Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Yesterday, I once again found myself in awe of the range of sights, climates and history that exist around this tiny country. My girlfriend had suggested a day out and a good friend had recently recommended Hamat Gader which I had always thought of as a crocodile farm. The last time I had visited was when I was 12 years old and I suppose with hindsight I probably wouldn't have been particularly interested in hot springs and jacuzzis at that age. A visit to the elegant website ( assured me that this was the most visited attraction in Israel so off we headed.

We left Jerusalem headed eastwards at about 9:30. Dropping rapidly towards the lowest spot on earth, we turned north a little before reaching the Dead Sea and headed up the Jordan Valley, newly carpeted in green from the winter rains. 1 1/4 hours later saw us at the Tzemach junction at the bottom end of the replenished Kinneret. I know what you're thinking - and the policeman who kindly let me off with a warning to slow down would agree with you! Another 10 minutes drive in the shadow of the Golan Heights saw us pulling into the parking lot; already full of cars and buses carrying works outings and tour groups.

Hamat Gader is an eclectic collection of attractions; the biggest crocodile farm in the Middle East is maybe the best known but guests also come for the spa, the restaurants, the ancient ruins and the petting zoo. We had come for the famous hot pools - bath-hot water enrichened with minerals, bubbling up from deep within the earth. Had I thought to call ahead of time to book, we could have taken advantage of one of the package deals including entry to the more secluded section of the site, massage or other holistic treatments and a meal at one of the restaurants - all for a little over NIS 200 per person - around the £25 mark.

We paid the extra for the secluded area which included a towel, robe, slippers, soaps, locker hire and not having to fight for a lounger - definitely worth the money. The main area is made up of two large pools, and a number of smaller pools at different temperatures; the more secluded area has two small pools, tastefully surrounded by vegetation and with relaxing music piped in.

The day was spent running between the hot pools, the sauna and the sun loungers. The winter sunshine and temperatures 10 degrees hotter than in Jerusalem surprised me by adding some colour to my pasty skin. Sinking into the water, I felt the stress flowing away from my shoulders and back as I left the worries of the world behind. The day was to continue in this vein until the late afternoon when it started to cool down. Whilst in the water, you are scarcely conscious of the outside temperature. It is not advised to stay submerged for longer than 10 minutes however and even taking a liberal interpretation of time, we felt obliged to leave the water eventually and found ourselves shivering. At this point we decided to head on to find sustenance in the ancient city of Tiberias.

After showering, we once again headed north and shortly found ourselves settled in elegant surroundings eating Chinese at a restaraunt built over the Kinneret. The water level of Israel's main reservoir has given cause for concern in recent years, so to find it lapping at the original banks after the winter downfalls was extremely reassuring. I had last eaten at this particular spot some five years ago during sheva brachot for good friends - who as chance would have it, we will be visiting this weekend. The excellence of the food and the peaceful ambience have not changed one iota.

As we headed for home, I reflected that in the space of a day we had traversed millenia and seen many geographical wonders within a 2 hour drive of Jerusalem. A short drive further north could have seen us ski-ing on the Hermon, looking out over the arena of one of the bloodiest tank battles in history, or retracing the footsteps of Jesus around Galilee. Driving past the lapping waters of the Kinneret, we passed by Deganya, the first kibbutz, the ruins of Beit Shean, along the Roman road past Ein Hanatziv, "my" kibbutz, down the Jordan valley and past Jericho, the oldest inhabited City in the world, turning away from the Dead Sea towards the Holy City of Jerusalem and home

Almost eight years ago, I decided to make my home in Israel. I find myself constantly being forced to re-evaluate why it is that I am here. Our trip allowed me to see things from a different perspective and to be reminded about aspects of the country which I wouldn't otherwise usually contemplate. I feel very privileged to be taking my part in the history of this wonderful country, despite the difficulties of doing so at this particular moment in time; under attack by our enemies and with a much weakened economy making the day to day aspects of life so tough for a growing part of the population. With my love of the country reinforced, I look forward to facing the challenges which tomorrow will bring.

Shabbat Shalom


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