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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Bethlehem: no manger, no inn - just Starbucks!

Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem 

Street in Bethlehem

The best advise we can now give anyone wanting to visit Bethlehem: don't book a tour!
For months we had studied websites and travel guides. We had read all about the many different companies and the types of tours you can book. You can choose from one day tours or half days. Each advertises with the fact that "all admissions are included but not lunch." The average tour costs between US $75 and US $100.- per person.

Since we couldn't decide, we figured we'd wait till the last minute and book something once we got to Jerusalem. Once here, we discovered that we could simply take the "Arab bus", just outside the Damascus Gate and a five minute walk from our hotel, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem for 8 shekels (less than $3). There ARE no admissions anywhere. We did not have to move in a large group of tourists all day. Apparently the line-ups for individuals are shorter than for tour groups AND a shop owner told us "You are on your own? No tour bus? No guide? Ah! I gave you 30% discount!" So this day cost us a lot less than if we had opted for a tour.

We had fun going on the bus with many locals but also a fair number of westerners. On the way out of Jerusalem we noticed lots of Orthodox Jews wearing traditional large black hats, long curls, prayer shawls. It is Shabbat so many were walking along the streets. When it rains lightly, out came large plastic covers for the huge fur hats.

Bethlehem is more like a suburb, and very similar to Jerusalem in that it is a big, crowded city with lots of traffic. No cute little manger or inn in sight!
Not even signs to Manger Square. But we only walked the wrong way once.
It rained for a few minutes and the age-old streets are slippery as ice - smooth worn stones.
Lots of little shops selling nuts, sponges, leather ware, spices. One man with an enormous jug was selling Turkish coffee in the street.

Manger Square, Bethlehem
We made it to Manger square where there are many shops, restaurants, a bank, even a Starbucks! There are some old remnants of walls but much is newly build.
The grotto where Jesus is said to have been born, is covered by a church that has seen different religions and has been restored numerous times. Like many historic places, this slightly diminishes its authenticity for us. But the people are so interesting to watch. I noticed today how similar Catholic nuns in their long black robes and white headgear, look to Palestinian women who often wear the same long black skirts and tight, white head dress.

We watch wood carvers make handmade items like smoothly sanded crosses and mangers from olive wood. And we admired beautiful Palestinian hand embroidered clothing. Even though there is nothing Christmassy in sight, in Bethlehem, it felt very special to walk along these thousands year old streets, among people whose work, food and clothing does not seem to have changed a whole lot since then. Except for cell phones and wifi everywhere. And halogen bulbs in the old candelabra of the Church of the Nativity - signs of the times.
Halogen bulbs are a sign of the time in Church of Nativity

1 comment:

  1. So glad you are enjoying oh, little town of Bethlehem. The Starbucks is new since I was there! Traveling without a group allows you to have more freedom and possibly more interaction with locals. I was there with a group who met people from the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, a most hospitable people who took us into their homes for Sunday dinner: Their pastor, Dr. Rev. Mitri Raheb, has worked hard for the people of Bethlehem and has great vision. One result of his vision is Dar-Kalima University:
    Can't wait to see what you report on next! :)