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Israel Day 6-9: Discovering Jerusalem

Four nights and three full days in arguably the greatest city in the world, Jerusalem….. Peter and I knew from the get go that we hadn’t given ourselves enough time to properly explore this amazing city. Founded in 3000 BC, located on a plateau in the Judean Mountains, between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, Jerusalem is considered holy to the three major Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One can spend months here and still not have enough time. And so, we had to content ourselves with doing what we could. 

Considering that our first full day in Jerusalem would coincide with Shabbat (Saturday) - when everything in the city would be closed until sunset - I booked for us to go on a small group tour with Guided Tour Israel to Masada & the Dead Sea. This turned out to be a good plan. About an hour’s drive from the main city, the plateau of Masada is located on the eastern fringe of the Judean Desert near the shore of the Dead Sea, between En Gedi and Sodom. Dwarfed by the clay and limestone mountains that surrounded us, I wondered how anyone could live out here in these elements. 40 degrees in the shade, thank God we'd packed plenty of water, hats and sunscreen into our backpack. 

Masada was originally built by King Herod as a palatial fortress for himself in the desert. However, Masada is better known for its tale  of Jewish heroism, where 1000 inhabitants committed mass suicide rather than surrendering to their Roman enemies. While one can take a walk up the Snake Path to the top of Masada if one is feeling adventurous, we took the cable car to the top, which was much easier and fun. Once at the top, we toured Masadas remains with our guide, Yossi, and our small group of 12. Well preserved and maintained, it was well worth the visit. 
Hot and exhausted from the traipse across Masada, we were ready for our plunge into the ocean. Taking the cable car back down to our bus, we made the short drive to the Dead Sea. A salt lake bordering Jordan to the east, and Palestine and Israel to the west, the Dead Sea’s surface and shores are 427 metres below sea level, the Earth's lowest elevation on land. We were warned by our tour guide not to put our faces underwater, drink the water, or splash around, in case any water got in our (or anyone else’s) eyes. Changing into our swimmers and locking our valuables in the lockers provided in the change rooms, the extremely hot and stony shore line made walking without shoes unbearable. 

And finally, the long awaited dip in the waters of the Dead Sea, a strange sensation: warm and soupy, I felt like I was wading in syrup. As for my legs, they kept going from under me and floating to the surface like cork. Getting out after 15 minutes, I made a beeline for some very big tubs of therapeutic mud, taken from the sulphur springs close by. Rubbing mud all over my body, including my face, I waited for it to dry in the sun (about 10-15 mts) before immersing myself in the Dead Sea again and washing my body off - the mud on my face I washed off in the outdoor shower. My skin felt sensational afterwards. I understood what all the fuss was about with the Dead Sea crystals and minerals.

Day 2 in Jerusalem was the two and a half hour Jerusalem Tour. Starting with our drive up to the Mount of Olives for a panoramic view of the city, we entered the Old City and walked a maze of narrow, cobblestoned streets and a souk in the Muslim Quarter before stopping at Mount Zion to visit King David's tomb, the room of the Last Supper, and the Abbey of the Dormition (supposedly the site where Mary fell asleep and rose to heaven rather than experiencing death). Walking through the Armenian and Jewish quarters to the recently excavated and restored Cardo, the Roman road, we visited the Jewish Wailing Wall (Western Wall) and paid our respects. Afterwards, we walked in Jesus’s footsteps along the Via Dolorosa (Stations of the Cross) and visited the Church of Holy Sepulchre. The tour tested my memory from the religion classes of my Catholic childhood. After stopping for lunch, half our group went to visit Bethlehem while Peter and I proceeded to the new city to visit Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust.  

With Peter’s parents being camp survivors, we wanted to pay homage to his parent’s memory and the suffering that they both endured in the Holocaust at the museum of Yad Vashem. As the Jewish people’s living memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem safeguards the memory of the past and imparts its meaning for future generations. Unfortunately, our visit was marred by a thug of an attendant, who was rushing us along in quite an aggressive manner only 20 minutes into our visit. While the attendant may have been mindful of getting us out in time for the 5 o’clock closing, his behavior made us feel like beasts being herded. Peter’s eventual altercation with him put a very sour note on our visit.  

The morning of Day 3 found us in a much better space, with a tour of the Kotel Tunnel, an underground tunnel exposing the full length of the Western Wall. While the receptionist at our hotel told us that we needed just 15 minutes to walk from the hotel to the tunnels ticket office (next to the Wailing Wall), we factored in 45. Taking a few wrong turns before we found our way, we needed every bit of the 45 minutes we allocated ourselves and made it by the skin of our teeth. Located under buildings of the Old City of Jerusalem, the Kotel Tunnel reveals the methods of construction and the various activities in the vicinity of the Temple Mount, including discoveries from the Herodian period (streets, monumental masonry), sections of a reconstruction of the Western Wall dating to the Umayyad period (Islamic caliphate after the death of Muhammad), and various structures dating to the Ayyubid, Mamluke and Hasmonean periods constructed to support buildings in the vicinity of the Temple Mount. It was an amazing experience to be walking on underground streets and touching stones that were 2,000 years old, in one of the greatest cities of all time.

After 2 days of ruins, ancient streets and centuries old artifacts, it was time for something more current and alive. Leaving the Old City, Peter and I grabbed a taxi to the Machane Yehuda Markets, at the top of Jaffa Street. Both a neighborhood and bustling marketplace, Machane Yehuda afforded us a quintessentially authentic Jerusalem experience, with all the flavors, colours, aromas, and the traders' interaction with the crowds. Nicknamed "MachneYuda" by Jerusalemites, it was a total sensory overload!
But our most enjoyable time in Jerusalem yet was spent on the last night and morning, exploring its nooks and crannies with my Sydney friend, Jackie, who happened to be visiting Jerusalem at the tail end of our visit. Having spent time in Jerusalem over the years and knowing it like the back of her hand, Jackie led us down little alleyways in the new and Old Cities, showing us the local gems that had remained undiscovered by tourists, meandering up and down Mamilla, the upmarket shopping centre that was lit up like a Christmas Tree, brimming with young Jerusalemites. Indeed, for such an ancient city, Jerusalem surprised us with its thriving cafe, bar and restaurant scene. These were our picks:
  • Cafe Kadosh - Cafe Kadosh is one of Jerusalem’s iconic cafes that have weathered the shifting political and cultural winds for decades and still serve coffee to their regulars from the 1960s. They serve great breakfasts.
  • MachneYuda - On the edge of the Machaneh Yehuda market, this restaurant is considered one of the best in Jerusalem, possibly in Israel. With an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients, this establishment is hot, vibrant and noisy. Reserve at least 2 weeks in advance.
  • Chakra - Ranging from classic Italian delicacies to more cutting edge creations , Chakra’s menu changes daily according to the current availability in the neighboring markets of fresh meat, fish, vegetables and herbs.
  • Adom (at the Old Train Station) - Adom is a veteran Jerusalem culinary institution and fusion restaurant specializing in sea food and fresh fish, Italian and French chef dishes and an extensive wine selection. 
  • Mona - Your experience starts as soon as a gate through an old wall leads you into the stone hall of the Artists' House. Flagstone floors, an open fire in winter, yesteryear artifacts, and a see-and-be-seen bar complement modern Israeli fare at Mona’s. Meat eaters have plenty to choose from while vegetarians have a variety of large salads and some pasta dishes. 
  • HaMotzi - Located in one of the alleys between Agrippas and Jaffa Road is an area in front of a restaurant, packed with full capacity of 25-30 at the tables. Middle Eastern music plays in the background over people talking so animatedly while enjoying the home-style cooked food by Masterchef Avi Levy, who learnt his craft from his mother and grandmother.Bring your appetite with you!

Posted by Victoria Ugarte on 16th September, 2014 | Trackbacks
Categories: Israel

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