The Galilee & Golan Heights
The day after leaving the southernmost point of Israel that borders the Red Sea, Jordan, and Egypt, I visited the northernmost point that borders Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. Rosh Haniqra wasn't all that exciting to me, perhaps because it seemed like small fries compared to other water-molded "grottoes" in the world. The film about Rosh Haniqra was yet another cheesy production, replete with overly dramatic storytelling and ineffective sensory experiences (we got sprinkled with water during the film to demonstrate that the caves were carved by the ocean... great, thanks). Given the Israeli-Lebanon strife that went on several months ago and the riots that went on in Beirut a few weeks ago, I didn't go into Lebanon. Its unfortunate - Lebanon is supposedly beautiful and Beirut used to be called the "Paris of the Middle East".
The rest of the day was spent driving around the Galilee, which is a lovely region. Its quite opposite to the Negev, fertile and green. We visited an old synagogue at Bar'am and walked around Tsfat, which is located on a mountain and is the center for Kabbalah. Madonna has apparently spent a good amount of time there. Many artists set up shop in the windy streets of this old city to sell religious art and judaica. Virtually all of the non-tourists in the city were Haredim (the ultra-orthodox Jews with the black hats and long curls on each side of the head). We then got dinner at a French inn in swanky Rosh Pinna.
We had planned to stay in a Qibbuz that evening, but it was closed for no apparent reason. Damn those socialist communes and their lackadaisical schedules. So we ended up at a hotel, and then spent the next day exploring the Golan Heights, which is the region bordering Syria. Israel captured Golan from Syria during the six-day war, and Syria wants it back with good reason. It is a beautiful region, filled with waterfalls, springs, and lush in vegetation fed by the rainfall and melting snow from Mt. Hermon. We started the day early by taking a morning walk through Tel Dan nature reserve and then checking out Banias waterfall, and many Roman ruins.
Took a pit stop in the middle to buy a tasty Druze pita and tea flavored with fresh lemon verbena leaves. Here's the guy that made the pita for us. He kicks ass not only for making an awesome snack, but because he's got a killer mustache.
We then carried on to see Nimrod's Fortress. Again, opposite of the desert - it was cold up there during the height of the afternoon with the sun shining.
Once we finished with the nature and culture portion of the program, we raced south to get to the Golan Heights Winery for our appointment (winery tours and tastings here are by appointment only). There were only a total of 5 of us when we got there, and the tourguide mentioned that the remaining group was running late. We would start without them, so I was looking forward to a personalized experience. Unfortunately, the remaining group showed up a few minutes into the tour, and it turned out to be tourbus full of people. *sigh*
The tour started out with yet another cheesy film about the history of the winery. What cracked me up most was the portrayal of the American in the film. There was a genie flying around the world (don't ask), and he gets to the States and encounters a white guy from New York that dressed and talked like Ali G (seriously, he had a fat gold chain around his neck and his sole line in this masterpiece of a film was "Yo yo - respect!"). The tour pretty much sucked - we only saw the automated barrel mover/washer/whateverer and the steel fermentation tanks from a distance, and the automated equipment used to bottle the wine.
I was also extremely disappointed with the selection of wines that we tasted - three lackluster wines. Depressing. But then my two travel mates and I started talking and thought hmm... maybe we can ask to try more of the wines once the behemoth group of tourists have finished buying the mass-produced swill and leave. So that's what we did, and it certainly paid off. We were able to taste everything that we asked for - 8 to 10 samples that were mostly reds and dessert wines. And I was delighted to come away with the knowledge that the wines produced in Israel are world-class. I practiced severe restraint given the luggage space restrictions and bought 3 bottles, one of which was a Cabernet Sauvignon. To get me to buy a Cab is a feat, so the wine has gotta be good. By the end of the tasting, I had to cut myself off as the designated driver. The other two took on the difficult task of finishing the samples, and below is the photographic evidence. More pics of the north here.