It definitely seems like our luck has changed for the better. We’ve moved out of the Russian Compound down Hebron Road to an Arab part of East Jerusalem, called Beit Safafa. Situated along the Green Line, up until the Six-Day War in 1967, the town was under Jordanian rule, after which it became part of Israeli (disputed) territory.
Less than one kilometre from Palestinian controlled area, our accommodation has been upgraded to a brand new 2-bedroom apartment on arrival. Not only that, but our host, Gaby, is possibly the best host in all of Israel. He has been helping us out both with general information and in getting our Visa card issues sorted. He’s one a kind.
Having seen where Jesus Christ spent his last days on earth, we began preparing ourselves for a visit to where it all began. Of course, Gaby said he’d be more than happy to drive us all up the road from where we then disembarked to go through the checkpoint to enter Palestine.
Having quickly and effortlessly got through the necessities, we were accosted by the Bethlehem taxi mafia all of whom assured us that the roads were closed to where we wanted to go and that is was an extremely long walk to anything. Ignoring them, we traipsed off to a fascinating place called the Walled Off Hotel, or more commonly known as the Banksy Hotel. No, not ex-Mayor and Politician John Banks, but the anonymous English street artist, vandal, political activist, and film director.
The fully functioning hotel began life in 2017 having been transformed from a pottery workshop and was financed by Banksy himself, who also donated a lot of the art work that is held on site. Promoting itself as having “the worst view of any hotel in the world”, due to its proximity to the barrier wall separating Israel from Palestine, the hotel is very artsy cool. Definitely too cool for me!
We stepped into the piano bar and had some very tasty and reasonably priced mezze food and pizza. Apparently the remote controlled Baby Grand plays concerts every night from 7pm, with an impressive array of guest artists (Massive Attack, Flea etc) - I so wish I could've been there to listen to that. After our food, we were free to wander round and take in all the thought-provoking art pieces.
There were plenty more amazing pieces of art, but they’ll have to wait until you see them for yourself. Also attached to the hotel is a museum which cost 15 NIS per adult and provided background to the ongoing Palestinian plight. While reasonably heavy handed, the animated history of the region, beginning with the Balfour Declaration, was quite a useful paint by numbers to quickly come up to speed with current events.
Even leaving the hotel was an experience, with obligatory photos required outside.
We didn’t even know about the Walled Off Hotel before arriving, yet it was one of the best things we’ve done to date and a must do when coming over that side of the wall.
The day had hardly begun and we still had the birthplace of Jesus Christ to visit. We walked the two kilometres or so from the Walled Off Hotel to the Church of the Nativity which is the oldest church in the Holy Land, dating back to c. 330 AD.
The main showpiece here is the Grotto of the Nativity, which is a crypt beneath the Church, where Jesus is said to have been born. As seems to be normal for us, we had arrived just before an hour long (Armenian) service had begun. The waiting crowd, of which we formed a part, were then squeezed into the crypt in a highly undignified manner. Packed in next to hundreds of other people, it was a claustrophobic’s nightmare, and hardly likely to inspire any spiritual moments.
There was the briefest of moments where we were able to see the spot where Jesus was born, which is marked by a 14-pointed silver star, before we were then popped out like a pip and made to wait the remaining time before once again entering the scrum to exit.
The grotto experience aside, the rest of the church was quite nice, with more bling on show than Liberace’s fingers.
In 2012, the church complex, including the much quieter and serene Church of Saint Catherine, became the first Palestinian site to be listed as a World Heritage site. Just like Jesus’s birth and life, this wasn’t without controversy, due to the attached political connotations.
After an abortive attempt to visit the closed (before actual closing time) Milk Grotto, only 200 metres up the road, we decided it was time to call it a day and head back to our new digs in Beit Safafa. Finding the taxi drivers more reasonable at the church, we forked out 25 shekels for our trip back to the border checkpoint to plan our next day’s outing.