Bible belt by bike
GO ISRAEL:With its streets swamped by pilgrims in peak season, Israel has diversified its offering with new bike trails that wend their way though old biblical terrain, writes PAUL CULLEN
HERE’S A REASSURINGLY familiar feel to travelling in Israel that comes from our collective acquaintance with a certain book. Places like Nazareth and Bethlehem are familiar to all of us as locations from the life of Jesus, but road signs in the Holy Land jog the memory in all sorts of ways.
At various points on our cycling tour of Israel, we passed way-stations familiar from religious classes of childhood days: the Sea of Galilee, for example, where Jesus walked on water and performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes; or Cana, site of a celebrated wedding feast, where he performed his first miracle by turning water into wine. There were other surprises; a road sign for Nirvanah, and one even for Armageddon. Sodom and Gomorrah were there to be visited too but the reader will be reassured we gave them a wide berth.
The signs catch the essential experience of holidaying in Israel; that of being somewhere very different, at a crossroads of traditions in the Middle East, and yet eminently recognisable to those of us schooled in Judeo-Christian belief systems.
Most of the time, road directions are given in Hebrew and Arabic, indecipherable to our eyes but now and again, English would pop up to announce the proximity of some well-known biblical site. The most westernised country in the Middle East, Israel has the motorways, high-end hotels and drinkable water to calm the nerves of even the most nervous traveller. It’s also a small country with a large number of historical attractions located in close proximity, making it ideal for bike travel.
It’s a relatively safe place to visit these days, thanks to the controversial wall or fence Israel has built along the border with the Palestinian territories. Critics of Israeli policies point out that the wall breaches the human rights of Palestinians by limiting their movement, yet it has undeniably played a major role in ending the suicide bomb bus attacks that plagued Israeli cities a decade ago.
Most tourists who come here are religious pilgrims who travel in packs, descending from their coaches like locusts on arrival at the best-known historical sites. But with tourism booming, and attractions like the Old City in Jerusalem full to over-capacity at peak season, the authorities are trying to diversify their offering.
In recent years, new trails have been developed, on and off road, which try to meld the adrenaline buzz of a bike holiday with the more thoughtful experience of passing through “God’s country”.
We tried one such route, the Gospel Trail, which starts near Nazareth and wends its way through old biblical terrain as far as Galilee.
Nazareth, now the main Arab town in Israel, is a busy place perched on a number of hillsides in the north of the country. It’s packed with old churches and convents and the cobbled streets of the Old City are worth a wander. This is also the place to stock up on baklava and other honey-soaked treats for the journey.
The trail itself starts a few kilometres outside the town, in a forest planted with pines paid for by Jewish people from Ireland and the UK. The going is easy enough on dirt tracks that rise and fall along the edge of the valley, and once the forest has been left behind the landscape changes to a scrub of olive, pomegranate and fig trees that seems hardly changed from its appearance during biblical times. Further down in the valley, though, you can see how the desert has been made bloom through intensive agriculture using sophisticated irrigation systems.
Occasionally, you come to a sign which says (in Hebrew): “Beware: Irish bridge ahead”. Apparently, this curiosity dates back to 1917 when the 10th Irish division of the British army spent time in Palestine building bridges. Rather than constructing expensive bridges for rivers that flooded only a few days a year, the soldiers allowed the water to pass over the road, thus earning themselves an unusual footnote in local history.
In a loose way, the trail follows the route Jesus might have walked from Nazareth, where he grew up, to Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where he established his ministry. Along the way, you can visit a kibbutz – its perimeter marked by barbed wire and its gate manned by a machine-gun toting guard – and even stay in a hotel there. At only 60km in length, the trail can be cycled in a day or two, so the avid biker will quickly be looking for other perspiration-inducing options. Of these, there are many, ranging from off-road mountain-bike trails in the Ella Valley near Jerusalem to road circuits in various parts of the country.
However, we started our bike-oriented holiday with a city spin around the coastal city of Tel Aviv, a planned city that is the spiritual home of liberal Jews in the country, if that isn’t an oxymoron. Urban Israel, in fact, is very much a tale of two cities, with the religious intensity of Jerusalem situated right on the frontline with the Palestinian territories balanced by the laid-back atmosphere of Tel Aviv, which looks to the sea and the western world beyond and away from the troubles to the east.
From early morning, the city resonates to the pock-pock of beach tennis players and the slap-slap of flip-flop wearers heading for the beaches that fringe the downtown area. As the day progresses, these narrow fringes of sand pack out and the promenade fills with all manner of colourful life. By evening, the scene has moved to the old seafront warehouses that have been converted into trendy fish restaurants. By then, the visitor may be tired but for the locals things are only getting under way; Tel Aviv has a lively nightclub scene, which may or may not have something to do with its large gay population.
The city is easy to navigate by bicycle, with plenty of cycle lanes and its own free bike scheme. Our tour took us from the old port city of Jaffa, which has effectively been swallowed up by its ever-expanding neighbour, to Neve Tzedek, a trendy quarter that was the first Jewish neighbourhood to be settled outside Jaffa. Riding on into the city, you see many fine examples of Bauhaus architecture, the elegantly simple designs of the buildings maximising the space available while minimising the impact of the hot climate. Tel Aviv is one of the largest living examples of the international style of architecture, perhaps not surprising given the city’s socialist origins.
Israelis say they are an informal people – others might say brusque – so be prepared to leave behind traditional Irish notions of politeness and reserve if you want to get served or seek directions. After the 10th shop assistant gave me that “now you really have ruined my day” look, I stopped caring. Perhaps the sheer diversity of ethnic groups and languages forces people to try harder to be heard; alongside the Ashkenazi Jews hailing originally from Eastern Europe, you’ll hear and see more recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Africa and the US.
Beyond the Jewish majority there are so many other groups, each with competing claims and their own historical back-stories. The epitome of this rivalry is to be found in the Old City in Jerusalem, where Christian and Orthodox churches and Muslim mosques are built virtually on top of each other. The site is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, leading to an uneasy co-existence that even passing tourists cannot miss.
Like Lourdes, the walled city has its share of tat merchants, beggars and overpowering tour groups. But just as in the French pilgrimage town, the reverence shown by the faithful – Jews praying at the Wailing Wall, Christians kissing a relic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or Muslims prostrate at the Al-Aqsa Mosque – makes a visit to Jerusalem a profoundly moving experience.
Aside from the historical sites, the other great pleasure in visiting Israel is the food. The market on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, its stalls heaving with fresh and dried fruit, vegetables, freshly baked breads and pastries, is well worth a visit.
Jerusalem has a light rail system identical to the Luas (complete with Calatrava bridge), but it’s not a particularly bike-friendly city. However, in recent years a night-time ride around the cobbled streets of the Old City has become one of the city’s main attractions. The religious buildings are closed by then, of course, but the crowds have departed, so you have a virtually free run around mazy streets that haven’t changed in centuries. It’s almost impossible not to get lost within this labyrinth but it’s also hard to stay lost for long, as you’ll eventually come out at one of the gates to the modern city. It isn’t exactly a spiritual experience, but it’s certainly atmospheric.
ISRAEL: HOW TO GET THERE:
There are few direct flights to Israel from Ireland so most people transit through London or Luton. El Al operates 17 flights weekly to the UK and prices for the 5.5 hour flight start at about €440 return.
Although no visa is needed, security is tight for flights to Tel Aviv and we were told by our hosts in the Israeli tourism ministry to expect intense, even un-PC questioning before being allowed to board. It wasn’t that bad.
The best times to travel to Israel are in the spring and autumn, when temperatures are pleasantly warm. Winter can be cold and rainy and the summers are hot and oppressive.
Israel isn’t cheap but prices won’t shock the average Irish visitor, and eating out is, if anything, marginally cheaper than at home.
Thinkisrael.comis a government website providing information. It’s perfectly possible to organise your own cycling holiday, but it might be a good idea to bring a GPS so you’re not relying on Hebrew and Arabic signage. Alternatively, you could opt for a guided tour; Gordon Active ( gordonactive.com) provide map, itineraries and logistical support. At the time I was in Israel there was controversy at home over a cultural boycott of the country organised by the Irish Palestinian Solidarity Organisation. That group hasn’t directly targeted tourists but anyone with political qualms might wish to include a visit to the Palestinian territories. From Jerusalem, it is easy enough to take a tour of the West Bank, for example, or to travel there by shared taxi.