I had wanted to visit Israel for a long time. The rich history of the region, the natural heritage, and the complexity of the society attracted me. Plus, as I’m learning Hebrew, I wanted to practice with native speakers.
When I finally decided to make this trip, I opted for a several-weeks tour. My goal was to understand, or at least watch, the Israeli culture and the situation of the country. I especially wanted to meet local people. As my freelancer status allows me to work from everywhere, I could travel for a month and keep a project at the same time.
The first step of my solo travel in Israel was 5 days in Jerusalem.
Discover how I experienced my stay in the religious Jerusalem and find the must-see attractions of the city.
Practical information to visit Jerusalem
- Arriving in Jerusalem and traveling in the city: Tel Aviv international airport is located approximately halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. From the airport, you can travel to Jerusalem by express train in about 25 minutes or take a bus that is available 24 hours per day. Keep in mind that during Shabbat, buses and trains don’t operate. If your flight arrives between Friday afternoon and Saturday afternoon, you’ll have to take a cab or a sherout, a shared cab. The second potion is cheaper but you have to wait for the cab to be full to leave. Regarding transportation in Jerusalem, I advise you buy an electronic rechargeable Rav Kav card. It allows to travel by tramway, bus and train in the whole country. I bought mine at a vending machine in the station at Tel Aviv airport when I arrived. Something else: as the old city is small, you can move from one place to the other by foot. The tramway, which has only one line, is useful to travel to the neighbourhoods located away from the center. Moreover, the buses are not punctual.
- Do I need a visa? The citizens of many countries can enter Israel for tourism purposes for stays of up to 90 days without a visa.
- How to dress in places of worship? People wearing shorts are not allowed in certain churches, synagogues and mosques. Take trousers in your luggage and if you’re a woman, clothes to cover your shoulders and your head.
- How to plan the visits? I suggest you start your itinerary with the Tower of David museum as it describes the story of the city. You can also start by walking the Ramparts Walk which to get a picture of the different quarters of the old city. Keep in mind that many Jewish sites are closed during Shabbat, between Friday afternoon and Saturday afternoon. I advise you to visit Bethlehem as the city is located one hour away from Jerusalem by bus.
- What is the currency? How to pay? The currency in Israel and Palestine is the shekel (August 2023: 1 euro is worth about 4 shekels). Most restaurants and shops take credit cards. To benefit from a good change rate when arriving in Israel, go to one of the many exchange offices instead of going to a bureau at the airport. Some cash dispensers don’t accept EuroCard MasterCard.
- What is the language spoken in Jerusalem? How to communicate with local people? Hebrew is Israel official language, and Muslims also speak Arabic. The majority of the population speaks English. Moreover, many signs are both in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.
- Is it a good idea to use my own SIM card in Israel? I used my French sim card there, and I advise you not to do the same since calling and using the Internet in Israel can be very expensive. Order a prepaid Israeli SIM card before your trip.
The planning of the my travel in Israel started with the booking of my flights several months in advance to benefit from an attractive price. Then, I reserved my accommodation in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem. Finally, I found a farm located in Galilee to do WWOOFing during the last 2 weeks of my tour. However, I didn’t prepare any program of visits in advance, as it would have stressed me. I just borrowed a travel guide and decided to follow my wishes there.
Meeting the beauty of Jerusalem
In the middle of the night, I go to the airport. After taking my early flight to Venice, I have a few hours to wait. It would be a pity not to take the opportunity to visit the city where I’ve never been. I thus decide to walk in the city center of Venice.
In the small streets crossing narrow canals, I admire old red, yellow and rosa houses. I then arrive at the ghetto, a quarter where Jews were forced to live from the 16th century to the 17th century. On the main square of the ghetto, I look at the facades of several synagogues. Then, in an old and touristic street, I notice a small shop selling tee-shirts with cats. In the front, a man is sitting on a chair. I compliment his tee-shirts that I find funny. He’s Israeli, from Jerusalem, and has lived in Venice for several years. The man provides his view on Jerusalem, which he finds too tense and dangerous to live. His words confirm my impression. At the same time, I look forward to experiencing the atmosphere of the city and to seeing the situation with my own eyes.
In the plan that takes me from Venice to Tel Aviv, I chat with my neighbours. She’s Italian and her husband is an Arab Israeli. They often travel to Israel to visit family. Shortly after the start of the conversation, the woman speaks with sadness about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also thinks that traveling for one month in Israel will allow me to discover the local culture. It’s the second time today that I’m faced with this conflict, and I can’t wait to see that from the inside.
As soon as I go out from the airport, after passing a quick security check, the environment impresses me. I’m amazed by the inscriptions in Hebrew, as I find this language beautiful. Plus, I hear conversation without understanding them. For the first that since I started learning this foreign language, it’s everywhere around me. I see people with varied aspects: religious men wearing black clothes and a hat, people dressed in a Western style, women wearing long dresses and tights so that nobody can see their legs, soldiers, women wearing shorts clothes… They all belong to the same society and at the same time they seem to have opposite lifestyles.
After a 30-minute train ride, I arrive at Jerusalem central station. Suddenly, I realise that I don’t have any Internet connexion as my data consumption is blocked. I didn’t anticipate this. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to connect to the public Wifi during my stay. Without Google Maps, it’s difficult to know where to go.
I jump in a random tramway, full with people. It’s a complete change of scene. The atmosphere is a mix of religion and modernity. This environment shakes me. My sight wants to catch everything that surrounds me. Moreover, I hear local people speaking and I read the inscriptions that announce the next station. I pronounce the words in my head.
The tramway drops me in front of a gorgeous setting: the illuminated ramparts of the old city in the night. This is the most touristic part of Jerusalem and it’s a small area in the center of the city. Thus, it’s easy to move through it by foot. Well, I love visiting cities by walk, without any precise goal.
I contemplate the wall in well-preserved white stones. The Google Maps screenshot I did when I still had Internet access indicates that I must cross the old city to reach my accommodation, located outside the ramparts, in East Jerusalem, inhabited by a majority of Arabs. When I go out from the old city, a lot of light points coming from the houses catch my eye. They remind me of a starry sky. The calls to prayer resonate. As this area of the city is little lighted, I can’t see where the mosques are.
I then walk on a deserted path that goes down then goes up, without knowing if the itinerary is the right one. However, I walk in the right direction. The uncertainty and the beauty of the sight increase my excitation. The graves of a big cemetery line up below the old city. Behind, two majestic domes launch into the sky, above the ramparts. The golden one is the Dome of the Rock. I’m impressed to see it for the first time after watching so many pictures of it. It’s one of the most famous monuments in Jerusalem. The other dome is smaller and grey. I look forward to visiting these sites. A busy road with cars leads me to Ras Al-Amud neighbourhood, where my accommodation, Abraham’s House, is located.
It’s 10 pm. As I go to bed, I say to myself that few cities gave me such an impressive first effect.
Travellers who visit Jerusalem: try to arrive at nightfall!
Visiting Jerusalem: an immersion in a unique religious atmosphere
In the morning, I admire the city from the terrace of my accommodation as the location offers an amazing view. The ramparts with a sand colour are like small teeth behind which there are trees. The Dome of the Rock shines under the sun in the blue sky.
You’ll discover quickly after arriving in Jerusalem an unpleasant aspect of the city: it’s urban congestion. I jump on a bus that slowly progresses in a flow of vehicles on a single-lane road. The sound of the klaxons accompanies the procession. I decide to talk in Hebrew to the person seating next to me, a black man wearing a kippah and strips tied to his trousers, the tsitsit. He must have Ethiopian roots since most of the black Jewish people living in Israel come from there.
– “Do you speak English?
– I speak a bit Hebrew. Jerusalem is beautiful.”
He smiles at me and gives me a friendly tap on the leg. My Hebrew level is not going to be sufficient to communicate, except to introduce myself. However, I’m proud and in a good mood as I engaged the conversation with a stranger. You have to take the plunge, right?
The bus is still slow. Sometimes, it even doesn’t move. I should have gone by foot. Among the passengers, I notice many Jews whose clothes indicate that they are religious. Some of them read a small book which must be the Torah.
I enter the old city via Jaffa Gate, one of the 8 gates, by foot. The beautiful building has Arabic inscriptions on it that seem several centuries old. I watch these elegant letters engraved in the stone. To have a first overview of the old city and its quarters, I decide to walk the Ramparts Walk. I’ll do the first half today and the rest another day. I buy tickets in a small room near the gate and then go up to the ramparts via small narrow stairs. It’s hard to find the entrance.
I admire both the roofs of the old city, adorned with dishes and water tanks, and the outside of the walls covered with grass. All of a sudden, I see in front of me on the zigzag path the statue of an Egyptian Mamluk soldier. I feel intrigued and thus read the board next to it.
A story of conquests and reconstructions
It’s hard to think about a city more coveted than Jerusalem in History! Its importance for the 3 monotheist religions makes it a magnet.
First, that’s where the foundation stone, where according to the Jewish religion, God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. This event would have happened between 2000 and 1500 years before the Christian era. In the 13th century, the Hebrew people settles, following Abraham’s traces, in Canaan, the region that corresponds to the current land of Israel and to the land of some neighbouring countries. In around 1000 B.C., King David makes Jerusalem the capital of the kingdom of Israel. After the Hellenic period, the Romans, who landed in the region in 63 B.C., occupy the city and set Herod on the throne of the Judah kingdom. It is believed that Jesus came multiple times to Jerusalem. Plus, that’s were he was crucified. In the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Romans destroy the city twice in response to the Jews’ revolt. That’s when the diaspora starts, which means the dispersion of Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity.
In the 7th century, as Islam spreads, the Arabic armies conquest Jerusalem. A crusade liberates the city from the Muslim occupation in 1099, but the latin kingdom of Jerusalem doesn’t last long since, in 1187, the Egyptian sultan Saladin takes Palestine back. The Egyptian Mamluks take over and then, in 1517, the Ottomans arrive. They build the walls of the old city that you can currently see. They stay until 1917, when the British takes Palestine back.
As Zionism emerges, many Jewish people flock to the promised land. After the proclamation of the state of Israel in 1948, a war between Jews and Arabs starts. The ceasefire of 1949 stipulates that Jerusalem is split into two: Israel managed West Jerusalem and Jordan manages East Jerusalem. In 1967, after winning the Six-Day War, Israel annexes East Jerusalem.
The sun is intense and I can’t find protect myself because the path is outdoors. On my right, I see the buildings of the Armenian Quarter, one of the 4 quarters of the old city. The yellow and blue flags of the Vatican fly. Religion seems everywhere. An information board on the Ramparts Walk catches my eye because it’s because the Ottoman period. I come closer and read it.
Suddenly, the look of the buildings in the old city changes as I reach the Muslim Quarter. I find the places in bad conditions. In an outer courtyard, garbage and broken furniture are split, as if the inhabitants haven’t come here for years. The Ramparts Walk is close to the houses. It feels like entering the people’s everyday life.
The heat tires me and so I decide to leave at Lion’s Gate. I contemplate the 4 carved lions on both sides of the gate. I find this old building magnificent and majestic.
After that, I enter the Muslim Quarter, and then go up the Via Dolorosa, the way where Jesus walked up to the site of the crucifixion. In the narrow street, I come across a group of people who slowly walk. They muse come from South America. They stop at the 9 Stations of the Cross. I watch the beautiful stone arches on top of the path.
I can’t move forward as the street is full with people. I decide to turn to reach the restaurant Lina, which my travel guide recommends. Israeli cuisine attracts me because I often eat vegetarian dishes, and so I want to discover the country’s food heritage during my travel. I get a plate of hummus and a salad with tehena, a sesame pasta which gives me stomach ache. The quantity of hummus impresses me. In France, people eat hummus as a dip but here, it’s a main dish. Even though it’s delicious, it’s difficult to eat the whole plate.
In the heart of the Muslim Quarter, the souk appears. In the pedestrian small streets labyrinth, small shops line up. You can find anything here. I smell the delicious spice smells and look at the stalls covered by fruits and vegetables on the sidewalk. Sometimes, shopkeepers hail. I don’t come in because I have nothing to buy here and I believe that many tourists buy useless things.
Suddenly, I notice beautiful scarves flying. The owner comes closer. After talking to him, I come inside and take a coffee. As I sit next to the man’s daughters, I say to myself that he created a nice and good-looking shop. He offers both food and decoration products. The charm of the souk’s merchants conquered me too!
Then, I visit the church of Saint Anne. This place is part of the French national domain and is managed by the congregation of the White fathers. When I come in the outer courtyard, I have the feeling to be away from the bustle and the tension of the old city. It’s a peace oasis. Inside the church, I talk in French to a nice priest who lives here. He speaks about the site and his life in Jerusalem. The church, dating from the 12th century, looks less old than it actually is. The priest explains that the Muslims who occupied it during several centuries kept it in good conditions. There are Roman ruins next to the church, but they don’t interest me much.
I go out and walk in the Muslim Quarter to get lost, away from the touristic streets. As I see children playing and adults chatting, I think that their life seems normal, as if they were living in a residential area of a European city. The banality of the everyday life contrasts with the holy and historic aspect of the city. Moreover, the cohabitation of the 3 religions fascinates me. Religious jewish people in black wearing a hat and curl walk in the Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters. Plus, the religious atmosphere impresses me, present in the people’s daily life. There is a kind of effervescence around faith.
Suddenly, I see a bakery that has knafeh, a desert made with cheese which I love. In Germany, it’s called künefe. I watch the baker cook the dish for me in a big oven. A polite waiter brings me the sugar and hot pastry at my table.
After this refreshing tasting, I continue my walk. I notice a board that welcomes people in the Jewish Quarter. With it, it would be hard to know where the border between the two quarters is. I look at my travel guide, looking for the cardo an old Roman way. After reaching it, I slowly walk on the cobblestones that of the covered street. I look at a recent long wall with paintings of antique pillars. It must be a reconstitution of the place at the Roman period. This site doesn’t interest me much. However, I find the neighbourhood fascinating. There is less noise than in the souk. I admire the remarkable clothes of religious Jewish people. They often wear black suits, a black hat, black shoes, and tsitsit.
I planned to visit the Western Wall another day but, as it’s just a few blocks away and I don’t know what else to do, I decide to go there. To reach it, you’ll have to pass a quick security check. After walking in well-maintained stairs leading to the security station, I reach the large square. The wall appears. I’m impressed by the fact that it’s over 2000 years old. I find the place full with fervors, which moves me. I move forward on the square where there are both tourists and local people. As I look at foreign visitors, I ask myself who is Jewish and who is not. A balustrade delimits the access to the wall. I go and stand behind it. On my right, I see a section of the wall only for women separated from the rest.
Suddenly, I hear people singing in Hebrew. The sounds come from a group of young men holding each other by the shoulders and forming a circle. They are not dressed in black like orthodox Jews, but wear curl and tsitsit. The only word I understand is Yerushalaim (Jerusalem in Hebrew), which comes up a lot. It must be a song to the glory of the city. A young man standing to my right joins the circle. Little by little, others join in. I’m fascinated by the sight of these young people, who don’t know each other and spontaneously come together to sing. Now several dozen people are singing.
Then I wander through the streets of the Jewish quarter. I’m getting tired and demotivated. I sit down on a rock next to a car park to rest.
What am I doing here? There are plenty of monuments to see, but what I’d really like to do is meet people, preferably locals. Travelling alone makes it easier to meet people, but it takes courage and motivation. I set off again, determined to be positive and talk spontaneously to the locals in the street. I force myself to smile and stand up straight. On the way to Saint James Cathedral, located in the Armenian quarter, I feel my motivation growing stronger. I enter the inner courtyard leading to the Orthodox place of worship. Two men are chatting behind a counter. I approach with a smile. They explain that it’s no longer possible to visit the church at this late hour. One of them invites me to come back tomorrow at 4 pm.
– “Are you Armenian?
– Yes, all my family is Armenian.
– Do you know Charles Aznavour?
– Of course I do! What are you doing in Israel?
– I’m here for 4 weeks. I’m spending 5 days in Jerusalem, then a week in Tel Aviv, and finally 2 weeks in Galilee.
– Do you like Jerusalem?
– The atmosphere is unique, I’ve never seen anything like it. The city is beautiful, but I’d also like to have fun and meet people, not just visit monuments.
– Do you want to go to a bar tonight? I can take you to my brother-in-law’s!”
His name is Viktor and I like him straight away. I tell myself that this exchange is as important as visiting churches or historic sites. I’m delighted and enjoy the moment.
As we leave the old town, the scenery changes. I see modern buildings and carefully decorated bars and restaurants. We’re in West Jerusalem, the Jewish part of the city. The bar we enter has only recently opened. Viktor is talking to a waiter in Armenian.
During the evening, we talk about our lives and our jobs. I say a few words in Hebrew. He seems delighted to hear me speak the language, congratulates me and then corrects me. Viktor’s family has lived in Jerusalem for centuries. The presence of the Armenians fascinates me, as they are the oldest Christian community in the city. The people converted in the 4th century.
Viktor looks towards the street and points out a person wearing a rainbow flag on his shoulders. He tells me that the Jerusalem Gay Pride took place today. What a surprise! I’d never imagined that a gay pride would be organised in such a religious city. Then, I notice outside young people in front of a bar. Some are wearing the rainbow flag. It would be nice to continue the evening with them.
We return to the old town as Viktor has to go home. We agree to meet tomorrow at 4 pm for the visit of Saint James cathedral. After eating a chawarma, I decide to go back to the bar where the people from the gay pride are. On the way, I pass the magnificent illuminated ramparts and the palm trees that line them.
I’m not familiar with the wide avenues of West Jerusalem and I don’t have any Internet access. In these conditions, it’s hard to find the bar! I tell myself I’m going to have to find my way around without the Internet during my stay in Israel, which is going to be a challenge. After walking for 10 minutes from the gate to the old town, I’m relieved to see the colourful terrace on the pavement of a busy street. People are dancing in front of this LGBT-friendly bar. Others are sitting on the ground, chatting. I sit down next to a young man. I’m surprised to learn that he likes living in Jerusalem because he can live out his faith and his homosexuality. Tel Aviv, on the other hand, doesn’t appeal to him. I would have imagined that the conservatism of Jerusalem was not compatible with gay life.
It has been a busy first day. Apart from the places I visited, I’m grateful for the spontaneous encounters I made during the day.
On Fridays, the atmosphere becomes strange
In the morning, the heat seems more intense than yesterday. The road from my accommodation leads to a staircase that passes by the Jewish Cemetery, which I saw the night I arrived. This is the oldest and most sacred Jewish cemetery in the world. It’s impressive to be standing in front of tombs that date back more than 2500 years! Under the intense sunshine, I admire the off-white rectangles that form an immense grid. As I climb the wide staircase to the ramparts, I start to feel tired, due to the physical efforts and the heat, even though I’ve only walked for 20 minutes!
After crossing part of the old town, I reach Zion Gate. It is smaller than Jaffa’s gate. Like the other entrances, its ancient look impresses me. I can imagine donkey convoys entering the city centuries ago at the place where I stand. I leave the old city then pass a group of tourists. They must be on a religious pilgrimage. There are many groups of Christian tourists from many countries in the holy city. Understandably, believers want to visit the places where scenes from the Bible took place and where Christian figures are buried. For example, according to tradition, Mary died on Mount Zion. I reach the site of the Dormition Abbey. Its well-kept appearance leads me to believe that it’s “only” a hundred years old. I walk down a narrow street bordered by a fence and barbed wire to find the entrance, without success. A gate prevents me from entering the abbey. Reading my guidebook, I learn that the monument dates from the early 20th century and that it is possible to visit. Perhaps a mass is being held inside at the moment.
I enter a small building nearby. I see elegant arches in the ceiling and notice an Arabic inscription on a wall, a sign that this was a mosque during the Ottoman period. This is the Cenacle, the place where the Last Supper is said to have taken place. At the end of the small room, a staircase leads up to the roof. From this vantage point, I can admire the cypress trees below and the hills in the background. I turn round and see a minaret rising from the roof. I’m relieved to go back down inside, as I’m suffering from the heat.
On a lower floor, I enter a room where there is King David’s Tomb. I see a line of tourists queuing up for the tomb and notice a sort of urn containing paper kippah. I put one on my head and walk to the back of the room.
David’s tomb, covered with an elegant white embroidered sheet, doesn’t impress me. A Jewish man dressed in black and wearing curls is kneeling against the monument, praying. I can feel the religious fervour here too. Turning round, I notice another man sitting behind a lectern with a book on it. It must be the Torah. I think to myself that he must know all the contents of this sacred book if he studies it every day.
I go to the Western Wall because today is Friday, the day of the Shabbat. The place must be particularly lively. In the streets of the Jewish quarter, small groups of young girls wearing dark tights and long skirts are walking in the same direction as mine. Each of them is carrying a book under her arm. They look cheerful and are chatting to each other, as if they were going shopping. As I look at them, I realise that the wall is a major attraction for practising Jews.
There are fewer people on the square than yesterday. Perhaps it’s still too early. The men praying with their heads against the wall are mostly dressed in black trousers and jackets. At 37°C and under a blazing sun, they must be suffering from the heat. Their clothes, worn by Jewish men from Central and Eastern Europe, are not adapted to Israel’s climate!
I approach the wall after grabbing a kippah. A young Orthodox Jewish man in his twenties comes over to talk to me. I’m happy to talk to an Orthodox for the first time because I find them mysterious. He speaks to me in French after hearing my accent. The fact that he spoke my mother tongue immediately brings me closer to him. He wanted to lend me some tefilin, the black leather boxes containing extracts from the Torah that Jews wear around their arms during prayer. He explains that he’s Dutch and that he’s been living in Jerusalem for a few months to study. He lived in France for a while. He seems friendly and reserved. When he tells me that he speaks Yiddish, I’m thrilled. I can understand a little this language which is so close to German. He thinks life here is perfect for him. His studious, religious, and timeless lifestyle is at odds with most people his age in Europe.
It’s time to visit Saint James Cathedral. As I walk through the door, I hear a voice: “No shorts!” I didn’t pack any trousers in my luggage and I didn’t think they might be useful when visiting places of worship. It’s 3:50 pm and I want to attend the Armenian Orthodox seminarians’ mass at 4pm. So I run to the souk to buy some trousers. In a narrow, busy street, a shopkeeper directs me to another shop. The owner is in a dream situation: a tourist in urgent need of clothes. He has huge bargaining power. In his shop, I try on a pair of trousers that are wrinkled and look as if they’ve already been worn. The salesman assures me that they are brand new. I negotiate a small discount, but the price I pay still seems very high.
Are you going to visit Jerusalem? Don’t forget to pack trousers and, if you’re a woman, a veil to cover your shoulders and head!
I run and arrive at the cathedral, my tee-shirt drenched in sweat. No sign of Viktor. Too bad! I go inside after sending him a message.
The inner courtyard reminds me of a cloister, as the walk passes under arches. I enter the cathedral through a small door and sit on a bench near the entrance. I admire the many censer hanging from a chain that are typical of Orthodox churches. Suddenly, several clerics enter through a door at the back. They are dressed in long black robes that cover their entire bodies. I assume that the one with the longest beard, who appears to be the oldest, is a priest. The others must be seminarians. The low tones of their Armenian songs resonate. As I’ve never attended an Orthodox service, I find that the mass has a mystical aspect. The black-clad clerics sing almost continuously, rising from time to time to swing a censer.
The Mahane Yehuda market in West Jerusalem is my next destination. It’s a must for market lovers like me. When I enter the covered area, I’m greeted by a hubbub. The sounds are music, conversations between visitors and the exclamations of the stall owners. The place is buzzing with activity as Jewish people come to do their shopping before the start of the Shabbat. People seem to be in a hurry and in a good mood. As I make my way with difficulty through the crowd, I smell strong spices. I admire the stall displaying bags of spices in various colours. Then I notice a stall selling oriental pastries. These form a yellow and orange surface behind the window. The vendor prepares an assortment of pastries, which I eat on a table on his stand. Behind me, electronic music is playing. I turn round and see young people partying in a bar on the corner of an alley. The scene surprises me. Mahane Yehuda is both a market and a party place. It’s a mixed site, with conservative Jews and non-religious people alike. What’s more, I don’t come across many foreign tourists. Go there on a Friday afternoon!
Little by little, the place empties out. I read in a comic book about Jerusalem that a religious man goes around the market blowing a horn at the end of the afternoon on Fridays to announce the Shabbat. I look for him but don’t see him. Noticing a stall covered with buns in plastic bags, I say to myself that it hasn’t been a good day for the seller. He calls out to passers-by and offers them a bargain price. Young men are rushing in to benefit from the discount.
It’s now 6 pm. The aisles are deserted. The stall owners have lowered their metal curtains, but the electronic music is still playing.
On the way back to the old town, I walk through wide streets where there is almost no traffic and few pedestrians. Restaurants and shops are closed. In a silent West Jerusalem with little going on, I feel all alone in the world. In Europe, on Sundays, cars drive and public transport operates, whereas here, on Fridays in the late afternoon, activity comes to a standstill.
Where to dine during Shabbat? Armenian and Arab restaurants are open. I go to the Armenian Tavern that Viktor recommended. Sitting at a small table, I see foreign tourists at the tables next to me. I’m impressed by the number of tourists. I didn’t think that there would be such a high concentration of tourists from all over the world. I order beef in a sauce, served with rice. I first taste the bright yellow sauce with my eyes. The smell of vegetables and spices wafts up my nostrils. As I eat, I can feel the heat coming over me. Not exactly a summer dish!
In the evening, as I walk along the illuminated ramparts, I take in the immense charm of Jerusalem in the evening. When I reach my accommodation, I’m pleased to have walked for most of the day.
A trip that requires motivation and organisation
I arrive at around 7 am at the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ’s tomb and a church are located. To get there, I walked all the way to the old town. Now, I’m familiar with the magnificent route, which takes me first through dry, rocky terrain, then through narrow streets lined with ancient buildings.
As soon as I enter the church, I’m surprised by the lack of light. In this place, which is run by the Orthodox Church, I can see a large number of hanging golden censers. They remind me of elegant little chandeliers. I can hear Russian being spoken around me. I notice people prostrating themselves before religious symbols and the tombs of Christian figures.
Then I head towards the small building in which the tomb is located. In the long queue, a young couple warns me that I won’t be able to get inside if I keep my shorts on. They know what they’re talking about, because yesterday the young man wearing shorts was turned away at the entrance. I’ve got nothing to worry about. Since my visit if the Saint James Cathedrals, I always carry my trousers in my bag.
The friendly couple are from the Czech Republic. They must be about my age and are on their honeymoon. I tell myself that it’s easy to meet people when you’re travelling alone.
We are very close to the entrance to the aedicula. Two men in shorts in front of us can’t get in. It must be raging to have queued for an hour for nothing! We can’t stay long inside. After a minute or so in front of the tomb, we leave.
We decide to visit Temple Mount together tomorrow morning. I tried to go there yesterday but access was forbidden. The soldiers at the checkpoint told me that non-Muslims could only enter the esplanade on Sundays at 7 am by taking the ramp to the right of the Western Wall.
Then, I finish the Ramparts Walk. I’m not really interested in the route as I’ve already admired the rooftops. What’s more, I have a good idea of the districts of the old city, and I know how to find my way around.
I read in my travel guide that a visit to the Tower of David is a must, and I therefore decide to go there. The first room of the museum, which is very long, traces the history of Jerusalem through digital panels. Each panel explains a different period in the city’s history. I take my audio-guide closer to the screens because I prefer listening to reading, but the tracks don’t start. Thus, I’m forced to skim the information on the screens. I try to grasp the different periods that have marked the city.
If you’re going to visit Jerusalem, go to the Tower of David Museum at the beginning of your stay to understand the history of the city. I think that understanding the past makes visiting the monuments clearer. For example, you have to bear in mind that most of the buildings that stand in Jerusalem today date from the Ottoman or Mamluk period. Anything built before the 12th century is not visible, as it’s located underground.
I continue my visit, wandering through rooms that don’t interest me much. The only exception: a captivating documentary on the Six-Day War. Then I go out into the open air, inside the site. I see the Tower of David rising into the blue sky and notice some ruins at my level. The tour path runs along the upper part of the fortress. I admire the walls made of large rectangular stones that remind me of Bordeaux stone.
In the afternoon, I stay at my accommodation to work on my freelance mission, as I haven’t made any progress since my arrival. I find it hard to separate vacation and work, but since I made the choice before I left to continue working, I have to stick to it.
After finishing the tasks I had on my list, I want to enjoy my evening. I have to be careful not to go to bed late, as I’ll be getting up early tomorrow morning to visit Temple Mount.
The magnificent narrow streets of the Muslim quarter greet me. Several restaurant owners, standing in front of their establishments, come towards me to entice me. I sit down on the terrace of a restaurant that looks cheap. A couple of tourists are eating next to me. After ordering, I start chatting to them.
– “How’s the food?
– It’s not bad. The price of food in Jerusalem is unbelievably high. The restaurant owners in the souk take advantage of the tourists.”
The man is smiling and chatty. He and his wife are Romanian and are spending a few days in Jerusalem. I’m delighted to chat with them.
– “Did you ask how much your dish cost?
– No, I didn’t. Should I have asked?
– Yes, you’ll see it’s expensive.”
He’s right. My plate and juice cost me around 30 €. Many restaurants in the old city, particularly in the Muslim Quarter, do not display their prices.
Travellers in Jerusalem: ask the price of your dish before ordering!
I continue my evening in a bar in West Jerusalem. Then I walk home along the cobblestones of the long, deserted, and silent streets of the souk. It’s a meditative evening tour through the historic city. I pass the closed shops of the Muslim shop owners, then arrive in the Jewish quarter. I admire the illuminated square where the Western Wall stands. It’s almost empty. I see a few lone Jewish men going home. The Dome of the Rock rises behind.
Then I leave the old city and head for the Arab quarters. At first, I was apprehensive about making this journey at night. Now I feel safe. I enjoy the walk, relaxed, in this magical setting illuminated by the full moon and the street lamps. Arriving at the terrace of Abraham’s house, I admire the view of the old city.
At 5:30 am, my alarm rings. I arrive at the security checkpoint in front of the Western Wall, where I’m supposed to meet the Czech couple. They’re not there. As I don’t have Internet access, I can’t check my WhatsApp messages. I call them, but get no answer. I join the queue where there are only about ten people, probably tourists.
Temple Mount: a holy site for Islam and Judaism
In the airlock in front of the ramp entrance, an American Jewish woman is chatting with a man wearing a kippah. He has a smile on his face and can’t keep still. He looks excited to be going to Temple Mount. They are talking in front of a model of a building they call the Second Temple. I’m surprised to see Jews here. Isn’t this esplanade sacred to Muslims?
This scene can be explained by the fact that Temple Mount is considered to be the Centre of the World by both Judaism and Islam. They consider a large rock on the Mount to be the Foundation Stone.
For the Jews, it is the place where Solomon decided to build the First Temple, in 961 B.C. It was there that God is said to have revealed Himself to Abraham. Destroyed by the Babylonians, Solomon’s Temple was rebuilt on the same spot around 50 years later by Jews returning from exile. King Herod I of Judea, who ruled over Jerusalem when the city was under Roman occupation, had the Second Temple enlarged in the 1st century. The Romans destroyed the Temple again in 70 AD after the Jews rebelled against the Empire. The western wall of the Second Temple, also known as the Wailing Wall, is what remains today of the building.
For Muslims, the Temple Mount is the third holiest site after Mecca and Medina, as the Rock is believed to be the place where the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven on a winged horse. The Dome of the Rock is a sanctuary, not to be confused with a mosque, built in 691 to protect the Rock. The other main attraction on the esplanade is the Al-Aqsa mosque, dating from the 8th century and restored in 1034. Since the Old City was taken over by the Israelis in 1967, a Muslim body, the waqf, has managed these holy sites.
Suddenly, we can move forward. I walk up the ramp towards Temple Mount. When I enter the Esplanade of the Mosques, I’m pleasantly surprised by the calm. There’s nobody here. All I can hear are a few birds. This place of tension between the communities is so peaceful. At the end of a wide avenue lined with huge trees, I see the Dome of the Rock rising into the cloudless sky. An elegant fountain reminds me of the gardens of the Alhambra in Granada. In front of the sanctuary, I admire the detailed decorations on its facades. The light marble lower section is topped with geometric motifs typical of Arab-Muslim architecture. It’s the most beautiful monument I’ve seen so far in Jerusalem. What’s more, it’s located in a sublime space, with trees, shrubs, and fountains.
Next, I approach the more sober Al-Aqsa Mosque. The building still impresses me with its size. I admire its majestic dome. It must be magnificent to see from the inside. However, as entry to this monument is forbidden to non-Muslims, like the Dome of the Rock, I can’t check it out for myself.
I heard before my travel that tensions between Jews and Muslims happen on Temple Mount. I haven’t witnessed any. Since my arrival in the holy city, I have sensed violence and tension in the air. However, the inhabitants seem to manage to live in relative normality, alongside the hatred. I admire the calm of the people who live here, at the centre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
More and more tourists arrive on the site. I go out through one of the entrances guarded by soldiers. It’s not compulsory to use the ramp to leave. I tell myself that it was worth getting up so early.
Sitting on a café terrace, I think about how to organise my day. A swim in the Dead Sea is on my list. It’s a good time to go before I leave for Tel Aviv tomorrow. And off we go!
The huge size of the central bus station amazes me. The place looks like a shopping centre. On the 3rd floor, I go to a ticket office because I’m not sure which bus to take. I have to load my transportation card as there wasn’t enough credit on it to make the journey. I find it hard to understand the fares for public transport here.
I wait in a corridor near a glass door that leads to the platforms. As I look at the local people joining the queue, I realise that buses are a popular means of transport in Israel. Suddenly, a bus arrives. People rush to the platform and get on. 2 metres of the bus, I can’t go any further in the compact crowd. After 5 minutes, the driver signals that the vehicle is full and leaves. I feel disappointed and tell myself that I should have stood in front of the door instead of waiting in the corridor looking at my phone. I have to wait an hour for the next bus.
On the bus, I look at the surrounding. I don’t want to miss my stop and lose time again. Travelling alone is a way of taking responsibility because you’re on your own.
I admire the landscape, which is made up of sandy rocky ground and sometimes fields of olive or palm trees. I notice two men with beards and curls chatting. They seem to be speaking Yiddish. I try to pick up a few words from their conversation, but without much success. I decide to start the conversation in Hebrew.
– “Do you speak Yiddish?
He looks surprised.
– Yes. Where did you learn Hebrew?
– I speak a little bit Hebrew, I learn it from a book. I’m not Jewish. Where do you work?
– I write books about the Torah.”
We switch to English because my Hebrew is too limited to continue. He explains that Hebrew is a right-to-left language, like Arabic, because in the Jewish religion the right side is considered pure. For many everyday gestures, he starts on the right side, which surprises me. I’m glad that I had this conversation with a religious Jewish person.
Suddenly, pale blue water appears below. I can see the shore on the other side of the Dead Sea. The bus stops at Ein Gedi, by the sea. I don’t go out because the beaches in Ein Bokek are more comfortable. I notice a sign indicating “Masada”. This site of ancient fortifications fascinates me by its beauty and its historical character, but I don’t visit it. There are so many magnificent places to discover in this small country that it’s hard to choose. On the other hand, the limited duration of my stay means that I can only select the attractions that really interest me.
As the bus skirts the coast, I notice a young man standing in the middle aisle. He’s an Indian tourist taking photos of the landscape. He holds his arm out to the window so that his lens can capture the scenery. In this bus full of locals, I immediately feel close to him. As I’m sitting next to the window, I offer to take the photos for him. Holding the little GoPro in my hand, I tell myself it’s quality equipment. Adit is a freelance developer. He has taken a long holiday to travel the world on his own. He often posts photos and videos of his travels on his social networks. Listening to him, I get the impression that he already has a small community following him. I tell myself that you have to be organised and motivated to go on a trip abroad for several weeks, like him or me.
As someone who left less than a week ago, I find my stay alone fascinating because of the easy encounters and incredible places I’m discovering at my own pace. At the same time, my attention and energy are constantly being stretched. It’s not easy to satisfy my curiosity without mechanically doing visits and meeting people. I’m sure Adit takes a day off from time to time to keep up.
We decide to go to Ein Bokek beach together. As I wanted to take pictures of myself floating on the water with a book in my hands, it’s good that I met Adit! We walk a hundred metres or so along a footpath between the bus stop and the beach before reaching the warm sand. I admire the steep, rocky hillside that rises up at the side of the road, behind the beach. In front of me, I can see the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan.
In the water, I float like a cork. The sensation surprises and pleases me. I’m careful not to put my head under the water, as my travel guide recommends. When I put a finger to my tongue, it feels like I’ve put a big spoonful of salt in my mouth. After 10 minutes of swimming and photo shoots, we return to our towels under the giant parasols.
I tiptoe to the showers behind the beach. I have the pleasant sensation of being rid of the large amount of salt on my body and in my hair.
The bus arrives. We’ve managed our time well. I think that there’s nothing else to do in Ein Bokek other than go for a swim. Besides, it’s not easy to stay in the water for long. In my opinion, one or two hours is enough.
On the way to Jerusalem, Adit is sorting through the photos. It must be difficult for him to enjoy the places he visits because he takes so many shots. Some tourists seem to attach more importance to what their camera captures than to what they see. For example, at the Alhambra in Granada, I’ve seen people take photos as soon as they enter a room, before even taking the time to admire it with their own eyes. Here, I try to enjoy the landscapes or monuments first, then I ask myself if a photo is worth taking and, if it is, I use my camera.
After leaving Adit, I go to the Ben-Sira Hummus restaurant in West Jerusalem. As the name indicates, the speciality is hummus, which comes in many variations. I order mushroom hummus from a kiosk and, ten minutes later, I get a plate served with pita bread. When I finish the delicious dish, my stomach is ready to explode.
A trip to the West Bank at the end of my stay
It’s my last day in Jerusalem. I want to visit the places I haven’t visited yet: the Mount of Olives, the Yad Vashem memorial and Mea She’arim, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish quarter. If I have time, I’ll go to Bethlehem. A busy schedule!
The Mount of Olives attracts me. Maybe because it’s named after a beautiful tree, or because it’s one of Jerusalem’s 4 sacred hills, or because the view of the city from the top must be sublime. Before going there, I go down into the valley to look at the ancient monuments. I’ve already passed them several times on the path, and I want to take the time to admire them. Absalon’s Tomb is a small, well-preserved square building with a dome. By reading the panel in front of it, I learn about its 2000-year history. I’m impressed by the patterns and inscriptions carved into the stone. I imagine workmen building it at the time of the Second Temple. In the valley, I can hardly hear the sound of traffic. As I walk, I admire the small, spaced olive trees and the ramparts of the old city.
Not far from Absalom’s Tomb is a monument with columns and a triangular roof. This is Zecharias’ Tomb, also dating from the 1st century B.C. As I walk around it, I find the building monumental and think that its builder would be proud that it has survived the centuries. The lower part is carved directly into a block of rock.
My ascent to the top of the Mount of Olives begins. I pass the Basilica of Gethsemane, located next to a garden full of olive trees. Some of them are over 2000 years old. I look at the trees to guess which one are the oldest. I have little interest in the place. What’s more, there are many tourists. For instance, I pass by large groups of Asian and African Christians.
On a staircase near the top, I notice a small garden containing the Tomb of the Prophets. Out of curiosity, and without having planned it, I enter. A friendly man welcomes me. He explains to me where the tombs are in the cave. By the time I got down there, I forgot everything he told me.
I light the candle he gave me. It’s so dim that I can’t see much in the dark. I love wandering around this deserted cave, built centuries ago, with a candle in my hand. Firstly, because it’s cooler than outside. Secondly, because I feel like I’m in an Egyptian pyramid looking for the way out. After 15 minutes spent looking for the location of the tombs, I leave, disappointed. I find it surprising that a Muslim is in charge of the resting places of Christian prophets. When I share my thought with him, he simply tells me that Islam also recognises these prophets.
At the top of the Mount of Olives, I’m impressed by the crowd of tourists. It’s one of the best spots to take pictures of the old city. I sneak up to admire the tombs of the Jewish cemetery and, behind them, the ramparts. The tall buildings of West Jerusalem are in the background.
After waiting 10 minutes for a bus without success, I get into a taxi. How can buses run on time in this chaotic traffic?
The taxi drops me off at Damascus Gate, where I take the tram to the terminus, Mount Herzl. A green forest covers the area. I don’t know where is the memorial. I set off down a path and after 500 meters see the sublime letters announcing the site: Yad Vashem. I walk along a way to the Shoah memorial.
The site is sober and beautiful. I decide not to visit the Holocaust museum as I’ve already read a lot about it. The part I want to visit is the Alley of the Righteous Among the Nations. Along it are trees that pay tribute to the people who saved Jews during the war. I’ve heard a lot about this place and I’ve always wanted to see it for myself.
I enter the alley lined with small trees. Next to each of them is a plaque with one or more names and a country: Poland, Netherlands, France… The fact that these heroes are not famous impresses me.
In the park, I admire the tree-covered hills. It’s an ideal place for a memorial. Next, I reach a monumental square. This is the resting place of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism.
Then I decide to go to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, before leaving for Tel Aviv. The little town is only 30 minutes away by bus, so it would be a shame not to take this opportunity. In a small restaurant serving sandwiches next to Mount Herzl, I see a group of young girls in military uniform, each carrying a weapon. Once they have placed their order, I step forward. As I take out my wallet to pay, the man behind the counter says something in Hebrew. One of the girls explains that he’s giving me the sandwich as a gift. Surprised, I insist on paying, but he refuses. He tells me he’s inviting me because he’s stupid. I laugh. It must happen sometimes in Israel that the owner of fast-food restaurants offers food for free. It makes up a little for the price of the restaurants in the Muslim Quarter.
I’d like to know more about military service in Israel.
– “How long does military service last?
– 3 years, from age 18 to 21.
– Is it going well?
–Yes, I’m happy to give back to the people who fought to create this country.
I’d never thought of military service in that way. I saw it as an annoying time.
On the bus to Bethlehem, I meet a Spanish tourist, Rafa. He works remotely for a large technology company and is spending a few days in Israel after a stay in Greece. He’s not a digital nomad, as he has a permanent home in Spain. However, he does work while travelling from time to time. Since I arrived, I haven’t spent much time on my freelance work. I plan to do more in the Airbnb in Tel Aviv.
The magnificent hills covered with olive trees remind me of Andalusia. Rafa finds the two regions are similar, but he thinks Andalusia is more beautiful. The bus crosses the border between Israel and the West Bank without stopping.
When we arrive in Bethlehem, I find the setting more authentic and less orderly than in Jerusalem. In the busy, noisy shopping streets, cables dangle from the facades. We sneak between the cars that slowly move forward in the traffic. I read the Arabic signs on the shops and hear the words exchanged in that language by passers-by. Hebrew has disappeared.
We arrive at the Church of Nativity. From the outside, I admire the beautiful white stone of the building. A crowd of tourists is inside. Most of them are travel groups. I stand to one side to read my travel guide. Almost nothing remains of the original basilica, built in 326. It underwent many transformations over the following centuries. I didn’t have any high expectations before visiting this church, but I’m pretty disappointed as I it’s not particularly beautiful.
We go down to the Nativity Grotto where Jesus was born. The place, full of tourists, doesn’t interest me. I’m happy to get out.
Rafa suggests we go and see the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank. I’m impressed by its height. I admire the street art on the 6 metre high building. The wall, which is part of the daily life of the inhabitants, evokes sadness and absurdity. From the terraces of cafés, hotels and from the shops, you can see the wall rising into the azure blue sky.
It’s now 5 pm. I leave Bethlehem with regret because I find the lively Arab town interesting. What’s more, I’d like to go back to the West Bank to visit other cities.
The bus moves slowly. It stops at a crossing point that I imagine to be the border. We have to get off and show our passports to the soldiers. As I watch the locals calmly do this, I realise that security checks are part of their daily routine. I have the impression that they don’t pay any attention to them, as if they were controllers checking tickets in the metro.
I have to hurry to collect my suitcase so as not to arrive too late at my Airbnb in Tel Aviv. As I run, I can feel the sweat under my tee-shirt. I get on a bus and ask some passengers which stop to get off at to go to the station. Although they don’t know each other, they talk amongst themselves to decide on the best route. They are determined to get me where I want to go. Little by little, other passengers intervene. They don’t seem to agree on the route. In the confusion, a woman approaches me and advises me to get out at a stop next to a tram station and then go to the station.
I jump on the bus that would take me to Tel Aviv. I feel both relief because I’m leaving the heavy atmosphere of Jerusalem and amazement because I’ve seen and learnt so much.
Find out more about my adventures in Israel in my next post!
Did you find this post useful? Do you have any questions about travelling to Jerusalem? Let me know in the comments!
For further information, I recommend the excellent comic book “Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City” by Guy Delisle, which describes the atmosphere of the city and the situation in the country with accuracy and humour.