These are some notes I took on our Spring 2013 trip
Thursday, May 2
We decided to have a nice breakfast this morning rather than the stuff we were making ourselves in the apartment, so we walked over to the Sheraton, where I had stayed on our previous trip. A really nice breakfast buffet with local specialties. Unfortunately, it was quite a bit more expensive than I had remembered, but since all of our other breakfasts were cold cereal in our apartment, it seemed like a reasonable splurge.
On the way back from the Sheraton, we found the post office, which was good because we wanted to send some of our Turkey items back home to lighten our load. Deb bought a box there and we packed it up at the apartment. Once we picked up the car, we returned to the Post Office to join the queue for sending our box home.
After posting our stuff, we drove back to Jerusalem to look at some things outside the old city. Instead of driving highway 1 and getting stuck in traffic again, we diverted to another highway. It was really smooth sailing but it went straight through areas of the West Bank which have been annexed by settlers. Both sides of the road were lined with barbed wire, and the wall was visible in a number of places. It was a reminder of how hard it would be to separate these two states as part of a potential peace solution.
The first stop for the day was the little town of Bethlehem, really just a suburb of Jerusalem. But it could not be further away in many ways. It’s a bit jarring when your car’s GPS navigator takes you along a street and suddenly there is a wall in front of you! This is part of the wall that Israel built to prevent terrorists from passing easily into Jerusalem. Backtracking a little, there is a checkpoint to cross over to Palestine, where Bethlehem is. It was fairly easy access into Palestine here, and we up to Manger Square.
Parking off Manger Square: My experience with Bethlehem has been to make a little deal for parking. There is a lot just off the square, and just like my previous visit, there was someone there to beckon me into an available spot. “Do you have a shop you want me to visit?” Sure! So we took a turn in the shop and bought a few olive wood Christmas ornaments. This seems like an excellent trade-off – you can find a place to park and get your shopping done at the same time!
The Church of the Nativity is for me a lot brighter and less gloomy than the Church of the Holy Sepulchur in Jerusalem. The door to enter is really tiny, because the larger door was bricked up so invading forces wouldn’t ride their horses into the church. There is a nice open space with a staircase leading down to the grotto. We decided it wasn’t worth waiting in the long queue to the grotto, so we wandered over to the other side of the church where there is seating. Note that in this side of the building, you can climb down stairs to another subterranean area which was once inhabited by hermits and pilgrims. Surprisingly there is a door where you can peep through the keyhole and see the grotto which we had skipped.
After the church, there are a few other things to see, but not much that we were really interested in Bethlehem. We walked up to the Souk (market) and then headed back to the car.
Here is where we unfortunately got very lost. We missed a turn to Jerusalem and then spent the next half hour roaming the streets, trying to find our way back to Manger Square. We would head in the general direction we thought was correct and realize that we were not on a major street at all. And the other problem is that neither of our GPS systems were functional at all in Bethlehem.
This was all starting to come back to me now – I remembered getting kind of turned around in my last visit to Bethlehem. But this time it was a complete nightmare.
What finally helped us was the Colonel. Since my last visit, the road to Manger Square includes a shopping mall with a big KFC on the side. There, the smiling visage of Colonel Sanders told us we were on the right road.
Yes indeed – the man with the white beard helped us in Bethlehem. And it wasn’t Santa.
Once we found the checkpoint back to Israel, we were stuck in a long queue of cars. The local entrepreneurs visited our car, trying to sell us food and drinks. Fortunately, we had some bread and some olive tappenade that Susan had brought for us from Greece, so we were happily able to snack and chat with them until we got our car moving.
Checkpoints: Pretty easy for us, no effort made to check out our cars or our papers. This is in contrast to my last visit in 2008, where my car got searched very thoroughly coming out of Bethlehem. It pays to just stay calm and expect anything.
After we made it out of the checkpoint, we drove over to the Israel Museum, where there is a terrific scale model of old Jerusalem from the days of Solomon’s Temple. This is a great way to visualize the whole city and figure out the perspective from what is there today. We didn’t have time to see the Dead Sea scrolls unfortunately, because the museum closed before we were able.
After we left the Israel Museum, we decided to try yet another way to get back to Tel Aviv. This time we told the GPS to avoid highways. We went a very nice route which wound its way up hills and down, through valleys and around curves. It was very peaceful and beautiful. The route took us through Escahol, which is a valley mentioned in the book of Exodus in the Bible. It is written there that Caleb and Joshua were sent by Moses as spies with 10 others into Palestine to look over the land and see what the people were like. They visited this valley and found it full of grape vines. They brought back a branch of the vines to show how fruitful it was. Unfortunately, they also reported that the people there were too fierce to conquer, which scared the people of Israel. Anyway, Escahol is still filled with grape vines.
The Bible along for the ride: Everywhere you go in Israel, you run into place names from the Bible. For example on our May 2 side-lined road trip through Escahole (a Bible-name) also took us past Beth Shemesh. I knew this was familiar, so we looked it up and bingo, another place name! This happened repeatedly through our various drives through the country.
Once we got back to Tel Aviv, we were once again ready to just park it in front of the TV, so we got take-out from Thai House, which is on Bograsov, just across the street from Mexicana. Terrific curries! I dropped Deb off to order while I parked the car and hiked back to join her. Thursday night is usually busy for restaurants, the end of the work week, and Thai House was packed. But the staff were quite understanding and friendly. And the Thai was excellent!