"I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin' about half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head"
- The Band
I don't know why, but I am no longer as weather-resistant as I used to be. Each time I've been caught out in a cold rain without my poncho, I've wound up with a deep chest cough and sinus congestion that lasts several weeks. It happened in Turin, Durrës, Sofia, and most recently in Jerusalem. I've kept myself going with "cold and flu" tablets, but even with the chemical crutch, my endurance isn't what it normally is.
It was slightly past 11:00 Sunday night when I finally found the hostel I was looking for in Nazareth's Old City. My afternoon trip to the beach had been very therapeutic, but then I spent the next five hours scrambling from bus to bus. It shouldn't have taken the toll on me that it did, but I'd been awake since 6:00 and I was feeling moderately wretched. As it happens, the Fauzi Azar Inn locks the gate and shuts down their reception at 9:00. I'd been standing in the narrow lane beside the door for about five minutes wondering what to do next when two guests came back from a late dinner and let me in. Fortunately for me, the desk clerk hadn't left yet, so I was able to get a bed for the night.
I could have simply gone to one of a dozen other hostels and guesthouses in the area, but I'd really wanted to stay at this hostel. At Juha's Guesthouse in Jisr ez-Zarqa, they had spoken very highly of Fauzi Azar, and it is also the top pick for Nazareth in the Lonely Planet guide. (I know I haven't written about the days of walking between Megadim and Jerusalem, but I will! The problem I keep running into now that I've stopped walking is interesting people and good conversations are filling my evenings. It's a good problem to have!)
In spite of my exhaustion, I was up early Monday morning, well before my alarm. After breakfast, I took advantage of the free city tour offered by the hostel. Before it began, we were given a brief history of the house and how the hostel came to be. It's named for the patriarch of a Nazarene family who lived from 1903 - 1980. Fauzi Azar was the second (or third, I forget) generation to live In the house. The family had originally come to Nazareth from Lebanon and had prospered enough to build a mansion in the 19th century with cedar trim from the Taurus Mountains (in Turkey) and marble flooring from Marmara (likewise). The clay roof tiles were all imported from Marseilles, while the twenty foot high ceilings had been handpainted by an artist from Lebanon. In the latter part of the 20th century, the Old City went into a decline. Many of the homeowners left, leaving their homes locked up -- but still vulnerable to the criminal element which gradually moved in as the area ceased to function as a neighbourhood. When their mother passed away in 1989, the children had all married and moved away from the Old City, and none of them were interested in bringing their families to what was now a very bad part of town. The mansion sat vacant for the next fifteen years, used as a garbage dump, urinal, and party spot by drug dealers. Then in 2004, a young Israeli backpacking enthusiast approached the family with a proposition. After strong initial opposition, a lease was drawn up. No money was involved -- his "payment" was to clean up the property and keep the name of Fauzi Azar alive through the hostel. For more about the background of the hostel, Maoz wrote an article that was published in The Jerusalem Post in april 2008, republished here:
2015 is the tenth year of operation for the hostel, but with the dramatic drop in tourism throughout Israel in the wake of last summer's war against Gaza, it came very close to shutting down.
The tour itself was not what I'd expected. All the other city walking tours I've gone on have given a general overview and introduction to the place, which I have used as a basis for my solo explorations. The hostel intends to be more than just a bed to sleep in -- the staff are all involved in volunteer community projects, some of which they have started. Because of this deliberate focus on the community, all of the stops on the tour were within a five minute walk of the hostel, and at almost all of them, the group was introduced to a local business owner who talked a bit about their specialty. It's a good idea, but after the fifth or sixth stop it became too much for me. As part of a group, there was no opportunity for direct one-on-one conversation with the people we were being shown -- and yes, it began to feel a little like a staged show. I knew I wouldn't be supporting these people by buying from them since a) I'm basically broke now and b) I have a very VERY small pack. At a neighbourhood coffee shop / gameroom (backgammon and dominoes), our guide announced that if anyone wanted, the remaining stops were optional. I was (still) tired from the long day I'd had Sunday and feeling worn down by the incessant flow of chatter by our "perky" American guide. I excused myself and enjoyed a leisurely coffee. I also had a chance to speak with the owner and one of his friends "off script," which was nice.
Feeling somewhat refreshed, I wandered off in search of the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. The Catholic basilica was impossible to miss, what with the massive spire that looked like a cross between a hurricane lantern and a lighthouse. (That, and all the tour buses, which disgorged "pilgrims" on a frequent and regular basis.) I know it's wrong to judge by appearances, but the whole thing looked disconcertingly modern, with all of the excess that implies. I spotted a few street signs in Arabic and English that led me to a church that looked about right, but it was shut. It was also several blocks away from the location indicated on the tourist map I'd picked up at the hostel. A passerby eliminated my confusion when he told me it was the Coptic Orthodox church. A few more minutes of walking brought me to the "Greek" Orthodox site. (In the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, the Orthodox Church is referred to as "Rum Orthodox," i.e. Roman. The Ottomans knew which empire they had conquered, even if later European historians got confused. It was never called the "Byzantine" Empire.) The tour buses were much less frequent at this "traditional" site of the Annunciation, and for almost an hour there was nobody in the church except me and a church member. We got to talking a bit, in a mixture of Arabic and English. Nabil told me that they have Vespers every day at 4:15, "but not today" because of a funeral. They also have weekday Liturgies every Tuesday and Thursday at 8:00. After chatting some more, I took my leave and went in search of some long-overdue lunch. The burger joint I found is owned by a member of the church council, and while I was waiting for my food, we got to talking. He is very proud of the Christian heritage in Nazareth, but also very pessimistic about the future of Arab Christians in Israel. The systemic discrimination they encounter from the state and the open prejudice they face from both Jews and Muslims continues to drive the Christian exodus from their ancestral lands.
On returning to the hostel, I sat down on my bed and began sorting through my photos from the previous few days. Within five minutes, I was asleep. When I woke up after dark, I continued the task and then began uploading them. I decided that writing an update could wait for another day. Earlier in the day, I had been looking through the binder with bus schedules at the reception desk, and discovered I could catch a bus to Amman from Nazareth, without having to travel to Tel Aviv. A handwritten note at the bottom of the page indicated that as of 24/06/2012, these buses would run daily. Satisfied that I'd have one more day in Galilee, I decided to visit Mount Tabor on Tuesday and paid for a third night at the hostel. As the crow flies, the site of the Transfiguration of Christ is only 9 kms from Nazareth -- but taking that route would involve quite a bit of trespassing. The bus binder had a page with detailed instructions on how to get to Tabor by bus.
Tuesday morning after breakfast, I used the phone at reception to contact the bus company to book a seat for Wednesday morning. Guess what? The "daily" option only applies for the summer months - the rest of the time, buses to Amman run every other day, and Wednesday is not on the schedule. Suraida, a grandchild of Fauzi Azar, came to my assistance. She phoned a cab company and negotiated a fair price for me to be taken from Nazareth to the border crossing. It was three times as expensive as the bus would have been, but given the distance and time involved, it was the best solution available.
With all that sorted, I set out for Mount Tabor. Thanks to the info at the hostel, I knew which buses I'd need to catch, and (just as important) where to catch them. What I didn't know was when and how often they ran. I must have missed my first ride by a matter of minutes, because it was almost a full hour before the 356 came by. That took me to the bus station in Afula, where I was able to catch the 350 before it pulled out. Half an hour later, on our way through the town on the shoulder of Tabor, we passed another 350 heading in the opposite direction. "Aha!" I thought. "They run every thirty minutes." As we passed the road to the peak, the driver indicated it to me and let me off at the next stop. There was a small-ish parking lot there with half a dozen tour buses parked, and a small transit terminal where the people transferred from their coaches to passenger vans for the ride up. I decided to walk.
As I headed back towards the road, I noticed a trail leading off the road and uphill. When I investigated, I found a sign in Hebrew and English which identified this as a section of both the Israel National Trail and a local trail. It noted that the trail was intended for fit climbers only, and that people should have a hat and at least three litres of water. I had two litres in my daypack, but it was a relatively cool day. I'd left my walking stick at the hostel, but I had my Tilley with me. Onwards and upwards!
It was a beautiful hike, but they weren't kidding about the fitness level required. It was a very stiff climb, and the thought of making the return descent without my walking stick did not fill me with joy. I took the twisty turny switchbacked road back down -- probably three times the distance, but it didn't take all that much longer to walk. As I approached the main road again, I spotted a bus heading back the way I needed to go. Checking the time, I saw it was three and a half hours since I'd been dropped off. "Oh well, the next one should be along soon." There was a bus stop for the return trip just opposite the road access to Mount Tabor - no shelter or bench, but I knew I wouldn't be waiting long. [That's called "foreshadowing," kids. It's a literary device.] Thirteen minutes later, the next bus drove by, heading uphill. I didn't know how long the route continued beyond where I'd been let off, but it couldn't be far. Right? R-i-i-i-g-h-t.... On that route, at that time of day, buses run once per hour. Within Israel, it's possible to get pretty much anywhere by bus, and it's really quite cheap, but if a traveller doesn't have a schedule, it can become a good test of patience. (Except on the Sabbath, when buses don't run at all.) It was 8:00 pm by the time I got back to Nazareth -- the 18 km (as the crow flies) round trip had taken me nine hours, including my time on the peak. Earlier in the day I'd set aside the money I knew I would need for my journey to Jordan. On the way back to the hostel, I stopped at a restaurant for dinner and spent all the rest of my money. When I reached Jordan on Wednesday, it was with less than a shekel jingling in my pocket. (But that account will have to wait for later.)
Having regained some strength with a good meal, I resolved to sit down and write a decent update. When I arrived at the hostel, that plan died when I met a fellow Canadian who had been globetrotting for the past five months. We sat in the courtyard and talked for several hours before I finally excused myself and headed off to bed. And that was my last full day in the Holy Land. Stay tuned for my Jordanian journey!