Cruising to Israel via the NCL cruise ship Jade, was a last-minute decision when I saw this cruise come up as a special on NCL’s website and I thought why not? The real add on was a 2-day, 1 night tour off the ship docking in Ashdod and rejoining the ship in the next port of Haifa. I liked what NCL had done on my last cruise to Machu Picchu, so I thought why not do a similar tour in Israel. The other options were 11–12-hour daily tours and then you were still not going to get this same experience!
I had already prepared myself for potential cancellation as things had heated up with conflicts in Jerusalem between the Jewish and Muslim faiths the week before, including the firing a few missiles from the West Bank. But as quickly as it started, it stopped! This was the first time in 33 years that three religions celebrated important religious holidays all on the same time; Chrisitan Easter, Greek Orthodox Easter, and Muslim Ramadan; therefore, everyone wants to be in the areas of where their faith started or important religious sites to each of them. It was quite interesting for me to note that they all have chosen the same exact location for their history and as such these conflicts will never end.
Everyone on board was required to get another PCR Covid test as per the Israeli government because they did not “trust” our previous results, so that took place the afternoon before on board the ship. In addition, we were informed that EVERYONE must exit the ship to clear Israeli passport control whereby you were issued a tourist visa, even if did not disembark. Very strange to say the least!
We actually docked about 11pm and the next morning started with 630am disembarkation of passengers and surprisingly it was all completed by about 830am. My tour was to meet onboard around 9am and with our overnight bags we proceeded ashore to meet up in three different minibuses; I estimated that there were about thirty people on this special overland tour for the next 2 days. One of the criteria for the tour was no walkers, no wheelchairs, etc., because of the long walks on uneven surfaces with no elevators or ramps, but obviously this was not enforced, we had several people along who should not have been on this tour. Our tour guide was a fast walker and we constantly had to stop along the routes to wait for people to catch up.
Well off we go! We drive about 90 minutes from Port of Ashdod to Jerusalem and I start to realize that the city is really in the hills and there are many apartment buildings along the highway on the tops of these hills, probably providing great views to the city! We stop on the hillside Mount Scopus, near Mount of Olives where the views of Jerusalem are amazing, and we can orient ourselves to the day ahead visiting the sites around there. The Mount of Olives was used a play of prayer over the centuries, and it was the place where Jesus had walked down on Palm Sunday to the city. To this day they still have a big celebration of his trek on every Palm Sunday. All of the grave sites (150,000 at last count) right below us are located here because the Jewish faith still believes that the Messiah was not Jesus and he is still coming, they lie in wait for them to take the same path as Jesus did.
The traffic is going to be a challenge these days because of all these religious holidays, and it is struggle to get into, around, and out of these places we plan to visit. Already running behind, we have to skip a stop at the Garden of Gethsemane and Church of the Agony, but we do plan to circle back around there later in the day. We head down into the Old City to start our walking tour by entry via the Dung Gate with lots of security and checkpoints we enter the large plaza and see the Western Wall aka Wailing Wall to our right side with separate areas for men and women to pray. Fortunately, it is not very busy right now and we are free to walk about and take photos and videos. Famous for being the place where the Temple above was destroyed in 70AD and due to separation of Jews and Muslims, this the bottom of the remnants where Jews can still pray.
We try to exit from the Jewish Quarter into the Muslim quarter via a tunnel, but there was construction work going, so we had to go up and around and eventually ended up in the right area. This is where the Bazaar Market is all run by Muslims hawking their wares from all parts of the Middle East.
We stop first at the Church of Holy Sepulchre to see this controversial site where supposedly Jesus was buried……….however if he ascended into Heaven how was this possible? So, you can see there is a lot of controversy among these sites and what each one means to each person’s religious beliefs. Just outside the Bazaar area for a quick sandwich and head back out the Muslim Quarter via the Jaffa gate where we meet the bus for the drive to Bethlehem.
The traffic is brutal because we have now encountered the start of the final night of Muslim Ramadan and Bethlehem is located in Palestine, so everyone is out in the streets trying to get the mosque before sunset! We finally got the minibus into a parking garage, and we walked over to get inside of the Church of Nativity. Remember almost every religious site is now covered with a church, so you have to go inside into crawl spaces to get to the actual site. This the site where Jesus was born accordingly to the Bible.
A quick stop at an Olive Wood store for souvenirs and the drive back to Jerusalem for our overnight at the Hotel Prima Kings ends the long first day!