As we’ve mentioned before one big advantage of living in Europe is the relative close proximity of many different countries and cultures. From the UK it is feasible to get as far as the Middle East for a long weekend.
On a recent short trip to Israel, Laura visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem as a day trip from Tel Aviv, booked online in advance with Viator. This is an account of the day:
I was collected from my Tel Aviv hotel promptly at 7 am and after being taken to a central meeting point, was allocated to my Jerusalem bound mini bus where I met driver Abraham and guide Itamar.
As we headed the 70 km towards Jerusalem, Itamar gave us an abundance of information. Other than him saying that both Jerusalem and Bethlehem are colder as they have an elevation of 800 m, the other fact that stands out is:
The 3 biggest cities in Israel are Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Haifa is pretty, with lots of gardens and is quiet so you sleep. Jerusalem is historical and religious so you pray. And party city Tel Aviv you PLAY!!! Sleep, pray, play!
Itamar also mentioned the top industries in Israel in order are:
- High tech
Anyway, our first stop en-route to the holy city was the Elvis American Diner! Random and unexpected this was where we stopped for a 20 minute coffee break.
Jerusalem is the capital city of Israel and is located between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea. There is a population of around 900,000, a mix of mostly Jewish and Arab.
The mini bus stopped at the The Wall of Life which is owned by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The are of names on the wall (at the bottom of the photo) of people who have donated to the university.
The above photo shows shepherds in the same location where shepherds have been for 2000 years, watching their flocks by night… BTW Jordan and the Dead Sea are in the distance.
We drove past the Mount of Olives and Jewish cemetary. The Mount of Olives features in the bible and there are several key points connected with Jesus’s life especially the final weeks. The bus didn’t stop for us to get off and take photos and as I was on the ‘wrong’ side I didn’t take any. We then passed by Mount Zion where Oscar Schindler is buried.
Abraham parked the mini bus outside the Jaffa Gate entrance and Itamar led us on a walking tour of the Jerusalem Old City, pointing out places of interest along the way.
This included a 700 year old tattoo shop, the small print on the sign says “tattoo with heritage since 1300”.
One of the most famous sights is the Dome of the Rock which unfortunately we couldn’t visit as it is open to Muslims only. According to Lonely Planet this is one of the most photographed buildings on the planet.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
This, the holiest of churches is built on what Christians believe to be the site where Jesus was crucified and buried. The original church was built in 326 and over the centuries has had many additions. It can get very busy although was not too bad during this trip, an advantage of visiting in January! The above mosaic shows Jesus being taken into a cave where he was originally buried.
This church is attended by Muslims, Christiens and Jews.
Above is the Stone of Anointing, this is where Christians believe the body of Jesus was washed and oiled before being taken to the nearby burial cave.
We continued our tour walking through the markets and narrow streets of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian quarters. Freshly squeezed pomegranet and ginger, a speciality of this stall (above photo).
We reached the Western Wall and has to pass through a security check. Originally built by Herod the Great, the Western Wall is a holy site otherwise known as the Wailing Wall.
Men have one section and women have their own part of the wall. This 2000 year old wall is the most sacred of sites for Jews.
From the Western Wall it was a departure through the Dung Gate and back on the mini bus towards Bethlehem.
While only a few miles from Jerusalem, Bethlehem is a Palestinian town located in the West Bank. This meant we had to go through a check point. This is another good reason to book a tour as apparently its easier to cross rather than doing this yourself. I had my passport with me although we were just waved through the border and none were checked.
As I understand things Palestine is a region which covers the West Bank and Gaza Strip rather than being a separate country. As it is not recognised as being part of Israel you won’t see the Israeli flag flying.
As I’m sure most people are aware, Bethlehem was the birthplace of Jesus so for me conjured up images of little farms and stables stacked with hay and a donkey, lit with a bright shiny star above. Thanks to development over many centuries, like any city Bethlehem is now full of buildings, roads and traffic!
Our Palestinian guide Martin had taken over from Itamar and he explained that now only 10% of Bethlehem residents are Christian which has dropped ftom over 70% in the past. He also explained the word Bethlehem in Hebrew means ‘House of Bread’ and in Arabic it means ‘House of Meat’.
We had lunch in the ‘Christmas Bells’, just off Manger Square. Sat amongst Christmas decorations and dining to the sounds of Christmas songs I also tried a local beer, ‘Shepherds Beer of Palestine’ which was similar to a Budweiser.
Church of Nativity
Next door we visited the Church of Nativity with the main entrance through a tiny door, the Door of Humility which has been filled in over the years.
Recent restorations have uncovered mosaics in the walls of the church.
You can visit the Grotto of the Nativity where it is said Jesus was born… but there was a massive queue so we didn’t.
The tour ended with a stop in a Christian shop in Bethlehem where you can buy local Christmassy handicrafts which support the local Christian community. Then it was back through the check point and back to Tel Aviv.
As mentioned I had pre-booked the tour with Viator, who used a local company called Bein Harim Tourism. The mini bus was modern and had handy USB ports at each seat, so good for charging your mobile en-route.
Our guide Itamar was excellent and provided a wealth of information about Israel in general, as well as the two locations we visited today. As well as the information gleaned, an organised tour is also helpful if you are short on time and just want to see the highlights.
However, as this tour focussed on the Old City of Jerusalem there is a great deal more that can be experienced if you have more time. For example, you could do a Western Wall Tunnels tour where you can inch your way through the subterranean layers of the wall.
You could spend more time at each of these sights and then have a nice Middle Eastern meal in the evening. And you could visit the Mount of Olives and do a short walk where you would see several historical sights such as the Tomb of the Virgin Mary and the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus is said to have been arrested.
If like me you are short on time, I would stay in Tel Aviv and see the highlights of Jerusalem in a day. However if you have say 6 nights you could split your time and spend 3 days in each of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.