A dip, a dig and buried treasure

A trip to three sites in northern Israel provides a taste of cool places to take the family over the summer.

Sakhne 24.88 (photo credit: Doron Nissim)
Sakhne 24.88
(photo credit: Doron Nissim)
As the countdown to the school summer vacation began, Israel Nature and Parks Authority staff were readying sites around the country for the influx of family visitors. Their message: There can be more to summer holidays than just another day at the pool or mall. To get their point across, they invited a busload of journalists, with their children, to sample some of the delights on offer. "Imagine that this is an ice cream sundae, with three scoops of different flavors, whipped cream and a cherry on top," said Etti Koriat Aharon, head of the community and visitors department of the INPA's northern branch. "You're just getting a tiny taste." The three-in-one program was indeed ambitious for families with young kids, including a dip in the natural pools at Gan Hashlosha (Sakhne), mosaic-viewing and an archeological dig at Tzipori, and an evening in the burial caves at Beit She'arim - all in the same day. "Great! A triangular trip," announced my nearly-seven-year-old son, Yossi, as we set off. Helping us get into the summer spirit was a genuine heat-wave, so the first stop at Gan Hashlosha was particularly welcome. Nesting in the Valley of the Springs (formerly known as Beit She'an Valley), Gan Hashlosha is one of the loveliest water attractions Israel has to offer. This was my first visit since the early 1980s when I served on a Nachal outpost on top of the nearby Mount Gilboa. Every Friday afternoon, the soldiers who were staying on base were taken for a dip in the Sakhne to compensate for a Shabbat on a still-desolate military base where we had electricity for only a couple of hours a day. Gan Hashlosha has undergone tremendous development since then, with well-kept lawns and picnic areas and clean (but crowded) showers and toilet facilities. The most important feature, the pools and waterfalls, had not changed. The 28ºC-water still pours clean and pure from a crack in the rock which I used to use as a mark when racing friends across the water. I have to admit, as a carefree soldier I never noticed the children's paddling pool area - either it didn't exist or I was just blind to it. This visit I spent a fair amount of time in the shallow water because, although Yossi can swim, the water of the main natural pool is deep and there is no place to hold onto. Yossi quickly became friends with another first-grader, and the two tried to catch fish in his hat as they splashed around. The water was as magical as I remember it, the mountains as majestic and the palm trees as regal. Despite the presence of far more bathers than I recalled from my previous visits, there was still a certain tranquility that cannot be replicated at the local swimming pool. Gan Hashlosha (named after three men killed by a mine as they toured the valley in 1938) now offers far more than just the waters (and natural jacuzzi under the waterfall) for those who want to make a full day's trip to the park. There is an educational center with a museum and a reconstruction of a "homa vemigdal" (tower-and-stockade settlement the kibbutzim built overnight in the 1930s), an ancient mill and paths for walks through the verdant area. We lunched at the very pleasant Muza on the Water restaurant (kosher) with a wonderful view of the pools and waterfalls, which helped make it clear why TIME magazine chose Gan Hashlosha as the most beautiful site in Israel and one of the 20 most attractive sites in the world. NEARBY ATTRACTIONS include other national parks (Beit She'an and Beit Alfa) and the Gan Garu kangaroo park, but we were in a hurry to catch up with history at Tzipori, in the western Lower Galilee. Here, too, we only had a chance for a little taste of the pleasures available, but we were left drooling. Instead of strolling along the cardo, the Roman-period thoroughfare marked with the ruts of wagon wheels from the chariots of old, we raced, as much as a group with young kids can, and made our first stop The Nile House. Here, Koriat Aharon definitely felt at home: The charismatic archeologist had, as a student, been on the team that discovered the incredible mosaics at the site, including the spectacular depiction of the celebrations held in Egypt when the Nile overflowed, along with various hunting scenes. Tzipori, whose origins appear to date back to the First Temple period, is probably best known as the site where Rabbi Judah Hanasi compiled the Mishna (Oral Law) and the Sanhedrin met until the second half of the third century CE. The ancient city provided the highlight of Yossi's trip. The kids were given helmets and little pickaxes and taught how to dig for archeological finds in a special section of the park. Since the staff had buried many fragments of ceramic pots, several of the children had the thrill of coming across a "find." Yossi went one step further and uncovered a triangular fragment that looked like it could be part of a mosaic. Koriat Aharon looked at the relic with her expert eyes, ran a practiced finger around the edge and announced: "You've found the remains of Roman glass. We didn't plant this. This is genuine." We didn't have nearly enough time to truly appreciate the wonders of Tzipori, which could easily fill a day out with the family, but we took with us an attractive book of activities for children written by Koriat Aharon (and we were allowed to keep our own Roman ruin), so we were in very high spirits as we left the site for nearby Beit She'arim. It would be hard to beat the experience of uncovering an archeological find, but the last stop on our busy itinerary was no let-down. Beit She'arim, near Kiryat Tivon, was the site of the Sanhedrin during the first half of the third century CE, until Rabbi Judah Hanasi moved to Tzipori where the climate better suited his health. When his health finally gave out, he asked to be buried at Beit She'arim, and the town became a popular burial ground for the rich and famous of the time. Our quick trip enabled us to see some of the ornate sarcophagi in the burial caves and tunnels. Here, the children met a costumed actor who, in front of a stone coffin, revealed the secret of life. It is said that when Judah Hanasi was buried, the sun stood still to enable those who had come from afar to return to their homes in time for Shabbat. Neither the sun nor time stood still for us ordinary mortals and our visit, like all good things, had to come to an end. Before we left, Beit She'arim Park Director Revital Weiss taught us the trick to a good day out: Suit the activities to the needs of the children and the time of day. Certainly dipping in the Sakhne in the midday heat, digging for Roman remains in the late afternoon and visiting the lit burial caves at night provided an idea of the diversity readily available at national parks in just one part of the country. Most of the sites offer special activities for children and special prices for families. As we left the cave believed to hold the remains of Rabbi Judah Hanasi, Yossi looked back and declared: "I'll never forget this day, Mum." When I suggested that I use that as the concluding sentence to this feature, my son - now wavering between becoming a journalist or an archeologist when he grows up - had the last word himself: "No, write that nobody could forget a day like this."