The Road to Bethlehem

Day three of the tour but it’s actually our second full day being guided by Azmi. (This page is out of order because I’ve just noticed that it didn’t publish at the time due to poor wifi. It should have been posted on 9th April)

Driving in our very comfortable bus up to the Mount of Olives this morning provided us with some spectacular views of Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock glistened in the sunshine like a jewel. Following a meandering path beside an Old Jewish graveyard decorated with wildflowers, and down the hill to the Garden of Gethsemane was significant because it is reputed to be the path Jesus took to enter Jerusalem triumphantly, on what we now refer to as Palm Sunday.

The Garden of Gethsemane was going to be my personal highlight and I was really looking forward to seeing it. Unfortunately it is not possible to wander in, but gazing on olive trees, with gnarled and twisted trunks, that have been carbon dated to prove their age of 2000 years is just staggering.

Beside the garden is a superb church, the Church of All Nations, also referred to as The Basilica of the Agony, where a Mass was in progress for a small group of pilgrims. Three stunning mosaics adorn the walls at the sanctuary end of the church with simple and dramatic stained glass windows running along the side walls. The ceiling was made up of many domes carrying intricate mosaics depicting the olive trees of the garden next door. It really did not disappoint.

Passing through security and into the West Bank was uneventful. Our first stop was the Banksy Hotel, called the Walled Off Hotel, situated beside the huge concrete wall separating the West Bank from the rest of the country. The wall is covered in political graffiti and clever street art providing us with much to ponder as we walked along a hundred meters or so.

Afterwards we enjoyed a couple of cappuccinos and an earl grey tea from vintage china cups in the quirky front room decorated with Banksy art.

Manger Square in Bethlehem was the next stop where we entered the Church of the Nativity but bypassed the three hour queue to see the spot where Mary is said to have given birth. Instead we had a look around the church, which had beautiful mosaics and lots of ornate lamps hung from the ceiling. We then spent a bit of time in the church next door and in the tombs beneath, where St Jerome is reputed to have translated some of the gospels from Hebrew into Latin in the fourth century.

Lunch for the eleven of us was the famous Bethlehem falafel sandwich which was delicious and surprisingly cheap. We would have loved to have more time exploring Bethlehem but we had to head back to Jerusalem to meet up with another guide who was going to take us on a walking tour in West Jerusalem.

The tour started off quite well but as it progressed our guide seemed a little lost and uncertain as to what she might show us. We passed through a delightful area of very expensive homes in the Yemin Moshe district then onto the YMCA which shares the same architect as the Empire State Building.

A quick visit into the foyer of the King David Hotel opposite where presidents, prime ministers, actors and other famous people stay because of the security available was interesting. A couple of things we were supposed to see, the Mamilla Pool and a public art space that was on the list seemed to evade the guide and even stopping to ask people in the park, didn’t help her.

We eventually got to the vibrant main shopping malls of the area with cafes spilling out onto the streets, wide promenades and buskers. Following Jaffa Road with its light rail travelling up and down the centre we were led into the colourful Machane Yehuda market with its food stalls of fruit, spices, pastries and all sort of delicacies.

We were happy to bid farewell to our guide for the afternoon. Some of us found a great little bar where we enjoyed a couple of drinks and some delicious sweet kanafeh, which is a sweet and crispy dessert. The bar had fantastic wifi which we all happily used.

Sweet delights
Meat and fish stalls too
Enjoying a drink together

We managed to figure out how to buy tickets for the light rail and after much laughing the seven of us got off at the right stop and enjoyed a dinner at a cosy restaurant, Al-Mihbash, not far from the hotel.

Tomorrow we head out to the desert to visit Masada and then onto the Dead Sea to enjoy, we hope, a float in the salty water.

Farewell and Shalom Israel

Our last day in Israel. Our transfer is at 6.15pm so we have a full day to wander about. Breakfast at the hotel and then we caught a taxi for 50 shekels up to the old port city of Jaffa. Unfortunately the sky wasn’t blue today so our photos don’t have the gorgeous contrast of the stone against azure blue. We enjoyed fika in the Basma cafe…it’s the one with the blues shutters and little tables outside that caught our eye as the taxi took us into the centre of the old city.

There were many little alleys to wander up and down in. Cute ceramic plaques held the names of the narrow laneways. We eventually figured out that the signs of the zodiac were being used.

Because it was pretty early, 9 o’clock, the shops selling jewellery and art work were closed. However we managed to pop into a Yemenite jewellery maker who was pleased to serve us and took delight in showing the workshop. I do believe that three pairs of gorgeous earrings were purchased by three very discerning customers!

We walked on into the main square and managed to get into St Peter’s Catholic Church. It was closed when we came through the square a couple of days ago. A beautiful ceiling was eye catching.

A market is always interesting and the one we found just off the clock tower square was no exception. Lots of copper pots, clothing, carpets, jewellery and trash and treasure. A couple of shops had some beautiful things that took our fancy.

We decided to try our luck at getting an outside table at Aladin’s restaurant for lunch so we set off with fingers crossed. Sure enough we got the last outside table! A delicious lunch from mixed platters sitting in the sun, over looking the Mediterranean was a perfect lunch.

We took a taxi back to sit and rest up in the hotel foyer for an hour or so then walked up Ben Gurion Boulevard to have a look at the shops and cafes in that area. Sitting in the sun enjoying a beer and watching the bustle of Tel Aviv race by was a good way to spend another hour or so before our transfer arrives. Back to the hotel to freshen up, air drop some photos and write the blog took another hour or so. Nothing to do now but wait! A two hour layover at both Istanbul and Singapore airports and then home. What a great friends abroad trip we’ve had with lots of laughs, wow moments and fabulous memories.

Tel Aviv: the land of beautiful people and dogs!

Our first full day totally on our own without Azmi to steer us through. Breakfast in the Olympia hotel was fine, with the obligatory European items and pastries, of course, however no fruit to have with our corn flakes or honey to drizzle on the top. This hotel has comfy beds and big showers which was really appreciated after the tiny showers in the convent single rooms. If you dropped the soap the shower door had to be opened so you could bend down to pick it up! The decorating is stylish, vibrant and cosmopolitan.

The six of us, Grant and Sue, Amanda and the three of us decided that a trip to the Israel Museum, back in Jerusalem, to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, would be fairly achievable. After speaking to the girls at the front desk and confirming directions to the bus depot on the internet, we set off for Tel Aviv 2000 Terminal. We were aware that because of Shabbat public buses wouldn’t be running but we intended to get a shurut, which is essentially a shared taxi. However when we got to the depot, we joined a line and chatted to the locals who told us that on Shabbat, the shared taxis and private buses ran from Central Tel Aviv station.

We weren’t happy but we managed to hail a cab to the next depot, the driver telling us which bus went to Jerusalem for a cost of thirty five shekels. On arriving in Jerusalem we then had to find our way to the Museum, which we thought would be easily done in another taxi. We hailed a beautiful Mercedes with very comfy seats whose driver was happy to also drive us back to Tel Aviv at two o’clock for four hundred shekels. Done!! We were all very happy with that!

We had no idea how busy the museum would be and expected to line up at the entry and then again at the Dead Sea Scrolls, but nothing of the sort happened. We even got a foreigners seniors discount!! Into the museum we went and headed straight for the Scrolls. We had two hours until the taxi came back which was plenty of time to check out a few exhibits and grab a bit of lunch. The Scrolls were exhibited very effectively under a large creamy dome that is constantly sprayed by jets of water from the outside. No photos were allowed inside. What a find it must have been to archeologists around the world.

After a browse in the museum shop we met our driver and were back in Tel Aviv within the hour. We had a quick spell in the hotel room and then met in the foyer to head out to the beach where all the beautiful people go. Tel Aviv is a dog lovers city!! Dogs of all shapes and sizes are walked on leads, driven in bicycle baskets and generally used as a fashion item. Our first sight of the beach was another Wow moment. I’ve never seen so many people crowded into one space. Orange sun lounges lined the waters edge, people were playing beach volley ball, exercise equipment was getting a work out and people watching was everywhere!

Electric scooters, skateboards, and bicycles had their own two way path, with pedestrians keeping well away. Restaurants lined the sand offering drinks, ice cream, yoghurt and delicious food. We decided to come down to this strip again for dinner. A bonus was the sunset over the Mediterranean which wasn’t particularly colourful but still pretty to look at. A lovely end to another day. One more to go before we head home tomorrow night.

To Tel Aviv on the coast via Caesarea.

Our last full day on our tour of Israel was another day full of wow moments. We were packed and ready to go by 8.30. A short walk to the bus parking area and we set off to Haifa, the third biggest city in Israel, to see the Bahá’í Gardens. Azmi explained about the Ottoman and German times in the town and the effect they had upon the architecture and also about the Bahá’í faith and its leader that the memorial in the Bahá’í Gardens was built for. I had heard of the gardens but had no idea they were laid out in such a formal and eye catching manner. The gardens are made up of terraces that flow smoothly down the hill separated by little white fences of pillared balustrades and white urns of geraniums. The lawns are manicured, hedges clipped perfectly and the garden beds full of colourful annuals. Pencil pines and magnificent date palms rise majestically in a symmetrical pattern around the site. The centre point of the gardens is the magnificent golden domed Shrine of the Báb, glorious in the sunshine.

The next stop was to see an aqueduct built by Herod and then added onto by Hadrian in the coastal town of Caesarea. Gee, that guy got around! The sweeping arches stand proudly along the coastline as families play on the fine sandy beach and men try their luck fishing.

Close to the aqueduct stands the ancient remains of Herod’s summer palace, presenting a glimpse into the life of the king and the citizens of the town. A magnificent amphitheater, a hippodrome, bath houses, and streets running through the town with superb mosaics to appreciate, among other buildings, make this a really interesting site to visit. A few shops and cafes make the visit even more enjoyable. We all had lunch at a cafe on the water’s edge with Azmi and our driver, Diab, joining us for our last lunch together.

A short drive into Tel Aviv and the old port of Jaffa finished our tour. We had a group photo taken at the lookout with the buildings of Tel Aviv in the background. The group was really fun with everyone getting along really well. We tended to spend more time with Helen, from Cornwall, Principal of an International school in Manila and soon taking up a post in Riyadh; Amanda, a nurse from Albany in Western Australia, and Grant and Sue who are in the furniture business in New Zealand. We had great fun together exploring the restaurant scenes in each town or city we visited and trying hummus somewhere different everyday!

We bade farewell to Azmi and Diab after we checked into the Olympia Hotel over the road from the beach. It is a great little boutique hotel in a convenient spot to the beaches, shops and restaurants. We wandered around the immediate neighbourhood, finding a little street cafe to have a coffee in the sun. Tel Aviv is a very cosmopolitan city and from what we could see this afternoon, a dog lovers city. A guy on a skateboard being pulled along the footpath by two dogs, husky style and people on bikes and motorised scooters sped past on the cycle tracks as we sat enjoying our coffee. We walked up the road towards the beach marvelling at all the people on the beach, browsing the shops as we went and deciding that a Kilkenny draft beer at Molly Malone’s would be a good idea. Irish music from the musicians playing in the front room filtered out to the outside tables where we sat.

We all met up in the hotel foyer at 6.30, airdropped a few photos, exchanged emails and set of for the restaurant strip for dinner. It was a fun night at a busy cafe serving delicious food and drink. Back to the hotel by 9.30 we decided to go back to Jerusalem tomorrow to see the Dead Sea Scrolls at the museum. Helen leaves to go diving in Egypt after breakfast so it will be six of us sharing the drive in. We’re all looking forward to see what tomorrow brings when we’re left to our own devices.

Up north to the border

After a simple but lovely breakfast in the dining room of the convent, we checked out their delightful chapel and the terrace on the third floor with fabulous views over Nazareth to the skyline. We walked down to the bus at 8.30 and left for Rosh Hanikra driving past forests of oaks, olives and pistachios and through towns that displayed lots of building work in progress.

On arrival we stopped at a lookout so we could gaze over the Mediterranean coastline. An Israeli warship was sitting calmly in the waters close to the yellow markers signifying the border between Lebanon and Israel. Israeli soldiers were on duty at the gates and were happy to give us a wave as they drove past in their UN vehicle. Walking on further we came to the yellow and red cable cars that would take us down to caves and grottoes where the sound of rushing water whooshed though the tunnels. Pigeons happily swooped from the cliffs playing in the sunshine.

Tunnels lit up dramatically made for great photos.

There were many “wow” moments at our next stop, the fascinating complex of buildings used by the Knights of St. John (the Knights Hospitaller), the Crusader Citadel in Acre, Akko in Hebrew. This site is spectacular! Walking through the dining hall, the market place, the crypt of an ancient church and an underground passage that their rivals, the Knights Templar, used, we were spellbound by the size and grandeur of the site. It is presented in the form of a museum that makes the history come alive.

After the citadel visit we walked through the old port town of Akko with its market place and port area, having lunch that consisted of delicious hummus made right before our eyes. Azmi used a code of “It looks like rain” to warn us to be careful of pickpockets and for the first time he used it today while we were walking through the maze of stalls selling delicious looking foods as well as lots of junky souvenirs.

At the edge of the market place we went down into tunnels running to the port that were only discovered twenty five years or so ago. These tunnels filled with water at high tides and were used to smuggle goods into the town so that taxes could be avoided. Who knows what else might lie beneath these streets.

The port area looked to be a vibrant place with cafes, shops and spectacular views. Lots of school children seemed to be on excursions over the last two days and today we were often just ahead of groups of excited kids and their frazzled teachers.

Wanting to avoid the horrific Nazareth traffic, we left Akko to be back in Nazareth by 3.00 for a walking tour from Mary’s Well, into the church that now houses the diverted springs and then to the magnificent Basilica of the Annunciation. The Basilica has two floors and is also built over the ruins of a village excavated by archeologists. It contains magnificent mosaics depicting Mary and Child made by and donated from countries all over the world. I’ve put in a photo of Australia’s mosaic showing the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she was going to become the Mother of Jesus. The architecture of the Basilica has a demanding presence that can’t be resisted as far as taking photos goes, with the delightful blue sky framing it perfectly.

This is our last night in Nazareth. Eight of us walked down to a foodie precinct for dinner and settled on Meshwar. This was not a highly successful choice as the staff appeared to be very disorganised and unprepared. The food was ok but the drinks left a bit to be desired, with the white house wine coming out with ice in it!! We’re guessing they didn’t have any cold so an attempt was made to chill it. Some of us came back to the convent while the others went back to where we had dinner last night, Alreda, for a few more drinks. Curfew for the convent is 10.30 so off to bed at a reasonable hour after packing our things to leave for our final destination of Tel Aviv tomorrow.

Today was another fabulous day filled with contrasts and fun.

To Nazareth we go.

We said goodbye to our cheerful rooms at the Azzahra Hotel in East Jerusalem this morning and began a day’s travel ending in Nazareth.

One last view of Jerusalem from the bus as we sailed past, with the Dome of the Rock taking centre stage in the landscape but not quite glistening in the sun like it did when we visited. Bedouin camps popped into view along the roadside as we drove through the desert, stopping at the sea level marker for a photo opportunity.

Jericho didn’t present itself very well looking quite untidy and run down, however we stopped beside a gorgeous little spot with a huge sycamore tree set in a well maintained garden with fruit sellers’ wagons parked nearby. This tree is reputed to be the tree, or another planted in its place, that Zaccheus climbed to see Jesus as he moved through the town.

There were a few workmen painting some of the trees with a white paint of some sort that prevented ants getting into the trees and killing them. This guy with the groovy haircut was scraping away the old layer ready to apply a new coat. Azmi told stories about Jesus as he traversed the countryside, at each of the spots we stopped at during the day. We continued on a short way to Hisham’s Palace where we were horrified not only to see that electrical equipment was getting set up for a concert but also to see a school group of teenage boys scrambling all over precious stone ruins and irreplaceable mosaic floors and running around it as if it was a fairground. Their teacher was in fact encouraging the boys to climb up onto a signature piece for photos. Azmi was horrified and so were we!!

Back into the bus to continue though the Jordan Valley to our next destination of Capernaum, we were on the lookout for a picture of a shepherd guarding his flock of sheep that I wanted for school. Often cries of “shepherd!” were heard as we drove along causing us to search the horizon and snap away. Can you see him?

The area we drove through appeared to be a food bowl with kilometres of date palms, grape vines, corn, mangoes, banana trees and poly tunnel after poly tunnel. We drove along the border fence between Israel and Jordan for a period of time and saw a couple of Israeli jets announce their presence. Driving past the Sea of Galilee with its blue water sparkling in the sunshine we stopped at Tabgha to see the church of the Primacy of St Peter, Mensa Christi. This is a beautiful and simple church right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee with a couple of outdoor altars for small groups of people to celebrate Mass. There was a Mass being celebrated in French for only three people! This church is all about Jesus choosing Peter and ‘on this rock I shall build my church’. Luckily we got to see the church and the banks of the Sea of Galilee before a couple of bus loads of tourists arrived to destroy the serenity.

Capernaum was fascinating with a modern church said to have been built over the ruins of Peter’s house which can be seen through the glass floor in the centre of the church. Beside that is the site of two ancient synagogues, one built on top of a more ancient one. One could surmise that when Jesus stayed with Peter at his house then he would have visited the synagogue next door.

The town of Safed (Tsfat) is one of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities and is also Israel’s highest city at over 900 metres above sea level. Here we spent some time having lunch and wandering along a street full of artists’ shops selling paintings and jewellery. A few purchases might have been made! Asmi told us that the traffic in Nazareth was horrendous and he was so right! It took us almost an hour to move four kilometres up the road into Nazareth.

It was past six o’clock by now and we parked our little bus and walked the short distance to the Sisters of Nazareth Convent which provides accomodation. What a fabulous place this is. We unpacked our cases for the two night stay and walked to a restaurant that Azmi loves going to. Delicious food and good company was the end to a great day.

Oh, I guess you noticed that the convent has wonderful wifi and photos are being shared so easily. Hope you enjoyed them.

Into the desert

An 8.00am start as usual saw us boarding the bus for Masada, King Herod’s winter palace. Driving through the desert provided us with fantastic views of stark landscapes with occasional crops of majestic date palms in various stages of growth. Shepherds and their sheep, goats and camels meandered across the hills dotted with simple Bedouin houses.

The complex of buildings atop the outcrop was much larger than I thought it was going to be. Tourists from all over the world filled the cable cars for the two minute glide up to the top. What a view! Herod certainly knew how to position a house! The ingenuity of the inhabitants was evident in the water cisterns and storage facilities that kept the community thriving. The two narratives of Masada, King Herod and then the rebels’ battle with the romans was explained simply and logically by our wonderful guide Azmi. Little snippets of information made the stories come alive.

The weather was fabulous and we were glad to be leaving the ruins by eleven o’clock to make the drive to Qumran for lunch in a very large cafeteria. It was beginning to get very hot up there. The cable car ride was very smooth with fantastic views.

After a tasty lunch of a falafel sandwich and a cold drink we drove ten minutes or so to the Dead Sea. It was an imposing sight driving along the body of sparkling water for such a long time as we made our way to Masada surprising everyone as to how big it was. Sadly though, Azmi told us that with global warming it is in danger of disappearing entirely in a couple of generations. The gradual receding of the water was plainly visible!

Another amazing place! Kalia Beach is a fantastic sight. At 418 metres below sea level, Kalia Beach is the northern most beach in the Dead Sea and offers visitors great views of the surrounding desert and loads of fun and laughs as you venture into the water. Holding onto the rope is the only safe way to get into the water to ensure that you don’t end up with your face in the water. It was delightful bobbing around in the refreshing water and chatting and laughing with friends with the sun shining from above.

After our dip, showers on the sand washed off the intense salt and we made our way up to the bar, the lowest bar in the world, to enjoy a drink, a couple of large Heinekens and a lemonade. The prices for the drinks weren’t low though by any means! Reggae music playing from the bar was perfect, camels sitting gracefully by the path and the hysterical experience of changing into our bathers, and then back into our clothes, in front of many, many strangers, helped make the whole experience a highlight of the trip.

A stop at the Monastery of St. George on the way back to Jerusalem through the Judean Desert, but still in the West Bank, was fascinating. In the middle of nowhere a magnificent collection of buildings was established by monks who sought solitude in the deep crevices of a large canyon. Hawkers tried to sell us jewellery and scarves as we got out of the bus to listen to another fascinating history from Azmi. They were disappointed when we left without making any purchases.

A half hour drive back through security and back into Jerusalem to our hotel for a couple of hours before we all went out to dinner at the Legacy Hotel, only a ten minute walk from the hotel. It also happened to be Sue’s birthday so we made it a memorable celebration. It was a great night with fabulous food and views over the city to match.

So tomorrow we check out of our comfortable and cosy hotel in Jerusalem and head towards Nazareth where we’ll be staying in a convent established by an order of French nuns in the mid nineteenth century. It’s promising to be another unforgettable experience.