We began our trip to Israel in Jerusalem, an ancient city with deep links to the Abrahamic faiths. Our three days focused on religious sites, but we also enjoyed the joy of bartering in the Old City and found unexpected sanctuary…in a sanctuary.
Day #1: Acclimation
We arrived Sunday afternoon and after taking the “high speed” train from TLV to Jerusalem, we found our apartment (more on that tomorrow…) and got settled. We were situated in Mahane Yehuda, a busy part of town about 20 minutes by foot from the Old City.
Right away, I noticed how expensive food was in Israel…lunch for the two set us back over $30, something that would have been less than half of that in the USA or Germany. This wasn’t a scam: the prices were posted. Had my three-year-old ordered his own lunch, it would have been $45 for fast food? That’s crazy.
Since our apartment had a kitchen, we went grocery shopping and were again somewhat surprised at how expensive everything was…20NIS (almost $6) for a small loaf of bread? Well, I was able to negotiate it down to 12NIS, but I still thought that was a bit much.
I had wanted to stay at Saint George’s Pilgrim Guest House, part of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem, but my wife preferred our Airbnb apartment because it was half the price (are you sensing a theme? My German wife is very frugal). While Heidi and Augustine took a nap, I went to church, attending an Evensong at said Anglican Church, a beautiful alcove just outside the Old City gates.
I returned, we had dinner, and went to bed early.
Day #2: Around The Old City
We began our second day by moving out of our apartment and into a Lutheran Guest House in the Old City…that unplanned move ate up half of our morning.
Our new accommodations were much smaller, but we had a beautiful view of the Old City and Temple Mount. I would have preferred to try out the nearby Waldorf-Astoria, but Heidi balked at the cost…I just love her. By this time, my Anglican Guest House was sold out, so instead it was this:
One thing I loved about this guest house (130EUR/night) was the beautiful garden area, which offered a tranquil place to relax in the crisp winter sun. Even the coffee was decent.
Breakfast also nice here, with a generous spread of food and kind staff that happily accommodated additional requests (strawberries and pistachios, yum…).
We then started walking through the winding streets filled with vendors who thankfully were not all that aggressive in trying to lure you into their shops.
Our first official stop was the Church of Holy Sepulchre, the site some hold that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. Sadly, the huge crowds and flash photography made it feel like an amusement park rather than a house of worship inside. When in Rome…I took some pictures too, if for nothing else than to document the crowds.
I’m not sure why, but I decided to spend about 90 minutes in line waiting to go inside the Aedicula, an inner room (pictured below) where tradition holds that Jesus was buried. No pictures in there, but most did not observe the priest’s plea to refrain from taking pictures.
By this point, my wife was quite disappointed. Had she come all this way just to wait in long lines? I assured her the other sites would not be so bad.
I used the moment to get a shave, something I hate doing myself and love going to a barber for. For 20NIS (~$6.00), it was well worth it and everyone loved little Augustine, who also demanded a shave…
We walked outside the city gates and next hit the Garden Tomb, another tomb some believe Jesus was buried in. The garden was well-manicured and sits beside a hill that somewhat resembles a skull. This has caused some to claim it is Golgotha, the Mount of the Skull mentioned in all four New Testament gospels.
The Garden Tomb was near the St. Geroge’s, the Anglican Church and guest house, so we returned there for coffee and later dinner. Restaurants remain difficult with 3-year-old Augustine and the guest house was quite welcoming of kids and offered a nice evening spread for 72NIS (~$22) that included soup, salads, hot dishes, and desserts. Yes, a buffet. And yes, it is perfect if you are looking for good value and an accommodating environment for young children.
Day #3: Wailing Wall + Temple Mount + Mount of Olives
We got an earlier start and headed to the Wailing Wall, also a short walk from our guest house. When you think about the history of the wall and destroyed temple and mix in the somber chanting and singing, it makes for a surreal experience. More so than anything else on the trip, my wife was touched by the genuine emotions poured out by pilgrims and worshippers on the wall.
Next, we proceeded up to the Temple Mount. I won’t get into it too much here, but you can read my earlier discussion on accessing the Dome of the Rock mosque. The mosque was built over the place tradition holds that Jacob was ministered to by angels, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Consequently, it has religious significance for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Sadly (in my mind), it is closely guarded and non-Muslims are not allowed inside. I’m of the opinion that such a site cannot belong to one group and should be opened to all. Then again, an unexpected visit to the Mount by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unleashed the Second Intifada in 2002, so perhaps it is simply not worthwhile…
We next walked out the Golden Gate and made our way to the base of the Mount Olives, where we were stopped at what may have been the Garden of Gethsemane. I’d say of all the Christian sites we saw during the week, this one was most significant to me. Some claim the trees date back to the time of Jesus. It was a bit chilling to think this may have been the spot in which Jesus prayed before His betrayal and death.
From there, we headed up what was a very steep hill to the top of the Mount of Olives. The taxi touts were heavy ($10-20 to go up the hill). Don’t give in – the walk was steep, but I made it carrying Augustine (who by that time, was finished walking for the day). After visiting Pater Noster (also known as The Church of the Lord’s Prayer), we did end up taking a taxi (via Uber) back to the Old City after…downhill prices are more reasonable.
It was only midday, but I spent the rest of the afternoon working, Heidi exercised, and Augustine entertained himself with the house cat. We returned to the Anglican Guest House for dinner.
Funny story. We booked two nights initially at the guest house, but decided to stay a third night. The man at the front desk said we were welcome to stay the third night, but would have to move rooms.
“That room I put you in was actually reserved by a couple on their honeymoon. They showed up last night and I had to put them in a room with three twin beds!”
Our new room wasn’t bad:
We spent the final day in the West Bank visiting Bethlehem. I will dedicate a separate post to that day trip. Although we encountered scattered rain showers during our stay, the cold weather made walking much easier.
I’ll look back fondly on this time. You can see we took things at an easy pace. Part of what made the three days so nice was the ability to eat breakfast at a leisurely pace and enjoy reading in the garden in the afternoon. There were a lot of Lutheran pilgrims staying at the guest house and they were herded in and out of breakfast and onto buses at the crack of dawn. While I’m sure they saw things we missed, I would not trade in our more leisurely pace for anything.
On the last day, as we prepared to leave we could not find Augustine. Before panic struck in, I had a feeling we’d find him near the front desk since he is so fascinated with elevators. Indeed, he had struck up a friendship with the hotel staff and we found him watching cartoons on YouTube (something he is not allowed to do at home). But the smiles foretell what lovely people run this guest house, so consider staying here if you are looking for basic but clean and comfortable positions in the middle of the Old City.
We also had to explain to Augustine he could not take the cat with us…
What I missed most was not visiting Yad Vashem. That is at the top of my list for my next visit to Jerusalem, hopefully when Augustine is of age to understand what exactly the Holocaust was and why we need to remember it.