Slightly south of the city center, where the neighborhoods of Rechavia and Katamon meet, in an incongruously green and deep valley bounded by busy roads, a valley dominated by the ancient monastery nestled in its center: the Valley of the Cross.
The Valley is cleft deep into Jerusalem's heart spiritually as well as geographically; its gnarled, solemn olive trees and rocky outcroppings provide an island of meditative quiet in the midst of Jerusalem's bustle and traffic, its stillness and natural beauty making it a favorite topic for Jerusalem's many poets. Yehuda Amichai, Jerusalem's most beloved wordsmith, frequently brings up his youth spent in the vicinity of the Valley:
This might have been a poem praising
my sweet imagined childhood God.
It was Friday, black angels filled
the Valley of the Cross, their wings
black houses, deserted quarries.
Sabbath candles danced like ships
at the harbour entrance. "Come, bride,"
wear the clothes of your tears and glory
from the night you thought I wouldn't come
and I came.
The Cross in question is of course Jesus Christ's - Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine, designated the valley (then outside the city) as the location from which the wood for the cross was harvested, and commissioned the construction of the monastery. The monastery, which has not undergone significant changes since its founding almost 1700 years ago, is still occupied by a small contingent of rarely-glimpsed monks; the Greek flag flutters from the ramparts in the stiff Jerusalem breeze.
Naturally, the Valley of the Cross makes for a great walk and a great location for a picnic. To get there from downtown, take King George St. all the way down (away from the city center) towards Kikar Tzarfat (Paris square), where you should turn right onto Ben Maimon Street, which turns into Aza St, the main thoroughfare of Rechavia. Follow Aza all the way down, about ten minutes, until you see the Valley. The Valley can also be accessed from major Jerusalem park Gan Sacher. At the far end of the park, slightly beyond where the running path bends around to head back towards Nachlaot, is a graffiti-plastered cement tunnel which leads straight into the Valley.
Once you're there, leisurely take in the verdant scenery. Clamber over the rocks. Run your hands over the knotted bark of the centuries-old olive trees. In addition to the monastery (which can be accessed during certain posted hours for a small fee), you should be able to see the modernist jumble of the Israel Museum looming over the Valley's western lip, and the blocky Knesset slightly off to the north. Enjoy a picnic at one of the Valley's fire-pit equipped sitting areas, or head to one of the several nearby cafes in Rechavia.
NOTE TO SOLO TRAVELERS: Like any unlit place, the Valley of the Cross is best avoided at night.
Photo of the Monastery of the Cross courtesy of heatkernel under a creative commons license.