Slow down in the valley

Emek Hama’ayanot has implemented a ‘slow tourism’ concept – relax the pace, eat and see the sights.

Gan Hashlosha (Sakhne) 58 (photo credit: SHIRA TEGER)
Gan Hashlosha (Sakhne) 58
(photo credit: SHIRA TEGER)
The general pace in Israel is fast: traffic, falafel and even the Internet. However, there is one part of the country that is trying to slow things down. Emek Hama’ayanot (Valley of the Springs), formerly known as the Beit She’an Valley, has implemented a “slow tourism” concept. The idea is to stay, relax the pace, eat, see the sights and get to know the region.
I do not normally stop in the Beit She’an area when I drive up or down the Jordan Valley. In fact, I tend to challenge myself to set a land speed record when driving along Highway 90.
But this time I stopped, slowed down and explored.
Not only was it worth the time, but I’m itching to go back. Two festivals in the area during Succot might afford the excuse I need.
Chances are you’ve been to Gan Hashlosha (also known as Sakhne). If not, you should go right now. Listed as the most beautiful site in Israel by Time magazine and one of the world’s nicest parks, Gan Hashlosha comprises a stunning teal-blue spring, an archeology museum, a towerand- stockade re-creation and a park or two.
The water in the natural spring remains a constant 28º year-round, and it’s open to bathers, picnickers and barbecuers.
The archeology museum features local finds dating back to prehistoric times, as well as some regional finds.
The Tower and Stockade (Homa Umigdal) is a replica of the first such settlement, which was built at nearby Nir David (Tel Amal). There, kids can dress up in pioneer clothes, climb the tower and explore what life was like in a 35 x 35- meter frontier community. An informative historical film is available in English and Hebrew.
Right next to Gan Hashlosha are two other worthwhile parks: Gan Guru and Hama’ayanot Park. Gan Guru is an Australia-themed park where visitors can observe koalas, wallabies, emus, cassowaries and, of course, kangaroos.
In fact, visitors can pet and feed the kangaroos, tropical birds and goats.
Hama’ayanot Park was created as a solution to a litter problem that plagued three natural springs. The park is now closed off to private vehicles, although entrance remains free of charge. You can tour the springs and picnic in the park. The clear water is refreshing for a swim or even a drink. To get around the 15 kilometers of trails, you can rent a bike or a golf cart or buy passage on the hop-on, hop-off shuttle that traverses the park. You can also go on foot or bring your own bike.
There’s more to Emek Hama’ayanot than just the 30- odd springs that run through it. There are also historical sites aplenty. One of these sites is the Naharayim Experience at Old Gesher, right on the banks of the Jordan River and the Jordanian border. Gesher was a kibbutz established in 1920 and destroyed in the War of Independence.
The only remnants of the site are an old bakery and an underground bunker.
The name Gesher, which means “bridge,” was inspired by the three bridges spanning the Jordan River at the site built by the Romans, Ottomans and British, respectively.
Visitors can partake in a variety of activities at Old Gesher (not to be confused with the current site of Gesher, which is on the west side of the highway). Tours, which should be coordinated in advance, can include anything from a video/3-D explanation of the site’s history and a tour of the bunker museum to the “experience.”
While I was dubious of the experience at first, it really is fascinating. Across the river from Old Gesher you can see what remains of Israel’s first hydroelectric power station, which was the brainchild of Pinhas Rutenberg. The experience tells the tale of the ill-fated plant, from its inception and completion to abandonment on the wrong side of the Jordan River. I use the term “experience” because that’s the official name for the combination of projections, moving models, water and light presentation housed in the building.
As the Roman bridge at Old Gesher attests, civilization in the Beit She’an Valley dates much farther back than the 20th-century settlements. In fact, it goes back some 6,000 years. At the national park in Beit She’an, you can explore an impressive Roman city. The theater is almost entirely intact and is often used to host concerts, as it will during Succot.
Because Beit She’an can be incredibly hot, you’re best off exploring the national park in cooler weather or in the evenings when it’s open for the She’an Nights program.
The audio-visual experience allows visitors to learn about the site and tour it in more favorable weather conditions than under the blazing sun. A little train allows visitors to explore the park at their own pace, including a visit to a tel that contains 20 layers of civilization under its surface.
The tour starts in the old seraya, which was an Ottoman hotel. It now houses the ticket office and shop.
Early in the morning before it got too hot, I headed to Kfar Ruppin to take a bicyclebased birdwatching tour with Beshvil Ha’ofen (“On the Wheel Path”) and Mekor Hahasida (“Stork’s Bill”). The very sweet and knowledgeable Nissim and David led us along springs, palm groves and fish ponds as we spotted migratory birds catching a thermal column for an effortless lift up in the air.
We stopped by Betty Salinger’s colorful papier-mâché workshop, where she makes projects to sell. She also gives papier-mâché classes for visitors and locals alike.
Fruchti is the man behind Fruchtman’s old-style bakery, where he makes preservativefree, yeast-free whole-wheat loaves in a European stone oven. For a very reasonable NIS 15 per loaf, you can get anything from sun-dried tomato bread and olive bread to pesto bread and cranberrywalnut bread. Ziva is Kfar Ruppin’s resident ceramics master, and she sells all types of pottery, both useful and decorative. She, too, teaches classes.
For yet another kind of outdoorsy tourism, we went over to religious kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, founded in 1939. In the 1970s, the kibbutz began to explore organic farming, and today its Bio- Bee company is a world leader in integrated pest management. The Bio Tour of the kibbutz and its date groves is a lot of fun and highly educational. Tours are offered in English, Hebrew and French.
We saw the original site of the home of the Templers, who were instrumental in the creation of Sde Eliyahu. Then we headed out to the fields. There we learned about the importance of bats and donkeys in the kibbutz’s date production. Back in the Café Basadeh coffee shop, we saw the fruit flies, wasps and honeybees that Bio-Bee produces and ships worldwide to help naturally control pest problems in the agricultural business.
Also along an agricultural theme is As Is (Ez Iz), a goat dairy located at the edge of Menahemya. From the front porch of the visitors’ center, you can see the mountains of the Golan, Syria and Jordan. The farm is home to some 100 goats, up from the original 10 it had just a few years ago. It offers a tour and cheese tasting to its guests, and you can purchase cheese to take home. The preservative-free, as-is cheeses include hard blue cheese, brie, Colby, Circassian-style and Smadar. Soon the farm will feature horseback riding, too. Ez Iz offers cheese-making workshops for kids and adults, which must be arranged in advance.
Away from the outdoors and the history is the Weitzman Boutique Winery in Beit She’an.
After ears of making wine for family and friends, Itzik Weitzman turned his hobby into a business five years ago.
Now he produces about 3,000 to 4,000 bottles a year. The tour and tasting cost NIS 10 and are conducted in Hebrew. In addition to making dry red wine, Weitzman makes and sells a variety of fruit-based liqueurs. Just make sure to arrange your visit in advance.
While Beit She’an is not known as a luxury vacation destination, it has a small spa run by a woman named Heli. Her treatments are a combination of all the regular options offered in the big spas, including hot stone massages and reflexology.
However, her main focus tends toward medical massages.
Many of the aforementioned sites will partake in the upcoming She’an Nights and Springs Festival. For instance, Gan Guru will host an entire Aboriginal festival, with workshops, costumes, storytelling and kidfriendly theater. Park Hama’ayanot will be the grounds for part of the annual walk through the springs. The Naharayim Experience will offer bread-making workshops in the old kitchen, along with a date pit-spitting contest.
On the first evening of the festival, Einat Saruf, Saraleh Sharon and Moshe Lahav will perform on the banks of the springs. All kinds of tours – on foot and on bicycle – are planned in the region and in Beit She’an. Street performers, jugglers and other kidfriendly activities will be held during the day at the Seraya, which will be transformed into a tavern in the evenings. At night, top artists, including Amir Benayun and Yehuda Poliker, will play in the Roman theater. And on October 17, the festival will host a hassidic-style Simhat Beit Hashoeva.
Food and lodging
Sarah’s – One of the downsides to being an immigrant from an English-speaking country is that you probably don’t have a Kurdish grandmother to go home to. That also means you probably don’t get home-cooked Kurdish meals. Never fear: Sarah Cohen is here to invite you in and feed you the way you should be fed.
She’ll stuff you full of delicious salads, Kurdish naan bread, kubbeh soup, stuffed veggies of all sorts and some meat or chicken or both. On the wall in Sarah’s kitchen on Moshav Rehov are a kashrut certificate and photos of all the famous folks she’s fed, such as President Shimon Peres. Make sure to give Sarah at least a day’s notice of your upcoming visit so that she has time to cook.
(04) 658-8551 or 050-731-5478. Kosher.
Muza – Located within the picturesque Gan Hashlosha, there’s something about the place that is reminiscent of a rural European restaurant.
The menu is a combination of dairy options like fish, pasta and salads. While none of the food I tasted was anything to write home about, Muza gets an A+ for presentation. The herbal tea options were broad and tasty and dessert was spectacular.
(04) 606-0697. Kosher dairy
Shipudei Hakikar – Like at most skewer eateries in Israel the place loads your table with small dishes of salads and large, warm flatbread before you order your main course. But this legendary place doesn’t give you a mere five or eight salads; I counted 18. The standard menu includes perfectly grilled chicken, beef, kebab, hearts and such. While the prices are on the high end, they include the salads, fries and a hot beverage or dessert.
1 Shaul Hamelech Street, Beit She’an, (04) 606-0198 Kosher.
While there are a good number of guest houses and camping grounds in the area, including nice guest houses in Nir David and Kfar Ruppin, I spent the night at the Gan Ba’eden guest house on the religious kibbutz of Tirat Zvi. The rooms were family oriented and spotlessly clean. The kitchenette featured a microwave oven, kettle, coffee, tea and dairy dishes. Guests of Gan Ba’eden are treated to an extensive kibbutz breakfast. Since the kibbutz allows peacocks to roam around freely, you might find a nice feather to take home as a souvenir.
Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, (04) 607-8884. Kosher.