24 Hours in Mitzpeh Ramon

Dune buggy rides at sunset, a French-born chocolatier, soap, soybeans, tofu and sushi, too - the desert can be pretty cosmopolitan, it turns out.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
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Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

The tourism minister's sizable entourage beat us by a step to wherever we went in Mitzpeh Ramon. Unfortunately, the Shin Bet security guard's hyper-alertness prevented us from getting a good peek at the face of this government member, which compelled us to resort to an awkward consultation with local business owners as to the identity of the anonymous figure in a pressed shirt, who kept eluding us. In the past decade, 11 people have sat on the distinguished tourism throne, allowing each on average enough time to come up with a long-term vision, but not much more. And we were left somewhat confused as to the profile of the current incumbent.

If only the cries of small locales, sitting on what qualify as impressive natural treasures by any international standards - but unable to convert them into great tourism successes - would reach the ears of the serving minister! If only said person would have enough time on the job to do something about this! Until that happens, the best we can do is wholeheartedly recommend a visit to Mitzpeh Ramon. Not that anyone has tried to obscure the unattractive housing projects here, or thought about what sort of aesthetic becomes a desert city, or has tried to tackle the issue of the small and somewhat pathetic shopping mall. But as elsewhere in Israel, here, too, interesting local initiatives have sprouted up that justify a stay and not just a rest stop on the way to Eilat.

Former Parisian Stephan Azoulay was among the first to set up shop in the dreary-looking hangars of the town's Besamim (Spices) neighborhood, with four dune buggies he helped design and has since turned into a hit among overseas visitors. In the last eight years, his former warehouse has become not only a departure spot for desert trips, but also a lovely labyrinth of guest rooms and see-through mosquito nets over canopy beds, with a heated swimming pool and a Finnish sauna.

Riding off into the sunset around the reddening rim of the Ramon Crater in a small column of mini-vehicles does not require any special 4X4 driving skills - just a childish enjoyment of wallowing in dust and of traveling in what seems like a "toy" car; then there's the awe you feel at the closeness to nature and the joyous look on Stephan's face - even though this is the millionth time he's done this.

Rumors about the crazy Frenchman who traded in the lights of Paris for the stars of the desert have already spread in Paris, and French Jews, who are very fond of the desert, fill the place during the months of la vacance (another brilliant invention that hasn't been given due consideration in this country). You can come here just to take a desert trip of a few hours, but it's really worthwhile to spend a whole 24 hours at this place, where you can enjoy a trip, relax in the spa facilities, sleep over and enjoy meat meals or locally produced wines and cheeses. The guest rooms are only for those who take the full package, and the price is surprisingly low.

Tiyulei Ha'ofek Hamanheh (Guide Horizon Buggy & Spa), Har Boker 27. Reservations must be made ahead of time, through www.guidehorizon.com or by calling 08-6595333 or 052-3690805

If all were right with the world, all chocolatiers would look like Marc Tzayan: a bushy mane of white hair, thick, Mad Hatter-like black eyebrows and a healthy attitude toward life in general and chocolate in particular, all contained in a spanking-white chef's uniform.

When he grew tired of slaving away as a pastry chef at elegant French hotels, he found his way to Mitzpeh Ramon and, together with his wife Hagit, opened an intimate little chocolate shop decorated with a crystal chandelier, silvery chocolate molds from the Parisian flea markets and a bistro-style blackboard on which information is written in chalk. Every morning he makes a small and fresh selection of mousses, pralines and ganaches dipped in high-quality chocolate. But our attention happened to be drawn to his excellent jams.

Jams and preserves don't get enough appreciation these days. Most of us are accustomed to seeing them as nothing more than a breakfast accompaniment made of simple ingredients - fruit and sugar. Marc's jams could restore to the craft the honor it deserves and remind people that this is also an art involving fine nuances of flavor and insight. Certain kinds of jams are best suited for eating in the morning, because of their lightness and slight sweetness; others are meant to go with scones, and the cakes and cookies of afternoon tea with the queen, because of their balance between sharpness and sweetness; and some are best for cooking because of the way they blend with meat and other dishes.

Marc manufactures a collection of jams named after his grandmother, in honor of her jams that he remembers from childhood. They're made from fresh fruit in season along with a variety of fine raw ingredients: to the lemon preserves he adds Indian Assam tea; inside the jar of melon jam is a stick of vanilla; the apricot preserves contain an abundance of wonderful orange pieces of the real thing; and the banana jam is a pale pink pleasure that's sweet and addictive. There is also a whole collection of jams with chocolate, the most exciting of which is a tangerine jam with tea and bittersweet chocolate.

La Chocolat, Har Boker 13. Call 08-6595332

3. In praise of lather

Even those who aren't immediately enchanted by the bright colors of glycerin-based soaps, or by the rainbow of desert hues of soaps made from natural oils, still find themselves dazzled by the scents of lemon, vanilla and patchouli that waft from this place.

At this impressive home-based and justifiably successful factory, they're currently building an additional wing where they'll use more industrial methods to manufacture soaps for the hotel and spa market. Meanwhile, the workers hovering behind the large metal pots continue to explain to visitors the manual production methods of the natural soaps and the ancient history of soap-making.

Nihoah Teva, Har Ardon 22. www.naturescent.co.il

This is just how our ancestors in Egypt must have looked: kneeling in the beating sun as they kneaded a mixture of earth and water to make mud bricks. Alon Ben-Zvi specialized in the ancient art of adobe, mud-brick construction, when he worked for the Israel Antiquities Authority in preservation and reconstruction. Today he produces his own bricks and gives workshops for schoolchildren, artists and anyone else who wants to learn about this construction method, which is valued for its eco-friendliness.

The house and the brick factory are in the practically abandoned and failing Mitzpeh Ramon industrial zone, where nice-looking street signs lead nowhere. During the day, the only signs of life are found in the stone workshop next door and in the sounds of Apache helicopters overhead. When twilight comes, the only noise is the sound of dogs' jaws clamping shut in stubborn battles against flies.

If there were enough orders, that might justify the use of tractors and other mechanical tools, but until then, Alon continues to work completely by hand and to make use of the area's natural resources - the heat of the sun and the wide open spaces needed to dry the bricks. His dream is to build, alongside the route of the Israel Trail, which runs right below the house, an exact scale model of the triple-arch gate that was discovered in the Tel Dan excavations: a mud brick archway from the Canaanite Period that was preserved and is buried among the ruins of the biblical city of Laish, and which cannot be left exposed because of its fragility.

Hamerkaz Libniya Ba'adamah, Industrial Zone A. 08-6539539, 050-7624338

The ecological-organic-spiritual image that has adhered to Mitzpeh Ramon in recent years might evoke thoughts of health food stores and small restaurants serving vegetarian food to spacy New Age, meditative types. The closest thing here that fits this fantasy is the tempeh factory founded by Shoshana and John Dan. Tempeh originates in Indonesia and is a product made of fermented soybeans. The dry soybeans are cooked and then processed in an incubator, which makes the legumes easier to digest, and they are sold frozen from here to health food shops.

Shoshana is also the leading activist in the local residents' fight to be included in the design of the master plan for the community. Two weeks ago, the locals found out by chance that the new plan is approaching the final-approval stage. Believing that they, as the ones who live here, might have some idea about the best way to make use of local resources, or about the future character and appearance of their community, they've taken up the fight.

Tempeh Polbar, no visits. Info: http://polbar.dsites1.co.il

For Friday evenings, Sayaka Shalev, a Japanese convert to Judaism, bakes challahs and distributes them in the neighborhood - yet another sign that exotica is a matter of geography and that matzah-ball soup can be just as coveted as miso soup, depending on your part of the world. The Japanese menu offered by Sayaka and her husband Yehoshua at their restaurant Kokru features the locally produced tempeh, which Sayaka uses to make crispy rolls. Tofu made by the small community of Black Hebrews in Mitzpeh Ramon is seasoned with a spicy homemade chili sauce; and there are marvelous salads, like a salad with wakama seaweed and sesame oil; or a sweet-and-sour salad with arugula, tomatoes, mushrooms, peanuts and raisins. Of all things, the pretty sushi, made with smoked or preserved fish because of the difficulty in obtaining fresh fish here, was somewhat disappointing.

In Mitzpeh Ramon, it's very hard to find good food. The spectacular view of the crater doesn't compensate at all for the stench of overused frying oil that emanates from the Hahavit Restaurant, and its hummus and french fries menu. At Pangea they invested a lot of money in the building itself, but somehow neglected to give the same attention to what happens in the kitchen. It's easy to blame the restaurants, but one should bear in mind that it's hard to maintain a quality menu composed of fine ingredients in a region that survives solely on weekend tourism. Of the current options, Sayaka's small-scale home cooking is the best of all, whether for a meal there, for a packed picnic lunch or for catering.

Kokoru, advance reservations only; call 054-6257300 or 054-6313999