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Home > Virtual Cruises > Exotic Mediterranean on Azamara Quest
Exotic Mediterranean on Azamara Quest
Day 1: Trip Planning, Arrival in Istanbul
Day 2: Kusadasi/Ephesus
Day 3: At Sea
Day 4: Cairo, Egypt
Day 5: Jerusalem
Day 6: Haifa
Day 7: Limassol, Cyprus
Day 8: At Sea
Day 9: Sorrento
Day 10: Debarkation in Rome
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Day 5: Friday, Jerusalem
Although Rachel and I had both visited Jerusalem when we were younger, we were looking forward to revisiting the city as older, more knowledgeable travelers. Indeed, Jerusalem was one of the biggest selling points of this cruise for most people -- either because they wanted to visit the holy sites of Judaism or Christianity, or because they wanted to visit the land of Israel in a very safe, very structured way. Excitement on the ship was high -- everyone eagerly awaited this port, even though many passengers were not so thrilled about yet another 7 a.m. arrival after two long days in Egypt.

Jerusalem is not on the water, so Azamara Quest (and other cruise ships that visit the Holy Land) actually docked in Ashdod, about an hour and a half from Jerusalem. Ashdod is a huge shipping port, and we couldn't even see the city from the pier, as its skyline was blocked by cranes, containers and cargo ships. It's not an easy port for independent exploration -- you can take the ship's free shuttle (departing every half hour) to the port entrance to catch a cab into the city. There, you can then take a bus to Jerusalem, only to have to take another bus or cab to the Old City and some of the museums. It's just not worth the hassle when you only have one day to see this holy and historic destination.

The ship offers a variety of tours out of Ashdod, but the majority of folks chose trips that included Jerusalem (alternatives were Tel Aviv and Jaffa or the Dead Sea and Massada). The Jerusalem tours each had a different focus -- some were more oriented toward the life of Jesus and included a half-day in Jerusalem and half in Bethlehem, while another tour had a Jewish theme with visits to the Jewish Quarter, Israel Museum and the Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial. We weren't so interested in Bethlehem, and both of us had done the museums before, so we arranged a private tour that included just the Old City, the section of Jerusalem located within the 16th-century walls built by Suleiman, an Ottoman Turkish sultan. It's the historic and religious center of the city, as opposed to the more modern city spread among Jerusalem's multiple hills.

Was an independent tour the way to go? Well, more on that later....

Our visit, like many others, began at the viewing platform atop the Mount of Olives, situated just outside and above the Old City. From this vantage point, you can look out over the city walls and clearly see the gold roof of the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic holy place built on top of the Temple Mount, where the ancient Jewish temple used to stand. To the left is the hilltop where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and to the right is where he taught his disciples the Lord's Prayer. You can also see the excavation site of the city of King David and a huge cemetery on the slopes of the hill, where many famous people (like former prime minister Menachem Begin) are buried. Although the Mount of Olives is not of religious significance itself, it's the perfect window into the past (not to mention, a purely modern-day photo op). Next stop: Inside the Old City! The walled city is divided into four quarters -- Christian, Arab, Jewish and Armenian -- in addition to the Temple Mount. The quarters consist of a warren of stone buildings, streets, tunnels and passageways that could have the best navigators lost in minutes. You cannot drive a tour bus through the streets of the Old City -- heck, cars cannot pass through half the roads -- so you must park outside the city walls and continue the tour on foot.

We began with the Christian holy sites: the Via Dolorosa (also the Way of the Cross) and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. According to the Catholic belief, the Via Dolorosa marks the path Jesus took from the court where he was sentenced to die to the site where he was taken down from the cross after his death. Signposts mark the 14 Stations of the Cross, which you can follow through the Christian quarter of the city.

The final stations can be found in what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, including where Jesus is stripped of his clothes, where he's nailed to the cross, where he dies, where he's taken down, and where he's laid down and later resurrected. Although I'm not a Christian, I've been in enough churches to have seen illustrations of the 14 Stations, and it's amazing to stand on ground where those profound events may have taken place.

Whether you're a believer or not, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher can cause a sensory overload. Six church sects have their own spaces within the church (apparently they guard their rights quite zealously), and each niche is lavishly decorated in the style of each group -- which might not necessarily mesh well with the decorating style of the neighboring sect. There are people everywhere -- praying, kissing holy objects, lighting candles or simply standing and staring. The holiest sites have long queues. It's unlike any cathedral or religious site you've ever seen, and it's a must.

On our way to the Western Wall, also called the Wailing Wall or Kotel, we peeked through an archway at the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque are Islamic holy places, built on the Temple Mount, and Dome of the Rock's golden roof is one of the signature sights of Jerusalem. Visitation rules vary -- sometimes tourists are allowed, and sometimes it is closed, but there's no set schedule -- so if you'd like to visit, it's best to check with the tourist board prior to your trip.

The Western Wall is the holy site for Jews, as it's part of the outer wall that surrounded the Second Temple complex, and it's the only remnant left standing of that holy site. People from all over the world visit to pray there, and many young boys have their Bar Mitzvahs at the wall. The custom is to write a note or prayer on a scrap of paper and push it into a crevice in the wall -- Jews will also walk backwards to exit the area because it's disrespectful to turn your back to a holy object (so be careful to dodge the worshippers on your way in). If you'd like to touch the wall or pray by it, there are separate sections for men and women, and men must cover their heads. (By the entrance to the men's section, you'll find paper yarmulkes that oddly resemble take-away containers). The men's prayer area is three times the size of the women's area.

Along the Western Wall, archeologists have excavated some tunnels, which you can visit. However, you must get tickets in advance. Otherwise -- like us -- you can't go. Be sure to mention to your guide when you're planning your visit that you'd like to get tickets. But, if you miss them, don't worry, as there are other excavations you can visit more easily. Up a flight of steps from the Wall is the Herodian Quarter Wohl Museum, where you can see excavations of wealthy homes from the period of Herod in the first century B.C. (at the time of the Second Temple). The ruins found in the museum are somewhat similar to the Terrace Houses at Ephesus -- you'll see the remains of the homes of the rich citizens of Jerusalem, including painted walls and floor mosaics. The difference here is the owners were Jews, so you can see the ritual baths in the lower levels of their homes.

Although the Jewish Quarter is similar in design to the Christian and Arab Quarters, the personality changes with each section of the city. Walking through the market streets of the Arab Quarter on our way to the Via Dolorosa, we saw a bazaar of shops, not unlike the ones we saw in Turkey. There, you'll see women wearing colorful head scarves and stores selling the long tunics and dresses that modest women like to wear. In the Christian Quarter, you can buy all manner of souvenirs that feature Jesus and other religious symbols. The crowds are dotted with nuns, priests and other holy men, wearing an impressive array of religious robes and clothing. In the Jewish Quarter, you'll see men with black hats and long coats, often with long sidelocks and fringe under their shirts. The shops change too -- there, it's kosher restaurants and Judaica stores.

In the Jewish section, you'll also find the Cardo Maximus, a 2nd-century A.D. thoroughfare, lined with columns. Dating to Roman and Byzantine times, the Cardo was once ancient Jerusalem's main shopping street. While walking alongside this historic route, we suddenly heard music and singing. Was it a Jewish holiday? A boisterous group paraded past, with many playing guitars and drums -- followed up by a large gold cross. Clearly not a Jewish host of merrymakers. We were told that these were pilgrims from Europe come to see the Pope, who arrives in Jerusalem tomorrow. For the rest of the afternoon, we stumbled upon these groups from time to time -- their upbeat demeanor and musical stylings were in stark contrast to my mental image of pilgrims as dressing simply, eating little and processing on their knees!

And then it was time for the hour-and-a-half drive back out of Jerusalem to Ashdod. There's much more to see in Jerusalem -- Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum; the Israel Museum, where they keep the Dead Sea Scrolls; even a fabulous zoo for cruising kids -- but you just can't do it all in a day.

Which brings me to my next point: If you're on a cruise and have one day in Jerusalem, DO NOT try to visit the Old City without a guide -- and a good one at that. You can very easily get lost in the Old City, and even with a good guidebook, it's difficult to tease out the religious, historic and cultural significance of each place because in Israel, a square foot of stone may contain 5,000 years of history. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is nearly incomprehensible without someone pointing out the holy sites and meaning of the different sections within.

I say this because our guide left much to be desired. He left us on our own in the church (Erica to tourist, "Why are people lining up to kiss that icon?" Tourist: "Because that's the site where Jesus was nailed to the cross." Erica: "Ohhhh….."), he didn't get tickets to the tunnels, he got lost driving around the city, and he couldn't give us clear and accurate information about the mind-boggling array of holy and historic places we were visiting. Part of the blame goes to me -- I should have done more research in advance and given him an exact itinerary to follow. But a good tour guide should know what the key attractions are -- or at least where to park or how not to drive the wrong way up one-way streets. So, learn from my mistakes -- if you book an independent tour guide, rather than taking the ship's tours (which we heard were pretty good -- though still rushed -- if you scored a competent guide), be sure to ask for references before you hire him or her, and give the guide a clear idea of which must-see attractions are on your list. You want to make the most out of your day, and in Jerusalem, every second counts.

That evening, after a quick dinner at the Windows Cafe, we headed downstairs to see the evening show in the Cabaret Lounge. That day's act was Jamie Allen, a magician who specialized in sleight of hand tricks. Allen's card and string tricks were a perfect fit for Azamara's small stage, which is more like an intimate cabaret (hence the name) than the enormous Broadway-style theaters found on mega-ships. Other entertainers have included solo singers and musicians and a very well-attended belly dancing and folkloric show in Istanbul.

It was off to bed shortly after the show, though ... there's a busy day ahead in Haifa tomorrow.

Images of Church of the Holy Sepulcher and crowd at the Western Wall appear courtesy of Erica Silverstein.
Day 4: Cairo, Egypt red arrow Day 6: Haifa

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