A True Taste?

The majority of countries have a national dish. That one dish has the power to tell us an awful lot about each country’s values and attitudes. But, it’s getting harder to distinguish what dishes are native. Why? Because the majority of destinations now offer a multi-cultural choice of foods.

Chinese and Indian are top of the list for a surprising majority of Western destinations. Thai food has also been growing in popularity over recent years. While a Thai restaurant would once have been a hard thing to find, there’s now at least one in any major Western city. No one can deny that this variety of food is good for us. We all aim to experience different things, and now we don’t have to travel halfway across the world to do so. But, are these takeaway options an accurate representation of the cuisine in each country? The chances are, a visit to each destination would tell a different story. Let’s look at why.

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Image from Wikimedia
INDIAN

Indian is a top takeaway for a lot of us. Who doesn’t love those exotic spices that pack such a punch? But, anyone who’s visited India for real will tell you that authentic Indian food would be a surprise for your tastebuds. In fact, you could go so far as to say that many of the curries we enjoy have never been seen in the country that’s supposedly their origin. Chicken Tikka Masala, for example, is an English creation which few Indians replicate. The spices we use may be roughly the same, but the tastes created are incredibly different.

CHINESE

Our Chinese taste is a little closer to the real thing, but they’re still not exactly accurate. The Chinese are a resourceful people. As such, they eat a lot of stuff we would never dream of. We’ve all seen Chinese food markets on television. Foods on offer include tuna eyeballs and scorpions to name a few. You don’t find them on a standard Chinese menu, do you?

THAI FOOD

As a newer addition to the takeaway tastes, Thai food is the closest you’ll get to the real deal. But, even that has some variations to suit our sensitive palates. The main difference is that our Thai takeaways come in neat foil containers. In Thailand, though, the majority of food is served in food markets. Large batches are cooked up and placed on display. The experience is a much more inclusive one than our private experiences at home.

So you see, eating exotic takeaway is far from the real taste of a country. Don’t think you’ve experienced the cuisine of a place because you’ve eaten a home-produced variation. Nothing beats jetting off and experiencing the cuisine of a country first-hand. You’ll learn a lot about the values of the nation as a whole that way. Plus, you’ll find yourself living life like the locals. If you want to know what matters in a country, there’s no better way than taking a taste of what’s on offer there.

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Travel Will Help You Beat These Problems

Travel is often spoken of as though it’s a magical cure for everything. I don’t know if it’s quite that, but an adventurous vacation can certainly help with a lot of personal problems…

Shyness

More people have problems with shyness than you’d think. They’re afraid of making a fool of themselves, of going up to new people and interacting, of making themselves noticed. One of the reasons that travel be great at combating shyness is that it often puts you in positions where you have to stop being shy!

The fact is that traveling does often make it necessary for you to come out your shell a little. Not a lot of people can get by in a new place without striking up a brief conversation with a local when they need some help. If you’re staying in a hostel or a small bed and breakfast in order to save some money, then not interacting with other people just makes everything feel more awkward.

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Pixabay

Depression

Depression, like shyness, affects a surprisingly large number of people. While there’s no such thing as a simple cure for a depressive disorder – even pills and counseling can only go so far for most people! – there are loads of ways in which you can lift your spirits in the long-term. Exercising, eating right, being creative – and traveling.

Travel helps you combat depression because it gives you a sense of actually doing something – and a lot of people who struggle with depression often feel that they’re stuck in a rut, not doing anything particularly interesting. Going somewhere new, experiencing different weather, meeting new people – it all helps you feel better. At the very least, it will help distract you!

Fear

There are a lot of words you could use to describe the world right now. Confusing. Strange. Absurd. Many would probably choose the word ‘scary’ above all others. Sure, the world has always been a scary place – but there’s something distinctly grotesque about the world right now, surely?

Traveling helps you put those worries to bed. Yes, there are horrible and baffling things going on all over the world. Maybe that puts you in a bit of a funk sometimes. Maybe it prevents you from even wanting to travel for fears of your own safety. But trust me – when you visit more places and see a lot more of other people’s everyday lives, you’ll start to fear the world a little less. It’s no Disney movie, but it’s no horror show, either.

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Pixabay

Flying

One of the most common phobias in the world is that of flying. (And, to be honest, part of me still feels that you have to be just a little bit insane not to be a tiny bit scared of being in a metal can tens of thousands of feet in the air going at hundreds of miles per hour.) While it would be a lie to say that traveling more often will definitely make you fear it less, it certainly helps for most people.

A fear of flying is often tied to fears of the unknown. It often seems to beggar belief that we can fly so safely. Understanding the deceptively simple physics behind it can certainly help, but actually getting on a plane is probably the best way to do it. Why not try taking a plane to a closer destination instead of an international train? (It’s often cheaper, anyway!)

Being alone

I’m not talking about the fear of being alone in the long term. I’m referring to people’s often-irrational desire to not be in their own company. It can stem from a lack of confidence, or too big a reliance on others. To some, traveling alone would seem to be the worst possible thing you could do in this situation. But it may actually be the best.

Traveling alone can help you overcome the worries of, well, being alone. It boosts your confidence – everything I mentioned in the ‘shyness’ section goes double when you’re by yourself! It also helps you get a stronger sense of yourself. By taking a solo holiday, you may surprise yourself by how un-lonely you end up feeling when there’s so much around you to discover. It may help you rethink ‘being alone’ when you’re back at home.

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Pexels

Homesickness

Even when people go away for a relatively short time, they often feel a little homesick quite quickly. It’s often thought of as a mild, nagging sensation that can be easily dismissed – and it probably is that way for most people. But for others, homesickness can be so overwhelming that it dampens the entire trip.

The more you travel, the more you learn to get over these feelings. In the meantime, you can do this by ensuring you’re always doing something to distract yourself, even if it’s simply wandering around and taking in the sights. Check out these tips for beating homesickness on the road.

Spell of Santorini

SANTORINI, GREECE: Santorini, official name Thira, was in my bucket list for a long…long time. It’s one of the most beautiful and photogenic islands in the world and a real romantic place for honeymooners. If its stunning geography doesn’t attract you, then many of its naturally fantastic beaches will, or its frightening history of volcanic lava and earthquake will, or its blue and white villages will, or may be its unique sunset will, or the way white-washed buildings look like they are stacked on top of each other on the cliffs will. I can name lots of things about this island that will attract everyone with different interests…but you have to visit to feel.

Santorini - one of the most beautiful islands in Greece
Santorini – one of the most beautiful islands in Greece
         

As for me, I loved hopping from one village to the other and be amazed with history. Santorini is a crescent-shaped skinny island.  The villages are very spread out depending on where you are going. But do get out of the tourist sections to enjoy true beauty. You will see fun-loving young Greeks, villagers, and fishermen…that’s what I cherish the most from this trip.

What makes Santorini different from other islands of the Cyclades is that it was built on thick lava of volcano which rose from the molten core of the earth. But the contrast of the deep blue sea with red, brown, and black colors of the land, the depth and clarity of the horizon sweeps away the nightmarish birth of this island. Overall, it’s wild and imposing natural beauty cannot be found anywhere else.

The rugged terrain of Santorini
The rugged terrain of Santorini
         

To get around the island, ATV is probably the best way, although I saw many people riding on rented cars. But be careful of crazy drivers and parking can be a problem if you rent cars, especially in Fira or Oia. I mainly rode on public buses to all my sites. But be careful, they look like tourist coach buses and don’t have a STOP button and sometimes don’t stop at all if no people are getting on. I told the ticket master on my 2nd morning that I wanted to get off at Firostefani but he forgot to tell the driver and I ended up in Fira along with another British lady who also wanted to get off at Firostefani. Also it’s a bit inconvenient but every public bus stops at Fira whenever you go to. It costs from 1.60 euros to 2.20 euros depending on where you are going to. From Oia to Fira there is a hiking trail that you can take to go parallel to the cliffs and the sea. I didn’t dare to take this trip since I knew I am not fit enough for this and I didn’t want to waste time just walking. I wanted to explore different traditional settlements. But to enjoy the island to the fullest, be ready to climb up and down lots of narrow stairs…otherwise you won’t feel the vibe.

ATV - the best way to get around the island
ATV – the best way to get around the island
          

I booked a boat excursion (see below) 2 days before the trip. It was 30 euros for a 5.30 hours of guided tour (lunch not included) and started at 10am. I was picked up from my hotel around 9:20 and was taken to Ammoudi Bay in a mini-bus. From Ammoudi Bay we were taken to Fira Old Port to pick up more people. Our first destination was to Nea Kameni, then to Palea Kameni, and then Thirassia before dropping us back to Ammoudi Bay. I am glad I took this trip to see the volcanic islands up-close and smell its sulfuric air. This is one trip that shouldn’t be missed to get a different perspective of the island.

Our boat that took us to the other islands
Our boat that took us to the other islands
        

TIME of TRAVEL: It was in mid-October 2013 when I flew to Santorini. The island definitely slows down after October. You won’t see crazy amount of tourists like during summer months. Water was still warm for those who are interested in going to beach and enjoy water. Unfortunately, I got rain on my last evening there, hence, missed a chance of watching sunset over dinner. Other than that the temperature was around early 80s during daytime. But I wouldn’t recommend to go there after October because then many shops and hotels close down for winter and the buses are not that frequent either.

MY HOTEL: I stayed at Laokasti Villas and Restaurant in Oia, Santorini. Although Fira is closer to the airport, it is touristier than Oia. I wanted to stay in Oia, not only because I can see the best sunset only from steps away from my hotel, but also it’s quieter and cozier than Fira.

This hotel had free breakfast, although I didn’t wake up a single morning to eat. I decided to catch up on my sleep after spending a whole sleepless night in Athens airport before catching a 5:30am flight to Santorini. It also had free Wi-Fi which was lousy but worked once in a while. The best part was that I had a partial ocean-view room with a little porch. The swimming pool was fantastic also and some of the rooms had the pool view. Also, you can order an in-room massage service here…very cool I thought. I booked my boat tour thru the hotel and also my airport pick-up/drop-off…they were very helpful and efficient every time.

Swimming pool in my hotel, Laokasti Villas, in Oia, Santorini
Swimming pool in my hotel, Laokasti Villas, in Oia, Santorini
              

I had a small kitchenette in my room with nice clean linens and a small red bathroom. The location was very nice for me because bus stand and Oia pedestrian zone were both right across the street. There were also couple small restaurants and supermarkets near this place…overall, I loved it and I would recommend it to anyone going to Santorini.

EATING and SHOPPING: Santorini has plenty of options when it comes to satisfying your taste and hunger. For any meals, snacks, or drinks Fira and Oia probably have more options, but not necessarily the best ones. Most of the villages and all the beaches have restaurants that will offer you view of the caldera, blue sea, and the islands nearby. Do expect higher prices from restaurants with sunset or caldera view…but it’s all worth it. If you are looking for the best sea-food restaurants, go down to Ammoudi Bay from Oia and there you will see many fish taverns. Beaches like Perissa or Kamari also has some great fish places. Tomato balls or croquettes are something unique of Santorini and should be tried even if you don’t like deep-fried stuff. I used to have them almost for all my meal as side…try it with taztziki sauce…yummy. Other than that most of the traditional Greek places have Greek salad, Greek style spaghetti (with capers and feta cheese), pizza, gyros, kebabs, moussaka, souvlaki, Greek omelet with feta cheese, olives, and kataifi…a sweet dessert with honey and nuts. Oh, and don’t forget to try local tomatoes…they are full with flavors, best ones I’ve tried so far.

My first lunch was at Demilmar in Perissa Beach. I must say I loved my relaxed meal with a memorable ocean view and its sweet sound. They had traditional Greek dishes like moussaka, souvlaki, fresh seafood, as well as burgers, pizza, and pasta. I had grilled calamari…fantabulous. 2nd day I had my lunch in Fira in a restaurant on the shopping district, can’t really remember the name. Really enjoyed my Greek spaghetti with capers and feta cheese while enjoying the fresh ocean breeze and looking at the volcanic island in front of me.

My lunch, grilled calamari in Perissa Beach
My lunch, grilled calamari in Perissa Beach
         

When I went for boat tour, we had lunch in Thirassia. Tomato croquettes with taztziki sauce and bread was awesome while looking at water glimmering as the sun was shining on it.

Lunch in Thirassia - fried tomato balls
Lunch in Thirassia – fried tomato balls
          

Last dinner I did was in Oia, called Floga, a restaurant that was recommended by my hotel (another recommendation was “Thalami”). They are both located on the main shopping district of Oia. It was raining badly on my last night of Santorini. Floga usually has a nice view of volcano and offers beautiful sunset view too, but for the rain we were inside the plastic shade and couldn’t see much of the surroundings. I was in the mood for some seafood that night, wish I could go down to Ammoudi Bay for that but the rain didn’t let me. Either way, Floga has some very good dishes along with some traditional Greek cuisine with some pricey tags.

Greek olives (especially Kalamata olives), stuffed donkeys, Greek pottery, olive oil, Greek delights, embroidered laces, decors or jewelry made from lava rocks, miniature Cyclades houses, and Santorini paintings just some of many things the island can offer you to take back from here as gifts or memoirs. If your pocket is really heavy then buying Greek gold can make sense. I got myself a lava rock man for 12 euros, a miniature house, and some jewelries. If I had some room in my luggage I would have put some packaged olives there too.

Beautiful Santorini doors in a souvenir shop in Fira
Beautiful Santorini doors in a souvenir shop in Fira
         

Most of the villages have many shops and unique stores. Fira and Oia have the most interesting places for shopping. Even if you don’t want to go for those expensive stuff, it’s nice to just walk pass these shops and entertain your eyes. Ohhhh, another thing I wanted to try for a long time and finally did was fish-pedicure. It was in Fira (there was also one in Oia). For 10 euros, you can soak your feet in a tank with 200 fishies. It was ticklish at first but those hungry fishes loved the dead skins from my toes 😉

Shopping district of Oia, Santorini
Shopping district of Oia, Santorini
          

PLACES I’VE VISITED: You don’t really need a walking-map in Santorini. Although the island is not marked very well, half the fun is getting lost in white-washed alleys and climbing up and down the stairs near the cliffs.

If I had one or two more days, maybe I would have gone to Akrotiri and Ancient Thira– where you can see a stunning collection of ruins from ancient settlements of Santorini, Kamari Beach, Red Beach, Village of Finikia, and Village of Emporio. Finikia and Emporio are, I think, more like Megalochori with traditional buildings and small settlements.

Oia at night
Oia at night
      

1) MEGALOCHORI: This is the first village I explored on this island and I instantly fell in love with it. About 20 minutes of bus ride from Fira, Megalochori (pronounced as Megalo-hori) is a small but stunning village of Santorini. Walking through the white-washed walls, gazing at Cycladic domed churches, peeking through those traditional blue and white houses, and the listening to the quietness of this typical Greek village made me feel really lucky that I decided to come here first. If you want to have some romantic time on this island, Megalochori has some nice cafes, restaurants, boutique stores, and picture perfect village neighborhoods that will stay in your heart forever.

A typical blue-white house in Megalochori, Santorini
A typical blue-white house in Megalochori, Santorini
             

I spent about 45 minutes here just strolling thru the small streets. Just follow the sign “Traditional Settlement” to start your tour after you get off the bus and you will be glad that you visited this place during your stay in Santorini.

Bell Tower of Church of Virgin Mary in Megalochori, Santorini
Bell Tower of Church of Virgin Mary in Megalochori, Santorini
      

2) PERISSA BEACH (BLACK SAND BEACH): From Megalochori, I took a bus to go to Perissa Beach which took about 45 minutes of driving thru barren lands and stretchy zigzag mountains. Look out the windows…you will get a different feeling of the island.

Perissa Beach - the best one in Santorini
Perissa Beach – the best one in Santorini
               

I was starving as soon as I got off the bus and had to satisfy my hunger first. After lunch, I spent plenty of time just walking by the beach and going to some nearby shops. As they say, Perissa is the most scenic and best beach in Santorini, that’s why I picked only this one among many others to spend my late afternoon time. This is the black sandy beach. Few people were swimming and sun-bathing in the perfect weather of October. Good thing it wasn’t that crowded. While you are enjoying the weather and the sea, don’t forget to look back at tall, dark, and handsome mountain, Mesa Vuono…the tallest one of Santorini. Overall, this was my ultimate place to relax under the sun and experience a nice islandic scene.

Perissa Beach, Santorini
Perissa Beach, Santorini
           

Perissa Beach is about an hour on bus if you are coming from Fira. During off-season, like in October, the bus runs only once an hour…so plan accordingly.

3) FIRA: Fira was my last stop of day 1 in Santorini and I ended up coming back to this town few times more in the next 2 days. It’s the capital of Santorini and the touristiest town of it. It is probably livelier than Oia but definitely louder and overcrowded too. If you are into night life, than Fira has more clubs and bars than any other places in the island.

Fira after dark
Fira after dark
     

The tourist part of Fira is smaller than you can think. There isn’t a lot to do here other than visiting some museums, churches, and of course enjoying some best cliff-perched town views. Strolling through its shopping district and gazing at overpriced jewelries, clothing, and art studios were fun for me. Walk on small streets, sit down in cafes with view of caldera and volcano islands or just go crazy in those unique shops. One of the best things to do here is watch sunset from any street or over a nice dinner. On the first day I kind of hurried to go near Hotel Atlantis from where you can experience sun going down behind the volcano islands…simply incredible.

Sunset in Fira, Santorini
Sunset in Fira, Santorini
        

I took a small street near Hotel Atlantis down the cliff and started walking without really knowing where I will end up at. But this was the best way to get some views of the caldera itself. Here you can walk along the cliff and parallel to the sea to see some colorful stunning hotels and resorts with blue serene swimming pools looking over their big brother – the Aegean Sea.

Fira with Cathedral Church of Candlemas of the Lord on the right side
Fira with Cathedral Church of Candlemas of the Lord on the right side
           

Although I didn’t do it, I saw many people lining up to catch a cable car to go down to Fira Old Port. If you have energy, maybe it’s best to walk some 600 steps or just take an unforgettable donkey ride either way. Walking to Old Port should be half the fun but have to be careful of donkey poo and its smell. There’s nothing much to do there unless enjoying the harbor and taking some pictures from sea-level. It does get really busy when passengers from cruise liners disembark from ships.

Fira Old Port and the stairs that goes up to Fira main town
Fira Old Port and the stairs that goes up to Fira main town
           

Cathedral Church of Candlemas of the Lord is a small but beautiful church in Fira, right beside Hotel Atlantis. Most of the churches I saw in Santorini were closed, but luckily this was open and I could get a taste of what a Greek church looks like. It has lots of frescoes on the wall, high ceiling, and a decorative altar.  It was free to enter but we weren’t allowed to take any photos inside. Another cathedral I visited was Catholic Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. It was built in 1823 but was damaged by the 1956 earthquake. Then finally, it was open again for worship in 1975. Loved its gorgeous ceiling and alter. It’s small but worth climbing the stairs. Dominican Monastery is only few steps away from this church, but it was closed. It’s free to enter.

Catholic Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Fira, Santorini
Catholic Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Fira, Santorini
       

Fira has the main bus stand and wherever you go you have to go thru Fira. That’s why it may take some extra time when you are planning to go to far away villages and beaches.

4) OIA: Oia is definitely the most beautiful and vibrant village of Santorini. It’s famous for its reputed world-famous sunset. After it was hit by a hard earthquake in 1956, the village was left barren for many decades. Then slowly started to get back its face, I think, around 1990s. Now Oia is the newest part of the island overlooking the Aegean and attracts more tourists than any other villages here. It has the most beautiful cliff dwellings and luxurious hotels and resorts. The main pedestrian lane is paved with marble and has lines of art studios, Greek gold jewelry shops, bars, taverns, and souvenir shops.

Oia - the most beautiful village of Santorini
Oia – the most beautiful village of Santorini
        

I didn’t go to Oia Castle which is an old Byzantine castle at one end of the village. The best and famous sunset is to be enjoyed from there and you can see every tourist walking that direction right before the sunset to reserve the best spot in the ruins of this castle. During summer/peak season it’s better to be there at least one hour before the sunset so that you don’t have strangers’ heads blocking your view and your viewfinder. I stood at the beginning of pedestrian zone near the church (and right opposite of my hotel) and it was awesome watching the fiery sun slowly hiding under the water.

Sunset Oia - an HDR version
Sunset Oia – a HDR version
     

5) PYRGOS: Located on a hill, Pyrgos is the highest point on the island. This is one of the oldest villages here and once was the capital. Cycladic houses, prominent Byzantine churches (all were closed), and homes with blue doors and cute porches made my journey here really unforgettable.

Walking thru the white-washed walls of Pyrgos
Walking thru the white-washed walls of Pyrgos
       

I directly went towards the castle after getting off the bus. I hiked quite a bit here, climbed many stairs, and passed many small windy alleys to get to the castle (just follow the hand-written signs on floors and on walls). But once you are up on the castle, you’ll have an outstanding panoramic view of the whole island, mountains, and the deep blue water. The castle in itself has nothing really to offer other than its old bones and skeletons. Also there is no entrance fee or any information board for tourists.

Stunning view of caldera and Aegean from Pyrgos Castle
Stunning view of caldera and Aegean from Pyrgos Castle
           

It took me about 15 minutes to come to Pyrgos from Fira by bus. Pyrgos is relatively bigger than Megalochori and I spent about hour and half here.

6) FIRESTEFANI: Firestefani is another cliff-perched village where you can get the best panoramic view of the volcano. It’s smaller than Oia or Fira but definitely has the same view and charm. Many luxurious hotels and resorts are on the cliffs of Firestefani. Apart from those, the village maintained its traditional looks where you can see dominating blue and white colors everywhere and few Cyclades churches.

Beautiful village of Firestefani
Beautiful village of Firestefani
           

I didn’t go down the stairs here, just spent about an hour walking parallel to the Aegean. Then last few minutes I was just sitting on a bench on the cliff enjoying that great moment right before the sun set down, but didn’t really see the sunset. This was another place from where I wanted to experience a sunset but didn’t. You can avoid the sunset crowd of Oia and come to Firestefani for a serene atmosphere when the sun vanishes in the horizon.

Looking at Aegean from Firestefani, Santorini
Looking at Aegean from Firestefani, Santorini
           

7) IMEROVIGLI: Not too far from Firestefani, Imerovigli is another smaller resort village hanging from the cliff. It’s a short bus ride from either Fira or Oia and offers rewarding views of the caldera and volcanos.

I reached here late afternoon and loved its calm and peaceful life. I went down few steps on the cliff and decided to come back to a café for some ice-cream. As usual, view was marvelous. My original plan was to stay here until sunset but I really couldn’t find a nice spot to sit down or even just stand (like Firestefani had). So after spending about an hour here, I took the next bus to Oia and enjoyed the most famous Santorini sunset from Oia cliffs.

Looking at Island of Nea Kamini from Imerovigli
Looking at Island of Nea Kamini from Imerovigli
     

8) AMMOUDI BAY: My original plan was to go down to Ammoudi Bay in early morning to see fisherman getting ready to start their days and go out to the sea. But of course I couldn’t do it and went there a bit later around 9:30am on the day I took boat trip to see other islands.

Ammoudi Bay is a petit fishing village at the foothill of Oia where you can find some best fish taverns near the bay. It doesn’t have a beach but has a nice swimming area for public. It’s a small but a must visit place in Santorini to get a different feeling of this island. Look up the red cliffs of Ammoudi Bay and you can see the whole village of Oia in one glimpse. If you are taking a boat trip, don’t forget to look back at Ammoudi Bay and Oia…it’s a fabulous view and shouldn’t be missed. The pebble beach here is nice for swimming and sun-bathing.

Ammoudi Bay at the foothill of Oia in Santorini, Greece
Ammoudi Bay at the foothill of Oia in Santorini, Greece
          

There are 3 ways to go down to Ammoudi Bay. The easiest way is to take taxi from Oia which costs about 10 euros. Second option is to take some 250 steps which starts at one end of the pedestrian zone of Oia and ends at the foothill of the cliff close to the bay. The final and adventurous option would be taking a donkey ride either way only for 5 euros per adult. Be careful when walking down the steps to go to the bay, there are lots of donkey poops all around the stairs. It can get even worse and slippery if it rains. Make sure to have good shoes if you are planning to climb the stairs.

I actually climbed 250 steps from Ammoudi Bay up to Oia center. It can be hard but this is the best way to enjoy the view all around and take some great shots. To be honest, I had to stop and catch breathes every few minutes.

Climbing some 250 steps from Ammoudi Bay to Oia
Climbing some 250 steps from Ammoudi Bay to Oia
            

9) BOAT EXCURSION to NEA KAMENI, PALIA KAMENI, and THIRASSIA: A shuttle bus picked all the passengers for this boat excursion from our individual hotels and took us to Ammoudi Bay around 9:30 am where we started our tour from. From here we went to Fira, picked up more people, and headed towards our first stop Nea Kameni.

From our boat, leaving Oia behind
From our boat, leaving Oia behind
           

This boat trip is a must-see when in Santorini, you get to walk on lava rocks and experience an active volcano land from up close. The tantalizing dark islands in the middle of caldera are Palea Kameni (Old Burnt Island) and Nea Kameni (New Brunt Island). Both are major scientific interests and protected national monuments of Greece. The sites offer an exceptional natural beauty in and all around the island. Its oldest rock formations date back 430 years and its most recent a mere 50 years. The islet was born and gradually formed through volcanic eruptions spanning since 1575, in six different volcanic events. Sluggish magma at regular intervals added layer upon layer to form Nea and Palia Kameni. Both islands are the youngest landforms in the eastern Mediterranean. Authorities do keep their eyes open for seismic activity and other matters in these areas where they can predict in a period of a few months to a year prior to the eruption. While no one actually lives in Nea Kameni, Palia Kameni has only 1 residence, and Thirassia has about 200 inhabitants.

Volcanic rocks of Nea Kamini and ... of course the gorgeous view from here
Volcanic rocks of Nea Kamini and … of course the gorgeous view from here
          

After the last eruption of Nea Kameni in 1950, the Santorini volcano remains dormant till today. We hiked about 1.5 km one way (total little more than 3km) to get all the way up to go near the big craters where you can still see hot fumes at some points and smell sulfuric gas with it. While hiking on this rugged with various colored rock terrain, look around and you will see Fira on the roof of caldera in distance. It can get a little windy at the top but the view from there worth the long hike and heavy sweat. There is a 2 euros fee to enter the preserved landscape.

Hiking on active volcanic island, Nea Kamini...beautifully barren and rugged landscape
Hiking on active volcanic island, Nea Kamini…beautifully barren and rugged landscape
            

Next we headed towards the hot springs of Palia Kameni. This is smaller than Nea Kameni and looked much greener. First eruption on Palia Kameni was in 197 B.C and the last one was in 725 A.D. but right now this is an inactive volcanic island. The boats really don’t dock here, it stood in the water close to land while people just dived in the sea, swam for half an hour in the hot springs underneath the sea, and got back on the vessel. We spent about half an hour here. Remember that the sulfur rich water here may not be suitable for many people. If you are like me, who doesn’t know how to swim L, enjoy the massive rock walls of the island, greenish water, and Church of St. Nicolas on the edge of water.

People swimming in the hot springs of Palea Kamini in Santorini
People swimming in the hot springs of Palea Kamini in Santorini
          

Thirassia was our last stop on the boat tour before heading back to Oia. This is a small island and a nice place to spend couple hours. There are few ferries that come here from other islands if you don’t want to take any guided tour. We had about 2 hours to spend here out of which I spent an hour enjoying my lunch and the view. Rest of the time I just walked by the water taking photos and enjoying every corner of it. But I didn’t go to the main village up on the cliff.

Harbor of Thirassia, you can see the white stairs going up the cliff
Harbor of Thirassia, you can see the white stairs going up the cliff
           

There are couple villages on the cliff top which can be reached by climbing 270 steps or taking a donkey ride for 5 euros. Those villages are supposed to be some typical Grecian villages that kept its old look and feel. The port of Thirassia is a great choice for walking, swimming, and eating. There are plenty restaurant here as well. Our guide recommended Captain John, but many of us on the group had lunch in the restaurant right beside it thinking it was Captain John, but good food either way. Enjoy the cliffs, view, and sound of the sea while here.

Island of Thirassia in Santorini, Greece
Island of Thirassia in Santorini, Greece
        

Overall, Santorini was a great experience for me. I do get excited when going to a new place where I can learn some history (not only by visiting churches and castles), enjoy natural beauty, do nice shopping, taste local cuisines, and where I don’t have to walk with a map or with an itinerary. Santorini was that perfect place for me that fully satisfied all my wishes. Love you Santorini, hope we see each other again.

 

 

Some chocolate facts

My uncle-in-law from Chicago, Illinois is here in Belgium now. He is not a novice when it comes to Europe. He lived in The Netherlands for couple years and he toured all over Europe due to his work purpose for the past few decades. We went to Brussels city center in Grand Place past weekend and took him to “Museum of Cocoa and Chocolates” which was our first time too. After all, you can’t leave Belgium without knowing the history of chocolate and why it’s so popular in Belgium, right?

It’s a cozy museum with few levels to explore. We saw man demonstrating how chocolate shells are made with different types of fillings and making of variety shapes of chocolates that we see in the stores beginning of the tour. At the end of the demonstration we got a chance to actually taste some of those heavenly dark chocolates with chocolate ganache inside.

It was a fun and educational museum for all of us. I wanted to share some facts on chocolates, especially Belgian chocolates from that museum.

1) Thousands of years ago, Mayas and Aztecs were first to cultivate cocoa trees in Central and South America.

2) For Europeans, the history of cocoa begins in 1502, the fourth voyage of Christopher Columbus to America.

3) First trace of chocolate in Belgium dates back to 1635 in the City of Gent.

4) In 1912, Jean Neuhaus (alchemist) invented first bite sized filled chocolate, named pralines.

5) Europe alone consumes 50% of all chocolate production.

6) Ivory Coast is the number one cocoa producing country.

7) Belgian chocolate uses 100% cocoa butter, instead of vegetable fats. That’s why the quality of Belgian chocolate is appreciated through the world.

8) Cocoa contains components that stimulate both mind and body.

9) 30 grams of dark chocolates bring 22% of daily intake recommended magnesium for an adult and 23% of iron.

10) The fruit of the cocoa tree is called “Pod” and this pod-like fruit contains 30 – 40 beans embedded in a pulp.

11) Chocolate is delivered in 3 forms: drops or “callets”, 5 kilos tablets, and liquid.

Jerusalem is in my mind

JERUSALEM, PALESTINE: Visiting Jerusalem was definitely one of my best trips that we’ve taken so far, if not THE best. I never thought of going there in my life mainly for safety purposes and also because I didn’t what to see or do there other than just going inside the Dome of the Rock, pardon my ignorance. I don’t know much about the places outside Old City of Jerusalem since we mostly stayed inside the old walls. Even then I could spend days just being within the boundaries and seeing something new every day. You won’t be able to picture the hustling-bustling life of the locals or its uniquely designed mazes of streets and small neighborhoods from outside the Old City Wall. So many historical events took place within this small boundary…religiously, politically, and emotionally. Sometimes you don’t even know or notice that you are walking by something important to some religions from many centuries ago. Every corner of Old Jerusalem has something to offer to its guests…sometimes it does get overwhelming, but that’s the beauty of this place; it can make you happy, sad, angry or just leave you feeling confused with too many facts and figures. It’s a thrill to walk on some of the ancient and original streets from the Roman time, go pass the crowded markets, looking at small chapels that commemorate different phases of Passion of Jesus, and finally getting a glimpse of shininess from the Dome of the Rock every now and then.

View of Old Jerusalem and the dazzling Dome of the Rock from Mt. Olives

Outside the wall we managed to explore Mt. Zion and Mt. Olives, which are within a short walking distance from Old Jerusalem. These can be very emotional places for some visitors as well as mind-boggling. Even if you are not a believer, it’s ok…if you look at it from a historical point of view, these will still touch your heart just knowing some of the important people from the past left their legacies here.

View of Jerusalem outside the wall as seen from Temple Mount

I must say that Jerusalem is hard to get around if you are traveling with kids and stroller, like us. As much as it sounds amazing, it’s not easy to push or pull a stroller thru jam-packed markets or paths with 15/20 steps. Additionally, there are no ramps for strollers, wheel-chairs or cycles. Some of the streets are hilly and steep and really made my 6 years old very tired and exhausted, although she said she enjoyed every bit of it. Other than that, people are very helpful and friendly all around. You do have to pass thru some security points upon entering some of the places in the Old City. Try to respect the locals regardless of their faiths and culture and they will make your trip to Jerusalem very memorable with love and hospitality.

Night view of the Old city of Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock

TIME of TRAVELING: Visiting any places in Europe in January is not really enjoyable with kids and a stroller…At least for me. We went to Barcelona and Madrid during our Christmas break in 2011. After coming back from Spain, rested for couple of days, and headed out again to Jerusalem before my daughter’s school started on the 2nd week of January, 2012. It is fantastic to visit Jerusalem around this time of the year; you don’t have to deal with crazy desert weather. We did carry and use light sweaters once in a while, but the pleasant weather really helped us and the kids to make this trip more enjoyable.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Hotel Addar in East Jerusalem and it’s about 10 minutes’ walk from Damascus Gate of Old City Wall. If you are looking for a luxurious linens and spacious room, then this is not your place. But if you want a friendly place to stay in East Jerusalem with smiling staff and great customer service…this is just fine. Other than the free breakfast and free Wi-Fi, the receptionist hooked us up with a friendly private taxi driver who gave us a day-trip to Hebron, Bethlehem, Dead Sea, and Jericho for 1200 NIS.

EATING & SHOPPING in JERUSALEM: Eating in restaurants here is very cheap. You get good food with great quantity for a very reasonable price. We had traditional dishes for almost all our meals, like hummus, falafel, salads, and shredded meat with pocket breads. We also tried liver with bread :0, but if you haven’t had liver before DO NOT try it. You would be blown away by their falafels, doesn’t matter which size they come in…the best I tried so far. Same with baklavas…try them and you won’t forget the sweet taste of it as long as you live. Restaurants in Old City are simple yet offer tasty food. Some of them are carry-out while some have few chairs to sit down. Each quarter maintain their own ethnicity when it comes to food, meaning in Muslim quarter you will find traditional halal Arab foods, kosher dishes in Jewish Quarter, and so on.

Traditional sweets in a store in Muslim Quarter, Old Jerusalem

For shopping, Jerusalem has lots and lots of religious souvenirs and gifts that you can buy from almost any store in Old City. From cheap to most expensive wall-hangings, decorations, small furniture, and statues are very unique here. Spices, Arabian tea or coffee, dry fruits, and nuts are very cheap in these markets as well. We bought a very sophisticated looking wall-décor, hand-made in Bethlehem with mother of pearl for about 400 NIS. Whatever you buy, don’t forget to bargain. Best bet is to start with half of the price that the sales-person asks and then come to a middle point. But if you find something you really like and the sales-rep is not giving you that for the price you are asking for, I think it’s a good idea to just buy it; otherwise you may not find the same item anywhere else or even the same store once you go too far from here, because every street starts to look the same after a while.

One of the souvenir stores selling items hand-made with mother of pearls in Old Jerusalem

Tel-Aviv International Airport or Ben Gurion Airport, is probably another best place to shop. Not only this is one of the most modern and outstanding looking airports I’ve seen so far but it is also a great place for your last minute shopping. And this is the only airport with stores open 24 hours, may be not all the stores but you will see many stores are open even if you reach the airport at 2 a.m.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We spent about 4 whole days in Palestine/Israel out of which we spent 1 day to visit cities of West Bank and other 3 days were reserved solely for Old City of Jerusalem. 3 days in Jerusalem are nearly not enough time to explore the city. Seriously, there are hundreds of places to go and spend time in if you are into history or religion or just sight-seeing. Also, because Old City and its outer radius can be very crowded, walking can be tiresome at times, and in some of the places, you may feel emotionally so attached that you’d feel like spending little more time absorbing the atmosphere. Some of the places we didn’t/couldn’t visit but may be worth going are Western Wall Tunnel Tour, Oscar Schindler’s (who saved about 1200 Jews from the Nazi death camps) Tomb, Ramparts walk – Old City Wall is wide enough for visitors to actually take a walk along two sections of the ramp, and Jerusalem Free Tour, which is a free walking tour with a guide to go to the main sites of all four quarters.

Let’s all “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” – in Garden Tomb

1) OLD JERUSALEM (within the walls): There are 8 gates to enter the Old City and you can use 7 of these gates (Golden Gate is sealed off, see below) depending on which part of the city you want to access to. These gates are (in clockwise order): New Gate – the last cut gate of the wall in 1887, Damascus Gate – most monumental, Herod’s Gate – faces East Jerusalem, St. Stephen’s Gate – also known as Lion’s Gate to go to Mt. Olives, Golden Gate – believed Messiah will enter the Temple via this gate and therefore sealed off by the Muslims in 1541, Dung Gate – provides direct access to Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, Zion Gate – gives direct access to Armenian Quarter from Mt. Zion and Jaffa Gate – in between Christian and Armenian quarters. There is no strict boundaries between these 4 quarters (Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian quarters) and you may not notice when you are entering a quarter, but eventually you can figure out by looking at the sign boards, type of things the stores are selling, street decorations, and the dress-up of the locals. For safety purpose, there is no rule that Muslims shouldn’t go to Jewish Quarter or vice versa, but I did read in couple places that may be people should take some pre-cautions at night when Old City becomes very quiet. But honestly, I found people within Old City wall (doesn’t matter which religion) very friendly, helpful, and nice. They see hundreds of tourists everyday and most of them don’t really judge people by their faiths or dress-ups or anything. It’s amazing to see how three religions can live their normal lives within these boundaries without any trouble or hatred within a country which otherwise is so troubled by that.…I wish it was like that all over the world.

2 Israeli polices guarding in front of Damascus Gate in Old Jerusalem

You can cover all the sites in Old Jerusalem on foot, may be it’s little bit too much for some, but it is doable. Most of the Old City is only for pedestrians due to its small width of streets and steps. You can get a map of the Old City from your hotel or any souvenir store but walking around the narrow, winding street from one quarter to another and getting lost are half the fun here. You can’t get too lost though because of its size. But it does get hard sometimes to keep track of all the small alleys and twisty paths since they all look somewhat alike. Don’t depend on your maps all the time, sometimes tiny streets are not mentioned there; better is to look around and check street names. But overall I found that old city is simply amazing and very uniquely structured. It can get a bit hard if you are traveling with kids, especially if you have a stroller…not good at all.

One of the streets of Muslim Quarter in Old Jerusalem

a) MUSLIM QUARTER: Muslim Quarter is the largest quarter of the Old City and the most fascinating place to explore. It is also the most crowded place of Old Jerusalem. Damascus Gate, Herod’s Gate, and Lion’s Gate give easy access to the Muslim Quarter. This is an awesome place to buy Hijabs (headscarves) and abaya (ladies cloak), traditional Muslim clothes for men, decorations, wall hangings, and many other Islamic gifts items. Make sure to drink freshly squeezed orange or pomegranate juice from the street.

Little girls on Temple Mount, just got out of the Dome of the Rock after the prayer

The key attraction of Muslim Quarter is the Haram-al-Sharif or the most common name, Temple Mount; it is a Noble Sanctuary for Muslims all over the world. This is the traditional site of Solomon’s Temple and many other important historic events. Temple Mount is a vast place which houses the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. If you keep walking towards Herod’s gate you will find a large picnic area with lots of olive trees and there is also a small house which contains the throne of King Solomon. This part of Temple Mount is very calm and quiet, nice place to look at the nearby valleys and cities from up above.

Old ruins on Temple Mount, Old Jerusalem

Temple Mount is free to enter but it is permanently off-limit to non-Muslim visitors. There is Israeli Police at each entrance of Temple Mount who prohibits any non-Muslims from entering the place. They not only ask questions about where you are from and what you do but they will actually make you recite some verses from the Qur’an to prove that you are a Muslim. They did that to my husband to check that if he can read few lines of Sura Fatiha (the first chapter of the Holy Qur’an). You may wonder why Israeli army guards the Dome of the Rock and the simple reason is that they don’t want any Jewish or even Christians to go there and cause trouble inside. Another reason is that a very popular Jewish belief prohibited Jews to enter Temple Mount for many years and Rabbis don’t encourage Jewish to go there anyways. Dress very modestly when entering Temple Mount; there are some Muslim men who sit near the entrance to check if females have head-scarves and men are not in their shorts or sleeveless t-shirts. Wearing tight jeans is a big NO, NO for females; long top or loose abaya or long skirt is ideal for ladies.

A portion of Temple Mount, right in front of the Dome of the Rock

i) THE DOME of the ROCK: It is a remarkable Islamic architecture and the most prominent building of Old Jerusalem. According to Muslims, this marks the spot from where Prophet Muhamed (pbuh) ascended to heaven on the day of Mi’raj (Night Journey). The rock right underneath the dome is the site Muslims believe that Muhamed (pbuh) took off from on his Night Journey accompanied by Angel Gabriel. This is built in 691 and is the 3rd holiest site in Islam after Mekkah and Madina. Inside the Dome is absolutely gorgeous and very impressive. The layers of colorful mosaic, marble columns, artistic calligraphy, lavish ceramic decors, hanging-lamps, designs on the walls and ornate celling are beautiful beyond my words. There are verses from the Qur’an as well, including Sura Ya-sin and some part of Sura Maryam.

The grand and gorgeous Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount, Old Jerusalem

Many people have a misconception that the Dome of the Rock is a mosque, but it is not. People can pray and recite Qur’an inside the dome but there is no regular congregational prayer whatsoever. This is where women gather for Jumu’ah (Friday congregational prayer). Do go downstairs in the natural cave under the rock to look around or to offer “nafl” or additional prayers.

Natural cave right underneath the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount, Old Jerusalem

The spectacular, dazzling golden dome (with actual gold, donated by King Hussein of Jordan in 1993) is visible from far away and almost anywhere in Jerusalem. The exterior detail of the Dome of the Rock with tiles is intriguingly marvelous as well.

Lavish interior of the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount, Old Jerusalem

There is no admission fee to enter the Dome of the Rock but only Muslims have access here. No visitors are allowed on Saturdays unless for prayers. Dress very modestly to enter and pray inside the Dome.

Entrance (right) and front-yard of the Dome of the Rock, Temple Mount, Old Jerusalem

ii) AL-AQSA MOSQUE: Masjid-al-Aqsa on Temple Mount was built about 20 years after the completion of Dome of the Rock. This was once the head-quarter of the Templars when Jerusalem was captured by the Crusaders in the 11th century. According to Islamic tradition, this was the original site where Muslims used to face when praying before changing direction to Ka’ba in Mekkah.

It may not be as beautiful and grand as the Dome of the Rock but the inside of Al-Aqsa is spacious and nicely decorated with traditional early Islamic designs. Unfortunately it is permanently off-limits to non-Muslim visitors as it is inside the Temple Mount. During Jumu’ah (Friday prayer for Muslims) this is where men sit for the prayer. Masjid-ul Omar is located underneath Al-Aqsa.

Inside Al-Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount, Old Jerusalem

b) JEWISH QUARTER: Jewish Quarter in Old Jerusalem looks rather “newer” than rest of the Old City. It does have few somewhat-new buildings, especially near Western Wall Plaza. There are some old ruins/columns that you will see walking around in some part of Old Jerusalem. This is probably the best place to buy religious souvenirs and clothes for reasonable price for yourself or your Jewish friends and families. Dung Gate gives direct access to Jewish Quarter.

i) THE WESTERN WALL or WAILING WALL: The Western Wall is the only fragment of the Great Temple of Solomon (Prophet Sulaiman pbuh) to survive Roman destruction and the center of Jewish yearning and memory for more than 2000 years. It is the western edge of the Temple Mount and the most sacred structure for Jewish people. You can’t see the whole 488 meters/1600 ft. long Western Wall, to visit other portion of this historic wall you can take Western Wall Tunnels Tour. To go inside the fence and near Western Wall all females have to cover their heads and men have to have kippahs (provided at the entry). No shorts or sleeveless tops are allowed there and phones should be turned off to respect worshippers.

Western Wall or Wailing Wall in Jewish Quarter, Old Jerusalem – the most sacred place for all Jewish all over the world

Everyone has to pass a security gate to enter the perimeter of Western Wall, just like an airport. A tunnel that we passed after the security gate, coming from Old City, is there probably from before 8th century. This paved street is from the Roman-Byzantine period (2nd – 6th century).

The open area in front of the part of the Western Wall is known as the Western Wall Plaza. Many national events, like candle-lighting on Hanukah, Jerusalem Day ceremonies, the Priests’ Blessing, and others events, take place in this big square. There is a metal fence that separates Western Wall and its praying area from Western Wall Plaza; this is where non-Jewish visitors usually stand to visit this holy place.

Western Wall Plaza and its surrounding buildings in Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem

ii) THE CARDO: Cardo once was the main street of Jerusalem, connecting the north and south side of the Old City, from the Byzantine period in the 6th century. This is located in the heart of Jewish Quarter. There is no entrance fee. The only thing that is remaining of the old street is some original columns and a small area of paved street. Other than that Cardo is more like a covered shopping arcade at the present time.

A small of portion of Cardo, which once used to be the main street of Jerusalem in the 6th century

c) CHRISTIAN QUARTER: This is home of many churches and chapels which includes the most famous one “Church of the Holy Sepulcher” where Jesus was crucified, buried, and Resurrected. Please read the section below on “Via Dolorosa” for detailed information. Church of Holy Sepulcher is not just one church, rather a big collection of churches where each sect of Christianity has its own altar and chapel. Different parts of Holy Sepulcher are controlled and maintained by different branches of the Christian Church. You can easily spend hours exploring old religious arts and artifacts from different sects of Christianity. There is no admission fee to enter Holy Sepulcher but there are some strict dress codes that everyone needs to follow, otherwise they will turn you back. Women cannot wear anything that shows shoulders or cleavage or dresses that are too short. Head scarves are preferable; for men no shorts or sleeveless t-shirts. Dress modestly to avoid any risk. New Gate, Jaffa Gate, and Damascus Gate are the closest to enter Christian Quarter.

Church of Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter, Old Jerusalem. According to the popular belief, this is where Jesus was crucified, buried, and Resurrected.

d) ARMENIAN QUARTER: This is the smallest quarter out of the four. Armenian Quarter is also a Christian community but with distinct feel and different look. We really didn’t go inside in any landmarks here but Tower of David and St. James Cathedral are something grand and worth visiting. This quarter can easily be accessed by Jaffa or Zion gate.

e) VIA DOLOROSA: Via Dolorosa or “Way of Sorrow” is the traditional route that Jesus followed bearing his cross from Pilate’s Judgment Hall, to Calvary Hill or Golgotha, the site of crucifixion. These are winding, narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Old City that lead from the Ecce Homo Convent to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. The entire route is inside the Old City Wall of Jerusalem. There is no historical basis for the route since it has changed so much over the centuries. Pilgrims traditionally walk the route, identifying Jesus’ suffering. There are “Fourteen Stations of the Cross” and each station marks an event of sacred memory, with chapels for reflection, convents and monasteries of devotion, and the sacred basilica for commemoration – along Christendom’s most hallowed road.

A group of believers walking the “Way of Sorrow” or Via Dolorosa with a cross to comemorate the sufferings of Jesus near 1st station in Old Jerusalem

I’ve listed all the 14 stations and their descriptions for those who are interested:

1st station: Jesus is condemned to death. Presently it’s a college for muslim women and the left minaret “Antonia Tower” recalls the site of the Roman fortress where Jesus was condemned.

2nd station: Jesus takes up the cross. First part of this station is now Chapels of the Condemnation and Flagellation where you can see the ORIGINAL ROMAN FLOOR. Second part, the Lithostrotos, located under the Ecce Homo Convent, is a large stone pavement built by Hadrian in the 2nd century AD. Passion of Jesus begins at this spot with his condemnation and crowning with thorns. The 3rd part was originally portion of a triumphal gate (from 2nd century AD), where Pilate produced the tortured Jesus to the crowd saying, “Behold the man!”

3rd station: Jesus falls under the Cross for the first time. Here now stands a Polish chapel.

4th station: Jesus meets his mother. Tradition says that Mary stood by the roadside in order to see her son. Here, in this little Armenian Catholic chapel, her grief and sadness are remembered.

4th station – Jesus meets his mother. Now an Armenian Chapel in Old Jerusalem

5th station: Simon the Cyrenian is forced to carry the cross. The Fifth Station of the cross is marked by a Franciscan oratory at the site where the Via Dolorosa ascends steeply to Golgotha.

6th station: Veronica wipes the sweat from Jesus’ face. This site was traditionally Veronica’s house. Currently, a chapel of the convent of the Little Sisters of Jesus can be seen here.

7th station: Jesus falls for the second time. A great Roman column, housed in a Franciscan chapel, marks Jesus’ second fall, just as he was leaving the city through a gate.

8th station: Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem. The Eighth Station is marked by a Latin cross on the wall of the Greek monastery.

9th station: Jesus falls for the 3rd time. A Roman column marks the Ninth Station. Close by are the apse and roof of the Holy Sepulcher Basilica, a reminder that Jesus collapsed within sight of the place of his crucifixion.

The next five stations of the Cross are within the Basilica of Holy Sepulcher.

10th station: Jesus is stripped of his garments.

11th station: Jesus is nailed to the cross. This is the main Latin shrine, wonderfully redecorated with mosaics in 1938, marks the place where Jesus was nailed to the cross within sight of his mother.

11th Station of Via Dolorosa, where Jesus was nailed to the cross. Presently, the main Latine shrine of Holy Sepulcher in Old Jerusalem

12th station: Jesus dies on the cross. This Greek altar, ornamented in Eastern style, stands over the Rock of Calvary. It is over the place where the crosses of Jesus and the two thieves were erected. In the bed-rock, beneath is a large crack caused by an earthquake on the day Jesus died. The little altar between the main ones on Calvary is adorned with a statue in wood, fashioned in the 16th Century and sent from Lisbon in 1778. It recalls the grief of Mary and symbolizes the eternal grief of mothers at the death of their children.

12th Station of Via Dolorosa. It is here where the crosses of Jesus and the two thieves were erected. Now is the Greek altar inside Holy Sepulcher, Old Jerusalem

13th station: Jesus is taken down from the cross. Stone of the Anointment is still there for visitor to see where Jesus was put after his death.

13th Station of Via Dolorosa – Stone of the Anointment, where Jesus was put after he was taken down from the cross, Holy Sepulcher, Old Jerusalem

14th station: Jesus is laid in the tomb. This is Christendom’s most sacred place. The site of Jesus’ burial and Resurrection, housed in its own chapel. This is the focal point of the entire Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, erected by the Crusaders on Byzantine foundations, dating to the time of Constantine the Great.

The focal point of Holy Sepulcher and Christendom’s most sacred place – the site of Jesus’ burial and Resurrection, Old Jerusalem

Route of Via Dolorosa is about 0.25 km/.16 miles long. You can take guided tour for this, but I personally think buying a “Via Dolorosa Guide” for 5 NIS and doing it on your own is the best way to feel the history. This route goes thru many crowded and winding small aisles, sometimes through busy markets and neighborhoods. It was a bit hard for us to push stroller through these narrow streets, some of which had stairs without any ramps. But it is definitely worth walking this route; I am not a Christian myself, but if I could I would do it again.

2) GARDEN TOMB: While some people believe that Jesus was crucified, died, and Resurrected at the site of Church of the Holy Sepulcher, another group of believers strongly think that Garden Tomb is the actual site where Jesus died and Resurrected. It is a small garden and takes about 30 minutes or so to look around and may be more if you want to take some time to pray. Despite of its authenticity, it is a lovely place very close to Damascus Gate of Old Jerusalem and worth visiting. There is a bus station at one end of this garden and it is believed that Jesus was crucified somewhere there and his body was brought back to this garden which was owned by Joseph of Arimathea during that time. The climax of the garden, a rock-cut tomb, is said to be the burial place of Jesus and the spot of his Resurrection. An ancient winepress and an old rainwater cistern can also be seen in one section of the garden. Presently, the garden is maintained by an independent British charitable trust and they don’t charge for admission to the garden but voluntary contributions are accepted.

A natural cave in Garden Tomb where, according to one group of Christians, Jesus was buried and Resurrected in Jerusalem

3) MT. ZION: Mt. Zion is within walking distance from Zion Gate which is in the Armenian Quarter. You can still see some bullet holes on the walls of the gate from a fight in 1948 between the Israelis and the Jordanians. Arabic name of this gate is Bab el-Nabi Daud (Gate of Prophet David). We used Zion Gate to visit Mt. Zion and the 3 most important sites on this small hill. Then came down, followed the Old City Wall to go back to our hotel, about 30 minutes of walk.

View of Jerusalem from Mt. Zion

a) KING DAVID’S TOMB: After passing Church of Dormition, follow the hilly street to go a gated section. On the lower floor of a Crusader building is a small chamber housing King David’s (Prophet Daud pbuh) Tomb. There is no admission to visit the tomb, but the chamber is divided for separate viewing by men and women. The tomb is covered by a pretty drape. The women room was very small and few people can stand at a time.

Tomb of King David/Prophet Daud (AS) on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem

b) ROOM of LAST SUPPER: On the side of the same building as King David’s Tomb there are stairs to take you to the historic room of Jesus’ Last Supper. According to Christian tradition, this is the upper room in which Jesus and his disciples conducted the Passover meal – The Last Supper. There is no entrance fee to visit the chamber. The room is empty with few columns and some information boards. You can climb the stairs again to go all the way on top of the roof for a great view of the whole town and the adjacent Church of Dormition.

The room where Jesus and his disciples conducted the Passover meal – The Last Supper on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem

c) CHURCH of DORMITION: This beautiful church is believed to be the traditional site of Virgin Mary’s death. The church is very pretty inside and outside. The main prayer hall, upstairs, is spacious with mosaic floor and a nice altar. The main part of the church is downstairs where a statue of Mary rests in a crypt surrounded by images of different women from the Old Testament. This is believed to be the site where Mary lived and died after Jesus’ Resurrection. Luckily, it wasn’t crowded when we visited; therefore we could enjoy the utmost serene atmosphere of this place. There is no admission fee to enter the church.

Church of Domition on Mt. Zion where Virgin Mary lived and died after Jesus’ Resurrection in Jerusalem

4) VIRGIN MARY’S BIRTHPLACE & TOMB: Church of St. Anne stands where traditionally it is believed to be the birthplace of Virgin Mary. This is also the birthplace of Mary’s mother, Anne and the spot where Anne and Joachim, the parents of Mary, lived. This Crusader-era church was built in 1138 to replace a Byzantine church from around 450 AD. It is located very close to Lion’s Gate, right before leaving Old City walls. There is no entrance fee but donation is appreciated. The spot where Mary was born is inside a small room and is decorated very simply. You can take the stairs to go down to see more of Jesus’ traditional maternal sites.

Birth place of Virgin Mary in Church of St. Anne, Old Jerusalem

After exiting thru Lion’s Gate and walking towards Mt. Olives, Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary or Tomb of the Virgin Mary can be seen at the foot of Mt. Olives. This dimly-lit church houses the sarcophagus of Mary, mother of Jesus (Prophet Isa pbuh). Inside of Tomb of Mary is decorated with lots of hanging candle-holders and many old ornaments. The building itself is very old with a 12th century façade which is one of the best preserved buildings in Jerusalem. Make sure to check your walking map for this site as we couldn’t see the name of the church anywhere outside.

Tomb of Mary – the small door (in the middle of the picture) to go inside to view the tomb

5) MT. OLIVES: Mt. Olives can be accessed thru Old City’s Lion’s Gate. After crossing Virgin Mary’s birthplace (Church of St. Anne) and Tomb of Mary, cross the street to the foothill of Mt. of Olives. We visited the following places as we were climbing the hill. Oh, and don’t forget to look back for a great view of the old city and the golden dome. You can easily spend a full day just exploring all the sites on Mt. of Olives. Some of the places we didn’t/couldn’t go which may interest some visitors are: (1) Church of the Pater Noster, built over old ruins where Christ is believed to have taught Paternoster or Lord’s Prayer. Inside, it has tiled panels inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer in more than 130 languages. (2) Church of Mary Magdalene, which is a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church. You can see its golden shrine from far away. One thing to remember while climbing Mt. Olives is that it’s not very easy to climb the hill, especially with kids and strollers. You can take a taxi or ask locals if there is any alternate way to start from top of the hill and coming down.

Steep path to climb Mt. Olives, when you turn around you get a view of the Old City inside the wall and its dazzling dome from here

a) GETHSEMANE BASILICA of AGONY & GARDEN of GETHSEMANE: The entire area at the foot of Mt. of Olives near Tomb of Mary is known as Gethsemane. Jesus often visited this grotto and this is where he was betrayed and arrested. Gethsemane Basilica of Agony is also known as the Church of All Nations, since the present look of it is the result of contributions from 12 nations. The church has 12 domes adorned with the coat of arms of each of these countries. This is the 3rd church built on this location. This is where Jesus agonized about his death and his people; later a church was built here on these rocks in the 4th century.

Inside Gethsemane Basilica of Agony at the foothill of Mt. Olives in Jerusalem

Remember the first scene from the movie “Passion of the Christ” where Jesus was praying in a garden surrounded by hundreds of olive trees the night before he was crucified? It is that historic place, Garden of Gethsemane, where the Savior prayed before the passion. That night Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples, Judas and was arrested by the Roman soldiers. The garden is located in one side of the church right after entering thru the main entrance. This is the only surviving part of the garden that still remains from the time of Jesus. The olive trees here are more than, at least, 2000 years old, if not more. But a local was saying that they still give plenty of olives each year.

2000 years old olive trees in Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed right before he was captured by the Romans

b) DOMINUS FLEVIT: This is a very well-known biblical site in Jerusalem. Dominus Flevit means “The Lord Wept”; this is where Jesus wept over the fate of Jerusalem. There is a chapel which was closed at the time of our visit. But we did go inside the gated door to check out this small hilltop. View of Kidron Valley and Old City of Jerusalem is marvelous from here. You can also see the beautiful gilded dome of a Russian Orthodox Church, Church of Mary Magdalene closely from here. There is a small collection of stone artifacts from nearby excavations and are on display in one side of Dominus Flevit.

View of the shrines of Church of Mary Magdalene from Dominus Flevit, a place where Jesus wept over the fate of Jerusalem

c) TOMB of PROPHETS: As we were walking up towards the top of Mt. of Olives, we saw a gated section, called Tombs of Prophets on our right-hand side after crossing an old Jewish cemetery. It was almost closing time, but the gentleman was nice enough to let us and another tourist in for a short visit. This is a hand-cut cave which houses tombs of 3 prophets of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism (Prophet Haggai pbuh, Malachi pbuh, and Zechariah pbuh) and their disciples (total 50 tombs) from the 5th century BC. The caretaker gave us some candles to walk around the cave since there is no electricity inside the cave and gave us brief history on those who are buried and where.

View from inside the hand-cut cave that houses tombs of Prophet Malachi, Haggai, and Zakariah in Old Jerusalem

d) MOSQUE of ASCENSION: It is located all the way on top of Mt. of Olives. It is a sacred place for both Muslims and Christians. The original medieval chapel was built around 380 AD and became part of a mosque after Saladin’s conquest in 1187. This is believed to be the site of Christ’s ascension to heaven. The mosque is usually open for daily prayers but the door of the chapel, where footprint of Jesus’ right feet is stored, was not open when we went. We tried ringing the door-bell and also calling on the phone number posted there. But the person could only open it in the morning next day during tourist hours.

Mosque Ascension on Mt.Olives in Old Jerusalem from where Jesus ascended to heaven according to Muslims

Please check out the pages on the right side-bar under Palestine/Israel. Click on Hebron, Bethlehem, Dead Sea, and Jericho to decide if you can spare a day to visit these unforgettable cities of West Bank.

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