church of the nativity

door-of-humilityYesterday I crouched down to about half my height to enter through the Door of Humility at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and I have never been more humbled in my life. The door was created this way to force everyone who entered to bow down in humility and reverence. This church marks the very spot where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born, a place that thousands from around the world visit each year to honour Christ, celebrate their faith and connect with one of the oldest stories ever told. To say that it was special is an understatement. To describe what I felt would be impossible.

The structure itself is maintained by three religious denominations of the Christian faith: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic. When you enter, it’s really like two side-by-side churches but down below, down a narrow stone staircase is a grotto. It is here, in this small, dark space where Jesus is believed to have been born, the exact spot marked by a fourteen-point silver star that is touched and kissed by pilgrims from all over the world. The impact it had on me was profound, an experience that will last a lifetime. I would love to one day attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve here.

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david citadel hotel jerusalem

david-citadel-hotelI spent the entire day sick in bed. Ugh! Not how I imagined spending my time in Jerusalem. But I suppose these things happen. In fact, I’m surprised they don’t happen more often. Traveling has got to be one of the easiest ways to pick up a bug or virus. So, I missed a day exploring the city and rested up in my hotel. But it’s not a bad hotel to be stuck in!

I’m staying at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. Located in Western Jerusalem, this five-star hotel offers modern, luxury accommodations and breathtaking views of the ancient walls of the Old City. The decor is grand – from the vast marble lobby to the sweeping staircases and snaking hallways. The hotel has 384 suites and guestrooms and a variety of restaurants to choose from, including: Scala, The Seasons (pictured above), Yakimonotoo and the Lobby & Terrace restaurant, which offers great views during both day and night. Food is also served poolside.

My room is a generous size and the bed is super-comfortable. (Thank goodness since I spent all day in it today!) The walls are a bit thin, making noise from the hallway and rooms next door a bit of a problem but other than that, you’ll find everything you need here. Most importantly (for me, anyway!), you can get wireless Internet for 24 hours for 65 scheckels (that’s about $18CDN or $15USD).

There’s shopping nearby and a number of restaurants within walking distance. It’ll take you less than 10 minutes to walk to the Old City from here, making this hotel perfectly situated for most things you’ll probably want to do.

For more information:
The David Citadel Hotel, 7 King David Street, Jerusalem, 94101, Tel: +972 2 621 1111.

masada and the dead sea

masadaI awoke and had to rub my eyes again and again. Was that Jerusalem outside my window? Unbelievable.

The day began full of promise and anticipation. Having visited some of the holiest sites in the world the previous day, my appetite for more ancient history had been whetted. On today’s agenda: Masada and a visit to the Dead Sea. Let’s go!

The drive from the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem where I was staying, to Masada was about an hour and a half. It was a drive unlike any other I’d ever taken. We descended surely but imperceptibly lower and lower into the bowels of the earth until we reached the absolute lowest point on earth – the Dead Sea. Markers along the highway indicate the depth as you go; the Dead Sea is situated at 422 metres below sea level. But before stopping to take a swim (or float) in the famed sea, we continued on to Masada.

Overlooking the Dead Sea, Masada, which means ‘fortress’ in Hebrew, is the site of a complex of palaces built by King Herod the Great between the years 37 and 31 BC. Designed to be a refuge in the event of an attack against him (he was a friend of the unpopular Romans), Masada was his safe (and luxurious, given the times) haven. What remains now may look like a pile of rubble, unimpressive at first glance. But a healthy imagination can transform the stone walls into ones neatly covered with plaster and paint, cool inside from the scorching sun and a majestic, intricately designed escape for Herod and his army. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, Masada is a big tourist draw.

Unfortunately, shortly after the tour commenced, I started to feel nauseous. The sweltering heat and cable car ride up to the top of Masada may have caused the dizzying sensations that forced me to sit out most of the tour. TIP: Drink lots of water. The sun can be sweltering and the naturally dry climate necessitates even more hydration than usual.

So we left and headed to the Dead Sea but sadly, I was in no shape to go swimming … or floating, to be more precise. I couldn’t have been more disappointed to miss my opportunity to float in the Dead Sea but I delighted in seeing others do it. Considering I’m a weak swimmer, the Dead Sea is just up my alley – you can’t possibly sink! But be careful: Our guide warned that ingesting even a small amount of the Dead Sea water can make you quite ill. Drinking about half a cup could kill you. Gulp.

Another hour and a half drive back to Jerusalem and then it was bed for me … I hope to sleep off this bug and be ready for another day of exploring tomorrow!

a walking tour of jerusalem

church-of-the-holy-sepulchrUpon landing in Tel Aviv, which I wrote about yesterday, I met with my guide Amir and we made our way to Jerusalem. It was a 35-minute drive. After a quick breakfast (hot chocolate and yes, another bagel), we commenced a walking tour of Jerusalem. Before I share with you the highlights, I must tell you that if you do a walking tour of this holy city, be sure to wear GOOD walking shoes (I love my Rockport shoes for walking!) and wear light clothes because the sun can get really hot. But be sure to bring a shawl or pashmina with you so you can cover up if necessary to gain entry to certain sacred sites. I just happened to have one with me, which was lucky, because I was told (quite brusquely, I might add) to cover up when visiting the Western Wall. (Surprising, since I was covered from head to toe, but for bare arms; I hadn’t changed since arriving from Toronto.)

Anyhow, it was an action-packed day, visiting some of the holiest Christian sites in the world. We visited the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested, we walked the Via Dolorosa, the route Jesus walked carrying the cross on his back and finally, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. There are no words to describe what I felt there. This was only my first day in Jerusalem and I knew that this incredible and special start was merely an indication of all that was yet to come.

flying el al

el-al
Over the last few days, I’ve been entertaining you with blog posts about travel must-haves, products I love and other tidbits of travel talk. But today, we’re actually traveling, not just talking about it! Yesterday, I boarded an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. The 10-hour and 44-minute flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv was as easy as can be. That might be because I travel with an endless assortment of ways to amuse myself on long-haul flights. What was in my carry-on bag? Well, for starters, there were snacks. I never travel without snacks! Plus, I had three magazines, my book, my iPod Touch (good for music, games and movies) and my laptop. But I didn’t really need all of that to while away the hours. Truth be told, when you’re comfortable on a plane, the time really does fly. And that’s how I felt on this flight. They played four movies: Mall Cop, Bride Wars, Yes Man and Unforgiven. I admit, I only watched Bride Wars but it’s amazing how easily a movie passes two hours. The food was great; I pre-ordered the Asian vegetarian meal, which consisted of stir-fried seasoned zucchini, potato wedges and rice. Breakfast was a fresh and tasty bagel with butter and more veggies. The flight attendants were friendly and attentive, ready to serve juice or hot tea at any point during the flight.

El Al, which means ‘to the skies‘ in Hebrew, is Israel’s national carrier and flies daily between Toronto and Tel Aviv. Its hub, Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, is bright and modern and provides a wonderful welcome to visitors, especially first-timers like me. Airport security at both ends and during the flight was tight (El Al is one of, if not the, world’s most secure airlines) but it wasn’t aggressive, obvious or intimidating. Door to door, the experience was pleasant, easy and yes, even relaxing.  To say I was excited to land at Ben Gurion here in Tel Aviv would be an enormous understatement. Visit elal.co.il for more information or join their Facebook group to learn more!

After landing, I took the 35-minute drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which is where I am now. I look forward to telling you more about that soon!