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“Bethlehem should be included or offered as an optional...”

Written on: 14/07/2011 by SUSANBLAND (1 review written)

The flight set the scene for our '"Highlights of the Holy Land" Tour from 19th.-26th. May 2011. Several Orthodox Jews stood praying in the middle of the plane and there was a very enthusiastic group of primary school children going to camp. From the moment we met our Guide named Ellen she started to impart her tremendous knowledge of both Jewish and Christian religious history to us and was a constant presence for the next 8 days, communicating with us by microphone to our receivers as she forged ahead. 

The tour was very well organized and we saw so much and we remember the places that stood out, starting with Capernaum - the town of Jesus and St. Peter, the Sea of Galilee which is so beautiful and peaceful and does not seem to have changed for centuries and where we had an idyllic boat trip on calm waters and then went down to the shore to bathe our feet and collect a few tiny shells. Then the place by the shore where it is considered that Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. Next day we visited the baptismal site on the River Jordan where a group of Brazilians were being baptised and furry otters swam and came up onto the river bank, then went on to the archaeological site at Beit Shean where an evangelical group sang a hymn in the Roman amphitheatre and we walked the ancient streets. We next travelled through the Jordan valley to Qymran - a majestic, rocky, sandy area full of caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. We then made our way to Jerusalem, and in the evening were taken on a tour of the city by night. Next day we looked over Jerusalem, the golden city from the Mount of Olives and then walked the Palm Sunday route passing a robed man with a donkey, down to the beautiful Garden of Gethsemane with its ancient olive trees. 

Passing through the "Ecco Homo" Arch we entered the Via Dolorosa, most of which is now a souk, as it was in those times too, remembering all the stories from our childhood and school scripture lessons. We followed the stations of the cross until we reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and touched the sacred walls and stones and finally the tomb. We climbed to the oasis with natural waterfalls where David wrote his psalms and we saw conies in the trees and an ibex on the rocks then went up on high to Masada by cable-car where we walked through Herod's kingdom and then descended to the Dead Sea, where it was heavenly to float in the warm, clear water. On our last day in Jerusalem we visited the Israeli Museum and studied the Dead Sea Scrolls and then made a poignant visit to the Holocaust Museum, which has a wonderful memorial to the children lost at that time. In the afternoon we visited the fascinating Jewish quarter; seeing the menorah and putting our little papers with prayers in the cracks in the Western Wall and walking backwards away from it, then visiting David's tomb and the reconstructed Room of the Last Supper, where there was a little ginger cat that seemed to be smiling. Finally we reached the Garden tomb, where the house of Joseph of Arimathea was, where our Guide was a retired English Vicar who spends 3 months at a time doing this work he enjoys so much. On our last morning it was a bonus to visit the ancient port of Jaffa, wander round the souk and have lunch by the sea. 

We finally drove back to Tel Aviv and had a tour of the spacious, airy, modern city, before continuing to the Airport. These tours are quite strenuous; up at 6, a quick breakfast and on the coach by 8.15 at least, then visiting sites in the heat all day. But if you felt you could not climb any higher on the archaeological sites or clamber up and down slippery steps you could sit on the lower level and wait for the others. I would recommend people always to ask if there is anything else to do on that level, such as films, exhibits or shops as some people were not aware of these and only discovered later that there had been a film or something to see. Or they could stroll behind at their own pace and get as far as they could -surely better than sitting waiting. Bethlehem - we only realised when we arrived in Tel Aviv that it was not on the itinerary. 

We had seen it on the itineraries of various Agencies we first looked at but my sister is not online and chose the Leger Holidays tour as she could book through her Travel Agency. At first we thought the omission was because of recent events and security problems but we have since seen that other Agencies are including it on their current and future tours. Several of our group were disgruntled that it was not included and expressed their wish to go. They were told it was not recommended but if they wanted they would have to do it privately and at their own risk. They decided against it in the end but I now regret not looking on the internet before I went on the tour as I have seen that a group on the same tour in November managed to get to Bethlehem. They were told the same as us but the guide rescheduled some of their trips and they were able to go. I have since also seen from reports that the hotel could probably have helped organize something for us. So if you are determined to get there, you should be able to make a visit. Since I have returned I have met several people who visited Jerusalem for just one day - off a cruise -and they went to Bethlehem. We were there for 8 days so it should have been possible. On our tour of Jerusalem at night we actually went onto a kibbutz overlooking Bethlehem and saw it at night. Could we not at least have driven through it during the day? I think Leger Holidays should include it or offer it as an optional excursion - like other Agencies do. I am sure most people would be prepared to pay. 

People have asked me about our tour and which Agency I went with and I have told them, but have had to point out that we did not get to Bethlehem. It would also have been good to have a free morning or afternoon - it was very difficult to do any shopping - we were whisked from place to place and often the shops at the sites were busy with long queues and we could not wait. I know that several of the ladies on the tour were frustrated by this. The organization of the tour was excellent - flights, transfers and our coach travel with an amiable driver. The hotels were good - small, homely and with a pleasant atmosphere. From the Gilgal in Tel Aviv for 1 night and the Prima Galil at Tiberias for 2 nights - we found the Restaurant, Bar and Reception Staff friendly and accommodating. It was lovely sitting on the terrace at night at the Prima Galil with lights twinkling all around us and down to the lake. We settled into the Jerusalem Gold hotel for 4 nights and soon felt at home there. The Owner, Receptionists, Restaurant and Bar staff were always friendly and welcoming and the hotel had a lovely atmosphere. The food was good and varied in all three hotels - so many salads and desserts! Before we departed on the coach from Jerusalem we were asked if we had felt safe and to let other people know. We did feel safe -because everyone just went about their normal lives - as in fact they have to do. We hope to return to Israel, particularly to Jerusalem, to spend more time there.

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