So, the day of our pre-booked wedding gift tour of Jerusalem finally arrived! This conspicuously coincided with the day that our body clocks seemed to finally adjust to Israeli time – we had to set an alarm to make sure we were up-and-at-em for the 7:15AM pick-up.
We were collected from the door by an older Jewish man who could best be described as “crotchety”. He explained that he was just there to pick us up, and he would take us to a central depot to hand us over to our tour guide. In my usual (hilarious) form, I quipped: “So, you get all the good jobs, yeah?”. He waited a beat, looked at me rather seriously, and said: “No,”.
On we went!
At the depot, the tourists were corralled into buses with typical Israeli efficiency (see: none). It was about 9AM when we finally got on the road.
The tour guide was Hava, and she was great! She gave us quite the geography lesson, and covered quite a bit of Israeli history as well. It turns out, Israel is bloody tiny – 196km from north to south on the west side, and 490km on the east side, so you can basically drive around it in a day. Blew our little Aussie minds.
Our first pit stop was an Elvis cafe (of course!) plonked into the middle of the desert. You really do get ’em everywhere. We milled around, checking out the memorabilia, side-stepping the dozens of roaming cats, and paid a shekel each to use the bathroom before we got back on the road.
The pit stop wasn’t really necessary, unless one has a connoisseur’s interest in massive Elvis statues – we were in Jerusalem in no time at all (told you, the country is teeny tiny!). We started with a drive through The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, established by Albert Einstein some number of decades ago (it was hard to take notes and rubberneck at the same time, don’t hate). We stopped at the Wall of Life, which formed a kind of look-out over East Jerusalem.
The Wall of Life
Hava gave us a more detailed history lesson on Old Jerusalem, and the various comings and goings over the past three millennia. Turns out, every few centuries or so, a bunch of yahoos sweep in, trash everything that the last bunch of yahoos built, and proceed to build their own shit on top. Repeat ad infinitum. (This is my own abridged version of the history Hava gave – please don’t judge her skills as a tour guide by my recount!)
The history was interesting and the view was amazing, but Rowan and I were more fascinated by the thousands of names etched into the Wall itself (assumedly donors to the university), and – this was the best part – the handful of names that appear to have been scrubbed out. We were hoping for some kind of explanation as to (a) what the Wall of Life means/why someone would donate a significant sum of money to get their name on it, and (b) what kind of delicious scandal leads to a name being scratched off… but no such explanation was forthcoming. We did ask Hava in a quiet moment what she knew about it, but she just shrugged and gave a non-committal answer about graffiti.
The Church of All Nations (Garden of Gethsemane)
Next up was the Church of All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane. Hava said something about Gethsemene meaning where the olives are squeezed for their oil – but we never really got up to speed with the lingo, so we may have missed a trick there. The story goes that the Church of Gethsemene is where Jesus hung out after the last supper, having a bit of a cry about his impending demise while his mates had a nap. Lots of shit went down here. To add our own piece of history: on the day of our tour of Jerusalem, a hawker outside this very church told me that I looked like a 14 year old, “with a moon face and electric eyes”, and that Rowan was a lucky man. Thanks, mate!
On the hill face out the front we saw the world’s most expensive and desirable cemetery, the Mount of Olives. Apparently, the dead buried there will be the first to rise again when the Messiah returns, and they pay about $80k for the privilege. I guess you could say people are dying to get in there! HA!
Old City Jerusalem
Then, the main event: inside the walls of Old City Jerusalem. On our way in, we passed an actual bar mitzvah in progress – the poor kid became a man while thousands of tourists were shuffled past. Smh…
We passed through security, with separate scanners and metal detectors for the men and women. There were IDF soldiers everywhere, all very heavily armed. It would be enough to make the casual tourist a bit wary, but we were pretty much used to it by that point and – most importantly – Hava didn’t seem fazed.
The separation of men and women is a Big Thing in Old Jerusalem, if the security gates didn’t clue you in. Men and women pray in separate areas at the wall, and in tombs and houses of worship throughout the city. Hava repeated an explanation that a rabbi once gave her: apparently, everyone should be praying to get into heaven, but if a man is praying right next to a beautiful woman, his prayer might “zig zag” on the way up to God. Fair enough!
The Western Wall
The big f-off wall goes by many names: Western Wall, Wailing Wall, and pretty much every other alliterative combination you can imagine. There were literally thousands of people milling around, all sorts – tourists like us, traditional Jews in their top hats and black coats, ladies dressed for the races, more soldiers, nuns, a woman handing out scarves to the inappropriately-clad ladies (bare shoulders are a big no-no)…
Stations of the Cross (Muslim Quarter)
Old Jerusalem is split into “quarters”, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. In reality, it’s 40% Muslim ground, 20% Jewish, 20% Christian, and 20% Armenian (of all things! Hava gave a really great explanation as to why the Armenians get their own digs but… I forget).
From the Wall, we hustled through the Muslim “quarter”, checking out some of the Stations of the Cross. We ended up behind this slow-moving Christian pilgrim group, who stopped at each station to pray and sing (they’d even brought their own guitars, for backing – who knew a pilgrimage would be so rock’n’roll?). My favourite station was the first one we saw, Station V, where Jesus didn’t quite “fall” per se, but he stumbled and braced himself against the stone wall. They’ve framed his “handprint”, which seems more like a non-descript indent that has become more hand-shaped over time from all the tourists sticking their mitts in as they walk past (and yes, we joined them)…
We hurried through the rest of the Muslim quarter. It was packed, kind of like a bazaar with shops and shopkeepers every inch, but Hava seemed pretty determined that we stop for nothing. (We figured out later that she may have just wanted us to save our sweet tourist dollars for her mate’s shop up the road, ha! Wily!).
While everyone else on the tour was getting suckered in to that ruse, we wandered around the square outside. Rowan couldn’t resist the lure of the man with his cart of baked pastries, and got once-again ripped off purchasing some kind of chocolate bagel (believe it or not, it wouldn’t be the last – or worst! – time we got ripped off that day).
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
No tour of Jerusalem would be complete without the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which houses the final Stations of the Cross and the site where Jesus was buried once that whole crucifixion business was over and done with (well, allegedly – as Hava pointed out, it does seem a bit suspect that they managed to get all of those spots crammed in under a single roof).
The place was bloody packed with tourists and nuns and pilgrims – there was barely room to swing an iPhone. We followed the crowds through all the key sites, squeezing in photographs where we could. I would have loved to light a candle for my Nana, but I couldn’t find any anywhere – apparently, everyone knew to BYO candle, apart from us. So, if that’s something you’re into, plan ahead!
Lunch (aka The Great Lunch Rip-Off 2017)
It was great checking out all this holy stuff and everything, but by this point in the day we were absolutely starving. We’d seen a note in the T&Cs that our tour of Jerusalem wouldn’t include lunch, so we figured we had to fend for ourselves. While everyone else was praying, we made a beeline for the passage we’d passed with a half-dozen restaurants.
And this is it: the time we got one hundred percent the worst type of ripped off in all of our time in Israel.
In fairness, it was entirely our own fault – we didn’t actually ask the price of the two kebab plates sans bread until the restaurateur was handing them to us. At that juncture, he would absolutely not tolerate any attempts to bargain, and the sum of it is that we ended up paying a truly embarrassing amount for this single meal. (Seriously, I’m ashamed to say how much we paid: rest assured that we probably could have bought a week’s worth of groceries for the same amount back home.)
This was a bad – terrible, horrible – call on our part, in more ways than one. When we rejoined the tour, Hava took us straight into a far more reasonably priced (and air conditioned!) restaurant. While everyone else lived it up, we finished eating our kebab plates sitting on a stoop outside (with our hands, no less, because apparently our thirty pieces of silver didn’t buy us any cutlery). We wandered around a bit, looking at souvenirs, and used one of the most poorly maintained bathrooms in the Middle East.
Fun fact: shop owners in Old Jerusalem get rather cranky when you say you won’t buy anything. One literally shouted at us to “get out and never come back”, which was hilarious! (And only slightly scary…)
The Jewish Quarter and Zion Gate
After lunch, we followed Hava as she plunged back into the busy streets, those of us a little tired and dehydrated at the back scrambling to keep up. We passed some more cool relics, including the pillars of an old Roman arterial road, as we emerged into the Jewish Quarter. We rested for a minute, stopping to watch a very bouncy orthodox Jew play Hava Nagila and dance for us. He was so enthusiastic, we couldn’t help but drop a shekel for him.
We perked back up a bit when we came to the Zion Gate – it was truly incredible, riddled with bullet holes from assaults on the Jewish quarter throughout the 20th century. Our jaws literally dropped. It was the highlight of our tour of Jerusalem, and I would strongly recommend making sure that any tour you take includes it!
The Room of the Last Supper & King David’s Tomb
Hava had saved the standard big-ticket items for last. The Room of the Last Supper seems to draw quite a crowd, but – once again – Hava pointed out some pretty major flaws and inconsistencies in the theory that this was where it actually went down.
King David’s tomb (the burial place of David, King of Israel) has similar question marks hanging over it, but nonetheless remains pretty bloody important to the Jewish community. As usual (for Old Jerusalem), men and women had to split up to enter, and Rowan scored his first complimentary skull-cap. (Well, he assumed it was complimentary – I’m pretty sure it was a loaner and he actually stole it.)
And that was all she wrote!
We were herded onto the bus for our commute back to Tel Aviv. We were anticipating a pretty uneventful journey, until we realised we were just casually cruising along the West Bank. (Little did we realise what was in store for us on our journey to the Dead Sea…)
We also managed to have our first skirmish as a married couple: generous tipping versus financial responsibility. I’m pleased to say that neither of us “won”… we used our conflict resolution skills to reach a position of mutual understanding.
Luckily, the stores in Tel Aviv didn’t appear to take Shabbat as seriously as we were afraid they might. We’d been told to expect that everything would be closed from 1PM on a Friday, but we found a couple of places still open to pick up some drinks and snacks for the evening.
All in all, a fantastic day! We were incredibly grateful for our tour of Jerusalem – the honeymoon certainly wouldn’t have been the same without it!
If you’re better at preparing for adventures than we are, you might like to check out the Lonely Planet guide to Jerusalem before you go. It covers off a bunch of the attractions discussed here: the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and more!