A Galilee & Golan getaway

Nimrod Fortress is an extravaganza of a ruin. This epic, crumbling castle stretches more than 400 metres along a commanding ridge high above the Hula Valley, in occupied Golan Heights.

Perhaps we had bigged it up a bit too much though.

“But it looks… all broken,” came the voice from the backseat, as we ascended the snaking road towards the entrance. The disappointment in our daughter’s voice was palpable.

We had promised an epic morning exploring a HUGE CASTLE, and here we were, at another ruin. We’d already been to Bet She’an yesterday (just the most extensive Roman ruins in Green Line Israel…)

“It’ll be fun!” promised her dad (whose idea it was in the first place).

“And we have snacks!” I added. A surefire distraction from the disappointment.

It’s 8am on Saturday and we are first through the gate. The Druze gatekeeper, with his elegant moustache, offers us coffee. We sit under an olive tree and wait for the thick, black coffee grounds to sink to the bottom of the tiny glasses. It feels good to be in no hurry.

To begin with, we have the run of this monumental fortress. And even when we leave, two hours later, there are only three other cars in the car park.

There’s a well-marked trail to follow, and plenty to see and explore; spiral staircases, hidden rooms and a secret tunnel, plus the Baibars inscription – an impressive six-metre long stone engraving from 1275 CE.

For lunch we follow the mountain road up to Majdal Shams, a Druze town within shouting distance of Syria (literally, with the help of megaphones; at Shouting Hill Druze families separated by the conflict would shout across the border to each other.)

We wander through the steep streets to Al Yasmeen, a family-run Druze restaurant where what they cook is what you get. But they cook A LOT.

A dozen or so dishes are balanced on top of each other, on the low table in front of us; giant kubbeh, cheese and meat sambusak (mini pasties), vegetable soup, salad, a beef and aubergine stew, rice with fried vermicelli, maftoul with chicken, bulgur cooked in tomatoes, green lentils with herbs… and all finished with baklava and steaming-hot, cardamom-infused coffee.

As we lay back in the wooden armchairs, probably looking defeated, the waiter brings a collection of foil takeaway trays for us to fill; I get the feeling they are used to over-feeding people here.

From the frontier town of Majdal Shams it’s a short drive to the snow-covered (in winter) peaks of Mount Hermon. As we get higher the shrieks of excitement from the backseat get louder. There’s snow outside! Actual snow.

“Do you wanna build a snowmaaaan!” The Frozen soundtrack takes on a whole new meaning. This is the first time, in her memory at least, that our daughter has seen snow.

I’m hoping this makes up for the disappointment of the broken castle this morning.

Mount Hermon Ski Resort was teeming. I was worried that we would be the least-well-prepared visitors that day, but my fears were soon alleviated. At least we had sensible boots. And we weren’t carrying a tiny puppy on the chairlift.  

For those not skiing or snowboarding, there’s a small sled run at the top and the bottom for kids up to the age of 12; a tourist chairlift; an alpine coaster and the skyrider roller coaster.

We follow the lads in trainers, with the tiny puppy, onto the tourist chairlift. At the top station we freak out about a looming black cloud and head straight back down again (ski novices). And then soon after we make our way back to our cabin in the Galilee.

Our Airbnb is billed as the ‘Bio Cabin of Peace’ – the main reason we booked it, if I’m honest. That and the fact that it has a veranda. It’s a small wooden chalet in a quiet moshav (a type of cooperative farmers’ village). Inside there’s a living area and tiny kitchen, bathroom and a mezzanine level for sleeping. It would be perfect in spring, but a little chilly in winter.

We snuggle up around the plug-in heater with the leftovers from lunch. No one complains about an early night.

The next day we’re up early and first through the gates again. This time at the Banias Nature reserve, where we follow the suspended trail; a short (45 minute) walk down and then back up the valley, to see the Banias waterfall.

The ‘suspended’ part of the trail is a 100-metre long wooden walkway that clings to the rocks above the gorge. Below it the gushing, crashing white water of the Banias River, loud and disorientating, is in full flow. It’s only slightly terrifying.

But sticking to the pathways is crucial around these parts; we’re in the Golan and there are still landmines in this landscape, as the map reminds us.

Mount Bental

From the nature reserve, we head through the lush green Golan Heights to Mount Bental. This dormant volcano is an old Israeli army outpost, complete with tunnels and lookouts. Although abandoned, it’s an eerie reminder that we’re in occupied territory.

From the mountaintop there are views towards Syria, Mount Hermon, and back across the Golan. We shelter from the cold wind in Coffee Annan, a strangely trendy coffee shop juxtaposed with its location. Its name is a nod to the former UN Secretary General and is Hebrew for ‘cloud coffee’.

For the final stop on our tour we head back into the Galilee. The sun is shining in Safed, Israel’s centre of Kabbalah. The pretty streets of the old city are stuffed full of art galleries and jewelry makers, boutique wine bars and craft brewers. Among them we find Lahuhe Original, a small eatery specialising in lahoh; Yemenite pancakes. The spongy breads are topped with three cheeses, herbs and spices. Our fellow diners give us the heads-up on the spicy sauce; it is not to be taken lightly.

We finish the day with an ice cream outside the bullet-pocked building that was once the British police station in Safed. I’ve come to realise that there is no escaping history in this region.

More info on our stay…

We stayed in She’ar Yashuv, a moshav in the Upper Galilee, in an Airbnb which cost approximately £160 per night for three people.

For more information on Al Yasmeen restaurant take a look at their Facebook page.

See here for more on Nimrod Fortress and here for Banias Waterfall.

Mount Hermon also has summer activities. See their website for details of summer and winter opening – www.skihermon.co.il/en/

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