The mountainous microstate of San Marino 🇸🇲

In February 2019, mum came along with me to tick off another microstate of Europe, this time the 5th smallest country in the world, and landlocked by Italy, the beautiful San Marino. Like the other European microstates, of which I have now visited all of them, it has no airport, it also doesn’t have a train station, so other than driving there yourself, your best option is to get the bus from the nearest I`talian city, which is Rimini.

After catching the train down from Bologna, it was a short walk outside Rimini train station to the easily marked bus stop on the opposite side of the street. You can buy a ticket on board the Bonelli Bus or at the kiosk by the bus stop, taking about 40-45 minutes till the bus reaches its final stop, which is right in the centre of this tiny country.

The first thing that struck me as we alighted from the bus was the most incredible mountainous views. The capital, also known as San Marino or locally known as Città, sits atop the ridge of Monte Titano and is the highest part of the country, so the views from up high were breathtaking. It’s part of the Apennines mountain range, which spreads across the horizon to the West, whilst on the Eastern side the land slowly descends towards the Adriatic Sea. I think for the first half an hour or so, once we had checked into our hotel, we just stood mesmerised by the dramatic landscape.

The perfect spot we found to admire our surroundings was over in Freedom Square, or the Piazza della Liberta, from here there are spectacular views west across to the mountains and the valley down below. It was also here where we stopped for a beer and some snacks in Osteria La Taverna one of the restaurants lining the square, tourist friendly and not the cheapest, but it was worth it for the views and to soak up the atmosphere of this curious little country, no regrets.

The square is guarded by the white marble Statua Della Liberta, draped in a flag and wearing a crown featuring the 3 towers that stand proud on the surrounding 3 peaks of Monte Titano. It is such an important symbol of the history of the country, that she is featured on their 2 cent coin.

Behind the statue of liberty is the Palazzo Pubblico, or town hall where all the official state ceremonies take place, as you would expect it’s smaller than your average for a ‘capital city’, but its still worth a visit. The exterior looks like a mini tower, with battlements, a clock face and the national flag, whilst inside you can explore various state rooms filled with coats of arms, busts of important figures, and a beautifully painted facade featuring Saint Marino, the Croatian stonemason who founded the country after making this mountain his home in 301AD.

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It was then time to explore down the narrow streets, climb up the city walls, peer over at some breathtaking panoramic spots and window shop in the unnerving amount of weapon stores, featuring guns, bows & arrows and samurai swords, the country has some of the most relaxed gun laws in the whole of Europe we later found out.

The entire city centre and Mount Titano is a UNESCO world heritage site for many reasons, all apparent as you wander around this unique place, including all the fortifications, stone walls, gates and towers. We were constantly getting distracted and diverted off the main alleyways and streets as we paused to investigate what was up a wall, inside a tower and behind a gate, leading to lots of fascinating discoveries and ever changing vistas.

With our feet starting to get a bit weary, we had one last port of call before heading for a rest, the tourist information centre. We already had a local map from our hotel, but this was for something even more important, a passport stamp! It’s the only place where you can get one, there are no border checks, or passport offices as you enter and exit the country and although the stamp itself is just a tourist stamp and nothing more, the San Marino authorities consider it to be official, I think it cost about €5 and I couldn’t think of a better souvenir to take home.

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That evening, there was only one thing we fancied eating, and that was pizza`! We found Ristorante Cacciatori and dived into the pizza menu as well as sampling a local red wine too.

The next morning, revived with a delicious espresso, it was another cloudless blue sky that awaited us, rewarding us with more endless mountain views.

Our main aim for the day was to walk to the 3 peaks of Mount Titano and visit all 3 of the towers that are located atop them. But first, we stumbled upon St Quirinus’s Church along with the Capuchin Fathers Convent (Convento dei Frati Cappuccini), and although it has been modified over the years, there has been a Roman Catholic church on this spot since 1549. It’s worth a visit, although it has a simple interior, the walnut altarpiece is beautiful, along with the statue of Madonna of Lourdes, casting an ethereal look as she is surrounded by candles and blue light.

As we slowly meandered our way to Tower number 3, (we were working backwards to Tower 1) , we came across a rather harrowing statue of a screaming boy. On further inspection we learned it was erected in memory of those who died in the Beslam school massacre in Russia back in 2004, I’m not sure if there is a specific connection to San Marino, but it definitely brought a little sober reflection to our morning walk.

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Montale is the third of the towers and stands on the smallest of the 3 peaks. It’s a 14th century tall, thin tower with its door 7 metres up from the ground as it used to be a prison. It’s the only tower that isn’t opened to the public, so we didn’t hang around too much, except to admire the view and then we continued to make our way along the foot path to tower number 2.

Tower 2 or Cesta is located on the tallest of the 3 peaks, this 13th century tower was built on the site of an old Roman fort and also houses the Saint Marinus museum, this tower you can investigate both inside and out and is well worth it.

Tower 1, the Guaita fortress is the most well known and oldest of the 3, built in the 11th century, you can also visit this one inside too, look out for the coat of arms in stone, the bell tower and a display of artillery from the 2nd world war.

Once we made it back down to lower ground, we ventured into the Basilica di San Marino, the main church of the country, dedicated of course to its founder Saint Marinus. The neo-classic style building with adjoining bell tower, has an impressive entrance of wide steps and eight columns across the front, whilst inside another 16 columns frame the interior along with a statue of Mary Magdalene.

Needing refreshment, we got a Piadina to take out and sat in the beautiful Giardino dei Liburni close to the national gallery, easily recognised by its unique sphere shaped fountain. Once we were replenished we spent a nice half hour exploring some of the many pieces of Italian art inside the gallery both classic and modern.

For the rest of the afternoon, we headed out of the ‘big city’ and to the country’s 2nd largest town, Borgo Maggiore. We were curious to explore another part of San Marino, that maybe the tour buses don’t get too, but also because the quickest and easiest way to get there is to take a cable car down the mountain, which is always a fun idea!

The upper station is situated close to the Basilica San Marino and the service runs every 15 minutes, costs vary, but start at €2.00 for a single journey with a Tutto San Marino Card. We had the card and bought a return for €3.50. The views from the car as you would expect down the mountain were outstanding.

Once at the bottom, we wandered around the streets, to catch a glimpse of the every day happenings of the local Sammarinese, of which they make up 4/5ths of the population, with the remainder being mainly and unsurprisingly Italian. How amazing I thought to be part of such a small population of only 33,000 living aside a mountain, surrounded on all sides by Italy, but still retain your own culture and identity. We just had time for a peek inside the Church of Saints Antimo and Marinus close to the lower cable car station, before heading back up the mountain before sunset.

For our final night in the country, we had a lovely meal with incredible views at Ristorante Spingarda followed by a local beer and a final evening walk round the streets and through the city gates, soaking up the views for one last time.

The next morning, we caught an early bus back down the mountain to the Italian coastal city of Rimini for the next part of our adventure . .

Eats – Not surprisingly San Marino cuisine is very similiar to Italian. We ate some delicious pasta and pizza at Osteria La Taverna, Ristorante Cacciatori and Ristorante Spingarda.

Drinks – Despite its small size, San Marino does produce its own beer, wine and spirits, all of which are served in the local restaurants. We sampled the beers Spingarda beera bionda and birrificio abusiv as well as the red wine, Rosso dei Castelli Sammarinesi. Delicious coffee too was to be found everywhere, we had one close to the Giardino dei Liburni at the Galleria Caffe.

Top Tip – We got our free TuttoSanMarino Card from our hotel, giving us lots of discounts around the city, including the reduced cable car fare.

Always be polite – Buongiorno – Good Morning, (Mille) grazie – Thank You Very Much, Arrivederci  – Good Bye

 

 

Quick trip to Madrid 🇪🇸

Whilst randomly searching flights online with mum one afternoon, it soon became apparent that we could fly to the Spanish capital after work on a Friday afternoon and get home in the early hours of Monday, giving me just enough time to catch up on sleep before returning to work.

So, with money left on our Ryanair voucher to spend up, it ended up costing us less to fly to Madrid that a train ticket to London, so it was a no brainer and as neither of us had been before, we had a full itinerary soon planned out.

We had an apartment booked, and a free taxi curtesy of Booking.Com that took us right through the heart of the city on our way to the accommodation. Seeing the incredible buildings, tree lined streets and vibrant nightlife bursting from the streets, gave us a taste of what was to come. But we had had a long day, travelling almost straight from work and with my 75 year old mother, meant once we had arrived in our apartment and kicked off our shoes, it was almost 11pm, so we decided to call it a night, and would hit the ground running in the morning.

When I say ‘hit the ground running’, I actually meant grab a shower and walk 5 mins round the corner to Chocolateria 192 to grab breakfast and when I say breakfast, I mean Churros.

As well as its convenient location and excellent reviews, another selling point of Chocolateria 192 which won out over its local rivals for me, was the fact they offered a dairy free chocolate to dunk your churros into and it was delicious.

Boosted by caffeine and chocolate, it was only a short walk to the Royal Palace, via a statue by Salvador Fernández Olivawhich we spotted just off the Calle Mayor, it was of a man with a shiny bottom, so of course I felt obliged to give him a friendly pat.

The Royal Palace is an impressive 18th century Baroque building, built on the site of a Moorish castle, it’s no longer used as a permanent residence for the Spanish royals, meaning a lot of the rooms are now open for the public to explore.

Its a very popular tourist spot, and although it opens at 10am the queues form much earlier, so mum got in line, and I went off to take some photos whilst it was relatively crowd free.

At over 3000 rooms, it’s the largest palace in Western Europe, and although you only get to see a small portion of it, the rooms on display are the most interesting and ornate ones. No photos allowed beyond the entrance hall, but from memory the Throne Room, the Gala Dining room and Charles III’s bedroom were all as elaborate as you would imagine.

Facing the palace is the Almudena Cathedral, I really loved this building, and to save mums legs we took the lift up to the top of the dome. It’s well worth making it to the top as the views across the city are spectacular, but even more so is the inside of the dome, which is a beautiful square cupola painted dark blue and gold.

When you get back down to the main part of the cathedral, make sure you look up at the nave ceiling, it has an incredible multicoloured geometric pattern, I hadn’t seen one like that before. The apse at the front of the cathedral is hard to miss though, with more colourful paintings and modern stain glass windows and with the sun streaming in, it cast an incredible rainbow light across the walls, it was heavenly.

What should have been a short walk to the Metro station, turned into quite a long walk down and round the back of the palace to Ermita De San Antonio De La Florida. Not that we got lost, but there was quite a lot of construction work happening and the direct route to the church was blocked off.  Had we known how long it would take us, we probably would have turned around, but happy to build up an appetite we powered through and made it to the small church with the Spanish painter Franciso Goya’s famous painted fresco’s. No photo’s allowed, but I managed a quick sneaky blurred one before we left, as pay off for the long walk to get there, apologies for that.

We finally made it to the metro station and bought our tourist card and loaded it with 10 single trips, you can share it between people, so basically it was 5 trips each for me and mum for €14.70. The metro is easy to use, safe, inexpensive and has stops all across the city, close to pretty much all the sights you would want to see, so we ended up topping up our card during out stay as we found it so convenient to use.

With the Spaniards taking their main meal of the day in the early afternoon, we decided to follow suit and went to the vegan restaurant B13 Bar for a big lunch, before grabbing a coffee to go at Celicioso and then headed back down to the metro onward to the south of the city.

I love Atlas Obscura and always take a peak at the website before a trip to see if there is anything I fancy adding to my hit list. The Rocker Grandma is a statue in the south of the city, a short walk from the Nueva Numancia metro station, and was erected in tribute to la abuela rockera, who discovered rock music in her 70’s. After starting to attend rock shows she became a famous figure within the Spanish rock scene and as I’m a bit partial to some loud music myself, I had to go and pay my respects.

We then hopped back on the metro and alighted at Estacion del Arte, not surprisingly because we had planned a visit to one of the famous art galleries. Museo Reina Sofía is Spain’s national 20th century art museum and is part of Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art, along with Museo del Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza National MuseumWe chose Reina Sofia because of the large number of Picasso, Dali and Miro available to view, and mum especially wanted to see Picasso’s Guernica, his famous black and grey anti war painting. No photos were allowed of this particular piece, but there was so much more to see, and although we only managed to visit a portion of the gallery, we still managed to cram a lot in.

By the time we left it had gotten dark, so we wandered up the world heritage Paseo del Prado, to see if we could explore the light show inside the Botanical Gardens. We weren’t so lucky though, the queue was huge and sold out for the evening, so we joined others peeking through the gates, then made our way back down the tree lined Paseo del Prado, soaking up the Saturday evening atmosphere before jumping back on the metro.

Our final stop of the evening was to grab some food at the San Miguel market a 100 year old food market, selling everything from local fish, Iberian hams, fresh fruits, desserts and of course wine. There are over 20 stalls from which to sit down, sample and buy tapas and drinks from, although if you are vegan like me, you could struggle to find something, other than a fruit cup.

Luckily, I found an empanada place called Las Muns just outside, and got myself a hot pastry to go with my salad from the market, and we headed back to our apartment to rest our feet and prepare for the next day.

On a Sunday morning in Madrid, the place to be everyone told me, was to head to El Rastro. A large flea market spread along a beautiful tree lined street, jam packed with stalls selling both new and old, such as hand made cute tote bags, antique watches, colourful socks and leather bags. As it approaches lunch time, local tapas bars open up for those wanting a break from all the haggling, but we were still full from another breakfast plate of churro’s, so we did a full circuit of the stalls before heading onward.

One place I knew I wanted to see was the restaurant, said to be the oldest in the world, Sobrino de Botín. `It’s been serving local dishes, such as roast suckling pig and poached egg continuously since 1725, not that I was interested in actually sampling the food, being plant based, but I wanted to grab a quick picture outside, because one of my friends dad’s used to work there, and I wanted to send her a surprise text.

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On our way back to our apartment, we passed through Plaza Mayor, the original main square and heart of old Madrid. Although it was still waking up, people were wrapped up warm and starting to find spots to sit outside the many bars and cafe’s that line the edges of the square, drinking coffee and eating brunch. As well as a large Christmas tree in the centre, there were quite a few antique stalls selling stamps and coins, surrounded by Spanish pensioners all comparing their collections, giving it a real authentic, less touristy feel.

We popped back to our apartment to check out and store our luggage in the reception for the remainder of the day, then it was a short walk to the Sol metro station to take us over to newly Unesco certified El Retiro park.

This huge park is right in the heart of the city, close to all the main art galleries and the Paseo del Prado with them both sharing a newly awarded World Heritage status in 2021. We entered via the gate opposite the Retiro metro station, picked one of the beautiful tree lined paths and joined the many other tourists and locals enjoying a nice Sunday afternoon stroll. There are plenty of statues, fountains, a boating lake, a rose garden, cafes, a glass pavilion, 15,000 trees, including a 400 year old Mexican conifer as well as spaces for exercise, bike rental, a puppet theatre and library!

Highlights for me included the beautiful shimmering boating late, the famous ‘fallen angel‘ fountain (which is the only statue in the world known to be dedicated to the devil), we loved watching the children take rollerblading lessons and seeing the many dogs getting just as much enjoyment out of the park as the humans did.

We managed to walk pretty much in a full circle and exited the park the way we came in, so we could get back on the metro at Retiro and take Line 2 up to Ventas.

Neither myself or mum are supporters of bull fighting in any way shape or form, but had read that even if you aren’t a fan of the bloodsport, the building itself is worth a visit. The building is directly outside the metro station, making it really easy to quickly squeeze in a visit. You can take a proper tour of the stadium, to learn not only about the building but also about the history of Spain’s controversial sporting event that takes place here, but at almost €15.00 a ticket, its probably not worth it, unless you have a keen interest.

We did a lap around the ornate 4 storey, red brick bull ring complete with colourful tiles and a statue at the front depicting a matador and bull in mid-fight. Inside there is seating for over 23,000 people, there’s a museum, a chapel and a state of the art operating theatre, eeek, this is purely for the matador though, if the bull isn’t killed by the end of the match, then it’s taken out back and killed there instead.

Then it was back on the metro, and back to Sol to grab a late lunch/early dinner at Freedom Cakes, which doesn’t sound like it would serve full meals, but it does, and they’re all vegan and the portions are huge!

We then took a last stroll up the busiest and most popular street in the capital, the Gran Via for some window shopping and to take in some of the incredible architecture, before finishing up with a coffee and ice cream at the delicious and super friendly Mistura Coffee.

Once we retrieved our bags, we took the metro across to Atocha which is the central station, and here we boarded the train to the airport, taking about 30 minutes, terminating at terminal 4 and we reluctantly headed home. Madrid was truly surprising, friendly, easy to navigate and I’d definitely return, maybe using it as a base to visit some neighbouring towns next time as well as have another plate of churros of course!

EATS –

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 . . . .