Splendid mountain air, an open market with top-grade produce, good bakeries, small restaurants with distinctive local fare and several fine restaurants with sophisticated menus – where do you have to fly to reach such an exotic tourist venue?

Nowhere. Nazareth has all of this and more. (Did we mention the churches and mosques?) We discovered a taste of the above during a weekend visit to the largest Arab city in the country.

A large part of our enjoyment of Nazareth must be chalked up to the place we stayed, the Fauzi Azar Inn in the heart of the Old City and a minute away from the Old Market.

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The inn is located in a maze of ancient streets that cars cannot reach. We telephoned the inn and were given instructions on how to get close to it. Then an unusually helpful volunteer (we can’t vouch that all are as welcoming as Joel Stern, a 62-year-old Canadian who fell in love with the inn and Nazareth) came down to meet and escort us to the inn by foot.

Stooping to pass through a small door (a traditional architectural element meant to help visitors acknowledge the greatness of God and the generosity of the master of the house), we entered a courtyard between two buildings, went up a steep staircase alongside one of them and entered a vast reception room with three huge windows overlooking the city. It also boasts beautiful marble floors and an original, 19th-century vaulted and painted ceiling, typical of Ottoman mansion paintings at the time.

The mansion was built by a wealthy Greek Orthodox merchant and served his family until 1980, when the last occupant, Fauzi Azar, died in a fire. Azar’s wife and three daughters abandoned the home, and the building lay empty until about eight years ago, when an unusually young and enterprising Israeli Jew, Maoz Inon, then 25, startled Azar’s heirs, including his granddaughter, Suraida Nasser, by proposing to turn it into an inn.

At that time, and for many years before, downtown Nazareth was a poor, demoralized and run-down backwater, but the family was so taken with Inon’s enthusiasm and personality that it eventually gave him a five-year lease. Today, Suraida manages the hotel and provides jobs for several local residents.

Inon, together with a Mennonite American partner, David Landis, had a vision of promoting a trail from Nazareth to Capernaum (62 kilometers long) based on a verse from the New Testament. The Jesus Trail, as they called it, has already become a magnet for Israeli and foreign backpackers.

There are a total of 11 rooms including at least two dorm rooms sleeping about eight people each, as well as private rooms with baths. It is far from a luxury hotel but has all the atmosphere, friendliness and informality to make up for it and much more.

THE FAUZI AZAR Inn offers a guided tour of the Old City of Nazareth twice a week, on Mondays and Saturdays, led by another volunteer. The tour costs NIS 20 and lasts at least two hours.

For professional reasons (an interview) we had to leave in the middle, but still managed to see a traditional coffee mill and store owned by one of the preeminent families of Nazareth, the Fahoums, an ancient camel stable where traveling merchants left their means of transport overnight – today the 250-year-old building with its traditional arches serves as a carpentry shop – the White Mosque and St. George’s Church, which is closed to regular visitors because of its rare and valuable collection of icons. And, of course, we also dropped in to visit El Babour, one of the more famous establishments in Nazareth.

If you are the type of person who does not like asking for directions, you will never find El Babour. There is no sign above the doorway announcing the 120-year-old establishment. In fact, there is barely a doorway at all, just a small hole in the wall with a few steps leading downward. Once down, however, one enters a magic, old fashioned Ali Baba cave of treasures, including baskets of dried fruits, burlap bags filled with wheat, barley and many other grains, boxes of dates and figs, bags of spices including four kinds of za’atar, coffee and two different types of the local delicacy, freekeh, which we will return to later.

The proprietors, brothers Jarjoura and Tony Kanaza, told us El Babour offers 1,500 different commodities in its vast space.

It wasn’t always so. The building was constructed as a flour mill 250 years ago and was used for a time by the German Templers, a Christian sect which built many colonies throughout the Holy Land. Eventually, it was sold to Jarjoura’s and Tony’s grandfather, a poor man from a nearby village, who managed to scrape together enough money to rent the building.

Villagers, merchants and local housewives brought their wheat to El Babour’s mill, which was originally fueled by steam power (hence the name Babour, from the English word “vapor.”) The original mill, with its wooden crushers, still exists.

In early days, the business was based overwhelmingly on barter. El Babour’s clients, most of them farmers, paid for the mill’s services with the fruit of their labor. What the owners and their family could not eat themselves, they sold on the premises, thus eventually becoming a dry goods emporium.

Jarjoura and Tony told us they were particularly proud of how they had saved the local staple, freekeh, from extinction. Freekeh is wheat which is cooked like rice. Farmers pick the wheat while it is still green, burn it to remove the chaff, then wash and dry it. They would then sell it to the mills which ground it, washed and dried it again and sold it wholesale or retail. Because the wheat is harvested before it ripens, it has less starch in it.

Preparing freekeh is hard work, however, and local farmers eventually tired of it, especially since rice was a much simpler alternative.

But the Kanazas said they did not want to see the traditional food disappear. Twenty-five years ago, they began a campaign to encourage the farmers to continue providing it and guaranteed to purchase their crops. Today, the brothers say, freekeh has become a popular dish again. Almost no sooner was this said than we had the privilege of tasting it at Alreda, a gourmet restaurant also located in the old part of Nazareth and owned by Daher Zeidani.

Daher Zeidani is a well-known name in many circles in Jerusalem. He (first as manager and later co-owner) and a Dutchman named Jan established Jan’s Teahouse, one of the most unusual restaurants in Jerusalem. Established in Ein Kerem in the 1970s as an unusually aesthetic, bohemian and laid-back restaurant and cafe, it moved to the Jerusalem Theater in the 1980s, where its décor became even more plush, gorgeous and unusual for the normally dour city.

Jan later moved back to Holland, where he died, and Zeidani continued to operate the teahouse with two Jewish partners. Then, in 2000, his family purchased a 120-year-old building in Nazareth, whose first floor had always been used as a warehouse, including, for 50 years, by Tnuva.

While still running Jan’s, Zeidani started cleaning up the ground floor of the Nazareth building and designing his new restaurant. Today, it is a large open space surrounded by massive stone walls, large windows and a number of pillars and decorated with an eclectic collection of artifacts, utensils and pictures, including one of the Egyptian singer, songwriter and actress Oum Kalthoum.

Also eclectic is the food that Zeidani serves, although some of it is based on traditional Palestinian food from the Nazareth region. We ordered an entrée of smoked eggplant and tehina, called “stolen eggplant,” followed by a traditional Nazareth oven dish called “muhamar,” which has a pita-like base topped with beef and spices, and an unusual main course of cooked lamb neck in garlic with artichoke and freekeh.

Zeidani employs a chef but makes some of the dishes himself, including the lamb neck. All the food was delicious, plentiful and relatively inexpensive. The main course came out to less than NIS 100 each.

Zeidani, as we found out when we talked to him, is an unusual person. As important as the restaurant is to him, he regards it as part of a much broader worldview very much connected to his identity as a Palestinian, and a Palestinian intellectual at that.

There are other fine restaurants in the city, most of which are geared to local patrons. We had lunch at one of them, called Divan el-Saraiai, which became famous for the pancakes it served at Ramadan, but now offers throughout the year. As we sat there eating cheese and apple-and-nut pancakes and home-prepared humous, we saw women wearing traditional Palestinian robes and head coverings buying dozens of these pancakes to take home.

We did, saw and experienced all of this in just 24 hours and left Nazareth with the feeling that there was much more to do in town, even before starting off on the Jesus Trail, which we have vowed to do.

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