Words and photos by Kevin Sharpe
A day-and-night ride around one of the most historically important cities on Earth, holy territory for each of the world’s three monotheistic religions
Distance: 12.5 miles (20km)
Big hills: everywhere
Challenge: Cafe stops: everywhere
Having enjoyed many Mediterranean areas with hot climates, I was immediately struck by Jerusalem’s welcoming cooler environment — perfect for cycling.
We’re riding Trek mountain bikes that we’ve hired from our guide Amir Rockman and his company Gordon Active. We are told that these will be more than suitable for our ride around town, on and off-road. The firm also provides touring and road bikes, as well as guided tours throughout Israel.
We start our ride on the new cycle network that runs alongside the country’s first railway line, built to connect Jerusalem with the ancient port of Jaffa.
First stop along the old line is First Station, the old train station, which now offers historically themed displays, exhibition gallery space and cultural events, along with cafes and gourmet restaurants. There’s also a bike shop — this cycleway is obviously well used.
We cycle around the Talbiya neighbourhood with its grand houses and gardens, each of which has its own style influenced by the architecture of previous eras.
This neighborhood is home to the heavily fortified president’s residence. We ride straight past, but no other form of transport is allowed through; we are waved across the road by a grinning soldier with a machine gun who kindly steps into the busy traffic and halts all the cars just for us – nice!
Jerusalem, though vibrant and busy, has lots of open spaces. The tall cypress tree groves give us plenty of welcoming shade as we ride along stone terraces admiring the views of the valleys to the west of the city. Not only do these terraces offer serenity; they also help us gain height as we intersect the city’s hilly contours.
Other road users seem very accommodating, and we’re never made to feel unwelcome on the roads, unlike in some other cities. The inhabitants of Jerusalem don’t appear to worry about cyclists riding on the pavements, either.
We head into the Old City through Jaffa gate, one of the city’s eight gates that provide access through the 16th-century, 12m-high limestone turreted city walls.
Once inside, space is at a premium, so we lock our bikes to the railings and opt to explore this Unesco World Heritage site on foot. It’s far too hectic and narrow to permit cycle access.
The old city is divided into four quarters: the Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarters, each of which has an individuality and charm of its own.
On the south-east corner of the city is Temple Mount, on which stands Jerusalem’s most iconic building, the Dome of the Rock. This Islamic shrine, with its golden dome, is where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended into heaven to take his place alongside Allah. Next to this is the only remaining remnant of Judaism’s holiest shrine, the Western (Wailing) wall.
After a wander around, we head back into the bustle of the souks, which, after taking in and learning about all these amazing sights and places, is tiring. So we stop for a well-deserved break and buy falafels and a soft drink, which we enjoy standing in the narrow street, trying not to spill tahini sauce down our jerseys while chatting about the wonders we’ve just seen. We indulge in a little people-watching as the old town goes about its business in front of us. I look at the jam-packed stall next to us, stuffed full of tourist tat, and wonder how much I need a gaudy plastic alarm clock — and how many shekels it’ll cost me.
To the north-east of the old city is the Christian quarter, which revolves around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where, according to Christians, Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
The Tower of David, located near Jaffa gate, is an imposing citadel with plenty to see. The museum here does a good job of breaking down and explaining the complex history of Jerusalem, aided by a rather cheesy but interesting film about a pilgrim who makes his way to the city.
Back out on the bikes, just a short way from the walled city we pass a surreal sight: a group of tourists who are riding, instead of bikes, Segway ‘human transporters’; and instead of grinning like us, they look miserable and aloof from this great city. It’s quite clear they’re not having fun. Nonetheless, they give us yet another reason to smile.
Night and day
Our guide Amir offers us an idea for continuing our day of riding: a night ride. At first I am excited, but then apprehensive about navigating in the dark this time-worn labyrinth of narrow streets without getting lost while avoiding the many pedestrians.During dinner — maybe because of the great Israeli wine we’re drinking — my fears disappear and we’re shortly back out on the bikes.
We head into the old city whose wandering streets are deserted; we dodge only the occasional pedestrian. The city is ours to explore. It’s lit dimly, glowing with warm yellow light. It’s a fantastic experience seeing the city’s day and night-life within a 24-hour period.
On our night ride through town, we’re treated to the annual free festival of light, one of many such spectacles held throughout the year. It consists of illuminated routes with dozens of installations and displays, each with different themes and stories. The result is an interesting juxtaposition of digital technology against the ancient medieval buildings. It’s an accurate impression of modern Jerusalem — the ancient existing side-by-side with the new.
Cycling is a great way to take in any city, but in Jerusalem it’s an especially rewarding means of exploration. Being on bikes allowed us to feel truly immersed in the city’s past and its people, day and night.
Tour of Israel
Other Israeli attractions well worth visiting that we saw while on our tour of Israel include:
- Cycling around the bustling cosmopolitan Mediterranean city of Tel Aviv, with its beach and party nightlife, and its rooftop cinemas.
- Just down the beach-side cycle path is Jaffa, the port after which the oranges are named, with its biblical and British colonial locations.
- Mountain biking in the hills above the Gaza strip with its swooping bermy singletrack.
- Floating on the Dead Sea with its apparent healing properties, mixed in with Masada Herod’s cliff-top fortress built on top of a rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea.
- Riding along deserted desert roads with just the never ending winding hot tarmac and just the Israeli Air force above practising its manoeuvres for company. Visiting local kibbutz and their very hospitable vineyards.
- Mountain biking in the Negev Desert and visiting the Ramon crater with early-morning starts to avoid the heat of the sun taking in amazing views.
For more information visit www.thinkisrael.com.
Where to eat
Ha’chatzer Down on the old railway line this refurbished diesel silo offers stylish dining.
Cafe Chakra 41 King George, www.chakra-rest.com
Street vendors and shops: lots of options while you’re in the old town wandering the souks; try one of the great falafels. Also lots of bakeries including the wonderfully titled Holy Bagel.
Dan Boutique Jerusalem located opposite Mount Zion and the Old City walls offers great location near local attractions.
Amir Rockman, offering a vast depth of knowledge, which he delivers with a good sense of humour. Can cater for all sorts of riders and offering a great selection of trips across Israel.
Abbraham Hostel 67 Haneviim Street: a good selection of bikes from commuting, race bikes, to mountain bikes.
Pedalim 67 Haneviim Street, maintenance and spares.
El Al offers flights from London Luton to Tel Aviv from £360.40 per person or from London Heathrow to Tel Aviv from £390.95 per person.
For further information about Israel, visit www.thinkisrael.com.