On Tuesday night we flew from Larnaca to Tel Aviv to begin our 11-day trip through Israel. I’ve loved this country since I first visited on a camping trek as a junior in high school, and have been wanting to show Mike around here since we first met in 2004.
An amazing thing about Israel is that, for a country of such tiny size, it has huge geographical diversity. We planned an ambitious itinerary for a relatively short trip, with the help of a few friends who shared travel advice, and also by my own memories. We’d start in the north near Haifa and the Sea of Galilee, then stay a few nights in Tel Aviv, then head south to the Negev and the Red Sea, then to Jerusalem where we would visit with some dear family friends at their home there.
We chose Nazareth as our base for the north mainly because we found such excellent recommendations for the Fauzi Azar Inn, a relatively new hostel that has been working hard to build a market for tourism in Nazareth. This was a great find. The inn is a converted historic mansion, owned by a Muslim family and managed by a Jewish entrepreneur, which we were told is unusual the somewhat divided city. The staff is cheerful and full of recommendations. Each morning begins with an absolutely amazing breakfast spread – fresh dates, olives, salad, spiced scrambled eggs, Labneh with spices and olive oil, fruit and fresh hot flatbreads smothered with Za’atar spice. Throughout the day we always found fruit, tea , and freshly baked honey-and-coconut cake for snacking in the common kitchen, which is one reason the common areas were full of activity and guests being social at all hours.
Views of Nazareth from the kitchen balcony:
The common room (this was where I wrote most of my final paper for a class at LSE, which was due on Friday during the break!)
A gregarious, American-born volunteer named Linda gives a daily free tour of Nazareth, and on Wednesday morning, while I stayed behind to get my work done, Mike was lucky enough to be the solo guest on a private guided tour of the city (there are some perks to traveling in the off season, for sure).
On Wednesday afternoon, we drive west toward the coast and found an entry point to the Israel National Trail, a hiking/cycling route that runs the length of the country from north to south. We hiked around the base of Mount Carmel, and ran into several groups of pre-teenage scouts finishing up a day-long trek. They were excited to practice their English on us, with mixed results (I am pretty sure they also practiced some pretty filthy Hebrew on us, for one another’s benefit).
On the recommendation of several people at Fauzi Azar, we decided to try out the local Turkish Bath. This was awesome. We were treated to a sauna, then hot tub, then told to lay on the heated marble slab (which you can see in the photo) while we drank fresh mint lemonade and ate fresh dates. Then the attendant, who was a very petite girl dressed demurely and wearing a headscarf, escorted us into a hot steam room, where we sat for a few minutes. She came and got us out, and applied soapy lather all over us, then put us back in the steam room and scrubbed us – hard – with a rough loofah sponge. Then she rinsed us off by pouring bowls of water over our heads. The rinse water became increasingly cooler with each rinse, until finally she said “Ok, close your eyes now. One … two … three!” and doused each of us with a bucket of icy cold water.
It was amazing.
Next day: we drove to Tiberias and rented bikes to ride along the Kineret (Sea of Galilee). This is a beautiful area, and some of my fondest memories of my first trip to Israel involve camping in Bedouin tents on the shore of the Kineret. But we found it was less user-friendly to find the shore on our own via bike. We biked along the boardwalk in Tiberias for a while, then on the shoulder of the highway for much longer than either of us really wanted to … until finally we found a more welcoming bike trail which actually took us to a nice spot on the water’s edge.
Our last night in Nazareth, we enjoyed dinner at a local woman’s home. Our host, Raita, had just started doing the dinners, which she arranges through the Fauzi Azar, for hostel guests. By extreme coincidence, we were joined by two other travelers from Seattle and their friend from Amsterdam. Dinner was delicious – we had Arabic onion soup, a vinegary, fresh salad, stewed okra with lemon and garlic, rice and perfect roasted chicken. Afterwards we stood in Raita’s courtyard and watched a long display of fireworks over Nazareth as the city celebrated the lighting of the town’s Christmas tree.
And after that, I was so full that I had to go to bed immediately and sleep for 10 hours.