Newest Review: ... most of the people in the group were members of his church. He was going to be doing a lot of the leading of the group, taking us to place... more
Once In a Lifetime Experience
Member Name: GuruOnAMountain
Advantages: A very unusual and interesting place.
Disadvantages: There are political troubles there.
I first went to Jerusalem at the age of 19 and although I haven't been back since, I hope to go again one day. I travelled there with a company called McCabe travel that specialises in running pilgrimages to the Holy Land but was lucky enough to have my place paid for by McCabe (as I was travelling with someone who works as a Guide for McCabe). I took this trip in about 2004 and I believe the cost of a week's tour of Israel (including a few days in Jerusalem) was about £1000 for the other people who were paying. This did include, though, your flights, your accommodation, all your meals and bus travel and guides to take you around Israel.
Of course, Israel in general is in a state of unrest and a lot of this turmoil is centred around Jerusalem. Three major religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) have invested interests in the city and there can be a lot of tension. You will see people carrying guns and you will see soldiers and there is a risk of terrorism/bombs etc. It is best to always check travel guidance before travelling and to travel with a group and a guide wherever possible.
I visited in the last week of October and it was very warm. I'm not sure if this is entirely typical, though, as apparently they were having a bit of an Indian summer the year I visited. The heat was quite humid and stifling, though, and I hate to think what it would have been like in the middle of the summer!
We arrived in Jerusalem during Ramadan and started to unpack at the hotel. No one, however, had told us that a cannon situated behind our hotel would go off at sundown to mark the end of fasting for the day and as we merrily unpacked and then heard a loud bang, we all had a bit of a momentary panic. We had a few guides. The trip itself was being run and guided by an Anglican cannon named Paul who had been to Israel many times before and most of the people in the group were members of his church. He was going to be doing a lot of the leading of the group, taking us to places to visit and holding church services for us.
We also had, however, a man from McCabe travel who was based in Jerusalem who stayed with us for our time in Jerusalem and another guide named Oliver came with us each day on the bus. He was French but with British parents and had moved to Jerusalem when he married a Jewish girl who lived there and was fluent in Hebrew. He guided us around many of the sites giving us historical information.
On the first night, we all went en masse to a high vantage point to look out over the city. A very insistant Arab with a camel decided to follow us offering us camel rides (much to the dismay of an older woman in the group who had somehow became convinced that camels gave you syphillis)! We then went into the old part of Jerusalem. Our hotel was situation in between Herod's gate and the Damascus gate and we entered the city through the Damascus gate. It was dark outside and the Islamic revellers were out in force celebrating the end of fasting for the day, letting off fire-crackers and generally being in fine spirits. It was a bit of a manic circus and if I hadn't been part of a group, I think I'd have felt a bit intimidated.
We walked round parts of the Old City, taking backstreets as well as more main routes since we had two people with us who were very familiar with the city, before heading back to the hotel.
Obviously, Jerusalem is a city steeped in religion and so the majority of the sites of interest here are religious sites. Early the next morning, we headed off to walk the Via Dolorosa (The way of sorrow) which is the path Jesus is meant to have carried the cross down. We visited the Wailing Wall (which is part of the remnants of the great Jewish temple that was destroyed in AD 70). The wailing wall has to be accessed through a security check point due to terrorist activity in the area. Also, if you are a female, you will only be allowed access to a tiny portion of the wall but it is best to follow the rules no matter how much of an ardent feminist you are! We visited the beautiful church of Dominus Flevit (Jesus wept) that looks out over the city and is small but perfectly formed into a tear drop shape. We visited the Mount of Olives for views over the city and we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which is meant to be built on the site where Jesus was crucified and also contains the place where Jesus was buried.
As for the city itself, we obviously spent a lot of time in the Old City and I am certain that the newer part of the city is undoubtedly more like a normal modern city but the beauty of the Old City lies in the fact that it feels almost untouched by history.
When you enter in the Damascus gates and see all the stalls and vendors vying for your attention and smell the herbs and spices for sale, it really feels like you've entered the scene of a film. I think tourism for most of the sellers isn't as reliable as it once was due to all the troubles and terrorism and when I was there, some of the vendors and shop owners were truly desperate and trying to get you to buy something or enter their shop was not just them being greedy but them genuinely struggling to make a living. We saw quite a few tears and shop keepers begging us to come in and obviously, it just isn't possible to buy from everyone, so it was quite sad.
I was advised as a young, Western female to not go anywhere myself in Jerusalem and when I did get get split from my group by accident at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I foolishly decided to turn down the kind offer of a Greek Orthodox priest to walk me back to my hotel and decided I was a big girl who could take care of myself. Well, very soon, walking down the Via Dolorosa on my own, I instantly regretted that decision! It was a very intimidating experience and when a passing priest saw the terror on my face and offered to walk me home, I definately did not turn down an offer like that again!
Technically, the currency is the shekel. I don't know if things have changed since I was there but when I travelled there you weren't able to get shekels here and take them over with you. You had to get them over there. My hotel did have a currency exchange facility but, to be honest, they seemed to accept anything and in fact, seemed to prefer Sterling or Dollars to shekels. I'm not sure whether that has changed since the global economic crisis, however. It was quite hard to keep a track of your money, though, because of this. For example, I saw an item in a shop that I wanted to buy. The price on the item was in shekels but I didn't have any on me at the time, so asked if I could pay in Sterling. The man in the shop was happy to accept Sterling and gave me my change in US Dollars! So if you go, make sure you have a good mathematical brain, or a reliable currency convertor! There were occassionally people on the street trying to exchange money, also, and although in Europe you would steer well clear of these sorts of people, our guides in Israel actually advised us that these street exchangers usually offered a better rate of exchange than the hotels.
Would I go Back?
I love travelling and have been to quite a few places but Israel was truly magical and I would love to go back at some point! However, I'm not sure I'd be comfortable going there without being part of an organised group. Of course, there is a huge religious aspect to Jerusalem and Israel. I am religious so this didn't bother me but I imagine atheists would find it quite annoying! Also, there are a lot of myths and legends associated with the place where people say Jesus might had done this or been there etc. and a lot of it has to be taken with a very large grain of salt but this is part of the charm of the place, in a way.
Summary: A place of pilgrimage for many and an interesting visit for anyone else.