Safed, the magical city

An unusual juxtaposition of the holy and mundane.

The house of Moshe Castel (photo credit: SASHA ALCHOV)
The house of Moshe Castel
(photo credit: SASHA ALCHOV)
Safed is one of the most fascinating and spiritual cities in Israel. Israeli and foreign tourists love visiting Safed because you can lose yourself in the art and the archeology of the past that is mixed in with the warmth and spirituality of the present. There are incredible art galleries, Kabbala centers and ancient streets with sweeping views of the mountains. The intoxicating, cool air of the summer nights in Safed cannot be experienced anywhere else in the world.
The most tourist-oriented place in Safed is the Old City. I recommend just parking your car somewhere nearby and touring leisurely around its narrow streets.
Safed is an unusual juxtaposition of the holy and mundane.
During the week, the city is bustling with visitors at the plentiful art galleries and shops, but as Shabbat nears, everything begins to close in preparation for the holy day. So, if you’re looking for a quiet or spiritual getaway, spending the night in Safed is an unforgettable experience.
If you really want to disconnect from your daily schedule and make the most of your vacation, I recommend staying overnight in Safed at Beit Ha’omanim, which is conveniently located in the Old City’s Artists’ Colony. Beit Ha’omanim is an artists’ compound that used to belong to one of the city’s artists. There are five suites in all (two are large enough for families, and three are appropriate for couples) and each one is named after an artist who lived and created art in Safed.
The suites are quite spacious and don’t have the closed-in feeling that many guest rooms around the country have. In addition, Beit Ha’omanim boasts beautiful stained-glass windows that give the building a wonderful, authentic feel to it. Yossi Hayun and brothers Avi and Eyal Hanik are responsible for the incredible renovations carried out on the building, which obviously required a substantial financial investment.
During the renovations, they discovered a room that had apparently been blocked after the earthquake of 1827.
They cleaned up the room and renovated it, and now the room is used for treatments and massages. I enjoyed a massage there and it was an incredible experience knowing that the room had been hidden under rubble for almost two centuries. Above the massage room, there’s a quaint terrace with an amazing view of the Old City, as well as a swimming pool and a Jacuzzi.
Although I was tempted to stay and lounge all morning at the pool, my curiosity got the better of me and I set out to explore the picturesque streets of Safed. My first stop was the home of world-famous artist Moshe Castel, which is just a few doors down from Beit Ha’omanim. Since I’d slept in a room named after him, I was extremely curious to see where Castel had lived. Before he died, Castel sold his house to Ya’acov Hadad, who had worked as the talented painter’s apprentice. Hadad has a small gallery in the house, through which he tries to preserve Castel’s humble and unique heritage.
Beit Ha’omanim:
Address: 5 Leon Askilov Street, Safed
Tel: 050-331-1900
Price: NIS 650 to NIS 950 for a couple midweek, NIS 750 to NIS 1,190 on weekends.
Breakfast: NIS 55 per person
IF YOU feel like viewing some amazing art work, I recommend joining a tour at the General Exhibition, located in the heart of Safed’s Artists’ Colony, which shows works by Artists’ Colony members. The building is also referred to as the Old Market Mosque, since until the creation of the state it functioned as a mosque. The studios across the way are rented out at below-market rates for short periods to help young artists make a name for themselves. One interesting tidbit I learned while I was on tour there: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas prayed in this mosque when he was a child.
I recommend ending the day with a visit to Old Safed Winery, which will help you relax after a dizzying day of sightseeing. Located at 29 Ben Yosef Street in the Old City, the winery is owned by Moshe Alon and his wife, both of whom became religious and then turned to wine making. They grow their own grapes in a vineyard they planted in 2004 and are currently producing about 10,000 bottles a year.
A visit to Old Safed Winery is quite different than a visit to other wineries, since Alon loves to discuss the mystical aspects of kosher wine-making.
To make an appointment: 050-448-0884, 054-347-8874.
THE CULINARY options also touch on the spiritual, especially when it comes to cheese. I recommend visiting Kadosh Dairy (34 Yud Alef Street), which has been in the family for seven generations.
Kadosh produces more than 10 types of semi-soft and hard goat and sheep cheeses, including, of course, the renowned Tzfatit cheese. Kadosh ages its cheeses in a cave, and if you happen to be visiting on a Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday, you might catch a glimpse of Haim, a seventh-generation dairy man, as he concentrates heavily on making the best cheese possible. Of course, you can still visit the rest of the week, too.
After you’ve had your fill of cheese, I suggest partaking in another local delicacy: Lahuch, a.k.a. Yemenite pita. If you walk down the street of art galleries, you’ll come upon Ronen, who will treat you to some of the most scrumptious Yemenite pita bread you’ve ever tasted, with Kadosh cheese, za’atar and vegetables, too.
Just across from Ronen, you’ll find Livnot U’Lehibanot (To Build and Be Built), a place where American students can join archeological excavations.
One of their most incredible finds is a 16th-century house with a mikve (ritual bath) inside it.
If you’re like me, then despite the abundant cheese, bread and wine tastings, by evening you’ll be famished.
Although Safed is not known for its gourmet eating establishments, I was happy with the meal I had at Ha’ari 8 (which by chance also happens to be its address). It’s an American-style restaurant with a variety of dishes to choose from, such as salads, steak, kebab in tehina and hamburgers. Ha’ari 8 is of course kosher and so is closed on Shabbat. But if you happen to be in Safed during the week, I highly recommend trying it out.
Reservations: (04) 692-0033.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.