Christmas Eve Bansky hunt – Palestine 🇵🇸

I am a big admirer of Banksy, the British street artist/political activist and have been to various spots around the UK to see his art. I had heard that he had opened a hotel in Bethlehem, that also housed a museum, art gallery and restaurant, so I eagerly started planning my visit once our flights to the region had been booked.

hotel

You can book specific Banksy tours over in Palestine, taking you to some of his work found around the area, as well as to the hotel, but we decided to make our own way on public transport and enter Palestine on foot via the notorious Checkpoint 300.

When you tour Palestine on a tour bus you are let through the border without any hassle, its quick, safe and easy, but a privilege that actual Palestinians don’t have. Having had that tourist friendly experience earlier on in our trip, I wanted to make the journey on foot this time and experience it as a local would.

We boarded the 234 bus from Damascus Gate in Jerusalem which stops right outside the Checkpoint on the Israeli side, it takes about 25 mins to get there and costs around £3.

I didn’t take any pictures as we made our way through the border checkpoint, maybe you weren’t allowed, but also, out of respect for all those who aren’t free to wander between the two countries like I did with my British passport.

8502014F-E59F-49FB-A1FD-09024A0DBD7E

When you arrive on the Palestinian side you are greeted with a combination of Israeli Army personnel and lots of eager taxi drivers. We avoided both, as its only a short walk from the checkpoint to the hotel, but we arrived about an hour before the hotel opened for our Christmas Eve lunch on purpose, so we had lots of time to walk alongside the separation wall, which in part has been turned into a ‘museum’.

This ‘museum’ comprises of 270 stories pasted onto the wall, recalling tales from local Palestinian women and children, telling the daily struggles they face living inside the walled off region. It gives a human face to the conflict, and a narrative usually missing from world news reports, it made a somber reflective morning walk, but it was an important part of why I wanted to visit. If I just wanted to enjoy sun, sand and sanitised safe tourist spots, I would have just stuck to the Spanish coast for my holidays.

We continued our walk, alongside the wall, taking in all the art and stories, spotting some of the more well known pieces of graffiti, including ‘make hummus not war’, a alternative New York subway transit sign, a possible sighting of a Banksy rat and the Angels, which is a certified Banksy.

If you keep following the direction of the wall from the checkpoint with the wall to your right hand side, its probably not more than 10 minutes to walk to the hotel, but of course if this is your first visit, like it was for us, it will likely take you a lot longer to walk there, as you take in all the messages and artwork on the concrete.

Soon Banksy’s hotel came into view, called ‘The Walled Off Hotel‘, a play on the famous Waldorf Hotel, as well as by means of its location as it’s effectively ‘walled off’ from the rest of the world. Opened in 2017, this boutique hotel has 10 rooms, varying from presidential suite, to no frills budget room with shared bathroom, all with the worst view in the world, the 8ft concrete wall outside.

7731AB2B-720B-4658-BF3E-21638241963C

The hotel is open to none-residents from 11am – 10pm daily, wanting to make sure we would get a table for our Christmas Eve brunch, we arrived just as the doors opened. On arrival you enter straight into the Piano Bar, fashioned on an old colonial style dining room, you can sit down for food or drinks, surrounded by many of Banksy’s works as well as a haunted piano, playing works recorded specifically for the hotel from musicians such as Flea and Trent Reznor.

IMG_1738

We ordered a ‘walled off salad’ with some dips and bread and whilst we were waiting a camera crew walked in, only the day before a new Banksy installation had been put on display in the hotel, some friends had even texted me from home about it. So overwhelmed and excited to be in the hotel, we had walked straight past the ‘Scar of Bethlehem’ in the entrance, a take on the Nativity scene, which instead of taking place in a straw laden manger, takes place beside the concrete wall, complete with bullet holes.

By the time we had finished our brunch complete with virgin cocktails, the camera crew had left, so we had space to investigate the piano bar further, along with the nativity scene, the place was packed with Banksy paintings and installations, including my favourite Flower Thrower.

Upstairs there is an art gallery to visit, this time no Bankys here, this space is purely for Palestinians, some known artists such as Suliman Mansour have their work on display here, as well as a temporary area for rotating new and up and coming work. There was some really cool stuff on display and we felt lucky to have been able to see artwork that due to restrictions you wouldn’t normally get to see outside of the country.

Back downstairs is a museum dedicated solely to the separation wall. It’s a really modern interactive space, as you would expect if Banksy was involved along with the help of a British university professor. There’s lots of information about the history of the wall right up to present day with little films, audio, military artefacts and a camera on display from the incredible Oscar nominated Five Broken Cameras, which I really recommend watching. The plan is for the exhibit to be expanded as more artefacts are collected over time, but it was a thought provoking, humbling experience to see and hear how this wall has changed the face of the landscape and its people on both sides.

5E7F5F66-D865-4B18-9FBC-53F1569050EE

Final stop was obviously the gift shop, where we were lucky to chat to the manager of the hotel. A lovely man called Wissam Salsaa, he was keen to know where we had travelled from and what we thought of the hotel, in short I told him, if we were to return to the area, I would absolutely plan on staying here next time around.

There were a few Banksy items for sale in the gift shop, and I did think long and hard about a £70 keyring, which was the cheapest item for sale that was certified by the artist. But then the frugal part of my brain kicked in and I just bought postcards and a couple of tote bags instead, realising I could use that £70 for another flight somewhere instead (not realising Covid was about to happen and I wouldn’t get away for almost another 2 years!).

I desperately wanted to stay for longer, but we had really explored every part of the hotel that is open to none residents, also we were conscious that it was Christmas Eve and the tourists would be flocking to the centre of Bethlehem for the celebrations. So we headed back to Checkpoint 300 which was practically empty as we passed back through, the security guard barely looking at our British passport, and the local bus was waiting ready to return to Jerusalem on the other side. With so many places I still have to see, I rarely make plans to return to a visited place but Palestine makes that list and hopefully one day I can return, whether the political situation will be any calmer, I’m doubtful.

 

Winter in the West Bank 🇵🇸

My last trip abroad before Covid hit was another Christmas spent in the Middle East, using East Jerusalem as our base, we travelled around Israel and Palestine both independently and with guided tours.

Our first trip was a full day booked with Abraham tours, leaving by the old Jaffa gates of Jerusalem.  It wasn’t long before the separation wall came into view, with evidence of recent tension and fighting becoming apparent, with abandoned buildings and barbed wire taking over the view from the well paved roads and souvenir shops. Once we had officially passed into Palestine, our guide jumped on board, as he wasn’t allowed into Jerusalem without paperwork, our first experience of the many restrictions facing the people of this torn land.

We alighted the coach on arrival into Ramallah, a place I had only really heard of via news reports I am sad to say, but now is a bustling, busy city. The main business and cultural capital of Palestine, full of coffee shops, offices, and people rushing past to get to their next destination, all the while I was still very aware of the concrete wall that now surrounded us.

Although Ramallah is a predominantly an Islamic city, historically it was Christian, and so being a few days before December 25th, it was no surprise to see a Christmas tree erected in the centre of the city. We had time to explore around Al Manara Sq and saw the infamous Star and Bucks, as well as many Palestinian flags proudly flying in the cool winter sunshine.

Our next stop was just outside the city centre, to the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum. A temporary resting place, Arafat actually wanted to be buried in East Jerusalem, but of course like the rest of the Palestinians, alive or not, he’s not allowed to cross beyond the separation wall. The area comprises quite a minimalist, simple white building of glass and stone, with water on three sides and although not visible, there’s an underground rail track, ready to take him to his final resting place at some point in the probably far distant future.

Jericho is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world, and was about an hours drive, through the Judean desert from Ramallah. The sign that welcomes you to the oldest part of the city, states that there has been a settlement here for around 10,000 years, making it an incredibly important site where historians can learn about the first group of humans that settled in a one place and made the move away from being nomadic hunters.

As well as being the oldest, it is also the lowest city in the world as it is situated so close to the Dead Sea, so it’s no surprise this place should be on everyone’s itinerary who visits this area. Our tour avoided the more modern centre, concentrating on the excavated ruins of the ancient city, including Hishams Palace, one of the Desert Castles found across the Middle East. It really was other worldly wandering around the dusty, sandy walled remains, with the Judean mountains towering in the background, it really felt a special place, even if I couldn’t quite comprehend how it must have looked all those thousands of years ago.

As lunchtime was approaching we headed down to the River Jordan, which also acts as the border with Jordan itself, and the previous year we had been on the other side as we spent Christmas in Amman. As the people on our tour excitedly visited the baptism site of Jesus and looked on as pilgrims got blessed in the river, mother and I grabbed a drink, found some shade and investigated the souvenir shop, There were a lot of soldiers on this side of the river border and lots of religious tourists in white robes queuing up to go in the river, I remember it feeling much more peaceful and calmer on the Jordanian side, but I’m happy I got to experience it from both countries.

703A6608-52F8-4B49-A371-50C35788895A

One of the things I loved about travelling in this part of the world was the incredible history, literally everywhere you went. For example, the countryside views surrounding the cafe where we stopped for lunch was said to be where the story of the 3 Wise Men took place, as in was in the adjacent fields where they saw the Star of Bethlehem in the clear night sky as they hiked on their way to Jerusalem.

Our final stop on this particular tour was back close to the ‘border’ and a place that must have changed beyond all recognition from biblical times, Bethlehem. It’s a place swarming with pilgrims just like Jerusalem is and if you have any passing interest in history, then this place must be on your to do list. The main draw is the Church of the Nativity, Jesus was born in a grotto on this spot and the church itself was built over the top, and as a result it’s one of the holiest spots for the Christian religion. It’s such an important site to the Christian community, but because the religion itself is split into many different denominations, this church is one of a handful of buildings shared between different Christian communities, with the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Catholics all sharing various parts together.

As it was only a few days from December 25th, the church was decorated and packed full of pilgrims from all over the world, often wearing T-shirts with their particular church logo’s on, all of them queuing up to see the exact spot where Jesus was born.

Although I love a religious building of any kind, I don’t class myself a follower of any, plus we didn’t have time on the tour to queue for what would have been probably an hour for a quick 20 second peek at the site of his birth inside the dark grotto. But our tour guide took us ’round the back’ down into the cave to explore from the other side, so I feel we still got the same experience, but with less crowds anyway.

The church itself was quite plain, with the exception of Christmas baubles and ornate incense burners hanging from above, red limestone pillars along the sides and various fresco’s partly uncovered on the walls, but of course, the decor isn’t why you visit. There is another church just off to the side, actually sharing a wall with the Nativity Church, called Church of St Catherine of Alexandria and it is here where the televised service from Bethlehem is filmed every year. After visiting both churches, we had a brief explore around Nativity Square where a large Christmas tree had been erected, and the whole area was in the midst of getting ready for the crowds of worshippers who would be visiting on Christmas Eve, so we planned to return later on our trip at our leisure.

Before returning to Jerusalem, we had a walk along part of the separation wall, which is only a short distance from the heart of Bethlehem. Graffiti from famous international artists cover large swathes of the wall and we successfully spotted a few Bankys’, all the while being aware of the imposing watch towers looming overhead.

It was then back to the bus for our return to Jerusalem, but for an introduction to Palestine and the region as a whole, it was outstanding, it was an experience I feel incredibly privileged to have had and the memories will stay with me forever.

We were to return a few days later, venturing back past the wall under our own steam, for a completely different adventure . . . .