SCENIC ROAD: JOURNEY to GENESIS
from Travel + Leisure, October 1992
Israel abounds with paradoxes. Most notably: In this strife-racked country visitors rarely encounter anything more disagreeable than a surly waiter or a tacky souvenir. (In more than 50 visits to Israel since 1961, I have never witnessed a violent incident.)
Here’s another paradox. Imagine a people ejected from their homeland, spending 20 centuries wandering the globe, maintaining their traditions, yet acquiring the trappings of far-flung sojourns. Then imagine a third of them returning home and incorporating the mementos of their wanderings into a reclaimed homeland. The succession of images, the assault on the sense, is phenomenal—all within a country the size of New Jersey.
Israel has been repeatedly invaded, sacked, rebuilt and transformed by countless armies and empires. It’s also a modern state burgeoning with monuments and technology. For a three-day journey a friend and I decided to leave the modern cities behind and drive into the Falilee’s hills, with their rich history, farms and air of peace. We began in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, draped around Mount Carmel—where Elijah challenged the 400 priests of Baal—struck as far north as we could go, visited the mystical city of Safed, the sources of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, then climbed the Judean Hills to Jerusalem.
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The State Department urges Americans to avoid the West Bank and Gaza—areas where most security-related incidents occur and which aren’t of much interest to visitors anyway—so I planned our route entirely within “the Green Line,” as Israelis refer to the country’s pre-1967 borders. Driving is not much of a challenge in Israel. Most international car-rental chains are represented, and airlines and tour operators also offer low-cost self-drive packages. Gas is expensive ($4 a gallon), but stations are plentiful. Israeli drivers are prone to Mediterranean tempers and histrionics, but a new law requires cars to have air conditioning, which should help keep all drivers cool.
The port of Akko, founded in the third century B.C. and fortified by Crusaders in A.D. 1100
Israel’s roads are European-standard, well paved and, whether a country lane of a six-lane expressway, well signposted in Hebrew and Roman characters (often in Arabic too). Beware, through: English translations of Hebrew place names vary whimsically: Tiberias on one sigh is Teverya on the next; Safed can read Z’fat, Zefat or Tsefat; and q often substitutes for k (Haniqra versus Hanikra).
The drive can be made all year, although April through June, or mid-September through mid-November, promises the most pleasant weather. April is my favorite time, when wildflowers run riot.
The visitor to Israel has to acclimatize to the omnipresence of soldiers: Most are off-duty, en route to base or home. You’ll encounter dozens of them, male and female, thumbing rides at every intersection in Israel. For many Israelis, it’s a patriotic duty to oblige.
Akko's chief landmark--el-Jazzar Mosque--built by the ruthless pasha known as The Butcher
We set out from Haifa just Before 9 A.M., heading to Akko (Acre), 14 miles away. Founded by the Freeks in the third century B.C., the port of Akko was fortified and transformed into St. Jean d’Acre. When you arrive, ignore New Akko, with its dreary apartment blocks; aim straight for the Arab Old City—follow the signs of just point the car toward the mosque’s pencil-thin green tipped minaret. After parking at a meter in the market square, plan to spend at least an hour strolling—first to the giant green-domed el-Jazzar Mosque, built in 1781 (apart from Jerusalem’s mosques, Israel’s largest). Courtyard steps lead to the black-and-white tiled quadrangle, where we found tall palms, orange trees, a cloister and scrawny cats. We continued through narrow streets to the Crusaders’ St. John’s Crypt, which leads to a network of medieval vaults, chambers and markets, known collectively as the Subterranean Crusader City.
If you have time to linger, Akko’s massive Turkish Citadel is fascinating; it houses the infamous British prison depicted in the move Exodus. You can wander along narrow alleys to the Crusader battlements that protect Akko from crashing Mediterranean waves, watch fisherman mending nets, stroll through the elegantly colonnaded caravansary and wander back to your car through market streets whose stalls display mounds of gleaming fish, sacks of multihued spices, giant trays of pastries and intricately piled fruit.
From Akko, the northbound coastal road (Route 4) soon enters a tunnel formed by giant eucalyptus trees. On your right, you’ll see the imposing gates to the Baha’i Shrine and tomb of the Baha’i faith’s founder, a massive 18th-century Turkish aqueduct and the fortresslike Holocaust museum of Kibbutz Lohameii HaGettaot. (If you skipped the prison in Akko, the Baha’i Shrine of the Holocaust museum is well worth visiting). Soon you’ll reach the popular resort town of Nahariya, founded in 1934 by German refugees on a magnificent beach. Almost 60 years later, the town still evokes the Thirties, its main boulevard lined with orderly apartment houses, open-air cafés, small stores, pensions and bonbon shops—a Jewish Marienbad sur mer.
It’s only a short distance to Rosh Hanikra (Capte of the Grotto), a dramatic cliff-top promontory at the very north of Israel’s Mediterranean coastline, where railroad tracks from Cairo, Tel Aviv and Haifa to Beirut now end unceremoniously at the bricked-up entrance of the tunnel to Lebanon. After savoring the view south along the jagged shoreline, take a cable car down to sea level and the splendid wave-carved grottoes.
Route 8993 eastward passes thriving kibbutz after thriving kibbutz and the ominous looking hills known as the Ladder of Tyre. Drive on to Old Peqiin, a hillside Arab village, one of the few towns in Israel where Jews have lived continuously for 2,000 years. In its narrow streets lined with ancient stone or painted houses, follow signs to the historic synagogue, where an aging, fur-slippered caretaker will reverently show you two carved stones that, tradition has it, once paved the Temple in Jerusalem.
Make for Route 85 and, just after the turnoff to Parod and Safed, you’ll come upon Ein Kamonim (telephone 06-989894), where an unprepossessing hangarlike structure (its garden overlooking the Sea of Galilee) houses a charming restuaant, with log fire and red-checkered tablecloths. With a finger-snap, the despotic proprietor instantly summons a lunch of country soups, home-cured goat cheeses, labaneh (goat’s milk yogurt), salads, freshly baked coarse breads, plump avocados, olives, baskets of fruit and a carafe of wine--$27 for two and don’t even think of substitutions.
After returning to the Parod intersection, wind through the gentle Meron hills to Safed, 3,150 feet above sea level atop Mount Canaan. This is a holy city of Judaism, the 16th-century birthplace of the Kabbala, a mystical Jewish weltanschauung. In the 1950s, Safed become a mecca for Israeli artists. I recommend at least an hour or two to wander Old Safed, where several tiny historic synagogues (the Yosef Caro Synagogue is a jewel) vie for attention with artists’ studios and sometimes kitschy galleries. The Rimon Inn in the heart of the Old Town (06-920665; fax 06-920456; $99-$120 for a double room with bath and full Israeli breakfast) is a delightful group of old houses transformed into a 36-room hotel. Its terrace is pleasant for an aperitif, but at dinnertime drive 10 minutes out of Safed into the hills of Biriya, where the cozy Bat Yaar restaurant (06-921788; ask the Rimon Inn front desk for direction; $50) serves wonderfully fresh mezze appitizers, excellent wines from the nearby Golan and perhaps Israel’s best charcoal-broiled steaks.
The next morning, drive down to Rosh Pina, a pretty town of old stone houses, founded in 1992 as the earliest Zionist settlement in the Galilee. On the northern horizon, you’ll get your first glimpse of snowcapped Mount Hermon and, to the south, the harp-shaped Sea of Galilee. Coutinue north (Route 90) to Tel Hazor, where archeologists have uncovered 21 layers of civilization, dating from 2600 B.C. to the third century A.D.; many of the finds are displayed in the museums of adjacent Kibbutz Ayelet Haschachar. At Zomet Koash, climb west on Route 886 for a spectacular view of Lebanon’s undulating valleys and wind past Kibbutz Menara to Tel Hai, whose monument to Jewish settlers killed in 1920 draws pilgrims.
Bonius Spring, source of the Jordan River and a popular swimming hole for centuries.
Next comes Metulla, Israel’s northernmost town, a curiously satisfying mélange of suburban villas, shady streets, alpine-style pensions catering to civilization-starved UN troops, the country’s largest ice-skating rink and the “Good Fence” border crossing to southern Lebanon. Then drive on to Banias Spring, where extensive trails lead hikers through a forest thick with mint, blackberry bushes, willows, oak and pistachio trees to Crusader battlements and remnants of a Greek temple to Pan (hence “Banias”). At Banias, rushing streams and the Hermon River waterfall feed the Dan River and, eventually, the Jordan.
You’ll have to retrace Route 90 south, past banana groves and orchards, to reach Lake Hula, once malaria-infested and finally drained in 1957. Now trout, carp and shrimp are bred here in dozens of man-made ponds, which lure swarms of birds, including herons, during migrations. Stop at the Study Centre of Yesud Hamaala Nature Reserve for a 15-minute slide show on the area’s history, flora and wildlife, before driving to nearby Dubrovin Farm, with its poignant exhibit on the life and death-by-malaria of the Dubrovins, a turn-of-the-century pioneer family. The snug Farmyard Resturant (06-934495; $65) here serves platters of delectable home-smoked goose breast, barbecued skewers of local foie gras, and broiled lake trout.
After lunch, continue south as the Sea of Galilee—glimpsed between hills grazed by sheep and goats—grows ever larger. Just after the Vered Hagalil Dude Ranch (no kidding), turn left to the Mount of Beatitudes where, over-looking the Sea of Galilee, Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount on a graceful slope with striking natural acoustics. I’d wanted to stay overnight at the mount’s Franciscan hospice—renowned for its spartan simplicity and delicious pasta—but it was closed for renovation. So we decided to press on to Tabgha, where Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and fishes is captured in Byzantine mosaics, and to the flesh-pots of Tiberias, a resort town beside the Sea of Galilee.
Parts of the Talmud were written in Tiberias, 650 feet below sea level, where hot springs inspired the Romans to found a spa honoring Tiberius Caesar. In recent years, the resort has become increasingly popular. The best hotel in town, founded in the 1940s, is the Galei Kinnereth (1 Eliezer Kapaln Rd.; 800-223-5652; $145-$168 including breakfast). Your dilemma is to choose between the Galei Kinnereth’s elegant Au Bord du Lac (French, $80) or the Pagoda (Gedud Bark St.; 06-721538; $45), an excellent Chinese restaurant housed two minutes away in a lovely old mansion.
Before leaving Tiberias, visit the mosaics from a second-century synagogue at Hammat, just across the lake road from the Tiberias Hot Springs Spa—recently built to replace the old Turkish buildings of which Cook’s 1911 Guide to Palestine & Syria said, “Anyone who has the verse to bathe in this filthy place deserves to be cured.” Continue south along the Galilee shore (Route 90) to Yardenit, a kibbutz adjacent to magnificent palm groves. If you drive in, you may be able to witness a poignant baptism of white-robed Christian pilgrims in the Jordan River.
Take Route 767 west and, as you climb past mount Adami and Mount Yavneel, look back to admire the panorama of the Sea of Galilee and the intensely fertile Jordan Valley. After Kfar Tavor, watch for a tiny sign to Mount Tabor. Drive right, through prosperous Shibly, and as you leave town look left for an un-signposted, narrow, potholed road. This ride, 1,500 feet up around countless hairpin bends without guardrails, rewards the intrepid. At the summit, turn tight—suddenly you’re in Tuscany. An avenue of poplars leads to the cavernous, usually deserted Romanesque basilica commemorating Jesus’ transfiguration. From the church’s ramparts you’ll discover a vista of Nazareth and the Galilee hills well worth the climb.
Back on terra firma, continue on Route 65 to Afula, and Megiddo (Armageddon), where excavations and an arresting museums re-create King Solomon’s fortress-city. Then it’s onward through farmland to En Shemer, where residents are happy to show visitors a real-live working kibbutz with a museum that explores the history of the kibbutz movement. Drive north (Route 682) to Ramat Hanadiv, near Zikhron Yaakov, a pretty town founded in 1882 by the French Rothschilds. You can stroll through escutcheoned, wrought-iron gates into glorious, formal flower gardens leading to the tombs of the Baron and Baroness Edmond by Rothschild.
The best map is the Bazak Israel Survey Map, S6,
available in Israel
Aiming south again (Route 4), follow the turn off to Caesarea, one the Mediterranean. Created in A.D. 22 by Herod to honor Augustus Caesar. Caesarea was possibly the grandest manmade port in the Roman world. Today, at the restored Roman amphitheater, Mediterranean breakers are a backdrop to concerts and dance performances. You’ll notice a pair of giant, headless, white and red marble Roman statues. Then, circumnavigating the moat and the impenetrable walls of Crusader Caesarea, you’ll approach the old Turkish port, with its aqueduct, lawns, cove beach, restaurants and boutiques. If you didn’t snack earlier (En Shemer and Ramat Hanadiv have fine cafés), try Caesarea’s Citadel (Caesarea Port; 06-361989; $35), with a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean; it serves excellent Middle Eastern fare and salads.
Join Expressway 2 south and, as you approach Herzliya (a beach resort and very tiny Tel Aviv suburb), keep watch for signs to “Jerusalem via the Ayalon Expressway.” You’ll whiz through Tel Aviv on the six-lane “Ayalon” (Route 1), skirt Ben-Gurion Airport and traverse the wide Valley of Ayalon, where Joshua ordered the sun to stand still. The road climbs, imperceptibly at first, into pine forests and the steeper Shaar Hagai canyon, where hulks of destroyed armored trucks recall the 1948 War of Independence. Gradually, steeples, towers and lights pierce the horizon, then disappear and reappear as the highway plunges, climbs and winds undaunted by the Judean mountains. As you sweep around the last curve, you’re greeted by a massive sandstone wall emblazoned with the Hebrew, Arabic, English and Russian message “Welcome to Jerusalem.” Whatever your faith or heritage, it’s a thrilling moment.