Israel: Staying on the right track

By Nathan Jeffay, August 15, 2008
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We find some great days out by train to lure you away from the poolside


Thanks to Israel's fast-improving rail network, which now transports almost two million passengers a month, tourists with even a minimal sense of adventure can leave their poolside for a great day out without having to suffer sweltering bus stations, drivers on short fuses or baffling road signs.

There are stations at major destinations, including Haifa, Tel Aviv, Netanya, Herzilya and Jerusalem. And given that Israel is a small country, few journeys are too long for a day trip and your trip will be in air-conditioned comfort - usually on time.

Planning is simple with English information available at the Israel Railways website and information line and an English interface on ticket machines, so it is worth considering planning outings around a rail route.

Beer Sheva

A bustling urban centre in the Negev, Beer Sheva this year became the sixth largest city in Israel. It is usually ignored by holidaymakers, but in just 90 minutes you can swap the sand of Tel Aviv beach for the sand of the desert.

"What I love about this city is that it has all the conveniences of the 21st century but has so much history. Also, you can see living history here, as many of the Bedouin live pretty much as they did at the time of Abraham," says local tour guide Yochi Gordon of Zeltours.

Beer Sheva is at its most lively on a Thursday, when the Bedouin market on Hebron Street - a 20 NIS (£3) cab ride from the central train station - brings in dozens of Bedouin farmers to sell and barter agricultural produce. Get there early enough, and you may even see livestock on sale.

The colourful market provides a good snapshot of Beer Sheva's population comprising students (every eighth resident attends Ben-Gurion University), and Moroccan, Ethiopian, and Russian immigrants.

If you are not going straight to the market, start your visit with the 15-minute walk from Beer Sheva Central to the atmospheric Ottoman-built Old City with its fine historic architecture including the impressive mosque the Ottomans built when they re-established the city in the early 20th century.

Another era of history is recalled in the adjoining Allenby Square, dominated by a statue of Field Marshal Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby, the British soldier who captured Beer Sheva from the Turks in October 1917 before going on to capture Palestine.

Nearby is the Negev Museum of Art. Housed in the former home of the Ottoman governor, it shows Israeli work with a special focus on local artists. Also worth a visit is the Joe Alon Museum of Bedouin Culture, a 20-minute (80NIS/£10.50) taxi ride from the city.

Plane geeks and children will love the Israeli Air Force Museum, where you can see or board 100 aircraft, including jets, helicopters and drones as well as captured enemy planes. (Take bus 31 from the central bus station or a taxi - around 45 shekels/£7).

Ashkelon

Everyone will have their own perspective on a visit to the Western Negev city which was targeted by Hamas rockets earlier this year: some, despite the ceasefire, will not wish to go, others will want to show solidarity.

It has a number of attractions to justify the 60-minute journey from Tel Aviv, including the brilliant Ashkeluna Water Park, a spectacular six-mile shoreline, a lively marina with a slew of cafés and restaurants and the excellent Ashkelon Museum with dozens of archaeological relics found locally. At the water park, you get plenty of splash for your cash - tall water slides, winding slides, mini slides for toddlers and no long queues - as well as spectacularly clean swimming pools.

Another advantage is that you don't have to buy the cafeteria food, but can turn up with a picnic or barbecue (disposable ones are sold at supermarkets) and grill your own. Call ahead for opening times, as the park is often closed for private events. Entrance is 78 NIS (£10) for all aged over three, though there are special offers. Take bus 18 to the central bus station and change to bus 6.

Zichron Yaakov 

The train doesn't go direct to this pretty, charming town, but Zichron is just a 15-minute bus ride from Binyamina, which is only 30 minutes from TA. Buses 70, 708 and 872 go from opposite Binyamina's train station to Zichron, or take a taxi (around 35 NIS/£5).

Founded in 1882 by French philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Zichron was one of the first Zionist settlements and thoughtful regeneration and renovation has allowed it to retain its original charm, while offering visitors delightful shopping, art galleries, restaurants and cafés.

Among the highlights, all clustered around the main street Hameyasdim, is the imposing Ohel Yaakov Synagogue, built by the baron in 1886. Also here is the First Aliyah Museum, which recalls the early Zionist immigrants including the story of one family told through audio visual presentations.

The fascinating Beit Aharonson Museum focuses on the spy ring, Nili, formed when Jews, desperate for the British to take Palestine from the Ottomans, gathered intelligence for the British during World War One. The museum is based in the former home of key members, Ahron Ahronson and his sister Sara, who shot herself after her arrest and torture by the Turks. 

Zichron is at the heart of Israel's wine country, and home to the Carmel winery, founded by Baron de Rothschild in 1895. The winery offers guided tours in English, as well as a gourmet restaurant which serves lunch and dinner.

If you are sober enough on the way back to the station, visit the beautiful 1,125 acres of Ramat Hanadiv Gardens, Rothschild's mountainside resting place with some of the most spectacular views of the Carmel.
Binyamina's eponymous winery and Tishbi - on the road to Binyamina - also run wine tours, and Tishbi has a shop-cum-kosher café in the centre of Zichron which serves excellent food accompanied by wines straight from the barrel. And if you take the train, you don't have to worry too much about how many you sample.

 

Travel Facts

Train information in English: 00972 3 611 7000; www.israelrailways.org. Trains do not operate on Shabbat and late Friday afternoons. Avoid travelling on Sunday morning, when trains are packed with soldiers returning to base. Be'er Sheva tours: www.zeltours.com. Negev Museum of Art 00972 8 620 6570; Joe Alon Museum of Bedouin Culture 00972 8 991 3322; Israeli Air Force Museum 00972 8 991 3322; Ashkelon Museum 009728 672 7002; Ashkeluna 00972 8 673 9970; ww.ashkeluna.co.il Hebrew site only; First Aliyah Museum, Zichron Yaakov 009724 629 4777; Beit Aharonson Museum 00972 4 639 0120. Book for a guided tour in English; Carmel Winery 00972 4 629 1787; Binyamina Winery 00972 4 628 8424; Tishbi 00972 4 638 0434; Ramat Hanadiv Gardens 009724 629 8111. Call ahead or check websites for opening times. El Al (www.elal.co.il; 020 7121 1400) has 11 flights a week from London to Tel Aviv (nine on the new Boeing 777), from £341 return
    Last updated: 4:26pm, March 11 2009

    COMMENTS

    Lesbert

    Thu, 08/21/2008 - 16:47

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    0 points

    Nice article, but the Israel railways links in incorrect.

    For English:  www.israrail.org.il/english/index.html

    There is a new English Website up and running, with Search engine at:

    http://www.rail.co.il/EN/Pages/HomePage.aspx

    Just cut and paste start the adventure.

    Incidentally, I went on the trains here yesterday, for the first time in 15 years,  Amazing improvement, BUT, not user freindly for mothers with pushchairs, no ramps, and small lifts that only take one pushchair and Mother at a time.English signage was missing almost completely, but as most Israeli's speak English and love to help, advice was always close to hand. The train is ideal for travelling to and from Ben Gurion airport, although Jerusalem is still not served with a fast link, it's very scenic though !