Day 2 – Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea

Another wonderful day with the odd surreal moment. We rose early (5.10 to be precise!) and walked to the tram stop. I took control of the ticket machine while everyone else told me what to do! Somehow we purchased 4 tickets. 3 stops on we alighted and Christine found the hostel from which the trip started.

Let me say from the start that if you ever go to Jerusalem take an Abraham’s Tour ( strap line: ‘exploring for 3,000 years’), they are just brilliant. We were by far the oldest on the mini-bus, but the guide was informative and delightful. The bus was comfortable and very modern. We drove out through the Negev Desert to the Dead Sea, which is rapidly shrinking as the Israelis extract more and more water from the Jordan. We arrived at Masada at about 8.40, but still weren’t the first to the top. The cable car was spectacular and mercifully short. A herd of women from Baltimore came in behind us in the car and it was like being enclosed in a tin can with a load of hornets. The noise was incredible, and all in that guttural whine of the east coast. We fled into the commander’s house, while they sat to listen to their guide tell them what they were going to see. But we were not safe for long and they pursued us around the site until we eventually out ran them as we made our way through the 29 enormous storehouses which kept the Herodan settlement fed. imageWater had to be carried up from below and emptied into enormous cisterns, which could also be fed on the odd occasion it rained (on average 3 days a year apparently). It was while admiring one of these cisterns that we stumbled over a collection of American Jewish school children. Thus was almost worse than the ladies, but luckily they were called into a circle by their teacher who proceeds to lead them in some callisthenics. That should wear the little buggers out, we thought. We moved rapidly along the west wall, admiring the stunning views to the southern tip, where peace reigned and the views were fantastic. We walked back along the east wall, taking pictures of the Dead Sea, now bathed in a sharp morning light. The story of Masada is both tragic and heroic and has made me want to come here from an early age. If you don’t know it, do google it.

Back down below, we drove to Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, a spectacular green cleft in the rock wall of the desert and a haven for wildlife. We passed ibex grazing near the road. Then we walked up into the valley, passing a number of waterfalls and a family of rock hyraxes sunbathing on a rock.

Butterflies and birds danced before our eyes. It was beautiful.

David’s waterfall is the highest one you can walk to, but as we turned back I spotted a track which led higher up the mountain and with Christine’s permission, set off up it, quickly followed by 2 Dutchmen from our tour and another young man of indeterminate nationality. We moved upwards at speed and in places the going was tricky, but the resulting views at the top over the Dead Sea were spectacular. The other young man then suggested that we should set off back down if we were to get back to the bus on time. I was for pressing on, but his common sense prevailed and we yomped back down. I was flattered by one of the young Dutchmen asking his old I was and looking rather surprised when I told him!

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Then we headed for a private resort on the Dead Sea for a bathe. The mini-bus radio was on and suddenly ‘the jingle bell rock’ came on. A surreal moment , driving through the Negev Desert in temperatures above 30C singing along to a Christmas song! At the resort, the four of us made a camp on the beach (sea of mud and salt) and took it in turns to bathe. It is weird, lying, floating and reading a newspaper. Hard to get back on to your feet afterwards unless you roll over onto your knees. It was great fun and Dani went for a mud covering as well as it is supposed to be great for the skin.

We arrived back in Jerusalem at 4.00, tired and happy. I think we are getting to like Israel a lot. But my goodness it is expensive! We shall dine here tonight as last night’s meal was delicious and it is relatively cheap! Tomorrow Bethlehem, so we are going to be little stars!

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Jerusalem – Day 1

We rose rather late, after our late arrival last night and sauntered down for a leaisurely breakfast in the bowels of the hotel. Dani and Mike joined us after about 20 minutes and we enjoyed cheese, olives, bread, jam , cornflakes etc. and some lively chat. Christine and I decided to visit the Moslem and Jewish quarters today as buildings in these areas would be less likely to be open on Saturday or Friday afternoon, our other two opportunities to visit.

However our first stop was the ‘Garden Tomb’, possibly the tomb Christ was laid in, but possibly not! Certainly one got an idea of what such a tomb would be like and it was very pleasantly set out with some interesting trees and shrubs. A group of Nigerian Christians bought an unexpected burst of colour to the scene. image

We then entered the old city through the Damascus Gate and after passing an array of vegetable stalls turned left into the Via Dolorosa. However we were momentarily waylaid by the sight of a pomegranate press and a man operating it to produce the most wonderful juice. Memories of Damascus flooded back as we tasted it’s sweet, sharp deliciousness! The wonderful cry of the muezzin filled the street as we headed for the Monastery of the Flagellation. This is Franciscan and is said to be the place where Christ was beaten. A beautiful courtyard and a lovely church greeted us, although Christine got told off for bringing her pomegranate juice in with her. Naughty Christine!

Back down the Via Dolorosa, I decided to try a back alley to see where it led, but we got turned back by armed police as it led to the mosque and so was for Moslems only. Naughty Richard!

So, instead, we entered a Greek Orthodox church to view the prison in which the two thieves and Barabas were supposedly kept. I think I’d have given up all hope if I’d been put in there! Next door was Jesus’s prison and, again, it was pretty grim.

Back in the Via Dolorosa we kept on down El Wad and into the souk, full wonderful smells and colours. imageWe then got a bit lost and found ourselves trying to get into the Temple Mount again. This time a pleasant policeman explained that it was only open to tourists from the Western Wall side between 12.30 and 1.30. So we headed for the Western Wall. It was quite a sight and I think the first time I felt moved today. It wasn’t particularly busy and we both went down to the wall to touch it and to pray – Christine on her side and me on mine. Then we joined the queue to get into the Haram esh-Sharif or Temple Mount.we queued for about 20 minutes or so and eventually went through security just before 1.00 p.m.. We climbed up a steep walkway and on to the mount, and there before us was the Dome of the Rock. It is amazingly beautiful and set in very pleasant grounds with good views over the Mount of Olives. We wandered around it , but we’re not allowed in – Moslems only unfortunately. The same was true of the El Aqsa mosque, but there it is. We spent a very pleasant 40 minutes strolling around before some quite officious security people told us to leave. image

By now we were hungry and found a delightful place to eat in the souk. According to the owner it had been there for 1,500 years and certainly it looked like it, but it was clean and the food was excellent – a dish of taboulleh and another of Baba Ganoush, washed down with mint tea – delicious!

Fortified we headed up a steep set of steps and into another souk – in fact three of them which run parallel into the Jewish quarter. We stopped at the Hurva Synagogue and went in. Hurva means ‘ruin’ in Hebrew and this synagogue had been rebuilt on the site of two others destroyed at various times. We took an audio guide around it and watched the scholars arguing over scripture in the synagogue before climbing up onto a balcony that gave panoramic views of the city. I had a distinct feeling of vertigo at the top, but managed to overcome it and circumnavigate the dome albeit holding on to the railings for dear life!image

Back on the ground we visited the Cardo, the Roman street that ran through the heart of the city – hence the name, (we learnt from a passing guide). We meandered through much restored streets , where clearly a great deal of money had been spent on the buildings. This was a wealthier area than the Moslem quarter. We descended into the foundations of a modern building to view the remains of the old city walls and the climb back up convinced us we had done enough for the day. We stopped on the way back to look at an Armenian church where it was said Jesus met his mother on the way to Calvary. His footprints are apparently preserved in a mosaic floor!

An outrageously expensive coffee and baklava set us up for the final short walk to the Damascus Gate and our hotel. The moon has come up over the city and the place looks beautiful. A great first day, but an early rise tomorrow as we head for the Dead Sea and Masada. Tonight the four of us will exchange travellers’ tales over dinner and solve the Middle East crisis …..or maybe not…..depends on the number of beers we can afford really.

Tonight in Jerusalem

Good journey to the airport, only one extra layer of security (but very pleasant) before we dropped our bags. We were sitting down to muesli and coffee within 30 minutes of leaving the car! The flight was on time and we were greeted warmly as we got on. After that the cabin crew were efficient in the way a ward sister is efficient as she is about to give you an enema I.e. brusque and no nonsense. The meal (Hindu vegetarian – the only one that fitted our needs) was good. I watched ‘Churchill’ but wished I hadn’t – very self indulgent and hard to hear as only 1 of the audio channels on the headphones seemed to be working. This seemed to be a general fault. We chased the sunset and arrived on time at 9. 10. Passport control was a breeze and our lot could certainly take a leaf out of their book. The official was  very welcoming, chatty and delightful. It was one of the most pleasant entries into a country we have ever experienced.image

Things dipped a bit after that. We couldn’t find the shuttle bus for Jerusalem and when we did (thanks to Dani’s instructions ) it was a bus that needed 10 passengers before it left. So we had to wait about an hour as the driver pimped for passengers! Then their were roadworks at three fpdifferent locations on the main road to the city. Each involved 3 lanes going into 2 so there were long tail backs. We then had to drop off everyone else before we arrived at our hotel about 00.40. Christine was not amused.

Still the hotel is full of character and we had a good night’s sleep. We are also about a 5 minute walk from the old city. Now to explore………

 

Israel – Getting Ready

In a week’s time we will be in Jerusalem visiting the holy sites with friends. We were going with our friend Mark and McCabe Tours, but not enough people wanted to go to make it viable. Perhaps they heard we were going? Who knows. The result is that four of us and travelling under our own steam having booked everything on line. We have reservations in three hotels, a couple of tours booked and car hired for our journey to the Sea of Galilee. It could be quite an adventure. If you’d like to follow my blog then please do. If you feel that you’d rather watch paint dry I quite understand. Any comments will be read and appreciated. The first post should be next Tuesday or Wednesday.