While in Jerusalem, we decided to visit several Palestinian towns, including the obvious choice of Bethlehem. I read a lot about the security wall situation beforehand online, but the information did not seem consistent. I knew that we had to go to the Arab bus station by the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, but it turned out that there were at least three different lots for the Arab buses. However, the lines to Bethlehem were in the “main” bus lot near the streetcar station for the Damascus Gate. I also read that we should take bus 21 to Beit Jala or minibus 24 to Bethlehem. The shelters for the buses are only about twenty-five feet from each other. So, we decided that we would take whichever bus arrived first. I am glad that we took bus 21. Minibus 24 evidently takes you to the security checkpoint outside Bethlehem, but then you have to walk or to catch a taxi to town. Bus 21, however, takes you through some lovely mountainous countryside south of Jerusalem before arriving in Bethlehem not far from Manger Square. On the way, we were able to see the Herodion in the distance. The bus goes through the checkpoint, and you only have to deal with security (having soldiers board the bus for inspection) on the way back into “normal” Israel. Once we arrived in Bethlehem, Arab taxi drivers repeatedly told us that it was a long walk to Manger Square, but it was not. I wonder if they misrepresent on purpose or if they think that Americans are too weak to walk ten blocks. We enjoyed seeing the Christian neighborhoods in the lovely desert rain.
We spent the morning in the Church of the Nativity. While waiting in line to visit the chapel of the Nativity, we were behind a Russian pilgrimage group and in front of a German group. We were Poland, and the two groups were quietly positioning all the time for more Lebensraum. We held our own turf, though, thanks to my ample experience in dealing with foreign queue weasels. The German tour guide explained Orthodox liturgical practices to her fellow Teutons as they waited, while the Russians prayed by the icons in the southern chapel where the entrance to the crypt is located. Once we were below, the Russian group sang while their two priests led a moleben. I was grateful that my visit to the cave of the Lord’s birth had a traveling Russian choir for its soundtrack. After we venerated the cave, we visited the attached Roman Church of Saint Catherine as well as its crypt, which includes the cells and tombs of Jerome and his followers. This was a surprise for me. I knew that Jerome translated the scriptures in Palestine, but I did not know that he lived next to the Church of the Nativity.
After we left the Nativity complex, we went shopping at Blessings Olive Wood Factory on Milk Grotto Street next to the Milk Grotto. Along the street are dozens of vendors, but we passed them to get to the place that was recommended to me before I went to Israel. There, a hospitable Palestinian Christian family sells wood carvings that they make in the workshop next door. It was fascinating to see their skills in action as well as to peruse their beautiful merchadise. The olive wood carvings that peddlers sell in the Old City come from the craftsmen in Bethlehem, who sell their goods directly to you for much cheaper.
After souvenir and gift shopping, we visited the neighboring Milk Grotto, run by the Franciscans and also tended by Sacramentine Nuns. In addition to the grotto, there are numerous chapels as well as ruins from previous churches at the site.
By the time we finished visiting the Milk Grotto, it was past lunchtime. We headed back to Manger Square to eat at Afteem, where they sell what is considered the finest falafel in Israel. The atmosphere, service, and food were excellent. I recommend it to anyone who visits Bethlehem. It must pass for a local gem, too, as an Arab family was celebrating a birthday feast for a little girl when we were there. The family who runs it appears to be Palestinian Christian, as well—there were several icons inside the restaurant, which closes for business on Sunday.
After lunch at Afteem, we walked around town. I had originally wanted to visit the churches in the Shepherds’ Fields, but I did not want to haggle with the vulturous taxi drivers, and we did not feel like ambling in the countryside that afternoon in the rain. I visited the Judean desert, where drought is normal, and it rained every day! As we were walking on streets named King David, Paul VI, Carmel, Manger, and Star, several people asked why we were not in a taxi. One young shopkeeper even offered to drive us to the bus station himself. We returned by foot to the bus stop and took 21 back to Jerusalem. And, yes, I did hum the carol in my mind while visiting those not so dark streets.