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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jerusalem of Gold, Part 1.

So once we finally found the right place in Jerusalem with my patient and kind host Noa trying to give us directions over the phone, it was beautiful!  She lives in a very central and green/flowery neighborhood named Rechavia in a nice apartment building.  By the way, one thing that is striking about Jerusalem is that you realize that all the buildings are built with the same Jerusalem limestone that the ancient buildings are, too.  This is a city code and it is truly amazing to see the amount of restoration work and rebuilding done in order to make new look old!  Also there doesn't seem to be an economic slump here at all -- construction and life continue unabated.

By the next morning we had recovered from that drive sufficiently to decide that we should take the "99" bus tour of the city -- a circle tour much like the British double-decker buses that hits some of the major points of interest.  We thought it left from one spot which was walkable from Noa's place, but once we got there it turned out that all of Yaffo Street was being dug up and therefore we had to take a bus from there to the Central Bus Terminal (Tachanah Ha-Mercazit).

Wow, it was huge!  3 floors of comings and goings and a ton of military people (really kids because they're all between 18 and 21) floating around, probably on their way home for Shabbat.  Mixed in with very religious people, average people, tourist people, etc., etc.  It made for a very colorful bout of people-watching.  Of course once we got there we found out we had just missed the bus and had to wait about 90 minutes, during which we did more people watching.  I haven't mentioned this before because it is such a normal part of life, but of course whenever you enter a bus terminal, train station, mall (even outdoor pedestrian mall), etc., you have to go through security and often a metal detector.  We got used to these small intrusions pretty quickly and have been fortunate enough to have nothing but a feeling of safety throughout this trip, but it's a constant reminder of the terrorism issues people have suffered through during the Intifadas of the last decade...

Anyway we got on the bus which had headsets through which you could listen in your choice of 8 different languages (but when I turned to the button for English it kept giving me either Hebrew or Spanish -- there's a message to me, I guess).  As soon as we were seated on top of the double decker bus with the open sides for easier photography, the weather turned nasty, cold, windy and occasionally rainy and we thought by the end of that two hour trip that we were going to either a) freeze to death or b) develop pneumonia.  Luckily I can now report 4 days later that neither of those outcomes ended up happening.  We did get a decent overview of the major sites including the Old City, the Mount of Olives, Ein Kerem, the Knesset, some of the major museums I'd driven by the previous day, the hills in the area and the architecture ... but overall I would not really recommend this bus tour unless the weather is stunning and you like overtouristy things.  We later found out that of course almost as much could be accomplished with normal city buses, but you kind of have to know your way around.

The David's Harp bridge was pretty damn cool, an architectural masterpiece:

After all that we walked to the famed Machaneh Yehudah market, or shuk (see,, and a terrific photo essay at, which was a total frenzy on a Friday afternoon right before Shabbat!  Fabulous produce and all sorts of middle eastern spices and nuts and dried fruits which I took some photos of.  However, the merchants are not the nicest you might encounter.  I asked a guy a question about some dates or raisins and his response (in Hebrew) was something like "Lady, I don't have time, years are passing!"  Another not-nice merchant was the guy who sold chocolate rugelach -- but at least they were delicious!  After all that wandering around the market, naturally one would develop an appetite -- fully satiated at Levi Brothers Falafel, where a huge laffa (suitable for at least 2 people to share) with falafel, your choice of salads, and even fries stuffed in will run you 17 shekels (about $4.50 USD).  We did leave with a smile on our faces...

And then we walked from there around the central neighborhood, into the Ben-Yehudah Street pedestrian mall.  It was kind of a ghost town (because of being pre-Shabbat),

actually we didn't realize how MUCH of a ghost town till we were there several days later in the evening and it was then much like a mosh pit.

We strolled around there and then back to Noa's place in Rechavia.  We rested for a little while and then ventured out again, as a friend of mine named Ronna who I've known through the Internet for at least 5 years but had never met had invited us for Shabbat dinner!  The way the taxi system works in Jerusalem is simply amazing (and the exact inverse of my level of fun driving around Jerusalem) -- either you stand on the street and within a minute a cab stops -- or you call a cab phone number, they tell you they will be there in 5 minutes but are there in 3.  And though I'd read all sorts of crap about how you had to insist they use the meter or they would try to suggest some sort of bogus price for the trip that would always end up being more than the meter -- not a single cabbie in the multiple cab rides we took did NOT automatically put on the meter right away.  They are generally as pleasant as the bus drivers are not.

We had a delightful dinner with Ronna who had all sorts of lovely things prepared for us like stuffed grape leaves, quinoa, salad, chicken, and wine.  And we chatted late into the evening just like old friends who have simply never met face to face before :)

The next day, tired though we were from all the walking of the previous day, we decided to go on the Sandemann's tour of the Old City at 11 am.  For those of you who haven't heard of Sandemann's --check out their web site at -- they are a group of enthusiastic and inspired young people who do free tours of multiple cities in Europe, and also Jerusalem.  They work for tips, on the philosophy that everyone of any budget should get to enjoy a professionally guided tour of these cities and then if you'd like to tip them, it's up to you.  Our tour guide, Amir, was fantastic, not at all pushy about the tipping thing, and super-knowledgeable.  He's a college student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem studying philosophy and I can't remember what else, but I bet he's a good student.  He was really good at providing fair and balanced info regarding all the world religions and groups that had a piece of Jerusalem's 4000+ year history.

He led us to each of the four quarters of the Old City up and down several billion steps and onto some of the rooftops for spectacular views.  For those of you unfamiliar, the four quarters are the Christian Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter and the Muslim Quarter (which is really a lot bigger than 1/4 of the total, but anyway): here's the Wiki link:  We saw religious types of every type as well as ordinary people, tourists and of course much of it is one huge Arab souk which is really fun to browse all the kinds of stuff for sale there.  We saw lots of Armenian art, various churches including Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian, we saw the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall because it's the last remaining wall of the 2nd Temple).  Normally it is also like a mosh pit -- but not on Shabbat.  The really religious were mostly busy observing Shabbat elsewhere, so we could get up close and personal with it -- but the only downside was no photography was allowed on Shabbat.

We placed little notes with wishes and requests into the crevices as there's a belief that your prayers will be answered ... this has been done traditionally throughout the years, but apparently now you can also send an email to the Chief Rabbi who will then have it placed for you.  (This stuff is vaguely akin to kids writing Santa in the commercialized Christian religion about what their wish-list is.)  Per the tour leader who was very funny, apparently Obama placed a folded up wish into the wall shortly before his election, so who knows how powerful it is ... and also he told us a story about what happens to the old notes, why is there always room to shove more in there?  Apparently once a month someone goes around at night and collects all the notes and then buries them somewhere in the ground to make room for the new ones.  Who knows if that's true?

Amir was really funny and informative and gave us more than 3 hours of his time and we ended up giving him a nice tip and I hope most of the other people did too.  Most of them were from other countries, many non-primarily-English-speaking.  Anyway, I would recommend this tour 10x more than the #99 bus!

Once again we were hungry after walking, so we went back in through the Jaffa Gate and walked almost all the way to the Damascus Gate (the mostly Muslim Quarter).  On Via Dolorosa (somewhere near one of those stations of the cross) is an absolute gem called Hummus Lina.  I'd read about this place on Chowhound as possibly the best Hummus place in the old city (and there is lots of competition!) and I think they may have been right.  We ordered hummus with pine nuts, and Arabic salad with labneh with mint, and yummy yummy pita bread.  And fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, a whole jug of it.  This was one of the least expensive meals we have had this trip, and at the same time one of the best!  The contented sighs coming from our table were a fitting end to an exhausting day.  Here is someone else's obsessive rave review of this place, with photos:  Enjoy :)

That night it was Lag BaOmer, a Jewish holiday with Kabbalistic significance which celebrates the end of a plague and involves lots of bonfires ... for more info see  Unfortunately we were so tired and I had a migraine that we kind of missed going out to see the bonfires. But I'm sure they were fab.

More Jerusalem tidbits, to be continued in Part 2.

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