Robbie and I had a great day in Crete! Afterwords we had a day at sea to enjoy the ship and get a little rest before sailing into Haifa, Israel. We were in port for two days, so we were able to see several places in Israel. We like to explore on our own whenever possible to save money. Jerusalem and the other places we wanted to visit were several hours drive from Haifa, so the cruise line shore excursions were the best option for this port. MSC told us we would save 20% on shore excursions if we booked before we sailed. So we booked all of the shore excursions that we wanted to do before the cruise. That was not true. On the ship they were offering package deals that were less expensive than what we paid. What’s up with that MSC! Our whole group planned to do the Jerusalem tour on the first day. Once onboard the ship, we noticed there was a tour that went to Bethlehem and Jerusalem that was not available online. Robbie and I thought it would be really nice to see Bethlehem as well, so we switched our tour. Kris, and her sister Kim, switch too. The rest of the group stayed with the Jerusalem only tour. The people at the tour desk were very helpful and switched the tours for us. Although we did have a small issue with the tickets for the excursions we booked online. The first person we talked to didn’t seem to know what the problem was. The second person fixed it easily. Anyway, we got the shore excursions all sorted and ready to go.
I mentioned in an earlier post that there were 11 of us traveling together on this cruise. It was great traveling with this group. Even thought we were traveling together, there were lots of things to do, so we were not always all doing the same thing together. Sometimes we were on our own or with some or all of the group. It was great. So no one had a problem when we switched to the Bethlehem tour.
Kim, Kris, Robbie and I boarded our bus for the two hour ride to Bethlehem. Disembarking the ship went pretty smoothly this time. We had a fairly long wait in one of the lounges. When it was our turn, we were off the ship in no time. We were on highways most of the way. We drove through Tel Aviv on the way. It was nice that we got to see a little of that city passing by our window. Bethlehem is in Palestine in the West Bank. We needed to go through the wall that separates Israel and Palestine. I’m sure this changes, probably on a daily basis, but today we just drove right through. There was no checkpoint, show us your papers, thing. Our first stop was a gift shop full of nativities carved from olive wood, among other things. After our shopping adventure we went to the restaurant next door for lunch. It was a pretty good lunch with Middle Eastern style veggies, pita, hummus, chicken, and fish. Everyone got back on the bus for the short ride into Bethlehem.
The bus parked in a huge parking garage for buses. From the parking garage it was probably about a half mile walk through the streets of Bethlehem to the Church of The Nativity. We were following our guide. It was a fairly steep up hill climb the whole way. I am no spring chicken, but I was probably one of the younger people on the tour. Our guide was keeping a blistering pace up this hill. I was falling behind because I was taking photos; that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. But really, I am usually the last person because I’m taking photos, but I was having trouble keeping up the pace. Other people were falling behind too, and they were not taking photos. That was the beginning of people not being very happy with our guide.
Once we were at the church our guide gave a brief explanation. Guides are not allowed to talk inside of churches. We were to meet back outside at a certain time. To enter the church you need to go through the entrance of humility. There is a very small opening that you need to bend over to go through. There was originally a huge entrance. Over the years they kept making it smaller, to restrict access and to prevent looters from taking things out in wagons. You can make out the different entrances in the stone work. The inside of the church is beautiful. There are rows of roman style columns. There are openings in the floor so you can see the remains of the original mosaic tile floor. The birth place of Jesus is in a grotto below the church. There was a very long wait, in a very long line, to see it. Unfortunately, there was not enough time for us to see it. We heard there was a “guy.” If you talked to him, and greased his palm accordingly; he would take you in the out door (in other words, to the front of the line). We never saw the “guy.”
When we were finished inside the church, we took a look around Manger Square. There was a music festival of some sort going on, lots of music and dancing. On the way back to the bus we passed a food vendor in an American Eagle Outfitter tee-shirt, selling something yummy. Then we passed a Squarebucks coffee shop, not Starbucks, but Squarebucks. There were guys every 75 yards or so selling rosaries. Oh, there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken in the bus parking garage. Everyone got back on the bus for our next stop, Jerusalem.
I visited the Church of The Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine last month. It was an interesting place to visit. I thought it would be nice to make a Christmas post with some of the photos. Merry Christmas!