One of our favourite pass times since we moved here has been what you might describe as West Bank wanderings. Before I launch into these, I need to give a bit of background as the politics have made the geography crazy complicated.
Put simply the West Bank lies West of the Jordan River and it was named such when Jordan was the occupying power of the territory between 1948 and 1967. Generally, people refer to Palestine as being made up of the West Bank and Gaza. It’s not as simple as that though, as the Oslo Accords in the 1990s carved the land up into Areas A, B and C with Area C (60% of the West Bank) falling under Israeli control.
Some areas of the West Bank are Palestinian only and Israelis are forbidden from entering these areas. Other areas are shared. Some areas are nominally Palestinian but have been occupied by illegal Israeli settlements. Leaving any part of the West Bank requires you to pass through an Israeli checkpoint and the Israeli occupation ensures that many Palestinians do not have the ‘right’ to do this.
All of this culminates in a feeling of going ‘behind the curtain’ when you visit the West Bank. Corona has also meant that it was only very recently that the Palestinian Authority lifted restrictions making travel to the West Bank possible again.
Now, mainly I am a town mouse and I love the buzz of exploring cities. I also really appreciate the beauty and serenity of being in amongst nature and the West Bank packs a punch on both fronts.
This weekend we visited Nablus and got to see, hear, smell and taste its cool vibes whilst also staying a stone’s throw away in a rural bliss. This is the weekend of dreams for us.
Nablus is vibrant and bustling. It has an old city charm which is bursting with curiosities. In the warren that makes up the old city the shops are more like small caves in the wall. Caves of commerce evoking an earlier time. There is the ironmonger, the baker, the meat shops, the spice shops, the famous kanifeh shops, the pet shop, the chicken shop, and so it goes on.
There was no chance of us blending in, but despite our obvious foreignness, people were friendly and shouted out warm greetings unrelated to the goods they were pedalling.
Now Nablus loves food and when a young man wheeled his cart past, we peered in to try and identify the offering. It was a set milk sort of pudding with honey on top and for 2 NIS (45p) it stopped us in our tracks for five minutes.
Specifically, Nablus is famous for its kanifeh – a sweet and syrupy dish with melted cheese. Guidebooks will try to tell you that it is this sweet smell which dominates in the old city but the reality is more varied and pungent. For me, the smell I’ll remember is of warm chicken feathers as we passed rows of birds all cooped up in cages. Now that is a smell to quicken your step.
Nablus is authentic and real. There are sacks of spices and pickled vegetables. Peering into one plastic box at the butcher’s stall, a pair of teeth smiled back. I couldn’t tell if it was a goat or a lamb’s head but who would buy this and what would they make with it?
We pottered around happily picking up pieces here and there. Freshly ground coffee, a bag full of cinnamon sticks, special Nablusi soap, pencils for school. Jozi (Mr EJD) goes for a whistle stop £4 haircut and fell a little bit more in love with the city. He’s not precious about his appearance and loves to dice with backstreet barbers when the chance arises.
We wore our masks and kept our distance, but the outpourings of life here still managed to seep in and recharge us.
Leaving Nablus, we drove around 20 minutes to the north to arrive in the small village of Nisf Jubeil. Several hills surround the valley and a large Palestinian flag stands proudly on the neighbouring hill. There were several walking trails leading off from our guesthouse and within minutes we were climbing up through the olive trees to get a better view out.
The sun was starting to dip now and cast a warm, golden glow over the trees and rocky path. A friendly faced donkey peered out from behind the tree it was tethered to and we stopped to say hello. The sun became pinker as it set lower and we wished we had longer to explore.
This was the second time we had stayed at the Mosaic Guest House and we knew we were in for a treat staying in a room which is basically a cave. It is quirky yet comfortable. A fantastic breakfast is included and it’s worth also arranging to have dinner there.
We booked at short notice and were impressed with the feast that was rustled up for dinner in the beautiful fairy lit courtyard. Almost all of the produce is local to the village and you’ll be thinking about Om Rami’s homemade labneh long after you’ve left!
We only stayed one night and yet this barely scratches the surface of what we saw on our West Bank wanderings. Each area has its own personality and there is always more to see and do!
Click the link to arrange a stay at either the Mosaic Guest House in Nisf Jubeil or the larger property in Sebastiya. You can also contact them via Facebook. Availability is currently very good due to the absence of all tourists and we highly recommend it!