Visitors to Israel usually spend their time touring cities such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Nazareth and tend to overlook off-the-beaten-track destinations further afield. I didn’t want to make that mistake. So on one of my trips to Israel, I made a point of visiting several of the natural wonders in the Galilee: Mount Carmel National Park, Mount Meron — Israel’s highest peak — and Tel Dan, a nature reserve close to the Syrian and Lebanese borders.
On a sunny spring morning in April, when the air was refreshingly bracing and the wild flowers were gloriously in bloom, I set out to discover the charms of Little Switzerland in the Mount Carmel National Park, about an hour’s drive from the noise and congestion of Tel Aviv. My guide was Nahum Neil Eisenstadt (firstname.lastname@example.org), an American immigrant.
Renowned for its pastoral beauty, the park is a gem. Though damaged by a forest fire six years ago, about two-thirds of it was spared by this calamity. Near the campus of Haifa University, its thickly wooded Mediterranean forests brim with Aleppo pines, oaks, cypresses and eucalyptus trees.
Following a marked trail known as Kellah-Galim, we began our hike in a dimly-lit gully entangled with trees, bushes and creepers. Passing the ruins of a Crusader bridge, we clambered over boulders and carefully slid down limestone formations. Under a hot sun, we traversed a field of thorns.
As we emerged from a cool oak forest near Kibbutz Beit Oren, clinging to a hillside, we reached a two-lane asphalt road. There we met our driver, who took us to Dalyat al-Karmel, a bustling Druze village famed for its Middle Eastern restaurants and craft markets.
On day two, we hiked up to Mount Meron, which rises to an elevation of 1,200 metres, and then walked to the town of Safed via two dry river beds, Nahal Miron and Nahal Ammud.
Amid fragrant fields of sage, marjoram and oregano, and within view of the Druze village of Beit Jann, we paused at antiquated wine and olive presses and terraced vineyards cultivated by local farmers.
At Hirbet Shema, we reached the ruins of a Second Temple synagogue, the grounds of which were strewn with the shards of pottery. Damaged by an earthquake in 306 CE, the synagogue was rebuilt, only to be destroyed by another tremor. In the early 1970s, the shul was excavated by Duke University archeologist Eric Meyers.
The tomb of Shimon Bar Yochai, a biblical sage, was next on the itinerary. A leader of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans, he was a charismatic ascetic whose teachings inspired the Zohar, a great work of mysticism. Bar Yochai and his son lived in a cave in the Druze village of Pekiin, supposedly the only settlement in Israel with an uninterrupted Jewish presence since the Second Temple era.
From Bar Kochba’s tomb, a magnet for Jewish pilgrims, we descended into Nahal Miron, filled with a profusion of bright yellow broomwood bushes. As we walked along the Israel Trail, which stretches from Metulla to Eilat, we saw abandoned flour mills and springs. Following the course of the Ammud River, a stream by Canadian standards, we passed majestic plane trees. Here and there, vocal teenagers frolicked in shallow pools.
We finished the hike with a fairly strenuous ascent to Safed, whose fabled artists’ quarter we visited.
On the third and final day, we stopped at the Tel Dan Nature Reserve, at the very tip of northern Israel. Established as a park in 1969, Tel Dan was in a closed military area before the 1967 Six Day War and was off-limits to tourists. It’s a cool, shady, mossy sanctuary where refracted rays of sunshine glint off a nearly impenetrable tangle of shrubs and old-growth trees.
The Dan River, the longest and most important source of the Jordan River, flows through the preserve. In a semi-arid country like Israel, the roar of a full-throated river is music to the ears. Fed by rain and snow melt from Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights, the Dan is a small but impressive river. Clear and fast flowing, with menacing whitecaps, it is nurtured by bubbling brooks and gurgling rivulets. Never navigable, it’s forbidden to swimmers.
Several trails lead to the most interesting sights.
The wading pool, serene and ringed by benches, is the only place in Tel Dan where you can wallow in water. From the Atlantic pistachio lookout, there is a panoramic view of the reserve, the Hula Valley, Mount Hermon and the Golan.
Tel Dan, once inhabited by Phoenicians, is mentioned in early Egyptian texts and in the Bible. Captured by the tribe of Dan, and settled continuously until the Roman period, Tel Dan was the gateway for all northern invasions of the Land of Israel.
The Israeli archeologist Avraham Biron excavated Tel Dan in 1966. He and his team unearthed a fossilized tablet from the ninth century BCE bearing an inscription referring to King David.
Artifacts like these momentarily transport a visitor to the misty past, but the spell is abruptly broken by the sight of slit trenches in nearby Kibbutz Dan. These trenches, which have been mouldering away for nearly 50 years now, formed an integral part of the kibbutz’s system of fortifications, which were attacked by the Syrian army during the Six Day War.
The Syrian force was routed, and Israel went on to conquer the Golan. But today, there is a new flashpoint in the area, Mount Dov, which can be easily seen from Tel Dan. Known in Arabic as Shebaa Farms, it’s claimed by Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite militia which fought a 34-day war with Israel a decade ago this summer.
In more recent years, the Israeli army and Hezbollah have clashed on Mount Dove periodically. But in Tel Dan, which is so near and yet so far from the harsh realities of the contemporary Middle East, the sylvan beauty of unsullied nature remains undimmed.