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…

Going all Crusader

This trip was supposed to be a long hike from Montfort castle down to Nahal Kziv and back again and then on to Yehiam Fortress. But I underestimated the difficulty of the hike down into the wadi and also it turned out to be an 8 or 9 km round trip. So we ended up doing only the hike down from Mitzpe Hila Car Park to Montfort and back up again. This, although only about 3 km took us an inordinately long time, but we still had time to press on to Yehiam for lunch and then catch the (early winter) sunset on the new promenade at Nahariya before we headed home. In any case there was no water in the stream so we will leave it for next time.

Montfort is really quite impressive as you suddenly glimpse it from the descending trail, as it is surrounded by lovely wooded hills and the Mediterranean sea can just be glimpsed on the horizon. They really knew where to put their castles in those days. The trail down to the castle is a bit steep and strewn with rocks, tricky for those of us with knee concerns but fine for the younguns. The path is gorgeous and with every twist and turn we see the ruins from another angle. If you do continue down toNahal Kziv you can apparently climb back up on a circular route by following the black trail. But all along the way we met fellow hikers who wanted to know how far it was and how steep the path was. So we were not the only people who hesitated whether to press on or go back up. In any case the views were just stunning and the air perfumed with pine and fig.

After a bit of clambering around on the ruins, and ascending to the top part,where you get a stunning view all around, we headed back up to the parking lot and thence to our next stop Yehiam castle, next to Kibbutz Yehiam. This is a national park so requires preregistration and payment if you don’t have a membership. It has a lovely picnic area with lots of tables where you can consume your sandwiches. The lady at the ticket booth told us there is a short video at a quarter to of each hour.

Actually Yehiam is chock full of history, because as well as being a Crusader, Ottoman castle it is also the site where battles were fought by the first pioneers who inhabited the fledgling kibbutz at the establishment of the state in 1948, 42 of whom were killed while defending the place during the War of Independence. The short video was nothing to write home about but maybe good for kids..

We then drove the 20 minutes to the city of Nahariya which boasts a splendid Tayelet or Promenade along the sea front complete with fishermen and ice cream shops, the restaurants and bars being unfortunately closed due to covid. The ice cream was great as was the sunset.

Ancient Caves and Olive trees- Bet Guvrin

Olive groves around the site

This week we visited another National Park and UNESCO Heritage site, the Caves in Bet Guvrin the ancient town of Tel Maresha, just south of Jerusalem. The last time I had been to this place was to attend a concert in the largest cave, the Bell Cave ( in the days when we still had live music concerts) when we still lived in Jerusalem, and I didn’t actually visit any of the other caves here . All I remembered was that the site was quite extensive, and the acoustics inside the cave were fantastic.

Map of the site

So we set off to visit the caves, unfortunately not getting off to our usual early start. After hitting a huge traffic jam on the way we arrived at the park (reserved online ahead of time) at after 11.00. The map we got from the ticket booth showed us the different caves spread out at the site started with Parking Lot Alef through to Heh, in other words, 5 parking lots. Since we only remembered the Bell Cave at the last parking lot we decided to start with the first lot and work through, thinking that we could always come back on another day if we didn’t see them all (since we are currently tourists in our own land.) In the end we saw pretty much the whole site except for the Amphitheatre at Parking lot Heh. WE drove from one lot to the next, although if you wanted to you could hike the whole thing, At the end of the first lot there is a path leading you to the next one, and so on. But you would need more time and stamina than we had available. Note that the whole site closes at 4pm in winter.Walking between the caves is very pleasant as you have lovely views over the whole area.

The first two caves were called the Polish and the Columbarium caves. In both you could see the niches built to house the pigeons used by the inhabitants for various purposes, from ceremonial to sources of foods. It was tricky going down some of the stairs, but everything was well lit. Columbarium is obviously because of the pigeons or doves but why Polish cave?

“During World War II, Polish soldiers from General Wladyslaw Anders’ army – which was loyal to the Polish government in exile in London – visited this cave. They carved the figure 1943 (the year of their visit) into the pillar, along with an inscription: “Warsaw, Poland” and an eagle, the symbol of the Polish army.” ( From https://www.israel-in-photos.com/bet-guvrin-national-park.html)

From here we continued on to the next parking lot and the Olive Press Cave, where we saw how the olives were pressed to extract the precious oil.

The next caves were the villa and the Maze caves. The villa is not that impressive but the Maze is crazy, like being inside an Escher drawing. The steps go up and down and twist around, and at one point there is a pool you could theoretically walk through but the water didn’t look very tempting to us. The cave is far bigger inside than I realized as we went down.

Maze cave

The last caves which were really impressive were the Sidonian and the aforementioned Bell Cave. But first we were going to stop and eat our sandwiches. However, when we reached the two Sidonian caves there was a large cavalcade of cars of a group travelling together and no place to sit. So we continued on to the Bell Cave, first having our sandwich break. The Bell Cave is massive and seems to be inhabited by a large number of birds and bats (which I could hear but not see) This cave is the largest, has limestone walls, and is the only one which is easily accessible. The hole in the roof was how the quarried rocks were removed.

We then doubled back to see the Sidonian burial Caves, one of which was unfortunately closed, but the one that was open was really impressive with wonderful paintings (restored in 1993) These were used to bury the Greek, Sidonian and Edomite inhabitants.

It was now 3.45pm and the park was closing in 15 minutes, but we had made it, and seen the whole site except for the Amphitheatre, which we shall leave for another trip.

Hope you enjoyed it, see you on our next trip……

A traveller at home

Nearly all of my posts here are about travel to other countries. But what is there to stop us being tourists at home too? Looking at places in our own country with that carefree, curious eye as we do when we travel? This got me thinking that maybe I should also post about places at home in Israel, which other travellers would enjoy. The occasion was afforded when we hosted friends  Fiona and Anton from Krakow who just stayed with us for a few days. We wanted very much to show them the country. They spent a few days in Eilat and Jerusalem before coming up  here and had glorious weather. It was just our luck that the day they arrived here the temperatures dropped and it became cold and extremely windy. Undaunted, we decided to take them to visit Caesarea, a Roman city with a fascinating history that is only 30 minutes drive from our house.  I reasoned that if the rain was too strong we could visit the Rali Museum there too. I had never been to this museum but it was free, open on Saturday and was reputed to have a wonderful collection of Spanish and South American art as well as a lot of Salvador Dali sculptures.

The museum was indeed wonderful and had a wealth of interesting pieces. I will definitely return as we didn’t have time to see everything, because we also wanted to visit the Roman Aqueduct and Amphitheatre located in the Caesarea national park. As we arrived at the Aqueduct we were assaulted by gale force winds, making it practically impossible to stand up straight. But it was all worth it to see the impressive waves beating the rocks around the aqueduct. It was a very impressive place. From there we continued to the National park.

The National park houses a multimedia museum and impressive Roman amphitheatre and an extensive site of the once resplendent city port built by Herod in around 25 BCE. It is well worth the entry fee, and the port area is full of shops and restaurants which we didn’t try due to the aforementioned stormy weather. We did however enjoy the short audiovisual presentation which explains a bit of the history and was in English and Hebrew (with Chinese subtitles). Usually you can walk along from the main site to the amphitheatre which is still used for huge rock concerts, but the road is currently damaged from recent flooding, so it’s just a 5 minute drive along.

So if you are into archeology  you should definitely look up this place.

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A great Day at the museum

Had a really good class today at the museum.The first part was about the use of the written word in Art,(I think it is called Conceptual Art ) and we saw works by people like Barbara Kruger, and we discussed the changes in women’s status since the beginning of the century (Virginia Woolf etc of course!)

Then came the really good bit. We had a talk from a young artist called Ariel Malca who has a new exhibit in the Shrine of the Book.It is a little hard to describe,but uses biblical texts moving over a landscape to convey the idea of the journey made by the Children of Israel on their way to the the land of Israel.That sounds crap but you really have to see what he did.Anyway we ended up talking about the lack of boundaries today between the different disciplines, since he doesn’t have any formal training ,either as an artist or as a techie. It was really cool.

Anyway when I got home I looked up some of the stuff including Barbara Kruger, and found a lot of really great stuff which I ‘d love to use in class. Maybe I will .

The ones that really caught my eye I have saved. Here’s one of them…
Barbara Kruger