The West Bank can be an incredibly rewarding travel destination, says filmmaker Leon McCarron. With the right attitude – and these five tips – it is easier to explore than you might expect...
The West Bank is, I suspect, not high up on many people’s holiday wish lists. The name is probably familiar to most, even those not well-versed in the complexities of the Middle East, but the region usually makes international headlines for all the wrong reasons. This, combined by a less than ringing endorsement from the FCO can make it seem more hassle (and danger) than it’s worth to make a visit.
The reality is very different. The West Bank is, for the most part, a safe place to travel. There is a political backdrop that can spill out into violence at times, but it is mostly located in very specific and predictable areas. The vast majority of the territory is out of harm’s way – and is home to some of the most incredible historical and cultural locations in the world, set against a stunning and surprisingly diverse geographical landscape.
It is, in short, a very different place from what the media might have us believe, and it is worth the effort required to visit. Be sensible, of course: keep up to date with news on the region and avoid the flashpoints, but certainly don’t skip the whole area in the name of security – in general, the West Bank is much safer to wander around than most big cities.
Your itinerary will likely include the famous attractions – the religious hubs of East Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the multitude of historical sites around the 10,000-year-old city of Jericho. These places are truly unique, and part of the inimitable fabric of the area's charm. However, there is so much more to see. It will often require a little extra effort, but it’s absolutely worth it.
Start with Nablus, a bustling modern city built around winding ancient streets. Stop off to eat kunafa – a cheese pastry soaked in sweet syrup – and then jump in a taxi to visit the mountain top village of the Samaritans, who lay claim to being one of the oldest (and smallest) religious sects in the world.
Elsewhere, the village of Sebastia in the north is one of the most beautiful places in all of the West Bank. Set in green hills, you can wander freely between a variety of archaeological and contemporary joys: from a Roman forum to a 6th-century church to a modern-day tea house. Other villages like Burqin and Arraba in the north are equally enjoyable, while the desert monastery in Mar Saba is an otherworldly experience not to miss.
The history of the West Bank is often seen as its major draw – certainly nowhere else can claim to be the birthplace of the three Abrahamic religions. What is often overlooked, however, is how picturesque the countryside is. The best way to see the region, in my opinion, is to get outside and explore the history and culture through the great outdoors.
There are a lot of ways to do this, but the greatest by far is to lace up your hiking boots and take a walk on the Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil – a relatively new long-distance hiking trail. The masar – meaning ‘path’ in Arabic’ – runs from the north to the south of the West Bank, and allows unparalleled access to many of the major attractions whilst also winding through desert hills, deep wild canyons like Wadi Qelt, bustling towns and villages in the countryside, and the rolling greenery of the north.
Olive groves and terraces step their way gently down to the west, with stunning views out across the ancient and fertile Jordan Valley. You can plan your walks independently (though previous hiking experience is recommended) or you can arrange to join locals who organise weekly events (check the trail website for the latest news.)
You may have already gathered that most of my tips involve being willing to try something a little different. I really believe that this is the best way to experience a place that is, almost certainly, more than a little different from anywhere else on earth.
There are lovely hotels in East Jerusalem (the Jerusalem Hotel is a wonderful starting point for any adventure) and in Bethlehem and Jericho there are plenty of options too. In many other places however, traditional accommodation is not as plentiful as some people might hope for – so this is a great opportunity to stay with local families and spend the night in places that you might never otherwise get to.
The best way to do this is to combine the homestays with walking on the Masar Ibrahim if that takes your fancy – there are some good options here. If you don’t fancy walking all the way, you can easily organise a taxi. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can even decide to spend a night in Bedouin tent in the desert – it’s always extremely comfortable, and is a great story to tell when you get home.
It is possible to turn up in the West Bank knowing nothing of the history or political situation, and not run in to any problems. Hospitality is an intrinsic part of Middle Eastern culture, and the Palestinians in the West Bank are among the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, regardless of who you are or what you believe.
It is worth noting however that the territory is the nexus of one of the world’s most complex diplomatic problems. Life for many Palestinians is very difficult, and the people you meet will often want to tell you about the reasons for that. Having a basic understanding of the background of the problems will help you enormously to make sense of it all. Don’t be afraid to be curious – ask all the questions you want, but remember to be respectful.
Another point to bear in mind is that many of the places you will pass through in the West Bank will be predominately Islamic, so the general rules of being considerate apply here too. Ultimately, this is a part of the world where politics and faith have spilled over – as happens so often – to create division, anger and resentment. It does not, however, define the people you will meet. Palestinians are strong, fun-filled and generous, and you will thoroughly enjoy spending time with them, as they will with you.