Sitting down for dinner at a nice Lebanese restaurant on the Sea of Galilee, I connected my phone to wifi to see an IM from a friend:
Him: How’s the mood over there?
Me: Earlier, it was “overrun by Philipino tourists”, but otherwise it depends on who you talk to. Why?
Him: The Tel Aviv bombing hasn’t rattled you?
That’s how the News Bubble works while traveling: we knew about the general troubles and tension, but we were unaware of the big news of the day, a bus bombing in Tel Aviv that hurt over a dozen Israeli Jews. We were too busy enjoying Galilee to see the news.
We got up early to see the Basilica of the Annunciation before the crowds hit. It’s the main tourist church of Nazareth, built on the locations where Mary supposedly lived and learned about her divine pregnancy. It’s a really modern building, so the interior has lots of exposed concrete. So, the building itself isn’t that attractive, but there are some nice murals of Mary and her baby from Catholic communities around the world.
We were really glad we got there right when it opened, because it gave us a few moments of quiet reflection and admiration. Within ten minutes, the first tour group came in, and the small group filled the large space with noise and camera flashes a lot more than you might expect. Oh well.
After that early outing, we went back to the Fauzi Azar Inn to get a tour of the city. Given the fantastic breakfast spread of fresh Palestinian food they had prepared for us that morning, we were excited to see how Fauzi Azar would top most hostels in the area of a free guided tour.
It turned about to be a mixed bag. The guide was very knowledgeable about Nazareth and the people of the city. She told us of the peace-and-city building work that Fauzi Azar supports. She took us to the White Mosque and introduced us to the Imam, she took us to and into lots of the shops in the souk, including a coffee roaster, a carpenter, the back room and tasting room of a spice shop, etc. She even took us to a house that has two unrestored rooms that are presumably of Crusader origin and of unknown pre-Christ (?) origin. So, we learned a lot about the city, the friendliness of the people and the expanding economy of the Old City. We learned that Nazareth is the largest all-Arab city in Israel proper (there’s a large Jewish suburb), so it brings the safety of knowing that Syrians and Hezbollah wouldn’t ever send rockets to it. We learned a lot.
Unfortunately, the guide was also maddening at times – saying it’s not a political tour and thus trying to quiet the Imam when he talked about Gaza, but then ripping on Walmart and Hillary Clinton minutes later. She spent fifteen minutes telling us about how her connections and tour led to knowing more about the potential Crusader house, but then talked about the house itself much less. Most frustrating for us was that we expected it to be a 2-hour walk and had planned our day accordingly, but then she got offended when we begged off of having a drink with the group at her friend’s restaurant over 3 hours after the tour started.
So, all in all, it’s a great tour to learn about life off the tourist path in an Israeli Arab city, but be prepared to spend more than the advertised time, and be prepared to be tolerant of a quirky guide.
After we left the tour, we left Nazareth to see other sights (actually, we first stopped at a few shops our guide had shown us to get some snacks and souvenirs – so as annoying as she sometimes was, she was also effective). We tried to go to Tzippori, another site with a wide array of preserved and restored ruins. Unfortunately, we realized when we got there that it would require 3-4 hours to really see the site, and we were already behind schedule. Too bad we wasted the time getting there before realizing it, but the rest of the day went better.
From Tzippori, we drove through Tiberias to get to the Sea of Galilee. Jenny and I both wanted to see the Sea of Galilee because it features so prominently in so many stories of the New Testament. I was surprised, though, to see just how small it was, about half the area of Wyoming’s Yellowstone Lake. I wasn’t expecting to be able to see the Golan Heights looming so close on the other side, but it did explain why capturing the Golan heights from Syria was so important to the Israelis in 1967.
Our first stop at the Sea of Galilee was at Ginosar to see the Sea of Galilee Boat (aka the “Jesus Boat”), a 2000-yr-old boat from the time of Jesus that was discovered in and extracted from the lake’s mud in 1986. It had to be submerged in a chemical bath for 7 years after extraction so that it could be displayed without crumbling to dust in the exposed air.
Next, we visited Capernaum, one of the most important towns in the New Testament, and home to several disciples, including Simon Peter. The main attraction here is the excavated ruins of the town of the era, including much of an old synagogue. At some point in the 4th century, someone decided that a particular house was Simon Peter’s house, so they built a church on it. Then another church. And another. The current church is a modern Catholic building that hovers over the ruins of the stone house and the subsequent ruined churches.
More important than the buildings, for us, was the sense of calm that we experienced when we went down to the lakeshore. It’s a very rocky shore, and not a beach, but there were several young pilgrims reading Bibles and praying quietly on the rocks. We put our hands in the water, and then looked out over the Sea to the city of Tiberias, the sun setting over the mountains of Galilee, and a large fish jumping out of the water.
It was very peaceful.
After a few minutes rest, we set off again to catch the Mount of Beatitudes before it closed. We made it just in time, so we were able to walk the grounds and visit the Catholic Church there, which commemorates the traditional location of the Sermon on the Mount. And like the Nigerian pilgrims I mentioned yesterday, we saw another archetypal group of pilgrims – the Russians. There are lots of Russian tour groups in Israel, and they all seem to be dominated by women wearing head scarves (since Orthodox churches require that of women, they do it for all churches) and talking very loudly. This group was no different, even prompting a nun from the church to run outside to shush the group.
Our final stop on the Sea of Galilee was Beth Saida, the home of other disciples and place Jesus visited in the Bible. By this point, the sun was down, and it was nearly completely dark. We wouldn’t have bothered going, but Jenny’s Uncle Fred had worked on an archaeological dig there, so we wanted to see it. In the light of the Half Moon and with a flashlight, we managed to walk all over the site, seeing some of the ruins and reading some of the explanatory signs. It was a very odd feeling to be in an important historical place at night with no one around, but for all we can tell we weren’t breaking any rules.
On the way back to Nazareth, we stopped at a Lebanese restaurant for dinner. The food was really good, but that’s when we found out about the bombing in Tel Aviv. As far as we can tell, this doesn’t really escalate our risks for our trip for attacks by Arab Muslims (we’re staying in a peaceful Arab city far from Gaza tonight, our next few nights are in Jerusalem near the Old City, the bus we take in Jerusalem is owned by an Arab company, etc.), but of course we are going to continue to be careful.
On our drive back to Jerusalem tomorrow after visiting Meggido, Caesarea, and maybe Haifa, we’ll stay on the highways that go around Tel Aviv instead of through Tel Aviv. We’ll continue to take the advice of Jenny’s relatives who have lived in Israel at several different periods over the last few decades. We’ll heed any warnings they get from their UN connections.
We’ll be safe, but for now, we’re in the travel bubble – spending more time learning about culture and eating great food (like the ice cream dessert with dates and halva this evening in Nazareth) than following the news that tells of the destruction of cultures.