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Rosh Hanikra: Beyond the Gay Hotspot of Tel Aviv

Beyond Tel Aviv the options for sightseeing day trips are limitless and only certain borders can stop you! Add the fact that short distances is one of Israel’s conveniences for travelers, there is no excuse not to leave this gay mecca for a day or two. One of these getaway options is Rosh HaNikra, located on the border with Lebanon. It is only 130 Km from Tel Aviv which can be covered in just under a two-hour drive. After a day trip to the northern border, one can be back in time to enjoy the great nightlife in Israel’s most famous and vibrant gay hotspot.

Sitting on the border with Lebanon on the western Galilee by the Mediterranean, Rosh HaNikra is best known for the grottoes, although its history reveals that there is a lot more to it. Its name in Hebrew literally means “head of the grottoes”.

Grottoes in Rosh HaNikra, Israel
Grottoes in Rosh HaNikra, Israel

Additionally, this soft chalk rocks geological site of cavernous tunnels formed by the forces of the sea, has great historical, strategic trade and defense importance. The border crossing is today closed to Israeli and Lebanese civilians, but that was not always the case. Yet, nowadays, standing close enough to the border crossing the grottoes of Rosh HaNikra is as close to crossing into Lebanon as one can get.

Rosh HaNikra functioned as a passage for trade caravans and armies between Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt, and Africa. Railway tunnels were blasted through nearby rocks by the South African forces during World War II, allowing trains to run through the Cairo-Istanbul line. In 1946, the Haganah spared the bridge during its operation known as the Night of the Bridges. However, in February of 1948 the 21st Battalion of the British army destroyed the bridge to prevent Lebanese shipment of arms to the Arab forces fighting against the UN Partition Plan. Later on the tunnels were sealed. On the Lebanese side, the railway have been dismantled almost completely and the Israeli Coastal Railway ends near Nahariya to the south of Rosh HaNikra.

Carvernous grottoes of Rosh HaNikra in the Israeli-Lebanese, Israel
Cavernous grottoes of Rosh HaNikra in the Israeli-Lebanese, Israel

In 1949, beyond Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and modern Israel’s young political centers, Rosh Hanikra was the place where Israeli and Lebanese officials met and reached an armistice agreement that brought to an end the Lebanese-Israeli conflict over the 1948 War of Independence of Israel.

Border crossing at the Israeli-Lebanese UN Blue Line Zone at Rosh HaNikra, Israel
Border crossing at the Israeli-Lebanese UN Blue Line Zone at Rosh HaNikra, Israel

Today, the border crossing at Rosh HaNikra is only used by the UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon). However, not until long ago, before the insurgency of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and its constant attempts to attack northern Israel, thousands of Lebanese used to cross into Israel to work mainly in agriculture. Locals in the region attest that the current situation hurts both sides as Israel’s agricultural industry needs workers from Lebanon and Lebanese workers have lost one of their source of income.

Road on the hill at the Israeli-Lebanese border in the Blue Line zone at Rosh HaNikra, Israel
Road on the hill at the Israeli-Lebanese border in the Blue Line zone at Rosh HaNikra, Israel

Despite the concerns over eventual attacks coming from southern Lebanon, the area is relatively calm and of astounding beauty. Standing at Rosh HaNikra one can enjoy the view of Israel looking south at the beach along the Mediterranean coast. At the same, looking north on the hill, it is quite surreal to see the dirt road that separates the two countries and that is only used by boarder patrolling and UN personnel in the Blue Line created in May 2000 after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. Nonetheless, Rosh HaNikra is a great destination for a day trip or to be visited as part of a multi-days itinerary in the northwestern region of the Galilee..

View of Israel looking south from Rosh HaNikra, Israel
View of Israel looking south from Rosh HaNikra, Israel

Visiting Rosh HaNikra in March had pros and cons. The wintry conditions with high winds and a bit chilly makes it a bit unconvertible, mainly on top the of the cliff e descending to the grottoes in the cable car. On the other hand, it is a lot less crowded than in late Spring and Summer. In any case, if it is just a day scape beyond Tel Aviv, it is worthwhile to take the trip north. And by the end of the day back in Tel Aviv the options abound for a great evening out to enjoy this city that has been hailed as one of the greatest gay hotspot and destination in the world.

Chalk rocks sculpted by the sea in Rosh HaNikra, Israel
Chalk rocks sculpted by the sea in Rosh HaNikra, Israel
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Old Acre and Haifa: Coexistence and Continuity

Sitting on the shores of the Mediterranean at the northern extremity of Haifa Bay, Old Acre is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. It is its location that helped it to remain populated since the middle Bronze Age, since 4,000 years ago. Today, Old Acre’s population is nearing 50,000 people who make it a diverse community. Christians, Druses, Jews, Muslims, and the Baha’is coexist in this city that is the holiest in the Baha’i faith. Anyone visiting Old Acre and Haifa will notice that coexistence and cultural diversity is something that both cities share in common.

View of the Baha'i Gardens from the top of the staircase overlooking the golden-domed Shrine of Bab - Haifa, Israel
View of the Baha’i Gardens from the top of the staircase overlooking the golden-domed Shrine of the Bab – Haifa, Israel

Just before getting to Old Acre, despite the overcast skies, I made a brief stop in Haifa overlooking the Baha’i Gardens. One of the most visited sites in the Middle East, the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa and Acre are breathtaking. Geometric shapes, a long staircase with nineteen terraces, and the golden domed Shrine of the Bab, are stunning features of the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa. The geometrical composition with natural elements and shapes create an ambiance of pure beauty, peace, and tranquility.

Old Acre, or Akko is also known as Akka, and it is referenced to in Phoenician and biblical texts with slight variations of the word. More importantly, throughout its long existence and its history, Akko was conquered and dominated by different armies that contributed to shaping its cultural heritage. It was, however, the Ottoman Turkish empire that perhaps left a visible mark in the city. Certainly, it can be seen in the skyline of the city and its minarets.

Once called the Mosque of Lights, the Al-Jazzar Mosque, known in Arabic as Jama El-Basha (the Great Pasha’s Mosque), is among the largest mosques built by the Turkish empire in Israel. Completed in 1781, in the early years of the rule of Pasha Al-Jazzar, it was built in the Ottoman Turkish style and it is the largest mosque outside of Jerusalem. It is the third largest mosque in Israel and the Palestinian territories after Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem and the Ibrahim Mosque (Tomb of the Patriarchs) in Hebron.

Al-Jazzar Mosque's green dome and minaret in Akko (Old Acre), Israel
Al-Jazzar Mosque’s green dome and minaret in Akko (Old Acre), Israel

Ahmad Pasha Al-Jazzar was nicknamed “the Butcher” thanks to his cruelty. As the governor of the provinces of Sidon and Damascus, Al-Jazzar was based in Akko where he left his mark stamped by three things he was famous for. Not only he was renowned by his use of cruel force, but by his impressive public works and for defeating Napoleon during the Siege of Acre in 1799. Along with his adopted son and successor Suleyman, Al-Jazzar’s resting place is at the small twin-domed building at the base of the minaret of the Mosque of Lights renamed Al-Jazzar Mosque in his honor.

The region of Haifa and Acre is known for its diverse population peaceful coexistence. Built on the slopes of Mount Carmel, which according to tradition was the home of prophet Elijah, Haifa is a destination for Christian, Jews, and Muslim pilgrims who venerate the prophet. Moreover, the fact that the City of Peaceful Coexistence is home to the Baha’i who are persecuted in most countries of the Middle East speaks volume about its tolerant society. Interfaith initiatives along with arts and sports events that encourage peaceful coexistence, have earned Haifa and its neighboring Acre and the surrounding region the reputation of all working together to foster and maintain peace.

Sweets at a stand on the street in Old Acre, Israel
Sweets at a stand on the street in Old Acre, Israel

As the popular Israeli saying goes, “In Jerusalem people pray, in Haifa they work, in Tel Aviv they have fun.”

And it does not take long for a visitor to notice the ‘relaxed’ atmosphere on the streets of Haifa and Old Acre. Walking on streets, cafes, the market, and street vendors interactions with locals and tourists alike immediately gives a sense of calmness and stability. Years ago I visited Haifa for the first time, and after my recent visit to Acre, I have added a longer visit to Haifa to my bucket list.

After visiting Al-Jazzar Mosque, walking through the souk and buying more than I needed sweets from a street vendor and savoring a large cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, it was now time to visit the Knights Hall.

Crusaders mural in the Knights' Hall in Old Acre (Akko), Israel
Crusaders mural in the Knights’ Hall in Old Acre (Akko), Israel

 

Arches in the central courtyard of the Knights' Hall in Old Acre (Akko), Israel
Exhibits under aches in the central courtyard of the Knights’ Hall in Old Acre (Akko), Israel

Visiting the Knights’ Hall complex or the Citadel is quite moving and exposes the magnificence of Old Acre’s two golden ages: the first in the thirteenth century, and the second in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Central courtyard in the Knights' Hall at the Citadel in Old Acre (Akko), Israel
Central courtyard in the Knights’ Hall at the Citadel in Old Acre (Akko), Israel

Excavations in the 1950’s and 1960’s exposed remains from the Hellenistic Period (300-63 BC), from the Early Arab Period (638-1099 AD), from the Crusaders Period (1104-1291 AD), and most extensively from the thirteenth century.

Prison courtyard at the Knights' Hall or Citadel in Old Acre (Akko), Israel
Prison courtyard at the Knights’ Hall or Citadel in Old Acre (Akko), Israel

Today tourists enjoy the site thanks to the extensive restoration work that took place in the 1990’s. The Knights’ Hall, which served as the Knights Hospitaller Compound, is a testament to the Crusaders Period in Old Acre.

The capital of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Old Acre saw the destruction of the Crusaders compound during the Mamluk period (1291-1517 AD). In the late Ottoman Period (1750-1918 AD), the citadel was built on the ruins of the Crusaders’ fortress structures as part of the city’s defense. Later on, during the British Mandate Period (1918-1948 AD), serving as the main prison in northern Israel, the site was used to hold the Jewish Zionist resistance activists prisoners.

 

Pillars in the northern hall at the Knights' Hall or Citadel in Old Acre (Akko), Israel
Pillars in the northern hall at the Knights’ Hall or Citadel in Old Acre (Akko), Israel

 

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Touring Israel: On the Footsteps of Herod the Great

Touring Israel can be tricky. Many years after a long visit to Israel and following the great technological advancement that the country has seen in the past two decades, one thing remains unchanged: public transportation in Israel remains a challenge. In such a small country where virtually every place is close, it is still difficult to get to places when touring Israel. Perhaps the most practical way is renting a car, but driving in Israel is not for the light-hearted. Traffic, specially around Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv can be chaotic. Buses are commonplace is Israel but from the bus stations you will be left to taking a cab and having to walk from site to site. You can always take the shared taxis, mini vans, know as sherut. Perhaps the most convenient option is to join a tour.

Visiting Caesarea was such one of the cases for which I decided to join a tour leaving Tel Avid headed north including multiple sites on the coast. On that particular tour, we left behind schedule and the tour guide seemed to rush to make up time. The group was a bit too large which to me is always a turn off. Nonetheless, the dazzling ruins of this ancient city and its history can offset any of the practical downside of being on a tour.Located halfway north of Tel Aviv and south of Haifa, the ancient Phoenician settlement first known as Straton’s Tower, was rebuilt by Herod the Great, king of Judea, to honor Caesar Augustus. In 6 CE, the city became the capital of the Roman province of Judea. Subsequently, it became an important center in the history of early Christianity.

Display of headless statue of unknown figure found in Caesarea, Israel
Display of headless statue of unknown figure found in Caesarea, Israel

It was in Caesarea that Paul the Apostle remained in prison for a period of two years before he was sent to Rome for trial. According to the first century historian Flavius Josephus, it was in Caesarea that the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome took place in 132-135 CE. The Jewish revolt that culminated with the torture and execution of ten of the greatest Jewish Palestinian sages, including Rabbi Akiba, is remembered in the liturgy of Yom Kippur.

Nowadays, home to the only golf club in Israel and a prime location for wealthy Israeli summer homes, the city is also known for having one of the best beaches in Israel. The Caesarea National Park is a magnificent site to be included when touring Israel. Excavations in the 1950’s uncovered a Roman temple, an amphitheater, hippodrome, aqueduct, and other ruins of later periods including that of the crusades. One of its unique treasure is the archeological evidence of Pontius Pilate’s existence that was found in Caesarea during the excavations of 1961. This archeological finding of the Roman procurator’s name inscription is the only mention that places him within his lifetime and at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion.

Remarkable for its archeological and historical value, the ancient port of Caesarea is a technological marvel accomplished by Herod the Great. Possibly it was the first of its kind built entirely in open sea, the port served as base for Herod’s navy that operated as far as the Black Sea. Another astonishing ancient architectural accomplishment is the Roman aqueduct that brought water from the foot of Mount Carmel located ten miles away.

Ruins of Roman Aqueduct arch - Caesarea, Israel
Ruins of Roman Aqueduct arch – Caesarea, Israel

Sebastos (Greek for Augustus) Harbor was built at the end of the first century BC by King Herod the Great and became an important harbor for commerce in the antiquity. Sebastos was the most impressive harbor of its time, rivalling Cleopatra’s harbor in Alexandria. Kenneth Holum in his book King Herod’s Dream: Caesarea on the Sea, quoted historian Josephus as saying that “Although the location was generally unfavorable, [Herod] contended with all the difficulties so well that the solidity of the construction could not be overcome by the sea, and its beauty seemed finished off without impediment.”

Roman public estrooms at the Roman hippodrome ruins in Caesarea, Israel
Roman public restrooms (latrines) at the Roman hippodrome ruins in Caesarea, Israel

Regretfully, by the time we arrived in Caesarea our tour guide announced that we had to move quickly as he had a lot to cover. We were first taken to the hippodrome where we delighted us with historical facts and anecdotes from the 1959 Ben-Hur film in which Charlton Heston plays a Palestinian Jew who is battling the Roman Empire. The hippodrome is where Judah Ben-Hur, falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother,  meets his rival in a chariot race and rescues his family for slavery. Standing on the site where the favorite Roman form of entertainment and competition took place is undeniably exciting. It is enticing to let one’s mind speculate on how thrilling would it be to travel 2,000 years back in time?

Ruins of Roman hippodrome excavated in Caesarea, Israel
Ruins of Roman hippodrome excavated in Caesarea, Israel

Touring Israel is like entering the portal that allows you to travel back in time. It magically ignites your imagination and it is impossible not wonder how life was at different periods of the history of Israel? Our guide was quite good in planting the seed of imagination in our minds. After we got our lecture at the hippodrome, we were shown the ruins of the palace and of the swimming pool. That’s right! The palace had a swimming pool! Our next stop was at the antitheater.

Arch in one of the entrances to the amphitheater in Caesarea, Israel
Arch in one of the entrances to the amphitheater in Caesarea, Israel

Showtime! The antitheater, with a seating capacity of 15,000 spectators, is a reminiscence of the grandiose of ancient Roman entertainment venues.
In its glorious days, it was the largest performance venue in Palestine. Partly restored and rebuilt after its ruins were excavated, it is today used for performances in the Summer season. Modern day big Israeli stars and internationally famous artists such as Shlomo Artzi, Yehudit Ravitz, Mashina, Deep Purple, Bjork, among others have performed at the ancient Roman theater in Caesarea. Besides its current functional entertainment venue, the view of the beach and the Mediterranean Sea is breathtaking.

It is important to note that in the vicinity of Caesarea, including the region in the southern foothills of Mount Carmel about 22 miles south of the city of Haifa, there are wineries that are open to visitors, tours, and wine tasting. Also, the Aqueduct Beach is an attraction visited by locals, Israelis vacationers, and international tourists who visit the area. A region with a diverse culinary tradition, hotels, and spas, Caesarea is a fabulous option for those touring Israel which must join your bucket list of places to see.