Israel's Good Name

Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page

Mount Bental

In Golan, Israel on March 29, 2012 at 11:48 AM

The third leg of the day’s adventures in the Golan with Boruch Len: Mount Bental. Following our fun back at Nimrod Fortress and the waterfalls of Banias and Sa’ar, we turned South and drove through some Druze and Jewish villages. We spotted the wind turbines which have now become a sort of landmark in that area of the Golan. At one point we stopped the car and got out to capture pictures of the majestic Mount Hermon, Israel’s highest peak. Here is my shot:

Mount Hermon from the road to Mount Bental

The drive up the mountain was far shorter than I had thought it would be and before long we were just minutes away from Coffee Anan (which really means both Kofi Annan the UN Secretary-General and “Coffee [of the] Clouds” – I don’t know if they had both in mind when naming the cafe). Along the way there were some interesting Dutch sculptures of welded metal and a section of a bunker. On the peak of the mountain we had an incredible view of the whole Golan from Mt. Hermon (which had gotten an inconvenient cloud-wrapping during our ascent) to the Hula Valley to the Israeli-Syrian frontier. Here is a panoramic shot of the valley area stretching out to Syria (click to enlarge, as always):

The valley all the way to Syria

Mount Bental was the site of an important battle when conquering the Golan from the Syrian forces. Today, the bunkers atop the mountain have been mostly cleared out but are accessible to all. We ventured on in, glad to be wielding flashlights, and had a look around the deep old bunker. I was really fascinated by the bunker’s corridor walls which are strikingly similar to those in the Israeli movie Beaufort which was actually filmed at the Nimrod Fortress.

Underground bunker corridors

There is nothing cooler than walking through something that has been definitively used in a war for Israeli freedom – I just love it! And to see the bare wooden beds still left inside… and the old batteries left behind… and the old communication equipment – fascinating! When we emerged on the other side of the bunker area we saw these metal soldier silhouettes, a 2D representation and reminder of what this mountain once was and what significance it held:

Mountain-top bunker

So after we absorbed the blood and tears of history we waited a short while for the clouds to pass over Mt. Hermon. But they were stubborn and thick and refused to leave, so we left instead. We drove to the far side of the mountain-top parking lot and rejoiced in the setting sun. When the clouds permitted us, we tried doing trick photography but the wind was also out to get us. As I would pose I would be blown over by the fierce, freezing blasts of cold air that reign dominant on mountain-tops. This is the best we got of me trying to hold the sun:

Trying to do trick photography with the setting sun (courtesy of Boruch Len)

But with a setting sun comes a sunset (obviously) and sunsets are quite often remarkably beautiful. Looking out from Mount Bental, the low, fertile Hula Valley down below, the sunset was just breathtaking. The colours in the sky were to be envied upon! Here is a panoramic I shot of the gorgeous sunset, with photographer Boruch Len on the very far right side of the picture, doing the same thing I was:

Sunset over the Golan

And so concludes an amazing day – a day action-packed with history (both ancient and recent), adventure, scenery and natural beauty. But of course, I was still way out in the Golan, nowhere near home. It was another two hours (by car, taxi, bus and feet) until I was home. That was a day I’d love to re-experience!

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The Sa’ar Falls & Banias

In Golan, Israel on March 28, 2012 at 11:31 AM

Continuing on after the previous stop at the Nimrod Fortress with my photographer friend Boruch Len, our next stop on our little tour of the Upper Golan was the Sa’ar Falls. We sought it out after seeing a picture of it posted on the Tourist Israel Facebook page (here), and eventually found what we were looking for. We parked the car and got out, asking an ice cream vendor for popsicles and directions. To our surprise, the paradise from the picture was just minutes from the road – by foot. It is actually possible to drive off the bridge and into the river… and then down the waterfalls.

Sa'ar Falls (courtesy of Boruch Len)

We stood on the bridge and watched the first waterfall, our popsicles not quite melting in the warm Spring weather. I was impressed with the torrid rush of cold water that misted daintily up at us but I knew from the roar that there was something even better below us. So we walked away, got into the car and parked on the other side of the bridge where a full view of the three falls was available. I watched the water for some time as Boruch fiddled with his camera, walking from place to place trying to get perfect shots (like the one above). I was content with snapping just a few, knowing that in truth, you need to actually be on location to truly appreciate it. But of course, I took a short panoramic, encompassing the Nimrod Fortress, Mount Hermon, the low mountains and hills leading up through the wilderness and fields to the jagged Sa’ar Falls:

Small panoramic of the falls with Nimrod Fortress on the left

And Boruch, with his professional CS5 photo-stitching feature, created this narrower panoramic of the Sa’ar Valley looking North (this was photographed not at the Sa’ar Falls but on a road heading South):

Sa'ar Valley (courtesy of Boruch Len)

After spending a nice, leisurely time skirting the falls’ cliff-edge and watching the scores of tourists and school-children enjoying the same beautiful spot, we got into the car and continued on to Banias. We pulled into one of the Banias park entrances and got out to see Pan’s Cave, ruins of what once was a large Greek temple complex built in honour of Pan. Today not much remains of what once was the Temple of Augustus, the Court of Pan and the Nymphs, the Temple of Zeus, the Court of Nemesis, the Tomb Temple of the Sacred Goats and the Temple of Pan and the Dancing Goats. But what lasted was the name of Pan: “Banias” is an Arabic corruption of the word Panias or Paneus, referring to the Greek god Pan.

Pan's Cave

While we were “shooting the cave” we were disturbed by loud wailing and chanting. I set off to identify the source of this loud noise and found a group of Japanese men and women seated on the ground in some little piece of land right at the banks of the Hermon Stream. I couldn’t figure who they were at the time but I did film their strange behaviour. They started to draw a small crowd, and a tour guide waved me over. He explained that they are disciples of Juji Nakada, a Japanese spiritualist who had a strong belief about a connection between the Jews and the Japanese. Nakada “saw the Jews as mystical saviors whose redemption would ensure the political and military, as well as spiritual, salvation of the Japanese.”

Japanese group - healing and chanting on location

We then continued on to the Roman Bridge and the old flour mill, only minutes away down the Hermon Stream. It is truly amazing to see such history all over, even the ancient flour mill which still stands today and is theoretically fully operational. There is a Druze pita stand just outside the mill but apparently the flour comes from a more commercial source.

Old flour mill

After the flour mill we turned back and made our way to the car. We hit the road and found the park entrance that is beside (and above) the Banias waterfall, the largest waterfall in Israel. There we were to make our way down a gorge gashed into the lush green land and find the roaring white Hermon Stream as it pounds its way down from Hermon mountains and to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).

Banias Waterfall sign

The walk down was beautiful, affording me a great panoramic of the land which was so nice and green after so much rain this winter. Here it is:

Panoramic of the Banias forest above the waterfall

The way down to the waterfall is exceptionally clever. They built a suspended bridge along the basalt and travertine stone walls of the gorge leading down to the water. While we walked on the platform the white water below us crashed and roared. As we approached the waterfall we saw what we had come for. The waterfall is 33 feet high and buried deep within the rocky gorge, the fast-flowing water forced to spray the thrilled viewers. Within just a few seconds I was in danger of getting really wet. Boruch went down on the rocks at the edge of the stream and shot this great picture:

Banias Falls (courtesy of Boruch Len)

Soon to be posted: Mount Bental

Nimrod Fortress

In Golan, Israel on March 27, 2012 at 6:10 PM

Yesterday, I went, for my very first time, to the Upper Golan. I accompanied Boruch Len, a master of photography, and we set forth to explore (and document) some of the Golan’s grandeur. The first place on our list was the huge Nimrod Fortress, an old castle built over a 46-year span in the mid 13th century by the local ruling Arabs (construction was started by the nephew of Saladin – the arch-enemy of the Crusaders). The Nimrod Fortress happens to be the largest Crusade-era fortress/castle in Israel and was used in the filming of the Academy award-nominated film Beaufortreplacing the actual Beaufort castle which is in Lebanon, out of reach for Israeli filmmakers. Just to point out, this was a trip heavily influenced by photography – however, the weather made consistent photography tricky. The clouds and sun played their games throughout the day and so the following pictures will appear as if taken on separate days but have really been simply subjected to finicky weather.

The West portion of the fortress

We started the tour just minutes after a large group of school-children so we decided to circle the fortress in reverse. That decision ended up reaping rewards as each place we went to was even more fascinating than the last. In the first hour or so, we walked up from the West side (where parking is) to the East side – the higher but less intricate section of the castle. The East side was the part first built and gave us a great view of the high mountains surrounding, and obscuring, Mount Hermon. Here we saw a glimpse of Hermon, the snow already melting:

The highest part of the fortress with the snowy Hermon in the back

Descending to the “dip” of the fortress, we found a few interesting rooms, each one better than the next. The old, thick stone outside walls had tons of “archery ports” – with those slits for shooting down on invaders. We spent many minutes snapping pictures of the various angles, trying to capture the best photo possible – each with our respective cameras (Boruch Len – fancy SLR with multiple lenses / me –  run-of-the-mill-but-kinda-heavy-on-the-features Fujifilm digital camera).

Boruch Len "on the job"

So, you can imagine the amount of pictures that were taken, with all the beautiful stone walls, doorways, columns and arches. But the coolest photography we did had little to do with the actual location. In the grand ceremonial hall, found in the Keep on the Western side, we did something called “light painting.” What it is: With the fancy SLR camera, the shutter can be left open for some time and through a process of photographic magic, only some things are retained in the final picture. One of those things is light. So, Boruch whipped out some flashlights and we took turns writing our names/initials in the air with the light. I tried over and over but my first attempt remained the best, here it is:

Painting my name with light in the ceremonial hall (courtesy of Boruch Len)

As can be seen in the picture, the camera retained two ghostly appearances of me. I’d have to be constantly moving for the words to appear without my body showing as well. Nonetheless, it was great fun and it made me want to buy an SLR camera. Maybe I will one day… Returning to the fortress, the ceremonial hall was not the only thing interesting on the West side. Soon we came across the Large Reservoir, alive in a flurry of chirping and cooing birds.

The Large Reservoir (courtesy of Boruch Len)

Again, we spent a very long time, photographing the birds and the room. On our way out of the reservoir, I spotted a lone koi fish, swimming sadly in the green water. I wonder how it got there – some prankster? Another cool place was this tiny spiral staircase that was blocked off with rope. We hopped the rope and ventured down, the end result wasn’t too exciting but the stairs were neat. Naughty, I know – but Boruch has a press pass of sorts so we had a partial reason to be there. On our way back up to the towers on the West side of Nimrod Fortress, we found ourselves with more grand views. Here is a panoramic that I took, facing the towers on the West side (click to expand):

Panoramic looking West

And before I end this post, the first of three that will cover this exciting day, here is a picture of me posing in a beautiful stone doorway – a proof that I was there:

Me in a doorway (courtesy of Boruch Len)

Soon to be posted: Banias & the Sa’ar Falls

Rosh Pina

In Galilee, Israel on March 20, 2012 at 2:50 PM

Two days ago, Sunday to put a name to it, I travelled to both Tzfat (Safed) and Rosh Pina. The Tzfat leg of the journey was covered in yesterday’s post (here) so today’s post will address the lovely little city of Rosh Pina.

Rosh Pina (and Hazor)

When the bus pulled into Rosh Pina, and I had made my way to a large city map, I sought out the old neighbourhood. There, in the oldest part of town, are the quaint, charming houses and buildings that draw tourists and locals alike, as flowers attract bees. I asked a local youth how long it takes to walk up the mountain to the old neighbourhood (as bus routes do not extend that far) and he told me it was a ten-minute walk. He was wrong. It was more like a twenty-minute walk… and uphill. But, the walk was more enjoyable that one would expect. Along the sidewalk the city council of Rosh Pina installed various maps and pictures, set in stone, and often accompanied with descriptive and biblical text. It sure made the walk pleasant – that and the magnificent view of the Western Golan area including Har Chermon (Mt. Hermon). Before too long I was in the old neighbourhood, and feeling a combination of confusion and peacefulness. There, to my right, was a house and a garden… and a sign that said Blues Brothers Pub. I could hear strange bird calls coming from the house, and the yard around it, so I ventured through the gate. What I found was very strange and despite the many people milling about, nobody questioned my presence.

From the courtyard next to the Blues Brothers Pub

I sat down on a rocking chair made of wood and rocked, watching the people run about – some in a dither. After thoroughly exploring the complex; the pool, the sauna, the bird cages filled with brightly-coloured tropical birds, the animal pens containing chinchillas and other small furry creatures, the pub and the pool hall (which were both closed), I stopped a man who was darting about and asked him to identity the place I was in. He replied in one short simple Hebrew word that answered everything: Tzimirim. A tzimir is like a bed & breakfast just not always having breakfast featured. The tzimirim are usually, if not always, privately-owned and managed and are a popular for both tourists and locals looking to get away from their hectic city lives. I gave a nod of understanding, thanked him and left. My next stop was the Baron’s Gardens, but I only spent mere minutes there. I returned to the main street and asked directions to the “tourist attractions.” What I found next was the Mer House, a house given to Professor Gideon Mer by the Baron Rothschild (who founded Rosh Pina) as an office for the Professor to work on discovering a solution to the malaria plague that troubled those living in the area of the swampy Hula Valley (which I have also done a post on, here).

Professor Mer's office

After a look around I went into the next building and entered a room which was playing a video about Rosh Pina’s history. When the video ended and the lights were turned on I saw that I was standing among a tour group of sorts. I tagged along, lagging in the back, eager to see where they went next. After some time I caved in to my curiosity and asked one of the young men where they were from. And his answer: Bar Ilan University (in Tel Aviv). So, I continued tagging along as they continued on to the next few sites, the old cemetery and the Shlomo Ben Yosef cave, a memorial to several fallen soldiers. The students, and their professors and teachers didn’t seem to mind my presence, neither did the guard, so I persisted. At last, when I revealed myself as a journalist looking for the tourist attractions in Rosh Pina, one of the students (and the guard) suggested that I speak to the mustached professor. I did, and he accepted me warmly into his fold, telling me to join them in their tour. The next site we went to was the old synagogue in Rosh Pina, the first public building in the development to be built by the Baron Rothschild.

The old synagogue of Rosh Pina

Professor Yossi Katz of Bar Ilan University, the one who legitimized my place in the group, spoke for some time and even pointed me out, telling me to write down what he was saying! The synagogue’s ceiling was very unique – painted with scores of small clouds – and the feel was very European. Outside, in the dark of night, we continued to the next (and possibly final) stop of the Rosh Pina tour: the Nimrod Lookout. Named after a local young man named Nimrod who fell in battle during the Second Lebanon War (in 2006), the lookout boasts incredible views and built-in binoculars. Had it been day I would have had an easier time seeing the distant cities and villages. As we gathered around a guest speaker, who was none other than the father of Nimrod, I realised that my bus (the last one of the day) was leaving in an hour from Tzfat and I still had to get a bus out of Rosh Pina. So I left it a hurry, wanting to hear the man’s fascinating story but also not wanting to be stranded out in middle of “nowhere.” I was in such a hurry that I resigned myself to literally running down the mountain to the main road where the malls are. I spent nearly twenty-minutes pounding my feet down the road, nearly unable to stop. When I reached the bottom I felt nearly ill from the violent burst of exertion that transpired. Thankfully the bus I needed pulled up nearly immediately and I was on my way back to Tzfat, feeling sweaty and strange. I got off in Tzfat and boarded my bus back home to Ma’alot. When I got off the bus in Ma’alot I found that my feet were not operating normally. I could not lift my feet using my feet muscles, so every step I took ended in a stamp. It felt weird but the walk was short. Today, sitting here writing this post, my legs are still sore… but the beauty of Rosh Pina was worth it. Here today’s beauty, as seen from the main street in Rosh Pina:

View to Mt. Hermon from Rosh Pina

And here is what Rosh Pina looked like way back when, when the settlers grew crops of tobacco and bathed in the public bathhouse every Friday (no date given – featured on a stone part of the sidewalk historical presentation):

Rosh Pina of old

Tzfat (Safed)

In Galilee, Israel on March 19, 2012 at 7:10 PM

Yesterday I went to both Tzfat (Safed) and Rosh Pina, neighboring cities, and had a really interesting time. This post will contain the Tzfat portion of the trip and tomorrow’s post will be of Rosh Pina.

Tzfat from above, looking down on the Artists' Quarter

Tzfat from above, looking down on the Artists' Quarter

I got off the bus in Tzfat’s central bus station and hopped on another bus to the Old City. I walked down the wide, stone stairs that opens up into the famed Artists’ Quarter. This was to be my first destination in Tzfat. I’ve been to Tzfat before but never really took the time to explore the Artists’ Quarter and to really “snoop around.” This was my chance. At first, I stepped into the two large collective art galleries that are in the large open area where tour buses park. As soon as I had my share of the large galleries of finished products, I left and continued to the narrow stone road which hosts the multitudes of artists working and displaying their craft. My first encounter was an elderly artist wearing a soldier’s beret. He is a micro-calligrapher and after showing me his prints, I decided to buy one. He thanked me and told me I was his first customer of the day. I smiled and continued along the narrow street. My next stop was the art gallery of Michel Elkayam and he was in middle of painting the Kotel (Western Wall):

Michel Elkayam painting the Kotel

I was mesmerised at his painting skills and watched as he did the unlikely. You have to be an artist to add red to the large golden dome that covers the Temple Mount. He splashed red and I groaned inside, slowly but surely it looked nearly real. I watched him for at least ten minutes, getting to know a bit about his artistic history. But, I had to move so move on I did. The next place of real interest was the Canaan Gallery where locals recreated the historical weaving business that the Spanish Jews introduced after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. I spoke to one of the weavers, a young woman by the name of Liz Levy who was weaving a beautiful scarf on a loom:

Liz Levy weaving a scarf

When I asked her if she liked her job she replied that “you can’t weave if you don’t like it” which basically answered my question. I don’t know if I like weaving but I doubt I could make a scarf like that! I thanked her and continued on my way, stopping into the handy Tourist Board for maps, pamphlets and advice. The Tourist Board was better than I had imagined it would be – there was a seating area, albeit rickety, and a mini-museum with underground excavations that showed what the early Tzfat city looked like. The woman behind the desk (who I later found out was Laurie Sendler Rappaport, coordinator of the Livnot U’Lehibanot program and aunt of an old school friend of mine) told me a story about two old men, grandfathers with their families, meeting together at the checkout counter of one of the galleries along the street and finding out that they were two long-lost brothers separated during the Holocaust. I then gathered up my new belongings and stepped across the street to the Lahuhe Original Yemenite restaurant where authentic Yemenite flatbreads are pan-fried with cheese, vegetables and schug. I spoke to the man behind the counter, Yosef David Azoulay and decided to interview him for a new project I am working on called the Children of Israel. What I aim to do is provide foreigners with a realistic look at the average Israeli. Being a country so rich in ethnicities and cultures, there is no “average” per se but I am attempting to provide a plethora of Israeli citizens to give people a better feel for what Israelis are like in appearance and thought. This man, Mr. Azoulay, was my first “victim”:

Yosef David Azoulay, cook at Lahuhe Original Yemenite restaurant

While I was interviewing him a trio of Russian ladies came in with a Russian-Israeli tour guide. They ordered the lahuhe “sandwich” and glasses of local red wine. Towards the end of my interview, which kept getting interrupted by the steady flow of tourists and customers, the Russian-Israeli tour guide got up and asked me what I was doing. I told him that I was a journalist and he translated for the women. They all gave nods of understanding – why else would I be standing like a fool with a legal pad and recorder? – and one of the ladies stood up. She said that she is also a journalist and that she works for Moscow News Agency… then she took a picture of me! I was surprised that someone took a picture of me doing my job, but hey, I remember taking pictures of an Argentinean documentary cameraman in South Beach, Florida. After that strange occurrence, and after concluding my interview, I continued to my next destination of the day, the Safed Citadel:

Safed Citadel's Crusader ruins

It was a pleasant walk and the wind’s intensity probably tripled once I approached the peak of the mountain that Tzfat is built on and around. The Safed Citadel is the highest point in the city (at least 3,000 feet above sea level) and contains Crusader ruins, a park and an IDF memorial monument. Here is what it looks like entering the park area (no, the picture is not distorted, it really looks all wavy like this):

Memorial Park

I stood up by the IDF monument and ate an orange, saying “hi” to the French couple who were finishing up with their picnic. How they picnicked in that wind is beyond me… But wind aside, the view is fabulous! Here is a panoramic (what else?) picture of the view that was before my eyes – the Artists’ Quarter down below, the faraway hills and mountains of the Galil including Mt. Meron to the right, and the Crusader ruins directly below (the Kinneret or Sea of Galilee was also visible but was not capture in the picture):

Panoramic from the Safed Citadel

When I was finished with my orange I headed back down the mountain to the Old City where I got some lunch and made my way to the bus station. There I boarded a bus destined for Hazor with Rosh Pina, my next destination, just fifteen minutes away. Rosh Pina was an interesting story but it will have to wait ’till tomorrow.