On Sacred Ground

In Israel, a traveler can find haunting landscapes that evoke Bible stories

March 01, 2009|By Susan Spano | Susan Spano,Los Angeles Times

TEL AVIV, Israel -There was a map of the Holy Land on the front flap of my mother's Bible. It was colored in pale pinks and blues and it showed Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Galilee and the Jordan River. The names told the story of the life of Jesus Christ, but to me the map made it real.

Older now, I have graduated from dreaming over maps to visiting places embedded in my consciousness, above all Israel. It is just a sliver of land about the size of New Jersey but deep in terms of time. I had only a week to devote to the trip, so I had to be selective.

The Sea of Galilee was a priority, one of Israel's most haunting landscapes, where Christ's ministry began. On the north shore of Palestine's freshwater lake, which is fed by the Jordan, Christians believe he performed miracles and recruited disciples, including Simon Peter the fisherman and Matthew the tax collector.

After spending a few days in Tel Aviv, I rented a car and set out with my friend, Penny Kaganoff from New York, who was in Israel for a wedding. We headed for an eight-room country inn about 60 miles north of the Sea of Galilee.

Pausa, as owners Einat and Avigdor Rothem call it, is a getaway place for Israeli foodies, surrounded by collective farms, or kibbutzim. Set among orange and olive groves, near 9,232-foot Mount Hermon and the headwaters of the Jordan, it promised fine food in a bucolic setting, as long as all remained quiet on the nearby Lebanese border. This was a flash point for hostilities between Israel and the pro-Palestinian Hezbollah in 2006, when bombs rained down on the Pausa garden.

We followed the coast north, gradually leaving behind the urban sprawl. It felt good to be on the road, and I quenched my yearning for classic biblical vistas of rocky hills where shepherds kept watch over their flocks. When we turned inland at Hadera, I got landscape - first a barren plateau around Nazareth, then lonely Mount Tabor, thought to have been the setting for the Transfiguration of Christ described in the New Testament.

An hour or so from the coast, the highway contracted into a series of hairpin curves leading to the town of Tiberias, a hot spring resort built by Herod Antipas, the Jewish king who governed Palestine for the Roman Empire during Christ's lifetime. Rounding a turn, I let my eyes drift past the road and suddenly saw the Sea of Galilee, seven miles wide, 13 miles long and almost 700 feet below sea level.

It was a milky shade of blue that I'd swear existed nowhere else on Earth, but at the moment a torpid cloud hung over it, obscuring the Golan Heights on the far shore.

Penny and I lunched at Decks, a restaurant on the Tiberias waterfront whose dining room is big enough for the tour groups that board Sea of Galilee excursion boats nearby. We had barbecued organic beef from the Golan, but I barely noticed my meal. Instead, I watched a lone angler on the rocky shore, presumably pursuing St. Peter's fish, a local delicacy. He made me think of Jesus telling his disciples where to cast their nets.

The Sea of Galilee could make anyone strain to see a man in a robe, standing in the bow of a boat, calming the water.

We followed the shoreline from Tiberias to the ruins of Capernaum, the home of Peter, Andrew, James and John, also said to have been the scene of Christ's miracle of the loaves and fishes.

The Mount of the Beatitudes looms above. Though there is no decisive evidence to prove that any significant New Testament event took place here, it is the traditional site of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. In any event, the view over the Sea of Galilee is stunning, which makes it the right place to remember the transforming Book of Matthew passage that begins, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

As the light faded, we headed north on Highway 90, along the Jordan between the Golan Heights and the coastal mountains that spill into Israel across the Lebanese border.

Pausa is just east of the town of Kiryat Shmona in a small gated settlement about two miles from the border, which is as close to a battle zone as I ever want to get. "It's a very peaceful place, unless there's a war," owner Einat later said.

The inn has several banks of guest rooms around a covered patio with long tables where a breakfast buffet is served on a Lazy Susan mounded with local cheeses, meats and vegetables. Penny and I arrived late on a Thursday, the only guests that evening. We went to an Italian place in town for dinner, anticipating better fare the next night because Avigdor, a gourmet chef, makes elaborate, multicourse dinners for guests on weekends.

Our rooms were simply furnished, clean and comfy. They were a short stroll from the inn's hot tub, where I sat in the dark, feeling as if I had landed on the far side of the moon.

Dawn's light revealed I was still in Israel. I saw farms fed by tributaries of the Jordan in all directions. To the east I could see the hilltop ruins of Nimrod Castle, an ancient fortress dating to the times of the Crusades.

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