Fifteen minutes' ride into the hills above the West Bank city of Nablus, our convoy of European and Palestinian cyclists takes an unplanned breather beside an Israeli army roadblock.
Nearby, a Palestinian farming family shelters beneath twisted olive trees, enjoying a simple iftar (breakfast) of bread, water and dates. Visitors to the West Bank soon become familiar with its blend of ancient culture and modern occupation. Welcome to Palestine, 2009.
Historically, the term Palestine describes the area between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan, and various adjoining lands. Today, the land is mostly Israeli-run, with Arab villages and cities largely consigned to the East. Travel in the West Bank is still considered daring, even among backpackers, and rarely makes the tourist itinerary.
Yet, despite the roadblocks, soldiers and settlers, a new brand of tourism is springing up that combines visits to the Holy Land's shrines, mosques and churches and increased interaction with Palestinian people. You can help to pick olives with local farmers in the morning and visit a community centre to watch a film about the effects of the occupation in the afternoon. This is not a place for relaxation and serenity, but a place of nervous energy. It is left to the Palestinian's legendary fadal (welcome and hospitality) to provide what little peace a traveller may find.
I am travelling with the Peace Cycle, a non-profit-making company formed in 2003 to raise awareness about the plight of the Palestinians. The trip was organised by the Bethlehem-based Siraj Center, a non-governmental, non-profit body that is spearheading geopolitical tours to enable people like me to learn about Palestinian culture and stay with local families. We will see the current situation for ourselves and be able to support and raise money for groups working for peace.
Our group includes 17 European adults of varying cycling ability – well, 16 extremely good cyclists and me – plus my daughter, Alex, who at eight years old is the youngest ever Peace Cyclist to cross the region. Over the next two weeks we will make our way by bike from Nazareth to East Jerusalem, a 112-mile (180km) odyssey zigzagging in and out of Palestinian territory and modern-day Israel.
We begin in Nazareth, the largest city in Israel's Northern District with the highest concentration of Palestinian inhabitants of any city within its borders. It sits amid mighty, rolling hills, 15 miles from the Sea of Galilee and not far from Mount Tabor. We arrive by coach, passing through Nablus's underwhelming outskirts which are lined with the very worst housing Middle Eastern architecture has to offer.
Our hostel is in the Nazarene hills and gives an altogether more romantic first vision of the Holy Land. St Margaret's Monastery is spartan, decorated to suit the taste of the Christian pilgrims who flock here year round. Half a day touring the three main churches in Nazareth proves enough for our Godless bunch: Mary's Well Church, the Basilique Church (built for Catholics) and, least showy of all, the Synagogue Church. According to the New Testament, this was the synagogue where Jesus read the Torah to his Jewish peers. Within its simple walls, Alex tells me her legs feel heavy. I feel woozy myself. Too many churches, one after the other.
We cycle on to Jenin, which is the name of both a city and a district that includes the four Canaanite cities of Qalqilya, Khirbet Belame, Tell Dothan and Tulkarem. The picturesque city is surrounded by gardens of carob, fig and palm trees – the district has some of the richest farmland in Palestine.
Alex and I walk through its broken, chaotic streets and loiter in front of a "shop", which is really just an open room with shelves lining the walls. Here, commerce has been deprived of its inviting exhibitionism. An old lady wearing a traditional headscarf and long robe motions for Alex to come over. Mahmoud, our 22-year-old guide, is on hand to translate. "She wants you to take something from her shop," he says. Opting for just one bag of crisps from the surely loss-making venture draws raspy ire from the old dear. "The girl has two hands," she shouts in Arabic. "She must fill them both!"
Projects such as the Freedom Theatre, which teaches impoverished children media and artistic skills, and the reopened Cinema Jenin (closed for the past 30 years) give this city an unexpected air of hope and energy. And it is surprisingly quiet here at night: there are fewer cars than in the "developed" cities of the Middle East. Alex and I are pursuaded to lengthen our stay by the family we are lodging with, whose eight-year-old daughter, Qud, has become quickly attached to Alex.
The Qalqilya cycle club joins Peace Cycle for the next leg, through the Badhan area. The roads are better than expected, with new tarmac, but I am soon in the van. Badhan has about 375 acres of nature reserve managed by the Palestinian Authority and there are 11 tourism facilities in the area. The improved road links various cities and villages in the north, going to Jericho and leading to the bridge into Jordan. Roads, tourism and economic growth are intertwined.
Around a bend in the endlessly climbing hills, water suddenly pours from nooks and crannies in the rock face. We have entered a hillside oasis, Valley Al Badan, with natural springs and forested mountains. We pass a series of stalls. One of the Qalqilya boys spots a drum and starts to pass his forefinger and thumb over its skin. "Oorah!" goes the cry. The beat is mesmeric, and the boys begin to dance, hips twisting this way and that, arms twirling. Alex's hand is grabbed, soon she and I are doing an Arabic jive to claps and cheers. One of the Mohammeds (there are four in the team) gives a Bedouin-style yodel, flicking his tongue sideways against his lips.
Almost 40 miles north of Jerusalem, between the mountains of Gerizim and Ebal, Nablus was founded in AD72 by the Roman Emperor Titus in honour of his father, Flavius Vespasian. It was called Flavia Neapolis, the New City, until AD636, when the Arabs took the town, changing its name to Nablus. Today, Nablus is considered the most important commercial, industrial and agricultural centre in the northern West Bank. Soap produced from olive oil and caustic soda is a Nablus speciality – some of the city's soap factories have operated for more than 250 years. The city is also renowned for its goldsmiths. But my favourite local product is kenafa, warmed soft cheese, encased in pastry and sprinkled with sugar, which melts on the tongue.
We try some, freshly prepared, on a tour of the Old City and its bustling souk, which is cloaked in aromatic scents, mainly of Turkish coffee with cardamom. Young boys wheel wooden carts through the narrow streets, some bearing hot coffee and tea. A man in a fez shouts: "Welcome, chai?"
The route into Qalqilya is a new motorway, shared by Palestinians, settlers, Israeli police and soldiers. It is a world of barbed wire, watchtowers and electric fences. The hideous, looming signs of occupation contrast unpleasantly with the yellow sand and rocks of the ancient landscape.
Having had very low expectations of Qalqilya, a once wealthy city now in decline, the prettiness of the suburbs comes as a surprise – tree-lined, bursting with the pink flowers of a vast plant known locally as the majnoun, or "the crazy". Less than seven miles from the coast, on the border of Israel and the West Bank, the main lure here, until recently, was the market on Jal Julia Street, where tourists – and Israelis – would come to snap up bargain-priced food and flowers.
Today, Qalqilyans are learning to rely on a new type of visitor: those who, like our convoy, come here to see the Apartheid Wall. It's a strange kind of tourist draw, but one that cannot be avoided. Where lemon orchards blossomed, now a concrete border is the only view because it encircles the city. We take snapshots of graffiti foreign activists have scrawled in six-foot-high lettering. T-shirts in local shops are adorned with images of the wall and barbed wire, as are coffee mugs, placemats and key rings.
On our final morning, Alex and I wake in Jerusalem – the city-of-dreams- come-stuff-of-nightmares. The surrounding walls date from the early 16th century when the Ottoman ruler, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, had them rebuilt. Here again are the crumbling arches of the ancient world. Green gates lead into a marketplace, yet to open as we head towards Al Aqsa Mosque at 7.30am. On the age-old cobbles, the tables are bare; the elderly Arab men come later to play their backgammon and drink strong coffee or mint tea at them.
The dazzling golden Dome of the Rock is the first thing you see once you have climbed the steps to the mosque. It was built in AD690 by Caliph Walid bin Abdul Malik around the sacred rock from which the Prophet Mohamed is believed to have ascended into heaven. Its magnificent proportions, octagonal walls and striking blue mosaics have been the source of admiration for many centuries.
I'm overcome by the sight – and by the oppressive army presence. A stallholder, Riyad, recognises the signs and hands me a cup of coffee of ulcerating strength. I'm just another Holy Land tourist struck by Palestinian generosity and this region's political and religious complexity.
How to get there
Lauren Booth flew to Amman, Jordan, with BMI (flybmi.com), which offers returns from £464. She travelled from Nazareth to Jerusalem courtesy of the Siraj Center (sirajcenter.org) and the Peace Cycle 2009. To find out about the Peace Cycle 2010 and other projects, go to thepeacecycle.comReuse content