Bethlehem: I looked everywhere in my 2011 Bradt Guide, but couldn’t find it.
No wonder… it’s in the West Bank, one of the three Palestine Territories in Israel. So, it wasn’t even in the guide! (I believe many other guides do cover the Palestine Territories, though). From everywhere, I heard words of caution about travelling to the West Bank, but travelling in relatively stable times (November 2017), I wanted to see the place Jesus was born. Somewhere in a weekend supplement, I’d read about the midnight mass held there at Christmas, and coming from Western Europe, one can’t deny its religious significance. I decided to get to Jerusalem first and visit the Old City there, then just figure it out or do a tour.
Turns out a tour is not really required. My AirBnB host pointed out that I can just take an East Jerusalem Bus and go directly there.
One morning, having thought I’d go to the Mount of Olives, I got off the tram , I walked along the lot parked with distinctive blue-and-white buses of the East Jerusalem Bus Company, and I didn’t make it as far as Mount of Olives, because I passed a waiting bus leaving for Jerusalem. A lot of travellers were getting on, so I just decided to follow suit. The bus ride itself was a smooth ride down busy Hebron Road, until a huge wall came into view, the bus turned and stopped. We never really left the city. Somewhat stunned by the wall (growing up in Eastern Germany, I am somewhat biased, and this one is about three times as high as the Berlin Wall!)
I just followed everybody else and walked through the narrow corridors within the checkpoint, with no checking of anything at all. It rather empty and really, really eerie. On the West Bank, we were immediately accosted by some cab drivers, but compared to Morocco or Egypt the hassle was friendly and very mild. I got together with a Polish couple and haggled a cab ride for 15 New Israeli Shekels (NIS). Big mistake! The driver tried to take us on a scenic tour, and when we politely declined, dropped us off at the start of Star Street, still a 10-15min walk to the church.
Strangely, Star Street was extremely quiet at 09.30am. The only place open were the Palestinian Authorities Tourist Information and and a Nativity workshop. Its pleasing traditional 19th Century architecture made for some pretty photos, but it was absolutely dead. I peeped around, trying to locate taxi ranks or bus stations for my return trip, but nothing. After about ten minutes, the narrow pedestrian street opened into the rather lacklustre Manger Square with a smattering of souvenir shop, and the scaffolded, unassuming Church of the Nativity ahead.
Commissioned by Helena, Mother of the Emperor Constantine in 327 BC and destroyed and altered several times, even the silver star in the nativity grotto was looted in the 19th Century! It was pretty much a ruin by 1850, and was only restored in full in in the 1930’s. With more renovations going on at present, it’s not a pretty sight.
The entry is a bit of a crawl, and was teeming with people. The interior was dark and mostly covered in scaffolding and plasterboard walls. As in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a long queue wound through the nave, and having failed to identify the nativity grotto that I’d seen online so far, I joined the queue.
Most people were Christian pilgrims in large groups. One hour passed, and we slowly moved on into one of the aisles. The pilgrims were singing “Silent Night” on a loop… and finally, about 90 minutes later, we made it to a side chapel and a conveniently placed candle/icon stall before facing the big bottleneck of the passage and steps down to the grotto. On the one side, I was extremely excited to see with my own eyes the place Jesus was born, on the other hand, this was like queuing for bananas pre-1989.
And sadly, it wasn’t peace and love here the closer we got to the Holy Place, but more like a stampede to reach the grotto.
The grotto resembled a richly decorated oversize fireplace, then each pilgrim had 20 seconds to kneel and kiss the star while their mates recorded the act with their mobile phone cameras, then a banknote was usually put in the attending Orthodox Priests hands in exchange for a religious image. I would love to report I had a profound religious experience here, but this was as far from solemn as you can imagine.
Jump straight into 2005, when Banksy visited the West Bank and left his mark. Somewhat less visited and revered than the Nativity Grotto, his works all over the Palestinian Territories have become famous, and in 2017, he topped it by opening a luxury hotel right by the Separation Wall, a few hundred metres from the check point. I had already fed off a small group of waiting taxi drivers in Manger Square with my “later, later” approach, now one claimed to remember me and offered me a tour to all the Bethlehem Street Art I cared to see. It was all friendly banter, and we settled on 60NIS including a trip back to the checkpoint. You could walk, in theory, but I had somehow lost my bearings in the twisty Bethlehem streets, it was hot, and I had a bus to Haifa to catch later in the day. The driver spoke reasonable English and handed me his card straightaway, then we set off to see the Angel scattering hearts. I doubt I would have found that one on my own, despite the Ararat Hotel being a useful landmark.
The “Soldier Throwing Flowers” is the most “remote” of the Banksy pieces, but still very much in town – it’s on the side of a garage and petrol station. And everywhere on the drive, I could look across the hills and see uniform brand-new high-rise apartment complexes: Israeli settlements within the West Bank, financed by the State of Israel and lying close to the Israeli Border, considered illegal under International law. And, staying for three days with well-educated, cosmopolitan but essentially Orthodox Jewish hosts and sharing many conversations with them, it was good to hear a different side if the story.
Last not least, time was (sadly) pressing on, and my driver took me back to the Separation Wall, which is absolutely plastered in graffiti near Rachel’s Tomb. The odd shape of the Wall puzzled me, and I later learnt that Rachel’s Tomb, one of the Holiest Sites of the Jewish faith, is concealed behind the wall. And, wishing to see both sides of the wall, I returned there a few days later – I will keep you posted!
We went to see more art on the way (some is very small, so you got to keep your eyes peeled), had a fine strong coffee in the “inofficial” Banksy Shop (great souvenirs though, and profits go to refugees), then the driver showed me the “Walled Off” Hotel (where, I have heard, they do occasional flash sales selling off original Banksy work!) and dropped me off as promised.
I paid him the agreed price. Completely quibble-free, no funny business, very friendly and courteous. He also tried to entice me on a tour of the West Bank – and yes, I was tempted to spend my last day in Israel touring little-known sites of the West Bank – they are rarely publicised, and the largest chunk of information was in the French-language tourist brochure from the Palestine Tourist Office on Star Street – maybe some other time!
I have heard that taxi drivers will also hang out in the Banksy Shop, so it might be worth walking there from the checkpoint to enquire about private street art tours. I will try and find the driver’s card, and give you details if you’re interested.
So, I walked back through a nearly as deserted checkpoint as three hours before, had my passport checked (often Palestinian citizens are checked extremely thoroughly, so be prepared for queues) and hopped back onto a waiting bus by the roundabout for the 15-minute trip to Damascus Gate, shopped for provisions in Machane Jehuda market, picked up by bag and went on an Egged Coach to Haifa – which is only 150km away but a completely different world.
If you wish to visit Bethlehem, go ahead! It would be wise to check on the political situation and Foreign Office advice of your home country, as well as apply the same precautions as travelling in a city, but I found my Bethlehem trip easy and safe. Please let me know if there is anything that should be added here, and if you’ve already visited, I would love to hear your experiences!
Transport: The tram (which goes by the fancy name Jerusalem Light Rail) is great way of getting round Jerusalem. Within the Old City, you’ll have to walk. The tram, coming from the Central Bus Station stops at City Hall (handy for Jaffa Gate, the more touristy entry to the Old City, heading into the Christian Quarter) then at Damascus Gate (one of the Arab Quarter entrances to the Old City and also the main Jerusalem Hub of the East Jerusalem Bus Company, on three plots spread around Damascus Gate).
Buses of the East Jerusalem Bus Company leave from around Damascus Gate and, unlike West Jerusalems Egged City Buses, show their destination in Arabic and English. The buses to Bethlehem leave from the large open square right next to the tram stop, facing the Damascus Gate. I took Bus No.234 which goes to Rachel’s Tomb (pedestrian?) checkpoint, and you have to cross into the West Bank by foot and walk or taxi to the Church of the Nativity. However…. you have ample opportunities to see the art on the Separation Wall near the Checkpoint. Bus 231 to Beit Jala goes closer to the town centre, takes longer, as it passes through the Beit Jala check point, and it’s still a 20min uphill walk to the Church of the Nativity. A bus ride costs just under 5 NIS.
Accommodation: I stayed in an AirBnB in West Jerusalem close to He Haluts Station. I highly recommend staying close to the Light Railway. You may find more quiet the more Western you go, whereas from Central Station East you’ll be right in the shopping and business district with a lot of dining options, too. With the Light Rail going at least every ten minutes even late in teh evening, it’s really easy to get around. The well-known Abraham Hostel, for example, is very centrally located by the Ha Davidtka Stop. Since I was travelling on my own on a budget of 500 EURO (for the entire week), hotels were out of the question this time.
Food: No idea! Star Street was dead when I visited, and Manger Square has a couple of restaurants geared towards the tourist Trade. Afteem on the left in Star Street just before it opens into Manger Square is a simple cafe type place with Middle Eastern Fast Food that gets good reviews.
Tours: You will find numerous tour operators in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem offering guided tours to Bethlehem, for example with Abraham Tours or Tourist Israel but they usually don’t include the street art scattered over town. Murad Tours offers a Street-Art Tour that includes the Church of the Nativity. However… unless these tours visit Bethlehem really early to avoid the crowds and the long queues (it opens at 05.30 or 06.30 depending on season), a trip can be easily done on public transport and/or taxi and will most likely cost a lot less. Also, I am unsure whether the tours will wait long enough for you to stand in line and visit the Nativity Grotto.
Tourist Israel operates a tourist shuttle between Tel Aviv/Jerusalem and both the Church of the Nativity and the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem from 1 April 2018, costing from USD15.
For hearing different sides of the story, something I highly recommend in a place as disputed and debated as Israel and Palestine, I recommend seeking out dialogue with both Israeli and Palestine nationals. A fellow traveller went on a Hebron Dual Narrative Tour and highly recommended it. I don’t think I would have dared to visit Hebron by myself either, due to the complexities of the zones and checkpoints, and this is the tour I would have gone on given more time.
If I could go back, I would try to arrive at the checkpoint at the crack of dawn next time and visit the Church of the Nativity as early as possible to avoid the crowds. It’s less than 10km from Jaffa Gate to the checkpoint, so a taxi shouldn’t cost much.
I had a 2011 Bradt Guide* and WiFi in pretty all public places which was more than enough. The Bradt Guide does not include the Palestinian Territories and is well out of date regarding prices and accommodation options, but a new edition (minus Palestinan Territories!) is due out in summer 2018. Lonely Planet * includes the Palestine Territories and a new edition is out in summer 2018. I generally prefer Rough Guide * as it’s often stronger on history and culture and has more diverse accommodation and dining options, but its Israel and Jerusalem guidebooks don’t look like they have been updated in the last few years.
Here is a lovely video of a crowd-free Nativity Grotto.
I used the excellent post from Uneven Tenor to check what street art, and Banksy in particular, is in Bethlehem and how to get there. This is by far the most detailed post on how to find these works independently. As the post was written in 2015, some may not be there any more. I couldn’t see the “Girl frisking Soldier”, and to be honest, the taxi driver took me to every minor work in the short time available.
“Not all Palestinians are happy with Banksy’s Bethlehem Hotel”: Here is an interesting article from the Independent on the Banksy Hotel.
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