Tuscan buzz in Zichron Ya'akov

Having survived early malaria, infant mortality and imperialistic philantropists, this charming town is definately a place worth visiting.

zichron 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
zichron 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nestled in the Carmel Mountains with stunning views of verdant fields and the Mediterranean is the charming town of Zichron Ya'acov. Savvy visitors head to this enchanting spot for the Tuscan-like atmosphere of courtyard cafes, others for the First Aliya and early Zionist history. Zichron Ya'acov was first settled in 1882 by around 70 European families, mostly from Romania. They suffered disease, malaria, infant mortality, agricultural hardship and distinctly unfriendly neighbors. A visit to the cemetery reveals nearly 300 miniature graves of children who died in the first 12 years of Zichron's existence. Hardships such as these led the inhabitants to request aid from the French banker/philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild. His legacy is mixed: he gave tremendous financial aid and invested in the agriculture and wine industry, but his rather imperialistic mind-set meant the pioneers felt, and were often treated as, serfs. But the Baron's impact remains. Most of the original stone buildings and courtyards on the two main perpendicular streets, Hameyasdim and Hanadiv, remain. In an effort to increase tourism, the part of the palm tree-lined Hameyasdim was turned into a pedestrian street 11 years ago and the result is a flourishing tourist center that the first inhabitants 125 years ago could probably never have imagined. Visitors flock to Zichron on holidays and weekends, so plan to arrive early to find parking or sneak away in the middle of the week when the town is filled with more locals than day-trippers. Zichron is easily accessible by train from Binyamina (named after the Baron's Hebrew name). Just take a five-minute sherut or taxi ride from the station. Wining & Dining Tishbi, whose wines are offered in some of the finest restaurants in Israel and America, has been integral to making Zichron and the surrounding area wine country. In 1882 Rothschild commissioned proprietor Jonathan Tishbi's grandfather, Michael Chamiletzki to grow grapes. In 1925, poet Chaim Nachman Bialik gave Chamiletzki a new family name, Tishbi, based on the abbreviation of "a resident of Shefeya in Israel" and the prophet Elijah, who is also known by this name. In 1984 Jonathan left the grape growers' cooperative to grow grapes for his own, new winery. The winery is completely a family affair. Wife Nili runs the thriving visitor center, son Golan is the chief winemaker, son Michael, a lawyer by profession, runs the winery, and daughter Oshra runs the caf in town. The visitor center, with tours, courtyard, porch, tasting bar and sweeping views of the vineyards will charm wine fans. Golan insists that customers sample wines before they buy and he recognizes most patrons (many come in to fill up their liter bottles with the Cabernet Petite Sirah for NIS 19). If the family members at the tasting bar do not recognize you, they'll welcome you and soon enough, after a few swigs, you'll feel like family. 120 Hameyasdim, (04) 628-8195, www.tishbi.com. While Golan says that the caf in the winery is more of a hit with families, the Tishbi Caf in town, with its prime location and enticing patio, is the place "to see and be seen." Oshra emphasizes organic and health food, like the stir-friend vegetables and quinoa and the root vegetable stew. In addition to the traditional Israeli breakfasts, there are Western options like French toast and pancakes with fresh fruit. The underground cellar, complete with an escape tunnel used by the Nili pro-British World War I-era spy organization, will soon be used for private dinners and events. Rehov Hameyasdim 33, (04) 629-0280. Both cafes are kosher dairy. One of the finest places for a cold beer is Caf Al Hagag, a lovely and tiny white-walled caf with a peaceful patio off of the main street and even small tables on the roof. Enjoy the ocean breeze and a Leffe Blonde, Mexicana coffee with dark chocolate and cinnamon and homey apple pie. Owner Doron Tzur, who also owns the neighboring high-end and acclaimed Mediterranean Piccotto restaurant, says that the caf is open full-time during the summer, but in winter is open only on the weekends and "sunny days." Rehov Hameyasdim 41, (04) 639-8374. Not kosher Shopping Flowerpots filled with geraniums lead the way to Tut-Neyar Paper Mill off of the main street. Since 1986 Izhar and Timna Neumann, and now their son Shaked, have been making natural paper in Zichron from locally grown plants like the paper mulberry (the store's namesake), ferns, maple leaves, bougainvillea and cherry blossoms. Izhar studied in the Visual Art School in Beersheba and then trained with paper making masters in Japan for two years. There, he met his future wife, Timna, a ceramicist who now designs the papers. The Neumanns make custom lampshades, invitations, wall hangings, ketubot and stationery. Customers can even bring in their own leaves and flowers or participate in paper making classes in the courtyard under a mulberry tree. Rehov Hameyasdim 39, (04) 639-7631, www.tutneyar.co.il. Call ahead for paper making classes. You can find the bold and colorful works of local ceramicist Galia Jackson in Yetzira M'komit (Local Works) which also sells glasswork, woodwork, jewellery, and clothes of six other area artists. Or for an unusual treat you can visit Jackson's home and studio - both indoors and out - in the northern neighborhood of Neveh Shalev and shop in her outdoor gallery amidst the towering trees. Jackson, who is constantly experimenting with different glazes and clays and has her ceramics installed in hotels and banks in Israel and synagogues in the Diaspora, describes her works as "full of life and color." She is inspired by nature and many of her works are based on flowers and fish. Jackson also teaches three-hour classes in her studio to students of all levels. Yetzira M'komit, Rehov Hameyasdim 52, (04) 639-1262 Galia Jackson, Rehov Hatapuah 2, 052-386-3398 - call first. Museum Hopping The First Aliyah Museum, housed in the former town administration building, chronicles the first wave of Aliya from the pogroms of Russia in 1881 to the settlements of Zichron, Rosh Pina, Rishon Lezion, Metulla and similar agricultural centers, and various organizations like Hovevei Zion, Bilu and the Holy Land Settlement Society. Follow the trials and tribulations of a Romanian immigrant family through a series of short films and sculptures as they deal with leaving Europe, failing crops, infant mortality, the rebellion against Rothschild overseers and burgeoning Hebrew education. The museum balances the idealistic Zionist dream with the harsh realities of the end of the 19th century. 2 Hanadiv St, 04-629-4777. The Aaronson House combines an Israeli history textbook with a romance novel. Aharon Aaronson was an internationally renowned agronomist who set up, along with his sisters Rivka and Sara, and his assistant Avshalom Feinberg, Nili, a spy ring that sought to end Turkish rule in Israel by assisting the British during World War I. The museum chronicles Nili's work and the strange deaths of three of the main players. Rivka and Feinberg were engaged but he was killed on a mission in Sinai in 1917 (afterwards, she vowed never to marry). His desert grave was marked by a palm tree that grew from a date in his pocket. In 1967 his body was recovered and buried at Mount Herzl. Later in 1917, Sara was captured by the Turks and rather than give away information, she shot herself. And in 1919 Aharon's plane crashed in the English Channel and his body was never recovered. The museum pays homage to their brave work. The home of the Aaronson parents, original settlers in 1882, and Aharon's home with the Damascus furnishings give visitors a glimpse of early life in the settlement. Rehov Hameyasdim 40, (04) 639-0120 n