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Sunday, November 27, 2011

10 highlights of Palestine

For most people, the words Palestine or West Bank won't shout holiday destination. But set aside stereotypes: Foreign Office bars on travelling in the West Bank were lifted several years ago, and visitors to Palestine will be met with a warm and enthusiastic welcome. This tiny area packs in more historical, religious and cultural heritage than perhaps anywhere else in the world, and its small size means it's completely feasible to visit a good proportion of its sights in a fairly short trip. Several new community tourism and hiking or biking holiday operators also make experiencing Palestine's stunning scenery and great food increasingly easy.

The vast majority of travellers to Palestine visit over Christmas, when Bethlehem sees thousands of visitors for Midnight Mass. Leaders of the various Christian denominations lead processions from Jerusalem, and Manger Square fills with boy scout bagpipe bands. For religious travellers Christmas and Easter will be major draws, but prices are lower and accommodation easier to find at other times of year.

Getting around the West Bank is pretty simple, on the informal but extensive shared taxi (or service taxi, pronounced "serveece") network. The longest journey you're likely to face is between the administrative capital, Ramallah (with its cosmopolitan restaurants and nightclubs and official arts centres), and the northern city of Jenin. That trip can take just an hour and a half if Israeli checkpoints en route are open. Foreign visitors are still rare enough that shared taxis are a great way to meet local people; many Palestinians speak at least some English and are very happy to practise on you – a conversation that often ends in an invitation for sweet Arabic tea or a set of helpful phone numbers.

Recent years have also seen new hotels, guesthouses, hostels and home-stay programmes opening across the West Bank. This makes it easier to stay in Palestine without being tied to the pilgrimage hotels of Ramallah and Bethlehem, and for visitors to make a real contribution to isolated rural economies.

Granted, tourism to Palestine still faces many challenges, not least the Israeli border authorities who control all routes into the West Bank and Gaza. For international travellers, crossing the checkpoints into the West Bank at Qalandia and Bethlehem is usually straightforward. Declaring your intention to visit the West Bank at Ben Gurion airport or the land crossing from Jordan will often, however, result in questioning which can last for hours. Travellers with stamps from countries such as Lebanon, Syria or Iran may well face long interrogations or a complete refusal from Israeli border controls. Gaza is another matter; the Foreign Office currently advises against all travel here, and visits require journalistic or diplomatic accreditation to go via Israel.

The impressive Hellenic watchtowers, ruined Samaritan palaces and crumbling Byzantine churches of Sebastia are a fairly well-known destination for whistle-stop Israeli tours. But a new community tourism project in the Palestinian village of Sebastia makes staying on in this picturesque region a delight. The elegant little Sebastia Guesthouse serves up breakfasts of fresh bread, olive oil, herbs and fruit sourced literally yards away; eat on a terrace with views over miles of olive groves or in the renovated rooms of Byzantine- and Mamluk-era homes. Young locals have been trained up as guides for hikes from the information centre to the Ottoman railway station or the ancient maqamat – Islamic shrines – that dot the surrounding hilltops. Both the information centre and guesthouse are located just on the edge of the village's main square.

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