Nazareth has long been considered the forgotten son of tourism in Israel, and Tareq Shihada is intent on doing something about it.
The affable general manager of the Nazareth Cultural and Tourism Association talks passionately about the tourism potential of his native city, and after spending a weekend as his guest, it's difficult not to get caught up in his fervor.
"Nazareth is exactly in the middle of Israel - you can get anywhere from here and you can get here from anywhere," explained Shihada, in the lobby of the luxurious Golden Crown Hotel.
Situated on the outskirts of Arab Nazareth - right next to the helicopter landing pad built for Pope Benedict XVI's visit in May and a short ride from Mount Precipice where the pope led mass before 40,000 worshipers - the majestic hotel looks like a fish out of water, as if someone had cut it out of the Eilat hotel landscape and plopped it into the austere beauty of the North.
It's just one of the anomalies of a city that has a deceptively variety-filled plethora of attractions and sites to offer. And with the tradition of warm, Arab hospitality ringing true, a visit to Nazareth shatters any myths about the "dangers" of Jews being able to feel comfortable in an Arab city.
Located about 25 kilometers from the Kinneret and nine km. west of Mount Tabor, the city of 65,000 (one-third Christian and two-thirds Muslim) is known for its celebrated Christian holy sites, like the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation and the Greek Orthodox Church. But historically, most Diaspora Jewish travelers - as well as most native Israeli Jews - have not considered it a must-see place on their travel map.
That's where Shihada and the tourism professionals in the city come in. However, an immediate problem awaits a new arrival. After checking in to the Golden Crown, the danger arises that you might not want to ever leave to check out the city.
Originally called the Renaissance, the Golden Crown fell into disrepair and closed in 2000 during the intifada. After an investment of more than NIS 1.5 million by new owners, it reopened with a vengeance in 2006 and today boasts 243 rooms, which are spacious and homey. All boast private balconies overlooking a pristine open-air swimming pool and featuring a breathtaking view of the Jezreel Valley.
My wife and I spent our first few minutes browsing around the lobby trying to ascertain if, indeed, the hotel was kosher as we had been told. After perusing the menu in the lobby restaurant and seeing only dairy entries, and then spying a Shabbat elevator, we felt we were getting closer to the answer. Then, we saw a kashrut supervisor bounding out of the dining room, and that sealed the deal.
The cuisine, which one of my fellow guests referred to as "kosher Arabic food prepared in a European style," was exquisite, and beyond what one normally expects from an Israeli hotel buffet.
Claiming to house what they say is the largest conference hall in the country north of Tel Aviv, the hotel frequently hosts large groups and events of up to 1,000 people. Among the special events during the year are a series of musical weekends presented by the organization Kishrei Tarbut. With cuisine, events, decorations and top-of-the-line live music geared to a particular theme, the popular weekends (Thursday-Saturday) immerse the guest into the culture of the period. Sold-out weekends have already been devoted to Beethoven, featuring pianist extraordinaire Gil Shohat, and to the music and culture of Italy. The next attraction is the weekend of July 30-August 1, which will feature the sights, smells and sounds of New Orleans and Mardi Gras, with some of Israel's finest jazz and blues musicians.
Despite all the reasons to stay ensconced in the hotel, the time must come, however, to venture out into the city of Nazareth. But there's no letdown to the barrage of sensory experiences at hand.
Out of the NIS 43 million the government allocated for the pope's visit, NIS 20m. went to improve the roads, walkways, lights, sewage and appearance of Nazareth. Whether it's due to the changes that emerged as a result or the natural demeanor of the Nazarenes, walking through the city is a pleasure. No matter if you're exploring the bustling Old City shuk, taking a hike along Mount Precipice with its amazing view of the North, or visiting one of the dozen of major Christian historical sites, there's an abundance of offerings available for both the adventurous and the cautious tourist.
One of the off-the-beaten track treasures is a visit in the Old City to the Nazareth Nuns' Convent, located not far from the Church of Annunciation, where you'll find one of the most impressive but least expected archeology sites. The nuns, who arrived in Nazareth from France in 1855, purchased several stores in the market and started establishing the convent. During the building process, many archeological findings were uncovered, including a large hall with a big arch above it, catacombs, water cisterns, mosaics, an ancient church's altar and a Jewish burial site believed to be from before the Second Temple period.
The sisters also have a small museum exhibiting old coins and pottery, and the convent includes a courtyard surrounding a modest yet spotless guest house. Tours of the subterranean site are by appointment only for groups, or better yet, go through one of the experienced local tour guides who know the city inside and out, like Fauzi Hanna.
And while you're in the Old City, don't miss the Synagogue Church, where according to Christian tradition, Jesus studied and prayed. In addition, this is where he gave his famous sermon on Shabbat (Matthew 13, Mark 6, Luke 4) when he declared himself as the Messiah to his Jewish village members. This sermon infuriated the congregants and they allegedly dragged him to Mount Precipice planning to push him downhill, but he jumped and disappeared.
Today, the Synagogue Church belongs to the Greek-Catholic community. According to historians, attributing this synagogue to the one where Jesus was praying is a late tradition that started after the Byzantine period: All early Jewish holy sites were destroyed by the Romans at the end of the Second Temple period, and most ancient Galilee synagogues are from the third to sixth century.
Another highlight with a unique Nazarean twist is the abundance of ceiling frescos in existence from the Ottoman period. At that time, there was an economic boom in the city and a wealthy Muslim elite emerged that built large, multi-story buildings containing inner courtyards, arched balconies and magnificent ceiling murals done by local or Lebanese artists.
Most of these homes have eroded over time and today house families of a much less affluent level. That's why, for a modest fee of NIS 10, they'll let visitors enter their homes and their bedrooms to see the still vivid, intricate frescoes. A visit can be booked through the Tourist Association's offices, or you can contact one of the families directly, like the one that lives at Beit Em Manor.
After all that touring, it's a necessity to sample some of the culinary treats Nazareth has to offer. First stop should be the El-Babour spice shop, a Nazareth landmark for almost a century.
Housed in an actual old flour mill built by the Templers in the late Ottoman period, the store is run by Tony and Jarjura Kanaza, whose grandfather founded the business. There are over 1,000 different spices and oils for sale, many of them - like paprika, hyssop and flour from wheat berries - ground on the premises. Tony will be happy to talk about the spices and the history of the store, which is located on Annunciation Street.
For the best in Arabic pastries and sweets, you don't need to go farther than the Mahroum Sweet Shop located on St. Paul's Street. A family business dating back three generations, Mahroum is populated with a steady stream of local patrons, pointing to the fact that its vast array of baklava, kanafeh, halva and other delicacies is the real deal.
For a more substantial meal, try the Sudfeh bistro bar and gallery (not kosher), run by two Christian Arab women, who at midlife decided to leave their careers and enter the restaurant business. Good choice, as their salmon was exquisite and their meaty Arabic-style dishes looked like they would be just as tasty.
If a full meal isn't required, but an experience is, try the Gallery Koazima in the Old City. Over some strong coffee or herbal tea brewed by proprietor Hozima Hamad in a picturesque courtyard, you can browse through the artistic offerings of local talent - including Hamad herself. And for a small extra fee, be sure to ask experienced coffee-grounds reader Hamad to look into your future.
There's one thing that will be easy to predict - in the near future, there'll be a return trip to Nazareth.