There it is – the very spot that looks down into the cave where Christ was born. Maybe.

If ever there was a place to learn to hate packaged tour hordes (pronunciation of the “d” is optional), Bethlehem is it. I shudder to think what the place is like around Christmas time.

As you may have heard, Bethlehem – just six miles south of Jerusalem – is reputed to be the birthplace of Jesus. To get there we took a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, then another bus into the West Bank. Then an entertaining walk through the Old Town’s souk to our hotel right near Manger Square. The main business in Bethlehem, not surprisingly, is tourism. Lots and lots of tourists clumped together, clogging the streets and restaurants and everything else.

To give a sense of the packaged nature of tourism there, when I went down to breakfast in our hotel the first morning it seemed as though every single table was reserved for one tour group or another. I asked where I could sit and the staff person asked what group I was with. He looked genuinely surprised and even puzzled when I said that we were not with a group. So he sat me at the staff table. Same thing second morning; they really didn’t have any concept of independent travelers coming down to breakfast. Strange.

Here I am in Manger Square outside the St. George Restaurant. We stopped for coffee one afternoon but the restaurant part was set up for huge tour groups so we passed on the chance to have dinner there.

There’s really only one thing to do in Bethlehem and that’s go to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Church of the Nativity. It was a bit of an underwhelming experience for me, but in large part I’m sure that’s just because I’m a non-believer. If I really believed that God’s son had experienced His earthly birth here I would have been more impressed. According to legend, St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine who made Christianity the official church of the Roman Empire, came here in the early fourth century, identified the cave where Mary had given birth, and had a church built on the very spot. After a sixth century fire largely destroyed the church Emperor Justinian had the current church built. Accordingly, the Church of the Nativity is the oldest Christian church in the world under continuous, daily use. That’s the kind of thing that impresses me.

Unfortunately, for me the most memorable thing was the horrible line to get up to the Holy Birthplace. When we went to the church on our first day in Bethlehem it seemed as though it would take forever to get through the line so we just left. We came back a few hours later, hoping that late in the day the line would be shorter but no such luck. Early the next morning the line was a lot shorter, but even then the process was just horrible. Big groups pushing through together (“Are you with the Bulgarian or Romanian group?”) to get up to the spot but no one moving fast or far. After our 90-minute wait we saw the issue: the faithful approach the spot one by one, kneel, pray, kiss the spot, etc., before the next believer comes forward to kneel, pray, kiss, and so on and on. For me, well, it would be crazy to come to Bethlehem and not see the sacred birthplace but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen again. Oh, and just to make things worse the church itself was undergoing a major renovation process so you couldn’t really see anything besides scaffolding and workers.

This section of mosaic floor apparently dates back to the original church built by Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. In other words, that’s some old mosaic there!

It’s worth noting that there is some debate among historians about the credibility of the claim that Jesus was born here. He is, after all, always called Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Bethlehem. And there is another town of Bethlehem quite near Nazareth that would make more sense. Why would second and third century Christians claim that He was born here? Well, King David of Israel was definitely born in this Bethlehem and it may have been considered good politics to link the Messiah to David this way. Let the debate continue but if they all decide it was in fact the other Bethlehem there’s no way I’m going through that whole ugly mass of tourists again to see the new real birthplace.

Otherwise? It was interesting and eye-opening to hike out of town a ways to see the walls separating the Jewish settlements from the Arabs on the West Bank. Big, ugly walls with fences above to ensure that the native Arabs stay in their place. It’s easy to imagine how frustrating – enraging, really – it must be for locals to be walled off by an occupying force from their own land. I’m sure at some point it becomes the new normal and you learn to live with it, but the walls are an ugly mark on the land.

The wall separating the West Bank from Jewish settlements

With the help of TripAdviser we found some good food, including one restaurant that was classy and cool beyond our fondest hopes. And while scouting out restaurants on our first night I even walked by what seemed like a cool bar that might even be lively. We stopped on our way out to dinner for an OK drink and while it seemed like the place had potential it was kind of dull. Only when we got to Jerusalem did we learn from our gay friend who works at the Consulate there that we’d stumbled into the only barely-but-kind-of gay bar in the West Bank, a place where you can meet other gay people but that is still really discrete. So discrete that even we didn’t notice!

Bethlehem’s one cool, funky bar that turns out to be kind of sort of gay

Two days were plenty in Bethlehem so from here it’s back to Jerusalem. I feel a little guilty experiencing all this when so many people I have known in my life would give anything to visit what for them genuinely is the Holy Land. I assume I’ll get over it.

Wandering the beautiful and winding streets of old Bethlehem

Real markets here, not just tourist places

More market

I’m not really a retail kind of guy so what do I know. But it seems as though if I were trying to market baby clothes I wouldn’t have the babies hanging by their necks.

More ugly wall, a constant reminder of the occupying force on your land

But walls of course do provide an opportunity for artistic expression

A tiny segment of the huge beach in Tel Aviv

After our two-week pass through Italy it was time for some adventure, so off we flew to Israel, a new country for me though Mark had been here in the 1980s. Our first stop was five days in Tel Aviv a city sometimes described as Europe in the Middle East due to its Mediterranean beaches, cafés, and lively culture. My first impression was that that was pretty significantly overstated. In fact, I thought it was markedly seedier than I’d expected. Over a couple days, though, I grew more enamored of the place.

(It’s probably worth noting that I was bound to be comparatively unimpressed with the European nature of Tel Aviv after coming directly from Italy. As I write this while sitting in a hotel on the West Bank it occurs to me that if I went to Tel Aviv from here it would feel very European compared to this!)

One of the first things you notice in Tel Aviv is the architecture. It reminded me of a slightly downscale Miami or LA, but Mark explained to me that the architecture is called Bauhaus, named for a German art school that operated from the end of World War I until the Nazis closed it down in 1933. Many of the Jewish staff emigrated to Tel Aviv where there are today some 4,000 buildings in the simple, direct, modernist Bauhaus style; Tel Aviv is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of this. The style is not exactly what you would call pretty, but somehow it works as all the buildings we would see along a couple major arteries just fit together.

A couple of the boulevards we would walk along, admiring the architecture and eventually getting to the promised land (i.e., the beach)

The other big thing about Tel Aviv, of course, is the beach. There is nothing like a long Mediterranean beach to keep me happy and Tel Aviv has it in spades. We were lucky in that unseasonably warm weather had extended beach season into the end of October so we got a bit of time in the sun.

There is an amusing part of being on the beach. These are big, public beaches with the municipality renting chairs and umbrellas at wonderfully affordable prices, like $4.50 a day or something. But every so often you hear a recorded announcement over a loudspeaker, first in Hebrew and then in English, that there are no lifeguards on duty, that swimming without a lifeguard is dangerous, and that people must leave the water immediately.

And no one does. A little while later the announcement is repeated and everyone ignores it. Over and over again. What’s that all about?

An old friend of ours works at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. He was up in Tel Aviv one night and invited us to a pre-Halloween party with others from the Embassy where we met this scary woman. Fortunately she turned out to be more nice and fun than scary.

Another thing you notice in Tel Aviv is all the electric mini-vehicles. We’ve started to see what they call “e-bikes”, bicycles with small electric motors that help a rider keep up a pace or go up a hill. Here in Tel Aviv, though, they’re everywhere. And e-scooters and weird e-skate-board-kind-of-things. There are so many more than we’ve ever seen anywhere and they all go measurably faster than I would expect. They totally blur the line between motorized vehicles and self-propelled and bring to my mind all sorts of questions about licensing and safety and sidewalk usage and all that. Just another idiosyncrasy we’ve found.

OK, here’s something not so great we discovered in Tel Aviv: the food is remarkably expensive and really not very good at all. Eventually we found one or two places with decent food, but the prices were insane. Of course, it didn’t help that we’d just come from Italy, where food is amazing and often inexpensive. But wow, the first night we go to a restaurant and the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu (oh, wait, they didn’t print a menu, but the cheapest bottle of wine available) was $70. We just kept running into food that was OK but at prices that you would expect for amazing food. Sad!

What else do you notice in Tel Aviv? Lots of people in uniforms but even people in civilian clothes may be wandering around with submachine guns. I thought I was being discreet when I snapped this picture on the train platform but then saw that he was just staring right at me.

And then there was a day trip up the coast to Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. In part the trip was just because ultimately there wasn’t that much to do in Tel Aviv, but we did want to just see a bit more of Israel and Haifa is the home to the Bahai World Centre, the holiest place for those of the Bahai faith and another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The view over Haifa from the top of the Bahai World Center

What is Bahai, you ask? It’s a religion founded in the mid-19th century in Iran that today boasts some five million to seven million adherents. It tries to respect and incorporate all the great religions of the world but that, of course, is a profound threat to religious leaders who know the real truth. So the then-Shah had the founder executed and his remains lie in the Bahai World Center.

Our interest was less in having a religious experience – I have this feeling that we’ll have plenty of opportunities in Jerusalem – than in seeing the gardens. They are, simply, the most beautiful and perhaps perfect gardens I’ve ever seen. Just stunning, built on the side of a massive hill, with every blade of grass and flower in perfect form. You couldn’t go lie on the grass, of course, as is my wont, but it was beautiful.

Shots from the perfect garden

And then finally, the great story from the start of our time in Israel. On the way back from Haifa Mark and I were sitting apart as the train was crowded. At one point the seat next to him was empty and a very traditionally dressed Jewish man started to sit down. First, though, he asked Mark “Are you Jewish?” When Mark assured him he was not, the guy smiled kindly, bid Mark a good day, and moved on to somewhere else on the train. Apparently touching Gentiles is prohibited?

This could be a fun 11 days!

Finally, what’s a great city without great public art?

This is what it was all about: Mark, me, Todd, Chris, and Mary Beth in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria

This is going to be a quick summary of a two-week trip through Florence, Tuscany, and Rome. They’re all places we’ve spent time in recently and, unlike nearly all our travels, the purpose was not to see stuff or explore anew or even just to luxuriate in familiar surroundings. In this case the purpose was to introduce friends to part of the Italy we love.

It all started last summer when Mark and his old college friend Mary Beth spent a month in Lucca, Italy, to study Italian. Mary Beth explained how the plans of our mutual friends Chris & Todd (Chris was another old college friend; Todd his partner) to go to Italy had fallen through. As Todd has been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), a degenerative muscle disease, it would be impossible for them to travel on their own. So we thought, “Heck, you can never spend too much time in Italy. We’ll be their support group.”

And so we made it work. Four days in Florence, five in a hillside villa in Tuscany, and five in Rome. As we’d discovered in our brief two-night stop in Rome before meeting them, October is a fabulous time to travel in Italy. The crowds are somewhat reduced – a distinctly relative notion in intensely touristy Florence – and the weather is perfect.

Gorgeous views on a beautiful evening along the Arno River

Traveling in a group like that – Mary Beth was part of the support group, too, so there were five of us – introduces challenges. Getting from the airport in Rome to catch the train up to Florence was a little sample of what we would face; we’ll just say that our friends travel with more luggage than we do. And with extra chores like scoping out restaurants to make sure they were not just places we wanted to eat, but that they would have room for five and were accessible for Todd’s wheelchair, I decided to leave the blogging for later and just enjoy the time we had with friends.

Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge was maneuvering a wheelchair through the ancient streets of Italy. For me, it was a distinct learning experience. I remember having a friend back in the early 1980s who was an advocate for people with disabilities and the need for public accommodations, long before Tom Harkin succeeded in pushing the Americans with Disability Act through Congress. While there have been huge strides in the U.S. since then, much of Italy is still difficult. Lack of curb cuts, impassable sidewalks, inaccessible restaurants, elevator doors that are too narrow, limited sensitivity in even large institutions like the Uffizi Gallery and the Papal Museums.

Not surprisingly, great meals were always a highlight

Notwithstanding a variety of obstacles, we made it work. In Florence we saw David in the Academia, toured the Duomo, and went through the Uffizi on Mark’s guided “Here are the Highlights” tour. Chris & Todd & Mary Beth loved shopping for souvenirs, something utterly alien to nomads like me and Mark who live out of their suitcases. The best parts, for me at least, were just watching Chris & Todd see it all for the first time.

From Florence we rented cars – two to accommodate five people, luggage, and wheelchair were cheaper and much easier than one huge van – and drove maybe two hours to a villa not too far from the town of Cortona, made famous by the book and movie Under the Tuscan Sun. The three-bedroom place was very comfortable, isolated on a hill with views of vineyards and wineries off in the distant. Close enough to Siena, Cortona, and Castiglione del Lago for entertaining day trips. A perfect place to slow down, relax, and just drink in fall in Tuscany, except for one problem: the host.

Before we get to our crazy host in Tuscany, I figured I would emphasize the beautiful views and serenity of the place

It was a little crazy. From the start Marguerite was a little hostile, ridiculing the amount of luggage we had. Maybe it was excessive but that’s for us to decide, right? The real weirdness started our first day, when the four of them drove to Siena while I stayed home to read, rest, and do laundry. She showed me how to use the washing machine and then, while I was hanging the clean clothes out to dry, suggested that if we had a lot of laundry we might be happier taking it all into the laundromat and doing it all at once. Well actually, I was happier doing it at the house and hanging it to dry while I enjoyed lunch and my book.

I didn’t think more about it until the next day when Chris went to do laundry and again she said that perhaps we should take our laundry into town. As I learned to say in the software business, this was a feature not a bug; the website from which we rented the villa explicitly said we would have access to a washing machine, and from the start we had planned on arriving with dirty clothes and leaving with clean clothes. Well, fast forward two days and I have another load to do, then Chris has another load and she is furious. She goes on and on about how we’re using too much water and it was costing more than we had paid and that she had told us to go into the laundromat.

In happier moments this was my lunch while the rest of them were exploring Siena: meat, cheese, an egg, rosé wine, and views to die for

Now, I don’t feel remotely bad about having done five or even six loads of laundry for five people over five days. If the washing machine had been off-limits I suspect we would have found a different villa. But the conflict left a really bad taste in our mouths; she lived in half the building and was demonstrably hostile until we left the next day. Including pushing us to get out by 11:00 AM, despite the fact that her website said checkout was at noon. Combined with our experience in Paris where our hosts falsely accused us of breaking their bed – and charged us $800 to replace it – it makes us more reluctant than ever to use these quirky sharing-economy options where they just make shit up.

Finally it was time to leave Tuscany for the drive to Rome. As was our experience in Florence this was a place we’ve spent a fair amount of time. Our stay wasn’t about seeing new things but rather helping Chris & Todd experience as much as they could given the time and Todd’s physical limitations. The Vatican, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, Spanish Steps, Sistine Chapel, Roman Forum – we did it all. And of course most of it washed down with abundant wine and good food.

Chris, Todd, & Mark in front of Trevi Fountain. They all threw coins in so they’ll all be coming back.

All in all it was a big success. Chris & Todd saw the Italian highlights and Mark & I got to spend genuinely quality time with great friends. They were so appreciative to the three of us for making it all happen, but in all honesty it often felt as though we were the ones who were thankful for the opportunity to share it with them. And thus the two weeks came to an end; they headed back to Chicago and we’re off to Israel. A whole new adventure for us!

The Baptistry, Duomo, and Bell Tower in Florence. We were just in awe every time we saw it.

Mary Beth & Chris in Siena

Todd & Chris on the Arno

I’ve always been intrigued by this portrait of the toddler Giovanni de’ Medici by Bronzino in the Uffizi, though I couldn’t exactly put my finger on why. Then it occurred to me: that bird he’s holding looks like a cigar. Why does it look like a cigar? Because little Giovanni is the spitting image of Winston Churchill!

And the happy couple in Siena

Chris & Mary Beth during a wine tour.

The wine tour included a blow-out lunch with lots and lots of wine sampling. Fortunately the winery was close to our villa, literally within view, so there wasn’t far to drive after the tastings.

My favorite activity in Tuscany: sitting under an olive tree reading a biography of Gorbachev that Mary Beth had brought for Mark. He’ll get his chance to read it someday.

Chris has a fancy iPhone that took this great picture

Before we left the villa we had lunch with a bunch of friends. Our old graduate school classmate Eric lives just a few miles across the border in Umbria and took a break from his olive harvest to come into nearby Castiglione del Lago for lunch

And the same day Mark’s old campaign friend Kate was traveling from Rome to Florence, so they joined us for lunch too. Who knew the Tuscan hills could be so social? The only downside was that while backing up in our driveway John accidentally knocked into one of our host’s flower plants. Detracted a bit from our moral authority while arguing about how much water we were using…

Chris & Mary Beth made some great meals at the villa, but breakfast on the last day was a boffo success. Sauted vegetables, cheese, and eggs baked then sprinkled with fresh truffles. Pretty fancy, eh?

And then there was Rome. Here are Mary Beth and Mark in the Colosseum.

Gelato was a big deal in Rome. In this case Todd met his match.

Another happy couple. Not only did Todd & I both celebrate our birthdays in Italy but Mark & I celebrated our 30th anniversary. Wow!

The Julian Forum with the remnants of the Temple of Venus – Julius Caesar’s ancestor, the family insisted – with the massive monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a united Italy

I’d seen this chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo and admired the Caravaggio on the right. What I didn’t realize until recently when I read a biography of the artist was that he used this painting of the conversion of St. Paul to insult Annibale Carracci, who painted the altarpiece seen here. He thought Carracci’s work was unimaginative – a conclusion art historians agree on – and so had Paul’s horse’s ass prominently facing the painting of the Assumption. Who said art can’t be fun?

And speaking of fun, restaurants and cafés the world over struggle with ensuring that only customers take advantage of the facilities. This place was pretty creative with their message.