Sunday, December 20, 2009

O Little Town of Bethlehem! Bethlehem, Palestine


Destination:  Bethlehem

Number of Days Spent:  1 day

Where we stayed:  Al Kazar Hotel in Jerusalem - around $50 per night with breakfast & wifi

Best restaurant:     Afteem Restaurant - Displaced by Israel in 1948, Afteem, a Christian, lost everything he had in Haifa.  After being relocated here, he opened Bethlehem's first falafel stand and now owns a nice house and is well off by Palestinian standards.  All he was missing from his restaurant was some lemonade!

Best of:  Getting to see a bit of Palestine, far better prices than in Israel, the simplicity of the Church of the Nativity compared to all the elaborate churches in Jerusalem.

Worst of:  Thousands of tourists flock here each year, mostly in giant tour buses.  Watch out as you stroll through the Church of the Nativity, they will run you down.  The ever growing wall between Israel and Palestine.  When complete, it will be 4 times longer and in places twice as high as the Berlin wall.  To make matters worse, the wall is being constructed primarily on Palestinian land, and in some cases, dividing farmers from their fields.

Most Memorable:  The wood carver we talked to and purchased a nativity set from offered us suggestions on where to eat.  He led us to the family restaurant above!  When Tracy asked if she could take a picture they offered to let her try her hand at making falafel!  Perhaps a new career is on the horizon...

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Useful Tip:  Take the public bus for a more eventful trip.  Sure taxis are pretty cheap but the bus was an experience.  We were dropped at the Jerusalem side of the wall where we had to walk through security and catch a taxi on the other side when we arrived.  Leaving, we caught a different bus that took us though the highway where we had to get out at a checkpoint to have the bus searched.  It was sort of like an expedited entry and exit of one country to the other.

I used to hear the name Bethlehem and a vision of a quaint and quiet little village came to mind.  That was until we went there.  Sprawling and bustling with thousands of Palestinians, modern day Bethlehem is nothing like that small outpost where the inns were full one winter's night.  That's not to day that its not a nice place to visit, on the contrary.  Next to stodgy and tension filled Jerusalem just a few miles away to the north, Bethlehem seems more down to Earth, real...well aside from the small tourist area. 

The star of the town, what 99% of visitors come to see, is the Birthplace of Jesus located inside the aptly named Church of the Nativity, across from Manger Square no less.  Expecting more of the elaborate, over the top displays that are found in the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem, we squeezed through the tiny entrance, known as the door of humility, to find something completely different.  The entire nave of the church is rather barren.  It is not until you reach the entrance of the cave that the ornate decor Orthodox Christians are known for appears.  While some of the interior appearance can be chalked up to personal interior decorating tastes, a good portion is due to the lack of repairs.  The church is shared by three sects of Christianity - the Catholics, Greek Orthodox and the Armenians.  Sadly, they cannot agree upon who has to do what when it comes to repairs so at the moment they all let the church fall further into disrepair.  Of course, one can interpret this as fitting...after all it was a manger in a stable we are talking about.       

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From time to time, we run across places that seem just a little over the top for what they are.  One such place is known as the MIlke Grotto.  Legend has it that a drop of Mary's milk landed on a stone here and stained it a bright shade of white.  When such miracles occur the locals have no choice but to enshrine said stone and worship the spot where it occurred.  It is a nice church however, and they don't charge admission, so it proved to be a nice enough detour.  On the same street is the wood carving man and his little factory mentioned earlier.

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After visiting the "must sees" and getting our fill of falafel, we strolled through the market on our way to the bus stop.  If you ever get the chance to come to a Muslim country during Ramadan, please do so at least for a couple of days.  Just the thought of having no food or water during the daylight hours for one day is enough to make me feel ill and yet they do it every year for a month.  It is an unbelievable test of faith and the feeling in the air during the late afternoons before the breaking of the fast is indescribable.  During those last couple of hours before sunset the few that are unfortunate enough to have to still be working look like they are about to fall over.  People buzz about collecting all manner of food from bread, grilled meats & sweets.  Our hearts go out to those people still working while this all goes on.  Imagine the torture of being unable to eat or drink during the day and yet having to work smell and work with food all day.  It's unimaginable to us yet it's such an important part of their culture. 

After our day in Bethlehem we hopped on board the local bus and headed back to Jerusalem.  That night we caught the bus to the airport and flew back to Europe on a much too short night flight.  We arrived in Munich in the wee hours of the morning...the only thing we could do upon arrival was grab our bags and stretch out onto a bench for a little nap!  More on our European adventures on the next blog! 

To see more photos of Bethlehem click here!

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