Into the green

A walk along the Jerusalem Trail reveals Lifta's often forgotten treasures.

Sabres 298.88 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-am)
Sabres 298.88
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-am)
Early in the 1950s, the government moved a number of new immigrants out of their shacks and relocated them in the abandoned Arab village of Lifta. It was inconvenient , to say the least: In order to go to work, they had to climb up a very tall hill and then find a way to reach the place where they worked. But the village itself was beautiful, filled with orchards and blessed with a flowing spring. Little by little, over the years, residents moved on to other pastures. What was left could easily have become a Garden of Eden even more lovely than pastoral Ein Kerem. Instead, Lifta is overgrown with weeds and the houses are in ruins. Someday, with more resources, the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPA) hopes to include Lifta in an enormous urban park. In the meantime, the INNPA has incorporated the village into its wonderful 32-km. Jerusalem Trail, a diverse, mostly circular route that meets up with the Israel Trail outside the holy city at Sataf. A great summer hike along a 4-km. stretch of the trail takes you to several springs, a lovely nature reserve and an enchanting site hidden within thick brush. Your outing begins at Lifta and ends when you reach Motza's Black Steer Steakhouse (you may remember it as the Bayit Ha'adom). You need two cars for this trip (or walk part way and return); leave one in the steakhouse parking lot and then drive back to Jerusalem. Follow the new highway back into the city, turn off toward Har Hotzvim and soon afterward head right toward Tel Aviv. Immediately before you reach the main road to Tel Aviv, turn under the pedestrian bridge and into an excellent parking lot. Pass the parking lot and almost immediately descend a wide asphalt road to the head of the trail (there are a few spots here where you can park if the lot was full). The paths are well marked by a thick blue stripe surrounded by two white stripes, called trail markers. Follow these markers, whether on arrows, rocks or trees, all the way to the end. Depending on how often you stop, your outing should take from three to five hours. Warning: The first 10 minutes of the path are rocky and slippery, so wear walking shoes if you have them. And don't forget your bathing suits! Although I hate to throw a wrench into the works of this lovely jaunt, I must apologize in advance for the masses of garbage you will see while walking through Lifta. Like so many other venues in the capital, Lifta, too, is full of trash. This being said, please focus on the lush plum trees, ripening sabras (prickly pears), splendid summer flowers and yummy figs along the path. Your descent through Lifta down a steep hill to the Sorek riverbed offers a spectacular view of the Jerusalem Hills. After 10 or 15 minutes you will reach a spring and pool beautifully restored by the INNPA, and you can jump in and let the cool water envelop you . Occasionally, you will find haredi boys and men in the water, but don't let them talk you out of entering the pool: It is a public domain! The Bible mentions this particular spring in connection with the village of Nephtoah and the northern boundary of Judah (Joshua 15:9 and Joshua 18:15). Few doubt that Nephtoah - named after Pharaoh Merneptah, who conquered much of the Land of Israel in the 13th century - is today's Lifta. If you have the proper footwear, you can walk inside the tunnel from which water flows into the pool. Like their brethren throughout the Judean Hills, it was apparently the Israelites who dug this ancient tunnel leading from the spring to the pool. They covered it to keep evaporation at a minimum in summer. After your swim, continue your descent. Some of the ruins you view along the trail are quite lovely and you may want to explore. And much of the fruit you see should be just about ripe for the picking. Watch your kids after you pass a wrecked blue car and reach a security fence: There is one hole a small child could easily slip into! If your nose is twitching, it may be from the delightful fragrance of the hyssop prevalent on the slopes. Fuzzy-leafed and with tall, straight branches, hyssop is used for making the delicious za'atar spice. In doing so, you leave cut branches out in a shady spot and afterward chop up the leaves. To this you add salt and sesame seeds. You will see lots of fig trees and masses of ripe sabras as you turn with the trail. Pick this delicious fruit only if you have brought thick gloves, a tin can and a sharp knife, or you will be sorry! The thorns get into your skin and are hellish to remove. CONTINUE FOLLOWING the trail when you reach the bottom of the hill. Look for gorgeous caper flowers with oblong leaves. There was a time when capers grew only in crevices and rocky areas. But as "progress" disturbed the natural landscape, the caper has spread to all kinds of venues in central and northern Israel. It helps, of course, that their thorns keep animals away, and birds eating the fruit help disperse them to new places. Pick some caper fruit for pickling, if you like! Soon wooden arrows lead you to a path inside Arazim Valley, developed with the aid of the Jewish National Fund. With luck, you will see at least half a dozen graceful gazelles prancing along the other side of the riverbed in several different spots. You may even catch sight of entire families, including a couple of bambinos! When the road curves and you begin to ascend, you will pass Jerusalem pines and see vineyards to your right. Begin looking for buzzards and short-toed eagles that nest here in the trees. Peek through the fence of the organic farm on your left, run by the Tur-Sinai family for the last 55 years. The climbing bougainvilleas, in white, pink and fuchsia are gorgeous. Then stop at the beautiful Torczyner Overlook and Jewish National Fund picnic site to view Mevaseret Zion, Maoz Zion, the Castel and lush forests. You will also see the Arab village of Beit Iksa. Enjoy the sight of blossoming purple globe thistles. And, at a fork in the road, you should also be getting a whiff of anise (licorice). Your trail continues along the Sorek riverbed; a second heads into the Luz riverbed. By now you should be nearing the fabulous (free) Einot Telem Nature Reserve. Anxious to keep real estate sharks from destroying this area, the INNPA - together with the Jerusalem Development Authority - has been restoring, reconstructing, landscaping and developing the reserve at a rapid pace, and plans to continue the project all the way to the Halilim riverbed nearby. Delightfully clean, the reserve is bursting with newly planted Mediterranean foliage (plane trees, Mediterranean rosebud), as well as olive, fig, almond and blossoming pomegranate trees. Two of the three springs at Einot Telem burst out of the chalky limestone soil long ago; the third, apparently, appeared after settlers dug a well. Remains of an ancient, intricate system of pools and canals indicate that there was settlement at Einot Telem long ago. There has been settlement here more recently as well. In 1906 two of Rehovot's founders bought land here and built a two-story factory for the manufacture of soap, and of machine oil from the olive refuse that remained. The factory was never completed and the project was abandoned. Five Jewish settlers established a colony here in 1922 and called it Arazim Valley, named for the tall cypress trees nearby that they mistakenly thought were cedars. They left in 1929, after Arab riots in the region, and the British erected a pump house here soon afterward. Before you enter the reserve take note of the blue trail signs, which you will follow when leaving the site. Then enter past beautiful, restored stone walls. A picnic table stands under a fig tree and near a small pool, fed from the springs higher up. Pretty reddish stones surround the pool, so the water doesn't spill over. Walk around the pump house to see a collecting pool and tunnel. Next view the enormous plastered cistern that has been partially reconstructed, and has benches for gazing at the tall walls and beautiful tree whose roots grow inside. Then ascend through agricultural terraces to the next level, which sports a pool and canal that the INNPA uses for watering the foliage. Climb up even further to find spring water covering the ground. You will also see openings to caves and tunnels (not yet ready for visitors) and a tiny, once-hidden pool. Not too long ago, it was completely covered with greenbrier ivy and hikers enjoyed some fun in the water au naturel. Return to the trail markers at the reserve entrance and follow them on a path just above the cistern. Pass the cypress trees, and continue to the junction of the Halilim and Sorek riverbeds. When you reach fenced-off installations, carefully cross an old highway. Look for the blue trail marker on its metal railing, then walk into a thicket where the blue-leafed wattle predominates. This brightly flowering plant, brought from Australia, reproduces rapidly and completely takes over whole areas of the open fields. In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites are commanded to build a menora for the Tabernacle. Many believe that the menora was based on a plant common in the Land of Israel and called mullein - which in Aramaic means "candle." You will see mullein, which blooms throughout the summer, often on this part of your hike. Mullein flowers have a special characteristic that saves insects from wasting their breath after the pollen has been fertilized or the petals have been damaged. In either case, within less than a minute the calyx pushes the flower off the plant and it falls, useless, on the ground. As you get closer to Motza to end your hike, keep your eyes peeled for a trail marker that leads to the right, off the main path. When the thickets open up you will find yourself inside a paradisiacal, shady spot featuring an amazingly gnarled terebinth tree. You have reached Motza Spring, which bursts out of the rock inside a covered tunnel and fills a chilly pool. Have fun walking through the tunnel and back, before or after you take a dip in waist-high, delicious waters. Try one of the luscious plums on the tree nearby. Afterward, take the trail through prickly raspberry brambles. When you reach the T-junction GO LEFT (the other direction leads to a continuation of the Jerusalem Trail). Then follow markers to the highway, under the highway and cautiously cross the highway to reach the Black Steer Steakhouse. Equipment needed for this hike includes: good walking shoes, flashlights if you are going into the tunnels, shoes for walking in the tunnels and sabra-picking equipment. And, of course, bathing suits!