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…

Obamas and Fake Monets

We returned to Xiamen by way of Amsterdam (only a 5 hours layover this time), Hong Kong and Shenzhen.We took a ferry boat directly from Hong Kong International Airport to Shenzhen Shekou Port thereby bypassing passport control and customs just as we had done on the way to Macau last year.This is a highly recommended route,especially if you have a ton of suitcases,since the port workers take your luggage out of the airplane in HK and load it directly onto the ferry boat,so you don’t need to worry about carrying it until you exit the port in Shenzhen. This is great and extremely convenient. I think it may even be quicker than taking the subway downtown to Shenzhen (depending of course on which part of the city you want to end up in).

We had visited Shenzhen before and had enjoyed it a lot.I don’t know why everyone seems to think that Hong Kong is so cool.I mean,I know it has glitzy shopping malls and restaurants,but it is so damned expensive and you have to pay over $100 for a decent room there which is usually a tiny box whereas for only 300 RMB you can get a fabulous large suite and there is plenty of great shopping and restaurants to be had on the Chinese side of the border.Maybe we have been unlucky with the weather every time we have been in HK but in short,it doesn’t grab me.I am not a shopping person, anyway.

Shenzhen,the Chinese city over the border from Hong Kong,is connected by subway to the Hong Kong subway.If you arrive by land you go through passport control and customs and just follow the signs to reach China (assuming you have a Chinese visa of course).Shenzhen is a massive city populated by mostly migrants from other parts of China.Today it is pretty well-to-do with huge theme parks, shopping malls,green parks and a fantastic cheap subway which is squeaky clean and all conveniently labelled in English.All announcements are made in Chinese,Cantonese and English too. Last time we visited Splendid China,a sort of theme park encapsulating all the major sites of China.It is next to Window of the World,which is the same for many major world sites.So this time we forgo a visit to Minsk World or OCT East resort, all of which are massive theme parks, and headed for Dafen Artists Village.

Dafen Artists’ village

This is an area which has a large quantity of art galleries selling any kind of artwork from copies of Van Goghs to traditional Chinese artworks.You can take along a picture and have it copied,or you can get stuff you already bought framed fairly cheaply.It was a bit more subdued and quiet than I was expecting maybe because people were still away for their annual Spring Festival Holiday,but there was the Shenzhen art Gallery in the middle and that had a free exhibition which was very enjoyable.

Art Gallery,Shenzhen

In the evening we went to Sea World Plaza,a big square which houses many restaurants both Chinese and International, a large ship that has been made into a floating restaurant The whole area was illuminated for  Valentines’ Day complete with kitschy musical fountains and laser show.

The floating restaurant,Sea World

From the art exhibition,Shenzhen Gallery

The next day we visited another part of the city known as the OCT which stands for “Overseas Chinese Town”.Basically this is a part of the town where wealthy Chinese who have made their fortune overseas in various businesses,return to live and/or invest money.WE had come across this term in Xiamen as the part of the city where all the universities are located is also based on income from “Overseas Chinese” It is a way of putting back into the community.In Shenzhen there is a very trendy area called OCT Loft which houses sort of avant garde yuppy galleries and eateries and also has a space for live music performances.Unfortunately we didn’t manage to go to any performances but we did see some amazing art exhibitions,and strolled around the area a bit before making our way to the train station to catch the high-speed train back to Xiamen.The high speed train on this route only began running in December but it is definitely going to be useful as it cuts the train journey down from 9 or so hours to less than 4. I also find it preferable to going by plane,not just because of the price but also because it is more comfortable and saves doing all the airline check -in and security stuff.

Noodles guy in yuppy OCT restaurant

So now we are back in Xiamen at the start of a new semester.We have some new students and some from last semester,and life is good.It was really cold when we arrived here but now the sun is shining and the sky is blue,and we are planning where to go for our May 1 holiday and what we will do at the end of this semester.Who knows? I certainly don’t!