Home in Melbourne 5 th June

I am back in wintry Melbourne adjusting to dark cold mornings and early nights. It is a bit of a shock from 40 degree temperatures at the Dead Sea. It is good to be home nevertheless and I am now trying to update my blog to make it easier to navigate and so I can continue to add to it with my next adventure.

I was to be having a 4WD trek through Central Australia but it has been put on hold due to uncertainty about roads. The outback has been subject to inundation and roads are blocked. It could make for a later date to explore and that won’t suit as I am off to South America shortly after. I couldn’t afford to get bogged and stuck out there and not be able to get back in time for the South American departure.

Also my friend’s Mum is not in good health and she doesn’t want to be too far away in case she is needed. We are all at that time of our lives when if it isn’t grandchildren needing care it is our parents. The cycle of life makes all the trips more important.

I believe in doing them while I am able and relatively free. Time will come soon enough when such adventures will be curtailed.

This last holiday or more accurately group of holidays where so different from my usual freewheeling travels. They were wonderful and it gave me a current benchmark to measure against. I loved them and enjoyed the companionship, the organisation and the ease of travel. I missed the independence and free time of my own travels. I feel so empowered if I have to negotiate travel independently. It is not as efficient sometimes and has more stress probably, but I do feel energised by the challenge.

Staying in hotels had great advantages, not the least a private bath in the private bathrooms, room to spread out, towels and toiletries, and power points! What I missed was that many were not right in the heart of things, or there was little communication with other travellers. I find people interesting and love to hear their stories so I enjoy meeting new people and that is certainly made easier when you are in close quarters or sharing the same route so that you bump into the same people more often.

Of course I did meet new people who were part of my group and that was a delight and special in a different way. I mean meeting people outside my usual circles such as locals or other international travellers.

So I have enjoyed and gained so much from this holiday and will look forward to adding this style of travel to my repertoire depending on the destination in the future.

Dead Sea 25 th & 26 th May

It seemed strange not to have a timetable after weeks of being on the go. We didn’t even have to sit together to eat which left us feeling a little forlorn. We had become a family of sorts and it was a strange feeling to be loose!

Anne and I had made appointments for massages and were then at a loose end. I was trying to finish the blog after several days of bad internet. Time went quickly and we were back at the Beach for a swim or more accurately, a float. This day the water was mill pond calm which really added to the dreamy feeling. We were on our way back to the room when Julie called us. She and Jan and the other Kathy were at the poolside bar so we joined them. Our skin was smooth from the salt but our pockets were skinned by the prices at the poolside bar! Still it was delightful to sit around in the water talking.

Dinner was a varied and delicious buffet. We had got a bit sick of the buffet meals but here there were more choices. I was amused to see beef bacon at breakfast! Alcohol has been expensive ( though beer was not) and hard to get because it was Ramadan. Here we were not restricted to after 8.00 pm. And they had a great deal of $24 a glass of wine but refilled as much as you like! Mind you we hadn’t been drinking much so we didn’t want to over do it.

In such a large hotel we barely bumped in to each other so there was a sense of the group dismantling with everyone going their own ways. Some of the group are continuing on to Egypt and Sth. Africa, while the rest will split up in Dubai when Mary and Bill take their plane to Perth and the remaining group go on to Melbourne. We have been a very cohesive group so we are hoping to keep in touch.

Several of the group wanted Father Dean to bless their presents, something Anya did quite frequently whenever there was a priest and we were visiting a church! We had our last mass and he blessed all the gifts.

Everyone is glad of the rest after our constant early starts and packed days. Just mooching around had been reviving. People look so strange when covered in mud. There were all ethnicities on the beach when the mud was washed off and I had to laugh at a young guy who was covered in mud all over, except for his pink ears! I covered my ears and it took two days to get the mud out!

Our minds had turned for home and we were packing and printing tickets for the plane. I get a bit like the riding school horse ho when turned for home just wants to get there.

On our last morning our bags had to be out by 12 and we were on the bus by 2.30 heading for Amman airport. It was a fairly quick trip and uneventful through check in, and immigration. The men in immigration seemed bored witless and were not going to smile.

Our flight to Dubai was pleasant and then we had nearly 4 hours to kill. A group of us women were duty free shopping and all got our eyebrows done and a trial of a primer. We all looked pretty glamorous and of course we bought the deal and divided it!

When we boarded our flight Julie and Anne were keen to sit where there were more spaces, so they grabbed some unoccupied seats hoping to bag the four across. Unfortunately neither succeeded but did get extra spaces on one side. It was an easy, long flight back.

We arrived on time and were met with very cold temperatures. BRR. We were home!

We said our final farewells and disappeared into the night.

Jerash 24 th May

What an eventful morning. The good news was that Bill who had been hospitalised for Gall bladder issues was well enough to be released to continue his trip. We were on our way to collect him from the hospital when we discovered the roads were being closed and the bus had to take a circuitous route. When we asked why the road was closed the answer was because they can! It seemed to be just to make it difficult for Muslims to go to the Mosque because it is Friday.

The next drama was Julie thought she had left her passport at the hotel and due to the road closures had to walk back. Matthew took her and with great relief discovered it I was in her suitcase instead which was actually on the bus. We set off again only to have Mary feel sick and throw up. Anya came to the rescue quickly with a plastic bag. Then it was Julie’s turn to be sick. We pulled into the Oasis Hotel at Jericho to collect a swimsuit Anya had left behind when we stayed there, and Julie jumped off and rushed into the hotel.

We left Israel and entered the West Bank, where we went through a checkpoint before the border crossing and we were not allowed to take photos. We were going across the Allenby Bridge crossing. They were asking lots of questions about who we were. Australian was the only thing I understood. Once clear of that checkpoint we continued to the border. Then we were through and it was the immigration where we had to pay our exit tax of 182 shekels. It seemed pretty expensive to me. Our bags were checked through the scanners and we were then in Jordan. These crossings can be quick or very slow. On the way in Matthew had been questioned for about 30 minutes and some of the bags were checked twice but this time it was fairly uneventful.

We were very sorry to say farewell to our tour guide Khalil. He was exceptional. If anyone wants a guide to The Holy Land I would recommend him wholeheartedly. His knowledge and perspective was truly educational. On the other side we met Anton our previous guide in Jordan. He was also amazing. We gave our last precious shekels as tips. It had taken us days to get small change for tips and toilets and now we had it we were leaving! I changed my last 20 shekel note into 4 American dollars, the only American dollars I had had all trip!

I recommend taking American dollars for this trip but get them before you arrive because they are near impossible to get once in the countries. They are traded as alternative currency but you can’t get them from ATMs as a rule.

There is a heat wave and we are going to visit Jerash, which is north of Amman, where there are fantastic Roman ruins. They are supposed to be the best preserved ruins outside of Italy. Because it is so hot a few people have decided to stay on the bus or in the shops and visitor centre. We are getting a bit blasé about ruins but I never want to miss anything so I loaded up with water and sunscreen and joined the other intrepid explorers.

It was certainly worth it. The town has been around since the Bronze Age at least and the Greco-Roman era saw it flourish. The ruins contain Hadrian’s Arch, built to commemorate his visit to Jerash in the 2nd Century. We passed under the arch to enter the ruins and visited the Hippodrome where they run fake chariot races and gladiator sports in the summer. The building was remarkable because they were able to build tiered seats for audiences even though the land was flat. Under the seats were shops or stables.

Further along we walked a road with manholes into the drains below and bordered by Corinthian columns which led to an beautiful oval Forum also surrounded by columns. Along the way we saw the remains of a marketplace where there were fish ponds and a butcher. On the hill overlooking the street stood the Temple of Zeus and an auditorium which had perfect acoustics. They hold a summer festival here using the stage and the forum for performances.

It was blazing heat and we were all guzzling our water and seeking shade but we pushed on along the Cardo a street lined with columns and where the Nymphaeum- an elaborate fountain stood. This street also led to the Temple of Artemis but by now we were all flagging in the heat. My backpack was leaching the red dye into my shirt it was so hot. Mid 40’s! Jerash was part of the Decapolis,/ a league of Roman cities in what was then called Roman Syria.

It was with great relief we all returned to the bus for our trip to our final destination of the trip, the town of Salt, and the place of the Dead Sea. We passed through the outskirts of Amman and back into the countryside past farms of olive groves and the few Bedouins grazing goats and sheep.

On our arrival at the Hilton Dead Sea Resort we were all gobsmacked at our spectacular the place and the view was. The receptionist said it was 48 degrees. No wonder we were hot! At home we would stay holed up at the movies or at home with the air conditioner not waltzing around looking at ruins without shade!

We took our bags and promptly got lost trying to find our room. The complex had about 800 rooms and different wings and we went up and down lifts until we found the correct wing in which we were supposed to be. All outside! The air conditioning is confined to the rooms and the corridors were open to the heat. There were a few exasperated sighs from the little group trying to find their room.

Once settled and revived we went for our first swim in the Dead Sea. It is an amazing feeling to be able to float without effort, like a baby in amniotic fluid in the womb. Having prepared our skin, we wandered up the beach to the mud bowl where we applied lots to our body and let it dry a bit before returning to the water. It is supposed to have healing properties but the lady who gave Anne and I a massage the next day is a bit sceptical. What it does do though is leave your skin silky smooth.

The water is about 34% salt so if you get it in you eyes, as a few of us did, it is extremely painful! The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, about 430 metres below sea level and has no outlets. The Jordan River is the largest contributor to it plus some small springs on the shoreline which create a type of quicksand. A part of the main roads around the lake collapsed a while ago and is now diverted due to the instability of the soil close to the edge. The Dead Sea is shrinking and there are moves to bring water from the Red Sea Gulf but that process is slow.

Mt Zion 23 rd May

We started this day’s tour at Bethany where the tomb of Lazarus can be found. This town has suffered significant loss of tourists since the Wall has gone up and there is much unemployment. The original entrance has been changed since a Mosque was built over part of the area. Instead we went down some steep stairs at the side of the tomb. A few people found it a bit claustrophobic as the entrance was very small. It was usual to have a little window above the tomb door so that the body could be checked in case they were not actually dead! The Jewish tradition was that the soul hovered for three days before passing into the next world and it was for this reason that Jesus did not come before four days to raise Lazarus from the dead.

Around the tomb where many sellers of souvenirs. They are so desperate to find ways of making money. Nothing they sell is very expensive and while they implore you to buy things it is hard to resist. They don’t pester or make a nuisance but you only have to look around to see how depressed the economy is.

fFrom here we went to Mt Zion which has many important sites. It was once enclosed in the city walls and has the Cenacle- The Upper Room where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples. The disciples apparently also assembled there at other times following the resurrection and it was here that Jesus appeared to doubting Thomas and also where the Holy Spirit came upon the believers who were gathered there. Of course in the Byzantine era an enormous church had stood on the site and was later rebuilt by the Crusaders. It was then taken over by the Muslims during the Ottoman period and converted to a mosque. The stained glass windows have verses from the Koran. The room stands above an active synagogue and some extreme Jews have tried to block Christians from visiting here. This sculpture that stands in the room was presented to the Synagogue by Pope Paul VI and represents the three religions that spring from the Old Testament. The Olive branch represents Christians, the grapes represents Jews and the wheat represents the Muslim faith. Under this room is the tomb of King David which we visited very briefly so there are competing ownership issues.

The guide suggested that the tomb of King David was not actually there but elsewhere. We have found that there are often competing versions of where these events occurred or people are buried. When the tradition is supported by a variety of sources then there is usually agreement and reasonable confidence that the shrine or person is in the correct place.

From here we visited the Dormition Abbey, which marks the place where the Virgin Mary ascended. It is a relatively modern church built by the Benedictine Fathers in 1906. It is very bright and actually incorporates the remains of previous churches that stood on the summit. In the crypt there is a wood and ivory effigy of the Virgin Mary. It was built by the German Kaiser but he didn’t want his name on any plaques or to be honoured, though he did leave a hint in the shape of the bell tower which is like Bismarck’s helmet!

Our last Church of the day was the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu which is dedicated to Peter’s denials of Christ. Gallicantu refers to the crowing of the cock. The church was built again over the ruins of previous churches and a monastery. It is a modern church though it has underground rooms which were possibly used as a prison and guard house. It was believed that Jesus had been held here before his trial.The hole in the ceiling was the way people were put into the room below. I think it would be quite terrifying to be lowered into a black pit like this.

The history of Roman occupation and resistance is spread through out the Holy Land. Civilisation on civilisation through the ages has been a constant theme on this trip as well as the building and destruction and rebuilding of churches. No place considered Holy has been left ‘ unchurched’!

From the viewpoint behind The Church there was a grand panorama of Jerusalem. The weather was getting hotter all day so the panorama was somewhat bleached out. I felt really dehydrated.

we finished this day with a concert in St Georges Cathedral, this had been the home of our tour organiser. Her father had been the Bishop. We got to meet the current Bishop. It is an Anglican Church but they offer their Cathedral to the Magnificat Institute. The children who are taught musical instruments are from all faiths and the teachers are mainly Jewish or Christian. It struck me as an indication of the tension in this country over religion and ethnicity that this fact was announced to the the audience. I don’t think anyone back in Australia would have their faith announced at a concert!

It was very charming and the students played well. Some were very good. It occurred to me that in many of the grand churches I hadn’t seen any organs. Two organists played as part of the concert. The organ of the Cathedral had a rich tone. This was our last day in Jerusalem.

What we have seen here and the way the Palestinians are treated has raised many questions for all of us. Israel seems determined to possess all of the land but it doesn’t want Palestinians. It is hard to see how they can resolve the need for a Palestinian state and the Israeli push for more land all the time. This is a very complex environment politically, historically and economically. It makes your head spin and your heart sad.

Mount of Olives 22nd May

The Mount of Olives, so named because it had olive trees covering the hill east of the old City of Jerusalem, was one of the most important places in the life of Jesus. It was from here he prophesied the destruction of the Temple, he prayed in the Gethsemane gardens after the Last Supper, which are at the foot of the mountain; he was arrested here and he ascended to heaven from the summit.

The Mount overlooks the city of Jerusalem, the Kidron Valley between and is a buffer between the desert and the city. It was also featured in the Old Testament and is the site of the oldest and largest Jewish cemetery. It affords a spectacular view of all Jerusalem.

One of the churches we visited (this was another Church crawl!) was the Church of the Pater Noster, run by Carmelite nuns. It was here in a Grotto that Jesus taught the Disciples. There has been a church here since the 4 th Century. In the church and courtyard are beautiful ceramics in many languages displaying the Lord’s Prayer.

Anya and Sveta were thrilled to see it in Croatian. I saw it in many African languages, even Red Indian ( Cree and Sioux) as well as Gaelic and various French dialects. This was a lovely place and we were able to have a special prayer inside the Grotto.

Our next church was the Dominus Flevit ( The Lord Wept), another beautiful small chapel designed by Barluzzi. It is in the shape of a tear because it was here that Jesus wept over Jerusalem. The altar faces Jerusalem and has a beautiful half circle window that frames the view. This is another place where ancient churches were found and built over. A constant theme throughout the tour is the history of churches being built, demolished and rebuilt over and over.

It was a very hot day and we were glad to take shelter in any shade and also to have a Mass in this church. All around were other pilgrims, some of whom were having out door services and singing beautiful hymns. This really added to the whole atmosphere of the area.

Further down the hill we came to the gardens of Gethsename where there were ancient Olive trees with trunks several feet around. It was here that Jesus spent his last hours in solitude. Besides the gardens ( The Sanctuary of the Agony of Jesus Christ) was the Basilca of Gethsename or the Basilica of Agony. Inside the windows were purple to represent the sombre atmosphere of the agony that Jesus felt when he prayed here. On the facade is a beautiful mosaic. Within the church at the centre of the apse is the Rock of Agony where Jesus knelt. The rock is surrounded by wrought iron work that was provided by Australia. Many countries contributed to the building which is why it as the alternative name, Church of All Nations. It is another Church designed by Barluzzi and is the third Basilica on the site. The first was built in AD 380

From here we met the bus and went to the Israeli Museum to see the Book of the Shrine – a display of the Dead Sea scrolls. It was in a very interesting building that had been modelled like the jars in which they were found. The white tiled roof was like a fountain with water sprayed over it. We would all have liked to dangle our feet in. Opposite was a black rectangular wall. The colours of the structures represented good and evil. The entrance to the actual museum was like entering a space capsule or cave and it was deliciously cool. We all found this extremely interesting and well displayed.

This was a packed day because we then went off to the Church of the Visitation. On the way we had a glimpse of modern Israel. It is quite a contrast and like stepping in and out of the ages on this trip.

when we arrived at the Church of the visitation we faced a steep climb up the hill. In the garden there was the Prayer of the Magnificat in different languages along the wall. This church honours the visit of Mary to Elizabeth when they were both pregnant. While we were there a group of nuns came out and started to sing.

After this marathon day we returned to the hotel very hot and tired. There is so much to take in and digest. So much tradition and history. Our guide is very informative and very knowledgeable about the Holy Land but it is hard to remember everything!

Jerusalem 21 st May

This was our day to explore the old walled city of Jerusalem. Again the guide reiterated our staying close together. We were a bit cavalier until we entered the gates of the city through the Lions gate or St Stephens gate. A truck preceded us and very nearly got stuck going through the gate. There was no way people and vehicles could pass at the same time. Our first stop was the home of the Virgin Mary. Her parents lived near the Bethesda Pools renowned for healing. It was here that Jesus healed the man who had been paralysed for 38 years. Mary had been given to the church as a servant when she was about 4 and it is believed that she was visited by Angels even as a child. During the Crusades the Church of St Anne’s was built (around 1130) and dedicated to St Anne , Mary’s mother and to commemorate the healing of the sick man. When the crusaders were defeated Saladin turned it into a school. Later when the Turks (Ottoman Empire) were fighting Russia in the Crimean war they presented the site to the French in exchange for their support during the war. It now flies the French flag and is considered French territory. It was given over to the White Fathers a French Order.

When Mary came to womanhood she was sent to Joseph who was a widower to help him. This is how Jesus came to have siblings. The non canonical book of St James gives more information on Mary’s life.

From here we started the Via Dolorosa, the Walk of Sorrows which traces the journey of Christ from sentencing, to death on the cross. Now we understand what the guide meant about sticking together. It was really hectic, as the kids would say! Crowds of pilgrims are doing the same thing and it is easy to get separated. Now we are glad of our Whispers. They are little receivers so we can always hear our guide’s commentary.

There are fourteen stations which mark the journey towards Jesus’ execution. Father Dean had a modern commentary expressing the feelings and thoughts Jesus might have had as he went along. They were very poignant as we read them but also the crush and bustle of people was somewhat a distraction to our trying to connect with the words.

Finally we arrived at the Holy Sepulchre where the last four stations are. This church was built by Helena the mother of Emperor Constantine after he converted to Christianity. It was originally built in the 4 th Century but was demolished by the Persians and then rebuilt in AD 628 by Heraclitus. The only original parts to survive were those excavated from the rock such as the Golgotha mound and the Sepulchre itself. The Sepulchre is where Jesus was buried after he was crucified. The Golgotha was where he was crucified. These incredibly important places have shared ownership by several denominations, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrians and Copts. We had to queue for about 45 minutes( actually pretty quick) for a less than five minute look. The priest who supervised the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre made sure you go in and out quickly. He was quite ferocious and told one group (four at a time only) to hurry up. He said, ‘ Kiss the stone and out!’. Hardly a spiritual experience. 

The next queue was for the Golgotha and we all bunched up because people get pushy even though you funnel into a single line. This woman had edged past me and when her husband started to push through I said stop. Then she said he is my husband so I let him go past, but then their friends wanted to push past. I really got firm then and said No and stood right in front of that group. We had helped an American woman who was on her own to get in the queue so I felt quite justified. People are surprisingly pushy and not reverent which was disappointing. We all had to queue so it meant waiting your turn. Our guide was nearly in a skuffle when one of the priests shoved him to get over. He politely but firmly told him to keep his hands off! Another tour guide he knew came to support him.

We saw many people kissing stones or altars and wiping scarves over the stone Jesus was laid on before he was buried. There were many people showing their devotion. The anointing stone.

Our guide was able to secure chapel for Mass while we waited to join one of the queues. Under the church are numerous chapels. It was a complete warren.We finally escaped the throng and headed to a great place for lunch. It seems sad to say we escaped but it was so intense. Whatever your faith this is an amazing place and it makes you think deeply about culture and religion and life.

After lunch Anne and. I wandered around looking for an elusive atm because we were almost out of money and discovered more market areas away from the crowds which was great but still no money was found. It has been a consistent problem trying to find holes in the wall or even open banks to extract money or get US dollars at all. We had not realised how hard it would be otherwise we would have brought US dollars from Madrid or Dubai. We have managed but it was awkward and we became quite adept at getting into toilets for free because we didn’t have any change or dollars. I offered a guy 2 shekels or 20 for a 3 shekel toilet and he let me in for the 2! Change is a nightmare.

When we all regrouped we went to visit the Wailing wall which is the wall left from the destruction of the huge temple that was above it. It was considered the foundation of the universe and was destroyed several times. The Temple Mount was also where the Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and when they took control in the AD 700s they built the beautiful Dome of the Rock and El Aqsa Mosqe.

Thousands of kids were there signing up for military service. It was a seething mass of teenagers. The wall has a division to separate men and women and it is customary to leave prayers or supplications pressed into the cracks because God is in the wall.

Masses of buses were lined up outside the wall to pick up these kids who like kids all over the world are in a world of their own. They got on and off the buses while we were melting and desperate for our air conditioned bus to arrive. It was very hot. They are having a heat wave here!

When we returned to the hotel Anne and I rushed up to the rooftop pool to cool off. It was delicious though very fresh to get into and shared with thirsty pigeons and crows!

Later that evening we went back to retrace the Dolorosa and visit the Holy Sepulchre. Unfortunately we left it too late for the Church. The priests stop entry at 8.30 and close the door at 9. He wasn’t about to bend the rules for anyone! I can understand because it probably takes half an hour to check everyone is out. Then there is a ritual of locking the outer door by a local Muslim whose family has had the key for years. Go figure.

We decided to do the Dolorosa anyway and it was very moving to follow the last steps of Jesus in the quiet of the night. We could meditate on the words and feel the anguish he suffered. When we got back to the Church even the outer courtyard door was locked so we completed the stages by the light of the Lutheran church nearby. We were all glad we had made the effort. Some others in the group had got there earlier and had a better experience within the church, though the ferocious priest was still hurrying everyone!

Bethlehem 20 th May

We left this morning for the Shepherds Fields where the Angels came down to announce the birth of Jesus. It is within the boundaries of Bethlehem but on the way we passed the wall ( Israeli Security Barrier) with all the Graffiti. Everyone has been shocked about the encircling of Bethlehem by this huge concrete wall. It is actually higher than the Berlin Wall was. Close to the checkpoint the wall has been covered with protest Graffiti and has some Banksy art. Our tour guide stopped the bus so we could all get out and look more closely. It is very powerful as a means of protest. Kathy H. and I hurried down to the Walled Off Hotel which has a Banksy and a museum and art gallery. It is a quirky place that advertises its rooms as having the worst view! We didn’t have time to explore but just had a quick look insidei.

There has been much discussion over the politics of Israel and Palestine since we arrived and we are starting to get a clearer picture of what is happening here. In Australia we are so naive and lack real information. It is a very complex situation.

After we returned to the bus we continued on to the Shepherd’s Fields. The tour guide explained how the shepherds used to graze out of the area as far as Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. After the crops were harvested they returned to graze their animals close to Bethlehem. They usually confined their flocks in caves or shelters at night to protect them from wolves etc. The church at the shepherds’ fields was built over the cave where the shepherds had been. This would have been around July or August which means Jesus was most likely born in the middle of the year. We all decided our Christmas in July was actually quite authentic!

The Church was another Bulozzi design and it was a circle with the dome punctuated with round glass to represent the light of the angels. The acoustics were really quite good and it is a tradition to sing a Christmas carol when you enter. We sang Silent night. It was hard to get in because there was a large group of Koreans who were lingering and taking lots of photos. There are so many different nationalities visiting the Holy Land that we are surprised the service in many places is quite ordinary and they are not very well prepared or just see us as $$. We think that they are too busy trying to survive. Many of the hotels are very short staffed and everyone has huge water tanks because they only get water once a week.

While we were in an open air chapel our tour guide explained a lot of the history of Israel and Palestine and helped us understand the West Bank and the Palestinian Territories with a Swiss cheese analogy. Anne and I had struggled with a map of the area to identify the three zones, Palestinian controlled(A), Palestinian/Israel shared (B) and Israeli controlled (C) but when he explained that Palestine is the holes in the cheese, we got it finally.

Our next stop was Shopping. The tour tries to support traders in Bethlehem so we had time to view quality souvenirs. Most of us bought gifts for others or ourselves. I succumbed to a Jerusalem Cross in gold. Just a very little one but I really liked it and I like to bring a momento back. Jewellery is small to pack! Anya really lashed out and bought a gold cross with a diamond along with a range of saints medals. They did have beautiful things but so much is very glitzy.

We went off to lunch then so that we could time our visit to the Church of the Nativity when other groups would be lunching. Anne and I decided to just have a drink instead of a full lunch but I wished I had bought the apple I had left on the bus.

When we moved on to the Church of the Nativity, our guide told us his last tour had waited 3 hours to get in! We were all hoping his strategy of early lunch would pay off. He has been pretty good at managing these things for us most of the trip. He knows everyone and has good relationships which seems to help us every time.

The entrance to the church is a low door to remind you to be humble or it was built by very short people! We fortunately did not have to queue for very long. Even so it was a bit of a crush to go into the cave in which Jesus was supposed to be born. All these caves have been a revelation to us. The story of the birth has been ‘ Europeanised’ I suspect because the whole complex of the Church is built on caves which would have been more exposed in their time but have been built over and the surroundings have been built up. Even the manger would have been stone. Timber has never been prevalent and stone is the choice for most things. The star on the floor in the cave indicates the place where Jesus was born.

We were all a bit disappointed that we could not sit and contemplate the birth of Christ. People get 5 minutes then you need to move on! When you reappear it is into the Greek Orthodox Church of St Catherine which has numerous elaborate lamps and chandeliers. These represent the light of God within. Suddenly we were all in a flurry because we were able to have a mass in the Chapel of the Holy Sacrément. We have been very fortunate to be able to have Mass at various churches along the way. It seems all these pilgrims are keeping the churches in good business. We also find other groups singing in chapels and churches which is a lovely extra bonus. They usually have great voices and good acoustics.

The Chapel of the Holy Sacrement where we were able to have a Mass.

Another cave in the complex below the church was that for Saint Gérôme. It was his mission to translate the Bible into Latin. Here it was also crowded. I thought of the Bell tower in Porto when we had waited and then were squeezed into a small space. We needed red and green lights to manage the crowds! Not great for people with claustrophobia.

From here we walked to the Milk Grotto another cave with a church atop. It is supposed to be where the Virgin Mary hid before the escape to Egypt and while breast feeding the infant Jesus, some of her breast milk spilled onto the floor and the cave was transformed. The guide was rather sceptical of this story but there were many devout people there paying homage.

The picture of the Virgin Mary actually breastfeeding is something I have never seen before. The chapels in the caves were rather lovely though. We had some free time and so a few of us decided to explore the market. There were all sorts of things but also a lot of second hand gear stalls. It was not very vibrant because it is Ramadan and people are fasting, or shops were closed.

In the end we had time for a beer in the garden of the cafe run by the order of San Francisco. I did enjoy that and it helped assuage my hunger.

Back at the hotel the dining room was nearly empty so we all made a dash for dinner before the other hordes arrived. It gets so noisy. Think Coles Cafeteria!

We were having an early night because we had a very early start in the morning. Though whether I would sleep was debatable. The sirens were wailing on and off all evening.