We Tried Having a Peaceful Vacation on the Israel-Lebanon Border

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The town of Metula on the Lebanese border, 2020.
The town of Metula on the Lebanese border, 2020. Credit: Gil Eliahu
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Metula is a special place. It has always lived on the edge. No place in Israel is more remote: the town has the northernmost house in the country, the northernmost falafel joint, the orchard nearest Lebanon and the most impressive waterfall. It’s the only place surrounded by an international border on three sides, the only place in Israel where people wear a sweater on hot summer evenings, the only place where everybody still remembers what the South Lebanon Army was.

Mount Hermon to the northeast is white now, its giant peak covered in snow that gives the Galilee panhandle a European look. From the view at the 'Rotem' lookout west of Route 90 and slightly south of this town of 2,000, the place looks like a pleasant European village – red-roofed houses surrounded by gardens, a stream, deciduous fruit trees that any minute now will burst into hot pink blossoms, and a great mountain watching over it all.

But when you’re in Metula, you can also see the wear and tear. The town is more than 120 years old. The main drag, Harishonim Street, has wonderful, well-maintained stone houses alongside abandoned houses that look like they’re about to collapse. In some front yards, anemones bloom in white, purple and red.

Houses in Metula. You can’t be there and ignore the border; you can almost reach out and touch Lebanon. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Since its earliest days in the 19th century, Metula was meant to be a farming town, a mountain resort and a border military outpost. This is all still the case, but the farming is disappearing. There are still kiwi groves and apple orchards, but most farmers have abandoned that calling; it wasn’t profitable. About one-third of the residents are still farmers, but they say imports are killing them.

Tourism is now the biggest question mark. Until a few years ago, there were 250 hotel rooms and about 100 bed-and-breakfasts. The idea was that the farming-tourism combination would work and people could make a living.

The border with Lebanon at Metula, 2020. Credit: Gil Eliahu

But now most of the B&Bs are rented to students at nearby Tel Hai Academic College. The prices are lower, but maintenance is simple; the owners have basically given in.

Today there are probably around 20 to 50 bed-and-breakfasts in Metula; around 500 students live in the town. A few pleasant little bars have opened on Harishonim Street, places more intended for temporary residents than for visitors.

If any of the latter come, it’s on weekends and they usually stay in Metula for only a few hours. They stop at the Canada Center, which offers ice skating, bowling and a swimming pool. Then they head up to Dado Lookout for the magnificent view, and then they move on.

The Dado Lookout at Metula. Credit: Gil Eliahu

The days are gone when the likes of poet Hhaim Nahman Bialik and Zionist leader Menachem Ussishkin would spend two weeks in Metula taking in the fresh air. It only takes two hours to drive to Tel Aviv now and nobody stays for two weeks in one place. A sign from the old days in front of an old hotel where students now live urges people to visit Metula to escape the ravages of malaria in the Hula Valley below.

Cries of the cranes

Absolutely everyone I spoke to in the town, from the mayor on down, complained about the hardships. Some were optimistic, others sounded almost desperate. Either way, there’s something of a love for Metula.

From Amir and Orly Shoshani’s porch you can see the Galilee and the Ayun Stream. You can also see the other side – Lebanon. Flocks of cranes glide in circles over our heads. The Shoshanis have five rooms for guests, intended for couples. Three of them are handicapped accessible. They don’t have a Jacuzzi or a pool.

“We offer guests our quiet,” Orly says. We fall silent and listen to the cranes; then Amir mentions that the armored vehicle that passes right in front of us belongs to the United Nations, and a Lebanese Army jeep is driving along with it. The helicopter we hear also belongs to the United Nations. Most of the guests at the Shoshanis’ guest rooms are nature lovers who travel through the area. The Shoshanis also offer tours of the region and will pick you up at the end of a hike.

The view from the porch and the conversation makes clear that the powers of Metula – the farming, the tourism, the border – are its core. You can’t be there and ignore the border; you can almost reach out and touch Lebanon. Nor can you ignore the landscape and the fresh air.

Beit HaRishonim, where the public library of Metula is located, on Harishonim Street. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Roni and Fanny Bachmutsky once raised fruit trees, but now they only produce olive oil. Their small olive orchard is near the Tanur Waterfall. They raise one kind of olive – Syrian – and produce about three tons of tasty oil a year. They straddle the line between tourism and farming.

They once tried to open a small visitors center next to their house but gave up; too much red tape. Today they use their living room to host visitors, who come to hear about olive oil and venture a tasting. That’s how they sell their products.

“Hardly anyone stays here for most than two hours,” says Roni, who was born in Metula. “The roads today are good, cars are new, your company pays for the gas, and everybody goes home. It’s a different world, and in Metula we’re having a hard time surviving this competition – like we have a hard time competing with imported olive oil.

Miriam Hod manages the family boutique hotel, Beit Shalom, with her husband Haim. The hotel, in the heart of Harishonim Street, has 13 rooms in a charming old stone house. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Miriam Hod manages the family boutique hotel, Beit Shalom, with her husband Haim. The hotel, in the heart of Harishonim Street, has 13 rooms in a charming old stone house. Next door is a restaurant-gallery where Hod shows her artwork and tells the family’s history. They also offer lectures on local history and architecture.

Hod tells her guests how soldiers of the South Lebanon Army were rescued on the day the Israeli army left Lebanon in 2000. Twenty SLA families now live in Metula; for two years Hod housed some of them in her home. She says the families are fitting in well in Metula, but it’s hard for them, too.

“We need to get people acquainted with Metula again,” she says. “It’s an amazing place. It has everything. But in Europe, the government supports farming and tourism. Here the feeling is that Zionism and ideology have been wiped out by the state. Tourism is fighting to survive and people complain all the time that we’re expensive.

“We can’t compete with prices abroad. It’s a simple calculation – paying town taxes, electricity and manpower. We’re lowering our prices all the time, offering a room for 700 shekels [$200] midweek, after our huge investment, and they say we’re expensive. On the contrary, the state should support us.”

The idea of how to support the town comes from Asher Greenberg, a longtime farmer in Metula, who rents out rooms to students. “How come in Eilat they don’t pay VAT for hospitality and we do?” he asks. “Let them cut VAT and we’ll cut our prices.”

Metula, with Mount Hermon in its background. Looks like a pleasant European village.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Rooftop restaurant

David Azoulay has been the mayor here for four and a half years. For 13 years he was an officer in the Combat Engineering Corps serving in Lebanon. He says he was born in Kiryat Shmona nearby and has “only” lived in Metula for 20 years.

With unflagging enthusiasm he tells me about the advantages and wonders of the place. We start out in his office in the Metula Local Council building (“the oldest municipal building in the country,” he notes) and then go for a tour. “The withdrawal from Lebanon was good for Israel and bad for Metula,” he says.

“Until 2000, tourism flourished here; guests at the Arazim Hotel, for example, included UN people and media teams. Every day 3,000 people passed through Metula. A whole battalion lived here. It was a powerful economic stimulus. From the day the Good Fence was closed, things started to decline,” Azoulay says, referring to the days when people actually passed through the fence between Israel and Lebanon.

The Metula Local Council building. The oldest municipal building in the country.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“There are lots of special and beautiful things here, but we’re not on the main visitors’ route, we’re at the end,” Azoulay says. “You have to come here especially. Another problem is that people have to put more effort into maintaining hotel and hospitality places. This is the time to renew things, offer new attractions, do a face-lift.”

On one of his recent visits to Metula, Tourism Ministry Director General Amir Halevi, proposed that if supermodel Bar Refaeli, who was convicted of tax evasion, is sentenced to community service, she should do it in Metula. This would be the best way to improve the town’s image.

But until Refaeli gets here, other ideas have come up. “The first stage is to reopen Harishonim Street the way it was done in Zichron Yaakov,” Azoulay says, referring to the 19th-century town on Mount Carmel, founded, like Metula, thanks to philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild. “They were able to turn it into an attraction for visitors with hotels, restaurants, cafes and galleries. We’re also a veteran colony of the baron.”

Another idea is to turn the Good Fence back into a tourist attraction. “There’s a historical story here that only we know how to tell and we should take advantage of it.” Meanwhile, a cliff-climbing site is planned for the Dado Lookout west of the town, as is further development of the Ayun Stream Nature Reserve. A walkway is now under construction along the stream on Metula’s eastern side, which will lead to the Tahana Waterfall on the Lebanese border.

The Tahana Waterfall in Metula.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Azoulay says he also wants to see a new hotel built, belonging to one of the big chains, which he says would boost tourism. He also wants the town to host three festivals a year here. Currently there are only two – a poetry festival on Shavuot and a motorcycle festival. One of Azoulay’s big dreams is to renovate the old British Mandate-era police fortress and incorporate it into the tourism scene.

“Just think, we’ll have a restaurant on the roof and everyone sitting here eating can look out at Beaufort Castle,” he says, referring to a Crusader fortress in Lebanon that was the scene of a famous battle between the Israeli army and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1982. “There’s nothing better than that,” he adds.

Another ambitious plan of Azoulay's is to change the route of Israel’s national hiking trail to pass through Metula, or at least add a branch that reaches Metula. “Why does the trail begin at Dan and not here?” he asks, referring to an antiquities site and nature reserve to the southeast. “We’re the northernmost place and there’s no reason people shouldn’t start hiking the trail from here.”

When asked about the occupancy rate of Metula’s hotels, Azoulay is less enthusiastic. Finally, he says, “I know that a 20 percent annual occupancy rate is nothing. Pricing is part of the problem. The open skies policy is part of the problem,” he says, referring to the agreement letting all European airlines fly directly to Israel and Israeli carriers directly to all EU airports. “Everybody’s going abroad and we’re forgotten, shunted aside.”

A moment later he asks, full steam ahead, what I think about making a tourist attraction out of one of the six tunnels dug by Hezbollah under the border that the army has discovered. “That would be a hit,” he says. “Hundreds of thousands would come to see it.”

As we stand at the Rotem lookout and take in the view, Azoulay says: “It will be the best here when peace comes. Then Metula will go back to fulfilling its real role – a vacation town on the road to Lebanon. It will really flourish.”

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