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Israel's changing landscapes make this a great country for hiking, whatever your fitness level. Good spots to try include the Maktesh Ramon crater in the Negev, Wadi Qelt in the West Bank and various trails in the Golan. It's worth visiting the SPNI (Society for Protection of Nature in Israel), for more information on hiking. If you'd rather sit on a horse than use your own feet, there are lots of riding centres in the Galilee, Golan and Tel Aviv areas. For swimming try Tel Aviv's beaches and Eilat (if you can bear the resort atmosphere), which is also good for windsurfing, sailing, waterskiing and diving. For an extraordinary diving experience, visit Caesarea, where you can dive the ruins of Herod's city.


Not surprisingly, Israeli holidays and festivals are mostly religious. Keep an eye out for Jewish holidays, in particular, as the country really does grind to a halt on these days and you'll have to put your travel plans on hold. The Jewish sabbath day, Shabbat, is celebrated from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, and no work may be done on this day. Yom Kippur, in October, is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. This is the day of atonement, and it is marked with 25 hours of abstinence from just about everything, combined with prayer, contemplation and confession. The Feast of Passover celebrates the Jewish exodus, led by Moses, from Egypt. For a week in April everyone eats matza, a flat, tasteless bread. Jewish festivals aren't all abstinence and abnegation, though - during Purim, held in March to celebrate Jewish resistance to assimilation, everyone is required to get so drunk that they can't distinguish the words 'bless Mordechai' from 'curse Haman'.

The big one for Muslims is Ramadan, a month where everyone fasts between sunup and sunset to conform to the fourth pillar of Islam. If you're in Israel at this time, be sensitive to the fact that most of the Muslims around you are very, very hungry. Ramadan ends with a huge feast, Eid al-Fitr, where everyone prays together, visits friends, gives presents and stuffs themselves.

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