The Palestinian village of Battir used to be the first stop on the Jerusalem-Jaffa railway line. These days, it’s a 30-minute drive at least, if you have the right ID and can sail through the checkpoint.
On a sunny December day, we casually crossed the 1949 Armistice Line on foot, hiking from Jerusalem to Battir. Here’s how.
Hiking to Battir
‘Yalla! Let’s go!’
Our Battiri-born guide Hassan has had his coffee and we’re on the move. It’s just before 9 am as our 12-strong team of ladies set off from First Station in Jerusalem, excited by the prospect of a social in times of covid.
First Station was the first station on the first railway line in Israel, way back in Ottoman 1892. Today it’s mainly a place to eat and hang out. And the refurbed railway track is now an easy walking and cycling route through some of Jerusalem’s swankiest neighbourhoods.
We follow the no-sweat, flat track, dodging the runners and cyclists. Hassan stops along the way to point out the black and white pictures that give tiny glimpses into life in Battir, when access to Jerusalem was free and easy.
Our guide comes from a family of farmers in Battir. They’ve been tending the terraces for generations, and Hassan explains how his grandmother used to do this walk regularly, balancing a basket of vegetables on her head.
After a couple of kilometres we’re on our own, and the signature sand-coloured stone of Jerusalem’s buildings—old and new—give way to rocky hills and greenery. An eclectic mix of prickly pears, old olive trees and tall pine trees.
‘Look for cactus and you will probably find the ruins of an old Arab farm,’ explains Hassan. ‘Farmers used them on the edges of their land, on three sides. But not in front of the wind, so the prickles didn’t blow back on them!’
There are clumps of prickly pears everywhere.
At the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, we cut across a car park and join the road that goes beyond the aquarium, skirting above Al Walaja checkpoint.
The checkpoint is named after the village which straddled what would become the Green Line here. Al Walaja lost 70% of its land when boundaries were drawn up in 1949 (according to UNRWA). And in 1967, after the six-day war, what was left of the village was sliced in two to make way for Jerusalem’s expanding border.
The lush green land we’re walking on, and the ancient springs that are signposted for leisure, once belonged to this Arab village. But now it’s part of the Refa’im Valley Park, over 1,200 acres of parklands that stretch from the city neighbourhood of Malha to the slopes of Gilo, a settlement built on land occupied after the six-day war.
Hiking across the invisible line
We stop to admire the pristine terraces built of bright yellow sandstone. Reconstructed with new stone and concrete, they’re not mirrored by the organic, greying, tumbling terraces on the other side of the valley.
We drop down through the planted terraces and cross the dry riverbed, picking up a grassy path that follows the contours down the wadi.
Now we’re in the West Bank.
No checkpoint, no wall, no razor wire and no watchtower.
‘But you can guarantee we’re bring watched,’ says Hassan, nodding to the cameras on top of a huge red and white pylon looming on the forested hill opposite.
‘But we are ok going in this direction, into the West Bank,’ he explains. ‘If we were coming the other way, then someone would be paying us a visit and asking questions and checking we had the right ID.’
Hiking to Battir is fine.
The last leg to Battir
From here it’s an easy hike through quiet countryside, with not a single soul in sight.
This 13-kilometre route along the valley once gave easy access for the terrace farmers of Battir to sell their fresh fruit and veg to city-dwellers. But these days they are hemmed in by the invisible separation barrier; by settlements deemed illegal under international law; and an expanding road network that connects Israeli settlements and cuts off Palestinian villages.
We round the hill where the Refa’im Valley meets the Makhrour Valley, and all of a sudden, we’re in Battir. The hillside village spreads out in front of us, up the slopes and steps. It’s mostly green. Green from the trees, the terraces and the crops. And this isn’t even peak growing season.
We’re short on time and so we take the most direct—and steepest—route to lunch.
Or brunch. It’s too close to midday to be Palestinian lunch. At Dar Abu Hassan Guest House there’s a feast of fresh produce from the village; shakshuka made with fresh tomatoes, homemade hummus, gently spiced cauliflower, this season’s still-bitter olives and ful mudammas (cooked and smooshed broad beans).
Everyone stocks up on Battir’s finest produce before we jump in the cars (cleverly left in the early hours) and head back to Jerusalem, tired and full and a little bit more clued-up on life along the Green Line.
More info on hiking to Battir…
It’s around 13km from First Station to Battir and takes 3-3½ hours to hike. It’s best to go in one direction (into the West Bank), with a guide. You’ll need transport back from Battir.
You can combine hiking to Battir with lunch, dinner or a stay at Dar Abu Hassan Guest House. Read more about the village and our stay in the guest house in the post Bright and early in Battir.
The best way to contact the guest house to arrange a hike or a stay is through their Facebook page.