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Well-marked with its orange, white, and blue logos, this is the most family-friendly leg of the Israel Trail. Pine, cedar, cypress, and pistachio trees shade much of its modest, but quality 12-km length. Picnics may be savored at frequent diversions - Crusader ruins, Independence War trenches, viewpoints over the mountain route to Jerusalem, and a children's playground deep inside the Eshtaol Forest.
It's worth making it a full day trip, putting the walk together with Latrun's varied attractions. They include the Monastery of Silence, established in 1890 by the Trappist Order. The monks did indeed take the vow of silence, but there is special dispensation to speak for those who sell home-made wine to tourists. See the archaeological findings in the monastery garden, including an inscription with a mention of the Fifth Roman Legion, which joined the forces suppressing both the First Jewish Revolt of 69-70 CE, and the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135 CE.
You may then drop in to the open-air Museum of the Israel Defense Forces Armored Division. This is a must for aficionados of military hardware and strategy, and for that matter, for those with childhood memories of toy soldiers and tanks. The museum has a memorial to the Israeli brigade that not always successfully fought to hold on to the ultra-strategic locality the opening steps of the walk push up to. There is a neat display of more than 100 tanks which saw action in Israel's wars with its neighbors. Climb on to some of the earliest tanks, and compare them to the ultra-modern versions built by Israel's own military-industrial complex, as well as those imported from the USA.
Reserve an hour and a half for the nearby, recently-opened Mini-Israel. An essential for first-time visitors to the country, it enables them to identify the places they have seen, or will see. With realistic scale models, it highlights many of the religious and tourist sites according to their due geographical positions. Soak up their auras with the many sound effects - from the muezzin calling the Muslims to prayer on the Temple Mount, to the lifeguards (definitely not Baywatch types) shouting at bikini-clad swimmers on the beaches of Tel Aviv.
HOW LATRUN got its name is not known for certain. Some think it is a corruption of the Crusader's stronghold in the area: "Le toron des chevaliers" (the Castle of the Knights), whose remains you will view in due course. Others cite the more far-fetched tradition held by some Christians: "Castellum bonu Latronis" (the Fortress of the Good Thief), for the bandit crucified next to Jesus (Luke 23:40-43). Christian sources state that Jesus, unlike the thief, made a post-execution, full-bodied appearance to his disciples on the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus (Luke 24 13-35). Latrun is held by many to be that very Emmaus; indeed, remains of the churches built on that site are found in nearby Canada Park.
Pick up the trail on the northern side of the Trappist Monastery, where it crosses Route #3, and follow it eastwards right up the hill flanking that complex. It is a well-paved, but steep and rather tiring ascent, right to the top of the small, almost circular mountain whose view from the summit speaks its importance throughout the ages.
Near the top I took the liberty of straying into the flowered gardens containing monk's residential quarters. I was getting though to the end when I noticed that my unbidden entry was being observed by an elderly tall and bearded monk. I quickened my pace, hoping he was a true, inarticulate Trappist, but he gained on me with a: "Here's the gate, I'll let you out!" "No," I countered, "I'd rather leave the way I came in."
A 360 degree survey of the region opens out as you make it to the top. Latrun was - and is - where the Ayalon Valley, carrying the road from the Mediterranean Coast up to Jerusalem, splits into two mountain routes. You are looking down on both. In the foreground is the way of Sha'ar Hagai (the Gate of the Valley), which today bears Route #1 to Jerusalem. Further in the background is Route #433, leading up the ascent of Beit Horon and entering Jerusalem along a more northerly course.
THIS WAS the area where Joshua defeated the Amorites (Joshua 10: 1-11), and successfully demanded the forces of nature to let him go into extra time: "Sun stand still over Gibeon, and the moon remain stationary over the Valley of Ayalon!"Here, King David routed the Philistines, and the First Crusaders managed to break through the Muslim overlords en route to Jerusalem. And this is the site, well within living memory, of the bloodiest combat between Israeli (many who barely survived the Holocaust) and Arab forces - with the latter gaining control, until it fell to the IDF in 1967. The summit's commemorative sculpture tells it all - fingers emerging from solid pillars making a last desperate struggle to support the mighty stone before its sad and inevitable fall.
Allow at least half an hour to look around. A small Crusader church, (complete with its characteristic Gothic arches and herringbone roof pattern) is yours to discover - with a flashlight. So are the remains of their 12th-century fortress to secure their command over the western way to Jerusalem. The rows of dug-out trenches, however, belong to the War of Independence of 1948. They covered the Jordanian army's 19-year hold on the fortress, despite two valiant Israeli Army attempts to turn them out. Some of them are overgrown, sheltering their more recent scorpion successors - mind you don't fall in.
The Trail leads southwards into the Nachshon Valley, a pleasant, fairly open vineyard and olive grove landscape, and heads to the edge of the Eshtaol Forest. On the right is Neveh Shalom - a well-known mixed community of Jews and Arabs, proud of demonstrating that the very different elements of the country's population can indeed work and live together. Its kindergarten and elementary school are ethnically mixed, and its hosting lectures and seminars on multi-cultural co-existence supply some of its residents with a substantial income. The Trail, however, avoids the settlement, bearing left up a narrow track into the oaks, stone pines, cedar, and cypress trees, which seem to get taller the deeper you get into the forest.
Fairly level paths convey the walk towards the Burma Road, with several viewpoints giving both command and cover over the Judean Hills. Within a kilometer inside the forest, the path turns south, along a green-marked wide track through the Forest of Peruvian Donors, complete with a picnic site and a children's playground, and its junction with the red-marked Burma Road a little further ahead.
THE MAY 1948 Arab grasp on Latrun put a halt on all supplies moving further east, and it seemed that West Jerusalem's Jews would have to choose between surrender and starvation. Those outcomes were saved by Michael Stone (better known as Mickey Marcus), an American immigrant soldier. He blasted links through a network of footpaths which added up to a makeshift and well-camouflaged road through the seemingly impassible mountains towards Jerusalem that bypassed the main routes overlooked by Latrun. It was named the Burma Road after its emergency supply-line namesake between Kumming (China) and Lashio (Burma), improvised by the Allies in World War Two. By June 9th, 1948, the first furtive supplies got through to Jerusalem, effectively putting an end to the less than one-month old Arab blockade.
Your route passes a series of metal reliefs of soldiers and covered supply trucks, with ingenious devices to get them over the steep drop along this winding section, aptly nicknamed "The Serpentine." They recreate the atmosphere of the five-month period the Burma Road served as Jerusalem's life-line. Try to find remains of the hastily-laid water pipe through which water was brought to Jerusalem during that crisis period.
Part of the fun of the last hour and a half is losing your sense of direction as the Burma Road twines its forested way around the hills past the Harel lookout point to Mesilat Zion - the end of the walk. You will lose count of the number of turns in the path, but it is well-marked all the way. I did not meet a single walker, but had to dodge several cars whose drivers fancied the Burma Road as car-rally grounds. Watch for them as they catch up on you - the greenery seems to absorb their noise.
This sinuous section of the Burma Road ends at Mesilat Zion, on Route 38. You can hail a sherut (shared taxi), but the bus stop for Jerusalem appears to have been removed, so you will be looking at an additional 20 minutes roadwork southwards, for the bus service #415 to Jerusalem.
YOU SHOULD EXPERIENCE:
* Forest fragrances of fresh eucalyptus, amongst oaks, stone pines, cedar, and cypress trees
* The vitality of the Latrun summit as a control on access to Jerusalem
* Characteristic Crusader ecclesiastical and military architecture
* The tone of bitter trench warfare between the IDF and the Jordanians in 1948
* The atmosphere of the makeshift and well-camouflaged road to smuggle supplies to relieve the 1948 siege of Jerusalem
* As a short detour - Neveh Shalom - a mixed community of Jews and Arabs
* Start: Latrun - Route #3. Buses #432 and #433 (Jerusalem - Rishon Le-Zion); #434 and #435 (Jerusalem-Rehovot) and #439 (Jerusalem-Ashdod)
* Finish: Mesilat Zion - Route #38, I km South of Sha'ar Hagai. On sherut (shared taxi) line to Jerusalem. Bus #415 to Jerusalem - stops 20 minutes southwards on Route #38.
* Level of difficulty - Straightforward. Recommended for families.
* Distance - 12 km approx.
* Time: 4 hours.
* Negotiable by mountain bikes throughout.
* Map: Scale 1:50,000, Map 9 (The Jerusalem Corridors)
* Bring: 2 liters of water per person, a sun hat, sunscreen, and sturdy shoes with grips for walking. Include a compass, mobile phone, towel, first aid kit, penknife, and a powerful flashlight. Mobile phone reception OK for most of the walk.
* Water: At the start and finish of the walk.
* Accommodation: Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hachamisha Guest House 02 533 1331; Kibbutz Neveh Illan Guest House 02 533 9339; Yad Hashemona Guest House 02 534 3953/6; Rose of Castell, Mevasseret Zion 02 534 1744
* Restaurants: Hasinit Hazehuba, Ramla 08 925 4644; Mifgash Caravan, Abu Ghosh 02 533 3573; Yad Hashemona Guest House, Yad Hashemona 02 534 3953/6; Dagrif, Abu Ghosh 02 570 3111
* Places to visit: Latrun Monastery; Latrun Military Open Tank Museum; Latrun Police Station. Christian visitors will wish to see the religious buildings associated with French Community of the Beatitudes, and the Jesus Brotherhood; and also the archaeological remains of nearby Emmaus - the possible end of the road along which Jesus is believed to have appeared to his disciples after the Resurrection (Luke 24 13-35).
* Attractions: Arched Pool (underground boating), Ramla 08 977 1480; Parrot's Nest (parrot-based activities), Kibbutz Na'an 08 941 4515; Mini Israel 02 922 2444