Chatting away with a flight attendant (who just got back from Tahititi) the night before the trip, I said that the plan is to go to Italy – the country that holds the key to my heart. I find nostalgic Florence and the surrounding Tuscan hills to be the epicenter of the world in which my dreams reside. I find the many churches in this city sacred and so many visionary artists – such as Leonardo DiVinci – have called Florence home. I recall during my last visit during the summer of 2006, I came across an old fresco said to have inspired DiVinci himself to paint The Last Supper. I haven’t seen the latter painting in person myself yet. However, I would welcome a visit to Milan to visit it, buy some wine, and see an opera. I’ve been told one must book an appointment months in advance to see the painting – as it is so sacred.
On my last visit to Italy, I visited the Vatican and Sistine Chapel. Please see photos under Capital of My Favorite Country. I know I am lucky to have such opportunities; seeing the chapel fulfilled an art dream of mine. Still, the divine chapel was covered in a loud crowd of tourists – hundreds in a small chapel where few should be. I heard cursing, yelling, kids playing, and flashy photography was taking place instead of silence, reverence, and respect. It’s rumored tours will soon be scheduled by appointment here as well. On my previous visit, I had only visited St. Peter’s and I believe I was blessed with answered prayer.
Point is, I wanted to see a quiet place that is revered and holy on this trip. Maybe such exisits in Israel? Yes, is an understatement. My flight attendant friend agreed – a bonus might include some sunshine too! A new acquaintance tells me that such a place is in Turin, Italy – The Shroud of Turin. To learn of this from him though, Gwendolyn and I flew to Tel Aviv on Delta (Boeing 747) and took a collective taxi to Jerusalem last December.
Panoramic views of the Judean desert and nomadic settlements between valleys, an Arabic speaking driver, advice about hostels within the walled city from an Italian woman, a beautiful sunset, two women knowing nothing of the Israel they were about to experience except from American media and religion – we arrived. Politics, religion, and money – the topics of the hour, every hour, I would soon learn.
Damascus Gate or Jaffa Gate – Enter here into the Moslem Quarter and a highly recommended drop off spots when you reach the city. When leaving back to Tel Aviv, your shuttle will pick you up at the Jerusalem Hotel which is a short walk away. Inside either gate, you’ll find pathways of vendors selling scarves, coffee pots, copper serving trays, coral jewelry, fresh juice, falafals, and of course the souvenir whatnots that sold everywhere this time with Jerusalem printed on them.
By the end of the trip I ended up with the 2 items I wanted: a black silk scarf (to be compliant with airline industry standards, of course) and red coral beads!!!
Near Damascus Gate following the walled path to the right, we found the Golden Gate Inn for 65 NIV a night. Over the course of the next few days, I ask around and 55-65 NIV seems to be a fair price for a hostel, including breakfast. This averages out to be $20-22 per night.
Once checked in we began to explore, the walls and covered walkways of the Moslem, Armenian, Jewish, Cardo, and Christian quarters were our guide.
Dinner within the walls is much more pricey than just outside the wall. The first night, I had lamb kabob and Gwendolyn had quarter chicken. 60 NIV and 45 NIV respectively. Outside the wall, my same meal only cost 15 NIV. We ended up in the Jewish quarter watching ninjas propel down the Wall. After some ice cream, we looked down upon the Dome of the Rock and Western Wall. Midnight was about strike, and our hostel had curfew so back we went.
While Gwendolyn went to bed, I was up looking for possible tours for the next day. Finding one for $300 for 3 days/2 nights accomodations and guided tours of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and a spa day at the Dead Sea, I almost booked. Conversation began, however, between another hosteller and I. Soon, we had a plan to visit the Christian Holy sites at 9am the next morning. No tour booked. My new friend said he knew the sites well as he’d travelled to Israel several times.
We were able to learn about each of the following stations by listening to tour group guides for details:
1. Jesus was condemned to death
2. Jesus was given His cross
3. Jeses falls for the first time
4. Jesus meets His Mother
5. Simon of Cyrene carries His cross
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
7. Jesus falls for the second time
8. Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem
9. Jesus falls for the third time
10. Jesus was stripped of His garments
11. Jesus was nailed to the cross
12. Jesus dies on the cross
13. Jesus is removed from the cross
14. Jesus is laid in a tomb
Once we had entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we climbed a narrow stairway to Calvary where the three of us prayed and discussed the lavishly decoracted alter. There is a hole in the rock, which is believed to be where the cross was raised.
Our new British friend’s travel companion joined us here. As we left the church, we ventured into a convent where (although modesty dressed already) we were asked to where skirts to see the original Roman roads and archeological site of The Judgement Gate. No, the men didn’t where them. 😉
The Garden Tomb experience was the most humbling of my time in Jerusalem. We took a tour of the garden and tomb, where I learned a rich man once owned a vineyard here with a aquifer below it. Inside the garden, there is also an ancient winepress. After the tour was over and we were about to leave, an old English volunteer (who my new friends had met before) gave us a second tour while the Garden was closed to the public for siesta. He talked about how Jesus may have been buried here, or elsewhere. He asked, does it matter where it happened? He has risen, and that’s what’s important. He shared his testimony and said isn’t it better to have hope for something than nothing. I found peace and love in his words, and it taught me that I had been sent here to learn more than history. I came here to be reminded of salvation and simple grace.
Take Arab bus 21 from the Arab bus station near Damascus Gate for a cheap and scenic ride into the West Bank. The bus does not get checked at a checkpoint going to Bethlehem; however, going to Jerusalem is another story. Ride it until the final stop in Bethlehem for only 6.5 Shekels (about $2.) This is a great option for those who like to see a place on their own versus a tour excursion. However, those are readily available through conceirge services at accomodations in Jerusalem. Once in Jerusalem, taxi drivers will tell you the walk to the Church of the Nativity will take 45 minutes by foot. We got in a taxi, and the driver ended up making us get out!!! Simply because we wouldn’t pay for a tour of Bethlehem!! Another driver tried to bribe us into a tour too, but ended up upholding our wishes to go only to the Church. He also waited on us for a few hours while we explored! Instead, you can avoid the drivers by taking a 10 minute walk up the road that appears to have the steepest ascent. That rode will take you to Manger Square which is located across from the Church.
Once we returned, Gwendolyn left for the USA. I spent the evening shopping in the market, having dinner with the boys, and having tea while talking and trying to decide if I’d visit the Dea Sea the next day. Unable to sleep, I had a long conversation with the innkeeper regarding women, arranged marriages, and lives of Palestinian Muslims in Israel. Please ask if interested, as it is a story I won’t ever forget for another time.
Day 4: Slow. Relaxed. Spent in Jerusalem.
After an spread of naan, coffee, fruit, creams, conversation, and delight. Another Canadian hosteler and I made out way out of the Old City and took a couple hours to ascend the Mount of Olives. We passed through the Garden of Gethsemane and Jewish Cemetery – which has been used for over 3,000 years. Eventually realizing how unfit I was, I decided becoming fit would be a resolution. At the top, we visited the Chapel of the Ascension – where Jesus is said to have risen into Heaven for 40 days. Then, we made our way to the vista point where you can see panoramic Jerusalem including the beautiful Dome of the Rock. We passed by the entrance to the Temple Mount. However, I didn’t visit it due to the lone hours long line and limited visiting hours. Many Jews won’t walk here due to it’s sanctity; only Muslims can enter the Dome of the Rock; and Muslims can not enter the Western Wall area. Palestinian Muslims are often given a harder time entering the Dome of the Rock than others, the inn keeper said. For example, some days they will only allow men over a certain age to enter.
Once again on my own, I explored the quietest place under the city – King Solomon Quarries/Zedekiah’s Cave. Perhaps here, stones were quarried to build the first Temple.
The evening was spent out on the town with all my hosteling friends. Jerusalem has it’s fair share of bars. In the time I was there, we went to an Irish, Russian, and Scotish place all just a couple streets outside of Jaffa Gate.
Day 5: The Dea Sea & Return To Tel Aviv
I got to try out the new million dollar Light Rail on my way to the Central Bus Station. It’s grand opening was just a few days before. For 60 NIV ($22) I bought fare to the Dead Sea, specifically the Ein Gedi Spa. Two hours later, I was soaking in the hot sulfur springs, taking a mud bath, having a massage, and floating in the sea. You MUST wear shoes if you play in the water. SALT CRYSTAL FORMATIONS – beautiful to look at, painful to step on. Running back to grab dinner that was also part of the all inclusive package ($80), I hurried to catch the bus back to Jerusalem. Rushing again upon return, I said goodbye to my friends, temporary home, and unique city. Home to America via US Airways.
Want to return with me? Or if you need information regarding a future visit, please ask. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this OR just looking at pics. Please let me know by leaving comments on my blog site or on facebook. Thanks! 🙂