Beautiful views and tasty food in Israel’s Gilboa region

by Sarah on February 28, 2012

hirbit midrash, israel in winter

Family trip to Hirbit Midrash near Ella Valley

Where do I start? The last few weeks have been a hectic haze; a bar mitzvah celebration, guests from abroad, a new nephew….all shuffled between my normal schedule of work and home. The days have been a wonderful sort of pandemonium, with the same urgency of holiday festivities.  Last minute errands (what! We forgot to buy flowers?!), dragging tables together to fit an expanded household, surprise visits from friends and neighbors.  Now it has all settled back to status quo and the living room seems so empty, too empty.

Until I get back to my normal rhythm in the kitchen and out, here is a post I wrote for the Jerusalem Post about a year ago. Back then neither Yael nor I were working and spent the mornings exploring the countryside.  Now time feels as decadent and rare as black truffles. ~~~~

For a few weeks a year northern Israel looks like Ireland; low lying clouds, green hills and wet, clean air. It is an amazing transformation from the dry season’s skeletal plants leached of all color by chronic heat and sun. The Jezreel Valley is one of the hottest areas of Israel, this summer reaching above 40 C, temperatures which are incompatible with normal human physiognomy and desiccates everything it touches. Shade is as coveted as a parking spot in Manhattan and usually packed with those participating in Israel’s national sport; outdoor grilling.

Left, Asphodelus ramosus with edible flowers, top right, poisonous mandrake, bottom right, anemone

It is possible to see a quieter side of Israel in winter when most locals are huddled in their homes, unaccustomed to the dip in temperatures (and if it rains, you can be sure nobody will leave the house).  Gan Ha’shlosha National Park was virtually empty on a visit this February with my friend Yael. For a country as small and crowded as Israel this felt surreal; as much as a trip to the Eifel Tower without the tourists.

The park contains unique natural pools that are fed by the warm waters of an aquifer. Known in Arabic as the Sachne, these turquoise colored pools can be enjoyed even during the colder months when you don’t have to compete with a hundred squealing kids. In the summer it is one of the most popular swimming and picnicking destinations in Israel. Often packed and noisy, it has an atmosphere closer to an amusement park than a quiet oasis and not exactly the place to seek solitude.

However, enjoyed alone, it is peaceful and beautiful, a place I would return to, only in winter. Palm, olive and wild plum trees provide shade throughout the park and there are certified lifeguards near each of the three pools in the summer. It is the Garden of Eden, replete with trashcans conveniently located every five meters for picnickers.

At one end of the park there is a small archeology museum showcasing the history of the area within the broader Mediterranean civilization. The entrance is free with admittance to Gan Ha’shlosha Park and contains a modest collection of dusty pottery, glass and ceramics from the region as well as a few pieces from Iran.

Nir David

Nearby is the kibbutz of Nir David which was founded in the 1930’s under the British Mandate. It was built in the stockade and tower method in which prefabricated components were erected within a single night to avoid being detected by the British who prohibited the building of new Jewish settlements. A reconstruction of such a settlement can be seen near Gan Ha’shlosha, including a panoramic view on top of the tower.

On the way out we drove up the scenic Gilboa road. It is still early for the full fledge spring blossom but we did witness the first hardy blooms and an understory of lush green.

At the base of the Gilboa is a lovely rustic restaurant called Havat Ha Tavlinim (Herb Farm) that incorporates local produce and wild edible plants into their meals. Sun dried tomatoes, za’atar leaves, labneh, eggplants and olive oil links the restaurant to the region and modern cooking technique and presentation adds a touch of cosmopolitan style. The food was delicious, the views sublime and the service pleasant and efficient.

Now is the best time to enjoy Israel for those who don’t mind mild winter temperatures and an occasional downpour. Rain is a blessing when the summer lasts for more than the cursory two month and is especially welcome for those who want to enjoy Israel on their own.

Havat Hatavlinim Not kosher Har Gilboa, Gilboa 04-6531093 Gan Ha’shlosha The park is off road 669, between Hashita Junction and Bet She’an, about 15 minutes from Ben She’an.

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