Excursions to Bethlehem

Note: At press time the governments of most Western countries are advising their citizens not to travel in the West Bank.

That being said, in recent years, more and more travelers have ventured into Bethlehem, especially on Christian-organized tour groups for visits to the holy sites in the center of town. For those who decide to visit Bethlehem, we advise reading the news, and getting background on what’s going on. Political conditions can change from day to day. The Christian Information Centre inside Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate is a good place to get up-to-date advice on political conditions and information about possible organized tours or pilgrimage groups, as well as information about how to use public transportation, or arrange for a private taxi or guide to facilitate your excursion. Travelers from Israel into the Palestinian Authority must be in possession of their foreign passports and show them at the checkpoints that separate Israel from the West Bank. Remember: You cannot drive an Israeli rental car into the West Bank.

The highlight of a visit to Bethlehem, the Basilica of the Nativity marking the birthplace of Jesus, was built by order of the Roman Emperor Constantine in a.d. 326. It’s the oldest surviving church in the Holy Land, a wondrous place scented with incense and decorated with Byzantine art. It was spared the general destruction of churches during the Persian Invasion of a.d. 614, because it was adorned by images of the Magi, whom the Persian soldiers recognized as fellow Persians.

A tour of Bethlehem should also take in the churches and chapels adjacent to the Basilica; the nearby Milk Grotto Church; the two possible sites of the Shepherds’ Field; and Manger Square, in front of the Church, with its cafes and shops filled with olive-wood items and souvenirs. The Visitor Information Office (tel. 02/276-6677 is in the Peace Center on Manger Square and is open Sunday to Thursday from 8:30am to 3:30pm (but hours can be irregular). It offers maps and information about museums and sites in Bethlehem.

8 Kilometers (5 Miles) South of Jerusalem, in the Palestinian Authority/West Bank. Transportation: Public busses do go between Jerusalem (from the bus station near the Jaffa Gate, cost: NIS6) and Bethlehem, but they don’t drop passengers near the Church of the Nativity, meaning you’ll have to take a taxi from the drop off point to the historic sights. For this reason, many travelers opt for a tour. Recommended tour companies, and aggregators of tours, include Eg’ged Tours (www.eggedtours.com), and Viator (www.viator.com). Prices vary according to length of tour and inclusions and range from half- to full-day offerings, which include highlights in Jerusalem.

Kennedy Memorial

Eleven kilometers (6 3/4 miles) from downtown Jerusalem, in the same general direction of Hadassah Medical Center, Yad Kennedy is reached by following the winding mountain roads past the Aminadav Moshav. Opened in May 1966, the 18m-high (59-ft.) memorial to President John F. Kennedy is designed in the shape of a cut tree trunk, symbolizing a life cut short. The mountaintop memorial is encircled by 51 columns, each bearing the emblem of a state of the Union, plus the District of Columbia. The view from the parking lot is breathtaking—a never-ending succession of mountains and valleys. The monument and adjoining picnic grounds are part of the John F. Kennedy Peace Forest.

Abu Ghosh

The Israeli-Arab town of Abu Ghosh (biblical Kiriath Yearim), 13km (8 miles) west of Jerusalem, can easily be reached from Jerusalem by car. Abu Ghosh is one of the few Arab villages that decided to side with Israel in the 1948 War of Independence. Israelis love to flock to Abu Ghosh on Saturday to enjoy hummus and other Arabic-style foods at the town’s numerous restaurants. A number of hummus places call themselves “Abu Shukri”; most are good, but have no connection to the real Abu Shukri in Jerusalem’s Old City. On the other hand, Abu Ghosh’s Lebanese Restaurant is the best of the wall-to-wall dining choices in town, and serves some of the most fabulous lamb in Israel.

Abu Ghosh’s great treasure is the 12th-century Crusader Church of the Resurrection, now under the guardianship of the Lazarist fathers. Like the Crusader Church of Saint Anne in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Church of the Resurrection was designed to create marvelous acoustics for Gregorian chants, but it’s less heavily restored and more atmospheric. It is built over an ancient cistern and well that was in use from early Canaanite times. It’s open Monday to Wednesday and Friday and Saturday from 8:30 to 11:30am and 2:30 to 5:30pm. The 20th-century Church of Notre Dame of the Ark, built on the site of a Byzantine church, marks the last place the Ark of the Covenant rested before it was brought to Jerusalem by King David. It’s open daily from 8:30 to 11:30am and 2:30 to 5:30pm.

Neot Kedumim Biblical Landscape Reserve

Located in between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on Rte. 443 (tel. 08/977-0777; www.neot-kedumim.org.il), Neot Kedumim is a living museum of the farming, harvesting, and shepherding techniques of ancient times, laid out across 250 hectares (618 acres) of land carefully planted with flora of the biblical period. An explanatory text brings the landscape vividly to life. Expert guides explain references to nature in Judeo-Christian scriptures; you’ll find an olive press and a succa (harvesters’ shelter), and see how ancient ink was made from resin, ground pomegranates, and oak gallnuts. With an advance reservation, you may be able to join a group of 15 or more for a vegetarian buffet of reconstructed ancient recipes. Admission is NIS 35; last admission 2 hours before closing. Open Sunday to Thursday from 8:30am to sunset and Friday and holiday eves from 8:30am to 1pm. Telephone for driving or bus instructions. Guided tours in English are given Friday at 9:30am; reserve ahead to arrange other times. There are also self-guided tours; trails are wheelchair-accessible, and electric carts and wheelchairs are available on advance reservation.

Soreq Stalactite Cave/Avshalom Nature Reserve

Located 20km (12 miles) west of Jerusalem, along the road out of Ein Kerem toward Bar Giora (tel. 02/991-1117), this nature reserve, with its unusual, delicate, and varied stalactites, is a favorite excursion for tour groups. Set in the limestone region, the caves are full of incredible formations. The scenery along the road from Ein Kerem to the moshav of Nes Harim, 1.6km (1 mile) from the caves, is by itself quite beautiful; admission to the park is NIS 25 (children NIS 13) and includes a lecture with slides and a tour. Note: English-language tours are generally scheduled for early in the morning. Exploring the Soreq Cave entails climbing down (and up) 140 steps. The cave is NOT wheelchair-accessible. Hours are Sunday to Thursday from 8:30am to 4:30pm (to 3:30pm in winter) and Friday from 8:30am to noon; no slide show Friday. Direct service is by tour bus only. Egged will take you on a tour to the caves and nearby sights for about NIS 100.

Wineries in the Hill Country

West of Jerusalem are a number of interesting small wineries. The Latrun Monastery (tel. 08/922-0065) is a gardened enclave founded by Trappist monks in 1890 just where the Judean hills begin to rise from the coastal plain 20km (12 miles) west of Jerusalem. A shop at the entrance gate sells Domaine de Latrun wines, liqueurs, and spirits as well as honey and olive oil produced at the monastery. Visitors are welcome to explore the gardens, vineyards, and orchards. From Hwy. 1, the Tel Aviv–Jerusalem Highway, get off at the Latrun interchange. Follow Hwy. 3 briefly in the direction of Ashkelon, and you’ll come to the Latrun Monastery, opposite the large Armoured Forces Monument. No entrance fee. Monday to Saturday 9am to 1pm and 2 to 5pm.

The Soreq Winery (tel. 08/934-0542) is a relatively new boutique vineyard located 40 minutes south of Tel Aviv at Kibbutz Tal Shahar. Opened in 1994, it produces cabernet sauvignons, chardonnays, and merlots. Call ahead to arrange a private tour of the winery. You can buy wine and cheese at the winery shop, and there is a picnic area on the premises. From Hwy.1, exit at the Latrun interchange. Take Hwy. 3 south toward Ashkelon for approximately 9km (5 2/3 miles). The winery is located 2km (1 1/4 miles) after the Nachshon interchange. No entrance fee. Open Sunday to Thursday from 10am to 5pm.

The Tzora Winery (tel. 02/990-8261) is a boutique winery with a rising reputation for cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay wines. It is located on Kibbutz Tzora in the mountains between Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, and they will arrange private tours if you call ahead. There is a wine and cheese store and picnic area on the premises. From Hwy. 1 exit at the Beit Shemesh (Sha’ar Hagai) interchange, take Rte. 38 south toward Beit Shemesh. From Rte. 38 (about 8km/5 miles from Hwy. 1) take Rte. 3835 to Kibbutz Tzora. There is no entrance fee. Open Sunday to Thursday 9am to 5pm, Friday 9am to 2pm, and Saturday 10am to 5pm.

The Cremesan Winery is run by members of the Italian Salisian monastic order. The beautiful winery can be visited (when security allows) daily at Beit Jalla, near Bethlehem on the West Bank. You can also purchase the Italian-style wines produced at Beit Jalla at the Bet Jimal Monastery (tel. 02/991-7671), inside Israel, near the town of Beit Shemesh from Monday to Saturday 8:30am to 5pm. There are picnic tables overlooking a fine view behind the monastery, where you may visit until dusk. This lovely place is located 2km (1 1/4 miles) south of Beit Shemesh (left turn off Rte. 38).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.