The height of civilization

Without losing its air of defiant Zionism, now the Golan also offers some of Israel's best tourist spots.

cnaan village 298 (photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
cnaan village 298
(photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
As a soldier I spent most of my army service atop Mount Avital - at one of the IDF posts established after the Six-Day War to be "the eyes of the country" - watching eastward to warn of any suspicious maneuvers by the Syrian military. Wanting a change from army food, I remember how we would order pizza from the only pizzeria in the area, relishing stale, cold pizzas which arrived anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half later. So, when I headed off to check out the new restaurants and guest houses that have opened in the Golan in the past decade, I was expecting the same "we're the only eatery around so we know you'll eat what we serve you" kind of attitude. I couldn't have been more wrong. The new places of leisure - be they restaurants, parks, recreational enterprises or other attractions - no longer have the Spartan air of a defiant Zionism coming to repopulate the wilderness; and the residents of the Golan Heights are far from being wide-eyed settlers bent on a mission. Much in the spirit of Tel Aviv or Herzliya, the Golan is a place where you can enjoy the good life, or alternatively, as a camper on a budget, set up a tent and take part in the national sport of mangal (barbecue) in dozens of locations. "Aren't you worried by the recent talk of impending war?" I question Hadas Marcus, head of the PR department of the Golan Association. "People here live the day-to-day. Things like this heat wave hurt us more." And my experience proves her right. From the Jewish National Fund rangers through operators of ATV rides to restaurateurs that I have met with, the lack of visitors from the west is scarier than the arrival of unwanted "visitors" from the east. For those fed up with glitzy Vegas-like Eilat or the production-line vacation of a Dead Sea hotel, the Golan Heights is just the ticket. A touch of Europe in the Mideast Mountainous and green, the Golan feels like a slice of Europe. Only the heat is a reminder that we're in the heart of the Middle East. There is something for everyone: At Ein Pik, a deserted Syrian village, one can descend steep stone steps into the shade of mulberry trees surrounding a spring. The hour-long trek is moderately difficult, only slightly strenuous but not recommended for families with babies or those with bad knees. Ein Tawfik is a beautiful westward lookout, with Lake Kinneret and squares of agricultural plots to its south spread out in the distance. Nearby, there are park benches shaded by tall eucalyptus trees and a stream more substantial than the small spring at Ein Pik. Here, one can park the car just meters from the site, and the JNF's renovations have ensured that pathways - and even picnic tables - are wheelchair accessible. Entrance to both parks is free of charge. At Hayarden Park, there is a JNF-managed camping site which charges NIS 65 per car for 24 hours, but entrance to the park is free if you intend to get wet at the Abukayak kayaking resort. While the stream is not at all furious, you will get wet, so make sure to take those cell-phones out of your pockets! A short drive northeast brings you to Kibbutz Ein Zivan, practically on the Israel-Syria border. From there, you can see the desolate ruins of Kuneitra, which starkly contrast with the booming agricultural enterprise of Ein Zivan. In Bustan Hagolan, a site owned by the kibbutz and open from late May to September, one can pick fruits in a paradisiacal orchard where peacocks roam free. The harvest, which varies according to season, includes cherries, mulberries, raspberries, nectarines, pears, peaches, apples and grapes. For action seekers, the site also offers ATV rides for groups. 050-725-4912 Feast your eyes and stomach The Golan's potential for development has given birth to interesting new projects; the artists' village at Aniam is one of them. The artist Hanan Milner boasts a head of curly silver hair, but despite his appearance, he pointedly remarks that he did not move to Aniam to retire. A welcome addition to the female nudes and still-lifes that he painted over his years as a Jerusalemite are landscapes of the Golan Heights. One painting even includes the staple "Danger, mines" sign one notices when driving near the border. Ohad, his son, is in charge of most of his gallery's furniture and its sculpted doors. The galleries at Aniam compete over featuring the most compelling design, both exterior and interior, resulting in a colorful avenue which looks like a mix between American red-roof suburbia and Gaudí. Does it sell? "As time passes, more and more people hear about the place and come," he remarks. Across from Hanan's studio one can also find galleries of painted ceramics, metalwork, jewelry, painted wood and a framemaker. Unless you are planning on enlarging your collection, a visit to the village is a cost-free cultural treat. While satiating the soul is important, feeding the body is a veritable must: Suzanna is just the place. Shmulik, the owner, tells us how every element in the restaurant's design, from the chandelier to the pictures on the walls, was tended to by his artist-neighbors. The (kosher) menu includes beef steak, lamb kebabs and chicken breast fried to perfection, and the servings are accompanied by fine salads, rice and potatoes. NIS 70 - NIS 100 per person. (04) 699-9855 For vegetarians, Hapsanter (The Piano) is a kosher dairy restaurant just a few steps away. If you're more interested in adding calories than burning them, Timin at Kfar Haruv is the Golan's gourmet experience you seek. Established in December 2006, just months after the Second Lebanon War ended, the restaurant, described as "rustic Mediterranean with French influence," serves such curiosities as a beet purée side-dish and Champignon mushrooms with a sprout and purple onion filling. The haute cuisine dishes are served in a nouvelle cuisine presentation, which is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the palate. NIS 100 to NIS 200 per diner, with kids' meals for NIS 38. Kosher. (04) 673-5135 Bedtime After a long day I was happy to enter the wood cabin of the recently built La Bikta complex at Kibbutz Ortal. A spacious Jacuzzi in the middle of the main room is sure to relax muscles sore from walking. The bedroom is equipped with a TV and DVD player, and in the main room there's a kitchenette and another TV, along with a black metal heating stove for the winter season. Details: (04) 696-0702. If you'd rather, you can posh yourself up at Cnaan Village in Had-Nes and enjoy a luxurious room with an even bigger Jacuzzi and flat screen TV. The private pool has underwater speakers and you'll be served fruit so perfect-looking you might think it's made of plastic before sinking your teeth in. The place is all about massages, shiatsu and other alternative treatments, which will set you back NIS 220 to NIS 290, depending on duration. Couples only. Details: (04) 682-2128. The writer was a guest of La Bikta.