Jordan River – A monumental north

TThe new Helicopter Monument by Kibbutz Dafna, flowering bear's breeches in Tel Anafa, and a gorgeous Jordan River Promenade are just a few reasons to make a spring visit to the north.

She'ar Yashuv (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
She'ar Yashuv
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)

On February 4, 1997, Israel suffered the worst air catastrophe in its history. It was on that day that two helicopters crashed in midair near the Lebanese border and 73 of our soldiers were killed.

For years, just about everyone who had been in Israel at the time could tell you where they were and what they were doing when they heard the awful news. But as time passes, memories fade, and until recently there were only scattered monuments to help us remember: a garden in the Negev dedicated to two of the victims; a plaque at Moshav She'ar Yashuv, site of the tragedy.

Last month saw the inauguration of a new and terrifically impressive memorial site. We were up north on the day of the opening, and came to pay our respects.

Make this unusual site one of your stops on an unusual trip to Upper Galilee. You could even start here, and work your way south to Kibbutz Kfar Blum, where we recommend you stay the night (see box). Alternatively, consult an up-to- date road map and take this day trip from any direction.

To reach the helicopter crash memorial, follow Highway 99 east from Kiryat Shmona. Turn right at the Horshat Tal Intersection, and then immediately go left on an inner road parallel to the highway. The monument is right next to the Kibbutz Dafna cemetery.

In the main area, 73 beautiful rock structures are scattered around a bright-green lawn, blood-red anemones blooming at their feet. Around the edges of a pool in the center are the names of the fallen soldiers - and from the pool water flows to another large rock covered with plaques that tell the story of the deadly collision. From here a path leads to the final memorial: trees whose 'leaves' bear the soldiers' names.

Now get back in your vehicle and head for Givat Ha'em, a hill (giv'a) named for Henrietta Szold, known as the 'Mother' (em) of Youth Aliya. To get there from the Horshat Tal Intersection, follow Route 918 south to a point north of Kibbutz Kfar Szold, and look for the sign.

Israeli soldiers began manning a border outpost on Givat Ha'Em, a basalt hill locate ddirectly across from Syrian positions on the Golan Heights, after the War of Independence. Troops on the hill were frequently involved in military exchanges with the Syrians, who shelled settlements beneath the Heights. During the Six Day War, under heavy fire, it was from Givat Ha'em that Israel made its first advances into Syria.

Today, the tranquil hill is a Jewish National Fund overlook offering an almost unbeatable view of the Hula Valley and eastern Upper Galilee. Note how close you are to Tel Azzaziat, a former frighteningly well-fortified Syrian base and the site of a costly battle.

From here, continue on Route 918 south to Tel Anafa Nature Reserve. Northwest of Kibbutz Shamir, Tel Anafa is an off-the-track delight. Although named for the egrets (anafot) that like to nest in its trees, the Tel Anafa Nature Reserve is also known as Daffodil Hill. That's because in the dead of winter the almost untouched reserve abounds with lovely daffodils.

In spring the daffodils are replaced by distinctive acanthus flowers, called 'bear's breeches' in English. With their rosette-like bottom leaves and white and purple flowers, they are so decorative that they apparently inspired the architect who designed the Corinthian capitals that crowned the pillars in ancient Greece and Rome.

Like Givat Ha'em and a few other hills in the eastern Hula Valley, Tel Anafa was formed by a spurt of basalt stone during the formation of the Syrian-African Rift. Tel Anafa flourished by virtue of its location along the road between Beit She'an and Damascus, and it was populated for thousands of years, from at least the Chalcolithic period through the Byzantine era.

Stone and wooden steps take you on a circular route up the hill to an overgrown path where you will find antiquities scattered through the trees. Nature lovers take note: If you come in fall and miss the daffodils and the acanthus, you can delight, instead, in the sight of tall, stately white squill.

Your last site on this route is the Jordan River Promenade, also known as Shvil Ami, or Ami's Trail. A wonderful, level, paved walkway, the promenade is located above and along the flowing waters of Israel's most famous stream. It runs between Kibbutz Sde Nehemia and Kibbutz Kfar Blum.

If you are staying overnight at Kfar Blum, you can access the promenade from inside the kibbutz. Otherwise, continue south to the junction with 9779 (a kilometer or so) and turn right (west). Turn right into Sde Nehemia and park in the lot. Then walk a few meters back to the main road and turn right at the corner to begin your jaunt - a one-kilometer trek that ends at the outskirts of Kfar Blum.

You can run along this promenade, take a brisk walk, or enjoy a leisurely stroll above the water. Enjoy well- kept lawns, paths down to the river, and the sight of kayaks moving gracefully through the stream. The walkway is studded with biblical quotes, all connected to crossing the Jordan River.

(Box) Pastoral at Kfar Blum

When my husband and I were invited to spend a night at Kfar Blum, we originally turned down the offer. That's because we had stayed there several times in the distant past, and weren't in the mood for very small, very simple rooms and an outdated lobby. But after being assured that all had changed, we relented. We were glad we did. The whole enterprise, today operated purely as a business and called Pastoral, is far more of an upscale hotel than a kibbutz guest house. The lobby is elegant, spacious and multifunctional. All of the original rooms have been renovated, enlarged and modernized, while the newest rooms are five-star quality: spacious and absolutely beautiful.

I loved our lodgings: a spacious two-room suite in a new building. The suite came complete with a large bathroom containing a Jacuzzi, double bathroom floor rugs, double sinks and double entrances. The suite's paintings and decor were superb.

It rained while we were there, so instead of a morning walk we headed for the gym. It was disappointing to find it ugly and old-fashioned, a far cry from the hotel's piece de resistance: a stunning and very unusual spa that isolates you completely from the commotion, noise and worries of the outside world. Besides the sauna and the Turkish bath, the spa boasts some very unusual attractions: freezing cold tubs of water that you dump on your head for cooling off (I'm told Russian visitors love it!), great foot-tub Jacuzzis and my favorite, the rainfall cave.

The treatment center is separate from the rest of the spa and it was there that I enjoyed a professional massage that offered me temporary relief from chronic back pain. Afterwards, I was taken to a 'relaxation area' - lounge chairs with comfy mattresses located directly across from a picturesque window. When I arrived, I found a mellow hubby waiting for me. I barely waved hello before lying down and falling asleep!