Down in the valley

Emek Hama'ayanot is no longer just a place for pit stops on your drive north; nature, history, food and agricultural attractions await.

beit shean 88 224 (photo credit: Edgar Asher)
beit shean 88 224
(photo credit: Edgar Asher)
While masses of people may pass through the Beit She'an Valley on a regular basis, not everyone realizes how many worthwhile attractions they typically miss on this drive-through. As part of local efforts to reinvent the area and its image, the regional council decided to change its name to "Emek Hama'ayanot" (Valley of the Springs) in tribute to the high concentration of water sources in the area, a rarity in the Middle East. If the allure of rivers, springs and swimming holes isn't enough to draw you in for a visit, don't worry, there's more. The local tourist industry also prides itself on promoting the "region as a region," and emphasizes cooperation, rather than competition, between the sites. While the valley can be stifling hot in the summer, it's dry heat, which can be refreshing for those coming from the coastal plain. Plus, you are never far from either air conditioning or one of the illustrious springs. Here is a brief taste of some of the other gems this valley has to offer: OLD GESHER Across the street from the Kibbutz Gesher of today is Old Gesher, which contains an arsenal of attractions that should be able to offer something for just about everyone. Whether your interests are history, engineering or baked goods, this site has it all - and you can build a personalized tour to meet your needs (book in advance). This spot was the location of the original Kibbutz Gesher, strategically founded at a major crossing point over the Jordan River during the British Mandate period. It was first opened to visitors in 1992 as part of a local initiative to tell the story of the battle fought there in 1948. Despite the victory of the kibbutzniks in preventing the troops from crossing the river, the kibbutz was virtually destroyed and the community decided to rebuild across the street, farther from the Jordanian border. Delve deeper into the history of the region and you will find that this strategic location on the banks of the Jordan has been inhabited by pretty much every major civilization that settled here. This is evidenced by the remnants of two impressive bridges dating back to Ottoman and Roman times, respectively. After you've had your fill of history, head over to The Naharayim Experience, a simulation which demonstrates the operation of the hydroelectric power station that provided power to almost 90 percent of Mandate Palestine from 1919 to 1927. The Naharayim (meaning "two rivers") station was built where the Yarmuk meets the Jordan and the original structure is still standing, though non-operational and inaccessible to visitors. Not to worry - the simulation leaves little to be desired, as it is complete with an impressive and exciting 18-minute presentation that demonstrates the system of dams, bridges and turbines that made up the original power station. By this time, you've probably worked up an appetite and you're ready for a stop at the Agudat Halehem bakery. Depending on your schedule and interests, you can participate in bread-baking activities, taste a few samples or even sit down to a full kosher dairy meal. What makes the bakery most unusual is the combination of the original brick oven - which was used by the first settlers of Kibbutz Gesher - with modern recipes like savory sweet potato and nut breads. The Old Gesher complex also specializes in hosting meals and events in the evening hours. EZ IZ FARM Drive through Menahemya, which was founded in 1901 as the first Jewish settlement in the valley, and you will see evidence of historic brick buildings, not unlike those in Rosh Pina and other First Aliya communities. Today Menahemya is the largest community in the valley and one of the best places to find a bed and breakfast for an overnight stay. At the back edge of the moshav, Rinat and Asaf Vagenfeld have set up Ez Iz Farm, where they specialize in making cheeses with no preservatives. Just two years ago, Rinat and Asaf decided to buy 10 goats and move their family from city life in Kfar Saba out to the quiet countryside - and so far it's going quite well for them. They now have 50 goats, Rinat has learned the craft of cheese-making and Asaf busies himself with the farm and preparing to open a restaurant next to their house which will showcase the cheeses. Even though they both still work part-time outside of the cheese business, they hope to make their enterprise economically viable in the near future. Their wide selection of delightful cheeses, including yogurt, labaneh, Bulgarian, Camembert and more, are available by private order, and Rinat makes a weekly delivery trip to the center of the country. However, it is also worth a trip up to their property, especially if you have kids who will enjoy petting the goats. If you plan in advance, the farm also offers cheese-making workshops. SDE ELIAHU Connecting to the land in healthy ways seems to be inherent to this valley. Evidence of this can be seen at Kibbutz Sde Eliahu, which became a pioneering force in organic and biodynamic farming over 40 years ago, before anyone even knew what these words meant. Word got out that the kibbutzniks were using innovative techniques in their fields and the visitors just started coming. Soon, there were so many people arriving unannounced that it disrupted the work day and the kibbutz decided to create a tourism division. Thus Bio-Tour Sde Eliahu was born. By reservation only, each tour is individualized and can range from a couple of hours to a full day learning about organic farming, local bird watching and/or kibbutz life (which is rather unusual as a religious and completely non-privatized community). Tours offer an inside look at how bees, fruit flies, donkeys and barn owls play integral roles in farming without pesticides. Largely due to efforts of Sde Eliahu, nearly all tomato and strawberry farmers in Israel use "Bio-Bees" bred on the kibbutz to cut down on pesticide use. The kibbutz is also engaged in cross-border cooperation with Jordanian and Palestinian farmers to exchange these innovative techniques. Bio-tours can be arranged for groups of all sizes and all ages, including special hands-on activities for youth. And of course, the kibbutz gift shop offers a selection of the locally grown organic products, including dates, grape juice, spices and more. ARUHA YERUKA Up above the valley on Mount Gilboa, straddling the Green Line at what feels like the end of the world, you will find one of the freshest meals you've ever tasted. Aruha Yeruka ("green meal") is a kosher, by-reservation-only restaurant run out of the home of Gitai and Rinat. The couple moved their young family onto the hilltop nine years as part of a seed-group for a new settlement. Soon after, the other families left and only they remained. After nearly a decade of cultivating their own organic produce, and enjoying the culinary samplings of Rinat, the pair decided two years ago that they wanted to share these delights with the outside world, and within three weeks they had opened an impromptu restaurant on their property. Despite their off-the-map location, the unparalleled quality of the food ("lettuce so fresh it doesn't know it's been cut yet") draws patrons from all over. The restaurant can host groups of up to 50, and is also willing to arrange workshops and activities dealing with ecology and environmentally-friendly living. Meals are part of a set menu (vegetarian for NIS 110, fish for NIS 135, or "home-style" for NIS 70), all of which include multiple courses with unbeatable taste and undeniable health benefits.