BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters Life!) - The birthplace of Jesus is hardly an easy “weekend getaway” spot, but for a taste of how today’s Holy Land feels, this hospitable Palestinian town draped over the steep hilltops outside Jerusalem is an essential place to visit.
Most foreigners fly into Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, an hour away from Jerusalem, and enter via Israeli checkpoints into the occupied West Bank. Security remains tight but there is currently no tension to deter the hardy traveler.
Visitors love to come at Christmas, when a crowded Bethlehem celebrates its most famous date at the Church of the Nativity in Manger square. But the town hosts tourists year round. In the summer it’s hot. In winter, there can be a veil of snow on the rooftops so warm clothing is advisable.
Local correspondents help you get the most out of a stay.
From your hotel on Manger Street (www.palestinehotels.com) you can easily tour the inner city by foot. The hills are steep and good walking shoes are a necessity. Taxis are inexpensive and plenty. A wider selection of hotels, restaurants, theatres can be found at (www.thisweekinpalestine.com).
10:00 am - Head to the Church of the Nativity, the oldest church in the Holy Land, and bend down low to pass through the worn stone lintel of the Gate of Humility. Among whispers in many languages from groups of awed pilgrims, compare the sweetly incensed air and hanging lamps of the Orthodox Church with the quiet, glassy light of the Roman Catholic Church beside it.
Be sure to see the beautiful mosaic tiling of the ancient floor exposed beneath your feet as you pass down ancient steps to the gloom of the Grotto where Christians believe Mary gave birth to the baby Jesus. A silver star embedded in white marble bears the Latin inscription “Here, of the Virgin Mary, Christ was born.”
11:00 am - Adjust to the bright light back outside in Manger Square and stroll through the esplanade over to the splendid Mosque of Omar, the tourist center of Bethlehem where Christmas Eve celebrations are held. Check out what’s on year-round at the Bethlehem Peace Center (www.peacenter.org). The square streets around are lined with shops and cafes serving pungent Arab coffee or sweet cappuccino.
12:00 - Walk up Pope Paul VI Street in the center of the town and see convents and churches built by European religious congregations. Priests and nuns in the varied robes and hats of many churches are a common sight. But Bethlehem is an oriental city. The popular Star and Farahiya Streets display a model of Arab architecture typical of the Ottoman era.
2:00 p.m. - For lunch, choose al Madbasa restaurant in the old city and try "mansaf" a dish of tasty rice and baked lamb flavored with yoghurt and toasted nuts and eaten with flat bread. (here)
For dessert, locals relish “kunafa” an oriental confection.
5:00 p.m. - Head to Three Arches souvenir shop (www.holylandshopping.com) where you will find mother-of-pearl and olive wood carvings, icons, and jewelry.
7:00 p.m. - You’ll need a rest before going down to dinner at the Tent restaurant, next to Shepherd’s Field. Furnished with traditional Arab seating and plump embroidered cushions, have a leisurely meal of hand-made flat bread, humus (mashed chick peas), tabbouleh (bulgar, finely chopped parsley with a little tomato, cucumber, onion, olive oil and lemon), mutabbal (eggplant with sesame and lemon) and jarjir (rocket with tomatoes, onion and lemon spiced with sumac). You have to be hungry. This is followed by a choice of grilled meats, rice or roast potatoes. As a digestif, try puffing on a nargileh (water pipe) prepared at your table by the boy with the glowing charcoal censer. Apple, mint and lemon flavored tobacco are favorites.
9:00 p.m. - If you’re in the mood for drinks and dancing, check out the throbbing Cosmos disco on Crimisan Street in the Beit Jala quarter, where music switches from Western favorites to Arab pop stars. For a quieter evening order a nargileh with an Arabic coffee at Reem Al Bawadi cafe in Manger Street, from noon until midnight.
8:00 a.m. - Skip breakfast at your hotel and go right to the Souk for a stroll through its bustling alleyways. The bazaar was renovated 10 years ago in the old style. Farmers from outlying villages arrive early with all sorts of fresh vegetables, beans, nuts and spices at the market by the Syrian Orthodox Church.
9:00 a.m. - You’ll have a sharp appetite for breakfast at Afteem restaurant near Manger Square, offering traditional humus and falafel, with freshly squeezed, sweetened lemon juice flavored with crushed mint leaves.
10:00 a.m. - Visit the Milk Grotto next to the Church of the Nativity where Mary nursed the baby Jesus while hiding there from Herod’s soldiers before escaping to Egypt. It is hewn from soft rock that some believe was colored white by drops of the Virgin’s breast milk.
11:00 a.m. - The lathes at Giacaman’s factory on Milk Grotto Street near the Nativity church will be humming as skilled workers carve Christmas and other Biblical scenes from the rich wood of gnarled old olive trees that are collected from all over the West Bank. The carvings cost from $1 for a simple crucifix to $7,000 for a hand-carved nativity scene with the Three Kings, the manger, Christ and the Virgin.
1:00 p.m. - Over-eating is a hazard in Palestinian restaurants, so for a light lunch get a fresh chicken sandwich at Marvel’s on Manger Street or a quick meal at the Square restaurant where there are tables outside in sunny weather.
3:00 p.m. - Visit the richly carpeted Mosque of Omar with its elegant minaret, built in honor of the second Caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khattab. Visitors must remove their shoes and women must cover their heads.
4:00 p.m. - It’s not easy to escape the symbols of religion in Bethelehem, but for a change take a look inside the nearby Arab Women’s Union Museum. Here you can see displays of a typical Palestinian diwan (living room) with clothing, jewelry, old photos, and personal items from the British Mandate era before the state of Israel was established in 1948.
7:00 p.m. - Dine at Abu Shanab restaurant where the fragrance of grilled lamb will whet your appetite, and drink the homemade “Arak” a pungent, resinous spirit similar to pastis or ouzo which turns milky when water is added. The lamb is served on skewers, in spiced meat rolls, or thinly sliced chops, with hot Arabic bread and an array of typical Middle Eastern salads in accompaniment, not forgetting the mandatory humus and tabbouleh.
9:00 p.m. - Take time to visit Dar Annadwa theater on Paul VI Street to enjoy Palestinian folklore and dancing. Or have a stroll before bedtime along the hillside streets for a wonderful view of the lights of Jerusalem by night, just to the north.
9:00 a.m. - Order a taxi and take a trip to The Wall. The towering gray concrete Israeli barrier wrapped around Bethlehem slices through streets and cuts off access to Jerusalem. The watchtowers and forbidding steel gates are a solemn reminder of the unresolved conflict. But there’s a hopeful aspect too. All kinds of graffiti, from simple spray-on slogans to elaborate paintings and nine images by the mysterious British artist Banksy bear witness to the wish of many visitors to see this barrier one day disappear. Check out Banksy’s ladder going up and over and kids scrambling through a hole in the wall.
10 a.m. - On the way out, you can see Rachel’s Tomb, or Belal’s Mosque, considered holy by Jews, Muslims and Christians, like many of the sacred sites just down the road in the Old City of Jerusalem. Many holy land tourists on short visits opt to “do” Bethlehem on a day-trip by bus from its bigger neighbor. But Palestinians think it’s worth a weekend all of its own.
Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Paul Casciato