Classic experiences you'll never forget
I first visited Jerusalem in 1961, when I was 11 years old. Back then it was a mere shadow of what it has become — a half-city reached through a cul-de-sac of Israel surrounded by "enemy" territory. Little more than 50 yards from our room at the King David Hotel, barbed wire and tank traps separated us from the crenellated walls of the Old City.
Now, 33 years later — and 27 years after Jerusalem was physically united — the barbed wire is submerged beneath gracious parks, and dramatic new neighborhoods have been grafted onto hilltops. Over the years I've returned so many times I've lost count. But whenever I visit Jerusalem I discover something new: a building, a cranny, a vista, a mood. It is a city where nothing, absolutely nothing, is ordinary. Here are my choices for experiences that no first-time visitor should miss.
MOUNT OF OLIVES
Nothing feels quite as sacred as a walk down the Mount of Olives just after sunrise. To the left of the deserted lane taken by Jesus on the first Palm Sunday lie the terraced graves of Judaism's most hallowed cemetery. Ahead, Islam's gilded Dome of the Rock flashes in the sunlight, and the Old City's Golden Gate, bricked up since the 13th century, waits patiently to be opened by the Messiah. Cocks crow as you pass the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Then comes the Church of Dominus Flevit, whose teardrop-shaped roof evokes Jesus's weeping over Jerusalem's impending destruction. Finally, at the foot of the mountain, you encounter the tranquil Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested. Its gnarled olive trees have lived as long as 1,000 years.
ECCE HOMO CONVENT
The Sisters of Zion guide visitors through this convent with such passion you'll feel as if each had personally witnessed the first Easter. Many believe that it was on the flagstones of the Lithistratos, the original courtyard of Pontius Pilate's Antonia Fortress (now in the convent's basement), that the centurions taunted Jesus and crowned him with thorns.
THE WESTERN WALL
After the Romans sacked and burned Jerusalem 1,924 years ago, all that remained of Herod's Temple was its western retaining wall. Over the centuries the cries of anguished Jewish pilgrims inspired observers to dub it the Wailing Wall. Restored to Jewish sovereignty 1,897 years later, it is now known merely as the Western Wall, a tangible symbol for Jews worldwide of their post-Holocaust renaissance.
GARDEN OF THE ANNA TICHO HOUSE
The lawns, bougainvillea, and old pine trees surrounding the graceful house where artist Anna Ticho lived from 1894 to 1980 — now a museum and restaurant — create an oasis of serenity in downtown Jerusalem.
MAHANE YEHUDA MARKET
At noon every Friday the alleys and stalls of the spotless Mahane Yehuda Market evoke bedlam as Jerusalemites race to finish their last-minute shopping in preparation for the Sabbath, commencing at sundown.
SHIPUDEI HAGEFEN RESTAURANT
The quintessential lunch at the Annavim brothers' eating place near Mahane Yehuda Market is a skewer of exquisite Israeli foie gras barbecued rare and served with a side of french fries. Shipudei Hagefen, 74 Agrippus St. (near Mahane Yehuda open market); 011 972-2/624-4888 fax 011 972-2/624-3030.
THE ISRAEL MUSEUM
Israel's antiquity, sophistication, and artistic richness come together here. In an hour you can view the Dead Sea Scrolls, Roman glass platters, Byzantine mosaics, Persian tiled prayer nooks, a Baroque synagogue from Italy's Veneto, paintings by Rembrandt, Renoir, and Kandinsky, the Louis XV salon of the Paris Rothschilds, Robert Indiana's giant Love sculpture spelled out in Hebrew, canvases by Postmodern Israeli artists, and Spiderman poised to leap from the walls of the children's wing.
This tiny village in the Judean Hills, birthplace of John the Baptist, actually lies within Jerusalem's city limits, just 15 minutes from the heart of town. Its fig trees, galleries, gardens, bistros, churches, artisans' workshops, and masses of morning glories will remind you of Provence.
CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE
The original church was built in A.D. 324 over the site of Golgotha, as identified by Queen Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, who had adopted the Christian religion 12 years earlier. Today's structure, which dates from the Crusader period, is shared by the Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian churches — each jealously guarding its own turf, entrusting the keys to the adjacent Mosque of Omar to prevent one sect from locking out another. Since the 1880s many Protestants have believed the location erroneous, considering the true site to be the more bucolic Garden Tomb, a half mile to the north. Nonetheless, the faces of the pious as they emerge from the sepulchre's inner sanctum affirm the church's significance.
In 1967, Theo and Miriam Siebenberg began constructing their dream house on a site in the Old City's restored Jewish Quarter. Excavation uncovered the remains of a building from the Second Temple period (circa 30 B.C.-A.D. 70). Its mosaics and decorative glass indicated that it had been a wealthy Jewish family's house burned during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The excavated rooms and their contents are exhibited today in a cavernous museum beneath the Siebenberg residence.
DOME OF THE ROCK
This exquisitely tiled and gilded mosque, built in 691, validates Jerusalem as Islam's third-holiest city. The bare rock it enshrines is central to all three monotheistic faiths: it is not only the site where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac and where the Ark of the Covenant was housed in the Holy of Holies of Solomon's and Herod's temples but also the spot from which Mohammed ascended to heaven.
The houses, alleys, marketplaces, inhabitants, and mindset of this ultra-Orthodox neighborhood are hauntingly evocative of the central European shtetls (Jewish hamlets) that were obliterated by the Nazis.
SATURDAY NIGHT STREET LIFE
Thousands of young people throng the cafes, pubs, and crafts markets of pedestrianized central Jerusalem on Rivlin, Shlomzion Hamalka, and Ben Yehuda streets, applauding sidewalk entertainers, munching on pizza, falafel, or burger and browsing, carousing, and promenading.
On a serene Judean hilltop, Israel's Holocaust memorial and museum graphically recalls the horrors which, a mere half century ago, befell the descendants of Jews dispersed from here 2,000 years earlier. Even though Zionism — the movement to restore the Jewish homeland — was already a political movement 50 years before World War II, the Holocaust has inevitably emerged as Israel's unifying leitmotif; it is fundamental to any comprehension of the Israeli psyche.
Jerusalem taxi drivers hate to turn on their meters. Some of them actually keep the meter inside the glove compartment, presumably on the principle of out of sight, out of mind. Their response to hearing your destination is to quote you a set price. Upon request — sometimes strongly expressed — they will turn on their meters. It doesn't seem to embarrass them that what the meter reflects at the end of the journey is always less than the price they quoted.
A couple of streets and some courtyards have been restored into a pedestrian area called Nahalat Shiva (the principal street is Yoel Moshe Salamon). The shops here specialize in pottery or jewelry or even biblical harps.
For jewelry and other objects of ancient stone, many people recommend Tarshish on King David Street across from the Reform Judaism center.
In the Old City the souvenir stores thin out as you move farther from the Jaffa Gate. A walk I liked follows David Street, or Suq el-Bazaar, from the Jaffa Gate and then takes a left onto Suq el-Lahhamin, which leads into Suq Khan el-Zeit (Bet Habad). A shop off to the right on the Via Dolorosa has a good selection of small antiquities.
King David Hotel23 King David St.,Jerusalem 94101, Israel;011 972-2/620-8888, fax 011 972-2/620-8882; E-mail: email@example.com;doubles $460-$590Just west of the Old City, the King David is, of course, the best-known hotel in Israel — an expensive, solemnly prestigious establishment that has been part of the history of the Middle East for more than a half century. Nobody raves about the rooms, although you may hear polite compliments for the newest ones, on the fifth and sixth floors. Everybody raves about the grounds — which include a huge swimming pool, tennis courts, and gardens — and the location, convenient to downtown and offering a view of the Old City from some rooms.
Laromme Jerusalem HotelLiberty Bell Park;3 Jabotinsky St.;800/233-0888 or 800/344-1212 or 800/448-8355; 011 972-2/675-6666, fax 011 972-2/675-6777; E-Mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org; doubles $305-$465
For people looking for a conveniently located luxury hotel, the Laromme is thought of as the slicker, more up-to-date alternative to the King David, only a few blocks away. If I had to speculate on how the Laromme came to look the way it does, I would take a wild guess that the owner found a particularly good architect to design the building and then turned the interior decoration over to his brother-in-law. The lobby is almost willfully ugly.
American Colony Hotel1 St. Vincent Rd. (Nablus Rd.);Post Office Box 19215; 97200 Jerusalem;011 972-2/627-9777, fax 011 972-2/627-9779; E-mail address: email@example.com;doubles $175-$260
Exquisitely conscious that it is the hippest place to stay, the American Colony uses its brochure to remind potential guests that they have been preceded not only by T.E. Lawrence and Field Marshal Lord Allenby but also by Lauren Bacall and Peter Ustinov. A favorite of journalists covering the Middle East, the American Colony is such a graceful building that the claim it was a pasha's palace in the 19th century is believable. There's a charming courtyard and a vaulted cellar bar with the feel of a place where any number of secrets have been passed.
The hotel is in East Jerusalem — a few blocks north of the Old City — in what was Jordan before 1967. One Israeli travel agent told me she wouldn't book anyone there, on the grounds that the neighborhood is dangerous for Westerners, or at least a hard area to persuade a taxi driver to go. That view, I think, is partly political: although the hotel describes itself as a neutral island, many Israelis have never felt comfortable there. Among the visitors I spoke to who had gone to the American Colony for meals — it's popular for lunch in the courtyard — no one reported a taxi problem. On the other hand, local people did say they would hesitate to stroll around the neighborhood.
I greatly enjoyed grazing in the Arab sections of the Old City, where it's easy to find, say, a bag of fava beans with parsley, or huge round trays of baklava made with raisin-size pieces of pistachio, or a two-table restaurant where a man schooled in the mysteries of hummus will stuff a pita to your specifications. One of the most renowned hummus emporiums is Abu-Shukri on El-Wad Road — not far, as it happens, from the Fifth Station of the Cross.
7 Rivlin St.;011 972-2/624-7501 fax 011 972-2/623-3899;dinner for two $160
When serious foodies mention a Jerusalem restaurant that could hold its own in California or on the Mediterranean coast of western Europe, this is the one they have in mind. A small whitewashed seafood place, it has an imaginative chef-proprietor and an atmosphere that is sophisticated without being pretentious.
CACAOHebron Rd.;011 972-2/671-0632 fax 011 972-2/671-9373;dinner for two $40;no credit cards
I had a pleasant lunch on the terrace of this restaurant in the Cinematheque complex. An informal place that overlooks the Old City, it specializes in salads and small upscale pizzas.
EUCALYPTUS 7 Hyrcanus St., Jerusalem; 011 972-2/624-4331; Dinner for two: $45
Spectacular meals are served in this very simple restaurant, which has recently moved to the second floor of a hotel. It has a dozen tables covered with oilcloth. The proprietor, Moshe Basson, turns out first-rate soups and salads, but his specialty is stuffed vegetables — zucchini, fennel, potatoes. Mr. Basson has an almost scholarly approach to his work. I think of him as a sort of veggie archaeologist.
Gathering the family for Friday dinner is a custom in Israel for an enormous number of people, whether they are religiously observant or not (in Jerusalem, as opposed to the more secular Tel Aviv, restaurants are normally closed on Friday night). Attending one of these Sabbath dinners can give you a lovely demonstration of the strength of family that underpins Israeli society. Visitors can arrange it through a program called "Meet the Israeli in His Home," coordinated by the Jerusalem Tourist Office (011 972-2/754-811).
- Calvin Trillin
JERUSALEMWALKS by Nitza Rosovsky (Henry Holt) — More than 20 centuries of history in six half-day walks that take you into some of the city's most enchanting sections. The author recommends, with an insider's familiarity, shops and restaurants along the routes.
THE ISRAELIS by Amos Elon (Penguin Books) — A dramatic and fair-minded portrait of Israel which places the continuing conflicts of the Mideast in historical perspective.
O JERUSALEM! by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (Simon & Schuster) — A breathtaking day-to-day record of the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, filled with unforgettable characters and world-famous figures.
ONE FINE DAY THE RABBI BOUGHT A CROSS by Harry Kemelman (Fawcett) — Another triumph for Rabbi David Small, a kosher Sherlock Holmes. With equal parts moxie and chutzpah this delightful sleuth takes on religious zealots, fervid archaeologists, and the PLO while trying to enjoy a holiday in the Holy Land.
— Martin Rapp