First off, sorry it's taken so long to post! Today is the first day we've had Internet on our trip so far, which is pretty surprising because we're not in a third world country yet! But we have been staying somewhat off the beaten path until now. Manor and I have both lived in and visited Israel many times, and we both have lots of family here. Lately, when we come to visit, it's all about running around to see friends and family--which is wonderful, but also exhausting, and leaves little time for personal time. This trip, we knew we would have a lot of people to see, but we managed to carve out a couple days to ourselves soon after our arrival in Tel Aviv--that is of course after seeing my brother-in-law (David) and two friends in Tel Aviv on the day of our arrival. David took us to Chumus Gan Eiden for lunch, at the corner of Allenby and HaNasi in Tel Aviv. Their specialty is what they call Darfur Hummus or Darfur Foul, basically Sudanese style hummus (chickpea spread) or Foul (fava bean spread) with lots of yummy toppings. There are many Sudanese (and other African) refugees in Israel and their cuisine is starting to infiltrate the country.
The next day, Manor and I rented a car and drove up north, to the very top of Israel, right by the border with Syria and Lebanon. We went to the small town of Majdal Shams, which is populated mostly by Druze people. The Druzes are actually Syrian Arabs who remained in their village after the 1967 war and so now are part of Israel. There are four Druze villages in northern Israel and Majdal Shams is the largest. The people were given the option to become Israeli citizens, but many refused because they did not want to have to serve in the Israeli army, which has a mandatory military draft. However, if they leave Israel, for example to visit relatives in Syria, they are not allowed to come back. The exception is if they go to study in university in Syria. The 2004 film The Syrian Bride addressed these issues by telling the story of Druze brides from Israel who marry Syrians and have to leave their families in Israel forever. Near Majdal Shams is a place called the Shouting Hill, where family members from each side of the border would meet and yell across to each other. Before the Internet was popular this was their only means of keeping in touch.
I was very curious to see the village and it's inhabitants and was wondering if they would seem unhappy or lonely, but the town is vibrant and beautiful, with amazing views of Mt. Hermon (the tallest mountain range in Israel) and the mountains of Syria.
People were friendly and happy and the town was bustling, with narrow winding streets alongs the hills and mountains.
We stayed in a "tzimmer," a popular phenomenon in Israel--basically a bed and breakfast. There are thousands of them throughout the country and they present a nice, romantic getaway. It seems a requirement to have a jacuzzi and a lavish breakfast. You can find many of them listed at www.zimmer.co.il. We stayed at a very charming tzimmer called Nofesh Barama, overlooking a cliff with a view of Syria. The hostess, Jamila, was very friendly and welcoming, and the three rooms were all clean and cozy.
In the morning we were served a traditional Druze breakfast, which was massive and delicious. It was similar to Israeli breakfast, with the main difference being the Druze bread. It's a very large, very thin flatbread that can be folded and ripped to use in the many dips.
The main Druze dip is labne, one of my favorite dishes. It's a creamy, yogurt-based dip that has been thickened and comes covered with olive oil and za'atar, a popular middle eastern spice mixture. We were also served hummus, a salty feta-type cheese, goat cheese in olive oil, some of the best butter I've ever had, orange marmalade, sliced tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and two other kinds of pita. Suffice to say, it was way more food than any two people could eat, but we tried our best.
The next day we ventured out to see what the Golan (what upper Israel is called) had to offer. We drove to Nimrod's Fortress, the largest fortress in Israel, which dates back to the 13th century. It was built by Muslims during a few different time periods and the remains are mostly intact. It's on a high mountain and the view to the valleys below is quite beautiful.
It was starting to get rather hot, so we got back in the car and drove a few kilometers down the hill to the Banias, a lush green area with springs and waterfalls. It's amazing how many different types of landscapes you can see in Israel in very short distances. We did a nice hour-long walk down to the falls and were rewarded with beautiful scenery along the way.