We rode a pair of clattering rental mountain bikes south, alongside roaring semis and giant tour buses with darkened windows, down to "Yardenit," the spot on the Jordan River where the Israel tourist board, with some help from an evangelical pastor in New Mexico, has decided that Jesus was baptised. (The Jordanian site of Bethany, which contains ancient ruins long associated with the settlement of John the Baptist and the prophet Elijah, is another contender and has been entered for World Heritage status.) This uncertainty, however, did not discourage the hordes of pilgrims from China, India, Nigeria and Kentucky who flocked down the steps to recreate the baptismal experience, some wearing rented oversize white gowns presumably meant to recall Jesus' cottony garb. On the way out, they were all shuffled through the gift shop where you can buy anything from a Budweiser Israel T-shirt to a plastic crown of thorns; the latter comes with a "certificate of authenticity."
On the way back, hot and sweaty (Tam says "glowing"), we stopped in for a little splashing of our own at one of the many water parks between the highway and the sea, and rewarded ourselves for our exertions with a dinner of the local specialty, grilled "St Peter's fish" - a romantic name, it turns out, for tilapia.
The next day, we rented a car and began a driving tour of the Golan Heights. The southeastern part is remarkably empty, with miles of dry brown hills fenced off by barbed wire and signs warning of land mines, and not another car to be seen. As we got further north, the hills got higher and greener and we could see Druze villages, vineyards and the peak of Mount Hermon. We chugged up the vertical passes to explore "Nimrod's Palace," a fortress built by the medieval Arabs but later associated with the Biblical giant (and descendant of Noah) Nimrod. The sprawling stone complex, built to protect the all-important trade route to Damascus, looks out on astonishing vistas in all directions. We picnicked on zaatar bread and fruit, and drove as far up Mount Hermon as we could before being turned back by scary signs warning of IDF training grounds and firing ranges.
We headed back down the mountain to Safed, a tiny town on the side of the mountain, which has served as a center for Kaballah and been a magnet for Jewish mystics and messianic believers for centuries. We arrived just in time to see the sun set behind the hills, casting a rosy glow on the eighteenth-century stone buildings and narrow alleys of the old Jewish quarter. Unfortunately, the sunset also marked the beginning of a Jewish holiday and meant that, here in the most religious town in Israel, absolutely everything was closed; people lined the streets on the way to synagogue, but all the falafel and juice stands were inexorably shut. We got back in the car and backed down the mountain to find a hamburger to sustain us until the next morning, when we jetted out of town as fast as possible in search of coffee and a muffin.
We split back east and hiked down to the famous hexagonal pool at the Yehudiyya Nature Reserve in the southern Golan, where geometric patterns of basalt rock form a dramatic little swimming hole and waterfall. After a final night by the sea of Galilee, featuring a dinner of local steak and a really very tasty bottle of sangiovese from a Golan winery, buses and trains shuttled us west to explore the crooked stone alleys and Crusader ruins of the somewhat ramshackle but charming coastal Arab town of Acre. We wandered around the eighteenth-century mosque of al-Jazzar, which incorporates elegant Roman columns into its flowery courtyard, and watched this guy fishing below the medieval city walls.
Then south to Israel's third major city, Haifa, a port town dramatically situated on the slopes of Mount Carmel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Haifa is generally quite devoid of tourist attractions, tending more towards industrial shipping equipment and very large cement-block buildings; but it does house the World Baha'i Center and the Baha'i Shrine, where the martyred prophet known as the Bab is buried. The shrine is surrounded by magnificent terraced gardens which extend down the mountain in the very center of the city. Tam, inspired both by the beauty of the gardens and by the progressive principles of the Bahu'llah, has decided that the solution to his career crisis is to convert to Baha'ism and reinvigorate the economy of northern Michigan with an international Baha'i retreat center. Now he just has to sell the idea to the zoning board of Leelanau County.
We ended our adventure with a beach day at Netanya, the Fort Lauderdale of Israel, where retirees from all over the world play excruciatingly slow games of bingo at all the sidewalk cafes, restaurants cater to the huge numbers of French and Russian tourists with menu offerings combining shwarma, schnitzel and foie gras, and laziness is taken to such an extreme that you can actually take a giant elevator down to the beach. Seriously.
More pictures of our exciting adventure are available here: