Israel…the Holy Land, as in Holy #$%^& This Place is Hot (and Awesome)
Back in 2002 and 2003, I had some religion classes in high school. Now, I’m not going to be preachy in this post, but those classes instilled in me a deep desire to see the Holy Land and the places Jesus walked, taught, suffered, was crucified, and resurrected. So Israel had been the top of my list for 15 years, but with each wave of violence, it seemed farther and farther from a reality to me.
Finally, as I explained in our Amsterdam post, our friends decided they were going to be in Europe the same time as us, which led to a discussion on Israel, since that was my friend Jimmy’s dream too. After lots of deliberation, searching the news, and worrying (over nothing, it turns out), Caitlin and I decided to go. It was originally just going to be Amsterdam and Paris, which changed into Amsterdam, Israel and Paris, which eventually turned into Amsterdam, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Paris. Like I explained before, if we were going to the Middle East, we were going all out. See it once and never again was my attitude.
So we went for it. We have no kids (yet) and to be totally honest, even if this makes me sound like the drama queen that I am, I decided if something bad happened to me in the Middle East (or Europe, for that matter, since nowhere seems safe anymore), I would be doing what I love. Truly, the only thing I feel obsessively passionate about in this world is travel, so if I’m gonna go out, it might as well be doing what I love. Plus, I’m not gonna let some theoretical terrorist keep me from living my life. If he eventually does that, whatever. C’est la vie. So it goes. (Yes, a Vonnegut reference, see how postmodern I am?!)
The flight from Amman to Tel Aviv was crazy fast and crazy short. Multiple people suggested we should have just taken a bus across the Hussein Bridge from Jordan to Israel, but we’d also heard that can sometimes take hours at the checkpoints. Plus, like I mentioned a million times, I was super paranoid. I didn’t want to be anywhere that seemed remotely more dangerous than I already thought being there would be. So a flight it was.
The flight was expensive, like everything else related to Jordan. I think it was about $200 USD each, but like I said, we were determined to see everything we could. We can always make more money (hopefully), but we can’t always live this life. It was a 40 minute flight, very uneventful, and I was so full of anticipation. I couldn’t believe where we’d been already, and it seemed surreal to finally arrive in the Holy Land of Israel.
SO MANY SOLDIERS AND COPS AND GUNS
The weirdest thing for me throughout Israel that took some getting used to is the amount of soldiers and police (sometimes I didn’t know who was what). There were more soldiers than I’ve ever seen anywhere in my life. Like, literally everywhere. Which is cool, except that they’re all carrying massive machine guns. Cops too. It just made me a bit uneasy knowing how quickly things could go crazy. Luckily, of course, they never did, but it was quite a crazy sight, from second 1 in the airport until the second we left, there were automatic weapons everywhere.
The problem I always run into when planning trips is that every place you go has approximately 8,366,791 blogs and websites and posts about it, so it makes it very time consuming and difficult to figure anything out. Should I take a taxi? Yes. Wait no. Wait take the unicycle. No there’s a hovercraft that’s better…etc. So I wasn’t sure if we should use Lyft or Uber (use code MITCH796650 for Lyft or code mitchm1041ue for Uber, both give you $ off your first ride)(or if they were even in Israel, turns out only Uber is there and it’s pretty expensive). Hence, my posts might be one million pages long, but at least I’m thorough, right? Seriously, for our Iceland trip, I spent dozens of hours doing research, posting in forums, asking questions, etc. And I wanted it all to be in one place, so I wrote 15 pages about our trip, down to the smallest detail, and anyone could now book an incredible trip in Iceland using my guide. I even had a few people (from a travel forum I posted the link in) mention how nice it was to have everything in one place. So yeah, I hate doing all this research. Traveling is supposed to be FUN, not homework-ish.
Anyways, I’d read all these conflicting things about getting from the airport to Old Jerusalem, which is where our rented flat was (more on that below). So, I went right to the expert: Our Airbnb host Avi. Now, I’ll rave about Avi and his place in a minute, but sufficeth it to say he was so cool and fast to respond and SO helpful. He told me the only smart way to go is using a sherut. If you’ve been pretty much anywhere in the Asia Pacific region, it’s usually called a minibus. It’s basically a van or shuttle, and in Tel Aviv they’re super easy to find. We did need to exchange some cash beforehand, because they only take Shekels. And, as you probably know, airport exchange rates are BRUTAL, so we only exchanged what we needed for the sherut and no more.
SHERUT TO OLD JERUSALEM
I believe the cost for the sherut was about $25 USD each. After going from Egypt, where stuff is cheap, to Jordan, where it’s crazy expensive, I had no idea what my US money should be worth, but I came to find out, Israel is also crazy expensive.
Our sherut driver was awesome and spent most of the drive yelling at someone on his walkie talkie. We talked to an older woman from Jerusalem and she told us all sorts of cool things to see and do. And, the best part, our driver knew the street we were staying on and dropped us off right at our flat. I was told that’s not typical for a sherut, so maybe we were just lucky, but we were about 1 minute from the flat when we got off the sherut. Let the great experiment begin!
WHERE WE STAYED
As usual, we stayed in a place from Airbnb. Since we were originally going to stay with our 2 friends, it was HEAPS cheaper than anywhere else we found for 4. It saved us about 30% or more from hotels I was finding, OH MY GOODNESS this place was awesome. If you use my Airbnb referral code, you will get $40 credit to spend towards your booking. (Disclosure: I will get $20 travel credit if you use this link).
First things first, here’s the link to the place. We were glad we ended up with only 2, because the loft of this place was perfect for us, but the other 2 would have had to sleep out on the couch (or maybe there’s a couch bed) and would have probably heard the street noise, etc. It’s a great part of town. I remember one of the reviews saying it was too loud, but from the loft where we slept, I didn’t hear anything.
Anyways, about the place. First, as mentioned above, Avi is the best host ever. My friends who ended up not coming had originally booked the place, and Avi was cool to help them change their dates. Then, as the trip approached, he was really quick to respond to my questions about food, location, and transportation. But the coolest thing is that we arrived in Jerusalem much earlier than we’d anticipated (not sure why we didn’t realize how early we were coming in). Since we only travel with backpacks, we did NOT want to be slouching around sweaty Jerusalem with our backpacks, but we didn’t really have a choice since check in wasn’t for hours. Until we mustered the courage to ask Avi if it might be available any earlier. Originally, it was, then something happened and it wasn’t. No worries, our mistake.
We went to the grocery store down the road and sat at the tables marveling and chilling in Jerusalem. Then Avi sent us a message on Whatsapp and said the previous guest had misplaced the key, but he was out and about, so he’d drop us off a key ASAP. And he did, and within just a few minutes we were inside his flat, which is probably my favorite place we’ve ever stayed.
Why? It was on a really cool, vibrant street. There was a super good Thai place around the corner, as well as a grocery store which we went to about 8 times a day. (Haven’t I explained my obsession with foreign grocery stores? Well, I’m obsessed). The grocery store made food as cheap as it could be in Israel, and we just loved the flat inside. The loft was perfect for sleeping, the front room was great for lounging, but the BALCONY is what changed my life.
I still had to work every day on this trip, and nothing was more enjoyable to me than cracking a Coke Zero out on Avi’s balcony. It’s above the street, and the weather was so nice at night. It was so much fun to sit out there after a long sweaty day of exploring Israel, supping Coke, and working. Honestly, one of my favorite memories from the entire trip is just chilling on the balcony watching and listening to the street. STAY HERE!
Also, it’s about a 6-minute walk to the Old City Jaffa Gate, which brings me to our next adventure…
OLD JERUSALEM TOUR
As you probably know by now, lots of our trips involve winging it. This trip had been so busy, we felt like we hadn’t had one second to figure out Israel. Luckily, Caitlin found a free walking tour which left from Jaffa Gate at 11am. (Side note: We read somewhere the suggested tip for the tour was 75 shekels, which was about $25 USD, per person. Caitlin and I gladly paid this, and would do so again. SO worth it!)
Meeting at Jaffa gate, our guide Nicola took us through Old Jerusalem. It was a 2-hour walking tour, and so informative and interesting. Even though I had read about Old Jerusalem, I had NO idea how tiny, cramped, dirty, and tension-filled it was. It was like stepping back in time as soon as we entered Jaffa gate, like going from the New World to the Old. (SIDE NOTE: Even though this is free, you need to reserve a spot at a specific time!)
If nothing else, I’d recommend this tour because it gave us a very thorough look at Old Jerusalem, where things are, why things are the way they are, etc. Caitlin and I were shocked how quickly we learned where things were located, and we were so fascinated by every stop we made on the tour.
I won’t go into maximum detail about the tour, since you can see plenty of overviews and reviews online. We started at the Christian Quarter at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is said to be where Christ was crucified, as well as different stop of the Via Dolorosa and the place of the resurrection. It was a really cool experience for Caitlin and me, from reading the Bible since early ages to finally experiencing it. And, we even got to see the Immovable Ladder (Nicola taught us lots about it, which is basically a ladder that all 6 Christian sects disagree over—like everything else in Jerusalem—and so nobody can move it without the OK of the other 5 sects. Hence, it’s never moved in close to 200 years. Crazy stuff).
We also visited the Muslim Quarter (more on the Dome of the Rock later), walked through heaps of cool markets and galleries and restaurants, and got to see Al-Aqsa Mosque. It was incredibly fascinating seeing changes between the quarters, and seeing how closely (physically) everyone in Old Jerusalem lives. It felt like everyone was nearly on top of each other the whole time.
The Jewish Quarter was really cool for us as well. Seeing the Western Wall was a highlight for me. We had no idea we had to wash our hands (separately, women on the right and men on the left) before going up to the wall, which was very interesting to see and do. I just hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself, and I’m sure I probably did. Going up to the wall was a great and beautiful experience. Seeing all the notes inside the wall was really cool, and seeing so many people full of devotion and emotion was really powerful. After seeing the Western Wall on the news for so many years, and after learning more about it from Nicola, it was awesome to go up to it and experience it. (By the way, someone told us the name “Wailing Wall” is considered offensive, which I had no idea about).
To be honest, I came away from Jerusalem with a newfound understanding of the great conflicts there but also a new appreciation for the devout people. I get that religion can (and has) caused conflicts, but I was amazed at seeing Christians, Muslims, and Jews all living their faith in such open ways. It was a wonderful experience for these two Utahans, where we don’t always get to see such a diversity of faiths.
We didn’t spend much time in the Armenian Quarter, but it was still cool because I didn’t even know such a thing existed. Learning the different sects and beliefs of the different groups in Old Jerusalem was so enlightening, and if nothing else, the tour was worth it just to learn where things were and to learn more about each landmark.
We also saw some ancient temple excavations and David’s Citadel. Since it was so bloody hot, we were beat after the 2-hour tour, but so glad we’d done it.
As Caitlin and I wandered, we headed to a place I’ve wanted to see since I was tiny. The Garden of Gethsemane is the place where Christ suffered for the sins of the world, and I remember a specific painting I’ve seen my whole life of him there. I was really surprised by a few things about Gethsemane.
First, it is fairly small. For some reason, I envisioned this massive forest or something, but the garden itself is small and just has a few olive trees. I think I read a sign saying these trees had been continually grafted from prior trees, so they have direct relations all the way back to Christ.
Second, I always had in my head that Gethsemane was this secluded, dark, quiet place. Back in Christ’s day, it probably was, but now, it has a massive and busy street running very close. It was so fascinating to me to see the old and new worlds intersect. As Caitlin and I sat on the wall around the garden reading some Bible passages, it was interesting to have our thoughts interrupted by screeching brakes or car horns.
We also loved seeing the Rock of Agony, which is nearby and is said to be the place Christ knelt and prayed and sweat blood. It was only Caitlin and I and one old woman who sat silently reading the Bible and crying as she stared at the rock. Gethsemane and the Rock of Agony were probably my favorite places in all of Israel. I felt the same way I have when seeing old remnants of Christianity in Rome. Whether or not this is the EXACT place where this or that happened, it’s amazing to see a physical manifestation of something that to me is spiritual. I dunno if that makes sense but whatever.
As I mentioned like 8 times, Israel is expensive. Like, pretty darn expensive. So I’m forever grateful someone told Caitlin to eat inside the Old City, because, she said, food is about 50% cheaper there. I don’t know if the 50% thing is correct, but it was noticeably cheaper inside Old Jerusalem’s walls than outside. So each time Caitlin and I went inside the gates, we made sure to buy food and drinks to save a few shekels.
The problem, in my opinion, is the food (aside from the Thai place we liked near our flat), was pretty bland. There was lots of dry bread and “pizza” without sauce (not sure how they called it pizza, but they did). I ended up eating almost every meal at our flat because I preferred the cheap noodles and cookies from the market over the foods we found out and about. Plus, groceries are (almost) always cheaper than eating out (except in Thailand, where we ate like kings).
MOUNT OF OLIVES JEWISH CEMETERY
The Jewish cemetery was pointed out to us on our tour, and it’s hard to miss. It’s kinda ominous, since you can see all these sand/stone colored graves from a few different places in Jerusalem. But I think she said it’s a big deal and lots of Jews want to be buried there, so on our walk up to BYU, we went right past and had a look. It’s massive for one, and so interesting to see all the stones, many inscribed in Hebrew. It’s not something I would necessarily go out of my way for, but I’m glad it was on our way because it was really cool to see.
TEMPLE MOUNT AND BYU JERUSALEM
Caitlin and I first tried to go to Dome of the Rock, not realizing it has very specific hours for tourists to go in. Unfortunately, we missed those hours, so we went from there to the Temple Mount. We were trying to visit the Garden Tomb, but again, it was closed by the time we got there. So we made plans to return before our flight out of Israel in a couple days, and we used our maps to find BYU Jerusalem and walk to it. It was a long, hot, sweaty walk, and we walked through some sketchy neighborhoods, including one where a little kid kept saying, “USA? USA?” until Caitlin said yes, hi, to which he responded “#$% you,” complete with a middle finger. Ah, 4th graders.
As the pattern was that day, by the time we got to BYU Jerusalem, it was closed. Actually, I think it was closed all day, and we just hadn’t bothered to look. Which was really not a big deal to me. On my list of things to see in Jerusalem, BYU was probably number 4,613 on the list. Still, it was fun to see the campus, and the views of the city up there are pretty incredible. I would like to tour it someday, but I was secretly happy we didn’t have to do a full tour because I just wanted to see everything so fast.
We ended up just walking back to our flat, getting dinner at the Thai restaurant nearby, getting snacks at the grocery store, and just roaming the area nearby. I was super stoked at what a fun day we had had, and excited to see more of the country (early…too early) the next morning.
DAY 2: SOUTH ISRAEL TOUR
Since our friends had been planning on coming with us, we’d kinda split up duties to find a good itinerary, tours, etc, and Jimmy had found this guy Odeh* through some mutual acquaintances. I ended up messaging him on Whatsapp when plans changed, but he was really cool and still had no issues taking 2 people instead of 4, so bright and early at 7am, Odeh, his adorable daughter Yara, and the driver Emperor were picking us up in a nice Mercedes van and we were heading to south Israel to see the sites.
(*Odeh works through his company, Three Stars of Mary. He can be contacted at email@example.com or by phone at 0542349327. I’m not receiving any compensation for this, but I’d highly recommend his services. It was hard for us to find a guide to take us to the places we wanted, and Odeh fit the bill perfectly. He was awesome.)
When we first looked at Jerusalem, several people told us going into Palestine was a bad idea, so we had it in our minds that we wouldn’t be able to do Bethlehem, or if we did, it might have to be fast and might be scary. Luckily, though Odeh, being an Arab Palestinian, had no issues taking us in. We first headed into Manger Square, which is the town square where lots of Christian sites are located. It was beautiful weather, a slight breeze, and a perfect day for touristing.
CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY AND CHAPEL OF THE MILK GROTTO
The first place we went was the Church of the Nativity, which is said to be built over the cave in which Jesus was born. The church itself is very beautiful and sort of dimly lit, which gives it an old time feel, which I loved. Odeh said it might be hard to get in, as each sect of religion has different times when they get to have the church. We ended up waiting for him to negotiate with someone, then we were quickly ushered into the Basilica of the Nativity and told to hurry and not take photos. As was the case several times in Israel, we hadn’t been in the basilica more than 30 seconds before someone roughly tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and an older man in robes with a long gray beard said simply, “Leave.” I was bummed that I only got such a short time in there, but whatever. Out we went.
Next, we went to the Grotto of the Nativity, which is supposed to be the cave where Christ was born. Like I said, I’m not gonna get too spiritual or preachy, but it was pretty incredible to be standing at a place I’ve read and heard about since age 4 or so. It was a really fun and quiet place and we are super glad we went.
The Chapel of the Milk Grotto is apparently where Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus when Herod was killing all the babies. The name comes from the tale that Mary was nursing and spilled milk onto the cave floor, which turned the color of the rock white. And, interestingly, the chapel is visited by infertile couples and people who believe it has miraculous powers. You can even buy powder made from rocks in the chapel to consume to help you conceive. Not my favorite place but a cool (literally, it’s 3 caves) quick stop.
WOOD CARVING SHOP
From there, Odeh took us through a few streets of Bethlehem to a wood carving shop. After spending the previous day in Jerusalem, Bethlehem felt like an entirely different country. It was not crowded, and seemed way more relaxed and chill.
The wood carving shop was amazing. If we had heaps of cash, we would have bought everything in sight. Being Israel, it was expensive, and being Bethlehem, it had lots of nativity sets but SO much else. We ended up buying both a nativity ornament for our Travel Tree, as well as an ornament for our friends who ended up not being able to make the trip, as they also have a Travel Tree. The best part of the shop though, is we didn’t feel any sort of pressure to buy anything and there were no hovering salespeople, just the owner who makes the carvings. It was an awesome stop.
Our next stop was Shepherd’s Field, which is traditionally considered the place where angels announced Christ’s birth. It’s got a cool and beautiful chapel, but the caves and the views were the best. Inside the caves, it was cool and quiet and felt like a totally different place. Outside, there was a cool view, and Odeh pointed out the border with Palestine and Israel and noted some recent incidents there. Having Odeh, as a Palestinian Arab Christian, was fascinating, as he had definite views regarding Israel and their treatment of Palestinians. As I’ll note later, our second day guide, Ruslan, was an Israeli Jew originally from Ukraine. Their views could not have been more different, which made for fascinating conversation and a nice view of both sides.
THE WALL IN PALESTINE
Speaking of Palestine and Israel, seeing the border wall of the West Bank was crazy. First off, I had no idea such a thing existed (hey, I don’t claim to be a geo-political genius here). Secondly, someone had graffitied a massive depiction of Donald Trump wearing a yarmulke saying to the wall, “I’m going to build you a brother.” If you want to see a photo, click here (not my photo, it’s from the Times of Israel).
Odeh had strong views that the wall was racial segregation and that the Palestinians were treated like subhumans. I don’t claim to know much, if anything, about the conflict there, but the wall was striking and one of my lasting images in Bethlehem, particularly with the USA graffiti.
Jericho is one of the oldest cities in the world, which alone makes it an interesting place. We took a cool tram which gave us a really great view of the surrounding area. We could see the Jordan River and even into neighboring countries. It was really bloody hot, though, as there was no air conditioning or even circulation in the tram. We were drenched in sweat after the 10-minute ride, but that was par for the course most of this trip.
MONASTERY OF THE TEMPTATION
The cable car took us to the base of the Monastery of the Temptation, which was probably my favorite thing in Jericho. This monastery is supposedly built on the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus was tempted by Satan after the 40-day fast. Pretty crazy stuff to think about.
As I complained about so eloquently, I was crazy sore from the walk up and down the Great Pyramid a couple days prior in Egypt. So the long walk (more of a trudge, for me) up a very steep path in 100+ degree heat was not exactly enjoyable. But the monastery is absolutely stunning, and the views from it are incredible. It’s built basically into the side of a cliff, and the views from below and from inside are just crazy. It’s hard to believe places like this even exist, and it was absolutely worth seeing. From there, we ate at a buffet (meh) and headed off to the Dead Sea.
DEAD SEA AND ALL ITS PAIN
I’d heard that the Dead Sea was painful if you shave for a couple days beforehand. No problem, I didn’t even bring a razor. I heard it was painful if you had any open cuts or sores. No problem, I didn’t have any open cuts or sores. What I DIDN’T hear is that it is horrifically painful no matter what, at least for me, and I’m guessing it’s because I have some dry skin/eczema pretty much all over. I didn’t know I do, but I found out very quickly.
The Dead Sea is cool in that you can see Jordan (you can also visit it from Jordan, which we didn’t due to Petra being our whole purpose there) and it’s a nice resort area with some restaurants and tourist stuff around. It’s also cool, as you may have heard even though it’s really not a known thing (sarcasm) that you can’t sink in it. Which I was determined to prove wrong. Which I did not.
My only recommendation is this: WEAR FREAKIN SANDALS! Caitlin took off before me, and neither of us had anything but our athletic shoes for footwear. We pack light, as you may know. So she takes off for the water, and was basically screaming bloody murder. Like, to the point I we told her to stop being a drama queen. She told me the sand burned her feet so badly and it was horrible and blah blah blah and I didn’t listen. Oh how I should have listened. The temperature was now 102 and the sand is nearly black. I don’t know why I didn’t put those facts together but it literally burned my feet. Badly. Like, we were in France 5 days later and my feet were still red and semi-swollen. Please please please wear sandals, or at least wear your shoes right to the water.
I hated the Dead Sea. There, I said it. My entire body was stinging, and now my feet were in great pain. I got in the water, realized it didn’t cool me down at all, put some mud on my pale and grotesque (and painful) body, and got the heck out. I didn’t enjoy it at all, and I’m only glad we went to say we went. Done and done. Caitlin did turn herself into some sort of mud creature, which I guess was fun for her. I guess.
THE ROAD OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN
From there, we went to the road where the good Samaritan was supposed to have happened. It was basically a steep, dusty, sandy road, and with 100+ degree weather, we were happy to see it, discuss it, and get away from it. Sorry to be such a diva about weather but my goodness it was insanely hot and just sapped me of desire to do anything that didn’t involve air conditioning.
MONASTERY OF SAINT GEORGE
We ventured into the desert (not sure of the timeline of this event, so I’m putting it here). It seemed incredibly desolate and remote, and in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, there were a few Bedouin guys sitting on rocks trying to sell us veils. I was not sure why we were here until we walked out to the edge of this ravine and saw, from afar, one of the coolest things we saw on this entire trip.
The Monastery of St. George is carved into a rock wall in the Judean desert. We didn’t go to it (I have no idea how you even do), but we ogled it from far away and it was still amazing. It just looks like something from a movie rather than a real place. I don’t know how to describe it but it’s gorgeous and worth seeing if you’re in the desert.
BAPTISTRY SITE AND JOSEPH’S SHOP
Next, we headed to the Jordan River, to the site where it’s believed Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. It was fascinating to see huge tour buses full of people, all there to be baptized. Interestingly, in order to actually be baptized there, you have to purchase an official baptism gown there, so everyone coming and going was dressed in it except us. We didn’t get baptized, but we did go up to the water, touch it, and read some Biblical passages. It was surprisingly lush, with lots of beautiful greenery around, along with many fish swimming and lots of ducks. Having just come from the Judean desert, it was a complete shock and a nice change of pace.
We also stopped by the chapel where Jesus’s dad Joseph was said to have had his shop. It was a quick stop, had some cool caves and was fun to think about it being a carpentry shop thousands of years ago.
Our next stop was something I knew nothing about called Hisham’s Palace. There’s a tiny museum onsite, which was interesting for learning a bit about the archaeology there, and it was air conditioned, so we stayed lots longer than necessary. We saw some cool ruins outside, which apparently used to be a palace. It was interesting, but not a must-see for me. By this point I was so exhausted it was hard to appreciate anything. But seeing the famous mosaic, the Tree of Life, was rad. I don’t know much about it except it’s from the Byzantine Era and its really impressive. You can go up on a little balcony to see it clearly, and it’s worth seeing.
From here, and don’t murder me, Caitlin and I opted to skip Masada and Qumran. Masada is supposed to be amazing, but there was no bloody way I was doing that hike in 102° weather. And Qumran, which are ruins where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, didn’t hold much interest for me. So I was totally OK heading back to the flat.
Aside from the brush with the machine-gunned cop in Cairo, the only other scary thing that happened was returning from Palestine into Israel. We knew there was a checkpoint coming, and all of the sudden Emperor pulled our van over, Odeh moved to the backseat, and they told Caitlin to get in the front. When we asked what was up, they said the Israelis would never pull over a van with a pretty white girl in the front. Alas, as we pulled in, a soldier with a machine gun told us to stop and looked like he was summoning us to the side of the road. My heart dropped and I got super scared. Then, just as fast, he changed his mind (or something) and without us actually fully stopping, waved us back through. It was one of those 5 second moments where your body goes from chill to full on panic and back to chill. The only other time I remember feeling so terrified so quickly and then it leaving just as quickly is one time on a flight (no idea where), the plane dropped pretty quickly, fast enough to get that roller coaster-ish pit in your stomach, and at that exact time several people screamed. It pulled me out of a semi-sleep and just as quickly as it happened, we were back to normal. Scary stuff, but in the end, no big deal at all. We were through the checkpoint, Odeh and Emperor dropped us at the flat, and we chilled on the balcony and hit the sack early, ready for another big day tomorrow.
DAY 3: NORTH ISRAEL TOUR
Before this trip, Caitlin did all sorts of homework trying to find us a way to see as much of Israel as we could in such a short time. A posting on a travel forum led us to Ruslan*, who we worked out a deal with to be our driver and guide through the north of Israel.
(*Ruslan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and is great at responding quickly. I’m not getting any compensation for giving you this info, I just think he was great and would absolutely recommend him).
Ruslan picked us up right on time and before we knew it, we were headed to Nazareth, our first stop in northern Israel.
NAZARETH: CHURCH OF THE ANNUNCIATION
Ruslan’s car was nice, the air conditioning was great, and we were off to Nazareth. As a side note, as I mentioned previously, Ruslan is a Jew from Ukraine who had moved to Israel years ago. As such, his views different quite a lot from Odeh the previous day. Ruslan (and Odeh) was really cool to answer all sorts of questions about Israel, Judaism, culture, and pretty much everything else. It was very good conversation.
The first place we went in Nazareth was the Church of the Annunciation, the place where the angel Gabriel told Mary she would carry Christ. Now, it being extremely hot, I didn’t even think to wear pants, but this was the first and only place that decision was bad. Pretty much as soon as we walked onsite, I heard someone repeating something over and over. It was with a heavy accent, so I didn’t have a clue what, but I assumed it wasn’t for me. Until it didn’t stop. I turned around and realized this guy by the front door was speaking to me, and I smiled and waved, as I do pretty much whenever I don’t understand the language. Turns out Caitlin could interpret and he was saying, “No shorts.” So I couldn’t go inside the church, which, to be honest, wasn’t a big deal to me since I’d seen so many churches up to this point.
The coolest part of this church is there are heaps and heaps of paintings and mosaics of Mary and Jesus from all around the world on the walls in the outdoor corridor. It was fascinating to see how many interpretations there were, and the different art styles from around the globe. It was definitely worth seeing, and Caitlin and I spent a long time looking at each one. I think the Thailand one was the most unique, but all were rad.
Side note regarding clothing: Several places require covered shoulders, which wasn’t a problem for Caitlin, but others require women to completely cover their arms, so she brought a scarf that doubled as sleeves and wore cool pants (in gear section) just to be safe. Women are smart.
CHURCH OF ST. GABRIEL
Next, we made a quick stop at the Church of Saint Gabriel, which is the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. Like pretty much everywhere in Israel, every location of everything is disputed all the time. This church was cool in that it was a cavern and interesting to think about Jesus and Mary supposedly living here back in the day. There’s also a spring, said to be the one they drank from, which was cool, but we didn’t feel like this stop was super essential. Cool though. It seems like we made 1-2 more stops at churches and chapels before leaving Nazareth, but I didn’t take note of those. Sorry. Now we were off to the Sea of Galilee, which I was especially stoked for.
SEA OF GALILEE
Driving through this part of Israel was like a different planet from the south. Having seen dusty Jericho and the Judean desert, it was crazy to see the lush greenery of the north. The drive from Nazareth to Capernaum was beautiful and seeing the Sea of Galilee for the first time was exciting. As a side note, driving through the city of Tiberius was awesome. It seems like a beachy resort town, kinda reminding me of Napier New Zealand for some reason. I told Caitlin if we return to Israel, I’d like to check it out.
We didn’t really do anything at Galilee except go down to the water, but we loved it. There was a cool breeze, the area seemed relaxed, and it was fun to read some of the Biblical events that took place around there. More than anything, it was a nice and chill change of pace since we’d been on the go for what seemed like ever, but in reality, was only about 5 days.
MOUNT OF BEATITUDES
The second to place we stopped was probably my favorite, it was the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. The grounds are gorgeous and lush, the chapel is beautiful, and it has a great view of the Sea of Galilee. Caitlin and I sat there and contemplated spiritual things as we read the famous sermon. I ain’t gonna get preachy, but suffice it to say it was a great experience.
MONASTERY OF THE HOLY APOSTLES
The last place we stopped I remembered only as the pink church. It’s a place dedicated to the 12 Apostles, and we loved hanging out with the peacocks onsite. The interior of this church is absolutely insane, with so much gold leaf and so many cool paintings. Caitlin and I spent a long time inside just trying to decipher every scene and person depicted. It’s right on the Sea of Galilee, which is fun because right out the back gate we walked down to the water and sat for a while. We could not believe how much history we’d seen and, although we were dreading the long drive back to Jerusalem, we were content and happy.
The drive from this side of Israel back to Jerusalem was long and boring. I’ve mentioned it before, but the only part of travel I really dislike is the actual travel part. Planes, trains, and automobiles are boring, and because of Israeli traffic, this drive took close to 4 hours. Luckily, Ruslan was cool and dropped us at our final destination of the night.
As I had mentioned before, on our first day roaming Old Jerusalem, Caitlin and I weren’t able to get into the Garden Tomb or the Dome of the Rock. Since Yad Veshem was the only thing planned for the next day, and we’d already missed visiting hours for the Dome of the Rock, we decided to do the Garden Tomb after our long day of touring.
The Garden Tomb is widely believed to be where Jesus was buried and resurrected, so we were excited. It’s a place I’d been seeing photos of since I was a kid, so being there felt surreal. The actual grounds are really nice and pretty, and extremely peaceful and reverent. I was impressed that with so many different groups of people, it was still relatively quiet and chill.
First, seeing Golgotha, the “place of the skull,” was interesting because you could actually see (kinda) the shape of the skull from the rock formations, so we could tell where it got its name.
The tomb itself was small but really powerful for us. Crazy enough, as Caitlin and I walked into the tomb, the tour group inside was just leaving, and for a couple minutes, we were the only ones inside it together. Caitlin had a really cool experience and I was just stoked and happy at how much we’d seen. As we came out, there was a large Korean tour group singing a Christian song with a couple acoustic guitars, followed by people speaking in tongues (or something). It was awesome, and although the walk home seemed like forever, it had been an amazing day.
DAY 3: TEMPLE MOUNT
Despite being so bloody tired and sore, we knew we’d have to arise somewhat early to do what we wanted to do on our last day in Israel. Our flight left at 6pm, and after our Rome and Phuket near-fiascos, we didn’t want to risk missing a flight, so we needed to leave Jerusalem by 3 at the latest.
We knew we couldn’t bring our backpacks to the Dome of the Rock, and we had to be out of our flat by 11am, so we took off around 8, walked to the Temple Mount, waited in a long and slow-moving line to get to the Dome of the Rock, went through security, and we were there.
As far as I understand, the Dome of the Rock is the third holiest site in Islam, and it’s built on a site where the old Jewish temple stood, so it is kinda an intersection for Christians, Muslims, and Jews. There had been some violence there 2 weeks prior, so, as usual for this trip, I was on edge. Actually walking in and seeing the dome, with all the Arabic writing around it and the beautiful tile, was awesome. To me, this structure has always been the main symbol of Jerusalem, because all the photos I remember seeing while growing up featured it so prominently. Because it was fairly early in the morning, there were very few people there, and Caitlin and I were able to walk around the entire thing, get some great photos, and basically sit and reflect on what a crazy place Jerusalem is. We then hoofed it back to our flat to grab our bags and catch a train to Yad Veshem.
I was actually really apprehensive to go to Yad Veshem, which is Israel’s Holocaust museum and place of remembrance. We had done a one-floor Holocaust exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London, and from the second I saw that glass case full of shoes there, I felt sick and on the verge of tears. That entire day/night in London, I couldn’t shake that feeling. Which is good in the sense that these exhibits SHOULD move people and make people think. So I was nervous about how I would feel and react to Yad Veshem, but I knew it was something I needed to do, so off we went.
I won’t do a step by step here, because you can read all about it online, but in my opinion, Yad Veshem is a must in Jerusalem. There is lots of public transportation, so getting there is no issue. There’s a bag check, so we were able to ditch our backpacks. And everything, from the architecture to the layout is just really beautiful and moving.
Two things that stood out in particular: First, one of the very first things you see is a glass case full of personal documents from the Holocaust which are burned and dirty, etc. They were from a group of Jews who were shot by Nazis and then burned and buried, and some of their documents survived. It’s hard to even imagine.
Second, there is a dark room full of mirrors and lights to look like candles. It’s really beautiful but somber and quiet, and a voice is continually reading names of victims. The entire exhibit (actually, all of them, as there are multiple buildings and exhibits) does such a phenomenal job of making the Holocaust a personal event. There weren’t just millions of victims, there were millions of people. I think it gets so easy to just think of everyone as a number or a statistic, but seeing personal stories, reading names and letters and poetry and seeing artwork and children’s toys…it was an experience I will never forget. It was not lighthearted or necessarily enjoyable, but it was a necessity for me.
As I said, Yad Veshem has great transport. We were able to catch a free shuttle as we left which took us straight to a crazy busy road (don’t remember the name). From there, we hadn’t been off the bus 3 minutes when the airport shuttle came by. Great timing has never been my forte, but I’ll take it! We got to the airport way earlier than we expected, so early in fact, that we couldn’t even check in yet. Luckily, there was a decent (ish) food place downstairs so we chilled, ate, and eventually got on our flight to Orly airport in Paris. It was hard for me to believe how much history I’d just seen in the last 3 days, and I was so happy we’d done everything this far. Also, not gonna lie, I was excited that the chill part of our trip was about to begin. We’d been going nonstop for a week and I was beat.
Before you move on to our France post, let us know: What did we miss in Israel? Have you been? What’s your favorite part? Hit us in the comments or send us a line at email@example.com, or find us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.