Friday, November 19, 2010

One week in the Holy Land

Before any more time elapses, I want to post a few of my thoughts about Israel. True, we did not travel throughout the entire country but based ourselves in Jerusalem. We originally intended to spend five nights in the Old City, but I became ill with a debilitating headache about mid-way through our visit and thus we extended our stay to seven nights with the final two in Zion Square in the New City.

As usual, we did not have a set itinerary for this part of our trip other than knowing that we both wanted to visit as many of the holy sights as possible. Old City Jerusalem can be a bit overwhelming to the first time visitor with its maze of alleyways and layers upon layers of history. We decided the best way to orient ourselves was to take a free, three hour walking tour (tips appreciated) with SANDEMANs New Europe Tours, which we did on our first full day in Israel. While the tour only touches on the many sights in the Old City, it does provide a good, albeit condensed, overview of the city’s history. Most importantly, it helped us understand how the city is divided into different sections: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, etc. so we would know where we wanted to explore further.

After that first free tour with Sandemans, we decided to sign up for a (not free) four hour Bethlehem tour the following day. While Bethlehem is accessible by taxi or public transport, it is much easier to go on a guided tour, not to mention that our guide had connections at the Church of the Nativity which allowed us to bypass the VERY LONG lines to see the birthplace of Jesus. Also, as Bethlehem is technically in Palestinian-controlled territory, there are security checkpoints to negotiate.
Greg at the barrier wall between Israel & Palestine
I should also mention that we seriously considered hiring a private guide in order to get more out of our time in Israel. Based in part on recommendations from “Israel: A Personal Travel Guide,” a free 48 page PDF distributed via email by Douglas E. Duckett, I contacted both Sam Salem & Madeleine Levine. While Madeleine was not available, Sam was more than willing to guide us. However, his daily fee average for the Jerusalem/Bethlehem area is $300.00 (includes using his car) and Bethlehem as half day is $130.00. Galilee and the coastal sites (Caeserea; Akko & Haifa) are around $420.00 on one day basis. If you want to tour for 2 or 3 days up north to include the Golan Heights then the rate is $350.00 a day. Obviously this is quite a bit of money although I’m sure it would have been totally worth every penny. But, considering the length of time we are traveling and all of our other expenses, we ultimately decided to either sightsee on our own when feasible (Yad Vashem, Israel Museum), and use Sandemans for everything else.
Our guide Danny explains some history to us from the Mount of Olives overlooking Old Jerusalem
One place where we picked up some helpful information was the Jaffa Gate Tourism Center. They had good, free maps of Jerusalem as well as one page printouts detailing the location and opening/closing times of all the major sights. I also enjoyed reading the 20 page pamphlet “On the Paths of Christianity” which includes an Old City self-guided walking tour and information about all the Christian sects. We also obtained the necessary information as to how to cross the border into Jordan via public transportation, although they made it sound much easier than it actually turned out to be!
In summary, other than being stricken with the worst headache of my life, I found Jerusalem and the surrounding area to be a mostly enjoyable place to visit. Even in four days of active sightseeing, we barely scraped the surface of all there is to see and understand about the history of the city. Sometimes it was hard to get in the right mindset, religious or otherwise, to appreciate the importance of the area, as there are so many shops, restaurants, hotels, and other tourists “obscuring the view” so to speak. You will definitely be rewarded by early morning or late evening exploration as well as having plenty of patience to sit back and take it all in at a more relaxed pace.
view of Old City Jerusalem & beyond from the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice
Here is a list of some of the key sights we visited:
Mount of Olives: (where the gates of heaven will open up on Judgement Day)
Dome of the Ascension
Pater Noster (Our Father)
Jewish Cemetery
Dominus Flevit
Church of All Nations/Basilica of the Agony/Grotto (Gethsemane)
Tomb of Mary
Muslim Quarter:
Austrian Hospice
Via Dolorosa
Western Wall

Jewish Quarter:
Roof Promenade

Christian Quarter:
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
New City:
Mamilla Mall
Yad Vashem - The Holocaust History Museum, presents the story of the Holocaust from a Jewish perspective; divided into “chapters” telling the story in chronological order from “the Jewish world before the Holocaust” to “Hall of Names” commemorating all those who perished
Israel Museum - houses the most extensive holdings of biblical and Holy Land archaeology in the world; illuminated manuscripts; Shrine of the Book (Dead Sea Scrolls); 1:50 scale model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period (66CE)
Machane Yehuda - Jerusalem’s market
Marakiah - Time Out calls it a “bohemian hole-in-the-wall” serving homemade soups; we had sweet potato & lentil with Staropramen draft beer
a busy Friday near closing time at Machane Yehuda market
Reflections on the Holy City (in no particular order):
  • Hearing the sound of church bells for the first time in many weeks 
  • Streets empty after 3pm on Friday; everything closed, buses stop running
  • Smell of freshly baked bread (oval sesame) in the morning
  • Sound & light show at David’s Tower could be heard from our hotel room multiple times per night 
  • New Imperial Hotel - quirky, lots of character, low water pressure, doors that don’t close, didn’t have reservation correctly in system so we had to change rooms for our last night, decent cold breakfast for $5, had to wear earplugs every night as not very soundproof and too much noise in alleyway at night
  • Jerusalem Hostel - first looked at “the nest” a cozy alcove on the roof but you have to cross outside to the other side of the roof to access the shared toilets & showers so stayed in a more expensive Class A room instead; “breakfast” is a relative term here (instant coffee & toast + spreads only)
  • 8 years to build light rail; still not running nor any sign of work being done in the week we were there (another sign of poor infrastructure)
  • Lots of littering, minimal recycling, dirt & dust in general although I did see a street sweeper on Jaffa St early Sunday morning
  • Lots of cats; come out at night to dig thru trash
  • The old city is overrun with touristy shops; got hassled more in the Muslim quarter
  • Everything expensive: food - average entrĂ©e 80NIS unless you order sandwich or fast food type meal and then more like 30NIS; accommodation in budget hotels averaged 300NIS per night; public transport reasonable at 6.20NIS per ride although not super efficient
  • Took 3 tours with SANDEMANs New Europe Tours; level of guiding varied; only complaint would be during Bethlehem tour, guide never gave an opportunity nor pointed out restrooms except at first stop; it was a 4+ hour tour! Said we were taking a break but took us to a tourist shop where they served us coffee/tea which we had to drink standing up as there was nowhere to sit
  • Tour groups at Yad Vashem - shouldn’t allow more than 10 people per group as the areas are not that large and the big groups would completely block access to the displays as well as impede forward progress
  • Israel Museum was nice, but as it has been recently renovated, needs more directional signs throughout; also, as we were there on Saturday, none of the cafes were open so there was nowhere to get anything to eat or drink on the entire property
  • Colors/sounds/smells of the market, bugling horn to signal close of business plus they came back to scold shopkeepers who did not appear to be closing fast enough
  • Wanted to take pictures of religious people (monks, nuns, etc.) but felt like I was intruding nor thought it appropriate to bother them to ask permission; so only took a few from a distance
  • Old city walkways are extremely slippery wet or dry as the stones are so worn down from millions upon millions of footsteps; also it is not flat so lots of uneven steps; because the “streets” are so narrow, almost impossible to orient yourself until you come to a more open area and can spot a landmark like one of the church domes or mosque minarets
  • Worst headache of trip so far - no medication not prescription migraine nor narcotics would ease it; stayed in bed all day with ice bags, feverish; gradually got better over following 24hrs but continued to have abnormal pressure behind both eyes
  • Bet Shean border crossing - bus 961 filled with young soldiers carrying machine guns with clips; waited one hour for connecting bus (16) but then it passed by without stopping, no taxis in sight the whole time; finally flagged down a taxi and paid 40NIS for a 5min ride; processed out of Israel (98.50NIS exit fee); paid 5NIS each to ride a bus across the river into Jordan

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