We landed in the middle of the Negev Desert at Ovda Airport with no idea what to expect, ready to start exploring Israel for the very first time. The night before we were sat shivering outside a Bavarian-style bar on the banks of the River Weser in Bremen, chattering excitedly about our wander around the Schnoor Quarter and feeling like we’d stepped inside the pages of a Brothers Grimm book.
Stumbling off the plane into what felt like a solid wall of heat, we were baffled by the sight of the blurred, steaming hot horizon and the sensation of 30°C heat on our shoulders after the blistering –5°C winds we’d left behind that morning. We stared at the seemingly unending beige landscape, overwhelmed by the sheer contrast between where we’d flown from and where we’d landed in.
Exploring Israel by airport shuttle bus…a frustrating experience
We panicked as we stood in the enormous queue for border control inside Ovda Airport, worried that we’d miss the coach to our hotel. The border control staff asked people penetrating questions about their travel plans as we stood inhaling a mixture of second-hand smoke and dust, sweating and dehydrated but incredibly excited. Ovda is a strange place, relatively empty-feeling and extremely small, with a miniscule car park at the front and from memory just one runway at the back.
Hurrying outside, we brandished our printed tickets in front of the driver, who ushered us on to the partially air-conditioned, jam-packed shuttle bus which would take us to Eilat. As it happened, our concerns at missing the connection were unfounded.
Instead of immediately taking us on our way, the driver slowly strolled down the aisle asking each and every one of us which hotel we were heading for. Watching him slowly scribble our answers onto a scrap of paper was frustrating, as we’d all provided this information when booking the tickets. The website forces you to specify a drop-off point, so this additional exercise seemed stupidly inefficient.
He then disappeared back towards the airport, leaving us watching a horrifyingly cheesy marketing video devised by the company to show off the ‘best’ (most expensive) tourist hot spots and hotels in the area. After dawdling and smoking intermittently for forty more minutes, he finally fired up the engine, and so began our sweaty, thirsty journey to Israel’s southernmost city with the sound of the driver’s Genesis album ringing in our ears. Honestly, if you plan to travel to Eilat from Jordan or elsewhere in Israel and come across the Eilat Shuttle, try to find an alternative mode of transport if you can. We used the Egged service more than once during our trip and it was cheaper, faster and more convenient.
Update, August 2019: Ovda Airport is permanently closed and has been replaced by the long anticipated and much-discussed Eilat Ramon Airport, which we’re a little sad about as we liked Ovda’s simplicity and no-nonsense feel. The airport’s use as a military base meant that facilities were limited. For example, we only saw a couple of small, basic places to eat, no sprawling food courts or fancy restaurants. We feel lucky to have flown to Ovda when we did as the airport itself added to the minor culture shock we experienced when we landed.
The Ovda to Eilat route has stunning views
The bus sped along the only road connecting Ovda to Eilat, directly parallel to miles of black barbed wire marking the Egyptian border. As we turned off into the mountains and gained altitude, we glimpsed the Red Sea for the first time. We rounded another corner, and the sandy cliffs and peaks fell away to reveal an expansive view of the Red Mountains beyond and the city of Aqaba beneath, mere miles away from Eilat’s main promenade. Our stress, exhaustion and impatience melted away as we gazed wide-eyed out the window, realising just how tightly Eilat is sandwiched between Egypt and Jordan. It suddenly hit us that we were in the Middle East and not on another European city break.
We blundered through the outskirts of Eilat, past a heavily-suntanned middle-aged man standing stark naked on a balcony, nonchalantly puffing on his cigarette and watching the traffic pass him by. The driver heaved the coach up and down streets and around tight corners. We all instinctively breathed in, believing it impossible that a vehicle of that size could possibly be manoeuvered in such a way. Proved wrong, we eventually and very ungracefully arrived at our hotel, cowering beneath the early afternoon sun brutally beating down on our backs while we waited until check-in time.
In the afternoon we wandered aimlessly around the city centre, found a currency exchange shop to change our euros into shekels and went to a chemist to buy some painkillers. We’d had less than three hours of sleep, barely any water and our hangovers had well and truly kicked in, so our heads felt like they’d been shoved into a food blender (entirely self-inflicted, of course). Unable to fully process where we were or what to do, we ended up at a small, almost empty café called Pastot on MaHayim Street, just off the promenade. The menu allowed us to customise our meals with whichever ingredients we wanted, which we absolutely loved.
We devoured a bowl of aioli-soaked spaghetti with sundried tomatoes, a pizza slathered in olives and anchovies and a carafe of nondescript but delicious red wine, staring intermittently at the vast Queen of Sheba hotel looming in front of us. We felt guilty that we weren’t immediately diving into traditional Israeli fare, but soon realised that the majority of the other customers were locals, and stopped caring completely when we witnessed the quickest and most incredible sunset we’d ever seen.
The sky turned shades of pink, purple and orange before our eyes, the colours overlapping and blending seamlessly into one another. Suddenly it grew darker, and the vermilion backdrop of the Red Mountains was swallowed up by blackness. The view of Aqaba’s square, white buildings was replaced by thousands of twinkling lights beyond the garish golden glow of Eilat’s enormous hotel district, and within a matter of minutes it was pitch black and the excessively-lit hotels on the promenade suddenly dominated our surroundings.
Exploring Israel with a hangover – not our finest hour
Before we gave in after an intense day, we blearily navigated our way around the strange shop beneath the hotel, squinting at the almost ultra-violet strip lights and wincing at the pungent smell of the cleaning fluid being mopped across the tiles. We were tired and hot, but we always make a habit of browsing supermarkets and shops when we travel as we love to buy things without fully knowing what they are.
We grabbed what we thought looked like an interesting, unusual bag of crisps. Typically (and weirdly) the ‘crisps’ turned out to be peanut puffs, one of the most readily available snacks in Germany, so our mission to ‘try something new’ failed spectacularly. We also bought a bottle of beer of each, including a 10% proof bottle of Israeli ‘slow brew’ which we both agreed we will happily never drink again as long as we live.
Armed with our frustratingly familiar snacks and strong Israeli beers, we sat on a bench opposite the hotel, still somewhat perplexed by the sand beneath our shoes and the palm trees wafting in the warm breeze.
Smiling at the knowledge that tomorrow we would wake up and get stuck into our first trip to Israel with clearer heads, we passed out on crisp white hotel sheets to the sound of passing taxis touting for business and whistling crickets hiding in the shrubs by the pool, our brains overloaded with ideas, sensations and the incomprehensible oddness of the last 24 hours.