Another early day and after a very hearty breakfast, we headed up to one of the most iconic sites in Israel - Masada. Set on the top of a mountain, it was originally a Hazmanean fort, expanded by Herod and the site of the last stand of the Jews during their rebellion against Rome in the first century. It's entered the Israeli cultural mindset via Josephus Flavius as the epitome of bravery & valour; so it's not surprising that it serves as the site for the military induction ceremonies - also FILLED with school children out for a day of real live history as well as pilgrims of various shades getting to know modem Israel.
We got there around 9:30 and walked up the infamous Snake Path to the top of the fortress. I wasn't quite prepared for how large the site really was. Large parts of the Northern Palace (and Herod's palace) are still evident as well as the wall along the Western side and Eastern side where the Roman siege breached the Jewish defenses. There was also the remains of a Byzantine church where local hermit-monks worshipped in the middle ages. We wandered around listening in on the various tour groups for about four hours before deciding that we didn't like the look of what was blowing in, so we headed back down the path.
By this point we were also hungry, so we went over to the spa town of Ein Gedi for lunch. After a tasty meal of mostly pickled salads and bread, we were all set for our next adventure - the Dead Sea itself!
Ein Gedi also has one of the only public "spas" for the ritual of getting the most of of the Dead Sea. It's a good enough spa for what it is, but it's very functional - not at all what most people would consider a relaxing enviroment. But it's better than no spa at all, and for people not staying in one of the large dedicated spa hotels in the area is the only option. Next time I think I'd like to splurge for staying at a local hotel with a proper spa, but for our first go (and in the middle of winter!) it wasn't too shabby.
The spa is located on top of 2 sulpher springs, in which you're supposed to soak for 15 minutes (great for relaxing our muscles), then head outside to the mud baths - 2 large bins of blue-grey Dead Sea mud surrounded by really bizzare sculptures (including the disembodied head of Charlie Parker - no we didn't get it either). Anyway, you're supposed to smear the mud all over and, in warmer weather, bake on before rinsing it off in the sulpher showers. Branson and I had a ball with the mud (even though it wasn't quite warm enough to bask in the sun with it), but Stephen was totally squicked out by the consistency and so satisfied himself which watching us cavort about.
Then we cleaned up like proper human beings and took the little tractor bus down to the sea front to dip our toes into the Dead Sea. I couldn't believe the colour of the water - a deep, brilliant turquoise green.
And the water was much warmer than we expected, but the winds from the incoming storm meant the waves were quite high and it would have made swimming a little dangerous. So we contented ourselves with wading. We still had a fantastic time. . .
(taken by Branson - thanks babe!)
Not long after the lifeguard let us know they were closing the beach for the day, so we headed back to the spa, rinsed the salt off our feet, and hopped back in the car for our drive back to the Camplodge. We spent a while unsuccessfully locating a plug converter for our little laptop (having left ours in the hostel in Mitspe Ramon), but very successfully locating ice cream (in which my Russian skills finally became useful!). We then drove past the Dead Sea Works as it was getting dark - less than ideal for going up to the look out point, but Stephen still enjoyed looking at them as we went past. We did promise him that we would stop in the morning so that he could get his fill.
We spent the rest of the evening at the Camplodge, eating, drinking and chatting with the staff since it was just us staying the night. It was our first real opportunity to chat with locals for any extended period of time and it was interesting to get their perspectives on the state of the world. It's only one perspective, sure, and they have their biases (as all of us do), but being able to listen and explore their experiences of being a modern Jew in Israel was fascinating.