Holy Waters

The Galilee region is a center for religious travel and more

By: Judy Koutsky

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The Sea of Galilee is actually
a lake fed by the Jordan River.
Israel was well on its way to meeting its goal of 3 million visitors in 2000 when the Intifada started in October of that year. Then, with Sept. 11 and conflict in the West Bank and Lebanon, tourism to the country suffered greatly. Today, Israel is determined to bring back tourists, particularly Americans who make up the largest number of travelers to this country.

Israel has long been a destination for religious exploration, with the Galilee region the center for many pilgrims Catholics, Jews and Muslims all have ties here. Most American tourists spend a great deal of time in Galilee, making trips to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and Tel Aviv.

While there is no denying that many tourists make the trek to the Holy Land to visit religious sights, Galilee offers more than just spiritual exploration. There are also amazing hot springs, historical towns and artisan centers. The mind, body and spirit can all be nourished by the many experiences the region offers.

Galilee’s Religious Sights
For visitors to Galilee, Tiberias provides a good base camp, with day trips available throughout the region. One hotel option is Rimonim Galei Kinnereth. Its location right on the Sea of Galilee is unbeatable and the service is quite good also.

The Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake, is surrounded by cliffs and steep hills, which make it beautiful to view from any side. Christian sights dot the shores with the Golan Heights (which borders Syria and Jordan) off in the distance. The Jordan River comes down from the north and feeds the Sea of Galilee before meandering south to the Dead Sea. The Jordan River, contrary to the song, is not “deep and wide” but instead is small and narrow, yet quite beautiful.

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The Church of the Annunciation in
Nazareth is a must for visitors.
The main religious sites in the Galilee region include Mount Beatitudes, where Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount. A beautiful church stands at this site with windows inscribed with the Beatitudes (in Latin); the outside walkway is full of flowers and boasts amazing views of the Sea of Galilee.

Capernaum, where Jesus established his ministry, is also a popular visit. This is where St. Peter lived and Jesus lodged. It was here that Jesus said to Simon and Andrew: “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” The ruins here include the remains of a synagogue that dominates the complex.

Other sites include Tabgha, where Jesus multiplied bread and fish, and Yardenit, which sits on the Jordan River and where many come to be baptized.

A full day should be spent in Nazareth, where Jesus spent his childhood. This city is wonderfully alive with Israel’s largest Arab population (two-thirds of Nazareth’s population is Arab). The old town has small, hidden alleyways, cobblestone streets and a lively population.

A highlight of Nazareth is the Church of the Annunciation. The largest church in the Middle East, it was consecrated in 1969. This is where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she would conceive and bear a son “and call his name Jesus.” The upstairs of the Church is quite interesting there are mosaics of Mary created by artists from around the world (including Japan, Spain, Mexico, the U.S. and more) depicting the Madonna and Child by the way that country views her.

The Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel located a block away is built over the only natural hot spring in Nazareth. The hot spring is called Mary’s Well and it’s here that the Greek Orthodox believe the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary.

Other Attractions
Outside of religious sites, one of the more interesting towns worth visiting in the Galilee region is Safed (also spelled Tzfat), the center of Kabbalah, a mystical form of Judaism that dates back to ancient times and was popular in the 12th century. Small galleries, cobblestone streets and old synagogues line this small, pleasant town. This is a great place to buy local art and spend the afternoon in a cafe people-watching.

For wine enthusiasts a visit to the Golan Heights Winery is an excellent day trip. Israel is quickly becoming a major player in the wine scene, with this particular winery one of the top producers. Tour the facilities and enjoy tastings of some of their best sellers.

History buffs should visit Rosh Pina. It’s one of the first Jewish settlements in the Galilee region. Rosh Pina meaning “cornerstone” gets its name from Psalm 118:22: “The stone that the builders rejected has become their chief cornerstone.” This inspired Galilee’s first Zionist pioneers who came from Romania in search of their own homeland.

Hammat Gader is a must for spa lovers. One of the largest spas dating back to the Roman Empire, this spa is built around three hot springs high up the southern bank of the Yarmuk River. Popular with locals, the hot springs consist of an impressive array of various size baths, Jacuzzis and waterfalls. For an added treat, book a water massage for clients the massage literally takes place while guests are floating in the hot springs.

From Galilee, it is a short trip to the Dead Sea, where most hotels have spas boasting Dead Sea mud in their treatments. Found here is the Ein Gedi Spa, which offers access to the Dead Sea as well as a freshwater pool and warm indoor sulfur pools. Massage treatments can also be booked.

Spend the day here and make sure to apply some Dead Sea mud (free on the beach), it’s said to have wonderful rejuvenating effects.

The Kibbutz Way of Life
Spend the day visiting nearby sights including a tour of the Kibbutz Ein Gedi, set in the most beautiful scenery between 1,600 cliffs and the Dead Sea. A working kibbutz, visitors can get a tour of the lush botanical gardens and grounds and hear about the kibbutz’s 600 inhabitants and visit the school, medical facility and other key parts of the community’s life. This tour provides a real insight into the kibbutz way of life in Israel. This is also a hotel for those guests looking for a fuller experience.


Ein Gedi Spa and Hotel

El Al
Israel’s national airline offers flights from JFK, Newark, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Israel Tourism Board
323-658-7463 (in Los Angeles)