Israel’s Must-See Hidden Gems
Neot Semadar – The Negev.
Approximately 60 Kilometers from Eilat on Route 40, Neot Semadar appears like a mirage. An oasis surrounded by the barren Negev desert as far as the eye can see. Dominated by the eccentric Art Center building, one wonders: “How did this enchanting, otherworldly structure come to be in the middle of nowhere?”
In 1989, a small group of friends left city life behind, packed minimal belongings into overloaded aging trucks, and headed for an abandoned kibbutz in the Negev Desert. Their goal was to establish a community whose daily lives focused on simple living, learning, hard work, mutual support, cooperation, and creativity. The majority of them had no experience in construction, farming, winemaking, and cooling towers, but they had a collective dream and faced all challenges head-on together.
Today Neot Semadar has a unique Art Center with fourteen diverse workshops, vineyards, a winery, an oil press, fruit orchards, and fields of organic vegetables. The community is housed in simple, comfortable cottages and cooling towers supply the kibbutz with air conditioning in the hot desert climate.
Book a tour ahead of time or take a self-guided tour. Begin at the Art Center by watching the comprehensive video that takes one from the day the friends arrived at the abandoned kibbutz to today. Visit the art workshops; pop into the gallery and store where the artist’s creations are displayed. It’s hard to resist not making several purchases.
Climb the tower to get a panoramic view of the layout, the houses, and the grounds. Sit awhile beside a pond among the flowering trees and soak up the serenity; then walk the red-brick path which leads to a sundial; visit the winery for a wine tasting.
End your visit on another high note at Pundak, the kibbutz’s restaurant, three minutes by car from the gates of the kibbutz on the opposite side of the highway. Enjoy a light lunch of sandwiches, soups, salads, cheese toasts, and lasagna accompanied by a glass of wine, followed by ice cream, cheesecake, apple pie, yogurt, a steaming cup of coffee, or herbal tea.
There is indoor and outdoor seating available. We enjoyed our meal outdoors in the garden oasis at a table beside the pool under a canopy of trees. Allow time to browse the open-plan store inside the restaurant where the olive oil, wines, juices, soaps, cheeses, etc., of the highest quality, all produced on the kibbutz and artfully packaged, are for sale.
For guided tours, make reservations: Telephone: (+972) 549778957
Self-guided tours Sunday – Thursday 10:00 am – 2:30 pm
Fridays 10:00am – 1:00pm
Call from the gate (+972) (054)9798966
Kochav Hayarden National Park and Belvoir Crusader Castle.
High above sea level, on a basalt plateau in Lower Galilee, a Crusader fortress overlooks a landscape that opens like a fan to reveal the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon in the North; the Jordan Valley and Gilead Mountains to the east; and to the south, the Gilboa Mountain Range and the tips of the Mountains of Samaria.
The fortress spreads over 1.2 hectares – 3 acres and displays an impressive feat of architectural and building skills. It is composed of an Outer Fortress that consists of a moat, impenetrable stone walls, towers, and courtyards, and an Inner Fortress with a drawbridge, gates, a central courtyard, and towers.
The Hospitaller Knights held the Belvoir fortress for 21 years from 1168 until 1189, when it fell to Muslim invaders. Belvoir comes from the French: Belle Vue – beautiful view. The name Kochav Hayarden – Star of the Jordan, comes from a nearby ancient Jewish town named Kochav.
Grab a map from the tiny tourist office next to the parking lot. Here you can purchase small snacks and drinks and also use the bathroom. (There are no others for miles around.)
Before visiting the fortress, head towards the outdoor Igael Tumarkin sculpture park. Tumarkin was born in Dresden – Germany, in 1933. At the age of two, he immigrated to Israel (then under the control of the British Mandate) with his Jewish mother and Jewish stepfather, Herzl Tumarkin. Igael is celebrated internationally as a pioneer of expressionist, surreal, and pop art environmental pieces made from discarded metal objects found in the junkyards of ships, cars, machinery, and weapons. He represented Israel at the Tokyo, Sao Paolo, and Venice biennials, and exhibits of his work were held worldwide.
The sculpture park overlooking the Jordan Valley is an ideal setting for his giant-sized sculptures.
Allow yourself approximately two hours to explore the sculpture garden and the fortress.
Note: The Holocaust Revival Memorial in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square is the work of Igael Tumarkin.
The Coptic Orthodox Church – Jerusalem
Tourists of every ethnicity and religion flock to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the “must-see” highlights in the Old City of Jerusalem. Few, however, notice a modest doorway tucked into the wall on the right side of the central courtyard. Behind it lies a tiny Coptic Chapel. [The Coptic Church’s origins in Jerusalem date back to the 13th century.]
Walk through the little chapel to the back door, and ascend the stairs to the rooftop of the church of the Holy Sepulcher, where you’ll find yourself in the heart of the Coptic Church quarters. It’s another world: Ancient, spiritual, and unique with its unusual dumpy stone structures and little green door with two crosses that presumably leads to a place of worship.
At the far end, you’ll see a signboard announcing Queen Helen’s Coptic Orthodox Church. Visit the church, then follow the signs that lead to the narrow stone steps of an ancient cistern hewn into the rock. Sing your heart out, whistle, recite a prayer or a poem, and listen to your voice bouncing off the stone walls of the underground cistern.
Ancient Akko – The Subterranean Crusader Compound
Akko, surrounded by historic fortified walls, looks out to the open sea. For centuries it was a busy port and a landing spot for pilgrims who came from all over the world en route to their dream: A pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The Knights Hospitaller was a medieval, monastic Catholic order that established hospitals to care for the sick, the poor, and injured pilgrims who crossed the seas to the Holy Land. Subsequently, it also became a military order charged with defending the Holy Land.
The Crusader Compound discovered above and below ground dates from the early 12th century to the 13th century.
Underground street where the market may have been held.
The first excavation at the site occurred in 1921 during the British Mandate and revealed the upper floors of a medieval dining hall. The British maintained a large prison and their headquarters within the castle walls. In 1947, several prisoners attempted to escape the prison. Their escape failed, but it exposed a vault in the Northern Hall.
In 1947, archaeologists, engineers, and historians began excavating. They uncovered a large subterranean compound constructed by the Knights Hospitaller, which led them to believe that this was the headquarters and administrative center during the Crusader period. The Knights Hall, Pillard Hall, the underground tunnel system, and the church crypt are among the remarkably restored findings.
Walk the length of the well-lit tunnel cut out of the natural stone, which links the fortress to Akko’s port. Rent headsets, which take you on a guided tour that brings the underground citadel with its archways, thick stone walls, impressive halls, and streets to life.
The Underground Templar tunnel links the fortress to the port.
End your visit above ground in the bustling, colorful market and enjoy a meal at a restaurant overlooking the sea or within the walls of the Old City.
|Restaurants:||Roots – Adjacent to Knights Hall in the fortress.|
|Uri Buri – Seafood|
|Hummus Said ( Famous for its Hummus)|
|El Marsa – For fish and seafood. Located in the Harbor area of the Old City.|
Magdala – Lake Tiberias
Migdal is a town on the shores of Lake Tiberias at the foot of Mount Arbel. It is named after Mary Magdalene, who is said to have followed and cared for Jesus and his disciples. Centuries ago, a flash flood caused a severe landslide, completely covering Magdala, which remained buried until 2009.
In 2009, work began in Migdal to build Duc in Altum Church and a hotel on the banks of Lake Tiberias. When engineers and building contractors began digging, they discovered ancient structures buried deep below the surface. Digging came to a halt, and the perimeters of the new construction had to be redrawn. From 2009 to 2019, archaeologists, engineers, and historians painstakingly excavated the site, revealing not only a synagogue but streets, coins, glass objects, ceramic vessels, and fishing weights. In one area, walls and materials were uncovered dating back to the Hellenistic period between 322-63 BCE.
In late 2021 another synagogue beside the current freeway was discovered, which led to the conclusion that this must have been a significant town with a large population and a thriving Jewish community. Historians believe that Jesus and Mary Magdalene could have frequented these synagogues 2000 years ago.
The historian Josephus (Joseph Ben Matthias) recorded that Magdala had a population of forty thousand people and a fishing fleet in excess of two hundred vessels.
Spend a night at the Magdala Hotel, where you have views of the archaeological excavations through the glass windows of the lobby; take a guided tour of this incredible historical discovery; wake up early and watch the sun rise over the Kinneret; then indulge in an unforgettable buffet breakfast.
After breakfast, visit Duc In Altum, where the pulpit – shaped like a boat – seems to be floating on the waters of the lake; and the Four Mosaic Chapels created from Italian marble depict biblical events that took place on the Sea of Galilee.
Don’t miss the underground chapel modeled after the excavated 1stcentury synagogue. It stands on the original marketplace floor. A wall painting of the hemorrhaging woman who reaches out to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe is a magnificent and moving work of art.
Disclosure: The photos of Akko Port and the Akko fortress tunnels were purchased from Deposit Photos.