Spring is the perfect time to travel to the north in Israel: the temperatures are generally ideal, the hillsides and fields are green after the winter rains, and the streams are flowing with a respectable amount of water. So, not long after Passover, Michal and I and some friends headed to Israel’s northernmost town, Metula.
Of course, on our way north, we made the obligatory coffee/breakfast stop. The most convenient road to the Galilee Panhandle from central Israel takes one right through Yokneam Illit. The city of about 25,000 is located in a hilly region of the lower Galilee at the base of the Carmel Mountains. It is situated alongside two of Israel’s major highways (Route 70 and Route 6).
Yokneam is named after a biblical city-state mentioned in the Book of Joshua. The origin of the modern settlement was in the late 19th century, after two Jewish families bought the land, which was later acquired by the Jewish National Fund. Organized in 1935 as Yokneam Moshava (agricultural settlement), development was stymied by Bedouin sharecroppers who initially refused to vacate the land after it had been sold.
Following the 1948 Arab–Israeli war, a ma’abara (absorption camp) was erected within the boundaries of the moshava, absorbing hundreds of families of new immigrants (initially in tents), who joined the original settlers and other new immigrants. Although founded in 1950 as part of the moshava, in 1967 Yokneam Illit (Upper) was split off from the agricultural village. (There is also Tel Yokneam, an archeological mound which has not been extensively excavated.)
“Starting in 1989 when a new mayor, Simon Alfassi, was elected, the economic structure of Yokneam Illit changed from a centralized dependence on two large factories to a dispersed base of many small high-tech companies. As the number and size of the companies grew, Yokneam and the small communities around it began to attract young entrepreneurs and developers who were looking for a less urban alternative to the Tel Aviv area. It now has over 100 high-tech companies and exports of approximately 5 billion US dollars annually.” (revolvy.com)
After our break, we traveled on to Metula. The town is located in the area of four biblical Jewish cities (Dan, Abel, Bet Maacah, and Ijon), adjacent to the Lebanese border. A small and beautiful place with about 1,600 residents, it attracts weekenders and second-home owners. We were staying at the Alaska Inn, which is a story in itself, one which was told to us by the proprietor Reuven, whose parents bought the hotel decades ago from the original owners. Reuven related his story from the highest point in town, a 360 degree observation tower on top of the hotel, with magnificent views of valleys, green hillsides, and the mountains of Israel and Lebanon, including snow-capped Mt. Hermon. We could also see a Hizbullah lookout post and UN trucks.
In the 19th century, Metula was a village populated by Druze tenant farmers. Just before the turn of the 20th century, during a time of Druze unrest against the Ottoman rulers, the Christian owner of the land sold a sizable portion of land to Baron de Rothschild’s chief officer Joshua Ossovetski. Rothschild was a major supporter of Jewish immigration to Palestine at this time, supporting development in places such as Rishon LeZion, Petah Tikva, Caesarea and Rosh Pina, as well as Metula. Despite some early problems with the displaced Druze tenant farmers, the town moderately prospered and provided a livelihood through farming and tourism.
Reuven explained to us that the Brenner family, a founding family of Metula, built the small hotel, utilizing cement produced in Beirut instead of cement from a nearby Bedouin village. Brenner had promised to pay the cement factory owner $10 per portion of cement, but in the end, when the job was complete, he offered only $1. The factory owner objected vociferously; Brenner told him he could take his cement back if he wasn’t satisfied. That being impossible, the disgruntled factory owner took his much diminished compensation.
When the family patriarch could no longer run the hotel business, the Brenner family’s grown children weren’t interested in running the hotel. They sold it to Reuven’s family when he was just thirteen. But since money was scarce in those days, the Brenners lived on the premises for another five years until the purchase amount was paid in full.
During the Lebanon War of 1986, Reuven was injured by a missile (the Lebanese border is only a few hundred meters distant). The “Good Fence,” the border crossing previously located near Metula through which many Lebanese workers, and civilians needing medical care, passed into Israel, is just a memory. It closed after Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.
The hotel’s unusual name, Alaska Inn, came about when Reuven’s parents joined the Days Inn chain, which was operating throughout Israel. Days Inn requested that the original name, Snows of Lebanon, be changed, saying that it could be called anything, even the “Alaska” Hotel. Reuven’s parents took Days Inn’s outlandish suggestion, and the name Alaska stuck. In any event, the Days Inn chain pulled out of Israel in the wake of Lebanon War II.
We enjoyed a great lunch across the street from our hotel at the lovely Cafe Masada, after which we explored a bit of the town and environs. Then, at the home of a professor of musicology, we heard a fascinating lecture on the history of the many musical instruments which he had acquired, including a piano and several of its predecessors, many stringed instruments, horns from ancient to contemporary, and an organ.
Later, while some of us were napping, I returned to the Cafe Masada for coffee. The hotel in which the cafe is located has a beautiful gallery of unusual art and exquisite furnishings. I enjoyed reading my book after exploring the lobby and gallery, and still had enough time to rest before our dinner at the popular Station steak house, just down the street. Eschewing the meat offerings, Michal and I had a delicious fish dinner.
After breakfast the next morning, we visited the nearby, beautiful Iyyon Stream. We took a vigorous but relatively short hike, following the stream to where it splashes from a height of 98 ft into the lovely pool of the well known Tanur Waterfall. While hiking along the trail, located just on the outskirts of Metula, we passed three more waterfalls and enjoyed the lush flora and views of Lebanon, our beautiful but (unfortunately) antagonistic neighbor.
We left the town of Metula behind and decamped to the Hula Nature Preserve. After a bit of lunch, we rented golf carts to tour a section of the spacious and educational park: “Nestled perfectly between two majestic mountain ranges, Hula Valley offers a wetland paradise for several species of plants and animals — but undoubtedly the most abundant visitors are birds. The perfect stopover for birds migrating south to Africa, Hula Valley features vast fields, groves and waterways.
“Hundreds of millions of birds travel through the valley in autumn and spring, and thousands will stay through the off-season as well. Some simply use the area as a place to rest; others court, mate and nest there. Cranes, storks, cormorants and other water birds mingle among eagles, finches and other native birds of Israel.” (fromthegrapevine.com)
Although the weather that weekend was unseasonably hot, we still managed to have a great time visiting Israel’s most northern town and surroundings. I hope that some of you reading this will have your own adventures in this beautiful region of Israel.