Back in October I finally went with my husband to Israel. Niall was there as a gap-year Kibbutz volunteer in 1985 and it's a place I've always wanted to visit but it just never seemed to be the right time to make the trip together.
Reaching our silver wedding anniversary was a milestone so we knew that was our chance, despite the escalation in the conflict between Israel and Gaza.
Since our return, it's taken me a while to process that week in my brain. It was a holiday to remember in all sorts of ways and I wanted to share my thoughts with Oapschat. Now, in the approach to Christmas, it seems like a good time.
"We hired one of the smallest cars on the planet to get to Jerusalem."
We flew from Gatwick to Tel Aviv with Easyjet and hired one of the smallest cars on the planet to get to Jerusalem. We intended to drive through the West Bank which is the most direct route and a faster road, but the Satnav was having none of it. After a slightly traumatic journey on the wrong side of the road, in the dark, the long way round, we relied on luck and a prayer and finally found our hotel in East Jerusalem.
The Ritz is a small Palestinian hotel with some of the nicest waiters, a ten minute walk from Damascus Gate, one of the main entrances to the Old City. Although we were never asked for ID as we were clearly tourists and were waved through checkpoints by the Israeli police, we regularly saw lines of young Palestinian men and women whose papers were being checked.
Exploring the Old City
Talking to shopkeepers in the Old City, we heard that there is usually a heightened sense of tension during Jewish holidays, and we were there slap bang in the middle of the feast of Sukhot (Tabernacles). Despite that, on the whole we felt as safe as we would in any busy city.
"There is a definite sense of awe and wonder about the place."
And what a city it is, with its cross-section of the world's religions and races, tourists and locals, school children and soldiers, all crammed into a tiny walled town, its ancient stones ringing with layers of turbulent history. Words are very important in Israel/Palestine and I am not going to get political or religious, but there is a definite sense of awe and wonder about the place.
Even in October, temperatures were in the high 20s in Jerusalem and, as someone who suffers with Fibromyalgia, the heat and the walking (my husband is a slave to his itineraries) was hard work. Never have afternoon rests been so important, allowing me to recharge the batteries and him to go off on solo yomps.
I did manage to tick off all the must-sees on my list though. As a Christian, it was very special to see the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, complete with 2000 year-old olive trees still bearing fruit. To walk the Via Delarosa, the stations of the cross, squashed up against fellow pilgrims, along alleys and walkways that have not altered for millennia was evocative and moving – though cheapened by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the finish, one of the least spiritual places I've ever been in.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to this bling-filled church, the Garden Tomb, outside the city wall. Whether Jesus was crucified and buried here is for theologians and historians to debate, but the guides believe that their site 'ticks all the boxes' and they have created a peaceful, contemplative place.
The deal-clincher for me is the cliff-face known as Golgotha, the 'Place of the Skull', just metres from the garden (and overlooking the bus station).
Another place of rare quiet is St. Peter in Gallicantu ('Gallicantu' meaning 'cock's crows' after Peter's denial). According to Christian tradition, this church is built on the site of Caiaphas' palace. Caiaphas was the high priest who had Jesus arrested on the night before his crucifixion. It is said that Jesus was imprisoned in a cave beneath the palace before being handed over to Pontius Pilate the following morning. The church is beautifully decorated, with intricate mosaics and a stunning stained glass crucifix in the dome but you can go into the dungeon and imagine how terrifying it must have been.
After five days in Jerusalem, we headed south for a couple of days. Stopping off at a roadside kiosk in the middle of the desert at 'sea level', it was surprising to find free wi-fi as well as the best pomegranate juice. Then on to Masada. Originally Herod's Winter Palace, built on top of a mountain, Masada became the site of the last stand of the Jewish Zealots against the Romans in AD74.
View from Masada, Overlooking The Dead Sea with Jordan beyond.
They spent a year under siege, watching the Roman army construct a 375 feet ramp to capture the fortress. But as the Romans finally made it over the top, they found the entire community had committed mass-suicide. It's a haunting place with incredible views and is quite rightly a UNESCO world heritage site.
"The hotel was more than a bit Basil Fawlty!"
Our final two days were spent at a 'spa' hotel 1,000 feet below sea level, the lowest point on earth. The location was amazing, with a fantastic backdrop of the Dead Sea and Jordan, but the hotel was more than a bit Basil Fawlty.
Floating in The Dead Sea ( Oapschat notes you are reading an EXCELLENT NOVEL!)
On the first evening, at dinner, our wine waitress didn't know how to use a corkscrew, so I showed her how. At breakfast the following morning, the buffet was a free-for-all where the (predominantly Russian) diners crammed so much food into plastic bags for lunch that the dining room had signs in Hebrew and Russian forbidding it. (They didn't work.) And night and day, everyone smoked and no one smiled. However, I did manage to get a full body Swedish massage and a Dead Sea body wrap, so I was beyond caring and set me up for the trek home.
"Whether you believe it or not, Israel is where it all began."
Israel generates high emotion and, depending on your perspective, is an Apartheid State or a beacon of democracy in a troubled region. At times, I didn't know what to think but I know it will continue to be a magical, difficult, troubled, complex, beautiful place. And I'm so very glad I went.
Whether you believe or not, Israel is where 'it' all began and wherever you are, whoever you are with and whatever you are doing, have a peaceful Christmas. And may your god go with you.
Sophie Duffy has written This Holey Life, available on Amazon at just 99p on Kindle for the rest of December!