost as much for a kid as an adult ($90 versus $110 per adult) and there is no way you want to bring your kids in the dining room to eat pasta and jello at that price. We never took our kids to dinner; they had room service and a babysitter. Although I must say that the holiday dinners we did have were outta sight and the dining room staff have no problems bringing you whatever you ask for. The hotel has a small gym and no spa but very good massage therapists on call. Beware the 12.5% discount you get from the chain’s E-Dan club does not apply at all Food & Beverage outlets at the hotel such as at the pool. There is a synagogue at the hotel and sometimes it is best to just go there, particularly if you had breakfast and find that you will be too late to the other synagogues in the area that tend to start prayers earlier in the day than we are used to in the US and the hotel offered day care for kids where you could put the kids while you go to services. I went to the Great Synagogue and it was Yizkor Day (prayers for the dead) and they had a beautiful memorial service for fallen soldiers, Holocaust victims and past leaders of Israel. I saw very few familiar faces; at Sukkot in the fall there is more of a social scene at the hotels; Passover is more family oriented. We found the limited menus on Passsover a bit of a pain as our kids got tired of eating shnitzel. We toured various parks in Jerusalem such as Liberty Bell, Sokolov (near the hotel) and Rambam. The kids preferred Sokolov the best. Elizabeth looked around Jerusalem and asked “Why does everyone wear black and white in this town?” At Rambam park, that was certainly the case.

An American family that is well known in the area of Jewish philanthropy had 4 security guards watching them and their family around the clock for the 15 days that they were there. That’s a 6-figure bill I’m sure. I figured the guards were there to keep the donation-seekers away. Perhaps in London they could be more anonymous. Or who knows? Anyway, I’m not sure it is fun when you have too much money and people know about it.

After Passover ended, we still had to endure 24 hours more of passover food since the holiday ended on Friday night and nobody could cook on Saturday. And before Passover started, the hotels were all kosher for passover a few days prior. So consider this if you go. But within 2 hours of Saturday night, the hotel had fresh bread and cakes in the coffee shop and by Sunday morning all the goodies you expect during the year magically appeared as the elves worked thru the night.  We made sure to stay for a few days after Passover because if you want to go around the country, it is a pain to do so during Passover when all the Israelis are in transit and you should also consider that fact if you visit. We waited for them to go back to work and for tourists to head to the airport and then we set off in search of adventure. One morning we went to Dig for a Day. It is a 3 hour program at Beit Gavrin, almost an hour’s drive from Jerusalem past Beit Shemesh. You get really dirty as you climb into a cave and get a shovel and pail and dig for buried treasure. Expect lots of steps without good rails and to be crawling around on your tushie. Then you sift through the dirt and see what you came up with. Then a walk to a cave that has already been excavated and a pottery shed for some takeaways. It was a fast-paced program and we didn’t feel the desire to bug out early; the kids loved it. We were lucky that it was spring and there had been lots of rain so flowers were in bloom all over the country for the short while that we were visiting. We had lunch at Rachmi, a local hummus place in the Mahane Yehudah market in Jerusalem. The kids enjoyed the shuqs – markets – with the halva and fruit displays and people making fresh pita. We tended to go at off hours so that we could not be in big crowds with the kids. The Marzipan bakery just outside the market’s entrance makes fresh chocolate rugelach pastries and 5 minutes after they come out with a fresh tray, it’s all gone. Dinner at Gabriella french restaurant considered the top one in the city; it is a nice venue and the main courses were very good but we found the appetizers uninspiring and the desserts to be poor. La Guta is still my favorite.

The next day we went to Eretz Beraishit – Genesis Land. This is a 30 minute drive from Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea. It is a 2 hour program and it starts with a camel ride to Abraham’s tent where they serve you some fruit, tell stories about Abraham and then bake some fresh pita and have tea. Then the camel takes you back to the starting point. The camel ride is very pretty with beautiful views over desert vistas (and you pray that the camel doesn’t fall off the narrow path way down into the desert canyons). I thought the program was kinda weak but the kids really liked it. This program and the Dig program require advance reservations of about 2 months at peak times and you should confirm your reservations upon arrival in the country. We purchased a guidebook called “Take your kids to Israel” with all sorts of suggested activities to do in the country with kids. It was helpful. One thing we didn’t get to which looked interesting was Ein Yael in Jerusalem but it was not open during the time we were visiting. Basically a park with hands-on activities for kids such as arts and crafts and pita baking. We returned to Jerusalem with a drive thru East Jerusalem and it is amazing how that part of the city is still really rubbish land; the American Colony Hotel has nothing around it when you walk outside and you might as well be in a middle class neighborhood of Amman, Jordan when you are there. At Jaffa Gate there is an activity where you can walk along the old city walls and we hiked for a few minutes before turning back as it is a lot of the same and pretty steep walking with lots of steps and hot as hell during the summer; you can again look into the Arab sectors of the Old City and see nothing but junk strewn about which is not at all what the Jewish Quarter looks like. I’m not sure that it is Israel’s fault that the Arabs have done virtually nothing to develop the areas that they control. We saw lots of Arabs walking around the shopping mall by the Mamilla Hotel and they looked very fashionable and trendy. I haven’t seen Ramallah to know what it looks like, so I don’t know if the Palestinian areas have anything that looks better than East Jerusalem.

During our last full day here I visited my company’s office and we visited a girls orphanage and a women’s religious seminary. Dinner at the La Regence restaurant at the King David Hotel which is rather good but not in the top 10%. You have to like it; it is sort of Jean Georges of the kosher world. The concierge’s pick is “Racha”, a Georgian style restaurant in Jerusalem that is the trendy place today. At the airport, I was not happy with the food choices although catering on the airplanes out of Israel tends to be good and everything is kosher whether or not you order a kosher meal. Jeremy melted down at passport control so he left the country as he entered – being picked up by me and dragged across the entry/exit point. At departure the VAT refund line was insanely long and it is a real shame that they abuse their tourists so harshly as to make it miserable to get the VAT refund. There was a line of about 30 people with 2 tellers. They need a box to just put the form in if you are taking a refund to a credit card and not make people stand around for an hour just to hand in the form. Every other country does this. At the departure gate I saw a flight going to Ufa. I wondered where this is. So I saw cabin crew including the pilot to ask where Ufa was and they didn’t speak a word of English. I finally got them to tell me that Ufa was in Russia (I said Ufa, Uzbekistan? and the captain replied RUSSIA!), but hell if that plane was ever in trouble and you were expecting the pilot to be able to talk over a radio in a language other than Russian!

Rome – Late night room service in the Grand Hotel de la Minerve right near the Pantheon. This is a great hotel for families – a deluxe junior suite is a full suite with doors separating the living room from the bedroom and there was plenty of room for all. The hotel is 200 meters walk from Via Corso a few blocks from the Piazza Venezia. The Rinascente department store has pretty much closed up along the Via Corzo (a fraction of it remains) and you have to go across town to Piazza Fume to get there (10 Euro and 15 minutes by taxi). Hotel has nice breakfast buffet and although it was expensive at 35 Euro per person they did not charge the kids and made them eggs to order. And blood orange juice is available at this time of year. I engaged a guide for karen and the kids and they went to the coliseum and did various activities such as pizza, gelato, the wood store near the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain. I on the other hand went away for 6 hours of shopping which was fairly successful at my regular and most trustworthy places (Rinascente, Jacques Simenon and Marco Polo on Via Nazionale). I find myself dressing up less as clients don’t come to our office and I get frustrated having lots of clothes in the closet that never get worn, but still after about 5 years it’s time to get some new stuff! La Palma gelato near the Pantheon is still a great place for gelato but every block there is a gelato place so who knows which is best?  We went with the kids to the Spanish steps; to dinner at Auto Grill on Via Corso (plain pasta for the kids, can’t go wrong); Quadrifoglio kids specialty clothing store just near the piazza near the Pantheon. Dinner at Sabatino in piazza San Ignazio nearby. Still a great favorite of ours. Everything there is just simply Italian and perfect. In the morning, we took the kids up the elevator at piazza Venezia (opens at 9:30) but beware you gotta climb lots of steps to get to the elevator. We had breakfast at a café in the square in front of that piazza and the kids ate toasted cheese sandwiches, pastries and juice just like the locals do. It took awhile but they actually started eating some food outside their comfort zone at the kibbutz and here too. We had a family picture at the Trevi Fountain and left that afternoon. Allow ample time at Rome’s airport to do the VAT, take your car seats to the oversize luggage place, and to get past security and passport control and on the plane. With kids and all this stuff, it takes more time and security check is not fast even if you are in the fast track lane.

So after all this traveling, my wife liked the visit to the Western Wall the best; the kids liked so many things they couldn’t decide which was their favorite and they definitely learned a lot. Like when Elizabeth was at the Forum and the guide asked her what was this item and she said “a menorah lamp.” And the guide was flustered and said How do you know that? And Elizabeth said, we were just digging archeology a few days ago in a cave in Israel and we dug up a Menorah lamp – and that guide was really awestruck. I just enjoyed seeing my kids look happy a lot and seeing them absorb all of this. It is something to return exactly to the same places 8 years later with your kids and see it again for the first time. But it is also nerve-racking – Jeremy got up at 6am in Rome to put a hard candy in his mouth that he took the night before from the front desk as we checked in. I heard the crackling of the candy wrapper in the next room and went to investigate and had to pull it out of his mouth as he lay in the bed putting himself back to sleep. Jeremy is quite intelligent when he wants to be and has a great sense of humor – he was eating jello at the kibbutz and was using these small wooden spoons which he used to eat the jello and told me that this is the way the Chinese eat jello. You just want to kill him and crack up at the same time. (This week he climbed in the park on a gate atop a 2 story building with some 14 year old kids and we couldn’t believe that he did this. Even worse that he did it again 2 minutes later after I told him not to do it again. He is going to be a great little commando someday if he manages not to get killed. He tells us that “I an not afraid of anything.” Remember when you were young and not afraid of anything?)

Elizabeth enjoyed playing video games on the airplane and we see how it is very addictive; no chance of her getting to play that stuff here in NY. I tend to enjoy being in a foreign city knowing where everything is and walking into a place like Sabatino for dinner and everything being just what you expect it to be, or having dinner in the King David and knowing the wait staff from your previous visits and being well looked after, or sitting at the pool on a holiday eating a burger, walking at 10pm to my favorite gelato place or being welcomed at Mohammed’s house in a little village very far away from anything else, except that it is your friend and the world is suddenly very small and you have somebody to check the boxes with. I like getting shopping chi once every few years in a place like Rome where there is stuff worth buying that will actually fit me. Israel and Italy are both really chaotic, have their eccentricities and are not totally civilized places, not into service and somewhat dangerous with kids. But they are fun to visit for short periods as long as you know that you can enter and enjoy, and exit when it’s over. And you just have to know that anything you received hot will be cold when you eat it if you are out with the kids, but that’s why you have babysitting every evening.

Top Five Things Kids Said on the Trip that were Memorable

Why does everyone wear black and white in this city? …Elizabeth on all the hassidic jews in Jerusalem.

I am the champion of jello. I eat 6 jellos now. …this is how they eat jello in China….Jeremy who loved eating Jello all over Israel (which he doesn’t get at home).

It’s a menorah lamp – I know because I dug one up in archeology in Israel a few days ago….Elizabeth to a guide in the Roman Forum when shown a menorah lamp.

If you can’t eat it, build with it….Jeremy constructed a house out of potato bread rolls on Passover.

I want to get sick today. Dad, can I please have another popsicle?… Jeremy, of course.

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