Whether it’s the sweet mountain air, the fertile soil or the legend of water being turned into wine by a maverick Jew 2,000 years ago, there is certainly something discernibly magical and mystical about the Galilee.
You only have to stand in the centre of Safed, where the mysticism of the kabbalah was disseminated by rabbis hundreds of years ago to feel it — and you will not be alone.
Hordes of Jewish pilgrims, students and cultural tourists pour in every day to visit historic little synagogues, trawl galleries for paintings with a Judaic theme or merely wander the cobbled alleys beneath blue-painted arches and gaze out over hills regarded as sacred since famous Talmudic scholars were buried there.
The tiny, picturesque artists’ colony in old Safed is full of great characters not too busy to hold a conversation, from the caretaker of the colourful Ari synagogue who claims Madonna tried and failed to book it for a private service earlier this year, to the bearded, satin-robed Yaacov Kaszemacher, a French artist whose photographs of Chasidic celebrations have won him worldwide exhibitions, and whose intimate paintings of the doors and alleyways of Safed aren’t half-bad either.
The Ohr Yaacov Gallery is on Yosef Caro, the craft alley leading up to the little private synagogues, of which the Ari, with its amazing carved and painted ark, and the Caro are the most notable. The fine art section proper is the other side of the main square, currently under renovation.
It is worth dodging the potholes to seek out painters and sculptors in their studios and admire the beautiful little lanes; when the bulldozers are through, the town will be even lovelier to visit than it is now. Restaurants are not much in evidence but the café in the central Diana Gallery complex serves a mean bowl of hummus, liberally laced with local olive oil — Galilee oil is considered some of Israel’s best.
Gastronomy is reason alone to visit Tiberias on the shores of Kinneret, aka the Sea of Galilee. Here, The Decks kosher steakhouse is as much of a draw for Jewish gourmands as the lakeside churches of Tabgha and nearby Mount of Beatitudes for Christian pilgrims.
Decks was started by a keen carnivore who discovered charcoal-grilling was a valid method of koshering meat while retaining its flavour, and meat-lovers travel from all over Israel for platters of chops from specially bred lambs, prime steaks, duck breast and endless trimmings. The tableside drama of sizzling braziers is frequently amplified by simchah parties making a dramatic arrival by boat; this is a huge, fun restaurant whose size does not diminish its intimacy or buzz.
Nearby Capernaum is as much of interest to Jews as to Christians, thanks to the spectacular marble ruins of Israel’s best-preserved synagogue of the third century, while at the Yigal Allon Centre on Kibbutz Ginosar, the big attraction is a fishing boat raised from the lake 20 years ago and dating to the time of Jesus. Before leaving the lakeshore, it is also worth looking in on the beautiful little Mensa Christi church at Tabgha, with its peaceful stretch of shoreline. Like the Mount of Beatitudes, it is a good place to meditate upon the wonders of nature spread out before you.
Meditation is on offer, along with yoga, tai chi, painting lessons and other peace-inducing pursuits in the hill villages of the Western Galilee, where several hundred like-minded people who once led successful but stressed city lives have moved in search of personal fulfillment, and are keen to share their New Age skills with visitors.
It is all tailor-made, with Hararit in particular offering activities and b&b rooms (including a self-contained apartment in the spectacular home of dance therapist Ruth Pardess). In nearby Michmanim, Orna Oren offers painting workshops in her delightful home studio, while her architect neighbour and his Japanese wife are building six zen-inspired rooms to complement the Japanese restaurant they open at weekends.
Supplementing the zimmerim, or b&b rooms, which underpin these Galilee retreats, is the spa hotel, Mizpe Hayamim, near Safed, and the Scots, an architecturally interesting hotel in Tiberias, owned by the Church of Scotland — if only the elders would invest in some comfortable beds to complement the distinguished exterior.
An interesting alternative, especially if continuing on to the Golan Heights, is Kfar Blum, one of Israel’s most northerly kibbutzim whose principal industries are hospitality and culture. They have created a highly professional guesthouse, from beds among the most comfortable in Israel to the bountiful breakfasts.
But the real attractions of Kfar Blum are the outdoor activities for families — kayaking, an adventure playground and rafting down the Jordan river — and the indoor ones, including a full spa and indoor pool for winter visits. Their annual musical festival is renowned, and from 2009, at least one of the interim weekends is to be made user-friendly for English-speakers. Subject and date are not finalised, but from all one hears, a treat not to miss.
The kibbutz sits in the foothills of the Golan, and one only has to climb the slopes to realise why this land has been of such strategic importance to Israel since its 1967 capture. For more than 40 years, Israelis have been free of surveillance from the Syrian watchposts which still litter the ridge, and now it is their soldiers who can stare out towards Damascus from Mount Bental and the “Coffee Annan” café, pun slightly intended — in Hebrew it means coffee in the clouds.
The gun emplacements of an old Syrian bunker surround this pleasant mountaintop café, and the fruit stand outside is testament to the rich volcanic soil which makes the area of such economic as well as military importance. Not only are heavenly cherries, raspberries and apricots grown in the Golan, it is the birthplace of Israel’s premium winegrowing industry. A visit to the Golan Heights Winery is instructive — and tasting its fine Yarden wines delicious — but be prepared for crowds; this is not a boutique winery but a vast industrial plant. A more intimate experience is on offer to those who call ahead to award-winning Chateau Golan, whose USA-trained winemaker and co-owner, Uri Hetz, is happy to chat with visiting wine-lovers; his Eliad blend is a very fine red indeed.
Heading south to Haifa and the highway to Ben-Gurion airport, it pays to leave a couple of hours to explore Tzipori, one of the greatest archaeological sites in Israel. Settled by the Hasmoneans 2,200 years ago then conquered by the Romans, it is home to numerous splendid artefacts of Byzantine, Crusader and other later occupying groups. The Byzantine mosaics are as great a draw as the Roman roads and amphitheatre, and the site’s greatest highlight is its mosaics, of which the “Mona Lisa of the Galilee” is alone worth the trip.
Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737, www.thomsonfly.com) serves Tel Aviv from Luton and Manchester from £179.98 return. Scots Hotel (00972 4 671 0710, www.scotshotels.co.il) from £110; Kfar Blum from £120, both with breakfast. Tailor-made holidays in the Misgav, including painting workshops, yoga retreats and stays at Hararit, from Boaz Gershon (00972 4999 0106; email@example.com). Superstar Holidays (www.superstar.co.uk; 020 7121 1500) offers 3-night packages at the Sheraton Tiberias from £586, Prima Tiberias, from £463, or a fly-drive from £422. All prices per person, based on two sharing, include flights and accommodation with breakfast. Fly-drive includes car hire.