I have traveled to Israel in the past. In 2008 I spent more than a month volunteering in the West Bank and traveling around Israel. Since then, I’ve always wanted to return.
Southwest Asia, or what we call the Middle East, fascinates me. I traveled through Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt a decade ago and fell in love with the landscape, food, and the people who live here. They have a passion for politics, religion, and culture to a fault. The region has been unstable for centuries, often the instability caused by outside influence. Israel is one of the most accessible and stable countries in the region. I also have friends there. These are just a few of the reasons why I returned to Israel.
As I grow older, I’m less willing to break out of my comfort zone. When my Israeli friend offered me his car for a road trip around Israel, I balked. Not a chance am I driving his (very nice) car around Israel. I enjoy getting on public transit, bumping into locals, and not worrying about traffic, parking, or auto accidents. “Download the Waze App, Find my car in Spot 32 Section C of BenGuarian Airport, and enjoy. I’ll see you on Monday evening.” He said.
My initial reluctance of driving around Israel slowly developed into excitement for the freedom that driving my own vehicle could afford. I had already been to Jerico, Mt. Masada, and the Dead Sea. I’d already bussed from the Eilat and the Gulf of Aqaba across the arid Negev Desert. I’d spent a couple days in Tel Aviv eating, drinking, and swimming in the Mediterranean. I also loved Jerusalem completely but knew the center of Israel wouldn’t be much of a road trip. I decided to go north.
Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee piqued my interest from New Testament fame. In addition to being Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth is a predominantly Arab city with both Muslims and Christians (Jews live in nearby “Upper Nazareth”) living together. I thought being a center of Christian pilgrimage as well as the “the Arab capital of Israel”, as it’s known, would be an interesting stop for me.
After a couple of hours drive from the airport, I found a parking spot on the edge of the old Nazareth and walked uphill to the Church of the Annunciation. This is the largest church in the Middle East and certainly one of the most fascinating churches, architecturally speaking. It marks the site where the Archangel Gabriel announced the future birth of Jesus to Mary. Further up the road by foot is the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, an alternative site, located on an underground spring, which according to the Eastern Orthodox is where the Virgin Mary was drawing water at the time of the Annunciation. This too was another fascinating spot, originally built in the Byzantine era.
By this time it was getting dark and I wandered through the souq, or Arab marketplace, which ran through the old winding streets. The markets were all closed up for the day and there were only some stray cats and dim fluorescent lights burning. It had an eerie feeling after dark. I walked back to the main commercial street and found a kebab shop to eat a delicious shawarma before driving to my accommodation in the Golan.
I’m not a religious person by any means but am really interested in religious history, especially places of pilgrimage. (I have walked the Camino de Santiago twice.) Jesus spent much of his adult years preaching in the Galilee. I wanted to walk on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and visit some important Christian and archeological sights there.
At Ginosar, in the Yigal Allon Centre, you can see “the Jesus Boat”, a preserved fishing vessel from two thousand years ago. Fascinating story of how the remains were preserved, buried under the Sea of Galilee. Before that, I made a quick stop in Tabgha at The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish commemorating the Feeding the Multitude miracle. From there I drove up the hill to the Beatitude Monastery, which gave me a fantastic view over the Sea of Galilee. This is where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. In the heat of the afternoon, I drove up further into the hills to Safed.
I also wanted to see an old traditional Jewish city and Safed fit the bill. Safed is one of the oldest centers for Jewish learning and spirituality, home to the Kabbalah movement. I had never heard about it before researching this trip but wanted to visit this historic city built onto a mountainside at an altitude of 2,953 ft (900 meters), one of the highest towns in all of Israel. Safed is built in a circular fashion around the mountain top. It’s mostly pedestrian-only in the old city to visit historic synagogues and art shops. Stairs lead you between street levels, some of which offer views of the surrounding mountains.
My most interesting stop, besides meeting some Americans who had moved there to open a gluten-free cafe, was on a rooftop of one of the city’s religious schools. The door at street level was open and I just let myself in and wandered upstairs to the roof, hoping to get a good view as the sun went down. There I met two boys, probably in their late teens, who proclaimed to me that “all Arabs hate us”. When I heard that, I knew we were going to have a conversation.
I told them I understood their point of view and certainly, there are Arabs out there who hate them, but I knew for a fact that many Arabs don’t hate Jews. They just want to live with the same rights as other people. I knew this because I had met many Palestinians in the West Bank who didn’t hate Jews. They listened to what I said but I don’t know if it fully sunk in. We got a selfie together before it got totally dark, and then I left town.
My accommodation was technically across the border in the Golan Heights. While Freedom Guesthouse wasn’t officially on a settlement, it was built on land taken from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. The new housing development in Had Nes was built with expensive prefab houses imported from the US, located a few miles up the road from the below-sea-level Sea of Galilee. I didn’t have time to explore much of the Golan but did visit a nearby nature area recommended to me by the guesthouse owner. He was really friendly and like most Israelis, very well-traveled.
The next morning I went for a hike in Nahal Meshushim Nature Reserve near the guesthouse. I walked downhill through the semi-arid terrain on switchbacks to a stream cutting through the small gorge. At the bottom were a cool swimming hole and some volcanic rock formations. I took a much-needed swim to cool off and hiked back up to the visitor’s center.
I wanted to see more in Galilee and the Golan but needed to pick my friend up from the airport later that night. On the drive back I stopped at a scenic viewpoint along a new stretch of highway. There I met an Arab Israeli who lived nearby. He had just come specifically to this point to see the view for the first time of his town, Maghar, on the far mountainside. Long rows of olive trees stretch in different directions in the valleys between. I asked him what it was like to be an Arab in a Jewish State. He explained to me about the politics and challenges of living here. It was difficult at times, but he lives in relative peace compared to his fellow Arabs in Gaza or the West Bank. With that on my mind, I drove back to Tel Aviv.