When I first told my folks that I'd be going to Jerusalem, their reactions ranged from mild concern to complete disbelief. Enshrined in the Bible as the site of Jesus's resurrection, but also uncomfortably close to the disputed territory of Palestine, Jerusalem is not the obvious choice, even for an intrepid traveller. Yet, setting aside all political and religious proclivities, it is a magical city that reverberates with stories from the past.
We drove to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv Airport encountering beautiful groves of coniferous trees along the way. They used to be more plentiful, our gentle and knowledgeable guide Shelly Eshkoli told us. Little patches of flowers surrounded by circular fences, and houses with graceful, curved balconies welcomed us to the main city. Some of the balconies had portly Jewish women in them, while others were only populated with empty chairs. The women wore skirts, youngsters strolled around in shorts, and the city did not seem all that conservative.
We were put up at a lovely little hotel with psychedelic videos playing at every level and a wonderful white-washed terrace on the third floor. That night, we dined at Eucalyptus, an al fresco restaurant renowned for its recipes inspired by the Bible.
The chef descended upon our table with myriad fragrant herbs that he grows in his own garden. Under his guidance, I performed the maklouba ritual, which involved moving my hands seven times over the tureen containing the biryani-like dish, with a wish in my heart, and upturning it at the seventh incantation to create a perfect mound on the table.
That wish is yet to be fulfilled, but I believe the Universe has set the ball rolling. After dinner, we strolled around the Teddy Kollek Park area, with the Tower of David glimmering in the distance.
Jerusalem's Old City is full of meandering cobble-stoned paths that will sometimes take you up long flights of stairs to reveal stunning views of the Dome of the Rock shrine and other times, compel you to enter beguiling shops filled with Armenian ceramics, oxidised bracelets and pretty handwoven bags.
At the Western Wall, which is connected to Temple Mount, I was a little taken aback to see Jewish men and women (in separate areas) murmuring lines from a prayer book and wiping away tears periodically while they touched their heads to the holy wall. We would learn later that they were mourning for the mistreatment Jews have borne over the ages.
During my first summer job in Mumbai, I had a Jewish boss who would often tell me how much he suffered knowing that his ancestors went through such horrors. So it wasn't hard for me to believe that the people at the temple truly felt so deeply about the darkness in their history.
The mood was positively sombre, but a little while later, awe replaced our despondency as a new guide, David, took us to the newly restored underground portions of the Old City. Here, we laid our eyes upon marvels such as a ginormous section of wall that was manually transposed, and perfectly preserved bathing chambers that smelt of times gone by. We exited this strange amber-lit world to be confronted by the sounds and the colours of the Arabian Quarter.
A basket outside a shop held an array of shofars and ibex horns used in Jewish celebrations and prayers. At the food market, I asked excitedly for some Israeli halwa, only to be told sternly that they only stocked Palestinian halwa. The Jewish Quarter was quiet in the afternoon but for a bunch of young boys playing football in the grounds of a school close to the Defenders Monument.
We roamed through the restored Christian Quarter with its ancient structures and squares that seemed frozen in time. A couple of adorable Jewish boys selling balloons screamed, "No photos!", and we almost dropped our cameras.
The sun was strong and we found respite in intermittent patches of shade, often joined by other thirsty walkers. But the most spiritual experience of the Old City for me was the Church of Holy Sepulchre, a vast complex full of sacred shrines and Jesus's burial tomb.
The night before, I had dreamt of a Catholic friend and I felt a deep impulse to bless a Cross for him at the tomb. I'd purchased one carved from the olive tree at one of the shops outside the church and placed it upon the tomb like everyone else, closing my eyes and holding my hands together in prayer. For a Christian, it would be a great fortune to be able to pray at that tomb, we were told. I considered myself quite lucky too.
Life goes on...
After a quick lunch of shawarma and fruits, we continued our exploration of the ramparts and the treasures of the Old City. At one point, we encountered a troop of Indian soldiers. We learnt that they were there to train from the Israeli military force. Evidence of Jerusalem's political turmoil can be found in the military personnel stationed outside many major landmarks.
But as Shely said, life in the city goes on. And the ancient doors inscribed with Biblical motifs remain as beautiful, whether gunfire has pierced the air that day or not.
That night, we feasted on authentic Mediterranean fare at Medita, followed by a mesmerising sound-and-light show at the Tower of David. We couldn't make out much from the Hebrew commentary interspersed with meagre English translations, but we understood enough to know that Jerusalem had been through a lot. No city this beautiful ought to be so beleaguered and we wished fervently that the plea for peace at the end of the show would find resonance across all the neighbouring territories.
A little away from the main city but still part of Jerusalem District is the achingly beautiful village of Ein Karem, an important pilgrimage site, as it was the birthplace of St John the Baptist and the place of the Visitation.
At the Church of Saint John the Baptist, we saw the Biblical passage beginning with 'Blessed be the Lord God of Israel' written in a dozen different languages. From there, we walked across fairy-tale paths embraced by gardens and picture-postcard views of mountains and orchards to reach the tiny Mary's Spring. Shely was right - Ein Karem was a much sweeter goodbye to Jerusalem than the grave Holocaust Museum.