There’s nothing like getting away for a while. Imagine just getting out of town, leaving the detritus of the everyday grind behind and, say, stretching out on a hammock and watching the world go by as the birds twitter, the foliage lolls gently in the breeze and the waves lap insouciantly to the shore.
All the above, and more, can be had an hour, or two, or three away – depending on your usual locale – on the Golan Heights.
Anyone old enough to recall the exquisite chill-out vibes that permeated the Sinai Peninsula before Israel’s withdrawal from the Egyptian territory in 1982, or even some of that laid-back ambiance sustained there even as the Egyptians upped the tourism ante by building scores of hotels and other accommodation facilities all along the Red Sea coast, will have some idea of the pulse-reducing emotional clime that seems to pervade the whole of the northern region captured from Syria in the Six Day War.
For starters, at this time of the year the weather there is just wonderful. As I began a bike ride from near the Banias River nature reserve, a while back around midday, it was a sweltering 32°.
By the time I’d climbed up to the Druze village of Majdal Shams, a mite over 1,000 meters higher, it was a refreshing 24°.
Then, as we headed up even further, and stepped off the spanking new cable car at the very top of the Israeli-held part of Mount Hermon, it was 20° with a howling gale making the air feel even cooler. It was a delectable balm to summer-heated bodies.
Anyone from the center of the country who lives and/or works in the environs of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area should appreciate the sense of space you encounter as you make it to the top of the Golan plateau.Rolling fields, sparsely used roads, sporadic moshavim and kibbutzim and, infrequently, larger communities cropped up from time to time by the winding roadside and, above all, there was an abundance of sky with nary a building over three or four floors high to spoil the celestial panoramic view.
WE BEGAN our three-day Golan circuit with a visit to the Ein Keshatot (Spring of the Arches), aka Umm el-Kanatir (Mother of the Arches), archeological site.
Not a bad introduction to the vast spread of places of interest, aesthetic charms and historical backdrop on offer up there.
There was still the odd splash of floral color around – spring tends to hang around for a month or two longer at altitude – and water flowed in copious volumes, as befitting the site’s moniker.
The headliner of Ein Keshatot – one of around 30 Jewish villages in the area during the Talmudic era – is undoubtedly the 6th century synagogue that was gradually unearthed during the course of a 15-year excavation project. Rather than leaving the rank-and-file to their own devices in imagining how the pile of ancient rubble once looked, the authorities brought in some heavy guns, and got state-of-the art technology on board, including a computer-operated crane that identified each and every stone and reconstructed the entire first floor of what was a magnificent edifice. The locals clearly had more than a couple of pennies to rub together, as explained in the video screened at the visitors’ center.
Continuing on a hop, skip and jump northward, we came across Moshav Kanaf, which has plenty going for it across all sorts of hands-on and instructional areas. If you’re looking to get in on some culinary tricks and hear a couple of engaging tales, Michal Nasee’s Shulhan HaOchel (Dining Room Table) – 052-678-8828 – an invitingly airy kitchen-cum-workshop spot, accommodates that in spades.Nasee came across as a congenial generous soul and we quickly got drawn in, mixing, seasoning, rolling, cooking and frying as, somehow, we ended up with a delicious repast for our very own enjoyment. Nasee says she is attracted to the magic of the culinary arts and loves meeting people from all walks of life and personal backdrops. We left her place well-fed and with a spring in our step.
While you’re in the neighborhood, you may want to pop along to see Dan and Lilach Assraf and their Azizo venture and lavender fields, and offshoot product line. Besides getting the lowdown on the business, Assraf showed us the store with its range of oils, cosmetics, jams, honey and chocolate, all based on the purple plant. By the way, the vegan chocolate we tasted was heavenly.
The Golan Heights is also a must for oenophiles. With its favorable grape-nurturing climatic conditions, the whole area is dotted with vineyards and wineries, and we enjoyed a visit to the family-run Odem Mountain Winery where we were given a range of products to taste – and came out with a couple of their finest. The Terra Nova Winery, back over at Kanaf, was well worth a stopover, too.
ACCOMMODATION ALSO proved to be a regional forte. Our first night was spent at the improbably named Hachee Nof SheYesh (loosely translated as The Most/Best View There Is) B&B on Moshav Ramot – 054-467-1581. We wondered about the name until we saw the place. The wooded building we were allocated was spacious, comfortable and well-equipped, including a Jacuzzi, and the view of the Sea of Galilee from the manicured lawn in front was truly spectacular. Italian-style dinner was delivered to our doorstep by chef Ohad Erez, complete with a bottle of pretty good vino. While further away from the Sea of Galilee, the lake was still visible from the second night’s B&B, Nof Beresheet, on Moshav Neot Golan – (054) 476-5077 – which, while not quite as luxurious as the Ramot quarters, offered a pleasant and comfortable guest experience, complete with a tasty al fresco morning repast.
We also got in a visit to the Fass Brewhouse, where we knocked back a few of the microbrewery’s range of beers; and the Jordan Park nature reserve, complete with sound-and-light show, has some great trails, an abundance of water and camping facilities.
And, if you happen to be up there at the right time of year, cherry picking over Habustan Shel Motti (Motti’s Garden) – 072-392-4082 – is a fun and tasty thing to do. We came away with a bucket or two of succulent fruit and ended up with several jars of delicious jam. Naseeba Samara in the Druze town of Bukata also cultivates a consumer-friendly cherry orchard, and her inviting self-named eatery (050-225-3343) does the gastronomic trick, and then some.
With air travel still very much a no-no just now, the Golan Heights ain’t a bad getaway option.
For more information: (04) 696-2885 and www.tourgolan.org.il
The writer was a guest of the establishments visited.