A city in transition

Venerating the old and celebrating the new, the delights of Nazareth beckon.

The latest in modern spas  370 (photo credit: Hammam Zaman)
The latest in modern spas 370
(photo credit: Hammam Zaman)
Nazareth is experiencing a renaissance. The city was typically featured as a short stop to see a church or two on a pilgrim’s itinerary. However, in the past few years a burst of energy has been infused into the development of its cultural and culinary infrastructure, creating a lure that is difficult for local and foreign tourists to resist.
There is a palpable dichotomy between ancient and modern Nazareth in every facet of the city’s ascendency. The culinary scene is dominated by traditional Arab cuisine, with Western fusions available. The accommodations range from Ottoman mansions converted into boutique bed-and-breakfasts to grand hotels that rival Tel Aviv’s most recent beachfront additions. Narrow alleys lead to bars with live music, and old Ottoman delights have been revamped for the 21st century.
Nazareth’s longtime culinary gem is Diana (www.2eat.co.il/diana), a veritable institution of traditional Arab cuisine at its finest. Born out of an eponymous movie theater that closed long ago, the modest food stand that served moviegoers evolved into a nationally recognized mecca for food lovers. The owner and chef, Sfadie Dochol, inherited his father’s operation and for decades has maintained the restaurant’s reputation. Recently the restaurant moved to a new location, with more convenient access to parking and plenty of room for more patrons to enjoy.
A meal at Diana demands a tasting of the dozen or more salads made with the highest-quality ingredients. For main courses, the lamb chops are an absolute must – the tender meat simply melts on the tongue. But the combination of Dochol family culinary secrets, fresh ingredients and devotion to the classic Arab taste make the breadth of the menu appealing. A fitting dessert is the homemade kanafeh, cooked to perfection without that bright orange food dye that has come to define the mass production of Arab desserts. Diana brings it back to basics.
On the other hand, Kastana (http://kastana.rest-e.co.il) is a restaurant that epitomizes the new wave of culinary pursuits in the ancient city. Inspired at every turn by traditional Arab food, the chefs incorporate Western flavors into their dishes. Located in a 450-year-old building previously used as a flour mill, the modern renovations parallel the bridge between old and new of the menu choices. Following the classic Arab salads as appetizers, the options include sautéed vegetables in a chili soy sauce and Italian-style pastas. Even the Arabian classic grilled meats come with Italian dipping sauces such as garlic and oil, a wine sauce or a French-inspired cream sauce.
Just a few dozen meters from Kastana in the Greek Orthodox quarter of the old city, there is a variety of lodging options. The Villa Nazareth is a family-run bed-and-breakfast in a building from the British Mandate period, renovated by the owner, a graduate of the school of architecture at Tel Aviv University. He designed and oversaw the renovations of the building, which retains the old Nazareth charm while providing all the comforts and conveniences of a modern hotel. The location, just minutes by foot from the cultural heart of the city, encourages the visitor to engage in all the excitement of Nazareth’s energy.
The Golden Crown (www.goldencrown.co.il) was the first major modern hotel in Nazareth, set on a ridge on the outskirts of the city overlooking the Jezreel Valley. The hotel offers the best in the luxury hotel experience. In the next few weeks, the hotel chain will open a second branch in the old city, to provide all the best of a modern hotel with far greater access to the city itself. Built over the commercial spaces at street level, the towering hotel ensures that every room has a stunning view of the old city to maintain a connection with it while enjoying the comforts of the hotel.
With the availability of accommodation options in the old city, an evening stroll through the winding stone alleyways is a must. Every few meters, another restaurant or bar lies just around the bend. Misk is a bar restaurant in the old city that has a piano player every Friday night, putting his own spin on pop favorites, seamlessly transitioning from 1980s monster ballads to Celine Dion.
No trip to Nazareth would be complete without a stop at the new Turkish hammam. Hammam Zaman is the project of Jallal Habib Allah, an Italian-trained physiotherapist who has brought the latest in modern spa techniques to the romantic setting of an oldstyle bathhouse. Surrounded by Arab-style arches, the hammam has several stations, starting with a dry sauna to open the pores. After a self-scrubbing, the next station is a modern, multi-jet Jacuzzi, followed by lounging on a heated stone slab while enjoying some cold drinks and fresh fruit. At this point, there is a selection of aromatic massage therapies to choose, such as a wonderful mud bath mixed with herbal oils. To conclude, a few minutes in the steam room, followed by a cold water bath to close the pores, leaves the patron feeling remarkably relaxed and refreshed.
The impressive development of Nazareth’s old city is only in its initial phases, leaving plenty of room for new restaurants, hotels, bars and attractions to be explored with each subsequent visit.
■ Jonathan Goldstein is a tour guide and the owner of www.gingitours.com.