In case you are new to this blog, or in a Covid fog, let me tell you our story about Israel. March 2020 we had a 17 day itinerary to explore a bucket list country for me – Israel. Our itinerary had us seeing north, south, east and west and taking our time to enjoy. But, of course March 2020 turned the entire world upside down and after only four days in Israel we had to skedaddle or go into lockdown. So we abandoned our itinerary and flew to Cyprus. It took 26 months but here we are – visiting Israel – We Finally Made it Back.
Visiting Israel – We Finally Made it Back
Unfortunately our return trip to Israel in June 2022 was significantly shorter than our originally planned itinerary. Before we left Israel so hurriedly in 2020, we had spent two days in Tel Aviv, one day seeing the sights on a leisurely drive to Haifa and another day seeing ancient ruins on our way to Nazareth. But we didn’t see Nazareth or any of the rest of our itinerary. We packed up and got out with only a couple hours notice.
For the purposes of this blog post, I am only going to talk about what we did on this recent visit in June 2022. Even though we only had one week, we made the most of it and had an amazing visit.
Not making it to Jerusalem on our first visit was devastating to me. I cried on the way to the airport the day we realized we had to get out. Jerusalem….how could I come to Israel and NOT see Jerusalem? It was heartbreaking. So planning for visiting Israel we knew we had to base ourselves this time in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is this remarkable, fragile, diverse, ancient, disputed, beautiful city. It also is controversial and home to Muslims, Christians and Jews. But more than anything, it is fascinating. Sometimes violent but we saw only peace. And it is very expensive. You’ll find a place where families and friends stroll outdoors in the evenings. Musicians play and people seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company and their beautiful city.
Day One Arrival and Old Town
Our flight landed at the ridiculous hour of 3:30am in Tel Aviv. We took a Gett cab (like Uber) to Jerusalem and the 45 minute drive cost $140. Get ready because this country is expensive.
Because of our early arrival we had rented our Airbnb for the night before, to be able to check in on our arrival. We self checked in by 5:15 am and after a very long red-eye we needed some shut eye, so went straight to bed.
Around 10am we stumbled for the coffee pot, a shower and then went right across the street to one of the highest rated bagel shops in all of Jerusalem. So convenient. It was great and I recommend a visit to Sam’s Bagels on Ben Yehuda Street. I should mention, it was also my husband’s birthday so a little bagel birthday breakfast was a special treat.
Next we made the 12 minute walk to the Old City. We entered through the beautiful Jaffa Gate and here we were. Visiting Jerusalem – visiting Israel – we finally made it back. Over the next several hours we explored the old city on our own, using the GPS My City App. Although we got lost a few times, it was helpful to get our bearings. We saw the Wailing Wall and part of the Temple Mount, although we couldn’t figure out how to get up to the Dome of the Rock (more later). Along the way we found the Via Dolorosa and just enjoyed people watching and taking it all in.
Still feeling pretty jet lagged we wandered back out of the old city to a hummus restaurant I had read about for a simple birthday dinner for the hubs. Hummus Ben-Sira is highly rated for its hummus and it was fantastic and not too expensive. I loved the falafel too! Afterwards we dashed into a tiny market to pick up a few items for breakfast and then back to our Airbnb and crashed.
Day Two Such an Amazing Day
We woke early to walk two blocks to a pick up location for a half day group tour we had signed up to do of the Old Town. It was a surprisingly large group and I was a little worried it would be difficult with such a big group (about 40) but it worked out well and our guide was great. The tour began at Mount of Olives to have a spectacular view back looking at Jerusalem old and new.
We proceeded back to the Old Town where we left the bus and continued on foot. This time entering through the Dung Gate and went directly to the Wailing Wall. It was helpful to have some interpretation from the guide about the rituals we were watching and also to get a better understanding of the Temple Mount. Jews use the western wall for prayers because it is the closest they can get to the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount is where the Jewish Temple used to stand but today is home to the Dome of the Rock Mosque. It is not open to non-Muslims. This iconic gold domed Mosque is built over the “Foundation Stone”, one of the most sacred places in the world to both Jews and Muslims, revered as the place where the earth began. We did not visit the Dome of the Rock on this day but would later.
Our tour continued through the maze of streets of the old town with some stops to taste treats and also discuss the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus took carrying the cross. Each station of the cross is marked along the route which runs through old Jerusalem.
Finally we ended at the remarkable Church of the Holy Sepulcher, for Christians the most sacred place in the world. It is said this is where the crucifixion took place, on a hill before the church was here. This is also the place where the body of Jesus was lain on a stone. Today the stone remains and Christians pray at the stone. And finally and most importantly, it is the place where according to the Christian faith, Jesus’ body is laid in a tomb. The tomb of Jesus, though fairly ornate on the exterior was rather small and simple on the inside.
It had been a great tour and I am glad we did it, learning a lot. We headed back to the Airbnb for a rest because the day had more in store.
It’s Friday night in Jerusalem and the streets are quiet. The sun is down and Shabat has begun. All will be quiet through out the city until sun down on Saturday. We were intrigued to learn more about Shabat so we signed up through Eat With to share a spirtual Shabat dinner with a local Jewish family, Osnat and Shaul, in their home. What a great decision that was.
I don’t have any photos from our Shabat dinner, because by Jewish law there is no modern conveniences during Shabat…including cameras and cell phones. No cooking or working. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. So all the food that was served to us and the other guests had been prepared prior to sundown. Technically you can’t even turn on a light switch…but they have ways around some of these things by putting things on timers. The dinner included our host family of seven, us and five more tourists and 15 young men from the Hebrew University. We shared in their prayers, their songs, their traditions and their foods. It was one of the most remarkable things I have ever done. I recommend it highly.
It was nearly 1:00am before we hit the pillow that night.
Day Three Shabat Silence
Saturday we wake up to an eerily quiet city. This bustling metropolis has become essentially a ghost town. Shops closed. Restaurants closed. Transit not running. You can literally walk down the middle of the street for lack of cars. Shabat is the Jewish weekly day of worship and thanks when families gather together at home and nowhere is it so faithfully observed as in Jerusalem.
We took advantage and did a long walk/run in a quiet and deserted (and beautiful) park near our apartment, enjoyed a room picnic in our apartment, did laundry and worked on the laptop. As the sun set the city slowly came back to life with shops and restaurants opening around 9pm and people returning to the streets.
Day Four Crossing the Border to the West Bank (Palestine)
I did a lot of research on making the border crossing between Jerusalem and Bethlehem that marks the disputed border of the West Bank (Palestine). I did not want to do this tour with a large group, and so instead we decided to spend a little more money and hire a private guide. I am so glad we did. Michael Tours was who we chose.
The border that separates Jerusalem and Bethlehem is an unsightly 18 meter high concrete monstrosity guarded by Israeli military. We took a city bus direct to the border. The bus leaves every fifteen minutes and costs about two dollars. Many people cross the border back and forth to work but a permit is required to do so. As a tourist coming from Jerusalem you cross over on foot and no one even looks at you. Returning to the Jerusalem side there is passport control and security scanners. Once across to the West Bank taxi drivers are abundant. When we explained we were meeting a guide, the drivers were still very pleasant and very helpful and kind. We always seem to meet people who want to tell us their brother lives in Miami, my son is in the Bay Area, my nephew is at Michigan State.
Michael from Michael Tours met us promptly and escorted us to his comfortable vehicle. His fiancee Georgette joined us. She is studying to also be a tour guide. We spent the next eight hours with Michael and Georgette. First we explored the barren countryside to visit two beautiful monasteries of the Orthodox Church. We enjoyed mountaintop views looking back to Jerusalem and out towards Jordan. The landscape is stark and dry and mostly brown with green interspersed here and there. In it’s simplicity it is beautiful. As we drove Michael and Georgette talked about life in Palestine, what it’s like to live with this disputed border, and the hardships Palestinians endure as an unrecognized country. It was fascinating and also astonishing to hear some of their stories.
Next we made the drive back to the city of Bethlehem. Our first stop was Shepherds’ Field where Christians believe Gabriel spoke to the shepherds and told them of the birth of Jesus. A small church marks this spot today. At this same site is an underground Chapel in a cave. Here Michael explained how this is what the space would have looked like where Jesus was born. A manger in those times was always a cave and not a wooden structure so often depicted in Christmas Nativity scenes.
We made a quick stop to see one of two Banksy graffiti art pieces in this city. Banksy’s work is always focused on peace and both these subtly hidden masterpieces were a special treat to see.
Next we stopped at a very traditional and family owned restaurant for lunch. We enjoyed our favorites; amazing hummus, falafel and beer.
Our final stop was the Church of the Nativity. Simple on the outside, the inside of this church and the underground area which is believed to be where the manger was, are beautiful. The church was preparing for a wedding but we had lots of time to enjoy the artwork and ancient mosaics. We went down the steps to the lower area. This is the cave where, long before a church stood here, a baby was born who would be named Jesus.
In two different lands, we saw one day where Christ was crucified and then another day where he was born.
We are incredibly grateful to Michael Tours for our fantastic day, and highly recommend Michael and hope you will use him when you visit Palestine.
Day Five Mountains and Tunnels
We got up early again, having finally gotten the lay of the land and understood that to visit Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock we had to do it in the morning.
On Top of the Mount
The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism, believed to be where God’s divine presence was manifested. Jews believe the rock is where Adam was created from dust and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac. The first temple built here was in 1000 BC and destroyed 400 years later by the Babylonians. A second temple was built and King Herod expanded it. In 70 AD the second temple was destroyed by the Romans. Today Jews are not allowed to pray on Temple Mount, and this is why they pray at the Western Wall, the base of the Mount.
In the Islamic faith it is believed this is the site where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to the divine presence on a winged horse. Only Muslims are allowed inside the Dome of the Rock Mosque. Inside this beautiful gold topped mosque is the “Foundation Stone”, believed by Jews and Muslims to be where it all began.
This is also the place Christians believe Jesus lashed out at the money changers (Gospel of John) and was later crucified only 500 meters away.
When we arrived in Jerusalem we didn’t know about the tunnel tours. We learned about them from the guide we had on Day 2. The Western Wall Tunnel Tours are operated by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. There are several tours, each giving the visitor a fantastic history with a local guide while walking deep below the Western Wall and seeing first hand the 2000 plus year history here. Our guide was outstanding and I learned so much not just about Jerusalem but religion, architecture, and ancient history. A must when in Jerusalem.
Day Six Masada and Traffic
Day Six we rented a car first thing in the morning. We walked to the pick up site about 15 minutes. Then we drove about two hours to the amazing holy site of Masada. Along the route you pass through the West Bank on an Israeli constructed highway with walls on both sides. Then you drive for an hour along the beautiful blue Dead Sea. We swam in the Dead Sea when we visited Jordan a few years ago, so that was not something we were taking time to do this trip.
Masada is an ancient fortress on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert. The fortress was the final holdout for Jews during the Roman siege.
The fortress was built by King Herod between 37 and 31 BCE. This National Park includes ruins from this fortress including bath houses, great hall and two palaces. In 73 and 74 CE Jewish rebels secured the site while fleeing the Roman-Jewish War. Those rebels held the fort until the Roman siege penetrated the great walls at which time it is speculated all the Jews committed suicide rather than be taken as slaves. Although many scholars dispute this idea.
It was a wonderful visit and an absolutely must see when in Israel. By the way one of my all time favorite books from the last few years The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman tells the remarkable story of Masada. I highly recommend it.
Unfortunately our drive back to the rental car agency in Jerusalem took nearly four hours due to horrible traffic and we did not get there before they closed. We ended up paying $50 to park the car overnight. Oi! If you don’t want to deal with a car, you can take a tour to Masada or even a city bus.
Day Seven Laundry and Pack and Wander
Our last day in Jerusalem was spent doing laundry, packing, working on the laptop and wandering around the Ben Yehuda pedestrian area as well as visiting the Machaneh Yehuda Market near our Airbnb. This market is one of the nicest I have ever been in. We bought some gifts, some fruit for breakfast, had some beers and people watched. Don’t miss this market.
Day Eight Tel Aviv Airport Chaos
We pre-ordered a Gett car for the 40 minute ride back to the Tel Aviv airport. Our car picked us up at 4:00am. Which should have been plenty of time for our 8:00am flight. But the Ben Gurion Tel Aviv Airport was one of the most disorganized I have ever seen and we spent more than 2 and a half hours in various lines. It was very stressful. But we made our flight…barely.
Grateful for a Remarkable Week
This country had long been on my bucket list. There are a few places we still didn’t see, like Nazareth and Eilat, but we saw the highlights and I am grateful. It is a really remarkable place, unlike anywhere else in the world. If you can, you should visit.
Thanks for reading my post Visiting Israel – We Finally Made it Back. See our post about Marvelous Malta here. See this week’s top performing pin Senegal What I Experienced in My Short Visit. Next week be sure to check out our post about Cyprus.
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