Gaza - There is something about gazing over a blue expanse of sea that instantly relaxes me. Before me, the Mediterranean unfurls, bright, bold and sparkling under the sun.
Leaning back in my wicker chair, I sip my bittersweet Arab coffee and then take a long drag from my sheeshah water pipe. The fragrant smoke wafts into the air, mingling with the scent of the sea. In a word: tranquility.
It may seem hard to believe, but this is Gaza, known in the Western media as a land of bitter conflict.
At one time this besieged city had great lustre. Gaza, which translates as "precious object," was the jewel of the Mediterranean, a vibrant port city, gateway between Asia and the West.
The Gazans, the children of Biblical Canaan, have been forever famous as sea merchants.
As I look out at the few humble fishing boats putting along the horizon, I try to imagine the old port crowded with merchant galleys and seamen loading bails of spices, incense and dyes to be traded in the bustling markets of Europe.
The small strip of land known today as the Gaza Strip, bordered by Egypt on one side and Israel on the other, was once known as the Pass of Kings. Its strategic military positioning attracted many conquistadors. Napoleon came, saw and conquered, as did Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Crusaders, the Ottomans, the British, the Israelis the list goes on and on.
Gaza claims to be the most occupied city in history. A long queue of occupiers has left behind a fascinating archaeology. Roman coins and pottery fragments wash up on the shore. In Gaza, you can shop for truly audacious jewellery in an ancient gold souk, or market, that has been furnishing Palestinian brides for centuries.
Attend a service at the fourth-century Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrus and visit the Great Omari Mosque, which was built on the foundations of a Norman church that was itself built on a pagan temple. There are also many wonderful Byzantine mosaics. The Mamluk castle was once the personal headquarters of Napoleon.
Unfortunately, the present occupation has left more rubble than historic sights. Decades of war and devastating economic decline have taken their toll on the city, but it's rebuilding and unfolding as a travel destination unlike any other.
"Ahlan wa Sahlan." This is an expression you hear again and again. It means "Welcome, and may the bounty of green fields be upon you." Palestinians take their hospitality very seriously. You may be invited to dinner parties where you'll be very well fed.
Gaza has a rich variety of traditional dishes. Fresh fish straight from the sea yield delicious offerings like zibdea, shrimp with tomato and chili baked in terracotta bowls. There are other wonderful dishes: fet, a dish of chicken cooked with rice and almonds and wrapped in flat bread; and mashi, stuffed courgettes, eggplants and vine leaves.
Come sunset during Ramadan, the holiest time in the Islamic calendar, Gaza comes alive with traditional music, parties, food and festive drinks until the wee hours of the night. There are many good restaurants along the sea, but the best is the beautiful Al Deira Hotel, a landmark to both locals and visitors that hosts wonderful events.
Today, Gazans are for the most part Muslims and alcohol is strictly haram (forbidden), but if you're dying for a drop, head for the UN Beach Club to slake your thirst alongside the expats.
Since Biblical times, Palestinian artisans have been perfecting the crafts of pottery, glass, weaving and olivewood carving. Most famous is the fine cross-stitch embroidery. Visit the UNWRA embroidery shop and the Atfaluna school for the deaf for embroidery, weaving, ceramics and Arabesque furniture. A must is a visit to the Arts and Crafts Village, a traditional Islamic complex of small craft workshops and a gallery that hosts exhibitions and cultural events.
Only one hour away from Jerusalem and approximately six from Cairo and Amman, Jordan, Gaza holds a strategic positioning for tourists as well as politicians. Equally accessible and well worth a visit are the other historic cities of Palestine: Nablus, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jericho, the oldest standing city in the world.
As for Gaza, expect brilliant blue skies, beaches, fascinating culture, great food and company, and an experience that will open up your view of the world.