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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review: SANDEMAN’S New Jerusalem Free Old City Walking Tour

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I can’t get over how wonderful it is living in Israel and NOT being a tourist here.    I still rant about it sometimes, in my head, how utterly amazing it is that we get to wake up here Every Single Day.

But… sometimes, a tourist is exactly what you want to be.

When you live somewhere, usually nobody tells you what’s what.  You’re on your own to figure stuff out.

Of course, that was true back in Toronto as well.  I would have been annoyed if someone had pointed out famous landmarks like Casa Loma or the CN Tower every time we went past them.  Plus, back there, there are plenty of “personal landmarks,” places that mean a lot to me but not necessarily other people – like the hospital where my brother & sisters were born, which I wave to every time I drive past.

Here, the opposite is sometimes true.  We have almost no history here, and people assume I know stuff because I’m Israeli (now) when, in some cases, I totally do not. 

The truth is that when you live here, you sometimes have no time to do the fun tourist stuff that can help you get oriented for the long term.

So last Wednesday, I grabbed Naomi Rivka (age 9) for a day of being girl tourists in the nation’s capital.  We did the twice-daily free* walking tour of the Old City of Jerusalem with a company called Sandeman’s New Europe

You can see us here in the mandatory group shot before the tour – we’re the only ones shading our eyes from the really bright afternoon sun.

I did this tour last year with my sister, so I already knew what was covered, and that the tour guides are decent (all tour guides here are required to be certified by the Ministry of Tourism).  But there was so much packed into the 2-hour experience that I wanted to do it again, hoping maybe more would stick this time.

This free Jerusalem Old City tour is not aimed specifically at Jews.  In fact, I’d say it’s aimed mainly at non-Jews.  The company also does a Mount of Olives and Holy Sites tour that are probably even more Christian in focus. 

That said, we got good, basic explanations of the significance of the city to all 3 religions, including – this time around—an in-depth discussion of the 5 pillars of Islam.  We covered all 4 quarters of the Old City, although all-told, it took more like 3 hours (maybe we were a particularly slow group).

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Because the company does 2 free tours a day (they also offer free tours in Tel Aviv’s Old Port of Jaffa / Yaffo that I wish I’d known about when we went last week!), it comes out sounding more than a little “canned.”  The guides know their patter and if it sounds like they have said it hundreds of times, it’s because they have.  But their English is fantastic, and they speak clearly and understandably, so there’s no way I can hold that against them.

Our guide this time around, Yariv, also very knowledgeably ad-libbed, answering questions on topics like the security “wall” (which he explained is mostly a fence) and the experience of visiting the Temple Mount (he likened the process of going in to being in the “most terrible airport,” an experience with which I’m sure Batya would concur based on her experience going through security there).

I wasn’t sure what Naomi Rivka would think, but she actually enjoyed the tour very much. 

After she got over her initial disappointment, that is.  When she heard “tour,” she automatically thought of tour BUSES.  We did the rather expensive Route 99 bus tour on a previous trip and had a great time.  So if you’re going with kids, make sure they are prepared to shlep, not just stare at stuff out the windows.

The distances aren’t huge, but there are lots of steps and uneven walkways.  This is the Old City… like, from before things were wheelchair-friendly. 

One family brought a stroller, which I would never do on a walking tour of the Old City, but sometimes, you have no choice.  There were other children on our tour, which I think helped Naomi Rivka feel like less of a freak.

Usually, when we’re in Yerushalayim, we do the “same-old” basic stops:  Kotel, Machane Yehuda, Bus Station.  So this was very different, and the Old City of Yerushalayim feels different from anywhere else in the country.  She followed attentively and was fascinated by some of the insights the guide shared. 

She especially liked heading down into the Cardo – an excavated ancient market area that was the heart of the city during Roman times – which I’d never done before either.  She took a ton of pictures and had a great time.  

(The pictures up above are hers; true, our guide was standing on a bench, but even so, he looks like a giant in all of her pictures.)

So you won’t get a ton of Jewish background.  You will see the Kotel (Western Wall), Jewish Quarter and the Hurva Synagogue, but without a lot of detail on their significance.  On the other hand, you will also learn of Mohammed’s night journey and the significance of the Al Aksa Mosque, along with the Christian factional disputes over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

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Still, as long as you’re not looking for a strictly Jewish experience, I would heartily recommend this tour (here’s the link again, and no, I don’t get a kickback!). 

Try it out the next time you find yourself in Yerushalayim… even if you already live there, or somewhere else nearby.

* NOTE:  The tour is free, but the guides do ask for tips at the end.  The suggested donation is 50nis, about $12-13 at today’s rate of exchange.  To me, that seems very, very reasonable for 2-3 hours worth of tour.  There’s no pressure, just a one-time ask.  The company also mentions their 2 other paid tours, but only once during the entire tour, which I also found more than reasonable.

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


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