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Walk It Your Way

  • Published in Travel
Although inspired by global walking tours and their wellness benefits, WalkinnIsrael features merits that are different to any other walking tour in Israel and worldwide. When planning your trip to the Holy Land you may choose to do it the traditional way i.e. guided treks and tours, which we happily lead. However, if you would like to experience something different altogether, an experience that will engage and connect you, your family and friends to themselves, the land and its history while experiencing first-hand what Israel is really about; we warmly recommend you choose the only self-guided, app-assisted tours in the world. Walk the hidden and untrodden paths of the Promised Land. Meet the charming people inhabiting Arab, Druze, Jewish, Bedouin, and Christian villages and settlements among the rolling hills of the Lower Galilee, and along the Carmel-Nazareth trail. Visit Mount Gilboa where King Soul fell on his sword following the prophecy of the medium from Eindor, and indulge in traditional cuisines of different ethnicities, all at your own pace.

Enjoying the best of both worlds; the benefits of a self-guided tour or hike, and the peace of mind that accompanies an organized tour, the idea is quite simple. You walk at your leisure from one carefully selected sleeping place to the next (Inn-to-Inn) while we take care of logistics and transfer your luggage and belongings. What makes WalkinnIsrael so special is that apart from being the only venture in Israel offering self-guided tours we are also the only ones in the world using a GPS for this purpose. Forget about maps, guides, and printed out instructions. You get a tablet with the routes uploaded on it, along with the tips, information, explanations, and suggestions for the way. No need to follow carefully tedious instructions, you simply follow the trail on the screen, making it practically impossible to lose your way and the group leader enjoys the trek as well. It is now time to breathe in the enchanted Galilee air, immerse in the trails of ancient Biblical stories, follow the armies of Titus, Saladin, and Napoleon and walk in the footsteps of kings and prophets, and in those of Jesus Christ his disciples and miracles.

You choose the trek, the level of difficulty, and its length. We guarantee an unforgettable experience like no other.
Visit us:
Israel Tours 

A pilgrim’s hotel reinvents Nazareth

  • Published in Travel

It took the vision of a Jewish Israeli to turn the abandoned mansion of an Arab Christian into a popular hostel in the town where Jesus walked


By Rivka Borochov
Until a few years ago, Christian pilgrims to Nazareth might not have been able to find a hotel room in town. The largest Arab city in Israel, with 85,000 people, wasn’t really set up for the busloads of Christian tourists who would stop by the famous Basilica of the Annunciation, do a quick walk around and then leave. There wasn’t much in the way of accommodation for the Westerner, despite the famous Arab hospitality.
But a young Jewish entrepreneur named Maoz Inon had big plans for Nazareth, where Christians believe the young Jew named Jesus spent his childhood under Roman occupation. As an Israeli, Inon loves the land, and has hiked its trails from north to south. While on his travels he stumbled through the Old City of Nazareth. Finding it in great ruin and neglect, he became enchanted by the potential he saw.
Inon looked into small business development for the city and showed up for a meeting, where he made the acquaintance of a young Christian Arab woman, Suraida Shomar-Nasser, who had just finished hotel management studies. Shomar-Nasser thought Inon had come to the wrong office, because it was a meeting for developing small Arab businesses. But Inon assured her that he did want to develop a business in the Arab city of Nazareth.
As they chatted, the woman happened to mention that her late grandfather Fauzi Azar had owned a large estate in the Old City. It had been in the family for generations, but left crumbling under lock and key after her grandmother died in 1989. Fauzi Azar had succumbed to a house fire in the mansion nine years earlier.
“I grew up in that house,” says Shomar-Nasser, and she remembers big family dinners with her siblings there on weekends. The house was in the center of the Old City, an undesirable location at the time since the streets were considered unsafe, and it was a long trek by foot to go into town. “I have small kids, and with the stairs and the walk, it would have been hard to live here,” says Shomar-Nasser, whose mother was left in charge of the estate.
A legacy in his name
Inon’s ears pricked up when he heard about the old estate. He was sure this was just the right place to set up his own hotel. He asked Shomar-Nasser for her mom’s number and, a few days later, Odette Azar-Shomar took Inon to see the property.
Shomar-Nasser recalls her mother’s stories about how the Arab neighbors and shopkeepers looked at them as she walked down the street with a young Jew, an uncommon scene in a city where no Jewish Israelis live.
But after their meeting, Inon and Azar-Shomar worked out a deal. He had no money so, in exchange for a short-term lease, he would renovate the house into a hostel along with assistance from the Nazareth Cultural and Tourism Association.
Since Fauzi Azar had five daughters and no sons to carry on his name, his house was his lifeline to the future. For this reason, it was decided that Inon’s inn would be named in Azar’s memory, with his portrait hanging on the wall. It opened in 2005, and today it’s known as the hotel that pioneered tourism in the Old City of Nazareth.
The Fauzi Azar Inn gives travelers a real taste of life in the modern Galilean city. Its charming facilities, preserved in such a way that undoubtedly would have made Grandfather Azar proud, include three impeccably preserved frescoed ceilings from the late 1800s and original arches, tiles and wooden fixtures. The inn offers dormitory-style accommodations and also private rooms with en-suite bathrooms. Large Arabian seating areas are punctuated by arches and stone walls.
And the inn’s day manager is Shomar-Nasser. Her suspicions about the Jewish stranger who wanted to do business in the Old City have long since dissipated.
In the steps of Jesus
An important aspect of the inn is its location on the Jesus Trail, a 40-mile route that retraces the possible steps young Jesus took when he lived in the region. Inon’s initiative, together with Christian hiking specialist David Landis in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, the trail meanders right through the Old City up to the inn and through small Galilean villages.
Inon also started a free weekday tour for his guests to “secret” spots in Nazareth, guided by a former American, Linda Hallel. She takes visitors to old, famous spice markets (one has a 150-year-old spice mill that still works), and shows them where to sample the best coffee and lemonade in town and where to find, when in season, handpicked produce and wild herbs and plants. Or how about an alarm clock that calls worshipers to prayer, Muslim style?
No doubt these tours, ongoing for the past two or three years, have boosted business in Nazareth, as tourists and journalists from newspapers including the New York Times have come to see the hidden gems of the Old City.
Before the tour, Shomar-Nasser gives guests a lecture about the history of the home and the story of her partnership with Inon. There are tears in her eyes despite the fact that she gives this same talk every day. “If it doesn’t come from my heart, I will ask someone else to do it,” she says.
When her family agreed to let a Jewish man start a hotel in her grandfather’s house, she had a bittersweet feeling about it. Bitter because she didn’t think of the idea herself, and that it came from the perceived “other;” and sweet because the grandfather who had no sons to carry his name now lives on in the best budget hotel in Nazareth -- a hotel full of life, great local food and people who get to know the story of Nazareth without a political or religious agenda.


Hiking in Israel - a trekkers paradise

  • Published in Travel


"We looked for walks that travel deeper into a location’s history and culture. Sure, there’s outdoor adventure on each of these 20 hikes, but the trails also tell a rich story."


National Geographic launched its list of World's Best Hikes: Epic Trails with the Israel National Trail: "We looked for walks that travel deeper into a location’s history and culture. Sure, there’s outdoor adventure on each of these 20 hikes, but the trails also tell a rich story."

By Ariel Blum
Israelis love to hike. And with more than 6,000 miles of trails crisscrossing the country, Israel is a true trekker’s paradise – all the more so because in such a small space (less than 300 miles from its northernmost to southernmost tips), you can walk through green forests, desert moonscapes and everything in between.
Israelis are inculcated with a love of hiking from a very young age. Beginning in first grade, all Israeli schoolchildren head out for an “annual trip.” The youngest go just for the day, but by high school, hikes can stretch up to a week. Some school groups camp outdoors while others stay in youth hostels or “field schools” run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI).
Adults are not immune to the hiking bug. Weekends and holidays see national parks filled with families out for a tiyul (trip) or at least a family barbecue. During the weeklong vacations many Israelis take during the Sukkot and Passover holidays, terrible traffic jams to prime hiking areas don’t scare off the intrepid Sabra.
The Israeli passion for hiking has biblical roots -- just as the Israelites conquered this land, so too can modern Israelis stake their claim by walking every trail and nature path. Along the way, numerous archaeological sites add visceral detail to the history of the Jewish people in the Holy Land.
Israelis may also have focused on hiking in the country due to the long-standing (but now lessened) inability to travel outside it. Surrounded by hostile neighbors, Israel’s citizens didn’t have the same luxury of a meandering “road trip” as in North America or Europe. And only in the last 20 years have Israelis earned enough to venture overseas. While today it’s almost de rigueur for post-army youth to head out for adventures in South East Asia or South America, the collective memory of when that wasn’t an option only further emphasizes Israelis’ love affair with their own land.

Gorgeous and challenging trails
Fortunately, Israel offers an over-abundance of gorgeous and challenging hikes, from the waterfalls of the Golan Heights to the breathtaking views overlooking the Red Sea. Israel’s trails are clearly marked by colors painted on rocks and tree trunks (the SPNI has a crew of volunteers who regularly check on the markers), and there is a set of 20 glossy maps you can buy (about $25 each) that will keep you moving in the right direction. The maps are available only in Hebrew, but the SPNI is looking for donors to produce English-language versions.
Linking it all together is the 580-mile long Israel Trail, which starts in the northern Galilee and winds its way south until it reaches the tip of Eilat. Inspired by the Appalachian Trail in the US, the Israel Trail was officially marked in 1995 and for the most part follows existing routes. It is indicated by distinctive white-, blue- and orange-striped trail markers (white for the snowy peaks of Mount Hermon, blue for the water and orange for the desert).
The Israel Trail is not a straight shot from north to south, hence its length of nearly double the actual miles from one end of the country to the other. Rather, it winds its way through the country’s most scenic geography, zipping over to the Mediterranean coast and the central Tel Aviv area before snaking up to the hills surrounding Jerusalem, then plunging south into the Negev and Arava deserts.
The SPNI is working with the Jerusalem municipality to mark a 25-mile round trip “spur” from the Israel Trail into Jerusalem, covering both urban and forest areas of the capital city.
The Israel Trail specifically avoids regions still in contention, such as the Golan Heights and the West Bank. It also must avoid army training grounds, which take up about 60 percent of the Negev.
Hiking in Israel is a seasonal activity, best done in the fall and spring. The Israel Trail has become a rite of passage, as a growing number of Israelis choose to hike its entire length over two to three months. While much of the time trekkers don’t have any choice but to pitch their own tents for the night, designated “Trail Angels” along the route provide hospitality – often in their homes – at low rates. Trail Angels can also be found on kibbutzim, and some even have free WiFi connections.
Top Israeli hikes
The SPNI recently finished marking a new route dubbed “The Jesus Trail.” It connects important sites from the life of Jesus, and runs for 40 miles from Nazareth to Capernaum, all in the Galilee region. The idea was initiated by an Israeli entrepreneur who runs a chain of hostels, including the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth.
Among the most popular treks in Israel, hikers can choose from a relatively leisurely route (albeit with a few ups and downs) to death-defying challenges, rappelling down cliffs or jumping past waterfalls.
Here are a few favorites:
The Burma Road is one of the easier routes, and also one steeped in history. During the War of Independence, the Jordanians blocked the main route into Jerusalem, attempting to starve the city into surrender. Under the cover of night, soldiers from the nascent state of Israel clandestinely built a bypass road, which succeeded in breaking the blockade.
The trail starts just outside of Beit Shemesh. You can hike the western part of the trail in the direction of Latrun. You’ll turn north before then, though, to make a loop back to your starting point. This takes you through a pine forest known as Park Rabin. There is also a bike rental shop, as the trail is popular with cyclists.
The eastern flank of the trail is a bit tougher, and kicks off with a steep ascent until reaching the village of Beit Meir. Along the way are some great views of the highway far below. Both sections follow the Israel Trail for much of the route.
Another pleasant hike goes through Nahal Amud (“nahal” means “dry canyon” in Hebrew; the Arabic “wadi” is often substituted). This trek is in the Galilee area – it runs from Mount Meron in the west toward the Sea of Galilee in the east, passing close to the kabalistic town of Safed. In addition to following the Israel Trail, Nahal Amud is particularly shady, even in the summer.
The highlight of the hike is the water – this nahal is not a dry creek – and the pools are frequently filled with campers from the various youth movements. If you can make it past the crowds, you’ll follow the river, then loop back past ancient flourmills before reaching the spacious parking lot (and an ice cream stand – a nice treat at the end of your day).
If adventure is your game, the lower part of Nahal Dragot (more popularly known by its Arabic name, Darga) will keep your heart beating. Located in the Dead Sea area, the Darga is incredibly challenging with 50-meter high walls, dry waterfalls and pools of natural water in craters that you have to swim across. Although there are metal stakes hammered into the rocks in some places, you really can’t do this hike without bringing a rope. Or, in some places, skip the rope and jump into the water instead. Warning: Don’t do this hike without a buddy!
Another challenging hike with rungs and water is in the Golan Heights. In Nahal Yehudiah, the water is so deep you have no choice but to swim to reach the other side. The path starts by passing a deserted Syrian village that was built on top of an earlier Jewish town from the Roman-Byzantine period. Further down the valley is the 20-meter-high Yehudiah Falls.
There are two cliffs to climb down using ladders drilled into the side of the rock – one is four meters (13 feet) long, the second nine meters (29.5 feet), ending in the pool. Make sure your belongings are wrapped up in waterproof bags, or do like some of the more creative hikers who pack small inflatable boats to float their gear across.
Water is also the calling card of Wadi Kelt, by far one of the most popular hiking spots in Israel, with some 60,000 visitors a year. The hike, which parallels the Jerusalem-Dead Sea highway, cuts through a deep desert gorge. Even in the heat of the summer, the high canyon walls and the water make this a pleasant refuge.
At the end of the hike is the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. George; the monastic community here dates back to 420 CE. If you were to continue on, you’d reach Jericho. Instead, Israelis either double back through the nahal or take a quicker (but less scenic) road that runs along the top of the canyon. Better yet, take two cars and park one at each end. That way you can spend more time in the water.
If you prefer to look at water, Mount Zefachot is particularly spectacular. This Eilat-area tiyul starts from the road that leads to the Egyptian border at Taba. There is a steep ascent with some tricky ups and a few cliffs to keep it interesting. But this hike is all about the payoff: From the top of the mountain, you get a panoramic view of the entire Red Sea area. You can see four countries from this vantage point: Israel, of course, but also Jordan, Egypt and the tip of Saudi Arabia. The sea remains a shimmering blue year round, and Eilat’s mild winters make this a perfect hike to break the cold of Israel’s more northern locales.
There are many more hikes than this short summary can review – the scenic Nahal Katlav in the Jerusalem area, the famous David’s Waterfall at Ein Gedi, the Black and Red Canyons further south. So, if you’re angling to act Israeli on your next trip, once you’ve hit up the Old City, the Tel Aviv beaches and Israel’s unique museums, take to the mountains and valleys. Somewhere among those 6,000 miles of trails, there’s bound to be a color-coded marker with your name on it.


Have backpack, will travel

  • Published in Travel

Looking for an independent adventure where you can connect with local people and culture? Israel is ideal for the backpack traveler

By Avigayil Kadesh
It’s been almost a year since Lee Balot, 31, opened The Green Backpackers - a hiker-friendly, eco-friendly hostel-like lodge at the edge of the Mitzpeh Ramon natural crater in southern Israel.
“I was a tour guide and I worked in the hospitality industry, but the stuff I really like doing is talking to guests and explaining hikes and trails, which I didn’t have time to do in the hotels,” Balot says. “I also saw that backpackers did not have a real answer for their needs in Mitzpeh Ramon. The only cheap places to sleep here are tents outdoors, and it gets very cold in the winter.”
Balot is on the cutting edge of a new niche in Israeli tourism focused specifically on backpackers - and on “flashpackers,” as Gal Mor, co-owner of Jerusalem’s new Abraham Hostel, calls spontaneous travelers who book a flight and their first night’s accommodation, hoping to make personal connections to plan out the rest of the journey.
Backpack tourists might not even have an actual backpack. They are distinguished not by their choice of luggage but by their desire for interaction with other travelers and natives, independent travel and exploring new destinations. Many will come back and tour Israel in a more traditional way when they are older and economically well-off.
“Our core guests are backpackers mostly from Europe, the US and Australia, ages 25-35, and we enable them to meet and share information with the other guests in the common areas we provide,” says Mor, who has backpacked around Europe and Israel.
Mor’s business partner Maoz Inon says Israel offers backpackers many historic sites and beautiful landscapes within a relatively short distance from each other, making it a lot easier to navigate than in places like expansive South America, New Zealand or Australia. It also helps that Israel’s weather is predictable. Even in the rainy season, he says, backpacking in Israel is manageable.
“Israel is just a short flight from Western Europe, where most backpackers are coming from,” Maoz points out.
Interacting with the locals
According to Mor, the main appeal of backpacking is the ability to interact with local people and local culture. “You are not on a bus with a homogenous group and a guide. You’re on your own. One of Israel’s most unique aspects is the different diverse cultures of Jews and Muslims, and as a backpacker you can choose to experience that alone or with an organized group.”
A website called Backpacking Israel lists hundreds of trekking and hiking routes - including the famous Israel Trail - for backpackers, cyclists, adventurers and extreme-sports lovers.
Blogging backpacker Miriam Berger of Travelling Starfish advises: “If you are looking for an inexpensive but satisfying backpacking adventure, you should look no further than the land of milk and honey. Israel is a backpackers’ dream. Not only is there so much to see without having to travel a far distance, you can do it quite cheaply in ways unique to this glorious country.”
To help their customers figure out what to see and how to get around, the Abraham Hostel - named for the biblical forefather, “the first backpacker in the Middle East” - has an information desk staffed seven days a week with expert backpackers.
“If you like archeology and hiking, for example, we can put together an itinerary for you,” says Mor. “And we offer daily free ‘Introduction to Travel in Israel’ lectures giving useful tools for somebody who’s just arrived.”
He says the iconic areas not to be missed include the Old City and Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem; the Dead Sea/Masada/Ein Gedi; Bethlehem; Tel Aviv-Jaffa; Haifa; and Eilat.
“More off the beaten track there’s Nazareth, which is fascinating in religious and historic history - a mixed city that enjoys a pleasant status quo, a vibrant market and a good central location for day trips to other parts of the Galilee. And there’s Acre [Acco], with its old port and market; the archeological park at Beit She’an; and the Golan Heights or Judean or Negev deserts, including Mitzpeh Ramon,” he suggests. Guests interested in culture and nightlife get recommendations for theater and walking tours.
“If our backpackers are into wildlife, we recommend visiting Hai-Bar Yotvata Nature Reserve to see a good representation of the wildlife of Israel, or the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, especially if they have kids. For bird-watchers, there’s the Hula Valley, depending on the season, and the Jerusalem Bird Observatory.”
Guest houses bridge backpackers and locals
Balot runs Green Backpackers in partnership with another experienced guide. They offer sunset tours of the crater, telescope tours of the night sky and arrangements for Bedouin hospitality.
“If they want hiking, we go inside the crater or in the area around it, or even in Sde Boker, 20 minutes away by bus, so we cover a pretty large area. Sometimes people go into the crater and camp out in it for a few days, so we lend them equipment. They can also go horseback riding, do ecological workshops or -- if they have a car -- visit the farms in the area and get tastes of homemade cheeses and wines.”
Their “base camp” features bunk accommodations, Wi-Fi, cooking facilities, gear rental and other services. And it’s environmentally friendly, as its name suggests.
“We thought about finding a large area and building with mud, but people told me the best ecological idea was to reuse an existing place. Eventually I saw a house that was right near my apartment, with a small elevator, and I knew it was meant to be.”
Even before its official opening, Green Backpackers had guests “sleeping on mattresses on the floor while we were painting the walls,” says Balot.
“We posted on hostel [Internet] sites and from the beginning we had people -- Germans, Canadians, Dutch, French, Japanese, Russians, Chinese and a few Israelis. Israelis have other places to sleep here and we try to give priority to backpackers from abroad.”
Balot just expanded to another apartment, adding three more rooms. “There are so many more backpackers now that we’ve had to send them to other hostels in Mitzpeh Ramon, and it’s gratifying to know we contributed to that,” she says.
She is working with the Ramat Negev Regional Council on a new map of the whole area, showing tourist attractions such as David Ben-Gurion’s grave in Sde Boker; the Avdat National Park; bus routes and bicycle trails.
“People could stay here much longer if they have stuff to do,” says Balot, who hails from the Tel Aviv area but fell in love with Mitzpeh Ramon as a teenager.
Inon, who is also the entrepreneur behind the Fauzi Azar Inn in the Old City of Nazareth and the nearby Jesus Trail popular with Christian tourists, has backpacked around the world twice.
“I have traveled to some of the most beautiful places in the world, and I realized there is no match for the biblical lands in terms of the history and culture,” he says. “I saw a real potential for backpack tourism in Israel. It was completely undeveloped when I started in 2005.”
Inon got the notion for Fauzi Azar while in South America with his wife. “We learned that guesthouses can often bridge between backpackers and local communities by creating a venue for interaction,” he says. “We’re in the Old City, so our guests have the chance to interact daily with merchants and neighbors and local staff to get a better understanding of this old Arab city.”
Guests may help out at the reception desk, where they meet people from all over the world. They can participate in community projects such as cleaning the Jesus Trail, teaching English lessons and organizing special events such as the Flavor of Nazareth, where local restaurants contribute food for a tasting festival.
Israel’s network of youth hostels and kibbutz guest houses have always been appealing to backpackers. “For the backpacker, you are spoiled for choice when it comes to hostels in this country and all are safe and you’re welcomed with great hospitality,” writes Berger.
“There are so many unique opportunities in Israel to donate your time in exchange for accommodation and/or food. I’ve heard stories of many of my fellow travelers finding opportunities to help out on farms, homes and even wineries. The best part of this is that you don’t just get a place to lay your head; you also get to meet some new people who can tell you what living in Israel is all about.”
A new awareness of backpackers’ needs has led to even more. “When we started with Fauzi Azar in 2005, there was no infrastructure or facilities for backpackers,” says Inon. The inn has grown from three to 14 rooms.
“With a few others, we created that by encouraging more and more guest houses and hostels to open dormitory facilities and give out printed maps and other information for independent travelers.”
This benefits not only the visitors but also the locals. “Tourism is about economic development, and staying in small kibbutzim, villages and towns is a great way to support and bring economic prosperity to the periphery,” says Inon. “Unlike mass tourism, here we really get a chance to support small business and local communities. We believe in it as a philosophy.”
This philosophy is paramount, he adds.
“Backpackers have changed over time,” Inon observes. “Now many of them are in a rented car and don’t have a backpack, but they’re still looking for interaction with other travelers and natives. They’re still traveling independently, not in a group and not like traditional tourists. They want to explore new destinations, and we believe that Israel has huge potential for them as a new destination.”


Akko’s ancient harbor exposed

  • Published in Travel

Akko's harbor is considered the largest and most important in the country in the Hellenistic period.

In archaeological excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting at the foot of Akko’s southern seawall, installations were exposed that belong to a harbor that was operating in the city already in the Hellenistic period (third-second centuries BCE) and was the most important port in Israel at that time.
The finds were discovered during the course of archaeological excavations being carried out as part of the seawall conservation project undertaken by the Old Akko Development Company and underwritten by the Israel Lands Administration.
The first evidence indicating the possible existence of this quay was in 2009 when a section of pavement was discovered comprised of large kurkar flagstones dressed in a technique reminiscent of the Phoenician style that is characteristic of installations found in a marine environment. This pavement, which was discovered underwater, raised many questions amongst archaeologists. Besides the theory that this is a quay, some suggested this was the floor of a large building.
According to Kobi Sharvit, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority Marine Archaeology Unit , “Among the finds we’ve discovered now are large mooring stones that were incorporated in the quay and were used to secure sailing vessels that anchored in the harbor c. 2,300 years ago. This unique and important find finally provides an unequivocal answer to the question of whether we are dealing with port installations or the floor of a building. In addition, we exposed collapse comprised of large dressed stones that apparently belonged to large buildings or installations, which was spread of a distance of dozens of meters. What emerges from these finds is a clear picture of systematic and deliberate destruction of the port facilities that occurred in antiquity”. Sharvit adds, “Recently a find was uncovered that suggests we are excavating part of the military port of Akko. We are talking about an impressive section of stone pavement c. 8 meters long by c. 5 meters wide that was partially exposed. The floor is delimited on both sides by two impressive stone walls that are also built in the Phoenician manner. It seems that the floor between the walls slopes slightly toward the south, and there was a small amount of stone collapse in its center. Presumably this is a slipway, an installation that was used for lifting boats onto the shore, probably warships in this case”. According to Sharvit, “Only further archaeological excavations will corroborate or invalidate this theory”.
The bottom of the ancient harbor was exposed at the foot of the installations. There the mooring stones were found as well as thousands of fragments of pottery vessels, among which are dozens of intact vessels and metallic objects. The preliminary identification of the pottery vessels indicates that many of them come from islands in the Aegean Sea, including Knidos, Rhodes, Kos and others, as well as other port cities located along the Mediterranean coast.
These finds constitute solid archaeological evidence regarding the location of the Hellenistic harbor and perhaps the military port. According to Sharvit, “It should be understood that until these excavations the location of this important harbor was not clear. Remains of it were found at the base of the Tower of Flies and in the region of the new marina in excavations conducted in the early 1980s by the late Dr. Elisha Linder and the late Professor Avner Raban. But now, for the first time, parts of the harbor are being discovered that are adjacent to the ancient shoreline and the Hellenistic city. Unfortunately, parts of the quay continue beneath the Ottoman city wall – parts that we will probably not be able to excavate in the future.
Nevertheless, in those sections of the harbor that extend in the direction of the sea and the modern harbor the excavation will continue in an attempt to learn about the extent of the ancient harbor, and to try and clarify if there is a connection between the destruction in the harbor and the destruction wrought by Ptolemy in 312 BCE, the destruction that was caused by the Hasmonean uprising in 167 BCE or by some other event.


Rosh Pina: Israel’s first village

  • Published in Travel


Now a thriving and picturesque artists' colony, Rosh Pina was the site of two not-so-successful farming ventures in pre-state times.


By Avigayil Kadesh

roshpina2Ask most people what was the first Jewish settlement in modern Israel, and most will say Petah Tikva.

However, three months before Petah Tikva was founded in 1878, eighteen religious Jews from Safed (Tzfat) decided to embark on a Zionist farming enterprise and walked 90 minutes to the slopes of Mt. Canaan to build a new settlement, taking advantage of the area’s three natural springs. They called it Gai Oni.

“They didn’t want to beg for money from European Jews,” says tour guide and local resident Akiva Oren. “They wanted to work the land as farmers and make their own living.”

Though the venture folded after three years, it formed the basis for what is now the village of Rosh Pina (“cornerstone”) in the Upper Galilee. This village offers spectacular views of the Sea of Galilee, the Hula Valley, Mt. Hermon and the Golan Heights. Many of its historic stone buildings and gardens have been reconstructed and preserved, while new structures, parks and art galleries have been added in recent years.

Today the town offers about 400 guest rooms and more than 30 restaurants and pubs selling Middle Eastern, North American, South American, Italian and French fare.

Rosh Pina can be explored within a few hours, while its bed-and-breakfast facilities in restored stone houses serve as a quaint central base for tourists planning trips to the Galilee’s many Jewish, Christian, natural and historical sites nearby.

Though it’s a sleepy little town of about 2,500 residents, pop star Madonna reportedly looked into buying a house here because in the ancient Jewish mystical tradition, Rosh Pina is the site where the Messiah will appear.

Romanians arrive with wooden boats

In 1882, the First Aliyah movement saw many idealistic Europeans emigrating to their ancestral land at a time when the Jewish population in Palestine was about 50,000 in total.

That year, a Romanian Jew named Moshe David Shuv arrived on a boat at Jaffa Port, bought a horse and rode all the way up north looking for the right spot to settle along with at least 40 families from his village who’d given him funds to get started.

“When he reached Rosh Pina [Gai Oni], he said ‘I found it!’ and he sent a telegram describing it as similar to their own Romanian village – high up in the mountains, chilly, with a lot of water -- and they all packed up and came by boat to Beirut, walked to Rosh Pina and established homes there,” says Oren.

By this time, most of the Safed adventurers had given up and left, and the few landowners there were Arab families.

“The Romanians slowly bought property from the Arabs, who were happy to teach them about farming and happy to sell them their land, because they needed money to pay off the Turks to keep their sons out of the army,” according to Oren. The renamed town of Rosh Pina was officially recognized by the state of Israel in 1953.

Shuv was the great-great-uncle of Oreet Segal, an Israeli tour guide. Segal says her grandmother Leah was five years old when she arrived from Romania with her parents, Mordechai and Rivka Katz. Rivka was Shuv’s sister.

“My grandmother remembered living in hillside caves at the beginning,” says Segal. “The first thing they built was a mikvah [ritual bath] and then small homes. They tried to be farmers, but didn’t know much about it.”

Wooden boats, mulberries and perfume

The European newcomers had naively brought along wooden boats, assuming they could earn some money by fishing in the springs. Quickly realizing these waterways were unsuited to commercial fishing, they instead put the boats together to form the roof of the wooden synagogue built in large part by Mordechai Katz. “You can still see the contour of the boats if you look up at the ceiling,” says Segal.

Farming turned out to be not much more successful than fishing. “It was really hard to survive,” says Oren. “Then, Baron [Edmund de] Rothschild sent them help. Rothschild helped them build their huge, elegant synagogue and gave a stipend to each family to help them buy a cow and a mule.”

As he did in other new settlements he supported, including Petah Tikva, Rothschild sent paid emissaries to oversee how his money would be spent. “These clerks didn’t know much about agriculture either,” says Segal. “They lived high on the hog compared to the settlers, and it caused a lot of resentment.”

First, the families tried planting mulberries to grow silkworms, and then they planted flowers to make perfume. Both ideas were flops, says Segal. “They suffered a lot from diseases and from hostile neighbors, too. My great-grandfather, who was very tall with red hair and a red beard, rode around guarding the settlement on a big white horse.”

Leah married the widowed religious leader of the community when she was young, and Segal’s father was the eighth of their 10 children. “They stayed in Rosh Pina until the start of World War I, and then my immediate family moved to Jerusalem,” she says.

In 1929, Prof. Gideon Mer established a malaria research laboratory in Rosh Pina, which gained worldwide recognition as his work helped stop the malaria epidemic among new agricultural settlers in the region -- and also overseas, once Mer was made a medical officer in the army of King George VI. The preserved house contains an exhibit of ancient items from various periods, such as old plows, laboratory equipment and textbooks.

An artists' colony

For many years, this “Mother of the Galilee settlements” remained a sort of forgotten backyard, as Segal puts it.

“Rosh Pina was never really successful until the 1980s or 1990s, when it became a haven for artists looking for inexpensive old homes. It started getting a rebirth as people bought up houses to make zimmerim [bed-and-breakfasts] and ceramic and art galleries. There are a lot of places to stay here today, and the weather is beautiful with a high elevation, so it’s pleasant in the summer with a great view.”

When she guides tourists in Rosh Pina, Segal shows them the house where her father was born, as well as the synagogue and the mikvah. “A lot of the original houses are there, just ‘yuppified’ and glorified,” she says, “including the home of the well-loved schoolteacher. When he passed away, they made a fancy memorial to him in the cemetery.”

Some of the retail shops from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are also in the process of being fixed up, along with one of the first hotels in the Galilee. The house where the Rothschild employees worked has been turned into offices and a museum featuring an audiovisual presentation about the history of Rosh Pina. The nearby Baron’s Gardens, modeled on the grand gardens at Versailles, are also open to the public.

A portal to the Galilee

Oren likes to use Rosh Pina as a starting point for tours of other spots in the Galilee, including Safed, Tiberias and the Hula Lake, a major attraction for migrating birds and the people who enjoy watching them.

“I take people for a few hours in Jeeps to see the north, which is really unique,” says Oren. “Rosh Pina is a good base for traveling in all four directions.”

He starts in the valley and climbs up all the way to the highest ridge, over 900 meters high, where snow falls every winter. He takes people west to the border with Lebanon, to the Hula to see the migrating birds, to the Korazim National Park, a Second Temple-era site overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and to Tel Hatzor, a national park on the ruins of the biblical King Solomon’s summer palace.

Biking is one of the most popular activities in the mountains around Rosh Pina, with trails from extreme to beginner. A new 25-kilometer section of the Israel Bike Trail was just opened this fall by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (), and there are also trails for horseback riding and hiking.

Where to stay

Accommodations in the Upper Galilee get more plentiful and posh all the time. Small boutique suite hotels in restored Rosh Pina stone buildings offer luxurious rooms with features such as hot tubs, wood floors, and private gardens from which to take in the views of Mt. Hermon, the Golan Heights and the Hula Valley.

Among the 30 bed-and-breakfast hotels in Rosh Pina is an environmentally conscious enterprise with a gray-water system (the water from the Jacuzzi and showers is used to irrigate the organic garden) and energy-efficient lighting. Some of these zimmerim are strictly kosher, while on the outskirts of Rosh Pina are high-end hotels.

In nearby Hatzor is a 26-room Mediterranean chateau-style boutique estate hotel in a two-story Jerusalem stone house surrounded by 6.5 acres of natural wine country. Guests munch on cheese, fruit and vegetables from local farms along with herbs and spices grown in the hotel gardens, and can lounge at the outdoor pool and Jacuzzi.

Seems like Madonna has plenty of places to stay even if she doesn’t buy any property in Rosh Pina.


Nazareth: Ancient city, modern appeal

  • Published in Travel

The Galilee home of Jesus is a hub for Christian tourism, eco-tourism, hiking paths, new hotels and attractions.


By Avigayil Kadesh
A parade of 120 classic cars down the main street of Nazareth in mid-September was not the usual sort of event in this Israeli Christian tourism hot spot. But the two-day show and festival - sponsored by the municipality, the Five Club and the Nazareth Cultural and Tourism Association (NCTA) - highlights how Nazareth is growing as a general destination for Israelis and foreigners alike.

The Galilean childhood home of Jesus is one of the largest Arab cities in Israel with about 72,000 Christian and Muslim Arab residents. In addition to the classic car event, it hosts a yearly Ramadan festival, a Sacra Music Festival at Easter and Christmas, and a Christmas marketplace in December, when the city is lit up with decorations.
"Nazareth has been doing well in the past few years, and there are many entrepreneurs wanting to open businesses in the tourism industry," Sigal Ben-Oz of the Tourism Ministry told Ynet News last summer.
The website of the municipality is in Arabic. However, Niveen Aburass of the NCTA is typical in her facility with Hebrew and English as well. She explains that although the organization gives a variety of guided tours of churches and mosques, the old marketplace, magnificent private houses and archeological sites, "three hours is never enough" to explore everything Nazareth has to offer.
Neither are there enough hotel rooms to accommodate all the visitors. "We have 20 hotels in Nazareth, including guest houses and a convent where many Christian pilgrims stay," she says. "But all the hotels are overbooked, so people stay in [nearby] Tiberias or even Jerusalem or Tel Aviv when they visit here, and it's a loss for us."
Three new hotels are under construction in the center of Nazareth and others are being enlarged, thanks to Tourism Ministry incentives totaling about $114.5 million. Others await permits to begin building and a few have opened in recent years, including the 120-room Gardenia Hotel, which caters to Jewish tourists as it has a kosher kitchen.
Eco-tourism has taken hold in Nazareth, too. The six-year-old Fauzi Azar Inn, named after the original owner of the 200-year-old Arab mansion in which it's situated, serves as the base for participants in a popular six-week program to work alongside local residents in restoration and community projects in the Old City of Nazareth.
The ecologically oriented visitors also lend a hand to keep the grounds clean along Israel's 40-mile Jesus Trail that runs from the Mount of the Precipice in Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. At trail's end at Capernaum, many pilgrims cross the sea to Tiberias in a wooden replica of a boat from Jesus' days. Another Christian hiking route in this area, called the Gospel Trail, opened recently and is attracting tourists as well.
Nazareth's Christian sites
About two-thirds of the 3.45 million tourists in Israel last year were Christian, and 2,000-year-old Nazareth, the cradle of the faith, is a must-see on the Christian itinerary. It has about 30 churches and monasteries in addition to ancient synagogues and newer mosques.
The official symbol of Nazareth is Mary's Well, the centerpiece of Spring Plaza along with a more recently discovered elaborate Roman bathhouse. According to Christian tradition, this is where Mary used to bathe Jesus and wash his clothes, and where Jesus fetched water. Muslims and Christians consider the well and its water to contain unusual healing properties.
When the entire plaza area was renovated as part of millennium celebrations in 2000, archeologists discovered the remains of tunnels and pools from different periods, which are now described in an exhibition at City Hall. The well's current shape is based on pictures taken by 19th century pilgrims.
The Mary of Nazareth International Center was opened in 2010 by the Chemin Neuf Community, offering an audiovisual journey (in several different languages) into the life of the Virgin Mary and the Marian roots of Christianity. Complete with meeting rooms, prayer spaces, a cafeteria and gift shop, "Mary's Center is an awesome place," says Aburass.
About 100 feet south of Spring Plaza, above the actual spring supplying the well, is St. Gabriel Church of the Annunciation. Greek Orthodox tradition maintains that this is where the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus.
The nearby Basilica of the Annunciation sits above the grotto where Roman Catholics believe Joseph and Mary lived and where Mary received the angel's announcement.
The present building was constructed on the ruins of churches dating back to Byzantine (324-634 CE) and Crusader (1095-1291) times, some of which are still visible. A $24 million commercial complex under construction is planned to include a 186-room hotel with a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Basilica.
Nazareth Sisters Convent next door offers subterranean tours of ancient tombs, columns and houses possibly dating back to the Roman period in the Holy Land, which started around 37 BCE and continued until the Byzantine conquest. There's a small museum exhibiting old coins and pottery, and an enclosed courtyard and guest rooms.

Other sites of Christian interest are the Church of St. Joseph, built on the ruins of agricultural buildings where Joseph's carpentry shop is believed to have been located, and the Crusader-era Synagogue Church, next to the Greek Catholic Church in the middle of the old market. The odd name of this house of worship comes from a tradition that this was once the synagogue where Jesus prayed and preached.
The Mount of the Precipice (officially Mount Kedumim), at the entrance to the city from the direction of Afula, is traditionally where Nazareth's citizens took Jesus after he declared himself the Messiah. You can still see the remains of a Byzantine convent later established there. It's easier to explore the rocky terrain since the Jewish National Fund built a parking lot at the top and a wheelchair-accessible paved lane leading to an observation point overlooking the Jezreel Valley, Carmel Mountains, Gilad Mountains and Mount Tabor.
The Old City
Over the past decade, the historical Old City section of Nazareth has been extensively renovated, preserving and restoring the architecture amid its narrow lanes and alleys. Lots of new restaurants serve a variety of cuisines. Here you'll find Ottoman-era (1299-1923) buildings including the Saraya, or Government House, built by the governor of the Galilee in the 18th century. You can tour private homes from this period, whose wealthy owners commissioned intricately painted frescoes on the ceilings.
The 17th century marketplace boasts colorful stalls and merchandise ranging from fabrics and spices to artwork. Aburass says it's a popular shopping destination for residents of all the surrounding towns in the Lower Galilee because it offers so much in one place. In the middle of all this is the 19th century White Mosque, a house of prayer and an education and culture center with a museum documenting Nazareth's history.
At the edge of the Old City, near Mary's Well, the Galilee Mill, (el-Babour) combines history with an active store selling more than 1,000 varieties of spices and herbs. The mill was built by German Templars at the end of the 19th century to provide grinding and storage services for Nazareth's farmers. A great view of the Old City is available from the top of St. Gabriel's Bell Tower, part of a former monastery that was remade into a 60-room boutique hotel in 1993.
Hands-on Nazareth
Kids and adults can watch experienced potters turning marl clay into useful and beautiful items at the Ceramics Workshop beneath the Nazareth courthouse. This factory was founded by a local resident sent to study pottery making in Syria in the early 1900s, and his descendants run the place, helping visitors try their hand at the craft.
Nazareth Village, also located in the southern section of the city, was opened several years ago to provide a glimpse of everyday life as it was in the early days of the Roman era contemporary with Jesus. There are demonstrations of ancient agricultural and building methods, olive pressing and authentic dishes cooked on site by "villagers" in period costume. At night, guides give tours by oil lamp, and at holiday times the site hosts special shows.
"We have so much to offer in Nazareth," says Aburass

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