Nazareth is many things. A city packed with historical and religious significance, a place where unique unifying efforts are being made between religions and cultures and a great foodie destination.
Located in the lower Galilee region of Israel and best known for its historical sites such as Mary's Well and Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth has been traditionally a day destination for many travelers.
A mistake, in my opinion. There is so much more to this fascinating city aside from the checklist Jesus and Mary sites. The arts and food scenes are thriving. The people are wonderful and friendly. Nazareth is worth a few days stay.
In my previous posts on Israel, I explained what brought me there was the TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) conference, After the conference was done, my travel buddy Vicki Winters and I boarded a bus to start a four-day culinary tour of Northern Israel. More about the entire fabulous trip later. Nazareth cast a spell on me. It deserved a separate post.
Truthfully I was sad to leave Jerusalem. I felt I had only scratched the surface there and what I thought was an unmatched whirlwind previous few days shifted to double speed once we hit the north. Oy. Vey.
After waking up in and breakfasting at the beautiful at the Dan Carmel Hotel in Haifa, our drive to Nazareth took about a half hour. There were nine of us on the tour.
Our first stop was for our second breakfast at the newly opened Olivie Hotel which is part of the Ramada chain. This hotel is a great option for the business traveler.
We were greeted with refreshments by the Hotel's manager and by Tareq Shihada, the General Director of the Nazareth Cultural and Tourism Association. Our friendly and knowledgeable guide, Iskandar was with us as well.
We first went on a tour of the hotel, it's spa and fabulous rooftop facility.
It was time to eat (again). we were escorted to the hotel's breakfast room to enjoy a large spread of traditional and local Nazareth breakfast foods.
Most of us were still full from breakfast and the arrival snack we nibbled on.
The spread was hard to resist so we ate mostly grazed. The bread selection was especially good.
We were barely through with our food when we piled back on the bus and it was on to the halva factory.
The place seemed surprisingly small compared to their output. We learned how the sesame seeds were made into a paste before turning the mixture into halva.
The flavors were what boggled my mind. From pistachio to chocolate, there seemed to be endless varieties.
Of course the sampling of whatever we wanted was the highlight for everyone.
For a ridiculously low price, I walked out with a nice sized tub of what turned out to be my favorite flavor, vanilla and something I have been looking for for years, black sesame paste.
I had no time to gloat over my purchases because we were on a tight schedule. It was off to the next destination, a shop that found a huge surprise beneath its floors.
We arrived at Cactus, a beautiful gallery selling handmade jewelry and traditional gifts, a few steps away from Mary's Well.
Local owner Elias and his Belgian born wife, Martina greeted us warmly.
After a quick look through the shop and its wares, Elias gathered us up and explained how 25 years ago he rented the shop with the intention of buying it. As he started to make some renovations, it became clear he has uncovered some ruins.
He led us down to a lovely room housing a small cafe and with the help of a slide show, we began to understand the amazing surprise that happened here.
Over a snack of juicy stuffed dates and Arabic style coffee, he explained when he contacted the proper authorities to show them what he had discovered, they deemed he had uncovered an old Turkish Bath (Hammam) from the late 1800s and of so particular historical value. and allowed him to proceed with renovations.
It was soon after that, Elias discovered evidence that the ruins were the only public bath house in Nazareth from ancient Roman time, pre-existing Jesus. Consequently, they drew the conclusion that Mary frequented this bathhouse.
As the tale unfolded, we realized perhaps the most fascinating parts have yet to be written.
There is currently no money for a complete archaeological excavation. Elias is determined to get the story out and perhaps one day the site will be fully renovated. Who knows what will be found there?
After learning about the Ancient Bath House, we returned to check out the items in the store and did a bit of shopping. The wares are unique and really worth a look. I appreciated how beautifully curated their stock was, not typical tourist schlock.
Right next door is Avra Cafeteria, a pretty restaurant serving a mix of Arabic and Geek inspired dishes. We were offered an assortment of dishes to try plus a shot of anise liqueur.
I had the best moussaka of my life there. It was, melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
The stuffed grape leaves were delectable.
Special shout out to the yummy tzatziki.
BTW, this is what happens when you take a group of food bloggers to a restaurant. As soon as the food is served, we grab the plates and run out the door like maniacs to photograph them. You can't take us anywhere and expect us to behave like regular customers.
Rosemary is a few doors down from Avra.
The place had me at the decor.
The owners threw down some lovely stuffed zucchini with meat, bacon, and cheese for us to sample.
The restaurant serves up an eclectic menu. Everything from pizza to schnitzel on offer. There are also pasta as well as traditionally flavored chicken and seafood dishes to choose from.
Once we were finished checking out the cool bathroom sink and playing with the old-timey props, it was time to move on to our next food destination (read: meal).
On the way, we made a pit stop. The Greek Orthodox Church of Annunciation is where the spring that feeds Mary's well originates.
We had a peek at the spring and admired the features of this ornately decorated church.
I wish I could say I remembered the English name of this place. Any Arabic speaking people out there are welcome to help me out.
We were pretty full by this time but it was hard to resist sampling just a bit of everything because one dish was more delicious than the other.
I've read that Israeli truckers stop in Nazareth for hummus because it is supposed to be the best in the country. This place was no exception.
We said goodbye to the owner and his son, thanked him profusely for his lovely hospitality and trotted on to our next stop.
Tucked into a corner of ancient buildings is the entrance for Al Hakim Guest House.
Once a carpenter shop for generations, the structure has been lovingly restored into a beautiful guest house retaining decorating touches as a tribute to the building's previous inhabitants.
The rooms are even named after previous family members.
We had such a fun time exploring the guest house. It's more like a small, family owned boutique hotel.
I loved the narrow roof garden.
You can tell they take excellent care of their guests because soon we were in the kitchen with the owner who decided he must feed us with his own hands. Goody. More. Food.
Soon we were munching on this deliciousness. How could we say no?
I hate to say it but I was sorry I could not come back the next day for breakfast.
As we said goodbye to the lovely owner, I made a note to myself that this would be the place I would like to stay when I return to Nazareth.
I was impressed by the careful renovation, the historical treasures tucked into corners of the house, the homey touches, and the lovely hospitality.
At this point in our journey, I would like to take the time to mention our wonderful guide, Iskander. He never broke a sweat when we scattered to different places, sometimes disappearing completely at each stop to take pictures. Or when we stood on chairs to take pictures or dashed out of restaurants precariously balancing plates of food to photograph dishes in natural light.
Traveling with bloggers and photographers is like herding cats. We even had to skip a few stops because we ran out of time (The White Mosque).
Iskander handled us all with grace and good humor while contacting various point people to keep everything organized, gently pushing us from destination to destination.
Our next stop was a hostel that has expanded into a local arts center.
The brainchild of three former hostel workers from different nationalities, Liwan bills itself as a culture cafe.
The hostel offers rooms but more than that, it strives to be a meeting place and arts center for the community.
This space hosts artworks from local artists and provides an outlet for local musicians to perform.
Over tea and cookies (MORE food!) the founders talked to us about how they feel Nazareth is changing.
They feel the city is poised on becoming a more popular tourist destination and how the arts are blossoming in the city.
I loved this place as a hostel option. The big communal space and cafe were warm and inviting.
We had barely washed down our cookies when it was time for a dash through the market to get to our next destination.
On the way, I asked Iskander to point out a vendor who could sell me a falafel maker scoop gadget. I wanted to bring one home. He briefly broke away from the group with me and made my souvenir wish come true. #kitchengadgetgoals
Nazareth has the biggest market in Israel and we had no time to properly explore it.
However, even though most of the shops had closed or were closing up by this time, our sprint through revealed some fascinating shops and interesting characters.
We had fun exploring this coffee shop.
This jovial olive seller explained the first 12 olives were free but we had to pay for the 13th as he passed them out for us to sample.
Several of us wished this shop was not in the process of packing up for the evening. It looked like an interesting place to find a treasure.
Before our next destination, we made a pit stop at the Synagogue Church. Yes, you read that correctly.
The building houses a church that was built on top of a synagogue where Jesus studied and prayed.
After a quick peek into the synagogue church, we hustled on to our next destination.
At the Mary International Center, we were greeted by our guide, Luc Lagabrielle who is the director of the center.
He explained the center is dedicated to tracing the life and history of Mary.
The main attraction is a series of four audio-visual experience that does just that.
The rooftop is worth a visit. It offers beautiful views of Nazareth and is landscaped with biblical plants.
A light airy chapel is a lovely space accentuated with art on the walls and ceilings.
After inspecting the excavation of a 1st-century house at the entrance/exit of the center, we were off to meet a very special group of women.
The Nasijona Association is dedicated to the preservation of the local community and traditional culture and art.
Founded by women of all faiths, the members work together to teach and promote handicrafts like embroidery, crochet and creating traditional costumes.
The minute we were through the door, we were greeted by a wonderful and warm group of women who welcomed us with cakes and refreshments.
We sat in a circle with them as they explained the mission of the association and how they worked together to teach and pass on their handmade traditions.
Afterward, we wandered around the room checking out the various handmade items and speaking individually to the members.
I connected with one woman who lived in the states for many years and was a restaurant owner in Georgia. After her husband died, s
We all loved our time at Nasijona and were sad to leave what felt like our new best friends. Be we still had some ground to cover to we said goodbye to the ladies and marched on to the Basilica of the Annunciation.
This site has been a place of worship since the first century. The current structure was built in 1969 and stands in the place of where four previous churches lived and died over the centuries.
The church is considered one of the holiest for Christianity.
We arrived too late to enter but we spent some time exploring the church's beautiful grounds and admiring its architectural details.
It was time to eat again. We walked over to the Legacy Hotel, a luxury property nestled right in the heart of the city.
Tareq, who throughout the day had caught up with our group between meetings, was waiting for us to escort us to dinner. Tareq is funny, gregarious and a mover and shaker. He was the perfect host for our Nazareth adventure.
After exploring the beautifully appointed lobby, bar and reception areas we headed on upstairs to check out the rooms and the gym.
Then we were ushered into the Oud Restaurant. The restaurant gets its name from this musical instrument.
We thought we would have a quick bite to eat before going on to our final stop of the day, a concert at the Nazareth Industrial Park.
At this point, we were happy to sit down, relax a bit and have some wine. We were even eager, after the mountain of food we had already consumed that day, to indulge in this gorgeously prepared hummus and colorful tasty, fresh salads.
After they cleared the dishes, this happened:
Then, I kid you not, all of this:
Most of us were on our third glass of wine by then. Happy but tired out by running from one part of the city to another. Although we deeply appreciated the invitation, there was little hope of us mustering the energy to go to the concert.
During the meal, we had an informative conversation with Tareq who introduced us to one of the owners of the hotel, the chef and even a waiter he's known for years.
It was time to board the bus and head back to Haifa. We had a full day, full bellies and were full of beautiful memories of lovely hospitality shown to us by the people of Nazareth.
On the bus ride home, I replayed the day in my head and marveled at how much we experienced, how great it was to connect with members of the Nazareth community and how there is so much more to explore in this fascinating and historical city.