When Maoz Inon first opened his guest house in Nazareth in the summer of 2005, it caused a bit of a stir in the old Muslim quarter. Rumor had it that there were rooms to be rented out bordello-style, and residents were wary of the young Jew who had opened a hostel in one of the large but neglected houses built during Nazareth's golden age in the 19th century. Today, merchants in the market show backpackers traversing the Israel Trail the way to Inon's hostel, called the Fauzi Azar Inn. Some of the loveliest houses of the period have become popular restaurants and bars, and a group of local investors is planning, together with Inon, to purchase more of the derelict properties and convert them into boutique hotels and guest houses. Despite constant worry about potential political upheavals in the region, a small renaissance is happening in Nazareth, and the city where Jesus spent his early years is aiming to be a top attraction for millions of visitors to Israel.
David Landis looks like he could have stepped out of a Renaissance painting filled with golden angels and cheerful cherubs. He grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia in a Mennonite family, and after earning a bachelor's degree in biology and spending a semester in Israel, he set off on a three-year trek along some of the world's most famous walking trails - in the United States, South America and Asia.
Inon and Landis crossed paths on the Internet, when Landis was searching for information about the Israel Trail and came across a blog Maoz Inon and his wife Shlomit had started after hiking the trail. Their shared love for this way of getting to know places, peoples and cultures led to a first meeting in Israel when Landis hiked the Israel Trail, and to many more meetings later on. Landis became a regular visitor at the guest house, whose lobby hosts an almost-nightly gathering of travelers from all over the world. Thus was born the non-profit project of creating a walking trail that would follow the footsteps of Jesus through the Galilee.
Between them, Inon and Landis have covered thousands of kilometers of walking trails throughout the world, and both insist that the trails in Israel, even without the added sentimental bonus of the connection to biblical stories, can compare with the best trails anywhere - thanks to the varied landscape and experiences that can be had along the way.
In 2004, a 500-kilometer hiking trail was inaugurated in Turkey, following in the footsteps of the journeys of Saint Paul (Saul of Tarsus), Jesus' emissary in Asia Minor, and increasing numbers of people have been hitting the trail each year. Since the ninth century, pilgrims have been trekking to the shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. But in the early 1980s, the number of pilgrims following the traditional route dropped to just a few hundred of the most tenacious believers. For in 1983, the Spanish government opened a well-marked and well-mapped trail, now used by over 100,000 hikers a year. Israel is full of sites related to the life of Christianity's founder. Some were selected with a wave of the royal hand by the mother of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century; others are actually places where Jesus may have once trod - and all these sites ignite the imagination of millions of Christians worldwide. But up to now, there had never been an official walking trail in Israel dedicated to them.
Economic pundits have been saying that a steady stream of tourists can be expected, if only enough is invested in developing Christian tourism. And when organized government activity is nowhere to be seen, private entrepreneurs fill the void, eager to see the region filled with guesthouses, restaurants and inns like those that served pilgrims in the early centuries of the first millennium and could be found along the network of public roads.
The route mapped out by Inon and Landis begins in Nazareth, passes sites like Zippori, Kafr Kana, Mount Arbel and Tabgha, and ends 65 kilometers later in Kfar Nahum. The return route takes the hikers through Nazareth, Tiberias, the Jordan River and Mount Tabor.
The entire trail involves three or four days of leisurely walking in each direction, and can also be divided into day-long segments. In any case, the trail offers encounters with sites sanctified not only by Christians, but also by their Jewish, Muslim and Druze relatives. For what are sacred writings if not stories of long journeys, material or spiritual, in search of the divine? And most of these journeys were made on foot, in day after day of arduous trekking from one point to another. Even donkeys were an unattainable luxury for most ordinary folks in the ancient world.
Jesus Trail, www.jesustrail.com
If only the developers of the concrete high-rise hotels in Tiberias had heeded the rules of those who built the 19th century guesthouse in Tabgha and the modern refurbishers of the hotel that reopened there in 2000. This is a structure built of the dark local basalt rock; it does not hide the waterline and blends in with the area's original structures. The landscaping suits the untamed vegetation of the shores of Lake Kinneret, offers stone benches and hidden seating corners amid a jungle of bamboo, orange trees and spice plants on the lake shore.
The original building, dating from 1889, now houses a chapel on one side and a lovely cafe on the other. In between are a maze of rooms with arched ceilings and seating areas furnished with large, colorful cushions. The cafe's wide, tiled veranda overlooking the lake, with a small fountain at the center, is a truly marvelous place to sip a cocktail at sunset. Both the cafe and the veranda are open to all.
Most of the guests of the hotel are German pilgrims, and most of the pretty, modest rooms are reserved long in advance. Still, it's worth trying your luck. Prices are relatively low for the area and it's one of those quiet places that make you feel like you, too, could spend 40 days and nights here pondering the fate of the human race, or at least writing the next great Israeli novel.
Pilgerhaus, Tabgha, 04-6700100
Fourth-century pilgrims believed that the Church of Loaves and Fishes was the site of the stone upon which Jesus placed five loaves of bread and two scrawny fish and managed to feed 5,000 hungry people with them. Fish thereupon assumed a special status in Christianity. A good number of Christianity's leading early adherents were fisherman or lived in the area around Lake Kinneret. Since Jesus' followers were ambivalent about meat, fish became a major part of the menu, particularly on the many fast days in the Christian calendar. During Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter, believers purify their bodies with a light diet consisting largely of fish, and completely abstain from meat. This custom is supported by the natural agricultural cycle of the seasons - the new lambs are eaten when spring arrives, and the fish menu is most suited for winter.
Church of Loaves and Fishes, Tabgha, 04-6678100
Jesus performed wonders with loaves and fishes, and every week, during mass, millions of Christians consume the wafer and wine, symbols of Jesus' flesh and blood. In Nazareth Village, they have tried to reconstruct the daily life and practices of Jesus' time in farming, food production and customs. The village is built on the ruins of an ancient farming settlement. On these hills, once part of the rural area around the city, but long ago swallowed up by urban sprawl, the typical landscape of Jesus' day has been recreated: agricultural terraces where, in accordance with the season, barley, lentil, fava beans or onions are planted; grape vines and olive trees guarded by watchtowers; and groves of pomegranate, carob and fig trees. Every season they recreate the agricultural activity of the ancient cycle dictated by nature, and the meals offered to visitors are largely based on local produce.
Nazareth Village, next to the YMCA hotel, 04-6456042; www.nazarethvillage.com
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now