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A Postcard From Tel Aviv, Israel

Warmest greetings from the Holy Land, as my football travels with Ireland bring me to this unlikeliest of destinations.

For all the worries that you may have had about me coming here, they have been totally unfounded. During my entire stay in Israel, I have encountered no trouble whatsoever. Tel Aviv folk have been truly welcoming to the many Irish fans who have made the journey (the biggest single group of tourists this town has ever had, apparently). I went for a stroll along the Miami-like beaches of Tel Aviv on Saturday morning - sand so soft you could almost sink and drown in it - and was constantly greeted by locals thanking me for coming and wishing me a pleasant stay.

Tel Aviv is actually Israel's biggest city, but despite the very heavy traffic, most of the town is walkable. I went down Rothschild Boulevard to Independence Hall. From the outside it is a very non-descript building, but it was here on the 15th of May 1948 that the Proclamation of Independence was read and the state of Israel was born. The hall where it happened, though restored to its original condition, is surprisingly tiny and cramped. You would have thought such an important event would be held in more grandiose surroundings. Also, for such a major landmark of national history, there was next to no security as I wandered around unhindered and apparently unwatched.

The same can not be said of other public places. Police and Security Guards are, posted at the entrance to every restaurant, market and shopping mall. It is slightly disconcerting to go to the open air Carmel Market on Allenby and be subjected to a bag search. At the end of Dizengoff (the Oxford Street of Tel Aviv) is Dizengoff Center, Israel's first shopping mall. I am sure it says something about the local psyche that the top floor of one of its two towers is all tattoo parlours, though I am not sure what.

Next to the main railway station is The Azreli Center, the biggest commercial building in The Middle East. The views from the top floor observatory are spectacular, although the audio guide describing them is woefully inaccurate. Because of its location in front of the Ministry of Defence building, the five floor shopping mall of The Azreli Center is positively crawling with gorgeous female soldiers.

I did not try much of the local Jewish food, and to be honest, that is probably just as well. I think I would have burst if I had. Tuesday night I went for dinner at Keton, a well known restaurant on Dizengoff and honestly, the folks there must be hell-bent on perpetuating Jewish stereotypes. I was halfway though my Chulent and Kishke (bean and potato stew and goose sausages, very stodgy and ruddy HUGE portions) when the waitress asked me if everything was okay and if I wanted anything more. She then brought over dessert before I had finished my main course.

As for a language problem, there has been none. Most people speak reasonable English and I have done amazingly well with Hebrew. In fact, if I had to stay here for a long time, I think I could become fluent very quickly, such is the ease with which I have managed the basic phrases. I certainly would not lack for places to stay either, which is illustrative of the local's friendliness. A typical conversation goes something like this: They say hi, thinking I am from China. I tell them I am actually Irish and they are even more delighted and welcoming. I say I am here for a week to see more of Israel and also to take in the match against France which I hope Israel win. They invite me to live here permanently and I can stay at their place.

The match on Saturday night at the Ramat-Gan Stadium was an exercise in immense frustration. Ireland scored after 3 minutes but then proceeded to sit on the lead, hold the ball and do nothing with it. A very risky strategy that could backfire, and it did, with Abas Suan - an Arab no less - scoring an Israeli equaliser in the last minute.

With the main match out of the way, it was time to do a bit of touristing. My colleagues and I were intent on making the most of our trip to Israel and went on day trips to other parts of the country. The first of them was to Ramallah. Yes. You read that right, Ramallah.

We found an Arab taxi driver who would take us on the 40 minute ride to the West Bank. A quick flash of our passports at the checkpoint and we were in. What a revelation! We went, expecting to find a desolate bombed-out crater of a village full of demoralised downtrodden people. Instead, we saw the kind of lively bustling market bazaar town you would expect to see in Morocco or Tunisia. On every corner were smiling faces welcoming us to their town and thanking us for visiting them. Nothing at all, like what is projected on the news. We went into the gleaming central mosque to look around and I had to stop myself and take it all in. I mean, here I was standing in the central mosque in Ramallah ‘ On Easter Sunday’ Itdoes not get more unreal than that.

If that was not enough, we went to the Muqata'a compound where Yasser Arafat lived. The Palestinian troops allowed us to go in and look around unhindered. Once again, instead of a rubble strewn ruin, there were big office blocks and military barracks untouched by any attack. Next to the compound was Arafat's tomb draped in flowers, messages of support and flags from all over the world. It was another "I can not believe I am here" moment. Some other Irish visitor had obviously made it here before us, do not know who it was but I wouldlike to meet him and give him a good slap. The flag he left was upside down.

Bethlehem was another town, requiring passing through a checkpoint. It is a city seemingly built on the side of a hill and a drive up the winding mountains is required to reach the Church of the Nativity. It was built on the reputed site of the stable were Jesus was born and the exact spot is marked with a bronze star. The sceptic in me did wonder how they would know, but I thought it best to keep quiet about it. This visit was marred by probably the most persistent street vendors in the world. The second we stepped out of the church we were approached by sellers flogging all manner of tat, pouring out hard luck stories abouthow they need the money to feed their half sister's son's four children. What is more, they practically chased our car down the hill in the hope of making a sale. I got away scot-free by pretending not to speak English. Not a credible lie when told whilst wearing an Ireland shirt.

It was the same story in Jerusalem. To walk through Suq el Bazar market to get to the Western Wall is to run the gauntlet of salesmen, shysters and chancers. Best keep your eyes to the ground and keep walking. Seeing the Western "Wailing" Wall was a humbling experience. I donned one of the cardboard yamakas supplied and approached it. Viewing the all up close is to appreciate its vastness that does not come across in pictures. I must admit though, I felt like an interloper amongst all the worshippers. Sadly, I did not have a pen with me, although I am not sure what I would have written and slipped into the cracks if I had.

The Holy Sepulchre church is built on the exact site where it is believed Christ was crucified. What was scandalous was the way troops were visiting the spot fully armed. I am no militant Catholic but even I thought it wrong that tourists to one of the holiest places in Christendom did so carrying rifles and machine guns.

Nazareth is also a hilly place. Atop one of the mountains in the old town is the Basilica of the Annunciation, where it is believed that the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would bear a child, and where Jesus, Mary and Joseph subsequently lived. This whole tour was just unreal. These are all places that I grew up learning about in school; to be there in person is barely believable.

Another thing I noticed was how Israel must have the fastest sunsets in the world. Around 6pm, the bright daylight turns to pitch darkness in less than ten minutes. Beat that...

Wednesday night it was back to the Ramat-Gan Stadium for Israel's match against France. A group of us went to support the home side and we stood with the Israeli fans. There was not a single French supporter to be seen anywhere (in contrast to the 4,000 Irish fans who packed one end in the previous match). French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez stirred the proverbial excrement by saying he did not want to be in Israel, fearing for his safety. Consequently, every time he touched the ball, the boos and catcalls were deafening. France took the lead through David Trezeguet, who then got himself sent off for a needless head butt. Walid Badier snatched an equaliser for Israel in the last ten minutes, but they should have won it with the amount of chances they wasted.

So there you have it. All the fears and apprehensions turned out to be groundless and this trip has been a real eye opener. Spending the last 7 days here has been strangely reminiscent of my time growing up in Northern Ireland; from the outside, it looks like a war torn country, bedevilled by fighting factions wreaking death and destruction daily upon each other. The reality however is that the vast majority of the people simply get on with living peaceful lives unaffected by the troubles. Many of you thought it was courageous of me to venture out here, but there is no bravery in going off and enjoying yourself in the warmth of, not just the sun (scorching temperatures in the 30's everyday), but also of the people.

Shalom!

Cathal