Day Seven-Walking Where Jesus Walked…and your friends have not

The first part of our morning was consumed with the exciting task of getting our pre-flight COVID tests. As much as we had all enjoyed the trip, when our plane lifted off the tarmac that night, we wanted to be sitting on it.

It was the Sabbath, so clinics were closed but we managed to find an Arab non-emergency “hospital” that would take our cash and swab our noses.

We had another full day in front of us beginning with hiking Wadi Qelt–also known as the Jericho trail–a path through the Judean desert between Jerusalem and Jericho that would have been well traveled by many names we recognize in the Bible. David would have fled from Absolom along this road. Mary and Joseph would have traveled it as part of their journey to Bethlehem. And Christ himself would have traversed it and sometimes stopped along the way to teach his disciples.

It was a beautiful, warm day and I should probably be quiet for a moment and let these photos speak for themselves:

Given the cooler, wetter spring they’ve had in Israel this year, it was much greener than this area would typically be. We saw herds of sheep and goats navigating the rocky mountains and this put a very real spin on the word picture of a shepherd leading his sheep to green pastures and beside still waters.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name sake…” Psalm 23:1-3

Herod, of course, had his fingerprints along this path. An aqueduct he built brings fresh water right through the valley and would have been faithfully filling the swimming pool for his Jericho palace.

We didn’t see any bandits, but that would have been an issue at the time of Christ and perhaps the reason that his famous tale of the Good Samaritan was set along this road. (Luke 10:25-37)

Robbers would not have been the only danger along this path. It had a lot of uneven terrain, a seven mile stretch of scrambling over rocks and up and down inclines…of course, the beautiful views made it absolutely worth every step in March. I don’t believe it would have been enjoyable at all in July or August.

I can’t say I walked the whole way, though…thanks to Abraham and his friendly donkey, Shushu.

After a few minutes on a donkey’s back, I’m convinced once and for all that Mary did NOT ride on a donkey down to Bethlehem. Quite frankly, sitting on a donkey that’s losing it’s footing on the loose rocks on the side of a mountain goes a long way toward making you realize that walking is a great exercise. I’m just saying.

Anyway, it was an awesome way to spend the final morning of our trip and it made the land of the Bible come alive in its own right.

Just as we were reaching our destination, we took a final detour to see what remains of Herod’s winter palace at Jericho. What was once the opulent vacation home of one of the world’s most powerful men is now a pile of ruins surrounded by a few ratty homes and a ton of garbage. Standing in Herod’s Olympic-sized swimming pool made me think of the words of Jesus, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)

Herod’s great power and wealth led to a life of heartache and paranoia. He murdered one of his ten wives and at least three of his own sons; He slaughtered innocent babies; and Josephus tells us that he was so hated by his subjects that he ordered the killing of all the Jewish leaders on his death because that was his only hope that there would be mourning.

What a stark contrast to the simple life and death we had retraced in Jerusalem just the day before. A Jewish contractor with no home, no political status, no fancy swimming pools. His life was not wrenched from Him, it was laid down for all of us. And He changed the world.

His teachings are as counter cultural today as they were two thousand years ago…He is the Good Shepherd asking us to place our simple trust in Him and not where moths and corrupt and thieves break in and steal.

The third of Herod’s praetorium pools we visited this trip

We had one final tourist destination, Qumran. As you know, this was where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered. Instead of the usual walk through the roped off areas around the digs and watching a move in the museum, we hiked a bit of the cliffs and explored a few caves and tunnels. It was fun. I highly recommend it.

Curtis gave us our final devotional. I’ll be honest and admit I don’t remember it although I’m sure it was good. My brain was just too full at this point. Too many Magnum bars.

We then all ate (okay, almost all ate) an insect in memory of John the Baptist who was likely raised by the Essenes who lived here…I probably shouldn’t tell that detail so it can be a surprise when you come on the next trip. You should. I highly recommend it.

Staci, we saved one for you!

As we headed back toward the van after our second substantial hike of the day and our seventh day of adventure, I noticed that even Jack had stopped taking pictures. When Jack stops taking pictures, you know it’s time to go home.

Thankfully, we were good and tired so we could sleep some on the fourteen hour flight to Miami. The days had gone by quickly but they left a sincere impression I will be slow to forget.

There was a few tense moments at the airport. I guess we looked like a suspicious band of COVID trafficking terrorists. For a moment; it looked like they weren’t going to let us leave. But never mind that story…I have to save something for another day.

Day Six-The Old City of Jerusalem; in no particular order

We got to sleep in until like…7:00 am. The hotel breakfast was worth getting up for though. By all accounts, the Israelis know how to do coffee.

We needed to be at Herod’s Jerusalem praetorium by 8:00 because Curtis had pulled some strings and they were opening especially for us despite the night of Purim parties. We also needed to hurry through the key sites we wanted to see because it was Friday and many things were shutting down early for Sabbath.

We had seen a fair bit of Herod’s handiwork by now but there was still a lot more to come. Herod’s Jerusalem praetorium is a fairly recent dig which has answered a lot of open questions about where much of the Roman occupation force would have been housed.

Pilate would have been staying at this location at the time of the trial of Christ. In fact, Jesus likely would have been tried on the steps Curtis later took us which are now just an inconspicuous stack of rocks jutting out of the city wall. Pilate would have been roused to preside over the trial of this humble Jew and the crowds chanted, “Crucify him! Crucify him.” But we’ll come back to that.

After a quick walk through the remains of what was once a pretty impressive complex complete with numerous swimming pools (I don’t believe there are any cruise ships with more swimming pools that what Herod had) They let us up the narrow metal stairs onto the ramparts and we walked on the top of the city walls to our next stop of the day. Your friends have not done this. It was fortunate for us because we had five minutes to do a 10-minute walk to the Western Wall. As we walked those thick, high walls it was crazy to think that Jerusalem, for all its defensives, was attacked 52 times and conquered 44 of those with two complete destructions.

We were headed back to catch a new tour that will take you down to digs under the city that date back to first century and even the Hasmonean period (~100 years before Christ). We had a lively Jewish tour guide who very much seemed to enjoy helping us make sense of the various rocks we were looking at. Given all the destruction, it’s pretty amazing that they can piece together the story as much as they have; according to the guide, they have only finished excavating about 5% of the potential sites so we still have a lot to learn. One thing that we continually marveled at are the huge hewn stones used to construct the Temple Mount. To this day, they have no idea how some of those monsters were transported from the quarry.

We could see ways that the Jews had mixed their customs and ceremonies (like ceremonial baths and the many mikvahs) with Roman/Hellenistic ideas like theaters. It helps make sense of the scene back at those judgment steps when the religious leaders prosecuted Jesus:

“But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar.” John 19:15

Some of the religious leaders had been put in place by Rome; some profited from the corrupt and lucrative temple system; some were perhaps just caught up in the excitement; regardless, Israel as a nation was less than a hundred years from their own independence with factions still wanting to rebel and others choosing to make the bold claim to have “no king but Ceasar.”

By the time we finished, the Jewish quarter was shutting down so we had lunch in the Arab quarter (and got ripped off a little bit, I might add…not that I’m bitter or anything). I was starting to get a little tired of roasted chicken, humas, and their many salads, but they also brought french fries. I never get tired of french fries.

My feet were starting to complain again from hours on stone, but we had to crisscross the city a few more times in order to get in the sites we wanted to see.

One, the Church of the Holy Sepulture. This is the traditional site of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Meaning, it was identified by Helena sometime in the 3rd century. Churches have since been destroyed and rebuilt on that site a few times since and the current structure is partially owned and managed by like six or seven different churches. And while it may well be the actual site of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it was hard to feel any connection for me because the place is so gaudy and even downright creepy.

So, to be frank, it was like a breath of fresh air when we went from there to the Garden Tomb. This is another site that has been identified as a potential place for the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. And while we can’t know for sure where these history-changing events occurred, I love how the volunteers there–including our blind guide– encourage worship of the risen Christ. And I will just add, there are some compelling facts pointing to this site.

Did I mention we were taking things out of order? It just kinda worked that way. After a quiet communion there at the Garden and a few minutes in the gift shop, our feet hit the stone again and some of us chose to retrace the steps of Jesus the night before the Crucifixion.

We went out across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives where Jesus went to pray the night of his arrest. The Garden of Gethsemane was empty and there was a slight drizzle of rain that created a peaceful backdrop. There is a large stone there that many believe Jesus prayed on; and a large basilica–one of the few we went in our whole trip.

I could have lingered there a little longer, but we made our way back up to Jerusalem and through the sheeps’ gate and toward the general location of his first trial at Caiaphas’ house. He would later be taken to the Praetorium where we had started out our day or perhaps to the steps we had sat on–just outside the current city walls.

It’s a little hard to absorb it all–even when you’re there for a second time. And it probably didn’t help that we had had to take the places for the events of Jesus’ final days all out of order. But it still helped it all come together in my mind. And there is nothing quite like walking the city on your own two feet, experiencing the awkward blend of old and new; Jewish, Arab and Christian that wets my appetite to know more not only about the biblical history but also the current confusing culture unique to Israel.

Our day wasn’t quite done. We had high hopes to make it to Mamre; but turns out we’ll have to save that for another trip. We did, however, spend a few unplanned Sheckels in a cool gift shop and enjoy some delicious Mexican food in Bethlehem. To close out the night, we drove by the church of the Nativity. Like I said, we took things a little out of order. But we got the bookends right–we started the day with coffee and ended it with a hot shower and a pillow. In the middle, we marveled more than a little bit at this intriguing city of Jerusalem.

Day Five–Long Walk Through Time

Our feet hit the stone early as we headed down to the City of David.  There’s no way to describe out day without a little bit of a history review…If you are at all familiar with the Old Testament, you know that the little boy Hannah brought to the tabernacle at Shiloh would later anoint the first king of Israel, Saul, and the second king of Israel, David.

Roughly 1000 BC David conquered the Jebusite city on a finger of land sandwiched between the Kidron valley and the valley of Hinnom from the inside out by sending someone up the water shaft. He then moved the capital of Israel from Shiloh to this new city, called Jerusalem which not only had a strategic defensive but also an excellent water source, the Gihon spring.

The city was small but Solomon would later add on and build the first temple—a grand structure that would attract attention from around the world.

The View from the City of David

We descended on the City of David along with more tour groups than we had seen at any location we had been in so far in our travels.  Curtis wanted to stay in front of them, so we didn’t linger long as we passed through the excavations of David’s palace and the likely residences of his staff. 

Since the city’s position at the top of hill and it’s water source below created a vulnerability, King Hezekiah connected a water tunnel later to divert the water under the mountain and add to the impenetrability of the city. 

We passed through the enormous caverns leading down to Hezekiah’s tunnel which still flows clear spring water.  It was chilly, but once you get used to it, the water doesn’t seem so bad.  We were the first of the morning through the long, impressive tunnel chisel into rock from two directions for a third of a mile to meet in the middle.  It was a lot longer than you think it’s going to be and a little concerning if you’re claustrophobic.  Thank goodness I had Lonnie behind me constantly saying, “keep moving!”  It is dark, damp, and there are no emergency exits.

The tunnel ends at a pool of water which Jewish men still bathe in for ritual cleansing.  We got through just in time to inconvenience a few who were waiting to take their baths in the chilly out of doors.

Despite all the defensives, Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians in 586 BC after a string of godless kings; just like Jeremiah prophesied that it would.  There is evidence of the 18 month siege of the city and of course, the temple was destroyed and all of the implements carried off.

A lot happened between that time and the time of Christ, but the main thing to know when you are visiting is that when Jerusalem’s walls were rebuilt by Nehemiah and the temple was rebuilt by Zerubbabel, they were built on the hill above the original site.  Thus, when we refer to the “Old City” and the “Temple Mount” we would be referring to the Jerusalem that Jesus would have traveled to during his lifetime, not the Jerusalem David would have called home.  The mix of this history and the current structures in place make it difficult to picture the cities the way they used to be either at the time of David or the time of Christ (which were very different), but we could catch glimpses such as at the excavated portion of the Pool of Siloam—where travelers to Jerusalem for festivals would have bathed prior to ascending to the temple.  There are some excavations revealing the original steps leading to the temple—one of the few places in Jerusalem where you can walk “where Jesus would have walked.”

What the streets near the temple might have looked like in Jesus’ time

We worked our way toward the temple mount—the site where the temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian captivity and where Herod would later “renovate” on top of an enormous and impressive temple mount.  Curtis took us up the actual front steps of the temple mount…you can’t access the mount itself from there anymore, but I didn’t realize how much happened there on the temple steps until we sat and looked at several of the verses.  The Temple was the hub of Jewish life in Jesus’ day and he would have first been carried here as an infant, later be “lost” here as an adolescent and later make a nuisance of himself here as he threw out moneychangers and overturned tables of merchandise. 

Herod’s temple, of course, was also destroyed as Jesus himself predicted and access is now restricted due to the site being controlled by the Islamic Waqf.  We timed our day so that we would be able to enter the temple mount during the one hour it was allowing tourists.  They confiscated the Bible one person in our group had in his backpack and they cracked me up by asking me to wrap my neck due to it being too exposed!

Jews do not go up to the Temple Mount for fear of stepping on the site of the Holy of Holies and thus pray and do their worship at the small section of the Western Wall of the mount that’s been exposed. But I thought it was worth the hassle of covering my collarbone to walk around the sacred site was well worth it even though it is now the site of a mosque and, of course, the Dome of the Rock.

They kicked us off the Temple Mount in no time at all which was a shame except for the fact that I was starting to melt under the raincoat zipped up to my chin.

We were ushered out through the Muslim quarter which was a buz with vendors selling food and trinkets. For a country so concerned with COVID, there were sure a lot of people in the narrow streets.

We eventually found our way to the Jewish quarter and to the Blue and White art studio. There, a world-class Messianic Jewish artist named Udi tells the story of Christ through art. He has become particularly special to our family.

We had walked about seven miles so far in this day and the fun was just beginning. It was Purim and the Jewish quarter was getting into party mode. They dress up in costumes and celebrate the historical rescue of their people from the wicked Haman through the story of Esther as if it were yesterday.

Technically, it was “free time” in the city but most of us followed Curtis back to the Arab quarter to meet up with a new friend–a licensed antiquities dealer with a winner manner and a crazy-disorganized shop.

Ancient Roman glass vases were pulled out of old shoeboxes stuffed with trash…he pulled out one valuable after another from shopping bags and piles of debri. It was getting chilly again so I was glad to be sitting by the heater upon which the tea kettle was perched.

What made the experience especially surreal were the recommendation letters he showed us from an eclectic clientele including Chuck Swindoll, Bill Clinton, Gavin Newsom, Metalica, and others. He has been featured in National Geographic on more than one occasion. We passed a few happy hours shivering and marveling at tiny treasures.

Eventually, my interest in food began to eclipse my appreciation of old coins and pottery and we walked outside the Jaffa gate to a classy Italian restaurant in the Mamilla mall. I was exhausted and my feet were complaining from a long day of walking on stone, but it was Purim and the city was still very much alive so we decided to pay an evening visit to the heart of the city–the Western Wall.

Did I mention the Jews know how to party? They abstain form a lot of things but alcohol is not among them. All in all, though, it seemed to be a sincere celebration of the deliverance of God.

On this particular day, we had walked about twelve miles and climbed the equivalent of 64 flights of stairs. We had covered about 1700 years of history from David to the Dome of the Rock. As we finally puttered our way back to the hotel, I didn’t feel like we could have packed much more into our first day in the Old City.

Day Three

We continued our theme of going where our friends have not gone by heading to Gamala. It was cold. So cold in fact, that it turned out the trail was closed and we could not actually hike out to the site. We were able to huddle above at the overlook, however, and Curtis told us the story. This was the site of the last stand of the Jewish rebellion circa 64 BC. The Rabbi Gamaliel later spoke of it when he encouraged the religious leaders in Jerusalem to leave Jesus alone because if it wasn’t from God it would come to nothing just like the uprising that culminated there at Gamala.

It helped us understand better the political climate of the sliver of time between the Hasmonean dynasty and the failed rebellion that would come in AD 70. Jesus came to a diverse culture full of zealots and Hellenists…Pharisees and Sadducees…Jews and Samaritans…it was an ever-thickening hot mess of strong opinions and corrupt leaders; high taxes and low tolerance of others.

Sounds a little familiar.

Gamla was never rebuilt and it’s ruins were silent. Just us and the birds soaring overhead did not seem to be bothered by the cold.

Again, Jesus likely did come here although it was not specifically named in Scripture. He likely brought His simple message to these redneck farmers. Maybe many times.

From there we took a hard turn and studied some of Israel’s modern history from the unlikely university of the Eli Cohen. Your friends have not been here.

The building lies in a quiet strip of nothing, almost on the current Syrian border (and within the disputed territory). It was a fabulous and fabulously cold experience to walk through the long, graffiti covered halls and ponder the years of hatred and conflict, plotting and planning that was hosted in the many rooms. (If you aren’t familiar with Eli Cohen, you can see the dramatized version of his story in the Prime Video feature, Impossible Spy)

We shivered our way back to the van and it took a while even then to warm up. We headed from there to Banis—there’s nothing quite like visiting the gates of hell on a snowy March day.

Banis is beautiful but it was the site of some of the most grotesque pagan practices of that time. There is record of Jesus coming to this area—known then as Cesarea Philipi. In fact, Jesus may have stood on the same rock we stood on near the temple to the god Pan a/k/a the “Gates of Hell” when he famously declared that he would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

It was sunny, windy, and snowy alternately so we didn’t loiter too long before making our way into the restaurant there for a delicious “Lebanese” lunch.

When we were sufficient full of chicken kabobs and hummus, we headed towards Nimrods castle—not an original plan but kinda a cool place if you ever find yourself in Israel with a couple of hours to kill.

The most pressing question on many of our minds was…how in the world did they heat this place? I can’t even imagine living in a stone structure on top of a snowy mountain with nothing but cold wind for company. Brrr.

Clearly, tons of time and effort was spent building this incredible defensive. It now provides an amazing house for the Irex (?) which appear to be living there quite comfortably despite the weather.

Our last stop was beside the side of the road to get some fresh pomegranate juice. The local vendors seemed very glad to see a van of tourists pull up. I suspect it has been a long two years of shut down for them.

I was exhausted by the time we reached the guest ranch and more interested in a hot bath than dinner. The front desk lady took one look at me and asked, “where on earth did you go on this cold day?”

So I told her: A cold place, a really cold place, and an even colder place.

So I told her: A cold place, a really cold place, and an even colder place. I guess I should have told her the truth: a closed national park, the Israeli/Syrian border, and the gates of hell. So…what did you do today?

Day Two-the Galilee

Morning dawned over the Sea of Galilee.

Unfortunately, I could not pull myself out of bed to watch, so all I saw of the beautiful hues is what dared to peak around the edges of the curtain.

When I did pull myself out of bed, I made my way as far down to the water as I could, which was still a ways away but within view of our corner of the lake. I tucked myself behind some rocks and took the time to sit and read my Bible and then just be quiet. It is rare in life that I have the opportunity to sit and be quiet.

We had a last minute change of plans enabling us to hike Mt Arbel. Wow, was that cool! Your friends have not done this!

While it’s not a biblical site, it has a colorful recurrence in history including unsuccessful fortifications during political rebellions both shortly before and after the time of Christ. An understanding of them informs your understanding of the Galilean people and even why they may have viewed Christ as an up-and-coming political savior.

It’s hard to describe the amazing views over Magdala and the Sea…the cows parking themselves along the path…the bright red and yellow flowers. I cannot stress enough how different it was to see Israel in March instead of late May.

The climb gets aggressive a/k/a fun along the way. Let’s just say I understand why they close the trail when it rains.

All in all, we were proud of our time, we did it in about one hours and thirty-five minutes including time to snap photos along the way.

Our next stop was up a windy hill in the now Arab town of Nazareth. It was chilly as we piled out of the van and into a neat little dining area used by the folks at Nazareth village to feed us a period lunch.

Nazareth Village is a recreation of first century Nazareth. It is helpful in bringing the ruins to life and letting you see what a corner of the village might have been like.

The coolest part of Nazareth Village is the first century wine press. Jesus quite possibly stood on that very community wine press…(contrary to popular misconception, there are not many places one can walk where Jesus actually walked). This is one. If you don’t know what you’re looking at, it’s just one rock in the midst of many rocks that make up a rocky mountain. But if you take the time to investigate, it’s not hard to picture little Jesus stomping on grapes alongside his friends.

Probably one of Israel’s best kept secrets, Nazareth Village does a great job with its recreation and commentary and I was thankful for their interpretations that helped make the “everyday” come alive—including the climax in the synagogue.

While Capernaum was Jesus’ headquarters during the ministry years, Nazareth was Jesus’ hometown–Likely populated by just a few hundred who would have seen Jesus grow up. They were not ready to accept Him as Messiah and when he stood in their synagogue and read the passage of Isaiah prophesying of the Messiah and pointed to himself as diety and hinted that hinted that He had come for the gentiles as well, the fine folks of Nazareth did their best to throw him off a cliff. Not exactly a warm welcome from your friends and relatives. (Luke 4:16-30).

Actually being in the town helps you understand this story—it hugs the side of the mountain and they apparently had a designated spot for just such executions.

Our Muslim friends would contend that Jesus did not claim to be God. A simple reading of the gospels would show that not only did He claim to be God…the Jews around him knew precisely that He was making this bold proclamation on several occasions; often at the threat of His life.

After Nazareth, we squeaked in a visit to Magdala–the fish processing hometown of Mary the Magdalene. The Bible doesn’t specifically record Jesus coming to Magdala, but it most certainly was one of the other “cities and villages” where he would have preached in the synagogue. This town destroyed in the revolt during 70 AD and never rebuilt. It was only discovered in 2009 and the ruins which stand in the way of a hotel parking lot include the floor and benches from a true first century parking lot. Coins they found in the floor indicate it would have been in use during Jesus’ time.

“And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went out a fame of him through all the region round about. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all.” Luke 4:14-15

We had dinner at an empty restaurant just down the street from Magdala and then those of us who were not too cold and exhausted ended the day warming our hands by a fire next to the Sea of Galilee. A perfect bookend to a perfect day.

Israel Travels – Day One

There is no easy way to get up the next morning after an overnight flight coupled with a 7 hour jump ahead in time. But I didn’t second guess the alarm clock because Curtis had us on a tight time schedule leaving the hotel at 8:00. Most everyone had just enough time to grab a cup of coffee.

Our first stop was the beach just before Caesarea. We marveled at the powerful aqueduct Herod had built to bring fresh water to the new city he was building along with the largest port of Israel.

Here we were introduced to the land of Israel—the small, complicated patch of planet earth God chose to be the stage for his chosen people roughly 2000 BC. It’s an unlikely crossroads between three major continents—the epicenter of wars and conflict, ideology and history.

There was a brisk breeze and rain sprinkled on and off as we walked and talked. The beach was rich with tiny shells and smooth stones.

Along the natural berms near the ocean, erosion has exposed layers of civilization where you can find broken pieces of pottery that so quietly hold the stories from a thousand of years gone ago.

Broken pottery buried underneath the floor of a later civilization

This is my second journey to Israel and I’m so glad to be back. There is more than what can be absorbed in just a few days. This trip was promised to take us “where our friends haven’t gone” (and a few places they have).

Following the beach we pulled into Cesarea—which was almost devoid of tourists. We stopped in a small rock hallow along the shore and discussed the sordid history of Herod the Great and his powerful and ruthless family legacy.

Caesarea Maritime was built as a pledge of loyalty by Herod to Octavian…the man who would later call himself Caesar Augustus—the self-proclaimed savior of the world (just ahead of the coming of a quiet, working-class contractor across the ocean whose legacy would turn the world upside down).

I accidentally left my phone in the van and I regret not didn’t get any photos in this amazing port town but we talked about the birth of the gentile church here at Caesarea about 10 years after the ascension of Christ. One would be remiss not to miss the amazing hippodrome and theater.

The rain drove us back to the van and we made a quick stop for a mall lunch on the way to Capernaum—the fishing village that would be Christ’s home during much of his ministry years.

The cramped stone houses just feet from the waters edge would have held no secrets and left no need for social media or even telephones.

Peter’s house is almost certainly identified and it was surreal to stand so close to the walls that may have witnessed Christ miracles such as healing Peters’ mother in law. The city of 1,500 was sometime gathered at the door of this unassuming home such that the roof was torn off for access to Jesus.

We also went to the synagogue which although destroyed and later rebuilt since the time of Christ, still boasts to be the site of Christs casting out a demon.

Interestingly, Capernaum’s strategic position as a rest stop along the Via Maris made it a convenient place for collection of taxes (think Matthew) and location for a Roman garrison (think Centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant).

Capernaum is the site of many more miracles such as the healing of Jairas’ daughter, and catching a fish for tribute tax money. How many can you name? This trip has made me pay so much more attention to the “where” and the “when” of the Bible stories we have mindlessly read over and over.

Unfortunately, Capernaum did not—despite their interest in Jesus—respond to him as Messiah. Consequently, it incurred one of Christ’s sternest warnings in Matthew 11:21-24.

From Capernaum we traveled to Hippos. This is a fairly recent dig opening to the public really for the first time. Your friends have not been here.

While this more up-scale town was not specifically named as such in Scripture, it’s position in the Decapolis on the other side of the Galilee allows us to identify it as the likely place where Jesus comes to heal one man who has been possessed by demons.

Jesus’ peculiar stop in an unclean, far-off town to radically change the life of one crazy man lit a flame that quickly raged into a bonfire. He would likely be in this same town where 4,000 would be listening so long that Jesus felt the need to feed them from a few loaves and fish.

It is very possible that as Jesus gave his famous Sermon on the Mount just across the sea (likely near Capernaum) he might have used Hippos as his illustration when he spoke the words “Ye are the light of the world; a city set on a hill cannot be hid.” Maybe not. But just the same, we used this spot to renew our commitments to be a city on a hill to light up the night in this darkening world.

Unfortunately, our candles would not light in the chilly wind, so we resigned ourselves to waving our cellphone lights over the Sea of Galilee. A beautiful way to end our first day in the little strip of land God chose as the setting for the birth of His son.

Did I Mention it was Cold? it was cold. It was green. It was beautiful.

Day 11 – Dodging Bikes in Amsterdam

Each day starts with me locking my hotel room door with a key from the roll I was given when I checked in, then winding my way down six flights of steep, creaky stairs to the lobby. There, a little man who takes his duty to feed us breakfast very seriously, gives a cheery “Bon Jour!” and offers me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. I never say no.

After that, he brings a basket of bread to the table, crowned with a soft buttery croissant. I do not know who makes them but I want to take them home with me. I can smell the freshness. He also brings a plate of meats and cheeses and will make a boiled egg if I ask. Of course, There is also a selection of fruit and muesli. Today, I had a plumb and an apricot.

I realized that I still haven’t had a waffle here in Belgium and I probably should before I leave. In fact, I definitely should.

The area around my hotel (the main square) is being set up for the Grand Start if Tour de France beginning Saturday. I have watched the set up take shape each day as I walk past.

Last group tour today; I was going to Amsterdam. Our guide today couldn’t have been more opposite of the energetic Spanish girl we had yesterday. He was tall and large and quiet. This tour was supposed to be in both English and Spanish and I don’t think either was his native tongue, so it seemed like it was often too much trouble for him to translate, so he said nothing at all.

Our first stop was a small, family owned farm near the city center where they make cheese and clogs. My first impression getting off the bus was that it was a bit quirky and unkept—not at all the type of place you would expect a tour bus to stop. My second impression—and all of them after that—was that it was VERY quirky and unkept.

Perhaps we stopped there because the owner spoke many languages. He impressed us by spouting off in English, and the languages used in the surrounding countries (French, German, Dutch), but also Chinese (says he knows three dialects), Japanese, Spanish, Russian, and maybe others; I don’t know.

He tried to do his little cheese making demonstration in English and Spanish—he really did. But I think it was more of switching back and forth—one step in English, the next in Spanish, and so on. Either way, he had a lot of personality and was fun to listen to. He started and finished with samples of their Gouda cheese in various flavors and it was delicious. He said he was an eighth generation cheese maker. That’s hard to get my head around.

We didn’t get a demonstration, but they had clogs in all stages of development and he was clacking around on the concrete floors modeling them for us and claiming they were very comfortable.

His wife and son ran the gift shop so it had some order and charm to it. I have no room in my back pack for a block of cheese, so I choose a magnet for my memory of this fun and funny little place.

After the cheese shop, they gave us a photo op with a windmill. While the technology of these old windmills has been replaced with a newer version, there are lots of the old ones still running. I learned they were meant to be (and this still is) someone’s residence. I don’t know how convenient it is, but It’s sure cute.

Another thing I never knew about that area is how many Dutch live in little houseboats along the water. There were all shapes, sizes, and price ranges. And there were cool looking bike paths all through the country. That looked like fun to me.

The guide showed us some of the highlights of Amsterdam as the bus slowly crawled through the city. While Belgians are more known For their bike riding, I quickly realized that the Belgians have nothing on Amsterdam. “Beware of bikes!” Was the guides final admonition as we got off the bus. I heard some folks talking that there are 3,000 bike/pedestrian accidents in Amsterdam a year and I realized this was, quite possibly, the most dangerous part of my trip. The bicycles often had their own lane, but one had to cross the land somehow and there was a constant stream of bikes and they did not slow down. The bike parking lots were amazing and at the train station I wondered how one would ever find their bike again.

I decided to go to Haarlem by train first. I have been there before but I was drawn to the home of Corrie ten Boom and her family. They helped Jews during WWII and consequently Corrie suffered in Ravensbruck concentration camp and her sister died there. I would recommend the stop if you are ever nearby.

Back in Amsterdam, I walked around, smelling Cannibis and attempting to get in the Anne Frank museum, but I guess you can’t even enter a gift shop unless you buy tickets months in advance.

I dodged bikes, walked along the flower market, attempted to avoid the red light district, and and eventually bought a smoothie and some Dutch chocolate. It’s a very busy city and there was lots more to see but things I was most interested such as the Bible museum and Jewish museum seemed to be closed. If I had known the bus was going to be more than 30 minutes late, I would have taken the time to go by the Jewish WWII memorial that we had driven by earlier. Oh well.

My take away from Amsterdam is that it is a beautiful town and you might enjoy it if you are quick on your feet and like the sickly sweet smells. But the highlight of my day was probably the quirky cheese man and his delicious Gouda cheese.

Step count: 19,000

Cumulative step count: 203,000

Day 10 – Luxembourg and Dinant

Up until now, the group tours I have taken have had max a dozen people. Today, we were 50 people strong all on one big bus. The common tie between all of us: English.

That definitely doesn’t mean American. In fact, I’ve been surprised at how few Americans I’ve met on this trip. Far more have been Canadian, Australian, from the UK, or even India. Many times, I’ve looked at someone and thought they were from the US until they opened their mouths.

Anyway, our perky Spanish guide held a large purple sign over her head and hearded us toward the bus. There were a half dozen other tours leaving from the same time and place so it was a bit of a zoo. Thank goodness for her purple paper taped on a wood stick which she held triumphantly above the crowd.

It is a long ride to Luxembourg. But Marium taught us a lot about both Belgium and Luxembourg on the way. Belgium is a country of about 11 million (roughly the population of Georgia); Luxembourg has about 600,000 residents. Both are effectively governed by Parliament although Belgium has a king and Luxembourg has a duke.

Luxembourg, the city, is as old as the ninth century—having originally been settled by the Vikings. Luxembourg, the country, only dates to the nineteenth century. The name Luxembourg means “little fortress” and the city was apparently a very good one. When we got there, we saw some of the old city walls and it was easy to see why the location above the river was formidable.

The main industry in Luxembourg is banking and finance and it is a wealthy country considering its size. Minimum wage is roughly ~$13,50/hr and they have more Porsches per capita than anywhere in the world.

I didn’t really feel like paying 25 Euro for lunch, so another girl and I walked around a bit and then got a wrap at a small corner cafe. I haven’t said this (or thought it) about any food I’ve had so far this trip, but there is only one word to describe it: disgusting. (Mostly mayonnaise with wisps of lettuce, tomato, and prosciutto). I noticed my friend threw hers in the trash can too as we walked as well.

The guide showed us Parliament and the Duke’s residence. There were a number of churches, squares, an outdoor farmer’s market, and all the typical retail offerings of a small, high end town. She also talked a good about the EU, which had its beginnings here and cracked me up with some of her English phrases such as her frequent references to “sky scrappers.”

Leann and I walked across the bridge to the new part of town and back…There is a pedestrian/bike bridge suspended below the car bridge which made for a nice shady place to walk and take some pictures.

By the time we were back, we pretty well felt like we’d seen Luxembourg. There were some nice parks, and overall, I got the feeling that it would be a pretty nice place to live if you’re in the banking and finance world and you really like mayonnaise.

On our return trip, we stopped in Dinant, a very picturesque Belgian village where the inventor of the saxophone is from. We then wound our way up the river; it was a very beautiful drive. The area had had a coal boom in the 60s and 70s but has since lost most of its industry and is now mostly summer homes and strawberry growers.

I felt a little yuk by the time we got back. I wasn’t sure it is was from the long ride or the mayonnaise lunch that I had tried to chase away with gummy bears.

Overall, it had been a good day, but I felt the boxes had sufficiently been checked and I likely won’t be returning to Luxembourg.

Step count: 16,000

Cumulative count: 184,000

Day 9 – The Beautiful City of Brugges

Brugges 20

It was another beautiful day. I had not gotten the early start needed to go to Dunkirk, so I decided to switch things up and take the day to go to Brugges, a small Belgian town by the ocean.

When I say small, I’ve heard it has a population of 1,000 but receives an average of 25,000 tourists a day.

So I guess it goes without saying that it is a tourist town. But there is a reason why 25,000 tourists a day go there. It really is beautiful.

I was on my own today and it was about noon when I arrived. I wandered my way through the city in comfortable shoes, in no particular rush and with no particular destination. I was determined to let today be a less stressful day.

Roughly in the center of the city is this looming bell tour…83 meters tall and I’m sure, at one time, important to the defensive strategy of the city. I waiting in a long, slow line to climb the 366 steps to the lookout over the city. I got to hear the chimes from inside the tower which left an impression. It was all interesting, but I hated to waste any time because I felt sorry for all the folks waiting in the long line below.

But I did get a few shots of the city from the look out 366 steps up:

Some of the city had medieval history, but I didn’t really know what the history was, so I decided to take one of the canal tours. I had read that they were a beautiful way to see the city and I figured I’d learn some of the story at the same time.

The guide packed us in and immediately began talking and joking. He was switching off between languages though (Belgium has three official languages, French, Dutch, or German), and while I know English was in the mix, I couldn’t tell when he was speaking English except that I kept hearing him boom “Sixteenth Century”…”dates to the Sixteenth Century…” “vas built in the Sixteenth century…” and finally with pride, “twelfth Century!”

So it was a pretty ride and I decided just to enjoy it and not be frustrated that I didn’t learn a thing. There is always Wikipedia.

Brugges 8

There are 1,000 restaurants. Maybe more. I settled on a take away of Finnish beef stew and fries. It was good and definitely filled the space that had freed up since the hotel breakfast.

Brugges 5

I also thought I would satisfy my sweet tooth by popping in to some of the 1,000 chocolatiers that all boasted they had the world’s finest chocolate and figure out which one was actually best for myself.

I ended up only buying chocolate at one but I looked at a lot of beautiful chocolate. Smelled a lot of good chocolate. And, if they offered samples, I never said no.

Brugges 12

In true tourist town form, it was retail heaven and all the big names were there as well as lots of local specialty shops, antique shops, and souvenirs shops…where I got my magnet. Again, I was glad for my little backpack which helped me avoid temptation, but I did enjoy looking at the handmade lace and a few of the other shops of curios.

Brugges 4

It was tempting to rent a bike…it’s a thing in Belgium and they were convenient to rent, but the main streets were a bit too crowded; and anyway, I had splurged on the boat tour. So I contented myself to walk some of the outskirts. It was a larger town than I expected. Surely, far more than 1,000 people live there at least with seasonal help.

I took the train back to Brussels where things are getting crazy as they set up for Tour de France beginning here Saturday. There was a tiny bit of evening left, so I caught up on email and made a much needed trip to the laundry mat.

I looked it up and learned that Brugges (spelled four different ways…depending on which language you’re using) was founded by the Vikings in the 9th century. It was a port town and had its hay day between the 12-14th centuries before Antwerp rose in size and importance and Brugges began to decline. By the 1800s, it was the poorest city in Belgium.

Recent tourism has undoubtedly turned the tide and one of the row houses along the canal sells for 1.5 million Euro. And I could feel good about my life knowing I had done my part to sustain this lovely little town with almost no history and no industry. Except selling the world’s finest chocolate.

Step count: 22,000 Cumulative step count: 152,000

Day 8 – Bratislava…or Barcelona…then Brussels

I woke up naturally. Finally. It was nice to feel like I was in something of a routine. I had time for a leisurely breakfast and tried three different kinds of jam with my bread. They were all delicious.

At the last minute, I changed from my most comfortable walking shoes, to the flip flops to match my skirt. I felt much more relaxed today.

I was still not in a rush as I headed out for my tour to Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. This time, the tour guide was not coming to the hotel, we were to meet in front of the Vienna Opera House.

But I was not concerned about getting to the right place. I had plenty of time and the green line runs from right near the hotel to right in front of the Opera House. What could go wrong?

But not only was there an easy plan for today, I also had a plan B and I had been severely torn between the two. Due to a series of events, I had a flight to Brussels both Monday (today) and Tuesday. If I made it to Brussels one day early, I would lose the opportunity to go to Slovakia, but I would gain a longer layover in Barcelona and a possible day to visit Dunkirk, France. While I have been to France and have not been to Slovakia, I was getting a little burned out on Middle Eastern towns; and the idea of visiting the famous beaches that hosted the escape of 400,000 Allied soldiers seemed like a good trade.

But after much deliberation, I had stuck with plan A because, after all, I had paid for the tour to Slovakia and the night’s hotel in Vienna and I hate to waste money.

So, by 7:45, I was sitting in a seat on the green line. I was supposed to be at the meeting place by 8:15 and the tour was to leave at 8:30. It would be about a 10 minute ride to get there; so I zoned out briefly; still chewing on Plan A and B and the pros and cons of each.

vienna 16

After a few minutes, I started paying attention to the stops; my general sense was that mine, Karlsplatz, was still a few a away.

But to my surprise, I was almost back to my starting point. What? I was so confused. But sure enough, the train was running toward my hotel stop.

I was scratching my head as I got back off the train and headed up the stairs and across the station to get back on. I felt like I was in some kind of a time warp movie. I heard them make an announcement (in German) but it meant nothing to me.

I rode the train again until everyone suddenly got off. Everyone but me. I figured it out at the last second and jumped off too. They had closed a section of the train for repairs and the train would return to start. I would have to find another route.

I looked at Siri—I was 3 miles from my destination but it would be a slow three miles walking. It was already after 8:00. There was no way I could walk it in time.

I didn’t really have time to figure anything out, everyone else was jumping on another train; in fact, it was so full, I didn’t think I could fit. But I was just able to squeeze in on and wedge myself between some other travelers.

But now I had another problem. It was so tight, I could not see the train map showing the lines, stops, and directions. I had no idea where I was or where I was going.

As the train gradually began to unpack a little at each stop, I could catch glimpses of the map whenever another traveler moved her arm.

I kept checking my watch. Did I have time? Could I make it? Should I give up and go to plan B? I didn’t have time to decide anything, I could only keep moving…generally figuring it out on the fly…jumping from the green line, to the brown, to the purple, and finally, to the orange which would take my to my original destination. I had the subconscious sense that if something went wrong, I’d retrace the maze of lines back to the hotel and switch to Plan B; but miraculously, I kept getting on the right trains going the right directions.

The clock was unforgiving though. 8:15 came and went and I began to realize I wasn’t even going to make 8:30. They would not wait for me. I knew they would not wait for me.

The final train station, Karlsplatz, was a large one, and I practically raced through the station to see if there was hope of catching the tour. It was 8:29.

The Opera house was not there.

It was a little mistake, but it had huge consequences. I had come out the wrong exit. It probably took a full ten minutes for me to fix my mistake.

By the time I got to the front of the Opera House, there was no sign of a van. I tried to reach the tour operator but there was nothing I could do but email. It was past 8:40 and I was sure they were gone.

So here was the other thing. My flight—the plan B flight that I had not planned to take—left at 10:40. And I was four trains away from my stuff back at the hotel.

Plan B it was. Back down to the train station. I studied the map just long enough to confirm that the route I came truly was the most direct. I also set a timer to see how long it would take me to get back. I would have to get to the hotel, pack, ride four trains back here, then catch the airport train…which only ran on the half hour. Then I would ride the sixteen minutes to the airport, check in, and go through security, and board all in about 1.5 hours. It wasn’t doable.

But still, as I waited for the train, I tried to write down each train line, direction, and stop I would need for the return trip for quick reference. God bless whoever it was that came up with the idea of giving each line a different color. They deserve knighthood, sainthood, and a Nobel Peace Prize.

Siri, however, was not so helpful. She stinks at German and as I typed in all the names, she kept trying to auto correct them. Finally, I gave up.

I caught the train and used the ride to keep playing the timing through in my mind. I *might* be able to make the flight if I took a taxi to the airport instead of chancing the train. I had to try.

I packed in no time at all and had the driver waiting outside. But this driver defied every reputation of cab drivers everywhere. He was in no rush. The only thing that seemed to be moving was the clock.

It was 9:59 when we pulled up at the airport for my flight which was supposed to board at 10:00. I kept checking my phone, but the flight was on time.

It was 63 Euros for the cab ride. And there was pretty much no way I was going to make it. So much for plan B. Little mistakes can sure be expensive.

Plan C would be to catch a train to Slovakia myself. I didn’t feel much like going back to the hotel to drop off my stuff and then retracing all those steps for a fifth time that morning. Maybe I would just throw my back pack in the Danube and go.

But I pursued plan B doggedly, trying to be kind to the elderly couple in security in front of my who kept pulling more and more bits and bobs out of their pockets. Then the Spanish gentlemen…acting very much like he has never been in a hurry in his life.

I made it. Not by much, but I made it.

Barcelona 2

 

My layover was in Barcelona. I took the Aerobus into the city center. Turns out, the 1992 Olympic Games were to Barcelona what the Sound of Music was to Salzburg.

Given my limited time and disinclination to repeat my Vienna experience and walk 10 miles with my backpack, I decided to splurge on one of the hop on, hop off bus tours with the audio guide.  I figured that way I would learn some of the rich history of the area.

Basically, the audio in a nutshell was: this city was reinvented for the 1992 Olympic Games.

One would have thought that the Mediterranean Sea made it’s appearance for the 1992 Olympic Games.

Since I really didn’t have time to hop on or hop off, I contented myself with the leftovers of a chocolate bar I bought in Saltzburg and taking pictures from the top deck of the bus. But if I’d had time, I would have gotten off here which apparently is where you can view ancient ruins from the Roman Age under the city. The guide didn’t tell us much about it…it must not have played a part in the 1992 Olympic Games.

Barcelona 7

I don’t know if all of the trees were planted for the 1992 Olympic Games or not, but they offered pleasant shade and the breeze off the ocean was very welcome. Between that and the overall friendliness of the Spanish people, I was starting to release some of the tension of the morning’s craziness.

I took the train back to the airport, and I was glad I did because it took us, apparently, through the part of the country that hadn’t gotten reborn for the 1992 Olympic Games. It was a very different picture that reminded me more of South America. Maybe that’s why they push tourists to take the Aerobus.

I’ll spare you the details, but it ended up being another harrowing near miss of a flight due to a 15 minute bus ride between terminals, super slow security, and a gate that kept changing. But God is good and I made it okay; just started feeling like I need to get back to work to get away from all this stress of vacation. :).  That’s what I get for wearing my flip flops and trying three different kinds of jam on my bread.

But that’s the way it is sometimes. And the good news is, I should sleep well tonight. That is, after I burn these shoes.