Maronites, Circassians and Druze- a trip to the Western Galilee

Looking over into Lebanon

You will find this entry rather different from our previous trips. The first thing will be a lack of decent photos and the reason for this is that this was an organized trip, but more of that later. (Heck I didn’t even get to photograph a Druze in traditional gear! )We booked a one night package through the Israel Youth Hostels Association marketed as a “Hamshush”, Israeli slang for a weekend break beginning on a Thursday. The deal was for 540 shekels per couple, which included overnight at the Youth Hostel in the Druze village of Pke’in, breakfast and two tours, one on Thursday night and one on Friday morning. Usually I avoid organized tours, which I feel are rushed and don’t allow one to peacefully contemplate the scenery. This tour, despite being quite pleasant, confirmed my opinion, and that is why there is a paucity of photographs. The guides were extremely knowledgeable, and had a wealth of information to impart, but the group was large and we rushed from place to place. It just meant that I could mark these places on my Google Map and return at leisure on a later date.

We stopped off at our favourite beach (Lavnun) at the Kinneret on the way up to Pke’in, and were thrilled to find it relatively empty and not too hot, considering we are in the midst of the summer holidays. After a pleasant time there we continued on to the Youth Hostel and checked in extremely quickly .The room was not at all what I remembered about youth hostels, despite no double bed, it was spacious,ensuite , and had a tv, aircon, wifi, tea and coffee with a kettle and a fridge. This is more than we have received in many overpriced hotels around the country. There was even a view from the window.

Lavnun beach, Kinneret

We drove into Pke’in village to grab something to eat before the evening walking tour. I had picked a random restaurant called The Village Restaurant, but after finding the main square and parking, a friendly guy approached us and guided us to his restaurant, The Mulberry Tree, which he said had “the most likes on Facebook”. A couple already sitting at a table assured us that the food was excellent so we sat down. We were offered an oral menu only which consisted of all the traditional Druze and local Arab dishes, Hummus, Labane, stuffed vegetables and so on. We chose two Druze pita and Labane and a plate of stuffed vine leaves. These were accompanied by some home made pickles and then a large plate of bulgur wheat . Everything was delicious. We then returned to the Youth Hostel.

After a quick cup of tea and rest in the room we went to the lobby for the evening tour. We met up with the two guides who divided us up into two groups. This then got complicated as we were offered a choice of walking or driving into the village to a viewpoint and a short introduction to the village. After a vote, most opted to drive, and went with the other guide, and our guide led about 20 people on the walk, stopping here and there to explain things about the Druze community and beliefs. Both guides were Druze, and it was interesting to hear about religion and customs, regarding marriage, burial and changing attitudes to the independence of women. We saw the main square and the spring, and the Synagogue, and learnt about the coexistence of Druze, Christians and Jews in the village.

Synagogue in Pke’in

Unfortunately since it was already dark I didn’t get a chance to photograph the many gorgeous houses around the village, but we will undoubtedly visit again another time. Along with another couple , we got slightly lost on the way back to the hostel, the guide strode ahead at a pace and was not really concerned if he lost a few people on the way. (this was one of our main gripes with this tour, that not enough time was spent at any place, and we felt continually hurried).

Next morning we had a magnificent breakfast at the hostel before meeting a new guide , Rassan, also Druze,( from the village of Hurfeish), and setting off to see Mount Adir, up on the Lebanese border, Gush Halav (Jish), a Maronite Christian village, and finally Rehaniya, a Circassian village. This was all by car, and we drove in long convoy, meeting up with the others at the entrance to each site.

Hazy look at Lebanon from Har Adir

After a short walk we reached the lookout point on the mountain which was unfortunately not clear due to heat haze. The surrounding views on the way up were however spectacular. This part of the Western Galilee is really beautiful and warrants a longer visit. There are many places to stay in the villages and kibbutzim around. We only spent a few minutes in Gush Halav and frankly I did not learn anything there. It was all too rushed. We got a potted history of Christianity in 2 minutes and a glimpse of the Church which was closed. The writing over the door is both in Arabic and in Aramaic, and apparently many of the Christian Maronites are claiming to be descendents of the people of Arameans , and trying to revive that tradition, including the language. They, like the Druze, serve in the army and are loyal to the State of Israel.

The final port of call, Rehaniya is home to a small community of Circassians. We were given a time of arrival to meet at the entrance to the village, but after stopping off to buy a sambusak and use the “faciilities” at the charming Nalchik restaurant ( at the recommendation of the guide), we returned to the village entrance and could not find anyone there (we were 5 minutes late, after waiting for the sambusak to be ready). Since it was about 30 C we decided not to schlepp around looking for them, but to head for the beach in Nahariya. So we drove to Galei Galil beach, Nahariya where we relaxed for a while before heading home.But first I have to mention the amazing Nalchik restaurant, which houses a small exhibition of Circassian folklore, complete with costumes, and many photos, and shows a loop of Circassian folk dancing on the tv. In the room there were rows of plastic chairs, where I believe talks about the sect are given. The charming Daniel who served us said that his uncle does guided tours and lectures on the Circassian people ,and gave us his card. We may take him up on this at a later date.

So there you have it. A village where Jews, Christians and Druze live together in harmony. What more could one wish for on this day when suddenly rockets are again whooshing over both sides of the border down south? How sad that we are so far away from achieving this peace in the rest of our area.

Stay tuned for next installment….

The Splendor of Andalusia Part 2

On the way from Granada to Cordoba we stopped off at the town of Antequera to see the dolmens. This is a megalithic site featuring three monuments, Dolmen of Menga, Dolmen of Viera and Tholos of El Romeral. WE only saw two, but the brand new (free) little museum at the entrance to the site, explaining the discovery and explanation of the megaliths was really rather splendid. We very much enjoyed our brief stop.

Then we continued on our way to Granada. After the laid back seaside feeling of Malaga Granada had an altogether different feel to it. It seemed a bit like driving from Tel Aviv (happy, colourful beach city) to Jerusalem (heavy on tradition and history). We had rented an air bnb in the outskirts, about 30 minutes walk from downtown. But we had not counted on the intense heatwave, which made the walk there and back rather taxing. We strolled around the old part of town, the tiny streets around the Cathedral area, with the magnificent Alhambra and Generalife towering over us. We were suddenly very hungry and then discovered that between around 2pm and 8pm it is impossible to find a soul in the street, let alone an open restaurant. The siesta is sacred. Fortunately just as we were getting desperate, we found the wonderful Vega’s cafe serving the best fresh sandwiches and drinks, everything full of lovely vegetables and fresh fruits, the likes of which we had not seen since arriving in Spain. The bread was fresh and the service welcoming.

There seems to be nothing left of the Jewish presence in Granada, except a museum and a statue of Judah ben Saul ibn Tibon (much like the rest of Andalusia).

After walking around town a lot, we felt the need for some nature so the next day we drove up to the Sierra Nevada, where you can see snow all the year round, despite the crushing heat. The drive up to the small ski town was gorgeous and we stopped off at the Hoya de Pedraza Botanical gardens on the way. The view was stunning. On arrival at the actual town of Sierra Nevada we discovered it to be deserted. Apparently when it is not the season there are no people there whatsoever, let alone any coffee bars or restaurants open. We met a bewildered Singaporean couple also looking for a bite to eat. We gave up and on the way back down the mountain to the city we found a delicious cafe frequented by passing cyclists, where the surly waiter produced a perfect oven cooked pizza with all the toppings.

The following day we had booked a tour of the Alhambra, which I thought was guided but turned out not to be. We got up early and left at 6.30am hotfoot to the meeting point, up a massively steep hill of course. You really need a whole day to experience the wonder of the Alhambra and Generalife complex as it is enormous and stunning. I think my favourite part was the gardens of the Generalife which were just fantastic. I don’t have the words to do justice to the place, and the photos certainly don’t either.

Our last day in Granada we arranged to meet up with my very good friend’s son Guy, who has been living in Granada for a year to study flamenco guitar. He very kindly agreed to show us around Albaicin, the ancient neighbourhood where he lives, which is right beneath the Alhambra and has spectacular views over the city. Since we were feeling somewhat exhausted from the tour, and the walk into town is long (and Guy had warned us of the hilly nature of Albaicin) we opted to get a bus down from our apartment, which turned out to be quite easy, until the bus failed to follow the route on my app. Various kind ladies helped us get off at a convenient spot, and from there we puffed up (another) extremely steep hill to meet him. Albaicin really is very splendid and we enjoyed walking around there very much. There were several groups of school kids having historical tours of it too.

Our penultimate Andalusian city, Cordoba was I think my favourite. I was expecting to be blown away by Granada (and I was) but somehow when we arrived in Cordoba I felt that I was home. I just don’t know how to explain it but somehow a place just makes you feel that you belong, and that is exactly how I felt about Cordoba. We only had two days there, as opposed to 4 in Granada. But for me it was possibly the highlight. I knew that the guided tour of the Mezquita would be wonderful, but just hanging out in Cordoba was a joy and not just because there was a feria (or fiesta) going on there. The streets felt wonderful, the general ambience of the place was just spectacular. This was the only place that we stayed in a hotel (because all the places were booked up months in advance for the feria) but it was fine, as Hotel Oasis was clean and comfortable and only a 15 minute walk from the stunning Roman Bridge which I instantly fell in love with.

In Cordoba we wandered the old Jewish quarter, found a statue of Maimonides (the Rambam) who was born in Cordoba, and the old synagogue which is beautifully restored, and the Casa de Sefarad, containing a nice little museum of the Sephardic Jews before the Inquisition. It was all so wonderful.

The tour of the Cathedral Mosque known as the Mezquita was just spectacular. We booked an English speaking tour with Viator, fortunately for 4pm , when it was already not so sweltering. The guide, Angel was both knowledgeable and charming, and did not stop the tour after an hour but was available to answer more questions after the end. We were also able to remain inside the mosque until it closed at 7pm and get more of a relaxed impression of the place than is possible while you are following your guide around. It was just breathtaking. I think it is possibly one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen and it was clear that Angel loved it too. Again it’s impossible to take a decent picture of it. Even videos hardly do it justice.

On the way from Cordoba to Carmona , our final stop, we spied an imposing castle right on top of a hill . The signpost said Castillo de Almodovar so of course we had to check that out. After sweating up a steep hill we discovered we could have driven up the top. We didn’t really have time to explore inside but the castle outside and the surrounding views were quite splendid.

The historic town of Carmona, 20 km from Sevilla airport, was where would spend our last two days. Here we stayed in a wonderful apartment Casa en la Juderia at the brilliant address of 1, Jewish neighbourhood street (Calle de la Juderia). We had a slight problem getting the key when we arrived but the host answered us promptly on Whatsapp and we were soon ensconced inside and free to wander around the town, which is chock -a -block with historical wonders, amongst others a Roman Necropolis and theatre ( lovely little free museum) and a lovely old town wall with ancient gates that reminded us of Jerusalem.

The visit to the Roman Necropolis and theatre , a 15 minute walk from the Juderia ,was lots of fun as there were several groups of schoolkids on trips there, dressed as Romans reenacting various historical scenes with explanations by guides dressed as centurions. It was all rather endearing and the museum guides were extremely helpful too. WE thoroughly enjoyed our days in Carmona, and finished our trip with wonderful tapas at Bar Goya next to the main square of the Juderia. And with this our amazing time in Andalusia drew to an end. Our sense of the sheer amount of heritage and history in this area was incredible. Now I feel I need to do some more reading up to absorb what we have seen. Stay tuned for next adventure!

The splendor of Andalusia Part 1

Plaza de Espana, Seville

This trip was something of a dream, as the places we visited had been on my mind for some time, and originally I had wanted to visit them by train from Madrid. However, with concerns of Covid 19, we opted for a road trip of 16 days, to give each place its due. We flew into Seville, with an 8 hour layover in Zurich (which became a feature not a bug, as our son would say) and spent 4 days there sans car, then picked up the car, and continued on to El Gastor, Malaga, Granada, Cordoba and finished off in Carmona. The timing worked out very well. All these destinations are well worth a few days. So onward!

Seville was charming and everything that we had hoped for, despite (or maybe because of) being invaded by hordes of Scottish and German football fans. The Scots, who at first seemed belligerent, turned out to be harmless, nay friendly! We high fived them and cheered them and it was all good fun.

Scots fan encountered on top of Las Setas

One morning we couldn’t get out of our apartment door for the never ending stream of fans passing by in the narrow street. The only way was to join and march along with them, cheering. It was a fun experience. So in Seville apart from ambling around the ancient streets we visited the impressive Alcazar with its splendid gardens, the not so impressive Triana market, the lovely promenade along the river with the Torre de Oro, Plaza de Espana and gardens, the Metropol Parasol, otherwise known as the Setas (Mushrooms), best viewed towards nightfall for a wonderful panorama over the city. We also attended the obligatory flamenco show (most enjoyable) and sampled our first amazing tapas. Our trip was off to a splendid start and the Air bnb we picked was well placed in walking distance of the Setas.

We then headed for the Santa Justa train station full of dejected Rangers fans, and picked up our car (was supposed to be a tiny Fiat 500) . The car rental people insisted we could not have that car as our luggage would not fit in the boot, and this would result in a fine from the police if stopped. Never mind, we said we will risk it. The upgrade was too expensive. When we went down to the lot to pick up the car we were presented with a massive VW. No, I said that isn’t our car. Yes it is, she said. We don’t want to pay for an upgrade, we insisted. Mismo precio (same price) she said. She phoned the office and repeated this. Okay we said. Got in said car and drove off for our next wonderful destination- El Gastor.

Now I am sure you have never heard of this one. Neither had I till I researched the area around Ronda. I knew I wanted to visit the “pueblos blancos” , the famous white towns clustered around Ronda, of which there are many. It was hard to know which one to pick as a base. Until I came across Lesley and Terry’s “Casa de las Flores“. That had to be the one. You see why.

The lovely Lesley and Terry from the UK met us outside the local church in the tiny two street town, after having sent a map to show us where to park. The place was perfect as was El Gastor, quiet and gorgeous and with friendly people who smile and say good morning. It was the best place to tour around the white towns. I had planned to do some hiking in the gorgeous countryside around, but the temperatures of 35C and over did not really suit. We did visit aforementioned Ronda, as well as Zahara de la Sierra and the incredible Setenil de las Bodegas too. But really there are many options for interesting tours around the region.

It is hard to capture the stunning beauty of each of these places. There are so many white towns you just have to pick a few.

After the three lovely nights in El Gastor we continued on to our next stop, two nights in Malaga. Here we were lucky enough to stay with Pablo de Michael, the charming host at Patio de Arance. Fortunate in that when I was pickpocketed , losing the key to the apartment he came to our rescue in a short time and all was well. He also gave us a lovely map of the city and some recommendations of what to see and do. Despite the theft we had a great couple of days walking along the promenade and wandering in downtown which felt a bit like a Spanish version of Tel Aviv. The beach did not overly impress but we did eat a marvellous curry one night. The highlight was a visit to the Picasso museum of Malaga. Very little remains of the Jewish “Juderia” but there are a few pretty streets of boutiques and restaurants you can wander around.

I think this is the place to take a breather before we continue on our way to Granada, Cordoba and Carmona, all historical heavyweights. Stay tuned!

Soaring with the Eagles

Camel shaped ridge which gives the site its name

We had been planning a spring trip up north before the summer heat arrives and all the flowers wilt. Having waited a few weeks for the rains to stop, so the paths would not be muddy, we finally made it out again up north to see the rushing water in the waterfalls, the high level of the Kinneret ( Sea of Galilee) and the abundance of wildflowers. I deliberated a little about which waterfall to visit- should we go back to the Dan, the Tanur or the Snir? But then the highest waterfall in the country beckoned- the majestic Gamla National Park, which we had never been to before.

It’s over 2 hours’ drive to get up to the park from the centre of the country, and we had meant to get an early start. However since we only left home at 8, we arrived there a little after 10.30, having decided to avoid the toll road no. 6. On arrival we were a little dismayed to see a large number of tour buses parked, due to a whole school trip of 10th graders visiting the site. But once inside we found it was easy enough to spread out and avoid the noisy throngs. The site itself boasts several interesting features. Firstly there is the Eagle lookout point, from which one can observe the various kinds of raptors – the griffon vulture, Egyptian vulture and snake eagle. These birds all nest within the park and are looked after by the park ornithologists, who protect the nesting birds and have a breeding program which protects the eggs and releases the newly hatched chicks into the wild. The observation point gives a fantastic view over the valley where the birds nest in the cliff face, and all the way down to the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret). It is an awesome location, hard to capture in my humble mobile phone.

Misty Kinneret

The next site is the ancient Second Temple period town of Gamla, and the ruins of the Christian village of Dir Keruh. There is not a lot to see here, but there is a multilingual audio guide telling the story of the ancient site in a very accessible way, aimed at kids, but quite cute.

From here you can walk to the Daliyot Stream and along the path to the actual waterfall. On the way you pass some interesting dolmens.

Dir Keruh village
Dolmen

The walk to the actually waterfall is gorgeous. There were loads of scattered wildflowers and the air was warm and balmy. It was pretty straightforward at the beginning and mostly flat, although some parts were muddy and involved finding ways around the mud puddles. Then there was a sharp descent to a bridge over the river itself and a bit of a scramble up the other side to the top of the cliff to see the height of the waterfall drop in all its 51 metre glory.

The whole walk was probably only about 4 kilometres, but we took it very slowly and enjoyed it immensely. As we came back down, there was a guy sitting near the bridge who did not want to continue up to the top of the Falls; we told him he was missing out. The sheer drop and the craggy quality of the surrounding cliffs are hard for non photographers to capture. Added bonus was glimpse of the snow capped Hermon mountains in the far distance (too hazy to photograph)

Picture does not do justice to the view

We had thought we would continue on to another waterfall, but we still had a long drive back home and were satisfied with what we had seen. We went down to the Sea of Galilee and walked a little along the shoreline, but the visibility was poor. So after eating our sandwiches and finishing off with a nice ice cream we set off for home. It was a long but very satisfying day. Stay tuned for the next trip.

A Fascinating and special visit

I had read something about this Botanical Gardens online but never met anyone who had actually been there. It was only a 20 minute drive away so when the sun came out we decided it looked like a cool place to visit. Called the Emek Hefer Ornamental Gardens, I would say this is a bit of a misnomer in English because “ornamental” suggests something more tame and cultivated. These gardens were created in 1949 to make a large collection and storage area for every kind of tree and plant that might be suitable to grow in the country. At that time the pioneers and early settlers coming to the Holy Land knew very little about the soil and climate of this area, and did not really know which plants would succeed here and which were unsuitable. So they made this place as a sort of lab to research which trees and flowers would thrive here. On arrival at the gardens we got a free introduction to the place with Tomer, one of the volunteers, who gave us a short history and then presented us with a large folder of information, and told us to go around on our own. We had his phone number if we should need any other help. The place is pretty large and divided into different areas according to different varieties of plant- succulents, deciduous etc, but there are also areas like little allotments where local students grow seedlings and herbs. Also many workshops on plant identification and growing techniques are conducted here.

Entry to the place is free of charge.

The place was beautiful and very varied. We loved the massive cacti and the extremely old trees too.

Some of the trees were very ancient. Here is the most ancient tree in the country,Prosopis Alba , the Argentine Mesquite

Argentine Mesquite

We meandered around the 50 dunams of the park, enjoying the solitude and quiet, and saw only a few other visitors. I think we will be back there soon, especially as D is thinking about volunteering there.

I can’t identify all the flowers and plants, maybe you can.

I think it’s a highly recommended visit if you are in the area. The gardens are open every day from 9-13 and on Saturdays till 14.00 and entrance and parking are free of charge.

Up the Canaanites!

Remains of a tower

Last blog was in November, as we don’t seem to have done a whole lot, except short hikes in the forests, looking for flowers (found plenty, especially in Ben Shemen, Yakum and Rosh Ha’Ayin ). But yesterday, since rain is forecast from tomorrow for an indefinite period, we decided to take advantage of the wonderful winter sunshine to head off to Ashkelon National Park, which we have not visited in a very long time. Having renewed our pass when we were up in Bar’am, ( did I not blog that one? Oops!) we could just swan in for free as usual. However, on arrival at the gate, there seemed to be some kind of computer mishap, as the man in front of us sat in his car waiting for a ticket for rather a long time. Finally we got in and started to drive around the ring road that circles the park, stopping at the different sites. The day was glorious and the place nigh on deserted, except for a preponderance of workmen. They seem to be revamping the whole place. (And a quick Google reveals this to be the case

The first stop was the church of Santa Maria, or what’s left of it. Despite being pretty much in ruins, the site is very imposing, and you can climb up the steps next to it and get a view of the sea and the remains of the 12th century Crusader wall. Of course Ashkelon is an ancient city which was home to many different civilisations, the ancient Canaanites, the Philistines, Byzantines, Muslims, Ottomans and Crusaders.

We continued on to the oldest arched tunnel in the world, a Middle Bronze Age gate said to date from 1850 BC. It has of course been reconstructed, but the site is most impressive and you can see the rampart walls, the Roman basilica and lots of broken columns and other bits lying around, which I assume are in the process of being restored.

Ancient Arch

From the arch you can walk up a slope which takes you to a fantastic lookout point over the sea, giving you a really good sense of how the ancients knew where to build their cities. History buffs can of course read more about the details of all the archeological finds here . Suffice it to say that the major finds from the site now reside in the Israel Museum, but the impression we got is that a lot of work is now under way at the site, and it may well be worth a return trip in the near future, to see what else has been restored.

View from the top

After eating our sandwiches on a lovely bench in the overnight campsite part of the park we decided to head to the promenade of modern Ashkelon, where we wanted to do a bit of promenading and then catch the sunset. This proved to be an extremely good move. The weather was glorious, the views spectacular and the people of Ashkelon were out walking their dogs and running, but not in hordes. We had a quick ice cream on the prom and admired the whale statue which is in fact a kids’ slide. We also liked the bench which doubles as a lending library, and the sofas which are modern art.

Next we headed to the marina which was full of people eating and drinking in the many restaurants, and where we found a most wonderful hotdog in a place called Captain Hot Dog, manned by a charming Russian girl. We enjoyed this while sitting and admiring the view. When the sun started to go down we headed back up the hill to the promenade. As soon as the sun had set it became very cold so we headed home after a really refreshing day. Ashkelon, we shall return.

Sunset over Ashkelon Marina

The Deep South

The lowest art gallery on earth

I have never been a big fan of Eilat- the glitzy, southern town of Israel on the Red Sea, bordered by Egypt to the South and Jordan to the East. It has always seemed a bit like the Israeli version of Southend (with, admittedly much better weather ).

The last time we visited was in 2009. It is the stuff of shiny tax-free shopping, people frying themselves on the beach and then retreating to their package deal hotels and swimming pools before they hit the noisy nightclubs. Definitely not my thing. But then last year it was arranged that there was to be a reunion of WUJS , the movement that brought me to Israel back in 1979. The members coming from abroad would stay at the Ketura Kibbutz guest house, a 20 minute drive from Eilat, and would come together for various activities and meetups. We all booked rooms hoping that Covid would be over by November 2021. And then it wasn’t. Tourism only opened up here on November 1, by which time the overseas attendees had cancelled their rooms. But we kept ours, since the hosts in Ketura, Avigail and Noah , are great friends of ours, whom we have stayed in touch with over the years. So we decided not to cancel our booking and to spend a couple of days down south. On the way down to the Kibbutz I wanted to stop off at the Dead Sea, a bona fide tourist spot, being the lowest point on the planet, boasting unique geological features and a strange climate said to be good for various ailments and thus popularised by health tourism. It’s another place I don’t visit often.

We drove down to the Dead Sea, wondering as the scenery changed from our Sharon green, with its citrus groves and then through the green wooded hills of the Jerusalem area, and suddenly morphing into the desert scenery south of Jerusalem, before the true biblical desert area around Kalia, our first stop at the Dead Sea.

Our first point of call was the so called minus 430 Gallery, which is not exactly an art gallery in the traditional sense of the word. The self declared lowest art gallery on Earth is actually an impromptu gallery of graffiti art, on a bunch of abandoned buildings. Originally these buildings were barracks of the Jordanian army, which abandoned the buildings after the Six Day war, and were then occupied by Dead Sea Industry workers. They too abandoned them, and various artists moved in to decorate them. And they are actually rather fetching I think.

Each artist has a different style and message, and the stark contrast with the blue sky and the desolate landscape is really quite striking. I assume that, like all graffiti, these images are constantly changing. In any case it was all rather interesting. We met a pair of Austrian tourists on their way from Bethlehem to Jericho, and chatted a little with them, since we had just returned from 10 days in Austria, and discovered that coincidentally, one was from the Kitzbuhel area and the other from Graz! (see previous post)

As one heads on down south, the mountains tower over the road in ever changing strange shapes and caves, including the Qumran caves where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found. You can see all manner of strange figures, including the supposed shape of the Biblical Lot’s wife, turned into a pillar of salt. The Dead Sea area is constantly changing, and the sea is shrinking. In recent years the salt deposits have formed strange mushroom shapes in the sea, very popular among the Instagram crowd. We stopped off at the beach behind the Herod’s Hotel, which has a large free beach with sunshades and chairs, and also showers and toilets. The whole area has many more hotels than last time we were there, and has a nice promenade running the length of the northern part of the sea.

Herods beach

After spending a peaceful few hours sitting by the Dead Sea and reading we continued on to Kibbutz Ketura to check in and meet our friends Avigail and Noah for dinner in the kibbutz communal dining room and chat at their place over tea until bedtime.

Next day we got up and set off for Eilat and the Red (not Dead) Sea. We decided to go to the Coral Beach, which is part of the Nature Reserve and therefore requires sign up but doesn’t cost any money entrance if you have your Matmon Nature parks card (which we do). The beach is very quiet and has a lifeguard and shaded areas, free plastic chairs, toilets and a kiosk. There is a roped off area you can swim and snorkel in without disturbing the coral.You can also do diving courses nearby. It is apparently a very famous place for snorkelling and diving (about which I know very little). It is rather cool to see the mountains of Jordan opposite. We even saw a Jordanian flag in the distance.

After spending a very pleasant day on the Coral beach, we wandered around in Eilat town. If you are so inclined you can rent a glass bottomed boat, or visit the Underwater Observatory, or even swim with dolphins. We did none of these but we did book a place in The Last Refuge fish restaurant, recommended to us by Noah, and very splendid it was too.

The next morning after meeting Avigail for breakfast and saying goodbye, we checked out and headed for home. But on the way we stopped off at a kibbutz called Neot Smadar, which I had heard of and even seen a documentary about. The documentary had made me most curious, but I understood that the current kibbutz is now completely different to what I had seen in said documentary. The place now houses about 200 people, who mostly do art and make cheeses and wines. The arts centre is open to the public for a small fee. You cannot just drive in though. You have to call a number from the gate and fill in a payment form and then you can enter. I think they just don’t want strangers barging into their kibbutz, which is fair enough. They also do various residential art workshops. The place was quite extraordinary and very photogenic. We had a guided tour of the Arts centre complete with short video explaining the history of the place, the winery and saw the goats. It was very enjoyable.

We then drove home “tired but full of impressions” as the Israelis say. The deep south was certainly interesting.

Stay tuned for our next adventure, now the summer heat has broken and rain is on the way…

Austria Part 3- the last leg

Splendid Graz

There is always a point at the beginning of the trip when you feel like it stretches endlessly ahead of you, and then you blink and it’s nearly over. This happened as we sadly left our wonderful guesthouse in Kirschberg and headed towards Graz. We would spend two nights in Graz before spending the last night near the airport, as we had an early flight. Another consideration was getting our PCR test 72 hours prior to the flight home; I figured that being in a city would make that easier to achieve.

Another consideration for staying in Graz was a chance to meet a Facebook friend. Marjorie and I somehow became friends, through mutual acquaintances in the FB English teachers’ community and I thought that having a local show us around would be fun. So we would spend our first day exploring alone and the second day we would meet her. How exciting to meet someone you have only chatted to on the Internet, right? Anyway we arrived in Graz and headed to my first address for getting the free PCR. There was nothing at the address.. nada.. zilch. Ok we’ll head for the next one- a shopping mall called Murpark. After finding the way in to the parking lot we easily found the testing centre. Sadly, though, and contrary to my information, this test was only free for locals, not for tourists. There was a free testing centre, the nice lad said, but it was somewhere downtown, where we would need to pay for parking. Never mind, we decided to get the stupid test done, despite the cost and get it over with. I really wanted to get the result back before we left Graz. The lad very kindly escorted us to the pharmacy where we had to pay, which was in another part of the mall, and waited with us to take us back again. A half hour later it was done and dusted so we headed back to the car park and thence to the wonderful NH City Graz, recommended by Marjorie. Slap bang in the centre of old Graz, and with a half price parking arrangement.

We settled in to our room and then went out to explore the town. A few minutes’ walk from the hotel we found what D was to refer to as “hot dog square”, the main Hauptplatz, with all the wonderful historic buildings and little alleyways. We found a splendid place to eat dinner too- a little Italian place where we had excellent pizza and pasta, and a fine glass of wine. I don’t remember the name but there are lots of lovely little restaurants just off the main square. It was even warm enough to sit outside.

The next morning we were going to explore some more, before meeting Marjorie for the afternoon, to get our insiders’ view of Graz. We kicked off with a splendid breakfast in the park right behind our hotel, at a splendid place called Das Promenade

Breakfast at Das Promenade

We then decided to head towards the river, which is always a good thing to do in a city. So we walked gradually in that direction, admiring the wonderful buildings all around, till we reached the river, and crossed over a bridge, past the very strange Art museum building, to the area near the Mariahilferkirche. We enjoyed the walk, the views and the whole ambiance. There was lots to see and enjoy- the area across the bridge felt more laid-back, studenty and offbeat than the downtown area near the hotel. We also enjoyed walking across the Murinsel, a strange floating structure in the middle of the river.

We found a little market square and then as we turned back to the river direction again, we saw the incredible sight of the Uhrturm, the medieval clock tower perched up above the town, and knew we had to climb up. Well, it’s only 260 steps up after all, not much to get a splendid view of the town on such a beautiful day, right?

The climb was really not bad at all, with lots of places to pause and revel in the fantastic view.

We had just reached the top when Marjorie texted to say she was on her way over. Perfect timing. We made our way back down (it seemed a lot easier than up) and in 10 minutes we were back at the hotel- D even managed to get his sought after hotdog, in “hotdog square” of course. He pronounced it “okay, but not as good as the Viennese one”.

We met up with Marjorie in the hotel lobby and she then very kindly took us to see some interesting spots around town. First we saw an inscription in Hebrew of a 14th century tombstone ( of the the merchant Rabbi Nissim bar Aharon who died in 1387 ) on the wall of the federal government building.

Tombstone

Next we saw the famous double staircase in the municipal buildings. And then we stepped inside the magnificent Graz cathedral with its baroque interior.

Then we took a lovely walk through the park, which was really lovely, stepping in to a few lovely courtyards along the way. We really enjoyed Graz very much, and can totally see why Marjorie enjoys living there.

We had a short walk around town again the next morning before departing to our extremely odd airport hotel, the Moxy which was more like a cross between a youth hostel and a “house of ill repute” than an airport hotel. I understand it was trying to cater to the young, hispter crowd. I found it loud,both in volume and decor, and the room had some kind of weird mauve disco lights on the side tables and even under the bed, with a huge screen tv, but no telephone, complimentary soap or kettle. In the morning at 6am when we departed, one lift had a “do not use sign ” on it but refused to stop going up and down, whilst the other one refused to move at all. Despite all these faults, it was 800 m walk to the airport terminal, so that was fine.I omitted to mention a slight scare we had on returning our car to the extremely patient Gabor. First we could not find how to drive into the hotel car park where we had arranged to meet him, so I texted him that we would deliver the car in the Billa supermarket parking lot. Then after we found him, D seemed to think he had lost his mobile phone, only to discover after a frantic 30 minute search (in which we BOTH failed to see it) , it was retrieved lurking under the dashboard all along. All’s well that ends well, eh?

Going home

Up, Up and away Part 2

From Kitzbuhel onwards to Carinthia….

Before leaving Kitzbuhel we visited a waterfall within the Hohe Tauern National park called the Krimml Falls. I underestimated the size of this national park, and thought we would just drive to the park, walk in and take a short hike. This park, however is enormous, and stretches over the whole of the Tyrol area, and there are hundreds of entrances. We went to an information centre and asked where we could do a nice hike in the region, and got a lovely hiking map all in German with lots of sites marked on it. The nice girl there told us that the Krimml Falls were only a short drive away and we could go there. The Falls were indeed only a half hour drive away and we had a lovely morning hiking up to the top of the falls and down again, only meeting one group of Israeli kids (from Jerusalem) en route.

It was a a splendid day. And we were also greeted by this interesting sign at the end:

At the Krimml Falls

And so after two lovely days in the Kitbuhel area we set off to our next stop, Heiligenblut am Grossglockner, a very small village (pop. 1,020) a mere 131 km drive from the Kitz Garni hotel. Or so I thought. To say I had not done this part of the homework well would be a gross understatement. You see, I checked the distance, and the driving time according to Google maps, an easy two hours and four minutes. Add onto that resting time, eating etc I figured it would be a doddle to get to the hotel, especially when checkout is 9 am. Well here’s the thing. The road, innocently labelled B107, also has another name- the High Alpine Road. Ah, so there we have it- two key words, “high” and “alpine”. And after we had been driving for about an hour, (when I say “we” I of course mean D and not me) I observed casually that the road ahead looked rather windy. (as in bendy, not with high winds, thank goodness). This turned out to be something of an understatement. We then arrived at a toll gate. The nice lady said we had to pay 27.50 Euro. But we have already paid our highway toll pass to the rental company , we informed her confidently. No, she said this road is “special” not a highway. Not included in your pass. Then she glanced at our tires and said “But you don’t have winter tires”. This should have been a clear message to us. We are just getting to our hotel, we said, in Heiligenblut. This is the road that leads there. Is there another way? Yes, she said helpfully, 3.5 hours around the mountain. Can we drive the road without winter tires? Well, she said, there is snow on the road, you will have to drive carefully. We drove carefully. Very, very carefully. The road was spectacular. Fortunately we had started our journey very early in the morning. We managed to get to Heiligenblut at 4pm. Yes, you got it. We drove 131 km and it took us approximately 7 hours. It was worth it. The views were unforgettable. It was a little hard to capture in the photos, because of the endless curves up and down the mountain. The signposts continually told us the height, and I believe the maximum was over 2,700 m.

I really find it difficult to give you a clear idea of the view at the top of this Alpine Road. It was just 360 degrees of astonishing scenery. At the very top there is an observation point where you can rest and catch your breath. Ideally you should be stopping at all the points mentioned in the audio visual guide. But then the drive would really take all day and we wanted to get to our hotel before nightfall. As a general rule in Austria it appeared one should get where one is going around 4-5 pm if one wanted any supper. So for more views of the pass you can probably find a Youtube video or a webcam. But nothing can of course capture the splendor like seeing it with your own eyes.

And so we reached Landhaus Alpenrose Heiligenblut, which I had booked for three nights, thinking it would be a great place to hike, relax and have a rest from driving. (which of course was pretty necessary after the road leading there) . The village possessed a church, two restaurants (one right under the church) a ski lift and a small minimarket. C’est tout. It was tiny and quiet and surrounded by green meadows and towering snowy peaks. Fabulous we thought. There was one other family consisting of a Hungarian couple and their elderly mother. The landlady at checkin said something in weird English about the heating that I didn’t quite grasp, except for the word “kaput”. I assumed that the previous guest had had some trouble which had then been fixed. After all she would not be putting us in a room with no heating in October, right? On arrival in our huge apartment, (living room, double bedroom and kids’ room with bunks) we discovered that the living room radiator worked, the bathroom heater worked but the bedroom heater did not. She had thought it was fine to just leave the doors between the rooms open and let the heat circulate. We immediately contacted the owner (by Skype message- there was no phone in the room) and informed them that this was unacceptable. The husband appeared with his teenage son as a translator, schlepping an electric fan heater which stank and made a whirring noise. I informed him via his interpreter that this was no good. He returned with an electric radiator and said it would be fine. It was ok and the next day when we came back the heater was gone which we took to be a sign that the heating had been fixed (which it had).

Fortunately for us both restaurants in the village were great, but one was greater than the other. Plainly put, Casa Antica was the restaurant of my dreams. We ate there three times and everything was perfect. They had about 30 different types of pizza on the menu, and various salads and pasta dishes all better than anything I have eaten in Italy. The chocolate profiteroles… well you can imagine. And the wine was also wonderful. This was just as well because there was nothing else open on the Sunday for miles around. One day we spent just exploring the area around the village, walking along the river bank and enjoying encounters with the rural inhabitants. One day we spent driving into nearby Lienz and visiting a castle, and moseying along the banks of the Drava River. It was all extremely picturesque and charming.

After three wonderful days in this peaceful place it was time to move to our next stop, Feldkirschen in Carinthia, where we would stay only one night at the incredible Erlebnishaus Spiess Guesthouse, possibly the most wonderful place we have ever stayed. A more comfortable, welcoming guest house for such a modest price you cannot hope to find. I instantly wished we had taken 3 nights here and only one in the previous place, but hindsight is such a useful thing, isn’t it. From the initial welcome by the kindly Melitta and Manfred and their daughter and granddaughter, we felt at home. Everything was super comfortable and clean and the guest house had cows right across the road, and a stunning view.

So now it’s time to take a breather before we continue on to the city of Graz. Stay tuned!

Up, up and away! (at last) Part 1 The Lakes and Kitzbuhel

After being grounded by this wretched virus since November 2019, and armed with our certificates in two languages proclaiming our thrice vaxxed status, we finally braved an international jaunt. The destination was chosen using totally different criteria than PC. (Pre Corona) travel . In the past I had always gone for slightly edgy, off the beaten track destinations and a chance to hang with locals. This time a short flight with no connections, and a country with a high rate of vaccination and where covid distancing rules would be observed seemed a good idea. Austria- a small country, with lots of nature, lakes and mountains, seemed like a good option. This trip we would be avoiding museums, concerts, pubs and other crowded venues, so sadly we decided to avoid Salzburg (we had already visited Vienna in a previous trip) . I know it seems insane to go to Austria and avoid those two wonderful cities, but with public transportation off the table, and no visiting of cultural institutions there didn’t seem to be any point in venturing into those places.

Sitting in the plane waiting for takeoff I felt as excited as a first time flier, and realized how I had missed that feeling. The flight passed quickly, and except for the horrid food ( compared to previous flights in recent years) did not seem different at all, despite wearing a ffp2 mask, as required by Austrian Airlines.

Our route was to be a sort of ellipse beginning and ending at Vienna International Airport, via the city of Graz (more on this later) but without entering the city of Vienna at all. We would stay at various places in the towns of Gmunden, Kitzbuhel, Heiligenblut, Feldkirschen and Graz. We collected our rental car from the wonderful Abrix Slovakian rental agency recommended by my friend Rachel, whose employees were indeed very helpful and efficient. The guy was waiting outside the McDonalds as promised. We then set off for our first stop at the pretty town of Gmunden on the lake called Traunsee. The idea was to go round several lakes in this area before headed up to the Tyrol the next day.

Gmunden was divine, if deserted due to the season. We walked around the lake and met a local fellow who was most excited that we were from Israel, since he turned out to be some kind of Jehovah’s witness. But not the pushy kind. He was chatty insofar as his English permitted. We wandered around the lake area enjoying the scenery and then became peckish. There was no food to be had anywhere, except at the hotel restaurant where we were staying, the lovely Seehotel Schwann right on the lake itself. So we ate there, and enjoyed the view some more. I was a little sad we were staying there only one night. But the Tyrol beckoned. Next morning we departed Gmunden and headed up to the Tirol where we would stay a couple of nights in Kitzbuhel, well known for its skiing pistes and swanky crowd, but of course not in October .The plan to visit a number of lakes on the way was somewhat sabotaged by the heavy rain that fell next day almost non stop. However it meant that all the lakes we saw were extremely misty, and frankly, once you’ve seen one misty lake, you’ve seen them all. At one point we attempted to buy some soda water at a grocery store, but the grocery store that Google maps directed us to turned out to be a dairy. There was a machine to buy milk or yoghurt, but nothing else. A man in white wearing galoshes appeared, and pointed to the cows sitting quietly nearby. We realized that the cows probably did not sell cold water, ( He did offer to fill a milk bottle with water) and so we drove on.

Main square of Gmunden, right outside hotel

The hotel I had picked for Kitzbuhel, the Kitz Garni , was just outside the town, and we were the only guests I think. It also had a sauna. The views out the window and all around the hotel were just sublime. It was just … PASTORAL to the extreme. The lady in reception told us that she had made her traditional Tyrolean costume herself, during corona times.

We had planned to go up on the ski lifts and look at the magnificent peaks, but as the skies were still really cloudy we wouldn’t have had very good visibility so we just drove around a few villages and enjoyed the magnificent peaks and cute little villages with their typical Tyrolean wooden facades and copious geraniums. The town of Kitzbuhel itself was also rather charming, with lots of great architecture.

There were lots of statues and signs on the buildings showing the symbol of the town, the mountain ibex, and most houses also seemed to have antlers on their facades. In fact, cows and sheep were far more prevalent than humans. Also everything seemed to shut down around 5pm. We quickly figured out that if we wanted anything to eat we would have to get it fairly early on in the evening. Everything is geared to the tourist season, so off season, many places were just closed (or maybe Covid has had its effect too).

Facade in centre of Kitzbuhel shopping street

The whole area was just so wonderful. Everywhere the snow capped mountains rose up at the end of the road, and every view was more stunning than the one before. The scenery is just breath taking. There were waterfalls and rivers on all sides.

We got lost a few times just going up village roads at random, so I can’t actually tell you which villages we saw, but I think they are all absolutely gorgeous, so I don’t think it matters a whole lot. I think just picking a direction and looking around is the way to go. You are not looking to tick places off your tourist map. The whole area IS the destination.You can also accidentally drive over into Germany without noticing and nobody will ask for your passport or your covid certificate.

Thus ends part 1. The continuation towards our next stop at the village of Heiligenblut was a little “eventful”, so it will wait for part 2. Stay tuned!