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.
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.