Independent steps on holy ground
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 the 9 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 before you
even check-in). And outside, a fleet of sheruts - shared minibus
taxis - are on hand to deliver you to the door of your
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 retailand 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
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 alongthe
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
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 ones 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 thatonce 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
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
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 threehour off-the-beaten-track city walking tour
offered daily to all guests by the Fauzi Azar Inn's
The next day, a trip to the stunning Rosh Ha Nikra
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
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
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
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.