What could be better than getting away from the winter chill to somewhere nice and sunny, in the delicate sense of the solar source of heat? Eilat is always a popular option, but that is at least a four-hour drive from the center. Of course you could fly down. The aerial route from Sde Dov Airport to our most southerly resort takes a pint-sized 45 minutes, but that’s without the drive there through the generally packed Tel Aviv streets, parking and all the other logistical challenges of getting anywhere in the center of the country.
Then again you could just mosey on down to the Dead Sea, all of 40 minutes’ drive from Jerusalem, or an hour and a half from Tel Aviv. And you don’t even have to go as far as Ein Gedi, not to mention the massed huddle of hotels that have sprung up at the Ein Bokek end of the saltiest body of water around. You can find plenty to do in the northern environs of the, sadly, rapidly receding landlocked sea and, if you have a mind to spend a few days soaking up some rays, and chilling in the relaxed desert ambiance, the Bianchini Holiday Village is ideally located for your accommodation and nourishing sustenance needs.
The resort covers an expansive slot right at the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, and provides a range of hospitality facilities. Run by the larger than life Dina Dagan, the village can treat you to a right royal stay at the Moroccan Palace Suite, which packs in two bedrooms, a spacious living room area, a jacuzzi and terrace with private garden. The suite accommodates up to five at a time.
If your purse strings don’t quite stretch that far, there are over 60 bungalow units, of various sizes, lined up betwixt sprawling lawns dotted with trees of various species. There are bungalows for couples and larger family-size units. You could also get more of a sense of the desert, and cut down on your outlay in the process, by staying in the mammoth Moroccan Palace Tent, which is fitted out with rugs, mattresses and cushions, and can host up to 60 people. Toilets, hot showers, electricity and barbecue facilities are also provided. There are also cheap and cheerful camping facilities – of the four-person and larger communal variety.
Dagan comes from a Moroccan family and the relevant cultural aesthetic abounds practically everywhere you look across the resort. The enormous dining hall offers a delightful vista of the Dead Sea, and the towering Moab mountain range beyond. The view is fetchingly framed by large arabesque-shaped windows, and there are wall and floor tiles with Arabesque patterns in various parts of the compound, including in the washrooms next to the half-Olympic sized swimming pool. And there are some wild and wacky-looking accommodation structures under construction at the moment, including one with an outsized Sphinx on the roof, and another with a pyramid-shaped top.
Dagan comes across as the perfect host, complete with brightly colored djellaba, flowing dark hair, spectacular finger nail extensions and a ready smile. And the vittles she dishes up, in generous portions, aren’t too bad either. She has previous culinary experience, from a bar she ran in downtown Jerusalem. In 2001, as the Second Intifada gathered venomous pace, Dagan discovered a 7.5 kg bomb on the premises. She managed to get it outside, and subsequently defused, unbeknown to the couple of hundred young revelers in the bar at the time.
That did it for Dagan. She said she felt she wanted to get away to somewhere more peaceful, but that wasn’t too far away from her beloved Jerusalem. Bianchini – named after Angelo Levi Bianchini, a Jewish Italian naval officer with Moroccan roots who came to pre-state Palestine in 1918 – was the ideal choice for her. It began life in 2002, and Dagan has been deftly expanding the business ever since.
Then there’s the Dead Sea beach, just a short work away, complete with loungers, chairs, shade and deliciously slimy mud right by the lapping waters. Just pick it up and slap it on, then repose on the gently bobbing buoyant water.
There is a sense of history about the area too. We were taken to see the West Bank Salt Company plant a few kilometers to the north, currently overseen by Othman Hallak. Hallak’s family started the facility in 1960, and has been producing iodine-rich salt, for domestic and industrial use, ever since.
A little further up the road we popped into Qasr al-Yahud. The name translates as “Palace of the Jews” and is a sacred spot for Jews and Christians alike. If you ignore the fact that the water level has dropped around four meters in the past six years, you can enjoy the spectacle of the reed-rich part of the Jordan River, which serves as an official baptism site.
It was there, according to Christian tradition, that John the Baptist baptized Jesus, while the Jewish significance stems from the belief that the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land there, and that Elijah the Prophet ascended to heaven from the same place. Should you wish, you can chance a wave at the Jordanian soldiers, stationed on the other bank of the narrow waterway. I did, and I got a wave back.
Nearby Deir Hajla is also well worth a visit. The Greek Orthodox monastery, complete with impressive mosaics and wall paintings, started life there in the fifth century. It is a surprisingly verdant and naturally polychromic spot, fed by a spring.
Possibly the most moving, and intriguing, slot on the press tour was a visit to the Balm of Gilead Farm run by Guy Erlich. Erlich is an amiable character who comes across as enthused in the extreme by his work. The venture also goes by the highly evocative subtitle of “Biblical Agriculture Revived,” which basically spells out what Erlich’s pioneering enterprise is all about.
His patch of the Judean Desert sports several hectares of trees, some of which are unique anywhere in the world. As Erlich explained to us, what we know as persimmon, the sweet juicy orange fruit, was originally used for a very different plant. It was prized as one of the ingredients of oil used for anointing purposes in the Second Temple.
Erlich also lovingly nurtures various other biblical plants, such as myrrh and frankincense, used as incense in the Temple. Erlich notes that the “ancient plants I am reviving here were once the main economic staple of the ancient Hebrews of the Jericho Valley – our ancestors. I have taken it upon myself to make it happen.” Erlich is a captivating character, and his little farm is well worth a visit.
There are, of course, plenty of other reasons to make the short trip eastwards, down to the lowest spot on Earth, including Ein Gedi, Masada and the Qumran caves whence the Dead Sea Scrolls came, and plenty in the way of trekking and mountain biking fun, to say the least.The writer was a guest of Bianchini Holiday Village.
For more information: www.biankini.com, www.balmofgileadfarm.com, www.dead-sea.org.il
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