The Road to Galilee -- Heading from Tel Aviv up to the Sea of Galilee
Our time in Jerusalem's Old City exploring the stunning Dome of the Rock and shopping in the Old City's souqs.
Wondering how to spend a layover in Paris? Here's how we spent less than 24 hours in the city.
Visiting Hebron in the West Bank to understand two disparate narratives in one complex city.
Walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City - pictures, notes + thoughts from the journey.
I’m Shannon, a twenty-something island dweller with a passport at the ready and a never-ending bucket list. I didn’t start as an island dweller. I started as a California resident – a newly minted grad – and in 2009, I embarked on a journey. I left my home in California to begin graduate school in the UK and at that moment, life changed. Since that time, I have had an amazing opportunity to see parts of the world I never imagined, meet incredible and inspiring people, and enjoy…
Following our time with Abraham Tours, which was nothing short of spectacular, we headed up to Tel Aviv to meet up with Scott’s parents and a larger church tour group from California to embark on a 9-day tour of the holy land. We would typically never join a tour group of this size (there were two large tour buses for this), but due to logistics and perceived safety issues before leaving, we thought a tour group would give us a sense of security, plus a more layered experience with deeper insight. I’ll do another post at a later time candidly detailing both tour experiences (with smaller-scale Abraham Tours and larger-scale Inspiration Tours) to provide a bit of insight when you’re booking your own trip.
We had no time in Tel Aviv, and that was intentional. We arrived around 10:30PM and departed the next day at 7AM or so. Tel Aviv, a super cosmopolitan beachfront city, is a draw for many, and the feel is entirely more Mediterranean than Middle East from our brief encounter. For us, coming from a beachy home, the goal was to have a more cultural experience than a beach getaway. With limited time, Tel Aviv was cut from the list. (We also didn’t get time in Haifa, which was unfortunate, as Haifa looks to be a stunning area!)
So, it was with excitement and a bit of trepidation that we loaded up our bus the next morning, not really knowing what to expect of a tour. We had to wear those goofy little ear pieces – you know the ones that hang around your neck and make you look like a Secret Service wannabe – each time we disembarked the bus so we could hear our guide (they call these gadgets ‘Whispers’). We also had name tags which I rather defiantly refused to wear (though I did keep it in my bag in case I was called out). Some people enjoy tour groups, but I find them kind of embarrassing at times and I didn’t want to be marked. So, loaded up on the bus with 48 friends, we headed north up Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
Our first stop was the town of Caesarea, not be confused with Caesarea Philippi which is a totally different thing entirely. Caesarea is a pretty seaside town with a few Roman ruins, but mostly a really beautiful view. The water here is classic Mediterranean, that deep sapphire blue that washes up against the sand and the beige-colored buildings. Had we been traveling here independently, it would have been a great place to sit out with coffee or lunch, actually somewhat tranquil despite the number of tourists. We only had about a half hour to explore and no free time to do our own thing which limited our adventures in the area. For those who have longer to enjoy the seaside town, there’s a golf club and a winery nearby.
Despite the fact that we’d been in Jerusalem for about a week, we had yet to see the glistening Dome of the Rock and some of the other iconic sites in the Old City. We’d been staying at Abraham Hostel and using that as our home base to explore the West Bank and Jordan. During our first full day to explore on our own, we walked the Via Dolorosa, explored the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and spent time shopping in the Muslim and Christian Quarters. We’d missed the small window within which non-Muslims are allowed on Temple Mount/al-Haram ash-Sharif to see the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque.
During our second day exploring the Old City, getting to Temple Mount was our mission. I was not going to leave Jerusalem without getting to see Jerusalem’s iconic buildings and holy sites. We headed out early in the morning, about 7:30AM, to stand in line to enter Temple Mount. There’s one entrance for non-Muslims and the line can be long since visiting hours are limited. During our first day in Jerusalem, we naively tried to enter Temple Mount from Muslim-only entrances. Kids tried to shoo us away and locals kept telling us to turn around but we didn’t really understand why. It wasn’t until we reached a small gate guarded by local security that we were told that those entrances were only for Muslims. As we rather embarrassedly walked away, I wondered, how do they know we’re not Muslim? My head was covered and while we perhaps don’t fit the traditional profile for the region, it seemed like profiling to me. What? Two blonde-ish kids can’t be Muslim? Naturally, I Googled the matter only to find that people (presumably just people that look questionable) have to recite verses from the Quran to prove their faith and gain entry. Makes sense.
So, we waited in the line this time. Ladies, if you’re non-Muslim, you don’t have to cover your head to enter though we did see many wearing head scarves out of respect. After about an hour – maybe an hour and a half – of waiting, we went through security, showed our IDs (bring at least a drivers license with you!), smiled at the guard and made our way in. Finally. We made it.
The Dome of the Rock is probably the most recognizable site in all of Jerusalem and it’s even more brilliant in real life. The colors, dazzling gold and vibrant cerulean, were like a beacon on an otherwise neutral colored slab. Abrahamic religions find this place holy as the rock is said to be the slab on which Abraham was set to sacrifice Isaac (Muslims believe it was Ishmael not Isaac). Additionally, according to Muslim tradition, Muhammed was said to have ascended to heaven from this very slab, making it one of the holiest sites in all of Islam.
Interestingly, the day we were up there, we could sense some tension. It was the first moment – though brief – that we felt a bit unsure about safety during our stint in the Middle East. We could hear chanting in Arabic and there was a horde of people walking together towards a Jewish man who was on Temple Mount. IDF forces escorted him off the premises (see below). The following day, though I doubt there’s any connection to this particular incident, Temple Mount was closed to non-Muslims for the first time in 15+ years after escalating tension between Israelis and Palestinians. Had we tried to go a day later, we would have missed our opportunity.
We spent the rest of our day exploring the local souqs. We’d seen the holiest sites in the city, we’d walked Via Dolorosa and experienced Mahane Yehuda market. We searched for the best hummus and sampled the best kanafeh (go to Jafar’s on Khan el-Zeit Street in the Old City for Anthony Bourdain and Yotam Ottolenghi-approved kanafeh). I’d boosted my antioxidants by slugging fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice at every turn and dined at some of the coolest restaurants we’ve ever experienced in the world. The one thing I had left on my agenda was to pick up something from Jerusalem (a souvenir for me and a few things for family) to take back home with me. I don’t really get behind buying kitschy souvenirs — the cheesy tees and keychains don’t really do it for me. The one thing I do allow myself (rather, Scott allows me!) is jewelry. I love cool jewelry (not diamonds luckily for him) that tells a story; a statement piece that brings back memories every time I put it on. I have handmade jewelry from Kenya and cool Incan pieces from Peru that I wear on a daily basis, little pieces that connect me to the places that we’ve been and the places that have shaped our perspectives on the world. I wasn’t going to leave Jerusalem without something special.
I should say that there are endless shops from which to buy really cool jewelry in the Old City. The city is famed for their Roman glass, which are cool pieces of green-hued glass with patina that jewelers buy from the Israeli Museum, craft into unique pieces, and sell. Each piece should come with a certificate from the Israeli Museum so if you’re going that route jewelry-wise (or buying jewelry made of authentic old coins), you should get a certificate with it (though I sometimes wonder how authentic certificates of authenticity really are). You’ll see a number of shops selling Roman glass, jewelry made of old Palestinian or Bedouin coins (some authentic, some not), chunky cuffs, major statement necklaces, and simple chains with a hamsa hanging (the classic palm-shaped amulet you see extra zen people wearing).
All of these shops deserve a look, but Sinjlawi is the ultimate shopping experience for any jewelry lover. The store is comprised of three rooms, and that’s just their showroom. The family that owns this place has been in Jerusalem for over a millennium and have owned this store space for 380+ years. They’re jewelers, all five brothers and one sister, and it’s a trade that’s been passed down for generations. You’ll see all of the siblings’ work in the store, all very different using different mediums. In addition to the items they make, they have an incredible selection of old jewelry, heirlooms that have been passed down for generations and then sold to them. These are one-of-a-kind pieces – incredibly unique – with some of the items featured in collector’s catalogues. In total, I think I spent about 6 hours in this store (I’m not kidding) and I didn’t regret one second. Their collection is unbelievable. Chain necklaces handcrafted in Bethlehem 450+ years ago, old headdresses worn by tribes, and cuffs so intricate that you can’t help but wonder how anyone would have the patience to craft these pieces by hand (many were made before having advanced tools). I was in awe.
Naturally, I had to buy a piece. Plus, the shopkeepers were the coolest, kindest guys – no pressure, just helping us and chatting with us about what brought us to Jerusalem. As you can imagine, after hours there, we learned a fair bit about each other. The family owns an olive grove north of Jerusalem producing thousands of liters of olive oil annually. They use about 150L of it personally. The rest they give to the poor, people who can’t afford to buy the oil on their own. As Yussef, one of the owners, said to me, we’ll never sell a drop of oil – we use it, and we give away anything we cannot use. What a concept, right? Honestly, conversations like this — chatting with people, hearing their stories and building genuine connections — remind me why I love to travel so much. Yes, part of it is about the sights and seeing the world, but a hefty part is about the people. Too often, people from foreign countries (especially non-Western countries) are thought of as ‘the other’. They’re different than us; they look different, they worship differently than us, and they speak different languages. I think one of the most important thing that traveling teaches us is that most of us are fundamentally the same. We want to live good, happy lives, want to give back in whatever way we can, and want to build something great for our kids and future generations. It’s true – the more you travel, the smaller the world gets.
I’m going to finish recapping our time in Israel after this post – there’s still so much more to share! – but thought I’d break it up with a different destination that perks everyone up just a bit: Paris. After saying our sad goodbyes to Israel and to Scott’s family, we arranged for an early morning wake up call (if you can even call 1:45AM ‘morning’) to have sufficient time to get to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Our flight was slated to depart at 6:10AM, with a connection in Rome, having us arrive in Paris at around 12:25PM. We were going to have an afternoon and evening in Paris, which we were looking forward to – it would break up the long trip back, plus give us an opportunity to experience the City of Lights together (we’ve been independently – you’ll remember my trip with my sister and dad back in 2010).
As luck would have it, El Al was looking to bump a few people from the flight to Rome and had a direct flight to Paris leaving at the same time. We gladly took them up on the proposed arrangement and napped our way to Paris, arriving over two hours ahead of planned time. Major score.
In March, we learned the art of the long layover (we spent a day in London on our way back from Nairobi), and this time, working in a 24 hour layover in Paris wasn’t by accident. Here’s one of the most important pieces of the layover puzzle: find the Left Luggage counter in your airport. We did this in London and we successfully did it again in Paris. For 34€, we were able to leave two 50 pound bags for up to 24 hours, which seemed like a deal to me (the rates vary depending on number of bags and length of layover). If you don’t have a hotel room for the night (e.g. your layover is more like 10 hours), then the Left Luggage counter is really non-negotiable. In our case, we had a hotel room arranged in Paris, but lugging two massive bags was unnecessary and would be cumbersome when negotiating public transport. For us, this was an easy decision and I think for most people, it’s a step that will make your layover much more pleasant. Pack your carry-on accordingly — we packed our toiletries, a change of clothes and other necessities in my rolling carry-on, and placed all other unnecessary items in our checked luggage.
This is based on personal preference and my travel style, but here’s a suggestion on the hotel front: If you have a mere 24 hours in a city, location trumps luxury. If I have $200 to spend on a hotel room, I’ll be picking a mid-range hotel with smaller rooms in a central location over a spacious luxury hotel set further away from the city’s hotspots. This is true for me almost all of the time anyway, but it’s even more critical when you only have a day to enjoy a city’s main sights. Plain and simple: you don’t have time to waste dealing with transportation. You’ll want to be able to head to your hotel (ideally with easy access to public transport), drop off your carry-on, quickly freshen up if need be, and then walk out to the city’s main highlights.
In Paris, we chose Hotel Saint Paul Rive Gauche in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district of the city (6th arrondissement). Scott and I had agreed beforehand that Saint Germain or the Latin Quarter were our preferences for a hotel, and Saint Paul Rive Gauche’s boutique quality, price point and location fit the bill. We took public transportation from Charles de Gaulle (RER B) all the way to Luxembourg station (9,50€ each), exited the station, and walked a short 5 minutes to our hotel. Armed with a map provided by the concierge, we hit the road, ready to explore on foot.
The weather was working in our favor, sunny with just enough crispness in the air to make the long day of walking comfortable. We wound our way through the Latin Quarter, where I tried to find the place that my sister, dad and I had eaten four years earlier. I remember being utterly enchanted with the Latin Quarter, telling myself that if I were to return to Paris, I would stay in this area (mission accomplished). I had been daydreaming of a perfect Parisian lunch, and meandering the streets, we stopped at Cafe Panis to get our fix. We only had a brief period of time in the city, so I was taking mental snapshots of the moments, and this was a perfect hour spent dining on a corner near Notre Dame. Nestled into a teensy tiny table with a glass of rose and a Croque Provencal, I switched off between chatting and people-watching through the window. There’s something about Paris that is so unequivocally picture perfect that even the most mundane day-to-day activities somehow seem entirely more glamorous.
Once we’d finished lunch, we began our walk along the river, taking in the sites, and making our way toward the Eiffel Tower. Though it had been over four years since my last visit, I was surprised by how much I remembered of different pockets of the city: an iconic fountain in the Latin Quarter, the way the gold on Les Invalides glistened, a book shop on a rather nondescript corner.
When I had visited last, the weather was terrible. It was cold, rainy and drab, yet the city still managed to look captivatingly beautiful. I remember standing in front of Notre Dame, umbrella over my head, wearing my dad’s jacket and literally shivering with the cold. This time around, with the sun shining, I was pretty confident that Paris, with its architecture, history and art, had to be one of the world’s prettiest cities.
We walked past bridges with love locks, which are soon to be banned due to the weight the locks are placing on the bridges. We walked by art vendors on the streets selling old maps, paintings, books, and sketches of Paris’ iconic vistas. Finally, like a beacon, we could see the tip of the Eiffel Tower poking through behind the buildings directly in front of us. We headed to the Palais de Challiot, the best place for the ultimate Eiffel Tower views, where we were going to meet up with the guide from City Wonders to make the most of our brief time in Paris.
I’ve said this time and time again – Scott and I are not tour people, but I wouldn’t really classify our time with City Wonders as a tour. It was the ultimate way to maximize our time in Paris and involved a VIP Eiffel Tower Tour + a Seine River Cruise. With a start time of 4:30PM (meeting with the group at 4:15PM), we’d be done by 7PM and get a glimpse of Paris’ iconic monuments from the sky and from the water.
Our guide, Randa, a US native, expertly led the tour, showing us the best spots for pics of the iconic tower, and giving us some interesting insight into the tower’s history (it was originally built in 1889 for the World Fair and was only supposed to be a temporary structure, standing for six months), plus a bit of Parisian history to accent the monuments. After having been on tours for the past week in Jerusalem, I found her commentary refreshing – interesting and engaging. We made it to the Eiffel Tower where our group was able to skip the line (this saved us about two hours), and jet straight to the second level where the views are jaw-droppingly beautiful. It provided us with an incredible layout of the city. We could see beyond the bounds of Paris itself, plus could see sites like Les Invalides, the Louvre, the Luxor Obelisk in the distance. The sun was beginning to set and the sky was turning pink behind the city skyline; totally beautiful and a reminder as to why Paris is always top of mind for romantic cities. We had been given our Seine River cruise tickets in advance, and the tour officially ended there, on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower. At that point we had the ability to go to the summit if we wanted (there’s a champagne bar there!) or to the first floor to walk along the glass and glimpse the views below. I was pleasantly surprised – the tour was enough to give us the info that we needed and to allow us to skip the line (I can’t even describe how incredible this part is), but wasn’t rigid. Ticket holders could stay as long as they wanted and explore any parts of the tower they desired.
We had tickets for a Seine River cruise as a part of this City Wonders tour, as well, but didn’t have to go as part of a group. The tickets were valid for any departure, with the last one leaving around 11PM. By 6PM, night had fallen, the Tower was lit up, and Paris was beginning to get cold at this point. We wanted to board a cruise as soon as possible to avoid the biting cold later in the evening. We arrived just in time to catch a 6PM cruise, leaving from the base of the tower. The night was chilly (bring a coat and scarf to stay warm!), but the city was stunning at night. The cruise is an hour-long tour, pointing out main sights along the Seine with a bit of commentary to make it more informative. At the back of the boat was a bar doling out snacks and beverages. Armed with a hot chocolate, we sat at the back of the boat, saying goodbye to a twinkling Eiffel Tower as we made our way down the river. On my last trip to Paris, I hadn’t seen the tower lit up at night and definitely didn’t get to see it twinkle at the turn of the hour. It’s magical.
Even without the tower, Paris is magical at night. The lighting in the city is just perfect; utterly romantic and picturesque. We made our way slowly down the river, passing glittering lights, and restaurants built into boats. After having seen the city from the second floor of the Eiffel Tower, we had a better idea of the Paris’ layout which made the river cruise an even better experience. We departed the cruise at 7PM, just in time to catch the Tower’s glittering encore as we hopped in a cab to make our way back to our hotel.
After having experienced the Eiffel Tower and Seine River Cruise tour, I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who has limited time in Paris, especially for first-timers that haven’t had a chance to see some of the main sights. Even if we didn’t have limited time in Paris, I would still have gone this route purely for the VIP Eiffel Tower entry. I don’t know about you, but spending two hours in line is one of the last things I want to do on vacation. During our last trip to Paris, we had opted out of going up because the lines were too daunting and would eat up too much time during our brief few days in the city. Getting to skip the wait made tour worth it in and of itself. The river cruise is a really fun add-on and a great way to see monuments and get a bit of historical insight in the span of an hour. Plus, it’s a great way of gaining a bit more perspective and a better understanding of the city’s layout. If you do have limited time in Paris, like we did this time around, this is an incredible way to add more depth to a brief experience.
For a brief 24 hours, we left feeling as though we’d confidently maximized our time in the city. We made it home by 7:30PM after our Seine River cruise. Tired after an early morning, ready for a good night’s sleep, and not wanting a heavy French dinner, we walked to a Vietnamese restaurant two blocks away, packed with Parisians, doling out piping hot pho. After a cold evening, it was the perfect way to warm up and to finish out our night in Paris. We fell asleep by 9PM, saying good night to Paris and goodbye to an incredible two-and-a-half weeks away.
xo from Paris,
Hebron, a city in the West Bank, is an interesting study of co-existence between Jews and Arabs, and is also the area in which the concept of settlements and the understanding of Israel’s role in the Palestinian Territories comes to life, perhaps more so than any other city.
Guided by Eliyahu McLean, one of the founders of Jerusalem Peacemakers, we visited Hebron on a dual narrative tour in search of a deeper understanding of life in the Occupied Territories. Our tour provided us with an incredibly unique perspective in that we were able to learn about Hebron, its living conditions and everyday life from both the Israeli and the Palestinian perspectives. As you will see, these are markedly different narratives.
Before I get into details and our experience on the tour, it’s worth understanding Hebron in more depth in order to really have a better idea of the city’s composition. It’s incredibly complex – and that’s saying something when we’re talking about an already astoundingly complex region. Hebron is home to 750,000 people and is a unique city within the West Bank in that it doesn’t fall under A, B, or C designations like the rest of the area. Instead, after the Hebron accords were struck at the Wye River, Hebron was given two desginations. Hebron is essentially divided into two parts, H1 and H2. H1 is controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and comprises about 80% of Hebron, while H2 is administered by Israel, accounting for the remaining 20%.
We had spent time in the West Bank before on two separate occasions, but entering Hebron felt entirely different from Ramallah, Jericho or even Bethlehem. There were far fewer tourists here; in fact, we saw just a handful of other small groups visiting. We were entering an area that was far from a tourist center despite the religious and historical draws to the city. As our guide, Eliyahu, explained, we were about to hear stories; personal narratives allowing us to understand the conflict from two different perspectives. Naturally, neither can be taken as fact as there are inherent biases, but after this tour I hoped that I would be better equipped to have some sort of stance; to have an opinion that I could legitimately justify.
We began our tour in H1 with our Palestinian guide, Mohammed, an ambitious 25-year-old born and bred in Hebron, splitting his time between Palestine and Dubai. He would spend the next three-plus hours guiding us through H1, sharing the highlights and introducing us to locals who would share their personal stories.
Hebron is perhaps most famously home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, the burial site for Abraham, making it a holy site to all three Abrahamic religions. The space was once solely a mosque, but has since been divided into two distinct spaces: a mosque and a synagogue, the only place in the world where a mosque and synagogue exist under the same roof. For 10 days a year, Muslims have full control of the holy space, and the same is done for Jews, allowing each to commemorate their holiest of holidays at the site. This was our first stop with Mohammed as we entered the Muslim side of the cave.
On the day we visited it was quiet, nearly empty but for a few people worshipping, facing Mecca. The inside of the mosque was beautiful and bright, though not ornate. In the back of the mosque sat a small glass-covered opening leading down into the cave where it is said the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried. Within the mosque are tombs – facades that represent where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca are buried. Mohammed briefly explained an infamous incident that took place in 1994 that was the impetus for discussions on Hebron’s status (H1 and H2 designations) and the division of the mosque and synagogue in this holy space. Jewish-American Baruch Goldstein, a member of the Kach movement, walked into the mosque and murdered 29 Palestinians worshipping inside, injuring over 100 others (read more here). I found it interesting that he explained the story without the emotion that I would think it would evoke (sadness, anger); rather, he made this reference as if this were a normal part of existence, another sad blemish on Arab-Jewish relations.
After exiting the mosque, we walked down to the main market which we’d heard was a fascinating, interesting and raw experience. It was all of that. We didn’t shop - we didn’t have time and there wasn’t anything particularly captivating in all honesty. It was clear that we were in a place that wasn’t touristed. We continued walking until we made our way to a shopkeeper that shared his story along with the story of the market itself. immediately above us was a metal netting that captured garbage; literal rubbish that was thrown from people into the market below. If the netting didn’t capture the garbage, heaping piles would accumulate in the streets below. We were told by the shopkeeper that the garbage was thrown by Jewish settlers and IDF forces. A competing story would have us believe that the garbage was thrown by other Palestinians. I can’t be sure which story is true but I do know that the garbage represented an incredibly thick layer of trash, piled up directly above us, a dreadful sight for tourists and an even more disheartening sight for those that would have to look at it on a daily basis. Whether it’s thrown with hatred, anger or a pure disregard for one’s surroundings, the result is a sad environment.
We left the shops and made our way to a family residence where we talked with a child in an affected family, a nine-year-old accompanied by his two-year-old brother. The boy explained his situation to us, being situated in a space where IDF forces overlook their home from above and below. His mother had a number of children, and the youngest child, a baby, was murdered by forces that entered their house.
One of our last stops on the Palestinian side was a home where we would enter and meet with a family residing in Hebron. We made our way down a quiet pathway until we entered a residential space where we were to have coffee and hear the personal story of someone highly affected by living in Hebron with IDF forces present. The man we sat with explained to us the realities of living as a Palestinian in Hebron. While Arabs make up the ethnic majority, he argued that the Jewish population with IDF forces made their strength known in the region. Curfews could be implemented and enforced by any one of the 2200 soldiers that resides in Hebron to guard the population of Jews. This man, in a home that many North Americans wouldn’t look twice at (location aside, it was a modest home), explained that he was offered $4M for his space. Anyone wanting to reside in Hebron cannot build – your option is to buy if you want to live in the area. He turned down the money because the home – the land – mattered more to him, had sentimental value and the notion of selling would simply be a dishonor to his family. Instead, he stayed, only to have his wife killed (shot in the head five times) and his son blinded after being burned. I couldn’t help but wonder: what price do you have to pay? Why not sell and move to a place where you family – your kids – have opportunities to live a normal and prosperous life?
We ended our time in H1 at another home, noshing on maqlub – hot, plump rice, chicken and veggies in a heaping pile – in a gorgeous courtyard. We said our goodbyes to Mohammed as we ventured to H2 to hear the Jewish perspective. Read More
Jerusalem is one of the most fascinating cities that I’ve visited. It’s a city of immense duality: ultra Orthodox Jews live alongside of an uberhip Jerusalemite crowd. Amidst a sea of kosher restaurants and falafel shops, there are swanky wine bars and bigger-than-life restaurants doling out Israeli wines and local microbrews.
Then there’s the Old City with its immensely layered history, religious and cultural draws. It’s a different world entirely, a place that simply cannot be compared to another city on earth. We spent a few days discovering what the Old City offered (the spices! the tea! the olive wood! the fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice!), but we spent our first day focused on the most critical Biblical sites strung along the Via Dolorosa.
The Via Dolorosa, also called the Way of Sorrows, is an alley within the Old City that houses the Stations of the Cross, marking key places in Jesus’ journey towards crucifixion: from his being condemned to his burial site. The stations are actually quite humbly marked for the most part and if you’re not paying attention you can easily miss them altogether. We visited the stations backwards, starting at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (we knew it was a must) and leisurely working our way to the first station, stopping at markets along the way. You’ll be able to buy a simple pamphlet/guide for about 5 shekels to help direct and inform you if you’re doing a self-guided tour. Below you’ll see a quick overview of the stations along with some photos from our journey:
1 & 2Stations 1 and 2 are housed within a little courtyard near Lion’s Gate, the north-east entrance to the Old City that faces an iconic Russian Orthodox Church and the Garden of Gethsemane [see below for more]. The courtyard is pretty; beige limestone and colorful flowers in a very clean space. Two small chapels exist within the courtyard: the Church of Flagellation and the Church of Condemnation. It’s said that Jesus was condemned to death and given his cross to bear within this space.
3 & 4Stations 3 and 4 are adjacent to one another, marked by two simple roman numerals and carvings near the doorways. This is where it is noted that Jesus fell for the first time and where he sees Mary. Read More
When we began planning our trip to Jerusalem, our list of points of interest included the usual suspects: Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mt. of Olives, al-Aqsa Mosque; essentially the Old City (plus nearby places where we could find the world’s best hummus). What wasn’t on our list? Mahane Yehuda Market. Not because I didn’t want to visit, simply because I knew nothing about it.
Local markets – farmer’s market and craft markets – are arguably my favorite experiences when we travel. In Turkey, I remember the awe that I felt walking into the Grand Bazaar, staring at stall after stall of jewerly, mosaic arts, locally crafted hookahs and rugs, and Turkish souvenirs. Down the way, at the Spice Bazaar, I was captivated by the vibrant colors: bright yellows, reds, and oranges, side-by-side in neat heaping piles. The image was indelible.
In Jerusalem, there’s Mahane Yehuda Market. It’s much more of a farmer’s market than it is a bazaar, but it’s a very cool place to check out while you’re in the city. According to Jerusalemites, it’s morphed substantially over the last few years, becoming a young, hip area to frequent. We had lunch there one day, grabbed kanafeh (a local dessert) at a baked goods stall on another occassion, and then went back during the evenings to experience Mahane Yehuda by night, which is an entirely different experience. After dark (9:30PM or later), you’ll hear music coming from the market, find tiny dinner spots overflowing with twenty-somethings, and hookah bars on the corner. By day, you’ll see stalls of crisp fresh vegetables, fresh squeezed juices, sugar-glazed desserts, fresh cheeses, and fragrant spices and teas. The market spans a few streets, and while each street essentially has the same fare, you can’t help but idle in front of each one, looking longingly at the oversized pomegranates and extra plump dates. I’m not sure what they put in the soil, but their produce is otherworldly.
Have you been to Mahane Yehuda? Do you prefer it by day or by night?
xo from Jerusalem,
It’s better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.
- Asian Proverb
A visit to Petra has long been on my bucket list, as I’m sure it’s on many of yours, if you haven’t already been. Most people envision the Treasury, Al-Khazneh (الخزنة), when they think of Petra, but the rose-red city encompasses quite a bit more than the single famous facade. The Lost City, as it was dubbed, is in fact an entire city as the moniker would suggest, with an array of buildings carved by Nabateans directly into the face of these incredible formations; a daunting feat in general, made impossibly difficult when you envision the technology of the time.
Petra’s location once made it a hub for business transactions; traders from North Africa, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries would convene in Petra to trade goods. The Nabateans who occupied this area were clearly astute businessmen, imposing taxes on all transactions and charging for drinking water that traders would invariably need. It remained this wealthy city – this hub – until the Romans conquered and moved the trading hub further north, essentially ridding Petra of its income and rendering it obsolete. In terms of religious history, Petra is said to be the site where Moses struck his staff on a rock and brought forth water. The valley – the wadi – is called Wadi Musa, as an homage to this event.
What exists now is an incredible archaeological site, with millennia of history woven into the fabric of what has been christened a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. In in 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Petra played the site of the Holy Grail; for many travelers now, the Lost City of Petra is the holy grail – or at least in contention for the spot – on individuals’ travel bucket lists.
Before visiting, I asked myself the same questions that I did before visiting Machu Picchu in Peru: are my expectations realistic? Will this experience be a bit anticlimactic considering the innumerable times I’ve seen the site in photos and heard about it from fellow travelers? Absolutely not. I know there are others that are in stark disagreement with that, who thought the site failed to impress on some levels, but I felt the complete opposite. I’d seen photos of the Treasury like everyone else, and I’d seen photos of the Siq – the gorge – that acts as an entryway to the Treasury and the expansive city. I could have never imagined that the site would be so large and have so much to see beyond the iconic building. As we meandered through the Siq, which is a much longer passageway that I had originally envisioned, our guide, Rania, pointed out the incredible engineering of generations past: ways of capturing rain water to sustain life in the city and the incredible tombs – mausoleums, essentially – carved from the rocks. Honestly, if you stripped away all of the carvings and everything that’s man-made within this space, it’s still a really incredible place that would garner attention in and of itself.
It had rained early during the morning that we visited, washing away the sand and dust that covered the buildings. Watching the sun come over the red-hued rocks was a spectacular sight. Beyond the red, which comes from iron, you can see bright swirls of colors through many of the formations: deep purple (from manganese), vibrant yellow (from limonite), and greyish-white (from silicone).
The walk through the Siq is long and we were so captivated by the natural beauty of the place that finally seeing the Treasury stunned us. Just like the photos you’ve seen, you can see a sliver of the Treasury’s facade once you’ve rounded a particular corner during your walk. Despite the other visitors that you’ll share the site with, it really feels like you’re discovering something incredible. Honestly, thinking about the fact that the site was pretty recently discovered makes it that much more interesting. Locals – Bedouins – knew about the site, of course, but it was a secret to the outside world until the early 1800s.
Once we’d taken our moment at the Treasury to absorb the intricate details and stare in awe of this place we’d been dreaming about for years, we moved on – there was still so much to see and our time was limited. There’s a stunning view of the Treasury from the Monastery, a hike that takes you up about 950 stairs. If the thought of hiking that seems daunting, there are mules that you can hire to help navigate the steps. With a half day tour, we opted to join Rania for a separate hike, one that would take us to the theatre and then onto some higher elevations to glimpse the carvings and formations below. The hike was such an incredible way to cap off our day, and made us feel like we’d been able to truly take in a bulk of the site, even with our limited time. I really can’t stress this enough: Petra is massive. We had done our research before heading in – we’d read books and watched documentaries and travel series – but nothing really prepared us for how much there was to see. We hiked for hours but we really just scratched the surface of what the area contains. Yes, the Treasury is the crown jewel, but every corner we turned brought us something new to take in: intricate carvings, beautiful rock formations, bright colors, secret hikes.
For those wondering if the monastery hike is possible with limited time, I have good news: two members of our small group (both extremely fit and able-bodied) decided to take on the monastery hike with the 1 1/2 hours that we had left to explore. Somehow they made it, sprinting up the steps, taking in the views and sprinting back down.
I don’t think it’s incorrect to assume that many people plan on visiting Petra on a day trip, giving themselves time to tick off a bucket list experience while in the region. We had roughly half a day to explore, and while I didn’t feel short-changed during that time, I could have easily spent much longer roaming the grounds. In truth, to fully explore Petra and have the time to really enjoy it, 2 – 3 days would provide a much richer experience. It seemed as though many people (ourselves included!) wondered if more than one day would be overkill for a single site. Petra is truly a remarkable place, and in order to see what it has to offer, partake in some hikes, and - let’s not undervalue this - enjoy some time just soaking it all in, give yourself a few days to take it in. After all, it could be a once in a lifetime experience – taking the time to enjoy the experience isn’t a waste of time.
A big thank you goes out to our knowledgable guide, Rania, who showed us the lay of the land, explained things with passion and knowledge, but gave us the time to explore independently and craft our own personal experiences. I’m sure it can be a difficult task to manage a group, keep order and create great experiences, and she certainly mastered it.
Have you been to Petra? What did you think? Did it live up to your expectations?
xo from Jordan,
With an early morning wake-up call, we boarded our bus with Abraham Tours to make our way east to Jordan. When Scott and I decided that we would, in fact, make this trip to Israel, it took us just a few moments to decide that a trip to Jordan would need to be on our list, too. It’s not every day that we travel to the Middle East (this is a first time for both of us to the region), and while we didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin, we did want to make sure that we took advantage of every moment to experience all that we could. There would be no way that we could really explore Jordan during this trip, but we had our sights set on one particular point of interest: Petra.
In my discussion with Abraham Tours about options for exploring, they described the two-day tour to Jordan, which encompassed not only Petra – the site that draws many travelers to the country – but also to Jordan’s capital city of Amman, and ancient city of Jerash. The accounts I had read from other travelers suggested doing more than a single day trip to Petra, a trip that would likely leave us crunched for time and not allow us to really take in the experience. Single day trips aren’t even an option from Jerusalem due to time constraints, options only exist from Eilat in the south of the country. The two-day itinerary seemed more realistic, and it would provide us the opportunity to see not only the Lost City of Petra, but also take a peek at two other prominent cities in the Jordanian landscape, something we would not have likely done otherwise.
Following lunch in Jerash, we headed to the city’s crown jewel: the Roman ruins. I had to do a bit of research on Jerash before embarking on our trip. I knew of Amman as Jordan’s bustling capital and had gleaned a bit of insight from friends who had stayed there for a few days while traveling. While I had heard of Jerash, I knew virtually nothing about the city. Its history, its current role in Jordan’s landscape, its industry — it was all one big question mark. As it turns out, Jerash actually has a pretty spectacular history and is one of the largest and most well-preserved sites of Roman architecture (the greatest example within the Middle East). Jerash, which was once known as Gerasa, was part of the Decapolis, a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.
The structures date back to the 1st and 2nd centuries and remain an impeccable illustration of Greco-Roman architecture. For anyone interested in historical sites and ruins, these are a must. The site is incredibly expansive and is in astonishingly good condition (not the rubble and ‘use-your-imagination’ mentality you get at some ruins). During the time of our visit we were some of the only visitors on site. In light of the current climate and instability in countries surrounding Jordan, the country itself has seen its tourism – the second largest industry in the country – decline. As you can see, many of my photos aren’t obstructed with visitors. Yes, I was waiting for an opportune moment, but the opportunities presented themselves frequently due to the general lack of tourists.
We were surprised to walk into the freestanding theatre – impeccably preserved – serenaded by the sounds of bagpipes. Two Jordanian men stood in the center of the threatre, one expertly playing the bagpipe and one rapping on a large drum. Scott jokingly quipped, ‘I didn’t realize the Scottish made it this far’ (we weren’t exactly sure why Jordanians would be playing bagpipes in a Greco-Roman theatre – all of this seemed a bit disjointed). Rania enlightened us by explaining that Jordan fell under the British Mandate for a period of time and that this display was an homage to that period of the country’s history. We only spent an hour or so exploring the ruins, but we were able to glimpse the main views and take in the site from the highest points. I didn’t feel shortchanged at all, but for those deeply interested in sites like this, plan on spending a longer amount of time in the area to explore all of the temples and spaces on foot. If you want a richer experience, I highly recommend hiring a guide to gain a deeper understanding of the space. I’m a pretty independent explorer and like researching in advance but even being equipped with that knowledge isn’t the same as having a local guide. Our experience wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful without our guide, Rania, leading us through the ruins and explaining the highlights.
The city of Amman is home to a population of roughly 2.5 million (one-third of the Jordanian population) and is built upon seven hills. The Citadel, which was on our agenda during our quick visit, sits atop the highest hill, providing stunning views of the city below. While the ruins are great to see, they were a bit anticlimactic after walking through Jerash earlier in the day. The views – being able to scope out Amman from the highest point – were the highlight for me. It was early evening in Amman when we arrived and the cool breeze was surrounding us with a light layer of fog setting in (you can see the haze in these photos; that’s not smog). As a side note: when I began my packing for this trip, I took into consideration heat, dry weather, conservative settings, etc. What I didn’t take into consideration was rain and a cold climate. It’s the Middle East in October, right? How cold can it be? Well, if you’re going in the fall (or winter, obviously) bring layers. My scarf ended up helping with providing some warmth and acting as a head covering to protect from rain, but a few people had jackets on to fight the weather which was a much better option.
We said goodbye to the citadel after about 45 minutes of hearing its history and exploring. Our next stop was Petra (more on that in a forthcoming post), and Rania gave us a mini tour of Amman as we exited the city. We passed through a bustling strip, lined with shop after shop doling out everything under the sun (Jordanian garb, food, hookahs, jewelry, shoes, etc.). We passed the oldest mosque in Jordan, glowing in the distance. We passed an affluent area of town lined with perfect mansions and palm trees, and glimpsed an area of Amman that had a palpable American influence: Papa John’s, Subway and Burger King shared a block. A nearby, ultramodern mall is home to Burberry and Louis Vuitton. As with any city, the housing ran the gamut, but we saw a number of sprawling estates as we made our way out of the capital. Interestingly, we learned that during the war in Iraq, many Iraqis fled to Jordan as a safe haven, some bringing with them a great deal of wealth. Due to their more heavily padded pocketbooks, they were able to dole out inflated prices for homes in the region, driving up property values broadly. To make matters more complicated, the influx of Syrian refugees has put downward pressure on wages, especially within the informal economy, which has created a complex environment for Jordanians.*
Our main thought as we quietly exited Amman and entered the freeway for our long journey south to Petra (three hours), was that we wished we’d spent more time in the Jordanian capital. The main street itself was an incredible sight and I could have easily spent a day navigating the souqs and gobbling up local jewelry and kanafeh. Many, like us, only have time to rope in a brief two-day tour and get a brief glimpse of Jordan, and this is certainly a great way to see a couple of main cities (though there is a great deal of driving time involved). After this brief glimpse, seeing the distances between sites and having a better understanding of Jordanian geography, I would easily come back to the country but would allocate a longer period of time to be able to immerse myself more (at least 5 – 7 days). For those visiting Jordan, I honestly wouldn’t even consider trying to do a one day trip from Israel. The expense and the time involved are way too great. Add on a bit more time so you don’t feel too shortchanged!
Stay tuned to hear about our dinner and overnight experience at a Bedouin Camp outside of Petra!
Have you been to Jordan? Did you explore Amman and Jerash? What were your thoughts?
xo from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,
* Click here to read a paper by Dr. Ibrahaim Saif on the Iraq War’s Impact on Growth and Inflation in Jordan. For a preliminary analysis of the Impact of the Syrian Refugee Crisis on the Labour Market in Jordan published by the ILO, click here.
I was going to start by sharing our experiences exploring the ancient ruins in Jerash and the sprawling city of Amman, but instead thought I’d talk about the process of entering Jordan from Israel. For others looking to do this, it’s worthy of a post in and of itself to explain what’s involved, and perhaps give you a better understanding of this process in practice. The crossing from Israel to Jordan was a particularly long endeavour. Our driver departed Abraham Hostel at 7AM to begin our tour, marking our earliest wake-up call since our arrival. The drive to the border would take two hours, having us cross through the West Bank before hitting Israeli and Jordanian immigrations. We’d heard a bit about the process and wondered about how what could be expected before having gone through the experience ourselves. It sounds complicated (honestly, I realise that it sounds complicated even when I’m writing this) but this is more or less what you can expect of the experience:
A couple of notes about this entire process:
I hope that helps explain the process a bit to clarify. As I mentioned, it is a rather time-consuming process but if you’re with a guide or a small tour group, the process will be greatly facilitated. We travel a fair bit and have gone through these processes in many countries, but it would have been much more difficult going about this properly if we’d been traveling independently here. As I mentioned (and as you likely already know), the region is very complex and security is a major issue. Naturally, crossing borders is a more involved experience.
Our guide, Rania, did a great job of welcoming us onto the bus on the Jordanian side and providing the reasons for heightened security as we prepared to explore Jordan. We were all clearly tired after the 4+ hours we’d spent dealing with logistical issues. She explained it like this: Jordan cares a great deal about their security. Checking, double-checking, and verifying all visitors’ intentions is a critical part of why Jordan remains an incredibly stable and safe country amidst a sea of ‘naughty neighbors’, as she phrased it. After the long morning, an explanation as simple and important as that made us look upon the rigmarole with a much kinder heart. It’s true – Jordan is a safe, stable and in some ways, a somewhat progressive country surrounded by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel. They take their borders seriously - that’s a good thing! – so don’t be surprised if the process takes a while, be grateful that they care enough about keeping you (and the Jordanian population) safe.
Questions? Comments? Was your experience different from this in going from Israel to Jordan? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
xo from the Middle East,