22.11.2009 - 29.11.2009
As agreed, Bernie knocked to say goodbye early in the morning. It had been a very good week travelling around Jordan - almost like a holiday rather than travelling.... We got up a little later, checked out of the hotel and jumped in a taxi to the King Hussein Bridge - one of the border crossings between Jordan and Israel.
Now, we were aware as to the potential problems and issues arising as a result of an attempt of getting into Israel - refusal, passport stamps prohibiting passage into other Middle Eastern countries, endless questions, long delays and, well, perhaps a little danger.... We were dropped a 5 min walk from the first checkpoint. The Jordanian departure went relatively smoothly - they agreed not to stamp our passports, understanding the consequences of a Jordanian/Israeli border crossing stamp on future travel. A short bus ride across no man's land - for which we were charged - past the Star of David waving in the wind above and to the Israeli arrivals buildings.
All seemed to be going well, it was taking time - yes - but, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th checks of our bags and passports all appeared relatively harmless. And then the lady (teenage girl) with the stamp, and the power to say yes or no. Smiling sweetly we asked for a stamp to be issued on paper rather then in the passport. 'Why?', she demanded. Hadn't really expected that - obvious reasons really - we kept things honest and simple. A phone call. Then a trip across the hall to another office. Back again. Endless questions. 'Where are you going?', 'Who do you know here?', 'Are you going to West Bank?','Why you go to Bethlehem?', 'Why come here', 'Father's name?', 'Where you work?'. She had never heard of the Sea of Galilee which proved to be a bit of stumbling block. But, eventually she assented and we walked through with stampless passports. The remaining 3 or 4 checkpoints were a breeze - even despite the teenage boys clutching their big guns guarding - well, whatever, probably themselves...
And, so onto the bus, shwarma in hand and only 1 more checkpoint en route to Jerusalem. The bus pulled up just outside of the walled old city near Damascus Gate and from there it was a very short walk to the Faisal Hostel where we checked in. Not a place I'd recommend - over-priced, building works ongoing and a fairly blunt staff. And, for the life of me I simply couldn't get the key to work in our lock - fortunately after a bit of twisting and pulling etc... Marsha managed it each time.
And we went walking in Jerusalem's old walled city. Wow. What a place. One of my most favourite cities ever. The atmosphere was excitable, the hustle and bustle of people hurrying to and fro - on bikes, pushing carts, walking and talking. The smell of kebab and shwarma stands filled the air - as did the voices of their vendors selling their fare. Inside the walls the mazelike tiny cobbled lanes were busy, lined with little shops - inside each bargains being struck - as has happenned for over 2000 years.
At every turn ancient structures stood proudly - churches, synagogues, mosques, tombs, arches, alleyways...The place was a collision of cultures, beliefs and ethnicities. Bespectacled Jewish people in traditional clothing, muslims and christians all occupied the same spaces. Each aware and yet oblivious of each other. And of course, this mix of people and backgrounds has resulted in a dining paradise. Every cuisine imaginable was available - produced in the traditional way by native people.
We wandered to the Dome of the rock - the site at which Abraham's faith was tested and where Mohammed ascended to heaven. We walked past the room which housed the last supper. We spied the place where Jesus ascended and where Judas betrayed. A group of Italian tourists were heaving a cross round the believed route that Jesus took. We saw where he fell. We entered the church that people believe was the site of his crucifixion. So many biblical events in such a small place. We ended up at the Western Wall (the Wailing Wall). Segregated by a short wall, Jewish men and women, bowing repeatedly at the hip, prayed and chanted and read from holy books - noses to the wall. The Wailing Wall is the only remains from an ancient temple - the wailing is their lamenting of its demise.
Behind the wall was the Dome of the Rock. It has various different entrances and opening times according to your religion. We chose the Christian door as we felt it most likely to get us in. A very impressive area - big, imposing and expensive - as are most religious buildings - but a huge sense of history too. We stayed until we were shooed out to let the next differently named worshippers in to kneel before the same God. All rather bizzare.
After gaining advice from a friendly Jewish wine shop owner we headed up Jaffa St in search of food and a drink and found plenty of both.
Another day In Jerusalem. We took the Holy City walking tour we found advertised from Jaffa Gate. It explored most of the city and the knowledgable guide explained where, how, when and why many historical events from the old and new testaments and the Koran just may have happenned. Despite our sceptism about the factual content at times, it was a fascinating tour. It passed through the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters of the old city, onto the rooves above, overlooking Jerusalem and the surrounding hills and past such places as the Dome, the Wailing Wall, Herod's tower, the church of the Holy Sepulchre and plenty more.
In the evening we opted for a couple of drinks and a cheap shwarma from next door to where we were staying.
A month before Xmas Eve and we visited Bethlehem. Just an hour's bus ride away - or so we thought. At the last stop we were informed by a taxi driver standing by helpfully that in fact we were about 5km away. But, not to worry, he'd take us for the price of a local Palestinian to the centre. 350 Sheqals he said. (About $90). 'Errrmm, that's perhaps a little overpriced', we politely said. 'But, I wait you, bring you back - same price!', he replied, grinning. He obviously felt the lift back would clinch the deal. We started to walk. 'Ok, ok. 250 Sheqalsl'. Our pace increased. 'And we will go to Rachel's tomb', he added. We continued on our way.... 'Who the hell's Rachel...?', Marsha whispered. Neither of us knew.
Anyhow, round the corner, through the market, down the next street and we found ourselves in Manger Square - the centre of Bethlehem. The town is relatively small, albeit filled with tourists. Christmas shops line the streets. The large Church of the Nativity commands most of the attention. Huge tour groups filed into it - we followed. Below the altar is where several different denominations of Christianity believe that Jesus was actually born. We queued. After much pushing and shoving (you'd expect the holy people to be a little more polite!) we eventually descended into the grotto and spent a short amount of time at the actual birthplace. Not much to it really - but I guess that fits into the whole meek and humble image he promoted in life.
As with Jerusalem the previous day, it was very exciting being in this place we'd heard so much about; however, it is not quite the same as seeing other historical places - it doesn't quite conjure up the same emotions, because, firstly doubts remain over whether any of these things actually happenned - and if some did, whether anything spiritual was occuring or whether the legend of the man named Jesus has just grown to giant sized exaggerated proportions. And, secondly, assuming everything was for real - Angels, virgin birth, rising from the dead etc.... even the most ardent of followers would surely doubt that they have managed to pinpoint the exact spots for all these miracles and ocurrences.
Enough cynicism. Because, it was very interesting.
As we emerged from the grotto and then the church into the daylight, the Mosque over the road began the Call to Prayer - loudly competing with the church for the attention of the tour groups. We had a kebab and then visited the site where Mary and co hid from Herod's soldiers as they went about their child killing business.
Later back in Jerusalem, having enjoyed the possible sites of ancient times and events we decided to enjoy something real and modern - and had ourselves a very nice Italian with a fantastic bottle of white Israeli wine.
We'd got ourselves a hire car for 2 days. Through the crazy streets of Jerusalem, past Jericho and into the West Bank. We crossed the River Jordan a few times (it is tiny!!) and tried to find the baptism site of Jesus (there is a different one across the border in Jordan!). However, all we found was a bunch of tanks, barbed wire fences and buildings with huge holes in them. You'd have thought that Jesus could have chosen a better place....
Up to the Sea of Galilee. Over 200 metres below sea level - and actually a lake. Having parked up in Tiberias we went to the shore. I tried first. Apparently, it's all to do with faith - so Marsha told me afterwards. By taking off my shoes so they wouldn't get wet, I had already displayed my lack of faith in my ability to walk on water. Sure enough, in up to my shins. Sadly, I am not the new Messiah.
Marsha then refused to try, adding that she wouldn't fall into temptation - much like Jesus in the desert - thereby proving that she was the new Messiah..... I felt her argument was a little flawed. Also, if she is the new Messiah, surely she'd be blessed with a slightly better singing voice when we're driving...
Galilee was very picturesque as we drove north. We dropped in at other places - where the fishes and loaves fed 5000 had been made into a church with the actual rock where it happenned as its altar.
Caparnaum - where Peter lived and where Jesus hung out for a while.
As the sun set over the sea....
....and mongooses (mongeese?) played nearby we decided it was time to find a place to stay. It was difficult. We eventually ended up in a town for which one of its spelling varieties was Zhelfat. A little old town filled with art galleries - oh, and 1 rather unpleasant hostel in which we stayed. It was called Lipshits or something similar... A walk around the closed up galleries and a reasonably good kosher dinner in the Art Cafe.
Early. And northwards. Up into the Golan Heights we drove. To Nimrod Castle. The castle built to defend against the crusades stood proudly high on a hill - much of it in a state of semi ruins. It had a grand lookout and was lovely to wander around - especially as we had it to ourselves for most of the time we were there.
After a couple of hours we started south again. We passed very close to the Syrian border. In a town nearby, people, unfortunately split by the border, spend their Fridays on 'Shouting Hill' yelling greetings and news across to their Syrian friends and family.
We popped into the Golan Heights Winery. The wine really is amazingly good. Professional conniseurs we may not be, but we can tell when something is halfway decent - as the wines here surely are. From there we returned through Tiberias and passed the Sea of Galilee to the busy, traffic congested town of Nazareth. The angel Gabriel told Mary of her pregnancy here - and the 'exact' spot now has a modern church atop.
Joseph's carpentry shop also has a small chapel over the site. As we walked towards the holy site a huge advertising billboard reminded anyone who chose to read it that Islam was the only true path to paradise and that all other religions would result in hell - so that was nice....
We wanted to beat darkness and so didn't stay long and got to Akko on the Meditaranean sea just as the sun set. A little old walled town by the sea - it was really pleasant and a place just waiting for the tourists to arrive in their thousands. We checked into 1 place - changed our mind because it was rancid - and checked into another - The Sand Hotel. As with all places in Israel - massively overpriced again. But still, we had a nice dinner on the water's edge with a bottle of wine we'd bought at the winery.
The aim was to drive via Tel Aviv for breakfast in a little place we'd read about and then make it to Jerusalem by 11am - our car return deadline. As it turned out, we got to Tel Aviv, drove round hopelessly lost for an hour or so, abandoned breakfast and arrived in Jerusalem hungry. Still, we ate there instead and once we'd convinced the somewhat unpleasant and unhelpful staff back at the Faisal that we had a room booked, we headed off to the Mount of Olives.
The Mount of Olives - the virgin Mary's tomb is here. It is also where Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss in the garden of Gethsemene. An olive garden and a church commemorate the spot at the foot of the mount. After there we climbed to the top for great views over the walled city of Jerusalem. We stayed as the sun set - a trio of musicians played and prayed for a group of army people at the top at the same time. The place is where Jesus ascended to heaven. It is also where Christians and Muslims alike believe that God and Allah will eventually appear on judgement day. Presumably Jesus and Mohammed will be there or thereabouts as well - although probably not at the same time.
Anyhow, no-one chose to appear today and so we occupied ourselves by visiting the other sites and watching the colourful sunset.
Below the summit is a huge Jewish cemetry as well. Back in the old city after dark we walked the Via De La Rosa - walk of the cross - where Jesus carried the cross, all the way to the Holy Sepulchre where he was crucified.
Later on we enjoyed a hubbly bubbly shisha pipe - as you do in the Middle East! And, a final shwarma before returning to the hotel.
And so it was that we left Israel. Back over the King Hussein Bridge (called the Allenby Bridge on the Israeli side) into Jordan again. It took about 7 hours door to door and we covered a distance of about 50 km. We were lucky though... Some of the local Palestinian people, having waited on the Israeli side for hours were eventually turned around and told to try the next day! A truly mean and disrespectful way to treat the citizens of your country. We left Israel with a slightly bitter taste in our mouth.
Undoubtedly a great place to visit - especially if you wholeheartedly believe everything you are told whilst doing the 'Jesus trail'. But, the country does not cater well to the individual or small group travellers - and it felt as though everyone was simply trying to make money out of us. The accomodation was some of the most expensive we've stayed in (apart from the times we've treated ourselves - eg: Dead Sea, Bali villa, Yangshao) and was also among the least good standard. Unclean rooms, rude staff and no facilities.
Back in Amman we had a drink at La Calle again having done a little shopping in the afternoon and relaxed a little at the Hotel Palace where we stayed again.