Our 4th day in Israel started at the Sea of Galilee Resort as we packed our bags, had breakfast then met with the rest of our group in the lobby for our 9:00am departure to Nazareth. The 45-minute drive to the west would take us through the valleys of Lower Galilee which are known for their rich and fertile soil.
We arrived in Nazareth, recognized as the Arab capital of Israel, just before 10:00am. Nazareth has a population of about 80,000 people, with a predominately Arab population of around 69% while nearly 25% are Christian. Because Nazareth is purportedly the childhood home of Jesus, it is a popular site for Christian pilgrimages. Among the most visited sites are the Church of the Annunciation and the Church of Saint Joseph.
Our first stop was at the Church of the Annunciation, built on top of what the Catholic Church believes to be the home of the Virgin Mary. This is where the angel Gabriel first appeared to Mary and announced that she would conceive and give birth to the Son of God. The current church was built in 1969 and sits atop of an earlier Byzantine church which itself was built over a Crusader-era church. Beneath the Church is a grotto where the Annunciation is supposed to have taken place.
A short distance from the Church of the Annunciation is another well visited Christian site - the Church of Saint Joseph. This Church is built on top of the ruins of the house where Joseph lived. It is here where Jesus was baptized and where Mary and Jesus lived when the holy family returned from Egypt.
After our morning tour of Nazareth, we boarded our bus and drove southeast toward the Jordan River and after about 45 minutes, arrived at the town of Beit She’an.
The modern town of Beit She’an has a population of about 18,000 people. It has historical significance in biblical times as the place where King Saul and his 3 sons were hung on its walls during the battle of the Israelites against the Philistines. In Roman times it was the main city in the Decapolis, a group of ten cities on the Eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Israel. The ruins of this ancient Roman city are now preserved in a national park in Beit She’an. We spent several hours walking through this impressive site which, while not as expansive or intact as Pompei, still provides a sense of the culture, architecture and engineering accomplishments of ancient Roman civilization. Painstaking excavation is still taking place, mostly by foreign students, and new discoveries are always on the horizon. We finished up our exploration of Beit She’an and walked out of the site to a street side cafe where we enjoyed schnitzel on a pita.
Following our lunch, we boarded our bus and headed south through the fertile lands of the Jordan Valley travelling through miles and miles of date palm plantations that border the Jordan River.
As we crossed from Israel into the West Bank enroute to Jericho, we passed through a military check point. We continued southward along the Jordan River until a few kilometers before Jericho where we stopped at the foot of mountain. The mountain face is a precipice and near its summit on a protruding ledge sits a magnificent Greek Orthodox monastery overlooking the city of Jericho and the Jordan Valley. This mountain is believed to be where Satan tempted Jesus during his 40 day fast and is thus referred to as the Mount of Temptation.
We continued the short distance from the Mount to Jericho, on the way stopping to view the oldest sycamore tree in the world. Some believe that this is the biblical sycamore tree upon which the tax collector, Zachaeus, climbed in order to see Jesus as he entered the city of Jericho.
It was approaching 4:00pm when we arrived at Jericho, reputed to be the oldest walled city in the world. Archeologists have discovered more than 20 different settlements here with some artifacts dating to 11,000 BC. This is a Palestinian city with a population of about 20,000. As we drove through the city we passed a large Palestinian refugee camp which was walled and topped with razor wire. It turned out our hotel, the Oasis, was across the main street from the camp.
We passed through a gated security check as we entered the hotel property, which is completely surrounded by a high wall and protective fencing. The hotel decor is a bit dated, but is quite an impressive structure, with a large outdoor pool, expansive gardens and palm trees throughout the grounds. The property exudes an opulence that seems surreal and out of place given the simplicity and conditions of the surrounding area. We checked into our room and were greeted by the smell of stale cigarette smoke. It turns out that there were no non-smoking rooms in the hotel. Fortunately, we were only staying for one night and slept with the window open. While there were some challenges with the hotel including intermittent wifi and the power going out several times, we had a restful sleep and were looking forward to our next day of exploring.
Continue to Day 5 - click here
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Our 3rd day in Israel began with an inspiring sunrise over the Sea of Galilee that we enjoyed from our hotel balcony. After a fulsome buffet breakfast in the newly finished Sea of Galilee Hotel Resort we boarded our bus that would take us to the area where many of the most renowned Christian stories originated. While our first 2 days in Israel focused on Roman ruins and architecture, Crusader castles and Muslim mosques, today’s focus would be almost exclusively on the locations of the early Christian teachings of Jesus. And we were prepared for a very full day.
The drive from the hotel to our first stop, the Church of the Beatitudes, was only about 20 minutes and would have been shorter if the long winding entranceway from the hotel to the main road had been finished. In its current state, the entranceway was little more than a narrow, dirt trail which taxed our driver’s skill to maneuver the tour bus around some of the sharper turns.
We eventually found our way to the main road, a modern highway that follows the coast of the Sea of Galilee through rolling hills and valleys. It turns out that the Sea of Galilee is not really a sea at all, but rather a fresh water lake (also known as Lake Tiberius) that is approximately 13 miles long from north to south and 7 miles wide from east to west. It is tucked away in the north east corner of Israel near the borders of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Its’ eastern shore forms the western border of the Golan Heights.
Our first stop was at the Church of the Beatitudes, a Roman Catholic church built atop a hill that overlooks the north eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This area is said to be the location where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. The church, built in the 1930’s, is surrounded by beautiful gardens and mature trees enhancing the feeling of peace and tranquility that seems to fill the entire area. We wandered around the gardens, taking in the natural beauty of this space and enjoying the bright sunshine filtering through the majestic trees.
Following our meditative repose at the Church of the Beatitudes, we re-boarded our bus and drove a half dozen kilometers to our next stop - a kibbutz run fruit winery that produces a surprisingly large selection of wines and liquors which are only sold at their location. We sampled several of their offerings including pomegranate and passionfruit wine as well as a decadent dark chocolate liqueur. Proceeds from the sale of their products are shared with the whole community. Everyone in the community receives the same salary regardless of the kind of work that they perform. Work on the farm is split and all of the food is shared. In order to join the community, one needs to live in the kibbutz for a minimum of 3 years before making the final commitment. All children in the community are raised as siblings, so they marry from outside the community. This was a fascinating insight into a way of life that is simple and collaborative.
We purchased a couple of bottles of wine as we left the winery and then headed back towards the Sea of Galilee where we would stop at the Church of the Primacy. This is only a short distance from our earlier stop at the Church of the Beatitudes, but it sits right on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. This is purportedly the location where Jesus, after the resurrection, re-instated Peter as chief among the apostles and where he fed the apostles a breakfast of bread and fish. A limestone rock, believed to be the “Mensa Christi (table of Christ) is enshrined inside the church. The church looks out onto the lake where the miracle of Jesus walking on water was also said to have taken place. Like the gardens around the Church of Beatitudes, the whole area surrounding the Church of the Primacy is serene and tranquil.
After leaving the Church of the Primacy we drove another short distance to our final stop along the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee - the ancient town of Capernaum. According to some Gospels, Capernaum is where Jesus ministered after leaving Nazareth. Some of the apostles were believed to be from the towns and villages around Capernaum. The ruins of the synagogue where Jesus is said to have taught his followers is also located in Capernaum. A modern day memorial has been built on top of the ruins of the original structure of St. Peter’s house.
We left Capernaum aboard our bus and headed south along the western shores of the Sea of Galilee for about 20 minutes until we reached the town of Tiberius where we stopped for lunch. The restaurant, called Hermitage Oriental, is situated on a promenade on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Almost everyone in our group ordered the house special, St. Peter’s fish. It was available either filleted or whole. While many in our group chose the whole fish, Kim and I enjoyed the fillet without the head and tail.
After a hearty lunch we drove to the town of Magdala, very close to where our hotel was located, and visited the ruins of an ancient city dating back to 66 BC. The ruins were discovered by accident in 2006 when the local convent was building a hotel and the construction workers unearthed some artifacts. Building was halted and the area surrounding the hotel became an archaeological site. The hotel remains unfinished and the excavation site has grown. The original town is said to have been the home town of Mary of Magdala (Mary Magdalene).
Finishing up our visit to the ruins of Magdala, we carried on to a museum a short distance away, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The museum is significant because it houses the wreck of a 2000 year old wooden boat that was found in the waters nearby.
We then walked down to a long pier at the water’s edge and boarded a relatively more modern wooden boat for a sunset sail on the Sea of Galilee. As we boarded the large wooden craft, a large flag of Canada was unfurled and hoisted on the mast. The Canadian National Anthem was played on the ships speakers as we were welcomed aboard. We were entertained by a very talented crew that performed traditional song and dance as we casually sailed past some of the places we had visited throughout the day. The sunset was surreal as we glided across the relative calm of the Sea of Galilee, the birthplace of one of the world’s most important religions.
Continue to Day 4 - click here
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Many places have high demand and off peak or shoulder seasons. Determining when these periods fall and lining them up to your trip can make a huge difference in your individual experience.
There are several factors that I ask my clients to consider -
School schedules and holidays – these range from country to country and breaks can be at different times in different regions. Some countries even stagger their school holidays to help with their own tourism within certain areas. High peak times are busier and tend to be more expensive.
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