We landed into a much welcomed 29-degrees in Israel. It was a Friday afternoon and the Jewish Shabbat (holy day) had already taken effect, which meant the trains and buses weren’t running. Instead we took a ‘sherut’ – a shuttle that drops everyone off; you just have to wait until all the seats are full before it departs. Our sherut to Jerusalem didn’t take long to fill up. This door-to-door service was a hassle-free way to arrive, as we didn’t have to carry our luggage very far. We checked into our little airbnb self-contained unit and ate packet food we’d brought with us for dinner (as most shops were closed too). The next morning, (the day of Shabbat), we’d pre-arranged a day tour to Bethlehem. Our first stop was of course the Separation Wall (the barrier seperating Israel and the West Bank/Palestine). We spent some time viewing the graffiti art and messages.
The next stop was the Church of the Nativity. This was a super busy place; shared by three different monasteries: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic. This is of course believed to be the place where Jesus Christ was born. Our tour didn’t include a visit to the Grotto of the Nativity (because it could take over an hour in a queue), but our guide took us into the neighbouring grottos (caves and tunnels under the church). We also visited St. Catherine’s Catholic Church (which had a Mass on) and we also saw a section of the mosaic floor which dates back to the original 4th Century Basilica.
We then walked through Bethlehem, passing Manger Square where thousands of Christians gather to sing carols at Christmas before midnight Mass at the Church of Nativity. Along the streets almost every shop was selling religious souvenirs. We eventually reached the Milk Grotto Church, a Holy site believed to be the place where Mary stopped to feed baby Jesus on their escape to Egypt and her milk spilled on the rock in the cave where it changed the colour of the rock to white.
After visiting the Milk Grotto, we walked down hill, taking in the views of Bethlehem along the route. Our driver was waiting for us at the bottom of the hill where we took a short drive to the entrance of the Shepherds’ Fields. This is the sacred site believed to be where the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. We also visited the caves (now used as a chapel) believed to be where the shepherd communities lived, and the stunning Shepherds Field chapel. Inside the beautiful dome chapel, utilising the amazing acoustics, we were invited to join our guide singing ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo.’
Our next stop was one of Banksy’s most famous pieces of wall art, ‘The Flower Thrower’ (having already seen some of his work on the Wall earlier in the morning). This artwork advocates for love rather than war.
Our final stop in Bethlehem was at an Olive Wood factory and gift shop. We were given the opportunity to see the religious statues being made (aptly Joseph the carpenter was being carved during our visit). We were also treated to a surprise Falafel lunch!
After lunch, we headed out of Bethlehem and toward the Dead Sea. The highway was well maintained, and we may have dosed off for some of the drive. As we neared the sea the atmosphere become very misty and we even had a small shower of rain (probably evaporation). The road kept winding down, to the lowest place on Earth…
We had two-hours to explore the Dead Sea. We quickly changed into our swimwear. At first, we admired the view from above – there was even a camel to add to the experience.
Then we headed down to the beach, where we took turns at having a float in this notoriously salty sea! It was a super weird experience …and no matter how hard you tried; you couldn’t swim normally. However, we did have fun rolling over on the surface. The salt content is so extreme that it almost felt oily on the skin, but luckily our beach had showers for rinsing off.
Next, it was time to get muddy! Apparently, the mud at the Dead Sea is great for your skin (anti-aging properties), so we lathered up…
For our first proper day in Jerusalem (after Shabbat) we decided to check out the new-town, walking in from our airbnb (about 1.5kms south of the city). It was quite a nice city to walk around with lots of bougainvillea growing in the gardens and art scattered throughout the streets.
We enjoyed a stroll through the Mahane Yehuda Market. The spices smelled amazing and we were treated to a few samples of different foods during our visit.
On our walk home, we ended up crossing into the old town. We entered through Jaffa Gate and wandered through the Christian Quarter. The narrow streets inside the old town were crammed with shops selling mostly religious souvenirs…
We went straight to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, hoping it wouldn’t be as busy being close to the end of the day; wishful thinking! It was super packed with several different groups going through for special celebrations. This Basilica dates back to the 4th Century, and is home to the ‘Tomb of Jesus’. Due to the large crowds we didn’t go inside the tomb itself, but we visited the Golgotha (site believed to be of Jesus’ crucifixion), blessed ourselves on the anointing stone and got lost in the many other parts of this large church. The crowds of people were rather overwhelming and it was also incredible to see so many different faiths sharing the space.
When we exited the church, the sun had already set. We walked back home for dinner – we’d stocked up on groceries earlier (quite an interesting experience when almost everything was in Hebrew), but Israel is really expensive (up there with Scandinavia), so we decided to save money by cooking our own meals.
The next day, we returned to Old Town Jerusalem, we began by climbing up Mount Zion. We found ourselves outside of ‘King David’s Tomb’. First, we stopped in at the Dormition Abbey, a Catholic Basilica, believed to be the site of Virgin Mary’s death. The church was empty when we first stepped inside, which made for a pleasant experience. The paintings inside were beautiful. A tour group came in just as we came out – a perfectly timed moment.
Next, we located the ‘Room of the Last Supper’, the place believed to be where Jesus shared his last meal with his disciples at the Passover. It was a much busier spot, but there were some stairs leading up to the rooftop which was almost empty and provided us with rooftop views.
We then visited King David’s Tomb itself. This site is administered by a Jewish seminary. The men and women enter the tomb through separate doors and the tomb had a divider in the middle to keep the two groups separate during prayer. Kadin and the men also had to wear a ‘kippah’ or ‘yarmulke’ (a skull-cap) when entering the tomb.
We continued our walk into the Jewish Quarter, entering through Zion Gate. We walked the walls and admired the views across to Mount of Olives and the city below.
We soon came to the ‘Western Wall’. Built by King Herod in 20BC this wall is a support for the Temple Mount. It is considered the most religious site for Jewish people. The wall is divided into two sections, one area for women and the other for men. It was really busy while we were there and many different denominations of Jews were praying along the wall.
As we walked toward Temple Mount we were continually re-directed away by military members blocking the road. (Interesting fact: The Israeli Defence Force – ‘IDF’ – a conscript military, is one of the world’s most battle-trained armed forces and is mandatory for both women and men. All Israeli citizens over the age of 18, are required to join the military; men for a minimum of 2 years and 8 months, women for a minimum of 2 years). After a few more blocked off paths towards the Temple Mount, we realised that it had been closed off ahead of Yom Kippur (the Jewish holiday starting later that day). So, we continued to explore the rather quite streets of Old Town.
It didn’t take long before we were surrounded by more hustle and bustle again. We had walked towards the Christian Quarter and came out near where we’d left off the night before. We decided to walk the Via Dolorosa (the way of the sorrows) in reverse. This is the route believed to be where Jesus carried his cross to his crucifixion (at the Holy Sepulchre). There were hundreds of pilgrims walking this route, stopping in at each of the stations of the cross …we stopped in at the Church of Condemnation and the Church of the Flagellation which mark the spot where Jesus was given the cross to carry (the second station). It was super busy, so we decided not to stop in at the other stations along the Via Dolorosa and just walked past them instead.
We exited Old Town through Lion Gate and walked down the hill to the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in the Kidron Valley (at the base of Mount of Olives). The tomb was almost empty when we arrived – we thought it might be closed, but the door was open so we descended down the stairs. It was much cooler inside and very dark. From the cave-like ceiling there were hundreds of lanterns burning incense, which was rather overwhelming to the senses. However, it was a peaceful place, with only us and one other visitor and a priest who invited us into the sacred tomb. This is the place believed to be where Mary was assumed into Heaven, body and soul.
Next, we climbed the Mount of Olives. Walking alongside the expansive Jewish Cemetery (over 150k graves) to the Holocaust memorial at the top. Israel was born out of the ashes of the Holocaust; with more than 700, 000 Jewish survivors emigrating to Israel between 1948-1951. Many of the graves in the cemetery had rocks placed on top of them which visitors would leave instead of flowers. Mount of Olives provided us with an uninterrupted view of the Old Town.
On the walk back down, we stopped in at the Garden of Gethsemane and for a quick visit to the church too. The church had beautiful paintings on the ceiling and behind the altar, and stunning purple glass stained windows. The garden is where Jesus was believed to have been praying, when he was betrayed by Judas and is depicted in ‘Agony in the Garden’. The olive trees in the garden are over 2000 years old!
Feeling exhausted, we made our way back to our accommodation. We took the road along the outside of the Old Town walls where we saw several archaeological dig sites. There was also a group of partridges! This was our first sighting of these birds …we’ve sung the song about one being in a pear tree at Christmas, so it was fitting to sight these birds in the Holy land.
The next day was Yom Kippur, also known as ‘The Day of Atonement,’ it is the holiest day in Judaism. As a result, the whole of Israel comes to a complete stop. We have never seen anything like it! No-one drives, so the roads are empty (except for families on bicycles and people – like us – walking down the road). All the shops close, including service stations, restaurants and mini-marts. Everyone seems to respect the holiday (whether they are Jewish or not). We enjoyed the day off too… relaxing in our airbnb, only leaving to go for a stroll around the emptied streets of Jerusalem.
The day after Yom Kippur we departed Jerusalem, catching the bus to Mazkeret Batya (halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv). This was a much quieter neighbourhood to stroll around. We stayed here with Kadin’s family for his second-cousin’s wedding. On the days around the wedding we were spoilt with real Israeli hospitality from Kadin’s family (and their extended Israeli relations). While being introduced to one of the Israeli relatives, they realised who we were by telling us in Hebrew (translated English) that the calla lily plant in the garden had travelled across from New Zealand when it was given to her by Kadin’s mum!
The wedding was celebrated on the kibbutz – so we enjoyed this interesting experience too. The kibbutz is a type of socialist community where all income generated went into a collective pool and tasks such as cooking and laundry were handled by the community. It was built on the principals that people working together can achieve much more than working alone, and was a necessity for the early Jews in Israel who attempted to settle in the harsh Israeli countryside (most of whom were starting from scratch). Today, with Israel being such a wealthy first-world country there is less need for shared living and many kibbutzim are now privatised and run a bit differently. We were treated to a couple of tours where we learnt about the history of this fascinating place. Several of the family members also shared fond memories of growing up in the kibbutz (which had just celebrated its 80 year anniversary). Our tour included a visit to the dairy farm, which still generates income for the kibbutz, there was also a metal factory which was closed during our visit. The wedding ceremony and reception was celebrated in a mix of Hebrew and English. Kadin was given the special job of holding one of the pillars of the ‘Chuppah’– the Jewish wedding canopy, during the ceremony. Later in the night, we learnt the ‘dance of love,’ with a free tango lesson after the newlyweds first dance.
The next day we visited the Yad La-Shiryon Museum with Kadin’s cousins. This is one of the world’s most diverse military tank collections with over 110 tanks and military vehicles (both Israeli and captured enemy machines).
We also visited the Latrun Monastery across the road. Even though it was closed (being Shabbat again) we admired the grounds from the outside, which included donkeys in the paddock.
Being Shabbat (sabbath day), the public transport wasn’t operating. Luckily Kadin’s cousins gave us a lift to Tel Aviv and dropped us off at our next airbnb. We’d managed to book a room in an apartment a block back from the beach (also located in the city). The city being ‘a city,’ we spent most of our time on the beach! The first day was absolutely packed…
We did venture into the city the next morning to explore the markets. The Carmel Market in Tel Aviv was a bustling and vibrant place to visit. We were able to purchase fresh fruit, tasty Israeli pastries and sweets to enjoy during our three day stay.
On Monday the beach was noticeable less busy (unusual as it was another holiday – ‘Sukkot’). We enjoyed the beach during the daytime and for an afternoon stroll to watch the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea. The walkway along the coast was excellent, with a separate lane for cyclists and lime-scooterers. We noticed most of the young people were incredible fit (possibly due to the conscript military).
On Tuesday we spent most of the day on the beach. We decided to ‘splash out’ and hire some loungers with an umbrella for the day. We alternated between swim and lounge, swim and lounge …real hard work!
In the evening, we decided to walk south along the coast to Jaffa (Old Town Tel Aviv). We got to enjoy another beautiful sunset along the coast before reaching Jaffa just as the light was fading.
Jaffa is perched on the cliffs above the ancient port (interesting fact: the Jaffa port has been actively used for over 7000 years). The cobbled streets in Jaffa old town have undergone extensive renovations and were the smoothest walkways we’ve ever seen in an old town, and even had yellow cautionary painted lines on each step and uneven surface. There was an abundance of art galleries, cafes and restaurants to appeal for the ever-increasing tourist population. We weren’t tempted to go shopping, instead we roamed the streets, enjoying the views and street art.
As night time rolled in, we had our last walk along the beach back to our airbnb. If anything, it was busier by night. With the music pumping, a bon-fire on the beach, families enjoying picnic dinners in the park areas; it was a fun atmosphere. The moon even put on a show for us on our last night in Israel.
Our flight out wasn’t until 7pm the next day, but our airbnb hosts let us chill in their apartment after check-out. The airport bus stopped about 300m from their apartment, which was very handy. We timed our trip to get to the Tel Aviv airport a bit earlier because we’d been warned that the security was fairly intense when departing the country. Apparently, each person gets interviewed before even checking in at the counter. There was a storm forecasted which hit during our bus trip – the roads were completely soaked, so we were also grateful for taking an earlier bus.
When we arrived at the airport our counter hadn’t opened up yet (being 4-hours early). We could see another massive queue for other counters where each traveller had to go through a security check before checking-in. So, we waited for our turn… the security officer was happy to talk to both of us at the same time and was mostly interested in Kadin’s name (which is Arabic, but they quickly realised we were very much New Zealand/Australian). However, when we got to the check in counter, the Cyprus Airways staff weren’t too sure what our New Zealand passports were (I was hoping they wouldn’t pull out a world map which notoriously has omitted our little island… but the supervisor recognised our country – phew!). We guess they don’t get too many kiwis travelling from Israel to Cyprus.
Well, we’re off to enjoy our last bit of warm weather before heading north for the European winter…
Have fun at work!