The small green door peeking out onto a sliver of an alley in Nazareth's Old City is deceptively humble. The low frame makes visitors bow their head as though they were in prayer as they enter. But the gesture feels appropriate. Stepping into the plant-lined courtyard and standing under the Ottoman-era arches of the Fauzi Azar Inn is a magical, almost transcendent, moment.
It was this same feeling that inspired Maoz Inon to turn what was once a derelict mansion into the bustling guesthouse it is today.
Inon discovered the site in 2005. Fresh from a year hiking with his wife in the States and South America - a journey that convinced the couple to open their own lodgings on the Israel National Trail - Inon was wandering the Old City. The cobbled lanes were empty. The metal shutters of store fronts were clamped shut. And the Azar mansion - with its marble floors, 19th-century frescoes and domed windows overlooking Nazareth - sat still.
Though Inon knew in an instant that he'd found the place for his guesthouse, he couldn't begin restorations until he'd sought out the family who had once called the mansion their home.
Once he had the blessings of the five sisters who retain ownership of the property, Inon got to work. Fauzi Azar Inn was a fast hit, garnering rave reviews from travel giants such as Frommer's, Rough Guides and the Lonely Planet.
Riding this wave of success, Inon recently opened the Al-Mutran Guest House, waking yet another sleeping 200-year-old Arab mansion, turning it into an upscale, breezy boutique hotel. One private room offers a vaulted ceiling and a stone alcove lined with colorful pillows; a suite boasts Moroccan-tiled floors and stained-glass-edged windows.
Inon and his guesthouses are at the epicenter of Nazareth's burgeoning tourism industry. Restaurants, galleries, and travelers - Israeli and international - are popping up and shaking off the city's dust.
BUT, LIKE the unassuming lane that leads to Fauzi Azar Inn, Nazareth continues to make a modest first impression. It's as though Nazareth - remembering its long history of having been passed through so many hands - hides its treasures. The city seems to insist that visitors must first ease open its door, step into its courtyard, and talk to the locals. Only then are travelers welcome to dig.
Begin unearthing Nazareth by joining Fauzi Azar Inn's tour of the Old City. Available daily, except for Sunday, the guided walk costs only 15 shekels - less than you'd pay for a cup of coffee in some of Tel Aviv's chichi spots. Rather than the humble tour the price suggests, however, the traveler receives a rich, detailed and intimate look at Nazareth - from the time of the Crusaders, to the influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948, to today's nameless cafes where elderly men pass the day sipping tea garnished with walnut, smoking and playing cards.
Making sense of Nazareth also means understanding the sensory overload. Church bells chatter while the muezzins sing - reminding that this now predominantly Muslim city was Jesus's boyhood home. The smell of cardamom, rising from cups of strong black coffee, mingles with the scent of za'atar - evoking, perhaps, ancient Nazareth's proximity to the Silk Route.
Your mouth has work to do, too. Start at the Deewan al-Saraya, which is near the Old City's White Mosque. Like so many of Nazareth's gems, it's a humble place, but Deewan al-Saraya is so renowned for its qatayef that the eatery is included in the Hebrew book Secrets of the Galilee. Though qatayef, a small deep-fried pancake stuffed with cheese or sweet nut filling, is usually served during Ramadan, you can get it here year-round.
In the evening, head to the edges of the Old City where you'll find a flourish of upscale restaurants, tucked away in unlikely corners. Saj, next to the Al-Mustran Guest House, offers imaginative dishes that include Levantine ingredients. Try the Popeye salad of frikeh (rice-like roasted green wheat that is rarely served outside the home) fused with spinach, oranges, mint and sautÃ©ed shrimp. Saj's dÃ©cor has a similar flavor. On the walls of the minimalist dining room, you'll find antique photos of Arab villagers transferred to canvas in electric purple, pink and blue.
Nearby Sudfeh, on the other hand, keeps its photos black and white, hanging them on simple stone walls. Set in an elegantly restored Ottoman-era mansion, Sudfeh serves up continental cuisine alongside regional favorites, presenting an excellent carpaccio next to a memorable tabouleh. Mary Abu Jaber, one of the two owners, doesn't seem to forget a face and she's eager to dish out conversation in English, Hebrew or Arabic.
Tourist sites are closed at night, so if you want to continue your digging you'll have to head to Dandana, the small bar owned by Fadi Saba and his two brothers. Saba studied law in London - but rather than becoming a barrister, he holds court from behind the bar. Amiably argumentative, Saba's always up for drink and debate. And no topic is taboo, making Dandana a great place to delve into local attitudes.
In the morning, walk off your arak-induced hangover by heading to the Cactus Gift Shop, adjacent to Mary's Well. Owners Elias and Martina Shama know a lot about uncovering Nazareth. They bought the property for their souvenir store in 1993. When they began renovations, they found intact terracotta pipes - similar to those found in Roman-era bathhouses in Pompeii and Cyprus - running through the stone walls.
Their renovation quickly turned into an excavation, uncovering what is thought to be one of the largest Greco-Roman bathhouses in the Middle East. And because the bathhouse was up and running during the same time as Mary, some speculate that both the Virgin and Jesus might have whiled away an afternoon or two in these once-steam-filled rooms.
Today, the Ancient Bath House is tucked around and underneath the Cactus Gift Shop. Typical Nazareth, the plain faÃ§ade and the simple sign offer not even the slightest hint of the deep significance and beauty of the site. Instead, like Nazareth itself, you must go inside, introduce yourself and chat for a bit. Only then does Martina Shama switch off the light, pull up a rug, and show you a window that reveals the layer of history below.