Everything you Need to Know about Ein Karem – The Prettiest Village in Jerusalem

Ein Karem in Hebrew translates to Spring (Ein) of the Vineyard (Karem) and I have never come across a more be fittingly named place than this. The picture perfect village sits in a valley southwest of Jerusalem surrounded by rolling hills and spectacular views. Getting here from the city centre takes just 20-30 minutes by car.

What Makes it so Special?

Church of St. John the Baptist

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So, it’s believed that John the Baptist was born in this village. A Franciscan church has sat at the holy Christian site of the Church of John the Baptist since 1674. Inside there are mosaic floors and a cave believed to be the exact place of birth of the saint. The church sits atop a small hill surrounded by pine trees.

Mary’s Spring

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Ein Karem does indeed have a very important spring that gives the village its name. It is believed that Mary (mother of Jesus) stopped here to quench her thirst before she climbed up the hill to visit her cousin Elisabeth (mother of John the Baptist).

Why is it so Pretty?

IMG_3389Walk around the narrow winding slopes and it’s all dainty limestone houses, magical gardens and brightly painted doors. Houses have a typically Middle Eastern aesthetic and are low buildings with flat roofs which, in the past, were used as another room for sleeping, drying fruit and clothes.

IMG_5425Pretty decorated gates lead to small entrances through whimsical gardens. The houses are a few hundred years old and were first built by Arabs. During the War of Independence in 1948 most of the Arab community abandoned their homes and the village.

IMG_9494New immigrants from Morocco, Iraq and Yemen were settled in the abandoned village because others thought it to be too old-fashioned. They craved for a more modern way of life in the city. The immigrants however, started to build what is today an enchanting little community.

IMG_9558As well as its old-world charm Ein Karem also boasts art studios, cafes, shops and a boutique hotel and is home to a community of artists. The village attracts millions of visitors every year from all over the world including Israel itself.

Is There Anything Else?

Sisters of Zion Abbey

IMG_2625Any walkabout around Ein Karem will bring you to the Sisters of Sion Abbey also known as Notre Dame de Sion. It was once an orphanage and is now a retreat which accommodates visitors in two houses set within its breathtaking garden. You can book yourself a very serene stay here if you wish.

IMG_3394The convent sits on a hill-top. So it offers spectacular views over slopes carpeted with wild flowers, wide open lush green spaces, native pomegranate groves and a luscious green valley.

IMG_3404Ein Kerem is a mystical, alluring place away from the noisy, modern metropolis that will simply take your breath away. No visit to Jerusalem can be complete without a visit here to this captivating place.

 

 

  • In collaboration with Jerusalem Development Authority. For more information on Ein Karem and Jerusalem visit: https://www.itraveljerusalem.com/
  • WIZZ Air flies to Tel Aviv from London Luton on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Fares start from £102.99pp one way. For further information visit www.wizzair.com.
  • Yehuda Hotel – Double rooms with breakfast start from £112pp.  For more information visit: http://www.byh.co.il/?lang=2

Seven invaluable lessons for conquering solo travel

After several journeys of travelling alone, with friends, family or colleagues I categorically conclude that nothing beats travelling alone. It is the only path to genuine adventure and the only way to make a natural connection to a place. If you’re considering a solo trip here are seven useful tips to consider:

1. Create yourself an alternative identity

When travelling alone create yourself an identity that has nothing to do with your personal life. Many people can only exist in social circles of their own design. They are accustomed to comfort zones with no risks attached and find it difficult to understand why anyone would choose to travel alone. Add to the mix  female solo traveller and you become an object of envy, intrigue, fascination, admiration and even bravery (I have experienced all of this).

When I travel solo I become Girl Travels World. Her story is interesting and adventurous enough to keep curious folk on all inclusive holidays intrigued for hours. It’s perfect if, like me, you loathe intrusive personal questions.

2. Talk to locals

Local people who live in a place know a great deal more about it than you, your guide book and travel agent all put together. Talk to locals. They will offer the best advice, give you insider tips and negotiate a better deal than you ever could.

This was how I discovered motorcycle taxis in Bangkok over 10 years ago. I made friends with a girl in the local beauty shop (we are still friends) while getting a head massage. During our conversation about all things Thai I mentioned that I’d love to watch a Muay Thai fight. She sprung in to action and organised a motorcycle taxi (it belonged to her cousin) to race me through rush hour traffic in Bangkok to Lumpinee Boxing Stadium. A fight was scheduled to start in just 40 minutes. My bike taxi got me there in time to watch the spectacular traditional Thai ceremony that precedes a fight. The atmosphere in the stadium was electric and it turned out to be one of the most memorable travel moments of my life. There was no way that I could have been so spontaneous if I’d been travelling with a companion.

You must however, exercise good judgement in these situations and not risk your safety. This is something you will get better at the more you travel.

3. You do not need to be an expert navigator

Maps, apps and satellite navigators are great tools for helping us find our way around. I regularly use one or all of these. However, don’t forget to use your natural instincts. I often find myself with absolutely no idea where I am. It is not necessary to always know exactly where you are. Travellers live for these moments. They are pivotal to any story-teller. This is when (in my experience at least) something remarkable happens.

I was once lost on the cliffs of Dubrovnik, Croatia and found a tiny opening in a rock with steps leading down to a small beach. It turned out that this is where locals went to during the summer months. There was a make shift bar, a place to park bikes and a secluded beach which couldn’t be accessed any other way. The best part of this story? Drinks cost a fraction of what they did in my five star hotel. And no, it’s not in any guide book on Dubrovnik.

4. Notice the beauty in small things

It’s easy to admire a historic fountain, a majestic waterfall or an iconic sculpture. But when I’m on my own, I notice smaller things – brightly coloured petals strewn all over the pavement in Colombo, children in a class room as I walk past a building in Madrid, a charred kettle on an open fire in the desert in Doha. When you don’t have to share your time, accommodate different schedules, visit attractions or search for souvenirs you make a more authentic connection with a place. Give the next place you travel to your wholehearted attention and it will captivate you.

5. Don’t go to places where your experience is created for profit

Experiences such as shopping malls, party places with never ending revelling or theme parks  do not cater for solo travellers. If you go to these places on your own you will feel isolated because they are geared towards group travel. There is also little in the way of authenticity because the experience is contrived and run for profit. As a solo traveller, you’re likely to be bored and a great deal out of pocket.

6. Do go to distant places which are well explored

Begin your journey in places with well established travel communities. Many parts of Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) and also parts of Europe remain popular and you are likely to meet others on a similar journey. I travelled from Monaco down the coast to Cannes, Marseille and all the way to the border of Italy on a solo trip a few years ago. I met hundreds of solo travellers on that trip – a Canadian yoga teacher, a Texan school teacher, a Taiwanese musician and many other interesting travellers. We ate, socialised and partied together. I am still friends with most of them all these years later. So even though I was alone I had the assurance of others around who were doing the same.

Moreover, these established routes have been welcoming lone travellers for generations and cater well to their needs. Eating alone, drinking alone, walking around on your own are unlikely to warrant a second glance. Once you master well trodden paths you will build confidence for exploring more remote places.

7. Enjoy it while it lasts

Everything is temporary. It is not always that I will be able to throw a few clothes into a suitcase and hail a taxi to the airport. The same applies to you. Relish the time you’re able to book a flight on a whim and go forth with no real plan. It may not last forever.

*This post was inspired by Kate Maxwell’s “Seven Excellent Rules for Solo Travel”.

7 Invaluable Lessons for Conquering Solo Travel.

After several journeys of travelling alone, with friends, family or colleagues I categorically conclude that nothing beats travelling alone. It is the only path to genuine adventure and the only way to make a natural connection to a place. If you’re considering a solo trip here are seven useful tips to consider:

1. Create yourself an alternative identity.

When travelling alone create yourself an identity that has nothing to do with your personal life. Many people can only exist in social circles of their own design. They are accustomed to comfort zones with no risks attached and find it difficult to understand why anyone would choose to travel alone. Add to the mix FEMALE solo traveller and you become an object of envy, intrigue, fascination, admiration and even bravery (I have experienced ALL of this).

When I travel solo I become Girl Travels World. Her story is interesting and adventurous enough to keep curious folk on all inclusive holidays intrigued for hours. It’s perfect if, like me, you loathe intrusive personal questions.

2. Talk to locals.

Local people who live in a place know a great deal more about it than you, your guide book and travel agent all put together. TALK TO LOCALS. They will offer the best advice, give you insider tips and negotiate a better deal than you ever could.

This was how I discovered motorcycle taxis in Bangkok over 10 years ago. I made friends with a girl in the local beauty shop (we are still friends) while getting a head massage. During our conversation about all things Thai I mentioned that I’d love to watch a Muay Thai fight. She sprung in to action and organised a motorcycle taxi (it belonged to her cousin) to race me through rush hour traffic in Bangkok to Lumpinee Boxing Stadium. A fight was scheduled to start in just 40 minutes. My bike taxi got me there in time to watch the spectacular traditional Thai ceremony that precedes a fight. The atmosphere in the stadium was electric and it turned out to be one of the most memorable travel moments of my life. There was no way that I could have been so spontaneous if I’d been travelling with a companion.

You must however, exercise good judgement in these situations and not risk your safety. This is something you will get better at the more you travel.

3. You do not need to be an expert navigator.

Maps, apps and satellite navigators are great tools for helping us find our way around. I regularly use one or all of these. However, don’t forget to use your natural instincts. I often find myself with absolutely no idea as to where I am. It is not necessary to always know exactly where you are. Travellers live for these moments. They are pivotal to any story teller. This is when (in my experience at least) something remarkable happens.

I was once lost on the cliffs of Dubrovnik, Croatia and found a tiny opening in a rock with steps leading down to a small beach. It turned out that this is where locals went to during the summer months. There was a make shift bar, a place to park bikes and a secluded beach which couldn’t be accessed any other way. The best part of this story? Drinks cost a fraction of what they did in my five star hotel. And no, it’s not in any guide book on Dubrovnik.

4. Notice the beauty in small things.

It’s easy to admire a historic fountain, a majestic waterfall or an iconic sculpture. But when I’m on my own, I notice smaller things – brightly coloured petals strewn all over the pavement in Colombo, children in a class room as I walk past a building in Madrid, a charred kettle on an open fire in the desert in Doha. When you don’t have to share your time, accommodate different schedules, visit attractions or search for bargains you make a more authentic connection with a place. Give the next place you travel to your wholehearted attention and it will captivate you.

5. DON’T go to places where your experience is “created” for profit.

Experiences such as shopping malls with indoor skiing, party places with never ending revelling or theme parks  do not cater for solo travellers. If you go to these places on your own you will feel isolated because most such experiences are geared towards group travel. There is also little in the way of authenticity because the experience is contrived and run for profit. As a solo traveller, you’re likely to be bored and a great deal out of pocket.

6. DO go to distant places which are well explored.

Begin your journey in places with well established travel communities. Many parts of Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) and also parts of Europe remain popular and you are likely to meet others on a similar journey. I travelled from Monaco down the coast to Cannes, Marseille and all the way to the border of Italy on a solo trip a few years ago. I met hundreds of solo travellers on that trip – a Canadian yoga teacher, a Texan school teacher, a Taiwanese musician and many other interesting travellers. We ate, socialised and partied together. I am still friends with most of them all these years later. So even though I was alone I had the assurance of others around who were doing the same.

Moreover, these established routes have been welcoming lone travellers for generations and cater well to their needs. Eating alone, drinking alone, walking around on your own are unlikely to warrant a second glance. Once you master well trodden paths you will build confidence for exploring more remote places.

7. Enjoy it while it lasts

Everything is temporary. It is not always that I will be able to throw a few clothes into a suitcase and hail a taxi to the airport. The same applies to you. Relish the time you’re able to book a flight on a whim and go forth with no real plan. It may not last forever.

 

*This post was inspired by Kate Maxwell’s “Seven Excellent Rules for Solo Travel”.

A Culinary Journey Through Doha.

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Nothing evokes a memory like the taste of good food. The earliest food related memory I can think of is sitting beside my grandmother, while she gracefully moved around her kitchen, making traditional Sri Lankan string hoppers and coconut sambal for breakfast. At a guess I’d say I was around five years old. Preparing and steaming string hoppers was a time consuming business that required waking up before dawn while the rest of the household slept. Such was her devotion to feeding her family.

Now that I can no longer sit beside her, whenever I am around food I like to believe that she is beside me instead. So, it was wonderful to spend an entire week eating and drinking my way around Doha. The undeniable thing I learnt on this trip is that, as it was in my grandmother’s kitchen, traditional Qatari dishes of rice, fish and meat are always shared and you will be served more than you could ever eat. This is a perfect arrangement for me.

Gluttony and tradition aside, Doha itself is a cosmopolitan city with thousands of ex pats from across the globe calling it home. Their influence is everywhere from clothing to art but where it’s most evident is in the variety of food on offer. From Filipino tapa to Peruvian coffee – it’s all here. So it makes perfect sense that Doha would host an international food festival seven years in a row. It came as no surprise that over 20,000 people attended the festival this year. One of them happened to be me.

1. Qatar International Food Festival

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Set against the dramatic sky line and complete with giant watermelon Qatar International Food Festival took place from 29 March to 8 April on grounds of Sheraton Grand Doha. There were no less than 73 stalls ranging from food trolleys to food banks.

Street Food Anyone?

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I started Day One in the central zone because it drew me in with Italian pastries. There was also Turkish baklava, Indian street food and lo and behold – rocket lollies! Judging by the number of people holding them the most popular item appeared to be circle chips on a stick covered in ketchup – I guess you can’t keep a good thing down.

I was especially delighted to find a stall serving Faluda here. It’s a milkshake made of rose water, vanilla and tukmaria seeds served with cubed jelly bits and a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream (it’s all true, I promise) – a childhood favourite from Sri Lanka which, to date, can be bought in any street food shop with, Bombay or Sweet in its name.

Cooking Theatre

At the other end of the scale, there was a cooking theatre at QIFF with live demonstrations by big names such as Chef Marco Arlotti Teatro (Four Seasons, Doha), Chef Elias Gemayel (St. Regis Hotel, Doha) and Chef Erhan Ahacan (Marriott, Doha). The crowds FLOCKED to see the masters in action. For next year’s festival I highly recommend booking your seat early because it’s a free event and was immensely popular.

Hotel Park

The Hotel Park offered taster menus from luxury hotels. Four Seasons, W Hotel and Sheraton Grand took the opportunity to serve their five star dishes in bite size with prices to match. I thought it was a brilliant no frills way to get more people to taste your menu on the go.

The Evening

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All things considered, it was when the sun began to set that QIFF really came into itself. The after work crowd started to arrive in droves carrying mouthwatering picnics with them. The grass was covered in gingham blankets and there were children everywhere. Entertainers on stilts appeared handing out balloons and blowing giant bubbles. Play fountains and lights were turned on and the festival took on a carnival atmosphere. By the time I was ready to retire, around 9.30pm, QIFF was in full swing with no sign of anyone going home any time soon.

Food festivals in general are popular because they offer visitors a chance to experience food in a relaxed setting. QIFF is unique in that it brings together cultures and tastes but more importantly it brings PEOPLE together. They came from all walks of life with just one thing in common – the love of food.  As far as food festivals go, this one is not to be missed.

2. Dinner in the Sky

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The Experience

The second stop on my culinary journey was Dinner in the Sky. This is a 40 minute experience offered through QIFF and courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel. I and 21 other guests were strapped  to our seats using safety harnesses. Then guests and staff were all slowly raised 50 feet in the air as our three course meal was served.

For me at least, this was the best seat in the house. The panoramic view of Doha from this elevated position was unforgettable and the cool night air was a welcome relief from the heat. There was no dress code but everyone had dressed for dinner – formal dresses, crisp shirts and cleans shoes. There’s something to be said for dangling in the air dressed in evening attire. Dinner was served as soon as we began to lift off the ground. The table rotates as it lifts but does so gently that you can feel none of it. It’s surprisingly steady and eating at the same time was no challenge. I don’t suffer from vertigo nor have a fear of heights so I thoroughly enjoyed this experience. It was probably one of the most fun things I have done without risking my life.

The Food

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Four Seasons pulled out all the stops here, starting with a great lounge for pre-drinks on the ground. My smoked salmon tartar with dill cream starter was surreal. The grilled Angus beef tenderloin was served with baby vegetables and tyme jus – delicious! Desert was white chocolate passion fruit mousse with mango and raspberry coulis. I found the food as thrilling as the ride. A word of advice however – don’t drop your cutlery.

3. Idam 

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The final stop on my food journey was Idam. It’s Alain Ducasse’s first restaurant in the Middle East and is headed by Chef Damian Leroux. The Philip Stark designed interiors married French haute-cuisine and Arabic culture effortlessly. If great a view and food are your thing well, this is it. The Doha skyline flickered across the sea in the distance like a silent movie while we unfolded embroidered white linen across our laps ready for a sublime array of delights from the menu.

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The blue crab and mango salad starter followed by small spelt with asparagus was unforgettable. Mains of quick seared bonito fish, aubergines and cumin was a palatial dream. I savoured every bite and didn’t want it to end. Iranian pistachio souffle and pistachio ice cream followed. Every luxurious mouthful was akin to a breath of fresh air; light as a feather and divine on the tongue. If you are in Doha you must visit Idam. It is a triumph.

 

 

You can find more information on QIFF atQatar International Food Festival

Idam is located within the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. You can find more information here – www.alain-ducasse.com