Sunday, February 5, 2017

Weekend in Nazareth: Convents, Kanafeh, Mosaics and Toe-Nibbling Fishes

Enjoying his goaty coffee and a sunny plaza with the Basilica behind him

Jerusalem is a good weather post. Hubby and I have decided that Good Weather and Good Coffee are 2 requirements we have for choosing our next posting. We are now adding Affordable Travel Options to the list.

Israel is EXPENSIVE! It might feel and look like the Middle East, but it’s priced like Western Europe. Which is why we were all set to go camping last weekend in the desert. It’s free! But when we woke up to snow on the balcony Saturday morning and snain (a freezing mix of rain and snow) falling from the sky we decided to change our plans.

So, where to go? Well it’s Saturday so we can’t just show up at a hotel because it will be closed on shabbat. And we can’t call anyone to see if they have an open room because they won’t answer their phone on shabbat. Oh wait, the Christians are open on shabbat! Ok, let’s go to Nazareth! God Bless the Sisters at the Sisters of Nazareth Guest House for answering their phone and selling us a room!

Nazareth is a 2 hour drive north of Jerusalem through the hills outside Tel Aviv. We cruised through green, agricultural areas and past a few mixed Muslim/Jewish/Christian towns. Upon arriving in Nazareth John and I both said, “ha! This looks like the outskirts of Xela!” Thanks to its traffic circles and ramshackle mix of concrete houses and colorful, dusty store fronts, it reminded us of our favorite cities in Guatemala...

Nazareth graffiti 

Google Maps did not seem to understand that the best way to approach a convent built in the middle of a 2,000+ year old city is not directly through the Old City. But after holding our breaths while squeezing through narrow streets built for donkeys and pedestrians, we made it to the convent. It was gorgeous and right across the street from the Basilica of the Annunciation, the spot where the Catholics believe Gabriel told Mary she was prego with God’s kid. The Greek Orthodox Church believes she got the word at the village well a little farther up the hill in Nazareth. Either way, it’s an important pilgrimage site and marks the start of the 40-mile Jesus Trail up to the Sea of Galilee.

A lovely colonnade at the Sisters of Nazareth Guest House

Central courtyard at the Sisters of Nazareth Guest House

We checked into the Guest House using a mixture of Hebrew, French and English and dropped our tiny overnight packs off in our sterile yet very cozy (as in 90F, those sisters aren’t cheap!) room. Off to get some lunch at Tishreen, a restaurant built around a wood oven where we shared baked eggplant with pesto and cheese, spinach salad and baked local cheese with roasted tomatoes. The walls were decorated with wine bottles and antiques, the waitresses were bickering in Arabic, and the food was super delicious.

Not quite full after lunch, we set off in search of kanafeh and baklava. Success! Al Mukhtar Sweets on Paulus VI Street was a carb-coma emporium with hot melty kanafeh delicately sweetened with syrup and dusted with pistachios. 10 shekels (about $4) got us a plate of cheese-filled shredded wheat dessert, with a gallon of complimentary chilled water to wash it down. Hubster even ordered it all in Arabic! I was so impressed... We took a kilo of baklawa to go. (in Arabic it’s baklawa, I thinks it’s just the Greeks that call it baklava)

Best kanafeh so far in Israel, light, cheesy and not too sweet or fluorescent orange

Al Mukhtar Sweets

Nazareth is about 30% Christian and the rest a mix of Muslim and Jewish which gives it an interesting character. This mix means that many Jewish and Muslim businesses are closed on Saturday, while all the Christian businesses are closed on Sunday, and all the other businesses that fall somewhere in between are closed because it’s low season for pilgrims following the Jesus Trail. So, town was pretty quiet and the Old City was complete crickets. Regardless there was still lots of local stuff to see and we had a great time exploring until after dark. We found a 125 year old spice emporium called El Babour (the local pronunciation of al-vapeur in French for the steam-powered mill they used in the 1800s). It smelled amazing and high-ceilinged arched space was  filled with sacks, bins and baskets of spices, teas, coffees and other dried goods like beans, rice and grains.

El Babour spice emporium

Our European style breakfast at the convent was exactly what we were hoping it would be complete with fresh baguettes, cheese, cold cuts, hard boiled eggs, fruit and coffee. Then we set out to explore town a little more. The Basilica was crowded with worshipers, a beautiful mix of people who looked Christian but worshiped in Arabic (which of course makes sense but completely captivated me at first). The church was built in the 40’s so it looks newer. It’s constructed on top of the holy shrine/grotto/cave where Mary got her big news with a tall dome shaped like an inverted lily for Mary that allows natural light to reach all the way through the main floor down to the sunken grotto. The stained glass and giant pipe organ are lovely and we spent some time looking at their collection of mosaics donated by Mary-loving churches from around the world, each piece of art depicting Mary and Baby Jesus in their own local style.

Mary and Jesus in the eyes of the Koreans

Mary and Jesus in Scotland

Walking the mosaic wall

Basilica of the Annunciation

Mary with her loving hands in front of the Basilica

Outside the Basilica, Sunday in Nazareth was very quiet. We enjoyed wandering through the sunny plazas and we sipped paper cups of some curiously goaty-smelling coffee from a guy brewing it on a street corner, but we could see it was time to move on.

On to the National Parks! The first stop was Beit Alpha Synagogue where we saw the ruins of a 500 BCE synagogue and its beautiful mosaic floor. The highlight of this park was finally purchasing our Annual Parks Pass and the extremely well-produced and entertaining audio-visual movie the park staff queued up for us in English to explain the history of the site.

Beit Alpha Synagogue mosaic floor

As the sun was approaching high-noon we arrived at Gan Hashlosha National Park where we had to pay an extra 20 sheks (about $5) each to get in. We weren’t too thrilled considering we had just shelled out 275 sheks (about $75) for the annual pass. This one was extra because of the swimming. “Swimming?” we asked, “yes, water 28 degrees.” Well ok, that’s 82 F, we thought we could handle that just fine! Hubby swam in his knickers, luckily I had packed my swimsuit as a last minute what-the-heck. The natural rock-lined pool was at the source of a hot spring and its crystal-clear turquoise water was filled with happy little tropical fish ready to nibble and clean our toes as soon as we got in. It was obviously the low season there so it was just us and 5 gray-haired, swim-cap-clad breast strokers quietly swimming laps. It was one of the most beautiful pools I’ve ever been lucky enough to jump in, truly magical!

Swimming hole at Gan Hashlosha

Fish are tickling our toes!

After a good recommendation for lunch from the lifeguard, we drove over to Beit She’an to the most popular place for miles around, Shipudei Hakikar. Grilled meats on skewers, about 25 toppings, all wrapped up in a fresh-baked flatbread totally hit the spot after our swim. While waiting for our food we diplomatically disagreed with the grill master’s enthusiasm for Trump. I’m more than a little tired of Israel’s love for this jerk of a man and I can feel my blood boil whenever they say, “You from USA? You like Trump?! Trump is very good for Israel!” Time will tell my friends...

Amazing lunch in Beit She'an

Hubster chowing down

After our weekend adventure we felt like we had finally gotten out of the city to explore this amazing land. If this is just a taste of what is yet to come, we are going to love our time here.