Finally, as you travel from Haifa to either Tiberias or Tsfat, I have several stops to recommend. You could also do these as day trips from Haifa as well.
This is, of course, the city where Jesus grew up, and as such, is important to Christians. There are a number of major sites there, and the most spectacular is the Church of the Annunciation, a modern Catholic church in the center of the city. Its dome is the dominant feature of the Nazareth skyline. Don’t miss the mosaics in the church depicting the Madonna and child, each donated by the Catholics of that nation. My favorite is Japan’s, which incorporates pearls into the design! Other sites include the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, which also contains “Mary’s Well,” an ancient spring which probably did once serve Jesus’ family in what was then a tiny, backwater hamlet with a population of less than 500. Some visitors love “Nazareth Village,” which seeks to re-create Nazareth life in the First Century C.E. It is a bit “Disneyish” for me, but many enjoy it.
The Druze Villages, Daliat al-Carmel and Isfiya.
South of Haifa along Route 672, you can visit two major Druze villages on the southern approach to Mount Carmel, a chance for a wonderful taste of this important Israeli ethnic/religious group. The Druze are renowned for their hospitality, fine food, and wonderful fabrics and crafts, and these towns are often mobbed by Israeli bargain-hunters, especially on Shabbat. In Daliat alCarmel (the more southern town), stop for lunch at Halabi’s Restaurant. Just ask anyone for “Fuad Halabi’s restaurant”; you’ll find it. This meal was wonderful— very inexpensive, delicious food with a mezze that will fill you for what feels like days. They offer the best falafel I have ever tasted! It’s just off the main road, tel. (04) 839- 3576 or (052) 477-6048. Fuad is a lively, gregarious man who loves to host his guests.
And if you come back to Haifa over the crest of Mount Carmel, the view of the city, the bay, and the Valley of Jezreel will take your breath away. As one friend who traveled with me said, “that alone was worth the price of admission.”
Zippori National Park
Just a few kilometers outside of Nazareth stood the major First Century city of Zippori, or Sephoris in Greek. Sephoris was the big city in Jesus’ day, and since it was constructed during his lifetime, it is virtually certain that he and Joseph, who were carpenters or day laborers, would have worked here. There was also a major Jewish revolt in Sephoris during his youth, which was brutally crushed by the Romans. It is interesting to speculate on what effect that had on his views of the ruling class and how the Roman occupation exploited and crushed the poor. But the city struck a truce with the Romans in the Great Revolt of 66-70 C.E. and thus survived. The ruins contain some of the most spectacular mosaics in all of Israel, including the famed “Mona Lisa of the Galilee” (above). It is an amazing site.
This national park southeast of Haifa contains the tombs of prominent rabbis from the Talmudic period, not really my thing generally, but these tombs are absolutely spectacular. After the fall of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life moved north to the Galilee, and the Sanhedrin (supreme Jewish council) was based here for years. Take a tour if you can—the tombs are not easy to explore or understand on your own. English tours are not scheduled, but call (04) 983-1643 a day in advance and they may be able to find an English-speaking guide (or bring your own).
The ancient synagogue at Bar’am, almost on the Lebanese border, dates from the Fourth Century, and it is one of the best preserved in Israel. Now a national park, the ruins are very interesting, and it is a quiet, lovely place, often missed by the tour buses. There is also a modern and quite distressing story here. During the 1948 War for Independence, the new Israel Defense Forces (IDF) evacuated the Maronite Christian villagers from the nearby town of Birin, on the Lebanese border. The villagers had sat out the war, and the IDF promised them that they could return in a few days. IDF officials apparently feared that the villagers would link up with nearby Maronite-dominated Lebanon, which had invaded the new State. Sixty five years later, the villagers have never been permitted to return, despite staying out of the war—and the broken promises of several Israeli prime ministers. The villagers continue to try to keep the village maintained and its memory alive, and weddings of children and grandchildren are even held in its small church. You can walk through the ruins and feel the unjust story of people caught in the middle—who should at long last be allowed to come home.