Gina Baksa flies to Israel: Land of the Crusades, following the path of the Knights Templar and visits historical cities and Crusader castles
“God wills it!” yelled the red-crossed Crusader knights as they set forth from Middle Ages Europe to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Saracen forces. Between 1095 and 1291, motivated by their religious faith and calls from the Vatican, knights and commoners from across Europe set sail for the Middle East. Their victories resulted in nearly 200 hundred years of European rule over the Holy Land which they controlled from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
The legacy of the Crusades remains very visible in 21st-century Israel – an exciting treasure trove of Crusader antiquities. This, in addition to the country’s tangible connection to the story of Jesus and the birthplace of Christianity makes Israel one of the most fascinating countries in the world to visit.
Israel has been on my bucket list for years, so when the opportunity arose to follow the path of the Crusaders on a road trip around northern Israel and Jerusalem, I was ecstatic to board a 7am flight from Luton to Tel Aviv.
This middle-eastern country – just 290 miles long and 85 miles at its widest point – is a land of paradoxes. A land with one eye on its past, the other firmly focused on defending its present and future. Bordered by Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, together with disputed borders with the Palestine State and Syria, the State of Israel is complex, fascinating and a superb holiday destination. A land of contrasts, you can be in mountains one minute, desert and ocean the next. And of course its jewel in the crown is the holy city of Jerusalem – the destination of pilgrims of all religious persuasions for thousands of years.
Our Crusader road trip began with a 1.5-hour drive north from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport along the Yitzak Rabin Highway, aka Route 6. If you plan to hire a car you’ll find navigating easy – all the road signs are in English, Hebrew and Arabic. I’d advise pre-booking before you arrive though. Alternatively, book a driver and guide as we did, and just sit back and enjoy the views and expert commentary.
The landscape on the way is surprisingly green after winter rains, and as we drive along the motorway beside low hills and valleys, I see road signs for Nazareth and realise we are in Galilee. Names from childhood Bible stories have leapt off the page and become real.
Akko, perfectly sited on the Mediterranean coast is our first stop on the Crusader trail. Known as Acre to the Christians, Akko was a strategic port during the Crusades and headquarters of the Knights Hospitalier. The old town of Akko is jaw-droppingly impressive. Led by our highly informative driver and guide Moshe Yogev, a walk around this World Heritage Site is a walk through living history. A morning among the intact remains of the 900-year-old Crusader city with its vast collection of halls, a dungeon, dining room and even a Gothic Church is awe inspiring.
We follow the Crusader tunnel, an erstwhile secret passageway leading from the fortress to the old port, via the market stalls laden with mouth-watering fruits and vegetables. Looking out over the harbour at the remains of an old fort destroyed by the English, I can imagine the scene centuries ago: past and present are constantly interwoven in the fabric of the landscape in Israel. Today, the majority of Acre’s citizens are Jews, but it is a mixed city with Arabs and Jews, Christians and Baha’is living together peacefully.
By midday, we’ve left the sandstone fortress and enjoying fresh chickpea falafels from the street market near the port. Arguably Israel’s most popular fast food, other treats on offer included the delicious Sabich (fried aubergine and egg served with humus, tahini, salad and spices all served in a fresh pitta) and Shawarma (thinly sliced cuts of chicken, beef, goat or lamb mixed with hummus, tahini and pickles in pitta). I also loved the delightfully sweet Rugelach. Yiddish for ‘little twists’ they are delicious cream cheese cookies filled with jam, raisins and nuts – and very addictive. If you prefer something more substantial, then head for Uri Buri’s acclaimed fish restaurant at Ha-Hagana St 2 for inventive flavour pairings, such as calamari and grapefruit.
The Efendi Hotel – fish maestro Uri Buri’s other creation – is an excellent choice if you are staying overnight and has a lovely spa. A beautifully restored former Ottoman palace, its tucked away on a cobbled street in the old town with dreamy views of the harbour and the Mediterranean.
There’s plenty of culture in Akko: visit the Al Jazar mosque, the marina, the Turkish baths and the museum, and if you have time, the tranquil Bahai Garden. Akko is the holiest city for devotees of the Bahai faith.
Yehiam Fortress and Tiberias
Our next port of call took us inland towards the 13th-century Montfort Castle. This remote site inside the Kziv creek valley is about 8km east of Nahariya. And only accessible by foot. A main stronghold for the Teutonic knights, Montfort is definitely worth visiting but, for those less agile, be warned that it’s a 75-minute walk from the car park at Goren Park – west of Moshave Gorem. So you’ll need a good standard of fitness. Due to our tight schedule, we instead diverted to Yehiam Fortress (Mivtzar Yechiam, in Hebrew), about 10km south of Montfort.
Situated in the grounds of Kibbutz Yehi’am, this hilltop fortress – with remains of Crusader and Ottomon strongholds – offers visitors stunning views over Western Galilee. You’ll find a mosque, a beautiful vaulted hall and a watchtower with lookout. The settlers of Kibbutz Yehiam used the fortress walls as protection during the Israeli war of independence and you can still see the trenches used in the warfare. I found it to be a beautiful and still place, ideal for quite contemplation… a stark contrast to its history of war and bloodshed.
We headed southeast then, descending towards the lakeside city of Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. On the way to our hotel – the comfortable Leonardo – we stopped at Safed and drove up to the Citadel that overlooks the city. Excavations on the site have also revealed the remains of a Crusader fortress. The views were incredible – we could see right across the city to the Sea of Galilee, the Upper Galilee mountains and part of the Golan Heights. Safed is a magnet for creatives. Take a walk along the narrow windy streets of the artist’s quarter and you’ll find paintings, jewellery, glassworks, weaving and artistic Judaica for sale. Two standout galleries are the Olive Tree and Soul Art.
We arrive in Tiberias just after sunset. The sky a violent blood orange and the moon casting crescent shapes across the Sea of Galilee – the largest freshwater lake in Israel. The ancientness of this Biblical land is tangible… it hangs in the air and you can smell it, taste it and hear it. Fed by the biblical Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee (also known as Kinneret) is magical at dusk, and according to the Bible, is where John baptised Jesus. The timeless view from my hotel window across the lake as dusk fell will remain with me forever.
We ate that night at the superb Pagoda Restaurant, a five-minute stroll from the Leonardo. Built on a stilted pavilion that looks out onto the lake, the restaurant is a cavernous yet welcoming space run by two sisters. The cuisine – a tasting menu of sumptuous soups, salads, fish and meats was impeccable, as was the welcoming and attentive service. Locally caught fish, fully Kosher, meats cooked on charcoals from olive, nuts and citrus trees giving it incredible flavour. Its sister restaurant Decks is next door but closed in winter.
Tiberias is the perfect location for exploring lower Galilee. Take a boat ride around the lake, relax at the Tiberias Hot Springs, drive up to the Church of Mount of Beatitudes and relax in the monastery gardens, or visit the Berenice Winery. With our focus firmly on the Crusades, we ventured 20km south to the awe-inspiring ruins of Belvoir Castle. Built by the Knights Hospitalier in 1168 to defend Jerusalem from Muslim attack, it’s a huge and impressive complex, complete with a 14m-deep moat and 20-m wide outer walls. Walk across the moat to the ramparts, where on a clear day you can see the winding Jordan River below and the hills of Gilead all the way into Jordan. The castle consists of an inner and outer fortress, with massive towers at each of the four corners. You’ll notice how the broad towers slope towards the bottom of the moat to deter tunnelling by invaders.
We swapped the calm tranquillity of Belvoir Castle for a drive south to visit the largest Arab city in Israel. Nazareth is a vibrant hustle of a place that feels energetic and soulful, and inhabited mainly by Israeli Muslim and Christian Arabs. I loved it. Of course, the city is inextricably linked to stories of Mary, Joseph and Jesus so it’s a popular pilgrimage destination.
We made our way up the hill to the Basilica of the Annunciation – a massive church with a towering cupola, built over the cave that was allegedly the home of the Virgin Mary. Giovanni Muzio’s imposing design features reliefs of Gabriel, Mary and the four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John carved into the limestone. Inside, you can descend to the sunken grotto that contains Mary’s alleged cave-home. Whatever your religious beliefs, once inside you’ll feel the quiet energy of something very spiritual indeed.
Nazareth Village is also interesting. Just 15 minutes’ walk from the Basilica it features a faithfully recreated ancient Galilean village, with actors in historical costume playing out scenes from daily life. The Shuk (market) may have some tourist tat but it’s also an authentic market with a rabbit warren of alleys. St Gabriel’s Church should also be on your list – again it’s only a short stroll from the Basilica and has a bubbling spring in its crypt. Another church I recommend visiting is The Church of Jesus the Adolescent – a Gothic-styled edifice with vertiginous spires affording a superb view over Nazareth.
We feasted that night at another recommended restaurant, the Magdalena. Located on the shores of Lake Galilee with superb views over the water and the Golan Heights, you can expect superlative examples of Lebanese and Mediterranean dishes. Steaks, seafood, lamb, scallops, risotto and more – all with an excellent wine list showcasing home-grown talent.
The following day we were ever closer to Jerusalem – our final destination. On the way we stopped for coffee and a tour of Yardenit, an amazing Government-created baptism bathing site on the Jordan River. Yardenit receives over half a million visitors a year who come for blessings in the water – often bringing their own priests and ministers. There are changing rooms, a restaurant and gift shop offering a variety of souvenirs and biblical-related gifts. The river itself is wide and has an iridescent greeny hue, bordered by beautiful trees with plenty of birdlife too. Somehow the stunning setting overrides the potential kitsch value and I felt very moved by some of the baptisms I saw – from just three Brazilians proudly floating their flag in the water – to a group of Filipinos and their minister, all gingerly ducking their heads under the water.
Spiritually refreshed, we headed back east to the Mediterranean coast, just over an hour’s drive from Yardenit, to explore the ancient Roman capital of Caesarea. Once a major port facilitating trade between Asia the Roman Empire, the city was alternately ruled by Muslims, Turks, Crusaders – and even Bosnian Muslims between 1884 and 1948. Now a popular weekend retreat for Tel Aviv residents (it is equidistant from Tel Aviv and Haifa), Caesera is a fascinating place to spend a day. Visit the Crusader citadel and Byzantine streets, walk along the sea wall, play chase with the giant waves battering the sea defences and enjoy seafood at one of the myriad seashore restaurants with views across the harbour. The Roman amphitheatre regularly hosts concerts and in recent years the port has become home to the Caesarea Jazz Festival featuring international artists.
Israel: The Land Of The Crusades – Part Two