Jerusalem: Two Days in the Holy City

May 27, 2012 § 5 Comments

If my feet could talk, they would  still be cursing me from the  journey they endured pounding limestone streets during our stay in Jerusalem. Shann and I were lucky enough to snag two nights at his great aunt’s apartment in the German Colony, Emek Refa’im, a bit more than a mile south of the Old City.

Looking south from the Old City one can see the villages nestled into the hills of Jerusalem.

Upon arrival we were fatigued and looking for something quick to eat. Wondering down the bustling streets of the secular city center we stumbled upon rows of vendors auctioning off their classic Middle Eastern street food. Pickled aubergine (eggplant), Israeli salad, red cabbage salad, hommus, tahina and hot pita filled my plate. Shann went for an ethnic dish piled high with couscous, curried chickpeas, onions, cauliflower and carrots served next to sumac, cumin and clove spiced ketzitzot (meatballs). Cheap and satisfying.

At the heart of Israeli cuisine is a secret reviled with experience alone – with heavy preparation (pickling, spicing, smoking, etc), flavorful vegetables are consumed in abundance. Maybe you knew this, but I didn’t completely realize it until being immersed in Israel’s food culture. After eating we were ready to go. With a smidgen less than two days in a city that couldn’t comprehensively be covered in a year, we worked hard to hit the sites that interested us the most.

Our first night we were able to glimpse at the Western Wall. The Western Wall, known to many as the Wailing Wall, is the Jewish holy site. The wall, built some 2000 years ago, is the last piece of a Solomon’s holy temple that is intact. After the temple was destroyed, only the Western Wall, which now borders the Muslim Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock, stood strong beckoning Jews from around the world to some pray at its stone base.

The sight is inspiring; men and women, separated by a lone fence, stand, hands on the Jerusalem stone, praying earnestly. People make pilgrimages here to stick their prayers, etched on tiny pieces of paper, in crevasses between the massive stones.

Young Jewish boys pray at the Wall. Look closely to see the prayers embedded between the limestone blocks.

The sun began to set, so we stole a glimpse of the Dome of the Rock, wondered the narrow alleyways of the shouk (market) then headed to a small cafe for mint tea to plan for the next day.

After trying to enter three times, this was the closest we could get to the Dome of the Rock. Entrance times for non-Muslims are very specific and change throughout the day/week.

The next morning Shann was craving borekas, the soft-cheese stuffed filo dough pastry, topped with sesame seeds, that his Circassian-Israeli grandmother used to whip up in her humble kitchen. Shann typically doesn’t get too excited about food, so when he says he wants something I know he means it. The hunt was on.

The “hunt” wasn’t much of a hunt; Shann’s great aunt tipped us off to a small bakery where we would be sure to find the best borekas around. After my first bite I understood; with its sweet airy dough and lightly salted cheese I’m surprised he had never mentioned them before. However, they did nothing to satiate us, so we stayed a bit longer…

As if borekas weren’t enough, we sampled rolled pastries stuffed to the brim with bitter chocolate, a leek and Gruyere omelet and the traditional Israeli shakshuka; eggs baked into savory concentrated tomatoes, chopped onions and an herb filled skillet.

Israelis really know how to serve a meal; not only do you get what you ordered, but what you ordered is accompanied by small plates, mezze. At breakfast, which at this bakery/cafe was more eastern European than Middle Eastern style we were given cheeses, pesto, tapanade, olives, “sours” (aka pickles or other pickled vegetables), and a loaf of dark fresh-baked bread. While sampling the meal accompaniments, I discovered Labneh, which I have had before but didn’t know exactly what it was. Labneh is a thick strained yogurt-derived cheese that has its roots in Lebanon. It’s flavor is sour and pungent, it’s texture is bodacious, it tastes good on everything (from eggs to chocolate pastries) and I know I’ll be attempting to churn it out when I come home.

Feeling ready to take on the densely packed city we headed to the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem’s city center. The market was by far my favorite market (including markets in Italy and in Mexico) that I have yet to wonder. Its sprawl occupied over two streets and every adjacent alleyway. Early morning to sunset before Shabbat, men stand behind their displays of brined olives, aromatic spice mixtures, honey saturated sweets, clean cut meat, iced fruit and coffee drinks, vine leaves, seasonal fruits and vegetables and their collections of yogurt, tahina and legume based dips and spreads making sales that quickly satisfy the schools diverse customers milling over the market’s plentiful offerings.

Halvah, a confection popular throughout the Middle East always seems to court me. Why? Well, it is a mixture of tahina, a sesame seed paste known as tahini in the states, sugar and nuts. Its crumbly texture makes it all the more inviting, but I have to take caution, it’s quite saccharine.

Station VI of the Via Delarosa in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

After the market we returned to the old city through the Jaffa gate, navigated through the shouk’s persistent vendors who sell everything from decorative rugs to jewel toned beads, then walked the Via Delarosa. The Via Delarosa is the path that Jesus walked to carry the cross to his Crucifixion. At nearly every corner along the path of Calvary there are stations marking a place of significance. Above is where (according to the Bible) Veronica, a women in the crowd used her shroud to wipe blood from the torn flesh on Jesus’s face. This was station six, my favorite station.

At the base of the seventh station an Arab woman sat selling vine leaves (top right), mint (top left), cilantro (beneath mint), squash (beneath cilantro), raw green unhulled chickpeas (right of squash), purslane (bottom left) and sage (bottom right) while mingling with familiar women who passed by.

Shann adjusting to the light of the sun after coming out from the pitch black underground waterways.

After finishing up in the old city we made our way to the archeological excavations of the City of David to trek through Hezekiah’s tunnel, an underground waterway where water from Gihon Spring has continued to flow for the last 3000 years.  Above is a small wadding pool that was mostly like used as a cistern to collect the water that flows through the tunnel. We capped off the day with a walk through the Israeli Museum to see the Jerusalem model and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Last, we indulged in a multi-course dinner at the best restaurant in the city, chef Moshe Basson’s (founder of Slow Food Israel), Eucalyptus.

  Jerusalem is teeming with life, a fact that is reflected by it’s vivacious cuisine, color splashed alleyways and the deep tolerance knitted into the city’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian inhabitants. It has only been a few days since we left the city and I already want to go back. Jerusalem is mystical, it exudes a magnetism that entices the religious, the spiritual and the secular alike. I know I will return, both to eat more and explore further.

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§ 5 Responses to Jerusalem: Two Days in the Holy City

  • Tess says:

    WOW!! Is all I can say…. This blog is truely amazing and this is only the first post I read! I’m excited to look back on your past adventures and live vicariously through you. I also wanted to mention that my mom had visited the Western Wall when she was our age too. I hope you put a special prayer in one of the cracks because her prayer was that she would marry my dad!! (this was before they were even dating!) Good luck on your future travels and tell Shann I said hi!

  • Kristi says:

    Beautiful! Thanks for including us in your journey. How I’d love to be there and see it all myself! This is close. 🙂 xok

  • This is exactly what you would do on a study trip at UNISG.Eat and travel. Oh and, I have a block of halva sitting next to me at this moment from my Greece adventure! Delicious

  • paul says:

    Not only is this an amazing travelogue filled with food knowledge and history, two of the best adjectives ever appear: bodacious and saccharine! Pretty excellent there Alyssa Ambrosia.

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