“I have always wanted to go to Jerusalem!” That is the refrain I frequently hear when I say that I spend a few months here in the Holy City every year. The word “Jerusalem” is like a drumbeat in the heads of Christians. Some long to explore the earthly Jerusalem, others seek the heavenly Jerusalem. Many seek both. Such is the fascination of the Holy City that the annual number of tourists visiting it has doubled recently to four million. While some Catholics wait to find a suitable package deal or group tour, more and more pilgrims now make the trip independently.
As the London to Israel route is competitive the journey is not too expensive. Direct flights from London to Ben-Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, are about five hours and the 25-mile drive up the steep Judean Hills to Jerusalem, even in peak hour traffic, is less than an hour. While British Airways return flights from Heathrow start at £450 return, the cheapest return easyJet fare from Luton can sometimes be less than half that, if booked far enough in advance. El Al also has a range of fares from both Heathrow and Luton. An efficient shuttle service of Nesher mini-buses (£12) compensates for the lack of direct public transport from Ben Gurion airport to Jerusalem. A taxi costs £45.
Many solo travellers stay in the very heart of the Old City in the long-established low-cost Christian hospices. All have their own chapels. The star of these is the imposing Austrian Hospice (Austrianhospice.com, single room B&B £57 a night) under the direction of the indefatigable Sister Bernadette. Its appeal, apart from its grandeur, expansive views and peaceful gardens, is that it is right on the Via Dolorosa, the route along which Jesus carried his Cross to his Crucifixion. Nearby is the Ecce Homo (Eccehomoconvent.org, single room B&B £43 a night) run by the Sisters of Zion. This convent hospice, between the second and the third stations, houses a relic from the Fortress Antonia, part of the pavement which Pontius Pilate allegedly stood on when he condemned Jesus. An even larger Catholic hospice is Casa Nova (Custodia.org, single room B&B £46 a night) conveniently close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Making one’s way through the cobbled labyrinth of narrow alleyways of the Old City may be atmospheric but it can sometimes be challenging. This is especially so on a Friday. At 3pm (4pm in summer) the Franciscans lead the procession of the Way of the Cross. Friday is also a holy day for Muslims when the faithful from East Jerusalem make their way through lanes swarming with people to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. As Shabbat, or the Jewish Sabbath, is observed from just before sunset on Fridays until three special stars appear in the sky on Saturday night, thousands of Jews, many in black hats and black coats, start making their way to the Western Wall on Fridays. Although it is often a matter of elbow-pushing to make headway, as one priest said: “Here you come face to face with the seemingly intractable problem of how two very different peoples can live together.”
Whatever the time or day, tourists soon learn to ignore the sales pleas of the vendors in the tiny stalls and shops which overflow into the footpaths. Many, though, make their way to two famed cafes which serve fresh hummus with light pitta bread: Lina’s, not far from Christian Quarter Road, and Abu Shukri, opposite the fifth station on Via Dolorosa.
One advantage of basing oneself in the Old City is the marvellous sense of history, of staying somewhere which has been inhabited for more than 3,000 years. Visitors must reach their destinations by foot as most of the old narrow alleys and crowded lanes are inaccessible to cars.
Instead of hiring a guide many tourists and pilgrims go to the Christian Information Centre (Cicts.org) opposite the Tower of David, near Jaffa Gate. The well-informed staff, including a tri-lingual priest, are more than helpful. With maps, lists and fact-filled advice, they explain everything from how to catch Palestinian bus number 21 to Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity or where to get the 486 or 487 Israeli Egged bus to Qumran or Masada on the Dead Sea. Most importantly, the office also houses the Mass reservation office (email: email@example.com), where bookings can be made for priests, religious communities and groups to celebrate Mass at the shrines under the care of the Custody of the Holy Land. Among the dozens of churches, these include the Church of the Nativity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the church at Gethsemane.
Another benefit of staying within the ancient walls of the Old City is that pilgrims can easily make daily visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred place in Christendom. Daunting and awesome candlelight processions take place there at 4pm every afternoon (5pm in summer). High Mass is at 6.30am (7.30am in summer) and on Sundays at 5.30am (6.30am in summer). In keeping with Pope Francis’s broadening of the Church and the “inclusion” of the believers of other faiths, many Catholics also join Jews at the Western Wall and the usually long queue to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Interestingly, by travelling with a friend or partner pilgrims are, according to Naomi Tsur, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, leaving a more positive footprint than those on an organised tour. She explained that buses leave their engines on “while the emerging group goes into a heritage site like a swarm of bees”. As a major goal of the city is now to encourage family or individual tourists, she added: “An individual tourist is completely different from a group which generates the dynamic of a crowd that sticks together and somehow invades the local scene. Individuals, however, have the capacity to blend and merge into the local environment. A group is not going to be integrated into the local experience because they will somehow be walled in by the group dynamic.”
Ten must-sees in Jerusalem by Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor OP
Within the Old City:
– The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was crucified and buried
– The Dome of the Rock on the great esplanade of Herod Temple
– The Wailing Wall or Western Wall, the most sacred site in the Jewish faith outside the Temple Mount itself
– St Anne’s Crusader church
– The Tower of David – Citadel Museum (relates the history of Jerusalem and the surrounding area)
– The underground areas in the City of David (its Bronze Age excavations are the oldest settled area of the city)
– The Rampart’s Walk along the top of the walls surrounding the Old City
Outside the Old City:
– The Garden of Gethsemane (where Jesus spent his last free night on earth) and the Mount of Olives
– The Israel Museum which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls (and the Biblelands Museum next to it)
– The top of the Mount of Olives for an overview of the Old City