The Festival of Festivals – Haifa up and down the stairs

We first experienced Haifa’s “Festival of Festivals” last year at the tail end of Covid 19 opening up. The idea of the city of coexistence celebrating the coming together of the three monotheistic religions in a light extravaganza was most attractive. Actually on the municipal Facebook page it is billed as “the values of coexistence, living together in peace and harmony, and mutual respect of all six religions in the city, joining the residents’ lives and fate together.” This may actually be a bit bombastic but it’s the thought that counts. In any case, we like Haifa, mainly because it is not Jerusalem or Tel Aviv but its own unique self. Let’s see.. what do I mean by that? Well, Jerusalem is of course chock full of history and religious import, and this is what makes it rather heavy and sometimes stressful, and not always the most relaxing of places to visit. Tel Aviv has the advantage of being younger and more zany and with the added attraction of the beach. But Tel Aviv, as the “city that never sleeps” can be exhausting and a bit frenetic. I feel that Haifa has its own special vibe. Not only is it multicultural and more secular, but it also has the sea, and a very special topography which means that the three separate bits of the town stretch up the Carmel Mountain, giving you incredible views at every twist and turn. You are continually climbing up and down. And that is really unique. Haifa is comprised of the wooded Carmel mountain, topped by the Technion University area, midtown Hadar, and the downtown area where the port is located. Just above downtown is the wonderful German Colony area reminiscent of the Jerusalem German Colony, both dating from the Templar period featuring picturesque balconied historic stone houses with lovely gardens. Stretching down from the Carmel to the German Colony are the wondrous Bahai Shrine of the Bab and Gardens, the iconic view of Haifa.

We started our trip by parking just off Ben Gurion st, the main drag of the German Colony, where all the restaurants are located and the illuminations would be. We decided we would spend the day walking around town and finish up with dinner in the Colony and then have a look at the illuminations. This proved to be a very smart move as I will explain later. So having parked we set off to have a look at the immaculate Bahai Shrine gardens. You can walk around the gardens for free. There is a lower entrance from the German Colony and an upper one from the Carmel. However you cannot enter from one and exit from the other without taking a guided tour. We met a lovely young Chinese couple who asked us to take their photo- she is studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and he at Leeds University in England. As you can see the Shrine is stunning and the gardens are lovingly tended.

From the Shrine we began walking up in the direction of the Carmel. On the way, walking through the Wadi Nisnas area, we found the wonderful Artists’ House ( on map appears as Bet Omanim Shagall no idea what that means ) – free entry and wonder of wonders, a clean toilet. There was an exhibition of two local artists, one Jewish and one Arab.

We continued on, feeling suddenly disorientated we asked a woman how to get to the Carmel. We thought we would head to a garden called “Gan HaEm” (the Mother’s garden) . She thought we meant kindergarten, but anyway we had to continue upwards, meaning hundreds and hundreds of stairs ( I kid you not) We bravely battled on upwards, each street on the map being labelled “street” but turning out to be another stairway. One of these stairways housed a street gallery of wonderful murals.

Finally we reached Yafe Nof ( meaning “beautiful view” ) street and a little further along we reached the Centre of the Carmel and the gardens where we ate our sandwiches. From here the only way is down, so we walked back down, this time using the road and not the little stairs, as our knees were not feeling their best. The gentle downward slope of the boulevard was pleasant and afforded the occasional view of the port.

We then continued back on down to the German Colony which was beginning to get dark. We returned to the same restaurant which we had enjoyed last year, Garden, where we had a splendid spinach and ricotta tortellini. When we came back out at 6pm the street was heaving with people, some wearing Christmas flashing lights or hats, and all the illuminations had been turned out. It was quite impressive. There was a small Xmas market selling candy floss, fast food and other Xmas tat. It was all quite fun but very very crowded and hard to walk down the street. The atmosphere was great, lots of families of all denominations.

All in all, I highly recommend checking out the Festival of Festivals if you are passing through this area. I have heard that Nazareth is also good but last time we tried to get there the entrance to the town was choked with traffic and we could not even get in there, so we gave up. Of course Israel is not Northern Europe when it comes to the season’s celebrations, but in a way ,the modest show here is rather touching.

Stay tuned for more adventures…

A quick hop to Transylvania

The name “Transylvania” immediately conjures up misty forests, creepy characters, the stuff of legend. I really knew nothing at all about this area , and became captivated with the idea of a visit when I read on travel groups that there are cheap flights to Cluj, the capital of the region, which turns out to be a lively university town, only a short flight for us from home. This seemed attractive, as we are not really feeling up to doing long haul flights at the moment. The more I read about it, the more it seemed like a good autumn destination. How lucky we were! We went only for a week and the weather was indeed perfect- around 23C during the day, dropping to 3C at night (when we were safely tucked in under the covers). The mornings were crisp and mysteriously misty, and we had not one drop of rain. Of course had we gone for longer (as my brother suggested) we could have seen many more destinations- we quickly discovered the vastness of Romania, the immense distances between towns, but since we did not want to spend the whole day on the road and drive hundreds of kilometres, we contented ourselves with Cluj, Bistrita, Sighisoara and the village of Tilisca. This worked out just fine, and we ended up driving almost 1,000 km in the week. I had no desire to see Bucharest which was really too far, and what we saw was just lovely. So on to the trip.

After a 2.5 hour flight to Cluj which went amazingly smoothly we arrived with only hand luggage (trolley) at Cluj airport at 2pm. We were met by the smiling representative of Klasswagen car hire who swiftly transported us by shuttle bus to the car rental office. In 5 minutes we were on the way to our cute air bnb in the centre of Cluj, right by the Central Park. The lovely host Corina had sent me clear instructions where to park and how to get in, and all went smoothly and we quickly went out to explore Cluj, which we found to be charming and easily walkable. We found lovely squares and parks, lively students and lots of restaurants. The centre of town is medieval and we found the tourist office which was about to close at 5pm but the lady pointed us in the direction of a free walking tour which would begin at 6pm. We joined the tour and it was really good.

We left the tour early as we were starving and headed off to find a nice restaurant, which was not hard to do. Our pick was Epoca Bella ( after the first place we entered turned out to be fully booked) and very tasty it was too. From there we tottered home to gather our strength for the next day.

Sunday morning we got up and set off across the Central park headed for the Cetățuia (Fortress) Park from the top of which we were told we would see a lovely view of the city. Walking through the autumn leaves of the park was positively uplifting, and the climb up the park steps to the top was not too challenging. When we got to the top it was very misty but the view of city spires was really lovely.

We climbed slowly down and headed across the river to the historic centre to continue exploring. We found some of the places the tour guide had mentioned the day before, including the Jewish Museum and Mattias Corvin’s house, ( the oldest building in the city) where we enjoyed the exhibition of a Jewish artist who stood in the entrance, identified us as Israelis and said shalom. His work was very interesting. Unfortunately I omitted to write down his name.

We then walked around a bit in the centre of Cluj, and continued on to see the Cluj Synagogue, unfortunately only from the outside.

We finished off our second day in Cluj with the Botanical Gardens, which were very pleasant if not overwhelming. Since it was a sunny day everything looked very cheery. The Japanese garden we found to be rather sad, but then we had visited Japan in November 2019 so it seemed like a poor shadow of the real thing. If you have not been to Japan maybe you will find it pleasant enough. Be warned that the walk up to the gardens involves a rather steep hill, but not too terrible. We had just walked rather a lot that day, as we started with the climb up to the Citadel, but it was all lovely, and we felt that we had earned our lovely dinner.

After two lovely days in Cluj we headed off towards Bistrita, our next stop, by way of Colibița Lake. We had originally planned to head up north to the Ukrainian border to visit the Merry Cemetery and various painted churches. That was the reason for choosing Bistrita as a stopping point. However there are no highways in that area and the distances are huge, and we did not want to spend the whole holiday in the car. The lake proved to be an excellent place to stop and we very much enjoyed our coffee looking out over the lake at the lovely Casa Dani, which I suspect would also be a great place to stay; it is run by a lovely young couple, (the husband of course being called Dani). We then continued on through the most glorious forests all golden with autumn colours, until we reached Bistrita. The drive was just spectacular and very hard to capture, as there were very few stopping places to take photos. The roads are a bit winding, but it is just breathtaking at this time of year. On the way we passed through many villages with traditional buildings, and many farmers with workhorses and carts. It was all very charming.

We continued on towards our hotel, the Pensiunea Terra in Bistrita, a couple of kilometres from the centre of the very small town, and although the restaurant had lots of customers I think we were the only people staying there. After walking around the town a little, and finding the synagogue (closed) and the small public gardens, we returned to the hotel for a fantastic meal.

Next day we were headed for two nights in Sighișoara, the highly instagrammable town located about 150 km away but as mentioned the roads in Transylvania are not highways and you are frequently stuck behind a truck or a horse and cart, so the journey takes longer than one would think. On the way we stopped at Castelul Lázár in Lazarea, which turned out well in the photos, due to the morning mists, but was not really that interesting inside. We stopped again for a quick rest at Hanul Borzont Hungarian restaurant where we first enjoyed the decor (lots of wood and traditional artifacts ) , and then one of the best soups I have ever had. It was just perfect. Apparently this area of the country is disputed between Romania and Hungary, so the fact that D was wearing his Budapest sweat shirt was quite amusing..

We arrived at Carolina House in Sighisoara to find it deserted. There was a phone number on the door so I called it and soon a guy who spoke not a word of English arrived and gave us our room key. The place was gorgeous and only 10 minutes walk from the historic centre of town. Again we were the only guests. We were shown the lovely old style breakfast room and stroked the resident cute cat. Then we went into town to find the centre almost deserted by 6pm. I then remembered that the English girl I had talked to in Cluj had told me that most people visit Sighisoara on a day trip and leave by dark. We were happy to walk around and take photos without the hordes. It really is pretty, as befits a UNESCO heritage site, but somehow I missed the lively atmosphere of Cluj. There are plenty of restaurants both in the upper and lower part of the town.

It is important to realise that there are two parts to the town – the upper and lower, so you are going to be climbing up and down a lot. It was next day that we met the most tourists in our trip and they were all Israelis. We met three separate groups and of course exchanged information about where we had been and what we had seen. Sighisoara has nine towers, according to various professional guilds, for example the Furriers’ Tower, the Tailors’ , Bootmakers, Ropemakers and so on. Most were closed but very impressive, and the whole town feels like being inside a fairy story set in a medieval town. We then picked a nice restaurant in the lower town, on the premise that after a nice glass of wine we would not feel like staggering down the steps to walk home. The restaurant and the wine were excellent, but the food more Italian than Romanian. Next day we walked around the old town some more, this time approaching it from the top, and climbed up and down the covered steps also known as the Scholars’ steps to the School on the Hill . Of course there are lots of historic buildings to visit in the town; we passed on Dracula’s house which looked like a tourist ripoff. To round off Sighisoara we returned to the same restaurant which we had enjoyed the night before.

With only two nights left and the last one to be spent in Cluj near the airport, in preparation for the early morning flight home, our last real night was spent in a tiny village called Tilisca . It was the most unusual night of the trip, but we reached it after visiting another town, Sibiu. The town has a lovely large main square, with lots of restaurants and coffee bars, and a smaller adjoining square where you can see the Bridge of Lies ,which overlooks some of the most ancient buildings of the town. It is all picturesque and delightful. On the way to the old town we passed through the market.

Of course we could have spent much longer in this lovely town exploring its rich history, and we also considered visiting the Astra History Park but with only a week there just wasn’t time.

We departed Sibiu and headed for our last proper night,in the village of Tilisca. The guest house, Pensiunea Irina appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. It had good ratings and I thought it would be fun to sleep in a quiet place. It was possibly the most interesting night of our trip. After mistakenly walking into the neighbouring house and encountering the owner ironing her laundry, we finally found the door to the guesthouse which was locked. Another neighbour telephoned the house and eventually a young boy opened the door and called his mum. We met the charming Irina, with her limited but adequate English and her partner Chris, who spoke fluent English having spent several years working in Silicon Valley. They were extremely welcoming and we were the only guests and made to feel very much at home. Chris invited us into the dining room where there was ample tea and coffee laid out and then proceeded to present us with his home made pear liquor. We sat together talking for a long time about pretty much everything, getting refills of this beverage, whereupon we realized we were somewhat drunk and were unlikely to be driving into the next village for supper. Chris produced a menu and ordered us food from the nearby restaurant which belongs to some relative of Irena. The food was not great, but the company and the ambiance at Pensiunea Irena (which by the way has a stream running right by the bedroom) made up for that. We had a great evening and exchanged phone numbers with Chris before we left.

Next day, our last day in Romania, we got up and drove to Alba Iulia where we intended to visit the synagogue and the Citadel . However, when we arrived at the Citadel we saw swarms of police and lots of Orthodox Priests filing into the gate and queueuing up to go in. There was apparently some kind of conference or meeting going on there, so despite a policeman waving us into the parking lot, we continued to the centre of town where we parked in the Lidl car park to see the synagogue next door. The door was locked but there was a watchmaker’s shop next door and he beckoned to us, said in English that he would call the “head of the community” who would give him a key. As we were waiting for the key there was some commotion on the pavement outside where a young girl had suffered an epileptic fit and was surrounded by people wanting to help, call ambulances etc. By the time the key arrived, all was well and she was recuperating on a bench. The synagogue was quite nice and had been lovingly restored.

We then continued on to Cluj where we stayed at the (unmemorable) Pensiunea right by the airport for our horribly early 7am departure the next morning.

Romania was surprising in a number of ways- it was far cleaner and modern than I was expecting, but also much bigger. I had to eliminate many destinations on my Google maps due to the sheer enormity of the driving distances. We greatly enjoyed Cluj, and we saw and learned quite a lot in a short week. Highly recommended destination and appetite opened for further exploration of Eastern Europe.

Stay tuned for the next adventure!

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….

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.

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

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!

Lazing around in the heat

Kinneret

On the 1st September, having booked what is locally known as a “zimmer”, or guest house, up in the Galilee, we jumped in the car and headed north at a staggering 7 am. The date picked was of course the day when families with kids would be packing their offspring thankfully off to school. As a retired teacher, I am now free to go off on a jaunt, to places which up till today have been heaving with large, noisy families. We hoped to find a quiet retreat and some respite from the heat. We were not disappointed.

This trip was supposed to be centred around water spots, since daytime temperatures are hovering around the mid 30s Centigrade, so it is really too hot to do any hiking. I therefore decided to go to the Magrase Nature reserve (otherwise known as Daliot, where one can walk through waist high water to cool down. However the morning we were due to arrive there, the Parks Authority website informed me that it, and a number of other hikes involving water, were all polluted. When I phoned them (on our way up North) they told me that the site was not closed to the public but that walking in the water would be at our own risk. We of course decided not to brave any bugs that might be lurking there, and proceeded to Lavnun Beach on the Kinneret. The Kinneret, for those not in the know, is the local name for the Sea of Galilee, which is not a sea at all but a large lake, and the focal point for most summer recreation in this tiny country. Once we arrived and parked, we quickly found a shady spot underneath the eucalyptus trees, and were happy to see that there were no more than about a dozen people spaced out along the beach. The water was lovely and warm, and we spent a good few hours relaxing in the water, eating our sandwiches and reading.

Kinneret, with early morning mist

Check in time at the zimmer is 15.00 so around 14.30 we packed up our chairs and headed up to Moshav Shefer (no relation) to settle in. I picked the place because it is up above the Sea of Galilee, which is rather warm and humid. Up in the hills the temperature is much more refreshing, and has the added attraction of wonderful views down the valley. Our zimmer consisted of four chalets set in a beautifully maintained garden, and a shared pool. Since we were the only guests on the site it was also quiet and private. The owner, Penina arrived when I called her and showed us how to use the a/c and ostensibly the television, which refused to comply. She therefore called her son who was on his way home from Hadera and whom she said would arrive and fix the problem. Meanwhile we relaxed in the capacious chalet, which had two floors, a jacuzzi and a small kitchenette.

After resting we headed out to look for dinner. WE drove around the Druze village of Rame and failed to locate the restaurant recommended to me by Google maps. We tried to ask locals some of whom did not speak Hebrew, and others who just did not know of any restaurant. Driving around Druze villages by the way requires quite a lot of competence, as the roads were mostly constructed for donkeys and not for two directional traffic. Anyway we eventually found a wonderful little place called Snobar (meaning Pine cone) which served us a huge green salad and tortillas filled with spicy chicken breast and vegetables, all for the princely sum of 90 shekels for both of us. We tipped the charming waitress generously. On the way back to our room we picked some pomegranates from the tree outside our chalet. There were also tons of lemons.

Next day we decided to head for Achziv National Park but first I wanted to check out a place I have heard of but never visited before. It is called Keshet (Arch) cave and is not really a cave at all. It is located in the Galilee, and has a wonderful view of the area, once you have braved the hairpin bends to the top of the hill. It is also a popular spot for daredevil rappellers, not of course for yours truly and her fear of heights. The drive up to the top was breathtaking and also gave glimpses of a number of caves. It was impossible to take any pictures on the way up so you will have to take my word for it. On the path leading to the Arch there are memorial stones commemorating Eldad Regev, Ehud Goldwasser, and other soldiers killed in the Lebanon War.

Brave lads waiting to descend

The walk up from the parking lot to the arch is really short and wheelchair accessible so it’s a fun activity for everyone. From there we continued along the Northern Road (which is the most northerly road in Israel hugging the Lebanese border. It’s odd to look over to your right and see Lebanese towns and villages up close and personal. The view is stunning, and I really think it’s one of my favourite places in the country. After about 20 minutes we got to Achziv park, having first gone by mistake to Achviz public beach, which is only a couple of kilometres further on, but requires a U turn to correct one’s error. The entrance to the Achziv Park costs a bit extra despite my brandishing my “Matmon” Parks card because, as the nice lady explained, there’s the beach. And what a magnificent beach it is too. The site has a few archeological curiosities, and a campsite, for those so inclined, who can go to sleep and then wake up to this glorious vision:

Achziv National Park

After the customary ice cream in the cafeteria ( a family tradition on visiting National Parks, due to us getting a card holder’s discount) we headed down to the beach, which has rock pools where you can wade under the watchful eye of the lifeguard. The water was gorgeous except for the horrid little fish which kept trying to bite me (but then I am also inclined to bite fish when I can too, so I suppose it’s only fair). There is a huge sunshade set up on the beach and it was not difficult to while away several hours there. The site closes at 5pm so from there we headed into Nahariya to get something to eat and watch the sunset before heading home.

Haifa on the Hill

View of the city from upper balcony of the Bahai Shrine

I have always had a soft spot for this city, which seems to me to combine the best of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It has plenty of history, with a downtown German colony built by the Templars to rival the Jerusalem one; it has a reputation for being a city of cultural harmony, where Jews and Arabs live peacefully side by side, and where lots of intercultural events are put on (The Haifa Film Festival, the Festival of Festivals), it’s the only Israeli city with a subway, the Carmelit, ( actually more a funicular than a proper subway) and it has wonderful views of the sea from the top of the Carmel. Haifa is a city with very distinct parts- the downtown port area, the middle level of the Carmel and the very top – Yefe Nof (literally beautiful view) , where the houses perched on the summit of the Carmel mountain look down over the bay. Bear in mind that walking around the city would involve a lot of going up and down the mountain, hence the subway, which is built on the slope. Now there are also two cable cars to make going up and down less arduous.

We had visited Haifa some years ago right after the terrible fires that raged on the Carmel, when our travel organisation Servas.org hosted a walking tour during the Christmas/Hanuka period. At this time Jews, Christians and Muslims in Haifa celebrate together and there are usually lots of activities going on all over town. It was great fun, ( especially the Santa Claus parade through Wadi Nisnas and the ensuing hummus in the local restaurants) and it left me with a feeling that we would return to the city again. As the summer heat, mostly over 35C during the day, means no hiking for the moment, a quick look at the blissfully air- conditioned Haifa Art Museum seemed in order.

We arrived before the museum opened so we went for a quick look around the Wadi Nisnas neighbourhood right behind the museum. I had remembered that it was an area where there were various art projects encouraging coexistence, and we saw something called Poetry Lane, and found various art projects on the walls.

The Art museum now open, we returned to take a look. Although rather unimpressive from the outside, the three storey building originally the site of an Anglican Girls’ school, was packed with interesting stuff, and you could use an audio guide (in several languages) from your phone by scanning a QR code. In any case the exhibits were very clearly labelled in Hebrew and English. Some rooms had works by famous artists, such as Yehiel Shemi and Yair Garbuz, and there was even one by Diego Rivera. The current exhibition commemorates 70 years of the museum’s existence, and all artists are in some way connected to Haifa and the North.

Work by Yair Garbuz
Another work I liked, although I forgot the artist’s name

After we had finished at the museum we went up to the top of the Carmel to look at the famous Bahai Shrine and its gardens. Unfortunately the gardens were closed, as it appears it is necessary to register for an organized tour, but the view from the top was as always, spectacular and there was a lovely breeze.

Interesting gate on the way to the Shrine
View of the gardens and the bay

So from the Shrine we zipped up to the top of Stella Maris, another place we love in Haifa. Stella Maris has a 19th century church and Carmelite monastery. The church can be visited ( and even boasts a cave said to be that of Elijah underneath its altar) but we skipped it this time and just strolled around outside looking at the view of the bay and Haifa port. The Madonna statue outside the monastery ,erected by the people of Chile, is rather fine. From here there is a cable car going down the mountainside to Bat Galim seaside promenade.

Madonna statue
The wild boar wandering around are no joke

We finished our fun day by driving to Hof Dor Habonim beach, which is the most amazing beach inside a Nature Reserve, which we had visited before. We were not looking for a walk this time, due to the heat, but just wanted to chill out and have a quick dip in the sea, which was extremely rough. The beach is extremely beautiful and highly recommended. In the winter we will return to walk along the shore and revisit the beauty of the coastline here.

Habonim beach

A bit of culture in Old Jaffa

view from the Promenade

After a couple of months of not going anywhere or doing any hiking, due to the extreme heat (over 30C most days) and it being school holidays in July and August, and overcrowded everywhere, I finally decided it would be a good idea to check out a nice air conditioned museum. Many museums are popular with families making them not ideal when trying to avoid people,( found this out while visiting the new Steinhardt Natural History museum in Tel Aviv a couple of years ago), but I eventually hit on the perfect solution.

We went off to Jaffa, parking in our favourite place right opposite the Etzel Museum and Neve Zedek. From there it’s only a 15 minute walk down to Old Jaffa. Walking along the Charles Clore Promenade there is a wonderful breeze from the sea, and I was only sorry I had not thought of doing this weeks ago. Anyway Jaffa turned out to be just as charming as I remembered, surely a place one can visit again and again.

After walking around a bit in the beautiful winding alleys of Old Jaffa we arrived at the Ilana Goor Museum, right next to the Uri Geller Museum (which I had never heard of before). The main entrance appeared to be closed, but a nice man let us in through the back door, which led us through the almost overwhelmingly packed gift shop. For the princely sum of 25 shekel each we were then treated to a leisurely wander through a magnificent collection of sculptures and paintings, some by Ilana Goor herself and some from her very eclectic collection of artworks, including portraits of her by other artists, and even one Henry Moore.

Suddenly the lady herself appeared from behind a private door, and we had a short chat with her. She was an elegant 85 year old, very gracious and interesting.

Young Ilana Goor Portrait

Many of the exhibits were examples of the way the artist incorporates unusual elements such as animal hides and skulls into her work. The furniture was particularly unusual. I am not sure it was all to my taste but it was certainly interesting. There are several floors and the open balconies and the roof sculpture garden with the view to the sea were especially lovely. You can sit in the roof garden and eat your sandwiches to admire the view. The artist has lovingly restored the old house (one of the oldest houses in Jaffa, which originally served as a hostel to Jewish pilgrims ) and now lives there herself. The kitchen is particularly striking, with its blend of old samovars and modern fridge and sink. I must admit to having taken far too many pictures, which makes it hard to select the ones I will post here.

The views from the window and the roof garden

After enjoying the gallery we went for a little mosey around Jaffa and rounded off the morning with a quick delicious hummus and falafel at Yfrach restaurant.

Highly recommend this area, and I am sure we will be coming back again soon.