Roads Less Traveled – What else to see in Israel
Several women wearing Venetian masks emerge from behind a red velvet curtain. The sounds of Renaissance music fill the room, and a 40-foot-long Italian walnut dining table beckons. This probably isn’t a scene you would expect to find in Tiberias, the summer resort town on the Sea of Galilee that’s full of water parks and hotels that promise nonstop fun. But a subdued 16th-century Venice-like atmosphere is just what you’ll discover at the Doña Gracia hotel here. It is one of the hidden gems awaiting visitors willing to wander off the beaten track in Israel. You can also cycle through a village that evokes Provence or wake up in a Crusader castle. So for those who have climbed Masada, snorkeled in Eilat and know every stone in Jerusalem, here are a few suggestions for your next trip to Israel.
There are few worthwhile sites in Jerusalem that a frequent visitor has not already seen, but the Cable Car Museum on 17 Hebron Road may well be one.
During the War of Independence, with the Old City under siege, Uriel Hefetz, engineering corps commander of the Irgun, conceived a daring scheme to evacuate the wounded and deliver supplies and ammunition: a longer than 600-foot steel cable above the Valley of Ben Hinnom. Equipped with a cable car, it linked Mount Zion with the Israeli position at St. John’s Hospital in the western section of Jerusalem.
Today, you can see the original battered cable car as well as a steel cable that still stretches from inside the hospital-turned-museum and through a large window right across to Mount Zion on the other side. From this vantage point, it takes little to imagine careening across the valley—a journey that took a mere two minutes. The system, which was used only at night to avoid detection by the Jordanians, served the Jewish forces for six months in 1948 but was kept in working order until after 1967 in case of need; its existence was revealed to the public only in 1972.
The museum is small but impressive both for the story it tells (through historic photographs with English, Hebrew and Spanish captions) and for the immediacy with which it tells it.
An interesting footnote: Hefetz went on to win many awards over the years for his inventions, which contributed to Israel’s security, as well as for personal bravery. He rescued wounded soldiers under fire in the Yom Kippur War and was seriously wounded saving children from terrorists who attacked the town of Ma’alot in 1974.
Book in advance to make sure someone lets you into the usually locked museum (contact East Jerusalem Development, Ltd., 011-972-2-627-7550; www.pami.co.il).
After seeing the museum, consider catching a movie at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which is next door (972-2-565-4333;www.jer-cin.org.il), and a visit to the artists’ studios at the Jerusalem House of Quality at 12 Hebron Road, across the street.
For sheer audacity, few initiatives of the War of Independence can match the Ayalon Institute.
The year was 1946; the place, Kibbutz Hill, a kibbutz-like settlement on the northern outskirts of Rehovot. When Sarah, a member who worked in the laundry, walked in one day after her shift, she froze in her tracks: One of the hefty machines had begun sliding across the floor; then a dozen men emerged from underground. Sarah promptly fainted.
This place was, for all appearances, a kibbutz-in-the-making complete with a communal dining hall, children’s home and all the rest. But about eight yards below—out of the view of the British Army—members of the prestate Haganah defense forces were clandestinely churning out bullets for Sten guns.
To cover the noise, a laundry and bakery (with hidden entrances to the bullet factory) were built above. The project was so secret that even some of those who worked in the bakery and laundry were unaware of it. (After regaining consciousness, Sarah was herself reassigned to the arms factory.)
Visitors can take a walk through the former bakery, with its still intact charred brick stove, then descend 28 steep steps to the faithfully preserved plant where 2.25 million badly needed bullets were manufactured over three years.
So thorough was the camouflage that the factory was equipped with sun lamps to make sure the “kibbutz” workers—who were actually underground all day—would not arouse suspicion because of their pale skin.
A visit, which must be booked in advance, includes a short film and guided tour in English or Hebrew (972-8-940-6552). Consider combining this with a tour of the adjacent Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel’s top-ranking, multidisciplinary research institute (972-8-934-2111; www.weizmann.ac.il).
Also in the center of the country, on the outskirts of Herzliya Pituah, is Apollonia National Park. Open since 2002, this beautiful park and archaeological site, a 15-minute drive from Tel Aviv, offers one of the most stunning sea views in the country, with an excavated Crusader fortress to boot (972-9-955-0929).
Walk up a path that hugs the edge of the cliffs high above the Mediterranean, where waves crash into the rocks below, offering the kind of drama that much of the country’s coastline lacks. There are ruins dating back 1,800 years scattered about; only a small portion of the park has been excavated.
At its zenith, in the 5th and 6th centuries, Apollonia, also known as Arsur, was a bustling city with wine, oil and glass industries. The Crusaders took over in 1191, during their century-long rule of the Holy Land; a scenic path leads to the ruins of their hilltop fortress. In 1265, after a 40-day siege, the Crusaders surrendered to a Mameluke army here.
The conquerors forced the Crusaders to burn down the fortress; you can see evidence of the fire in the Burnt Room. Some 2,200 ballista stones were found at the site—evidence of the Crusaders’ determined but ultimately futile attempt to fend off the Mamelukes. Next to the park is a path leading down to the beach.
For a more intimate encounter with a Crusader dwelling, consider spending a night in Kerem Maharal, a farming village on Mount Carmel, located about 10 miles south of Haifa. There, surrounded by olive, pine and cypress trees, you will find HaTira, “The Castle,” the only privately owned Crusader castle in Israel, reconstructed lovingly by owners Tsilla Martin and Udi Stoller (972-4-984-2704; cell, 972-54-720-0661; www.thecastle.co.il).
Their 11th-century abode sits on an archaeological tel dating back to the First Temple period. Slated for demolition, the couple fought their own 30-year crusade with authorities to purchase and salvage the structure. They excavated the ground level, which is now their residence, and reconstructed the upper level as a guesthouse with two suites and a shared kitchen.
Twenty-seven steep stone steps on the outside of the building lead to the upper level: The thick stone walls, graceful archways and mosaic inlaid tables render the rooms exquisite.
Virtually all the furniture in the castle—made from wood, stone, cast iron and mosaic tile—was crafted by the couple; they once owned a furniture workshop and factory.
Stoller’s oil paintings decorate the walls. One guest room has a loft and skylight. Both rooms have every modern convenience, but are all discreetly placed: A toilet is hidden under a long wooden panel, a television is concealed in an attractive cabinet.
There is attention to every detail; for example, a bathtub is trimmed with mosaics that form a turret-like pattern. There is also a spacious garden where peacocks roam. It is clear that Martin and Stoller have spared nothing to create the home of their fantasy.
A different kind of castle awaits you near the Sea of Galilee. Tucked away between the central bus station and shuk of Tiberias stands a drab building. Open the front door, though, and you are transported into the Casa Dona Gracia hotel and museum, a rich Renaissance world replete with Venetian glass, ornate furnishings, a classical pianist and costume-clad staff and guests.
But this is not just an exercise in theater. It is a monument to an until recently little-known Jewish heroine, Crypto-Jew Doña Gracia Mendes. Born in Portugal to parents who fled the Spanish Inquisition, Gracia Nasi became the wife of a wealthy banker, Diogo Mendes, who was also a Crypto-Jew. Widowed young, she cleverly expanded her late husband’s financial empire to become one of the wealthiest women in Europe, wielding clout with diverse royal families and using it to help Jews in distress.
Such was her influence that some 400 years before Theodor Herzl, Doña Gracia was able to persuade Sultan the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, to grant the Jews an autonomous homeland in Tiberias and surrounding villages.
Had she not died soon after, Jewish history might have taken a different turn.
Off the lobby of the hotel are a series of stylized rooms, each devoted to a city where she lived: Lisbon, Venice, Ferrara, Antwerp and Constantinople (Istanbul).
A film, guided tour and elaborate doll exhibit reenacting scenes of her life leave visitors awestruck by this remarkable woman. Her story was first brought to light by historian Cecil Roth in his 1948 book Dona Gracia of the House of Nasi (Jewish Publication Society) and more recently popularized in Naomi Ragen’s novel The Ghost of Hannah Mendes (St. Martin’s Press); Hannah was her Hebrew name.
The superb attention to detail at the site reflects the devotion of museum curator and educational administrator Tzvi Schaick, a historian pursuing a Ph.D. on Doña Gracia. He conceived the idea of a hotel dedicated to her.
With 65 standard rooms, the hotel also offers historic tours of Tiberias, stressing the philanthropist’s contribution to this often underrated city. (You need not stay at the hotel to join a tour.) Soon to come: Renaissance music available on headsets, a library and, in deference to the Sultan, a Turkish bathhouse (3 Ha’Prahim Street; 972-4-670-0930; www.dona gracia.com).
Also worth a visit in Tiberias, and possibly an overnight stay, is the re-opened and refurbished 69-room Scots Hotel. Originally a hospital founded by Scottish missionaries in 1894, the Church of Scotland property, at 1 Gdud Barak Street, is an architectural jewel inside and out. Its sprawling grounds include a waterfall and Italian-imported wooden bridge leading to a private beach (972-4-671-0710; www.scotshotels.co.il).
With its squat stone farmhouses, gentle rolling hills and oak forest, Beit Lehem HaGlilit evokes Europe much more than it does the Middle East. A kind of Provence in the Galilee, this quaint town near Nazareth does indeed have European roots. This entire settlement was an agricultural German village established by the Christian Templers in 1906. By the late 1930’s, some 20 Templer families lived here.
On the surface, this is one of the most picturesque towns in Israel and one that’s easy to enjoy exploring by bicycle (rented hourly or daily). The flat main street is dotted with garden cafés, a few galleries and boutiques, a dairy farm and even a soap-making workshop.
But scratch the idyllic surface and a sinister picture is revealed: In 1936, Nazi youth marched down this street, swastika flags unfurled, to mark Hitler’s birthday. That’s just one of the images on display at the small but fascinating visitors’ center in a Templer home, now belonging to Nurit and Kobi Fleischman. An affable historian and raconteur, Kobi Fleischman conducts walking tours of the town (972-4-953-2901 or 972-52-355-6939).
Ultimately, the Templer residents were either swapped for Jews at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp or deported. A comprehensive exhibit of the Templers in Israel opened at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv this month (972-3-641-5244; www.eretz museum.org.il).
Another intriguing side of Beit Lehem HaGlilit (which means Bethlehem of the Galilee): Because of its history and proximity to Nazareth, some scholars have recently suggested that this town—not Bethlehem in the Judean Desert—was the birthplace of Jesus.
A short drive away are the 2nd-to- 4th-century Jewish necropolis at Beit She’arim National Park (972-4-983-1643) and the must-see mosaics and excavations at Zippori National Park (972-6-656-8272). Both parks can be found on www.parks.org.il.
The whistling of the wind and the hurried footsteps of an ibex are the only sounds you’re likely to hear when falling asleep under a starry sky at Succah BeMidbar, an ecological vacation village in the Negev wilderness near Mitzpe Ramon (972-8-658-6280;www.succah.co.il). The eight private dwellings, or sukkot, are scattered in an isolated patch of desert—a short walk from the geological wonder known as the Ramon Crater (see travel story on Mitzpe Ramon, page 14).
Each sukka is made of natural materials, some even incorporate the rocky landscape into the structure. They are all named after a biblical matriarch or patriarch and are at least 150 yards apart, ensuring privacy and tranquillity.
Conceived by Rachel Bat-Adam, a spiritually oriented German convert to Judaism, the site eschews electricity and phone lines in favor of solar power and ecologically friendly communal toilet facilities and showers. Gourmet vegetarian meals are offered in a large sukka where Israeli and international guests enjoy dining together.
This is a spot where you can find a vestige of the spirit of the original temporary dwelling places where the Israelites lived over the 40 years they wandered through the desert.
Leora Eren Frucht is associate editorial director of ISRAEL21c, online at www.israel21c.com, and a contributor to the Insight Travel Guide to Israel.