What's TBEX? The same message from several different friends kept my phone pinging while I was running around Jerusalem trapped in what seemed like my own hyper-lapse video while furiously posting photos and video with the hashtag #tbexjlm.
My friend, snapchatress extraordinaire, Vicki Winters, a TBEX veteran and a speaker at the conference is the first one who made me aware of TBEX, a Travel Blog Exchange.
For a few years, I watched Vicki travel to fabulous destinations, always encouraging me to join her on one of their three yearly conferences to connect with other bloggers. I eventually signed up for the TBEX newsletter and became a lurker on their website.
However, when the Jerusalem TBEX destination arrived in my inbox, it was a done deal for me. I've traveled to 64 countries and had never been to Israel. Time to make a move. I was soon excited not only to visit Israel but to experience my first TBEX.
After a few days spent at our place in Germany to burn off the jet lag, I arrived in Tel Aviv from Düsseldorf at 10 PM. By the time I had collected my luggage, gone through immigration and taken a sherut to Jerusalem it was nearly midnight before I got dropped off at my hotel where I was meeting Vicki. It was Saturday evening and the streets were hopping. People were strolling, indulging in Israeli fast food, hanging out and gathering around several street musicians. It felt like my East Village neighborhood in NYC.
|Photo Courtesy of David Citadel Hotel|
The next morning Vicki and I moved hotels to the stunning David Citadel, a jewel nestled conveniently close to almost up against the Old City.
|Photo Courtesy of David Citadel Hotel|
|Photo Courtesy of David Citadel Hotel|
After oohing and ahhing over our room and it's gorgeous amenities (Nespresso machine, hello?) and it's balcony view of the old city, we set off for the conference center.
There we picked up our badges as well as our free metro card and SIM card generously provided to TBEXers by sponsors, Israel Ministry of Tourism, I Travel Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Development Authority.
These organizations worked with several tour operators to offer up a plethora of unusual, fun and fascinating tours available to attendees in the days surrounding the conference. I am sad to say I couldn't get to even half of the ones I would have like to experience. The Markets & Craftsmen in the Old City Tour and the Bitemojo app self-guided food tour, Inspiring Hope: Jerusalem Behind the Headlines and The Fresh & A-Z Tour: Art & Culture in Jerusalem especially.
Since it was close to the conference center, after we picked up our goods, we chose to go to Yad Vashem: the Holocaust Remembrance Center and join the private tour available for TBEX attendees.
The private tour ended up being just Vicki and myself with Edna, our extremely knowledgeable guide. We spent several hours there. I've written a whole separate post about our visit to Yad Vashem. It was touching, heartbreaking, amazing and inspiring.
We returned to the hotel just in time to clean up and head over to the David Citadel's equally stunning sister hotel, the Mamilla for an Israeli wine tasting with the hotel's Winery Manager, Efi Kotz.
Ensconced within the lush and elegant Mirror Bar, Efi was the perfect host as he took us through the fascinating history of wine making in Israel. We then indulged in a tasting tour of delicious white and red varieties from local vineyards.
It was time for some food so I headed over to the Abraham Hostel, one of the conference's sponsors for a much-anticipated hummus making class. The hostel has a large fun and boisterous community room with a kitchen. There was an open mike situation set up with rotating talent showcasing their talents. A large table was set up on one end of the room near the kitchen for the hummus making lesson.
Our host was warm, funny and engaging. We broke up into groups of two and got down to the task of making hummus. Those of you who frequent this blog, know this wasn't my first visit to a hummus making rodeo. There are several recipes for variations available here.
I did, however, learn a few tips and tricks in the class (add water to the hummus to thin it out). The fun part was connecting with new people while preparing and sharing food, one of my most favorite things to do. After we had created our hummus, fragrant warm pita bread was passed around and we got to eat.
After we had made and ate our hummus, the room spontaneously morphed into a welcome party for TBEX attendees. Music drinks and Israeli food was flowing.
And that was day one in Jerusalem.
The following day we set our alarm for 3:30 AM to make sure we got to Abraham Hostel in time to join the Jerusalem Sunrise Biking Tour. About 20 of us strapped on helmets and took off in the direction of the Old City. On the way, we made a few pit stops, including a tour of the Machane Yehuda Market.
The vendors were all shuttered because of the early hour and the benefit for us was a private art show. On the roll doors of each shop, graffiti artist Solomon Souza had painted portraits of famous historical and contemporary Israelis and Jews.
Once we reached the old city, it was thrilling to bike through the ancient empty streets while our entertaining guide Phil stopped occasionally to point out historical places of interest. The next goal was to climb up on a rooftop to watch the sun come up.
It was spectacular. Riding back to the hostel uphill was not. Just kidding. I appreciated the workout but I may or may not have walked my bike up the last couple of hills.
When Vicki and I returned to the hotel, we had only a short time to freshen up before jumping on a bus with her adorable friend, travel blogger Cory Lee who had invited us to go to Palestine to visit Banksy's pop up Walled off Hotel and then on to the city center of Bethlehem. Cory's beautiful tooyounglookingtobea mom, Sandy, and his good-natured stepdad Wayne were there as well.
Our van driver and guide was the wonderful Eli from Israel4All, a company specializing in accessible travel. We made our way surprisingly easily across the border and to the front door of the hotel which is situated right up against the wall dividing Israel from Palestine. Every room has a view of the wall.
As we pulled up, there were TV cameras and reporters hovering around the entrance as this was the hotel's opening day. I told them to interview bombastic Vicki (once a TV producer, always a TV producer) and they did.
Vicki's interviewer was the Associated Press so later that day, she was seen in local news reports all over the USA commenting on her experience. People were pinging her phone all night long to say they saw her on TV.
One glitch was, although Cory was assured ahead of time, the hotel was not wheelchair accessible. Well, we didn't come this far for him not to get in.
A few strong men lifted his chair up a couple of steps at the entrance and presto, Corey Lee was the very first person in a wheelchair to visit the hotel and museum. There was some art in progress on the hotel's exterior.
The interior is decorated in an old-timey funky style with a player piano, antique furniture, and walls covered with protest art. The bar served Mocktails and a light fare.
Attached to the hotel are a museum and a gift shop. Of course, I kept asking everyone who worked there if they had met the elusive Banksy. No one cracked. A well-trained staff.
The museum itself is dedicated to the biography of the wall. It contains an animated history of the region, artifacts, art, protest signs, and other audio-visual components.
Soon it was time to get back in the van and drive a short distance into Bethlehem city center. On the way, we passed the famous Banksy piece on a city wall of the dove in a flak jacket. Too quickly for my to get a photo, unfortunately. Below is a photo of the piece displayed in the museum.
Once we got to the city's center, we picked up a local guide who took us through the main thoroughfare of the city.
Our next stop was the place of Jesus's birth The Church of Nativity. The church itself was impressive.
What was fascinating to me is the continuing archeological discoveries being made within the church. National Geographic was just there to film a special on a newly uncovered mosaic.
We wandered around into the different parts of the church getting up close to the exact spot where Jesus was born.
After visiting the church we walked to a souvenir shop where we were served the requisite mint tea.
Cory had a bucket list item of a Bethlehem Christmas ornament. Mission accomplished.
It was a pleasure to spend time with Cory and his family and to have this unique travel experience together.
We got back to the David Citadel in time to clean and polish our appearances for TBEX's huge opening night red carpet party. The theme was From Hollywood to Jerusalem and held Cinema City a luxurious movie theater and shopping complex.
TBEX attendees took over the gigantic movie complex lobby. We were handed champagne upon arrival and served a generous buffet of Israeli specialty food.
After cocktails and a group photo, we all headed upstairs into one of the theaters where, after welcomes from various city and tourism officials, actors Corin Nemic and Ishai Golan took over the stage.
Both actors entertained us by interviewing each other and asking us to take selfies with them for a simultaneous tweet out. Then we were all encouraged to punk Corin's friend David Arquette by all tweeting at him at the same time.
Fun over. Time to call it a night. That was day 2 in Jerusalem.
It was up and at 'em extra early in the AM because we didn't want to miss the incredible epic breakfast at the David Citadel before starting day one of the conference. Seriously. I have never in all my years of travel seen anything like this breakfast spread. I could do a whole post on the breakfast alone.
Vicki, along with the brilliant and darling Kerwin McKenzie were leading the first session of the day, TBEX First Timers, at 8 AM. We packed up her inflatable T-Rex costume and off we went. Vicki and Kerwin gave a wonderful introduction for those of us who were first-time TBEX goers. They provided helpful tips and in general just revved everyone up. Vicki made her grand entrance in her T-Rex costume to Kesha's Dinosaur (Cory Lee's suggestion) emphasizing her first tip ""Be memorable" setting the bar.
We all headed over to Gary Arndt's keynote address. I spent the rest of the day at various topical sessions by Mordecai Holz, Chris Christensen, and Scott Herder gleaning info on working with brands, podcasting and making hyper-lapse videos. The afternoon was set aside for speed networking with brands who had set up shop in one section of the conference center.
In between, there was lots of food and snacks and so many interesting and fun people to meet.
After a long a productive conference day, we barely had time to drop off our stuff at the hotel, grab a sweater and head out to the Tower of David for a private showing of The Night Spectacular.
I wasn't paying much attention and thought we were being herded into some sort of laser light show. As we sat down in the outdoor theater seats, I really did not know what to expect.
I was more than surprised, stunned even by this gorgeous series of video projections using France's trompe l’oeil technology onto the ancient walls of the citadel accentuated by original music telling the story of Jerusalem.
I cannot recommend highly enough. We did, however, have special permission to take pictures and video. Normally no cameras allowed.
Afterward, we were offered a private tour of the Tower of David. It was a beautiful site all lit up at night.
We were able to visit recently opened areas and ended the tour on top of one of the highest points of the buildings encompassing panoramic evening views of Jerusalem.
Afterward, Vicki and I were walking through the old city where there was a music festival taking place with great bands and musical acts tucked into each corner. One was so good, we could help stay for a set and dance a bit before we meandered back to our room.
And that was day three in Jerusalem which at this point felt more like week three.
Up early again the next day, there was no missing that breakfast for us. We were a bit obsessed with it, to be honest.
TBEX conference day two's keynote was especially inspiring. Honeytrek's Mike and Anne Howard's presentation about their experiences and travel philosophy workshops were also informative and I learned a lot from sessions by Michael Collins and Bill Fink.
I had packed all my networking sessions into the day before to purposely leave my afternoon free. After another delicious lunch, I took off to visit a few bucket list attractions.
First I stopped at the Machane Yehuda Market wanting to see it in full swing when it was open. I wandered the aisles snapping photos.
It was an endless parade of mouth-watering goods up for sale. From fruits and veggies to nuts, olives, dried fruits, meats and fish.
Tucked into nooks and crannies were fantastic and fun little restaurants and cafes.
At night when the shops are closed, the market takes on a whole other life. There are food and drink vendors and musicians and artists.
Then I did a sprint back to the old city, across to the other side to visit the Wester or Wailing Wall.
I was lucky it was not too crowded. I sat down and watched and wondered as mostly women poured their grief and sorrow and hope into the wall.
I had to get back to the conference for the closing keynote by Jaclyn Mishal. I made a dash back through the old city to meet Vicki back at the hotel. We regrettably arrived at the conference center just in time for the last few sentences.
Next, we had to rush back to the hotel to change for the Taste of Runway Fashion TBEX closing night party.
Held at The First Station, an old railway station for the Jerusalem to Jaffa line which has now been turned into an indoor-outdoor complex of restaurants and shops.
At the party, we were treated to a runway fashion show showcasing the work of some of Israel's top designers. There was live graffiti art happening and a hip hop performance as well. The food and drinks were all artisanal and arranged in little booths.
I admit I was a bit in love with this cucumber, mulberry, gin drink I will strive to recreate at home.
Many of us lingered around the bar and finally went back to our respective hotels, our heads full of information, sight, sounds, tastes and images of the last for wonderful packed few days.
The next morning our bus arrived early (but NOT before we had our last epic breakfast at the hotel) to take Vicki, me and the lucky 7 other bloggers on a four-day culinary tasting tour in the North of Israel. This was an even more packed and amazing four days but I'll put a pin in it here for now.
Like my hometown, Jerusalem was another city that never sleeps. Neither did I. The city vibrates with ancient and young vibes. Cultures, art, history, religions and food swirl together to create a unique pulsating magnetic place that leaves a one of a king impression on a traveler.
So what's TBEX? It was umpteen days packed into four. Yes, it's a travel blog exchange conference but it's also all of the above and so much more. I've been to many conferences before (mostly for TV and Media). The sessions and the networking and the parties are all expected. Add in the travel and the tours around those activities and you have something special. Hyper special.
I can't say enough to express my gratitude. Thank you to Vicki for inspiring me to attend. Thank you to Jerusalem, our wonderful and gracious hosts who took such amazing are of us and so enthusiastically shared their precious jewel of a city with us. Ireland, here I come.