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Independent steps on holy ground

24 January 2014

Most travellers opt for the security of a package tour to the Holy Land. Gavin Drake  checks out travelling to Israel and Palestine alone


Historic: a view of Jerusalem's Old City

Historic: a view of Jerusalem's Old City

THE posters around the Abraham Hostel tell me that tonight's offering by the in-house entertainment team is a Jerusalem pub crawl. It sounds like the ideal opportunity to experience a different side to Jerusalem. But the9 a.m. EasyJet departure from London Luton Airport this morning has taken its toll on me, and I opt for bed instead.

Crack-of-dawn check-ins aside, the journey is straightforward: arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, is like arriving at any other airport (intense security kicks in only on departure, including X-ray screening, and possible baggage checks beforeyou even check-in). And outside, a fleet of sheruts - shared minibus taxis - are on hand to deliver you to the door of your accommodation.

Although the funky decor of the Abraham Hostel Jerusalem, named after "the world's first backpacker", is perfect for young backpackers (its lounge features beanbags, pool tables, table football, and darts), the hostel welcomes people of all ages, offering dorms, private rooms, and family accommodation.

It is also fast-becoming the place to stay in the city, and no wonder: it is clean; its bill of weekly events includes shabbat dinners, soup and stew nights, and a cookery tour of the Machane Yehuda Market; and its facilities include a rooftop chill-out area, and a bar. In the three years since it opened, it has already scooped several awards, and been rated by HostelWorld.com among its top ten in the world.

It is also ideally located adjacent to the Ha Davidka tram stop, on the recently opened Jerusalem Light Railway - which can take you to Mount Herzl for the Holocaust museum and memorial; to the central bus station, for connections throughout Israel; to the Jaffa Street retail and entertainment area; and to the Damascus Gate and City Hall, for the Old City of Jerusalem.

One of its founders is one of the main movers and shakers behind the emerging independent-travel market in Israel: the Jewish Israeli entrepreneur Maoz Inon was also the man behind the opening of the Jesus Trail in 2008, a 38-mile hiking route from Nazareth to Capernaum.

Mr Inon is also involved with Abraham Tours, which launched the country's first hop-on-hop-off bus service last year, connecting Nazareth with Jerusalem as well as a number of locations along the Mediterranean coast, the Sea of Galilee, and the Jordan Valley.

THE day after my arrival, I do my own exploring, and take the tram to the Damascus Gate. The Garden Tomb is a short walk away: a site owned by an English charitable trust, and regarded by some as a possible alternative location for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

The traditional site is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Old City. The trust behind the Garden Tomb, first identified by the Victorian army officer General Gordon, makes no claims about the site's authenticity, merely that it fits the biblical descriptions. As no one has thought to build a church here yet, the visuals speak for themselves, from the naturally formed skull-shaped cliff-face to its stone tomb.

THE garden turns out to be a good location for prayer, and is, for me, the most spiritually uplifting place in Jerusalem. This is despite the fact that - or maybe because - its worship areas seem to be in near-constant use by a myriad of organised tour groups.

The Old City's Arabic souk, found just inside the Damascus Gate, is my next stop. Its cacophony of smells and sounds are unmistakably Jerusalem: in this city, laid claim to by Israel and Palestine, church bells and rams' horns, bartering market-traders and calls to prayer collide with the smell of Arabic coffee, pungent scents of the spice merchants, incense, and candle wax.

For travellers on a budget, the free two-hour walking tour of the Old City by Sandemans tour company is a good option (they also offer a four-hour paid-for tour). But back at the hostel, I flick through Abraham Tour's brochure. As well as the bus route, they offer trips to all the usual suspects, but also to Hebron, Bethlehem, and other locations in the West Bank.

Their tour to the divided city of Hebron - a morning with Israeli settlers, the afternoon with local Palestinians - is attracting media headlines. But the next one runs after I am due to leave Jerusalem; so I opt for their "Best of the West Bank" tour.

This tour begins like a traditional pilgrimage, taking in the fields where it is said that the Angel Gabriel visited the shepherds, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the cave where tradition says that Jesus was born. But then it takes in the UN-run Aida Refugee Camp: a village of Palestinians near the West Bank city of Bethlehem who claim a right of return to homes and land that once belonged to them and their ancestors.

Then we move on to visit the Christian-Arab Taybeh Brewery, in Ramallah, and swing by the grave of former PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

WHILE the new tram service makes the central bus station in Jerusalem easy to reach and simple to use, the bus station in Tel Aviv is not, which is why the "hop-on-hop-off" service is proving popular. After short stops at the Yardenit baptismal site on the River Jordan, and at Tiberias for a refreshing drink on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, I hop off in Nazareth, four hours after leaving Jerusalem.

Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, has 2.5 million visitors a year, but less than three per cent stay here, and most visit for less than an hour - just long enough to visit the Basilica of the Annunciation, the church built over the traditional site of the Angel Gabriel's visit to Mary.

In part, it is again Mr Inon's entrepreneurial savvy that is helping to change that. He co-owns the 200-year-old Fauzi Azar Inn, in the heart of Nazareth's old city, along with Suraida Nasser, a descendant of the man who built the now mansion-cum-guesthouse in 1830. Ms Nasser's grandfather, Fauzi Azar, safeguarded it when the family fled to Syria at the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

The inn's opening, in 2005, has helped to revitalise the souk quarter and transform the Old City, including the opening of several other guest houses in the vicinity. In recognition of this, Fauzi Azar Inn was a winner in the Virgin Holidays 2011 Responsible Tourism Award.

The inn's impressive hall, with hand-painted ceiling and Turkish marble floor, or its beautiful arched courtyard, are great to relax and drink Arabic coffee in, as well as to swap tales of the day with fellow travellers, and gen up on their recommended day trips and tours.

Regular day trips from tour companies in Nazareth can take tourists to a range of sites across northern Israel. But the first trip has to be the three-hour off-the-beaten-track city walking tour offered daily to all guests by the Fauzi Azar Inn's guides.

The next day, a trip to the stunning Rosh HaNikra grottoes follows, a series of natural caves carved out of the limestone by millennia of rain dropping on the limestone from above, and Mediterranean waves crashing on the rocks from the side. Israeli soldiers are still on guard here - they are a familiar sight throughout Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and it is not unusual to see uniformed soldiers on buses and other public transport.

People's warnings to "be careful" when visiting the Holy Land are perhaps a uniquely British fear. In ten days solo travelling in the region, I meet countless Europeans, particularly from Germany and Sweden, Americans, Asians, and a fair number of Antipodeans. But I only meet three Brits, all of whom have been here before.

My most memorable brush with security comes at the Church of the First Miracle, in Cana, the first stop on the Jesus Trail. Here, six Filipino couples are renewing their marriage vows when I arrive. Afterwards, I am intercepted by "security": a petite Sister, who shoos me out of the church because I am wearing shorts.

Gavin Drake travelled as a guest of Tourist Israel, a group representing independent tourism businesses.

ACCOMMODATION at the hotels stayed at range from around £12 pn for a dorm bed to £60 for a private room (abrahamhostels.com and fauziazarinn.com). Abraham Tours (abrahamtours.com) offer daily tours, ranging from free (tip-based) tours of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives to £210 day-trips to Petra and Wadi Rum in Jordan. The Best of the West Bank tour is £65. A return flight with EasyJet from London Luton to Tel Aviv can cost as little as £154.

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