Monday 29 April 2013

Sunday in Germany

The next day was an almost equally late morning, followed by another extremely tasty breakfast, which set us up perfectly for our walk around the local area.
That's one thing that I really like about where Bobby and Erica live - a very short walk away and you're in wooded glens, with castles, remote chapels and the odd folly. And being early spring (despite still feeling a bit like winter) the colours were clear and crisp.
Here's our route for people who are curious. . .

Create Maps or search from 80 million at MapMyHike

I was also pleased (and not totally unsurprised) to see that the Germans have very clear markings for all their trails in a very similar way to what we had gotten used to in Israel.

Trail markings on a tree. And see what  I mean by those colours? Vibrant green!

Our first stop was the nearby castle, Nanstein. Mostly ruined it is clearly more of a fortified affair rather than anything fanciful, but it did have some wonderful views over the town and valley - imagine that!

Ruined castle

Still quite well cared for

View over the town

We didn't go into the castle itself, instead continuing our walk back into the woods. Not too far from the castle we came across some really quirky and quite intricate wood carvings. They seemed to be some kind of celebration of local craftsmanship. 

Old Man in the Tree

The name of the state we were in

And of course walking through the forest, in addition to the green, some trees were attempting to flower.

Not too much further on and we came to a small chapel dedicated to Mary and again overlooking the town. Unfortunately, it was closed and my German wasn't quite good enough to tell me when it might be open. Considering how well kept it was, it wouldn't surprise me if there weren't services in it from time to time.


Looking out over town

Up over and around another ridge we came to a local Bismark Tower. I sat admiring the view (and resting my legs a little) while the other 3 went up to the top. Yet again it afforded us lovely views out over the town. I think we might be developing a theme. . .

Rheinland-Pfalz's Bismark Tower

Another pretty view

and a giant snail! Bigger than my thumb!

After marvelling at the view and the giant snails, it was time to wind our way back into town, passing by the two rival churches, the town square. 

The Catholic Church.
And over the road was. . .
The Protestant one. 
Playing in the fountains in the city square.

By this point we all realised that we'd missed lunch, but it wasn't quite late enough for dinner. Fortunately, Bobby and Erica knew of this charming little local Thai place that was open through the afternoon (unusual in Germany on a Sunday). So we stopped there for "linner" and super tasty it was! I don't recall everything we had, but it was definitely enough for a feast and they were doing a brisk business not only with the tables in the small dining room, but a steady flow of take-away orders too. Know we know why!

Very sated and extremely happy it was time for us to say good-bye and head off to the airport. Always too short, still it was good to see our dear friends and explore a little of the place they've made home for the past few years. The nature of their expatriacy means that it is limited, perhaps only until the end of the year. So we really must make the most of it while we can!

originally posted on 14 August 2013, backdated to the time of the original trip. As usual, the photos above are only a selection. To see all the photos from the weekend, head over to my flickr set

Saturday 27 April 2013

Saturday in Germany

After landing rather late and of course staying up chatting even later, Saturday morning was pretty relaxed. I think everyone got up later than usual (except perhaps for me, but then I'll gladly sleep in every day) and had a leisurely breakfast. The weather was looking pretty grim, so we postponed our original plans for a hike and instead bundled into the car and headed off to Speyer. Despite the rain, it was a drive through some beautiful countryside.

Arriving in Speyer the first stop was, of course, their world renown cathedral and it certainly didn't disappoint. There is something really lovely about Romanesque architecture that is both very comforting and impressive. Towering without being standoffish.

The outside of the cathedral.

Henry V who completed the cathedral is memorialised
The whole cathedral is done in these rose and cream striped bands that reminded a little of the architecture at OU. It was also one of the cleanest buildings I have seen. Either it was cleaned recently or the Germans have some magic dust for keeping the grime of big cities from sticking to their monuments.

Due to its popularity, we stayed in the entrance for a while. The original plan was to go up into the tower and then back into the main cathedral itself. It will probably not be any surprise to those who know me to learn that I didn't make it. I was doing quite well up until we got to the exposed part of the tower with the wind and the rain coming in through the (very much lacking in glass) window slits. Pass. So I went back down and let the others continue to explore the tower.

Fortunately, in the sanctuary there was some kind of youth celebration going on, which was a remarkable contrast to the stateliness of the church itself and also gave it a very homelike feel.

Playing in the sanctuary
No, I don't know what the octapus was about, but I liked the contrast

Looking back down the south vaulted bay.
Before too long, Bobby, Erica and Stephen found me again at which point we all decided to head down into the crypt where no fewer than three Holy Roman emperors are buried. At the time, Stephen and I were reading a history of the papacy and so it was pretty cool to see the final resting place of some of the influential and charismatic leaders we'd been reading about.

Henry IV, looking rather glum
looking through the grating to the graves of the early Holy Roman Emperors
Coming back up from the crypt we were surprised to find a chapel dedicated to one of the newer local saints, Edith Stein. A surprise to me to be sure as I had no idea that Edith Stein had been associated with Speyer.

A small but very moving memorial to a great woman.
Putting us in a rather pensive mood, we headed out of the cathedral and realised that if we were going to eat lunch we probably ought to do it soon. Fortunately, there was a brewery-restaurant quite literally right across the road. And seeing as we were in Germany, a brewery restaurant seemed most fitting.
Brau Haus
And tasty it was! We all tried a different beer, but my favourite by far was their seasonal spring brew, which was just the right combination of light and flavourful without being bitter. It was a perfect match with the skewered roast pork I had as a main. Unfortunately, I forgot to take notes on what everyone else had, but I do remember everything being extremely tasty (there was a local version of macaroni and cheese that I do recall, which was to die for).

Looking back across cathedral square to the brewery/restaurant in the background
After lunch, we took the short walk over to the Technik Museum. I was expecting something like a science museum, instead it was more like a giant transport museum, with a few random large player organs thrown in for good measure. Really rather amazing.

The entrance to the museum
And then once inside it was a airplane and automobile aficionado's dream. 3 points for anyone who can name the various bits of moving vehicles in the pictures, because did I take notes? No I did not and despite growing up going to all these sorts of museums, I never managed to really absorb anything other than enjoying the "neat" factor of it all. And this was very, very neat.



Looking back over the main hall

Off to one side there was even a model railroad

And that was only in the main building. Not only was there another whole building dedicated to space vehicles (including both a Soviet and an American landing capsule), but the courtyard in between also had the larger airplane and boat specimens, most of which you could go up inside.
The square in the back of the museum
By this point, Erica and I were a little technologied out, so we opted to spend some time in the museum cafe chatting and generally catching up while the boys continued to explore. And we were quite literally the last few people to leave. A quick stop by the gift shop, and then it was back to the car and back to Landshtuhl for dinner.

looking back towards the cathedral through the trees.

Dinner was at one of Bobby and Erica's favourite local restaurants where I finally got my helping of spaetzle for the trip as well as another super tasty beer.  After that it was an evening at Bobby and Erica's again chatting long into the night. Needless to say it didn't look like Sunday would be a terribly early start either, but perhaps more important was the chance to catch up and reconnect. 

originally posted on 08 August 2013, back dated to the actual date of the trip. As usual, the photos here are only a selection. To see all the photos, go to my flickr set

Friday 26 April 2013

Next trip! Germany

You would be forgiven for thinking that we've only just recently gotten back from Israel, but in fairness with all the activity I didn't manage to get the final set of posts done until much after our return to London. Don't worry, the pictures and a proper retrospective are coming, but in the meantime. . .

We're off to Germany! We'll be visiting our good friends Bobby & Erica (with whom we've already done a little travel already) and are looking forward to exploring their newfound home.

One of the beautiful things about having friends who are fellow expats is that you get to benefit from having your own dedicated tour guides to interesting places that you might not otherwise get to see. We don't have any firm plans set yet, so you'll just have to wait and see what we get up to!

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Israel Take 2 - Day 11 (last day)

After our last breakfast in the hotel (and my last of halva, porridge and silan), we checked out, but left our luggage so that we had our hands free for one last adventure. The goal was to try and see the Ethiopian Orthodox Church currently set in the modern city.
On our way, the air raid sirens brought the whole city to a stop for a moment of silence in memory of the holocaust. It was eerie and extremely touching to see absolutely everyone stop where they were and be still, some with tears in their eyes. Poignant to say the least.
After coming out of the collective reverie, Branson had us homed in on the church and much to our surprise it was open! After removing our shoes (as per custom) in we went and aside from two old gentlemen praying (napping?) it was just us. It was an interesting space, very different from any other church I'd been in and yet still very familiar. It is certainly less prosperous than many of the others we had seen on our trip, but still kept up with lots of love. I was particularly intrigued by the different drums that were haphazardly stacked in various corners and alcoves  and wonder what their services are like. A few signs in English gave us a sense of some of the more unusual iconography though I wish I had more knowledge of their beliefs before going.
Meandering back through the modern city to our hotel, the dust storm which had been predicted for the past few days finally started to blow in and the sky took on the eerie yellowish-rusty brown of desert sand. After a few minutes, even my lungs were protesting. I suppose it was a sign that even in the most beautiful climates, there are down sides. 
After arriving back at our hotel there was nothing left after a brief rest and stowing of gear but to head off to the airport. We took mostly the public transport route, Branson going with us very kindly to ensure that we made it (in total fairness, it's not the most straight forward of systems to figure out!). And another tearful goodbye that was the end of another wonderful trip.
And to be honest, we're still processing it. Going through pictures, absorbing all the things we saw and trying to square the different sides of the country that we saw and frankly speculating about what we didn't see. I can't thank Branson enough for having us and being such a fabulous guide. It's been interesting to see him go through his own expat experience while we've had ours and to experience a little of that world for ourselves. Had he not been there, I'm not sure we would have gone at all, let alone twice! It's a complex place full of passionate people and more history than you can shake a stick at. I have a feeling that it won't be our last trip, although next time perhaps we'll be less complacent and learn a bit of Hebrew and Arabic for ourselves! 

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Israel Take 2 - Day 10

In hindsight, I think this post will make more sense once I get the pictures processed. So look out for those soon! In the meantime, the text of the day is below.

Our original plans for Sunday were to  go into Ramallah, however, since deciding that was a bad plan upon arrival, we'd been batting around what to do with our "extra" day. I remembered the enchanting description of three very different walks through Jerusalem at dawn in the Jerusalem biography - putting that together with my previous experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a few days previously, the best idea seemed to be to spend a few hours at dawn in the Church.

So, it was that I found myself walking through the Jaffa Gate at the seriously uncomfortable hour of 5:00am. The boys headed off to watch the Jewish community great dawn at the Western Wall and I headed inside the church for a few hours contemplation and worship. It was a very magical time with the different services all going on at once and in not so subtle competition with each other. The keen faith was palpable and very special indeed.

Stepping out in the full light of day around 7:15, I was not a little unchanged for the experience. However, at that hour not a lot was open so it was back to the hotel for another super tasty breakfast and decide what it was we wanted to do with the rest of the day.

Seeing as how we hadn't yet seen any of the Muslim holy places, the next obvious place to go was the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. It was at this point we were very glad indeed to not be part of a tour group, because security limits the number of non-believers who are able to enter at any given time. A party of three, we were put into the "fast track" line away from the larger groups, who were then turned away for a few hours - the quota having been filled.

From the check point it was a short walk over a wooden bridge, past the Western Wall, over the top of many extremely interesting looking archeological excavations and then into the Temple Mount complex itself.

I was surprised at how little was open for visiting - none of the mosques (either Al-Aqsa or the stunning Dome of the Rock) were open for tourists; the Islamic Museum was likewise very firmly closed.

The other surprise was the very lively study groups which had all set themselves up in the plaza. Some fairly large (20-30), some small (2-3), but definitely segregated by gender and all deep in discussion. A good reminder that this is still very much the centre of faith for a vibrant community.

On the other side of the Dome of the Rock was a lovely little grotto of olive trees where school children would play on their breaks.

Come full circle, we headed out of the "Cotton Merchant's Gate" and found a cute little market where we finished off the majority of our souvenir shopping.

Shopping complete, we headed back through the market and over to the Citadel - that was finally open! It's rather misleadingly known as the Tower of David, the name wasn't the only misleading piece of information. Still it surrounds some pretty neat ruins and from the walls you could get some great views out over the old city.

After several hours wandering about, it was definitely time for lunch and so we decided to pair lunch with another sightseeing expedition. So it was back into the modern city and around the corner from the Mahane Yehuda market at a little hole in the wall called Rachmo. Definitely one of our better lunches in Jerusalem! Enormous portions (Stephen and I split a plate) but all homemade. We had a stuffed eggplant dish, with rice/lentils/onions mix, the ubiquitous tomato/cucumber salad and a plate of pickles that went way too quickly.

Sated, it was through the market to wander about relishing all the lovely fresh fruits & vegetables, pick up some last minute snacks (mmmm halva) before heading back into the Old City to continue our plans for the day.

On the agenda for our final afternoon was to pick up where we left off at the Citadel and do the Eastern edge of the "Ramparts Walk" where we met a very cheerful and yet a little bizarre ticket taker (all of our answers to his very routine questions got turned into song). When I saw the not too terribly stable, nearly free standing spiral staircase, I was wondering what in the world I'd let myself in for. Fortunately, once actually up on the walls, it was firm stone under my feet. A much happier camper, I could then relax and enjoy the view. And the views were wonderful, on the one hand back over the old city, on the other back across the new city. Because everything is built higgledy-piggledy we got to peer into some very non-public areas, including watching some of the police horses get a cool down in the stables that according to the sign were used by Crusaders and later the Sultanate. Kind of amazing when you think about it. I really enjoyed getting a birds eye view of the daily life of the city as well as the more traditional panoramic vistas.

The walk eventually dropped us off at the Zion gate (so called because it leads to the Mount Zion, yes that Mount Zion), just a short walk from our next stop, the Abbey of the Dormition. Looked after by a German Benedictine community it was yet another stunning example of modern architecture built around much older ruins. It also housed some of the more beautiful mosaics we'd seen outside of the Orthodox churches with a beautiful crypt. Blessedly we were able to pace ourselves to fit neatly inbetween the tour groups and so got periods of being in the church on our own.

Around the corner and above a Jewish religious school (which explained the groups of young Jewish adults - some carrying their AK47s alarmingly nonchalantly - hanging out in the church courtyard), was the Room of the Last Supper. Very plain, but with some original features, including scraps of what were probably once frescos.

By that point it was already late afternoon and we were all getting a little droopy from our early start (or at least, I was). So we took the scenic route back to the hotel, through the historic Yemin Moshe neighbourhood. Very quiet and peaceful (living up to its name) with some really lovely gardens. One of the few places in Jerusalem that felt like real people lived there.

Back in the room ,where I took a nap and the boys caught up on the world happenings, we realised that evening was the start of the Holocaust Remembrance Day and so none of the usual restaurants would be open. So we decided to be totally unambitious and give our hotel restaurant a try . . which was exactly the same thing as everyone else did. Service was slow and the food was mediocre - not good, not bad, just ok. But it was dinner and it furnished us with wine glasses and a bottle opener for us to toast our last evening in Jerusalem (oh, and pack).

Luckily for us, there was one last surprise in store before getting on the plane.

Sunday 14 April 2013

Israel Take 2 - Day 9

After another immensely tasty breakfast, we were off on perhaps our most ambitious sightseeing day ever. The plan was to head over to the Mount of Olives before returning to the Old City along the famous Via Dolorosa and take in as many of the churches on the way that we could.

Fortunately, the weather was looking up with the day dawning bright and clear with a forecast of pleasantly warm, but not scalding weather. Perfect! 

Instead of passing through the Old City, we opted to walk around the eastern walls that brought us to our first surprise church of the day, St. Peter in Gallicantu. Not sure what it was, we headed down the short drive and onto the edge of Mount Zion and around the convent to the main church which it turned out to have been the site of Peter's betrayal of Christ. Not unlike most churches in the area, it sat on top of what were suspected to be ruins of prison cells. Both the architecture and interior decor were an interesting fusion of Byzantine and traditional Catholic.

Walking back up to the ridge and then across the Valley of Jehosephat we came to church number 2, the Basilica of the Agony or the Church of All Nations set next to the garden of Gethsemane, with it's beautiful old olive trees. While none date to precisely  the time of Christ, some come close at around 1,300 years old. Mind boggling.

The Basilica itself was hard to appreciate properly having lots of scaffolding up (not sure what was going on and surprised that it would be under renovation so soon after Easter) and positively teeming with tour groups all jostling for space and having a mass being said (in Italian) at the same time. Not really an environment conducive to lingering even if we had been so inclined. 

From there we headed across the street to the third church - The Tomb of the Virgin. Set down into one of the caves and decorated more in the Orthodox style, it was (again) quite the squeeze, but this time many alcoves and niches let us stand a bit out of the crush and appreciate the rather ornate lanterns draped in many rows throughout, the icons covering the several altars and the general rather unique architecture of the place. Still, it was extremely crowded and so rather than elbow our way through through the different groups, we took our leave, sitting on the steps briefly before heading back into the daylight.

From there it was already getting on toward lunch time and the noon closures of all the churches for masses to be said by the various religious orders who maintain them. So we headed up the hill and stumbled upon a rather mundane looking place that turned out to have an outside seating area on the roof and looked to be quite tasty, if standard fare. It was the perfect place to linger over our falafel and salads (yes, again) and enjoy the view back over the Jehosephat Valley & the Old City with the Dome of the Rock featuring prominently.

Even despite our lingering lunch, it was still a little too early for the churches to be open again. So, we headed over to another little look-out area to discuss what we'd seen to date, doze a little and plan our afternoon.

As soon as 2pm rolled around, we were off again, this time to the Church of Pater Noster, said to be on the place where Christ taught his disciples the "Our Father" prayer. Though simple architecturally, what made it such a striking place were the large tiled translations of the "Our Father" into a myriad of different languages from across the globe. The little pamphlet said there were over 60. Everything from Italian, Greek, and Coptic to Tuvulu, Javanese and []. It gave the sense of commonality, a way for people to connect over a very simple, yet profound text. It was also fun to watch the different groups of pilgrims come into the courtyard, see the different languages and immediately head off to try and find theirs. We found it wonderful to wander about, looking at the myriad different scripts and alphabets knowing that they all expressed the same glory and humility. 

After that it was just own the road to the church of Dominus Flevit - the place where Jesus wept. The last church on the Mount of Olives that was on our list. Said to be built on the place where Jesus wept upon seeing Jerusalem in the pilgrimage leading up to the cruxifiction. It had it's own stunning view across the valley and into the Old City. What was a particularly nice touch is that instead of having a solid wall behind the altar, they instead put in panels of clear glass so that you saw the Old City out behind whoever was saying mass. This wasn't a church that could be plonked down just anywhere, the mere addition of adding the clear glass kept you rooted in the specifics of where you were. They also had some really beautiful and what looked like very old mosaics on the floor.

So with one last glance across the valley and the lovely garden of the church, it was back down the Mount of Olives, across the valley and back into the City through the Lion's gate.

We were headed for the Via Dolorosa, but got sidetracked, when, in order to let a car pass, I stepped into what I thought was an ordinary doorway and was surprised to find it led onto an open courtyard. Stepping in for just a moment, I was surprised to find myself standing just outside the Church of St. Anne & the Betheseda pools! The boys by this time had come looking for me (being ahead on the street when the car passed), wondering where I had managed to disappear to. they too were delighted at my find. The Church of St. Anne is said to be the place where Mary was born  and is dedicated to her mother, St. Anne. Done in the Romanesque style, it was a much more "traditional" looking church than many others we had seen that day and a welcome change. There is something very elegant in the lines of Romanesque architecture I find and despite its evident age, it still had access to the crypt where they believed that this early holy family lived with a rather lovely series of alcoves and altars.

Just outside the church is the site of the  old Beheseda pools (now dry), which many throughout history believed had curative powers. In fact, it is on this place that it was said that Christ healed a lame man. Though the more dangerous bits were cordoned off, there was still quite a lot to wander about freely, poking our heads into cisterns and under arches. The wild poppies were still blooming and their little blobs of red provided a beautiful contrast to the cream sandstone and green grass.

Delighted with our 2nd surprise church of the day, we headed back to the start of the Via Dolorosa and the original stations of the cross. Stations I & II are at the twin churches of the Condemnation & Flagellation, also set back in a little courtyard (with attendant monastery). The stained glass in the Church of the Flagellation were spectacular. Both were quite small churches and one wonders how often that masses are said in them. They felt a bit more "passed over" than many of the others we had seen that day, but still very tender spots in their own right.

From there, we continued down the Dolorosa, which had the feel of a bazaar rather than any place sacred with the usual hustle and bustle of shopping and residents on their way. I'm not sure if it was our own fatigue or the difficulty in focusing on the spiritual in the middle of the daily grind of residents, but we were definitely starting to flag. Still, close to our goal, we pressed on.

Our next (brief) stop was to peer into the, sadly closed, Ecce Homo Church, through which you could see remnants of the triumphal arch built by Emperor Hadrian. It seemed a bit of a bizarre place for a church, particularly given the Roman link to the Christian passion, but in Jerusalem you quickly learn that logic has very little to do with it. However, since the church was closed, really the only thing we could do was peer through the glass doors.

Unfortunately for us, many of the small chapels at the various stations were closed, but we did get a chance to explore the rather bizarre, yet fascinating Orthodox chapel set on top of another early Roman prison. They allege this is where the two thieves crucified alongside Christ were held the night before their execution. 

The only other two churches that were open that day were at the site of station 4 (where Christ met his mother, run by an order of Armenian sisters) and station 6 (where Veronica wiped the face of Jesus, run by the sisters). Both were very simple affairs, mere chapels really, more places of contemplation and silent prayer than a centre of systemic community worship. 

After running up against another dead end at station 9 and knowing the remainder were in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we decided that 14 churches were more than enough for one day and so we wound our way back through the alleys and back to the Jaffa gate. We sat just outside the walls, watching the crowds pass and sipping pomegranate juice (yes, out of season, but still tasty!) and wondering what we would do for dinner. Delving back into the guidebook for ideas, we chose Barood, which was billed as specialising in Sephardic cuisine. Given, the menu, that looked unlikely, but still it was extremely tasty with Branson pronouncing his main of "ossu buco" (braised, bone-in pork shank) to be one of his favourite moments of the whole trip. My paprikash main was also excellent and matched beautifully with a glass of a local wine, "Adom" blend (40% Syrah, 40% Carignan, 10% Malbec and 10%Mourvèdre, if this website can be trusted) from the Somek winery near Zikhron Ya'akov

Well fed and watered, we took a leisurely stroll back to our hotel and made an early night of it, considering the next morning would be very early indeed.

Friday 12 April 2013

Israel Take 2 - Day 8

The morning of our first full day in Jerusalem started off with the first of several fantastic breakfasts in the hotel's restaurant. Not only did they have a full range of "continental" breakfast foods, but also had a great selection of Israeli salads and dairy treats (I think Israel might be second only to France in the wonderful dairy options). It was also on this day that I discovered the amazing fusion that is oatmeal/porridge with halva and silan - a type of date syrup that I'd never had before and a culinary oversight Branson made sure was fixed. Needless to say, a bottle of that definitely needed to come home with us and we had another item on our "to find in London" list.

After a such a fortifying breakfast, we were off to brave the elements. The weather had taken a distinctive turn for the stormy and so, with a forecast of rain that morning, we decided a museum was in order. Being in the new town already, the Israel Museum seemed a natural choice. Our stroll tools us through the Sir Charles Clore park and even though it wasn't perhaps the most direct route, it was worth it to get a feel for this part of modern Jerusalem.

The Israel museum is extremely well planned out and covers quite a lot of ground. We decided to focus our four hours in 3 different areas: the archeology wing (focusing on artefacts from ancient history of the region), the deservedly much acclaimed Shrine of the Book and the very impressive model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period.

Having been to many of the main archeological sites either on our previous trip or in the preceding days, the archeology wing was something of a no brainer and held many of the more precious or sensitive objects that couldn't continue to be exposed to the elements in their original site. It also really helped us synthesise much of what we had seen into the larger historical context. Unfortunately (and perhaps not surprisingly) many of the curatorial notes were rather heavy handed with the nationalism, much of which felt more than a bit desperate, but this was easily "filtered out" as it were and didn't ruin our enjoyment of the outstanding collection. Still, a more even handed treatment of history would certainly help. 

The Shrine of the Book was just as impressive as its reputation made it out to be, both in terms of architecture (being custom built to display the Dead Sea Scrolls & the Aleppo Codex) and in terms of curation - great development of the historical context with only minor nationalistic side tracks. The only disappointing feature was that the main event - a sample of the Scrolls - was a replica rather than the real thing. Still neat, but significantly less cool than seeing an original. I kind of wish this had been made clear at the beginning. The basement inclusion of the Aleppo Codex, on the other hand, was a surprise treat and included many original samples. I could have used more explanations and in-depth treatment of its history, but for the space available I thought they did a great job.

Tucked in behind the Shrine of the Book, is the amazing and HUGE model of what Jerusalem might have looked like during the Second Temple Period, which according to many is the height of classical Jewish culture. The level of detail was incredible and I was glad to have had that as a background before spending time in the present day version of the city with its many layered history and numerous excavations. 

Pretty chilled from being buffeted about by the winds in our short period outdoors, we opted for a late lunch in the museum cafe before the journey back into the old city. Our walking route conveniently took us past the Knesset with attendant rose garden & new shiny Supreme Court building before coming to the light rail line to take us back into town. I've heard a lot of controversy around the light rail line, but I found it to be extremely clean, efficient and used by pretty much all members of society, Jews & Arabs alike. One of the only times, actually, I saw a representative cross section of the city's population literally rubbing shoulders with one another.

Dropping us off only a short walk from the Jaffa Gate, we headed back to finish exploring the Armenian Quarter, where we had left off the night before. Having been warned by our guidebook that many of the Armenian churches were normally closed to visitors, it was with much surprise that in wandering past their cathedral, St. James, that we saw the doors open. Stepping into the court yard and then into the church itself, we stumbled upon a service in progress! Never having attended an Armenian service before, a quick look at the boys confirmed they were just as interested in observing, so we slipped quietly onto one of the benches at the back and watched with keen attention. I'm not sure how to describe the service other than a fascinating blend of what I grew up with in the Catholic church and my experiences with the Russian Orthodox. I wish I had understood more of what I was seeing, but it was probably one of our most memorable moments in Jerusalem.

Full of awe, we wandered a bit aimlessly until we found ourselves in the Jewish Quarter and more specifically overlooking the old Roman Cardo, which led underground to view some of the remains discovered and partially exposed in a tunnel under the street. It was quite a cool place to explore, peering down viewing holes, over railings and into other caves. Byzantine ruins, piled on or jumbled up with Roman, Second Temple and even First Temple period ruins. Layer upon layer of history.

This led us out not far from the square in front of the citadel where we stopped into one of the pilgrimage refuge cafe's for some warming beverages and a rather nice piece of chocolate cake. Thus revived, it was then time to head off to the Western Wall to watch sun down and the Jewish community's start of Shabbat. I'd been told by a coworker that this was an event "not to be missed", and so we'd been really looking forward to it. Arriving, early we went down into the plaza to see up close to the wall itself and each spent a little time in reflection before heading back up to one of the streets above the plaza to watch the approach of sunset and the different Jewish communities celebrate the start of their holy day.

Out of respect for the Shabbat prohibitions, I didn't take any pictures, but it was interesting watching the different sections interact (or not) and the different yet still similar rituals each followed. Between watching the start of Shabbat and our experience at the Armenian Cathedral, this would prove to set the tone for much of our time in Jerusalem - different traditions practicing their own way, simultaneously trying to pretend they are in a bubble and yet not quite managing it.

After awhile we started to get hungry again and then realised that, because it was Shabbat (as well as the end of the Muslim holy day), we were probably going to be rather challenged in finding dinner. Not knowing quite what else to do, we turned to my guidebook (not for the last time!) and picked one of their recommendations back in the modern city - Shanty. And though a little challenging to find (down a side street from a side street, across someone's back garden and into an alley), it proved to be super tasty - the dishes themselves weren't particularly remarkable, but were well-cooked, homestyle and plenty of it. I was rather impressed because despite being a huge fan of the DK guidebooks, I had previously found the restaurant recommendations to be at best "safe" and at worse, overly touristy. Fortunately, this one bucked the trend and would guide us to some other real gems in a city where the food can be quite mediocre and over priced. 

All that was left after our very tasty, filling supper was another very chilly walk back to the hotel to warm up and prepare for the festival of churches that was the plan for the following day.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Israel Take 2 - Day 7

Sadly, our time in the Galilee was at and end and with much reluctance we ate our final breakfast on the cabin patio, packed the car and headed for Jerusalem.

On the way, we passed through Haifa to drop off some of Branson's things (including a much appreciated cooler!) and Tel-Aviv to pick up a few things we had forgotten at our previous hotel before heading over to the airport to drop off our car, by now lovingly nicknamed Slow-mo, due to being rather underpowered and so slow going up the many hills. After a bit of confusion (drop off at the central car return place or the terminal itself?) due to not a little misinformation (suggest avoid renting from Avis in Israel), we finally got little Slow-mo successfully returned. 

Since it was still rather early in the day, we decided on the scenic if somewhat longer option of taking the train, which in part still runs on the route established by the British Mandate. Weaving back through the hills after leaving Bet Shamesh, it was a beautiful ride and gave us a feel for the terrain upon which Jerusalem is set.

Unfortunately, the train station in Jerusalem is somewhat of a trek from the rest of town, but, being a train station, taxis were easy to come by and a short while later we found ourselves on the plaza in front of the externally impressive Jerusalem International YMCA, nicknamed "The Three Arches". Impressive and majestic on the outside, it was to prove an excellent launch pad for the next couple of days - close enough to easily walk to the Old City and yet also an easy walk to the more interesting areas of the New City. What makes it affordable, however, is that the room interiors could generously be described as "shabby chic" and have definitely seen better days (the bathrooms had clearly not seen enough bleach). Still, it was clean enough and as we would find out over subsequent days had an amazing breakfast buffet included in the room rate. 

After settling into our "shabby chic" triple room, it was off to do a bit of pre-sunset exploring. First taking in the Montefiore windmill set in the beautiful Bloomfield gardens to get a bit of perspective on the city. From there, we walked over to the Jaffa Gate and so into the Christian Quarter of the Old City. The sun having just set we decided it might be a good time to catch the much storied Church of the Holy Sepulchre without enormous crowds. I was completely blown away. At once warren like with all the different chapels and alcoves dedicated to Christ's last moments on earth and first few moments of his resurrection, it simultaneously has a sense of grandeur and ceremony that I haven't experienced anywhere else. Standing under the central dome looking at the diminutive chapel housing the spot St. Helena best guessed held the tomb of Christ, I couldn't help but feel the awe and humility of literally a thousand years of pilgrim hopes and tears. The twinkling candies in the fading daylight felt almost magical. 

The boys however, kindly reminded me that unless I wanted to spend the night locked inside the church, it was probably best to move on. Now properly evening, our bellies spoke up to remind us that more earthly needs should be seen to. And so we made the shot jog into the Armenian Quarter to the justifiably popular Armenian Tavern for dinner. Stephen and I had never had Armenian food before and our taste buds were in for quite the treat! At once a fantastic fusion of flavours we'd had in other cuisines and yet wholly its own thing, we loved every bite. We shared a mezzo like plater for starters and then spent quite a while relishing our mains (I had a vine leaf & beef soup that was to die for) paired with a really rather excellent Pinot Noir made by Trappist monks just outside of Jerusalem at Latroun (itself of significance in modern Israeli history). I'm definitely going to need to find both the wine & an Armenian restaurant when we get back to London. Simply too good not to have in my life regularly.

From there it was an easy if rather cold stroll through the Jaffa gate and back to our hotel to plan the next day's adventures. It was also when we started seriously assessing the situation in the West Bank and reluctantly came to the conclusion that it was probably not a good plan at this point in time and unlikely to significantly improve before Sunday. Despite my disappointment, it did mean we had another full day to devote to Jerusalem, and so we re-arranged our plans accordingly.

Monday 8 April 2013

Israel Take 2 - Day 6

For our last day in the Galilee, we decided to undertake something of a grand tour of history, starting at nearly the southern most point and for the earliest of the historical sites we'd visit and ending up back closer to our Zimmer for a fusion of modern and ancient. 

We started our day at Beit Shean, an enormous site of Roman ruins. I've truly never seen anything like it. They think that the original town covered some 2 acres and was home to nearly 40,000 people. Even in ruins the site is impressive. It includes a surprisingly well kept theatre (that originally would have seated 7,000), 2 bathhouses, a huge colonnaded main thoroughfare with a religious complex to the left and market area to the right, a bridge across the valley, myriad original mosaics everywhere, and a path up the "tel" where the remains of an Egyptian house can even be seen. We were there for neigh on 3 hours and probably only saw three-quarters of what there was to see. Given the pace and scale of the excavations still underway, no doubt each year there will be more and more to see. To say it set a very high bar for the rest of the day would be an understatement!

The next stop, after winding up through the Jordan valley was Belvoir Castle, an old ruined Crusader fortress, built originally by the Knights Hospitaliers. The road up the mountain to the castle was a little hair raising - one lane wide and possibly in the worst condition of anything we've yet encountered in Israel, the Scorpion's Ascent included. Once we finally got to the top, however, the views were amazing. The ruined citadel itself wasn't quite as impressive as the Nimrod Fortress from the previous day, but it was still pretty cool regardless. Much larger and more spacious than any of the other crusader castles we'd previously seen. Also, filled with centipedes, which was surprising in the heat.

By the time we finished with the castle it was already pushing 1pm and we still had 3 churches on our list with restricted closing times. So instead of the previously planned leisurely lunch in central Tiberias (and with it, sadly, went our last real option for a local fish supper), we stopped for a quick falafel pita & ice cream just outside of Tiberias on our way up the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Not the most gourmet of meals, but it was as tasty as it needed to be and quick. 

After finishing off our ice cream (halva & pistachio for Stephen, white chocolate & lychee for me, and coffee & maple syrup for Branson), it was back on the road again for our first still complete church of the day: The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves & Fishes just outside of Capernaum. Another modern church built on the remains of many older versions, it still featured some of the original mosaics from the previous Byzantine church. These were definitely the highlight and it was nice to be able to take our time to wander about the small sanctuary. 

This was to turn into something of a theme as our plans began to coincide with that of many other groups on organised tours. While no doubt they benefited from not having to worry with the logistics of getting to each site (a challenge to be sure) and dedicated guides to provide the historical/relgious context, we had the advantage of being able to linger (or not) at each site as much as we liked, or to avoid the worst of the crowds or to talk with the volunteers/monks/nuns/priests/caretakers at each site. I'm glad that my first visit to this very holy land was in a less corralled fashion to let some of the significance of what we saw soak in. That said, I think for the next trip I would choose to have a guide for some of these to get a better insight into the finer points of architecture, history and theology.

Then it was just up the road to Capernaum itself for the surreally space-ship like church of St. Peter. It was a rather innovative and certainly interesting way of "hovering" a fairly large church over archeological ruins while still preserving the accessibility to the ruins themselves. A conundrum that almost every church we had yet and would yet visit had to contend with. St. Peter's certainly also had some of the most beautiful gardens yet of any of the churches we visited with a myriad flowers in bloom and plenty of green framing and providing a welcome refuge. Just next door was a very interesting ruined synagogue. Built more classically (not surprisingly) and out of a coppery, creamy sandstone it was a pleasant and grounding contrast to the modern church. Being surrounded by ruins of the local village, it made the church feel like a lonely outpost in an otherwise abandoned site.

Another jaunt up the road brought us to our first proper Orthodox church, dedicated to the 12 apostles. It was rather refreshing after all the modern churches with clean lines and uncluttered interiors to enter a much older and smaller building. Also, I have such a soft spot in my heart for the architecture and symbology in Orthodox churches, so it was nice to spend some quiet time among the icons and incense. I think the nicest touch of this church (aside from the peacocks roaming the olive grove) was the baptismal path that led from the church out to the Sea of Galilee where initiates could be baptised directly in the sea so closely associated to Christ's ministry. Sitting on the steps of this wild baptistry with the water lapping at my feet, it made much more clear what the calling of the apostles from the sea to be very different sorts of fishermen must have been like. 

The sun, however, was setting and we had one more item on our agenda for the day. So I reluctantly drew myself away and back into the car. While Branson was rerouting us, I flipped through the guidebook again and realised that the proposed drive would take us right past the Mount of the Beatitudes! Given it was late in the day, we figured it would be closed, but we headed up anyway and sure enough a closed gate met us. But the little lookout behind the church was still open, so with one more quick view of the Sea we headed off again.

This time our drive would take us not to a Christian holy place, but to a Jewish one, the city of צְפַת - spelled either Safed, Zefat, or Ts'fat, the latter being the closest to the Hebrew pronunciation, I'm given to believe. We arrived an hour or so before sunset and strolled through the extremely picturesque artists colony, the sephardic community and up through the Old Town to the ruined citadel with its monument (no doubt controversial) to the taking of the town by the IDF during the War for Israeli Independence. From here we watched the sun dip behind Mount Tabor, and reflected over our day. As the blue haze of twilight replaced the golden light of sunset, it was back to our car and the kibbutz for our own sort of last meal. The next morning would see us drive to Jerusalem and start the last phase of our trip.



Thursday 4 April 2013

Israel Take 2 - Quick Update on our plans

A quick interruption to your scheduled daily narrative to let everyone know that due to the ongoing unrest in the West Bank and the scheduled appearance of a certain US diplomatic heavy weight, we have cancelled our planned visit to Ramallah on Sunday and will instead spend the day in Jerusalem. We arrive in Jerusalem this morning and had a beautiful walk through the Christian Quarter and dinner at a fantastic little place in the Armenian Quarter. So far, nothing is out of the ordinary here.

While I'm very disappointed (and the boys are rather relieved), I think this is probably for the best. 

But yes, very disappointed and my prayers go out to those living through the violence. It's quite surreal to look out over the city from our hotel and see the relative quiet knowing that only a few dozen miles away it is chaos. Wish that I could do more than pray and light a candle for peace.

Israel Take 2 - Day 5

I can't believe our trip is nearly halfway done already! One the one hand, it feels like we've had a very leisurely time of it, on the other that we've done a ton! It's hard to say which is more true, but our plans for the day would make up for some of our perceived (at least) previously easy pace.

After a much earlier breakfast, served right outside our cabin at the kibbutz, we headed off around 09:30 for the Nahal Yahudiah nature preserve for our first Galilee hike. Spoiled for choice, we decided on a route that would take us past both swimming spots & some waterfalls, for which the area is well known.

The weather was stunning: warm, but not too hot and with the sand storm out of the way, much much clearer.

Below is an overview of our route for those of you who want to see the details.

The best bit was definitely back through the ravines or nahals where the waterfalls and clear pools that form from the snow melt from Mount Ermon. It was short (just shy of 6 miles), but was a nice combination of different  types of terrain.
We had previously planned to do a hike into the other nahal, but given that by the time we finished it was already past 1pm and there were other things we still wanted to see so we nixed the second hike and made our way deeper into the Golan.
Our next stop was Mount Bental just inside the Syrian border. An extinct volcano, the drive through the caldera where the Kibbutz Golan has their cherry trees (just finishing blooming) and their vines (not quite out of dormancy) was spectacular. Fortunately, the road up to the summit had been recently repaved and was (just) wide enough for two cars to pass.
Once up to the summit, the views were incredible. . and haunting. While I know intellectually that this area is very close to both Syria and Lebanon, being able to look directly into a war zone literally sent chills down my spine. Travelling to contested places isn't part of my usual M.O. but it was a little disturbing to see the dismantled, bombed out former village and only a few kilometres away (on the opposite side of the new border) the new village. On top, then, to know the civil war waging in Syria is but a mere 10 miles away was a real shock. Of course, I was also standing on a decommissioned army bunker, the whole experience was sobering to say the least.
So we went into the coffee shop (Coffee Annan, couldn't decide if it was a horrible pun or funny) for a rest and a bite to eat (realising that none of us had eaten lunch yet). Then after some fun dinosaur pictures (pending), we were off again, this time for Nimrod Fortress.
Another stunning drive, saw us arriving at the lower gates about 75 minutes to closing time. 75 minutes to explore a ruined castle. Anyone who has done castles with Stephen and I know that we can easily kill 4 hours at a decently sized castle, so 75 minutes, while better than nothing, was going to be a challenge, But we were up for a challenge and with Branson to keep us on track, the race was on. 
And it is a spectacular castle. It was interesting to compare it with the crusader fortress in Akko that we saw last year. Even in a ruined state it was impressive. . . and enormous. We did get through most of it, despite the quickened pace, including the highest tower with magnificent views and secret tunnel back to the moat/car park. Pictures to be posted as soon as we get back to London.
We came back down the mountain with about 10 minutes to spare, and no doubt the park ranger was very grateful. From there we didn't really have enough daylight to do another hike and all the other sights were closed, so we didn't have many other options than to drive back to the Kibbutz, though we did take the scenic route near the Lebanese hills (another not too friendly border for us to skirt). From there all that was left was to grill up another tasty meal (thank you, Branson!)
Despite a great day, we were starting to get a bit worried as to what was left on our "to do" list, so the next day was shaping up to be rather epic. Stay tuned. . .

Israel Take 2 - Day 4

Yesterday was our first full day in the Galilee and our second day of a sand storm. We woke up to sunshine and haze the colour that only sand can make. Not very nice. It was also the last day of passover so the plan was to head to Nazareth, an Arab town, where most of the sights would still be open.

We arrived in Nazareth about mid-morning, though not first without driving through the small town of Cana, where unfortunately the church commemorating the wedding feast miracle was closed. Sad fish.  In Nazareth itself,  we parked just outside of the main bazaar (where Stephen almost failed in taking directions from the elderly, but very patient, parking attendant). Inside Nazareth, you'd never know it was anything other than a normal working day, which was good news for us even despite the storm. We headed through the first section of the bazaar before coming to the Basilica of the Annunciation. After Branson had to don sarong (due to wearing shorts and that in and of itself was something of a to-do), we headed into the main church itself.

A beautiful, rebuilt 1960s church that replaced both a Byzantine and Crusader church, it's probably one of the most striking churches that we've ever seen. In some ways it's a shame that more of the Byzantine structures weren't preserved, but they've kept some of that spirit alive by having many different countries and diocese contribute mosaics to the outside wall and inside the main worship space.

The church is built in 3 "layers" - the main floor with a few small altars, the grotto underneath the main floor where the annunciation itself was said to have taken place, and a second floor above these two where the main church is housed. It's amazing how different and yet complementary the two spaces are. Definitely one of my favourite churches ever.

Around the corner from the basilica is the much smaller church of St. Joseph's, built on the site of where they think either Joseph's workshop used to be or the family home (or, not any less unlikely, both). It's a much more traditional church with some beautiful stained glass, also set above the original foundations where the workshop/house used to be. However, with the way the church is arranged, it's hard to see much of the original structures, but the spirit is readily apparent if not the actual thing itself. I get the impression that this church is much more often used for services for the Franciscans who are responsible for both this little church & the grand basilica. it had very much the feel of a local, parish church. A lovely little church, if rather overshadowed by it's more elegant and impressive neighbour.

From there, we headed back through the bazaar, poking our heads around the various corners, and in doing so discovered the tiny "Synagogue Church" nestled in behind the bazaar under one of the arches supporting another street above. Thanking the doorman on the way out, he asked us where we were from and hearing that we were Americans, took us next door to an unassuming building, but which turned out to be the seat of the Greek Catholic community! What stunning moment! Much more elaborate and finely worked than is usual in Catholic churches, but complete with an iconostasis more common in Orthodox churches. A really interesting blend of eastern and western elements. Another intense thank you and back out into the bazaar we went. 

Coming around another corner we spotted the White Mosque and were just about the head inside when the noon call to prayer sounded. I really love the sound of muslims being called to prayer - its somehow more personal than bells and certainly very effective! As the call to prayer sounded, many merchants closed up their shops temporarily and hurried inside. We stepped out of the way to sit out of the sun with some fresh squeeze juices and consider where to have our lunch since it would probably be a goodly while until the mosque was open again (and we had no wish to disturb their services). 

Branson had a friend who had recommend a place on the other side of town, nearly to the new Jewish settlement above the main town, and so we headed off in search of that for lunch. It proved a little challenging not being found on google maps and only very hazily on bing, not helped by an extremely complex road network. A few calls and almost an hour later, we finally found it. . .only for it to be closed. Fortunately a little further up the road was a town where Branson knew of a good steak restaurant, so that direction we went saying good-bye to Nazareth. 

Our original plans also included either a hike in the hills overlooking Nazareth (put paid to by the ongoing dust storm, which only seemed to get worse as the day went on) or heading to Tsipori for some additional historical sightseeing. Unfortuntely, due to the combination of holiday hours (meaning everything closed early) and our very late lunch, that too was out. So instead we headed to Tiberias where we hoped more might be open and perhaps low enough (200 meters below sea level) that the dust storm might be less obtrusive (poor Stephen's asthma was really starting to act up). Unfortuntely, not much at all was open, but the air quality was a little better, so we enjoyed a stroll along the water front of the Sea of Galilee before grabbing some wine to go with our dinner and heading back to the Kibbutz before sunset. With the visibility was so bad, we didn't fancy driving after dark if we could help it.

So not quite the day we planned, but pleasant enough. Fortunately, the falling temperatures and sharp winds from the south would finish off the dust storm over night, just in time for our hiking day.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Israel Take 2 - Day 3

After our two exciting days in Tel Aviv, it was time to make our transition to the Galilee. The original plan was for some beach time, but it quickly became apparent that the air quality was going to be against us. A dust storm decided to roll in from Libya and the resulting dust made things very icky indeed.

So we scrapped the idea of the beach, and decided instead to get some advanced provisions from Haifa while picking up the rest of Branson's things on our way north.

This proved to be a spectacular plan. We got to nose around Branson's local supermarket for meat & dairy and his very excellent vegetable store, picking up green garlic (OMG green garlic), eggplant/aubergines, mushrooms, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, mushrooms, cilantro, plus a bag of unexpected groceries (long story). 

From there, we dropped the groceries off at this place then headed up the street and around the corner to Shwarma Hazan, one of Stephen's must-do's, which turned out to be very tasty indeed - lamb wrap with all the tasty additions (hummus, chilli, salads, tahini) plus a bowl each of pickles & fries/chips. As a surprise, we were joined by Branson's roommate, Ben, who kindly kept us company despite the shwarma being not only not kosher, but most definitely not passover kosher

After parting company with Ben, it was time to head into the Arab quarter to pick up normal bread, some spices and to make the all important baklava pilgrimage. This turned out to be wildly successful. The spice store was amazing. We managed to get both the zatar and the sumac as well as impromptu purchases of dried papaya and mango. 

The bread store ("really good pita on Khouri") was life changing. Not only was it proper bread (passover, remember?), but they had the most amazing pita machine that was spitting fresh, hot pita breads out as quickly as the customers could buy it. The smells were stunning. And I managed to grab Stephen's camera (after picking my jaw up off the street) just in time to take a picture. Look forward to that!

From there it was probably my favourite baklava store on the planet. Did I mention last time that they sell it by the kilo? They sell it by the kilo. Super yummy. Beyond yummy. And have some we did. As much as we could fit into the medium sized box.

Then, suitably provisioned, it was time to pack up the car and drive north. The drive was pretty uneventful, but through some lovely countryside. We got to Kibbutz Moran around 5, in time to check in before everything closed for the final passover celebration and for us to make dinner.

It's a lovely location, smack dab in the middle of the Galil. Remote enough to be very relaxing, but an easy driving distance from just about everywhere. This is our base for the next four days while we explore the north of Israel. The people here are incredibly nice and have gone out of their way to help us with forgotten items (cork screws & matches) and also just to chat and be sociable. A very nice spot indeed.

After cooking the first round of provisions out on the grill, it was time for bed before our first day of real sightseeing.