We woke quite early on our first morning here in Jerusalem, both very excited about what was coming for most of our day. Thanks to our friends at Intrepid Urban Adventures we were booked into a multi hour "Tastes of Old Town" tour in Jerusalem. We read the statement in the tour details that says "...and just when you didn't think you could eat anymore..." so decided it was best to arrive on an empty stomach.
We arrived early to Herod's Gate for our meeting point where we waited for our guide. While we waited, Zac struck up a conversation with two Australian ladies who looked to be waiting for our same tour. Sure enough, they were! As we were getting to know one another our guide Jad Abusaed arrived exactly on time. And the walking and eating began in earnest.
This tour of Jerusalem takes you through the various quarters of the Old City - Muslim, Armenian, Christian and Jewish - and discusses the cultural identities of the people who live in this vibrant city. What we found the most interesting about this walking tour was the people we met. It wasn't just the Australian ladies (who were absolutely delightful) or Jad (who was a great guide) but the locals who spoke to us about their cultures and how they function within Jerusalem.
Intrepid Urban Adventure Tour Stop 1: Indian Hospice
For example, our first stop was to the Indian Hospice. This isn't a hospice as we know and understand them in America, but a place for Indian pilgrims to stay. The man who showed us around was part of the family that originally founded the service. He told of Indian pilgrims who journeyed to Jerusalem and who found respite in their quarters. This was one of the most peaceful places we visited and we could feel the pride in the host's voice.
Intrepid Urban Adventure Tour Stop 2: Ka'ek w/ Falafel
Off we went for our first food stop of the day - ka'ek with falafel. We popped into a small shop that was bursting with activity. The ovens were on and the oval shaped sesame covered dough was being placed three at a time on a long wooden oar. It was gorgeous. Jad grabbed a ka'ek for us to split and shoved the falafel inside. The bread was still warm and the aroma of sesame seeds was one of the first things to hit us. The next was the lightness of the falafel and the fluffiness of the bread. Let's just say this experience created an obsession for Zac and I (we in fact, returned to purchase some ka'ek on our own. The others around town just didn't look as good).
Intrepid Urban Adventure Tour Stop 3: Hummus & (more!) Falafel
Our tour continued, this time to sample some hummus and more falafel. Both were excellent and the location was busy. As Jad stated, "this is the best hummus in all of Jerusalem". It was great but we couldn't eat it all!
Intrepid Urban Adventure Tour Stop 4: Local Faces
Lest you think all we did was eat, our next stop was to learn more about the African community in Jerusalem. Jad had organized another local man to talk to us about the youth programs they offer for those in need. I wish I could remember the name of the organization because what he was describing was incredible. They have been through many iterations of trying to determine how to help keep kids out of trouble and conflict and provide for their needs. It was truly inspiring to listen to him as we sat in a beautiful ancient building that had been previously used as a cistern by the Romans.
Intrepid Urban Adventure Tour Stop 5: Strong Arabic Coffee
Some more guided wandering led us deep into one of the 'bazaar' areas of the Old City where we got traditional Arabic coffee. I can't take caffeine so needed to opt out. The man who ran the shop created a lovely hot mint tea for me instead! It was such a treat to be able to share in drinking a warm beverage with my new friends. Conversation was flowing amongst our group as we dug deeper into the history of the area, its peoples and cuisines.
Intrepid Urban Adventure Tour Stop 6: Zalatimo's Sweet Shop
Another food stop led us to Zalatimo's Sweet shop. The first thing we noticed is that it looked like it wasn't open; there were no lights on, no ingredients out on the counter, nothing that would give you the sense that this was a place of business. But it was! We watched as the owner rolled out the finest pastry dough we have ever seen. Not to be thwarted by a few holes, he just moved on and folded the edges in. A little bit of cheese, fold, fold, fold, and then some secret business we didn't get to see and our glorious mutabak (Arabic for folded) was whisked into the oven. A few minutes later we were presented with a golden flaky syrupy pastry that was just a touch sweet while not being cloying. I asked Jad for some details on the ingredients and he said "I've asked many times. He will never tell". Our group came to the conclusion that there was some sugar syrup maybe tinged with rose. Who knows? I know it was fantastic and I have been craving one ever since. This tour was really creating some habits for me.
All along the way, Jad was pointing out interesting cultural and historical details as we wandered through the labyrinthine streets. We saw some graffiti, for example, which Jad explained is painted on the house to commemorate a family member's pilgrimage to Mecca. These were beautiful symbols and once we started noticing them we could see them everywhere, where before we just assumed it was vandalism. We even had one unscheduled stop for some carob juice after asking Jad what it was!
Intrepid Urban Adventure Tour Stop 7: Armenian Crafts & Lahmajoun
Onto the Armenian quarter where we ducked down into a small Armenian handcrafts boutique to meet Maro and to learn more about their community in Jerusalem. She was so engaging and spoke so beautifully about the community that Zac and I decided we needed to talk with her some more. We mentioned we will be going to Armenia in a while and asked if she would be willing to talk to us about it. We returned later in the week and were provided with so many insights and a great new connection.
We had one last bot of food on our list, so we headed to an Armenian restaurant to take the traditional lahmajoun (essentially a pizza) on the road as we completed the tour. When we arrived, the server brought out the lahmajoun but Jad was disappointed to see it had been cut! Usually you roll the oblong dough and eat it that way. It can also be stuffed with a hot pepper if you so wish. Even though we couldn't roll it very much, it was still quite tasty and we all left feeling the better for it.
All Good Tours Must End
As we ended the tour and headed for the New Gate we bid farewell to our new friends and learned we would see them again on the other tour we were taking later in the week. This is why we go on tours. Yes, it's great to eat all the food and to learn about the place you are visiting, but it's even better to make connections with people from all over the world. We were able to give them some recommendations for Tel Aviv and they gave us some info for our time in the north of Israel. We've met so many great people on various tours throughout our travels and this was no exception.
The people are really what make or break a good travel experience!
While Intrepid Urban Adventures sponsored our tour, all opinions remain our own. Special thanks to Dalia who coordinated our tour on the ground, even when that meant from a family emergency in Seattle.