Israel is the size of New Jersey but it often feels bigger to us, a car-less family with curious and thus slow-moving young children. Political divisions, walls and checkpoints also have a way of slicing and dicing the land, making everything seem farther apart. But today we had a day of realizing how tiny this place really is. For people who want maximum political, cultural, geographical and climate diversity, I recommend the Jerusalem – Jericho trip. Israel to Palestine, intense to laid back, stony mountaintop to desert oasis, winter to spring, in about 45 minutes travel time.
It was a fantastic day out. First we drove into Wadi Qelt and hiked down a steep set of switchbacks. At the bottom of the wadi, there was a gushing stream, gorgeous greenery and flowers and birds. We could see St. George’s Monastery clinging to the other side.
Terence and I were ready to call it quits right there; we were already contemplating the steep hike back up. But we had already told the girls about the ghoulish sights in the monastery: skeletons and skulls of monks who’d been martyred by the Persians. That did it. Up to the monastery we went, and were rewarded by gorgeous views of desert and wadi, ancient caves and the 5th century monastery clinging to the rock face.
Driving on to Jericho, we went to Hisham’s Palace which flourished for only three years before being buried in an epic earthquake, not to be discovered for 1,000 years. The mosaic floors, including the famous Tree of Life, were incredibly well preserved and (we were glad to see) protected behind barriers. The rest of the site was free for climbing and exploring. The girls chose “their rooms” in the ruins.
Next, a ride up the Mount of Temptation in a gondola. I haven’t been in one of those since my skiing days in the Alps. It was bizarre to feel that familiar swaying sensation in such a different landscape. The ride gave us a great view of Jericho’s agriculture, oranges and bananas as far as the eye could see. Also the Dead Sea, refugee camps and some luxury hotel developments, planned in more optimistic times. The casino still hasn’t been reopened since the Second Intifada.
But whatever the political context, I have to say the vibe in Jericho is very positive, downright chill compared to everywhere else I’ve been in the West Bank. It seems to be a hub of well-off Palestinian tourism; we only saw a few other international travelers. It was 70+ degrees and full sunshine on February 4. I can understand why the city virtually becomes noctural in the summer months. We hung out in the main square of town, enjoying two-shekel ice creams and gifts of pomegranates and oranges from the fruit sellers.
Even with a traffic jam, we were home in time for an early dinner. I do love where I live, but sometimes you just have to get out of Jerusalem.