Holy Land Cruise on the Celebrity Constellation
10/21/16 to 11/2/16

Due to the length of the review, it is in 5 parts to help with the download time. The links to the other pages are at the top of each page. 

Page 1 - Pre-Cruise in Athens, Greece and Ship
Page 2 - Ship continued; Ports of Call:   Kusadasi, Turkey;  Rhodes, Greece
Page 3 - Ports of Call:  Limasol, Cyprus; Haifa, Israel
Page 4 - Ports of Call:  Ashdod, Israel - Day 1
Page 5 - Ports of Call:  Ashdod, Israel - Day 2;  Valletta, Malta; Disembarkation in Civitavecchia, Italy  


Ashdod, Israel – Day 1
I did not sleep well due to my excitement over finally getting to visit one of the holiest cities in the world, Jerusalem.  The port of Ashdod is a busy commercial port.  Not much to look at; but that was OK, since we wouldn’t spend much time there.  As we had done the previous day, my group met in the Martini Bar to leave the ship together.  We had all agreed to start the tour at 7:30 AM instead of 8:00 AM so we would have more touring time.  We quickly found Ronni and she called the van to come get us.  For some reason, the port security wouldn’t let the driver enter the port area.  The owner of Guided Tours Israel was also at the port and making numerous calls to find out what was going on.  We were getting concerned because other groups were leaving.  To give everyone something else to focus on, Ronni had everyone get in a circle to do some exercises.  It was a good distraction.  After a 40-minute delay, our van pulled up and we were on our way to Jerusalem.  It was a nicer van than we had the previous day.  We were glad we would have the same one for both days in this port.


The terrain on the drive to Jerusalem was not what I was expecting.  It was much greener.  But unfortunately, there was a lot of sand in the air for both days we were there.

Ronni told us that we would be going to Bethlehem before going into old town Jerusalem.  But we did have to go by there to get to Bethlehem.  Everyone was excited when she told us that we would be able to see the famous gold dome on Temple Mount over the next hill.  Sure enough, there it was.  We would be seeing a lot more of it shortly.

Ronni had the driver stop at a different location for us to get out for photos.  From the viewpoint we could see where the dessert began.  It looked rather barren in the distance.  Looking behind us, there was lots of plant life and civilization; but not in front of us.


We then drove to the Mount of Olives, where we got out to see the panoramic view of Jerusalem.  It was just a stunning sight.  I had to have a sefie, so one of the guys on our tour gave me an assist.



The golden Dome of the Rock is certainly the focal point; but Ronni pointed out other important buildings and noteworthy places. 

It was just surreal to be looking down on this city where so many historic and religious events have taken place; and where wars have been fought over it for thousands of years.  The Mount of Olives is a very popular and crowded place.  There were also vendors trying to make a buck, including one offering camel rides and/or photos with the camel.


Looking down we could see the oldest cemetery in Jerusalem, which was started 3,000 years ago.  There are reported to be 70,000 tombs there. 


We got back on the mini-bus and headed to the bottom of the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane.  This is the same garden where Jesus was betrayed and turned over to be crucified.  Truly amazing to be there.  It is located below the walls of Jerusalem.  The garden contains so many ancient olive trees.



Next to the garden is the Church of All Nations.  A truly gorgeous building.  It had an unusual design at the entrance.


The interior is even more gorgeous.




Near the church are the ancient ruins of prior churches that had been built at the site.

We then drove away from Jerusalem toward Bethlehem, which is only 6 miles away.  I always thought it was much further.  Bethlehem is located in Palestine, which is surrounded by walls for security purposes.  The Israeli army controls the entrances to Palestine.  Ronni said that even though Bethlehem is in Palestine, it is very safe there for tourists.  The town has a very high unemployment rate, like 60%, with tourism being the major income producer.  So the Palestinians don’t want to do anything that would keep the tourists from visiting.


The state of Palestine has some requirements for visitors to Bethlehem.  One of them is that we would have to have a Palestinian tour guide to go to the Church of the Nativity.  We stopped to pick up our guide, Mathew.  Ronni told us that she could go with us, but she would not, so that Mathew could speak freely about life in Bethlehem.   We really enjoyed Mathew for the short time we spent with him.  He was a real gentleman and a wealth of information; plus, a really nice guy.

We parked the mini-bus in the basement of a building.  As we would see all over town, we came to our first souvenir shop located in the basement parking lot.  Right next door was a Hard Rock Café.  That seemed like a strange place to have one; but we kind of assumed it probably wasn’t an officially licensed Hard Rock.  When we got to ground level, we started to walk the streets of Bethlehem heading toward the Church of the Nativity.  We had a longer walk than we had expected, plus we had to climb up to the plaza near the church. 


From the plaza, we could see the church in front of us and a tall minaret behind us.  We were looking forward to seeing this very famous and holy place.  We had seen the celebrations on television that take place there each year around Christmas time.  Now we were going to actually see it in person. 


Before entering the church, Mathew told us that the line to go into the grotto where Jesus was born below the church would probably take two hours to go through.  He said that he would be able to get us in much faster by going in through the exit.  Apparently he had friends in church security that would let him do this.  We were grateful that he did, since we wouldn’t be able to wait 2 hours with us touring Jerusalem later.

There was a major restoration project going on throughout the church, with scaffolding and tarps covering much of the interior.

Mathew stopped at a map of the church to tell us what we would see and where we would be going.  It was disappointing that so much of the church was involved in the restoration.  I wanted to see it all.  We did see some of the beautiful mosaics and other wall decorations. 



 The church was dark, warm and very crowded.  I was glad that we would be able to avoid the masses of people in the normal grotto entrance line.

After looking around a bit, Mathew took us to the grotto exit area and told us to stand in one place.  He would talk with security and they would tell us when we could go down into the grotto.  This area was much less crowded and it had some beautiful objects in it.  As time passed, other guides were coming in with their small groups to wait to go into the exit also.  Apparently Mathew didn’t have an exclusive arrangement.  We could look right in front of us to the exit and watch as some guides and priests were able to go right into the grotto, while we had to wait our turn.  We were starting to get concerned, since not many people were coming out of the grotto.  I was starting to worry that we would have to leave without seeing it, when the guard motioned to us to head to the stairs down to the grotto.

As we headed down to one of the holiest places on earth, we were appalled at the mayhem that was in front of us.  It was a totally disorganized mob of people pushing and shoving to see the two most important areas in the small grotto.  The first place I struggled to get to was down a few steps to the manger.  I was able to take some photos of it despite being pushed by the throngs of people anxious to see this holy spot. 



I was then able to get back up the stairs somehow and see the spot that Jesus was supposed to have been born.  It is marked by a star.  You can see in the below photo the place where everyone is trying to get into.  I was able to get a photo of people putting their hands on the star.  This small space was a total madhouse and very uncomfortable to be in.  I couldn’t wait to get back upstairs and away from the uncontrolled crowd.  Needless to say, this was not the holy moving experience that one would hope to have in the grotto where Jesus was born.  I had seen what I wanted to see, but I was certainly disappointed. 


It was relief to get outside into the church courtyard.  It was quite peaceful there.

We went into a different church on the grounds, the Basilica of St. Catherine.  It was nicely decorated and had some gorgeous stained glass windows.



We returned to the mini-bus and headed to our next stop.  We could look down to the Bethlehem outskirts in the distance.

Before we could leave Bethlehem, we were required to stop at a Palestinian souvenir shop.  Palestine requires this so that people don’t just come to see the church and leave without giving the local business people a chance to sell you something.  The shop we went to was very nice and modern.  The owner, who was a grandson of the man who discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls, told us about the type of locally made products they had and also showed us one of the original containers that his grandfather had found some of the scrolls contained in.

Ronni pointed out the graffiti on the security walls.  Some of it was pretty good quality.


We then went back into Israel to a hotel for lunch.  The food was tasty, but I was ready to go into Jerusalem rather than eat.  It was mid-afternoon and I was worried that we wouldn’t have enough time in Jerusalem.    Fortunately, we were overnighting in Ashdod and didn’t need to worry about getting back to the ship before they sailed.
It was a short drive to Jerusalem, where the driver dropped us off close to the Jaffa Gate. 


Once inside, Ronni took us to a map of the old town to show us where we would be going.  Inside the gates, there were lots of shops and other businesses.

I was really impressed with how authentic the town felt with the beautiful buildings and walls everywhere.  I was so glad that they had been able to retain the architecture, without putting in modern buildings to detract from the beauty.


As we walked through the Armenian section, Ronni pointed out the beautiful creations in an Armenian ceramic shop.


We continued to walk through the different area of the old town.  In addition to the beauty of the city itself, it was interesting to see how many friends that Ronni met while showing us the city.  She seemed to know everyone in town.


We passed through the lovely Zion Gate into the Jewish section of Jerusalem.  Ronni stopped to tell us what we would be doing there.


As we walked to our first stop, we came to the beautiful Dormition Abbey on Mt. Zion.


Just outside of it was a statue of King David.  The reason the statue was there was that King David’s tomb was in a building across the street. 


Also nearby was what is claimed to be the upper room of the last supper.  We went in to the room, which was filled with people.  It was very dark and pretty much just a large open space.  I would have thought that it would have been nice to at least have a reproduction of a table.  But then again, who knows what it would have actually looked like.


We then went to see the tomb of King David.  It was in a small room with several women praying.  As we were trying to take photos of the tomb, one of the women shooed us out of the room.  I guess they didn’t want to be in any photographs.

We continued down the beautiful Jerusalem streets.


We came to the remains of the Western Cardo.  It is a road from the Roman Byzantine period that is still in use today.

We came to an area close to the Western Wall, where excavations have been done. 

We passed by the Churva Synagogue, which was quite an unusual and attractive building.  The property beside the synagogue was given by a disgruntled Jewish family to the Muslims, that built a mosque and minaret next to the synagogue.  Rather out of place in the Jewish section of Jerusalem.

Continuing our walk, we had such beautiful views of the old city.  Everywhere we looked was a photo opp.


Close by the Western Wall is a reproduction of the Golden Menorah, which was destroyed in the 2nd Temple.

We then got our first view of the Western Wall, with Temple Mount above it.  The wooden walkway up to the Temple Mount for non-Muslims took up a large section of the open area


This was one of the holiest places on earth.  The sign for the Western Wall put it nicely.

In the middle of the large courtyard a ceremony was taking place for recent Israeli military graduates.

After seeing photos of the Western Wall for all of my life, I was finally able to take some of my own.  Plus a friend on our tour took one for me.  I was struck by how few people were at the wall.  Whenever I had seen it in the past, there were always lines of people waiting their turn to go up to the wall to pray.  Ronni said that it is that way during religious holidays.



We then continued our walk and soon entered the Arab section and through part of the Arab Market.


We then began our walk along a section of the Via Dolorosa, which is the path that Jesus took to his crucifixion.  There are markings at each of the nine Stations of the Cross on it.  At Station 5, where Simon was supposed to have bore the cross for Jesus, there is an area on the wall that is supposed to bear the handprint of Jesus.   



We continued our walk with Ronni telling us about each station we were passing.


The path was very narrow and crowded; but what surprised me was how many steps we had to climb to get up to the church.  But I guess it makes sense, since he was crucified on Calvary Hill.  We were getting tired, so I can’t imagine what it would be like trying to do it with a cross on your back; apparently some visitors do that to try to duplicate the experience.


At last we came to the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  I was so excited to be at probably one of the holiest place in the Christian world.  We weren’t alone.  This is a popular tourist attraction.

The last five Stations of the Cross are inside the church and I wanted to see each of them if possible.  The place was very crowded; but much more civil than what we had experienced at the Church of the Nativity.



The church interior is amazing in so many ways.  The decorations and artwork are gorgeous. 


The most popular station was where the cross was supposed to have been put in the ground.  The actual spot is under an altar, so people have to bend down under the altar to see and touch the spot.  There was a line to do it; but it was orderly.


I walked around the church looking at the beautiful building.  There was just so much to take in.


I came to the station which was a stone where Jesus body was supposed to have been prepared for burial.  Everyone wanted photos of themselves touching the stone.

One section of the church was being renovated and we couldn’t get up to the rotunda, where the Holy Sepulcher (Jesus tomb) was supposed to be located.  We could see up to it, but not go there.


After we left the church we continued our walk through old town.  Ronni had told us that we would be getting a workout this day and she was right, we were exhausted.


As we left the old town, we started to feel some small drops of rain.  It had been cloudy during the day and we were grateful that the rain had held off until we finished our tour for the day.  Ronni said that this was the first rain they had had in months.  We had thoroughly enjoyed this very full day of touring and couldn’t believe how much we had been able to see in just one day.

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