Travel: Israel

WHEN the sun’s warm, the tarmac’s smooth and the roads are empty, the best way to see another country is by bike. Smell the flowers, create your own breeze, stop where you want.

It’s an ideal way to experience Israel, which boasts a Mediterranean climate, miles of almost traffic-free rural roads and the contrasting but equally cycle-friendly cityscapes of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Of course, it helps if your cycling holiday includes guides and a minibus to drop you off at the start of a ride and take you back to your four-star hotel at the end. No slogging for endless hours on bikes loaded with heavy panniers for us.

And Israel comes with its own baggage, as was clear from the strict security surrounding the El Al check-in desks at Luton airport. Israeli security men questioned each passenger thoroughly, while the surrounding area was watched vigilantly by a couple of British policemen armed with automatic weapons. It’s an ominous but misleading introduction to a country that offers – for visitors, at least – a surprisingly laid-back and unthreatening environment.

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Our first port of call was Tel Aviv, where cycle guide Amir Rockman led us on a pleasantly meandering stop-start tour that took us north along the seafront to the old port of Jaffa. Bikes are a great way to explore Tel Aviv, which can easily be covered in a day on two wheels.

The area has a modern, cosmopolitan vibe that’s obvious in the recently renovated waterfront areas of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, both home to many vibrant restaurants and cafés. Jewish kosher restrictions appear a moveable feast, with some restaurants not observing them at all. Wherever we ate, the food was fresh and tasty, with prices similar to those in Edinburgh or London.

The beachfront between the ports is Tel Aviv’s playground, with thousands of the metropolitan area’s 3.3 million inhabitants spending their weekends playing apparently endless ball games on the Mediterranean sand, jogging, cycling, roller-skating, swimming and, occasionally, stopping to relax with a spell of sunbathing.

Away from the beach, Tel Aviv’s White City comprises the world’s largest concentration of Bauhaus and international-style buildings and is a Unesco world heritage site, while Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish district built outside the old city of Jaffa, has been recently restored after years of neglect.

A few miles north of Tel Aviv stands Mount Carmel, and it was here that we got our first taste of cycling in the Israeli countryside. Bussed up to the Carmelite church at the top, we were treated to fantastic views of Galilee before cycling – largely downhill – through the Amikam region, known as the Tuscany of Israel, towards the coast and on by minibus to Nazareth.

Our guide for the day was Amir’s father Chaim, a fascinating individual with all the knowledge you would expect of a 67-year-old who has spent his career as a guide in a land filled with history, and with plenty of cycling remaining in his legs. Chaim set a perfect pace and every rest stop had been chosen for the story that went with it, while every question had a well-informed answer.

Arriving in Nazareth, it was no surprise to see our hotel packed with Christian pilgrims, mostly from Africa and the US. But Jesus wouldn’t recognise the town now as it’s a sprawling, nondescript place. The Church of the Annunciation, finished in 1969 over the site of an earlier Byzantine-era and then Crusader-era church, is believed to be the site of the ‘annunciation’ by Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus. It’s a spectacular piece of architecture, with some great stained glass, and the lower level contains the Grotto of the Annunciation, believed by many to be the remains of Mary’s original childhood home, but there’s little else to interest pilgrims.

Perhaps that’s why someone came up with the Gospel Trail, a three-day hike from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee along the route Jesus might have used when he made the same journey. The great thing about it is most of its 60-plus kilometres can also be cycled – well, mostly – in a day.

It’s a steep haul out of Nazareth to the start, but the reward is a trip through the Churchill Forest, funded by donations from British Jews. It’s a nice ride, with good views where the trees thin and a couple of testing hills. Fortunately we had been furnished with mountain bikes so everyone got to the top eventually.

After cycling through the Kibbutz Lavi, founded on land of the Arab village of Lubya, which was depopulated by Jewish forces during 1948, we were grateful for the front suspension on the bikes as we tackled a rough, steep track down a hillside.

The last section of the Gospel Trail becomes increasingly difficult, and the final hour or two was spent pushing our mounts over a rocky river bed before reaching the Sea of Galilee, where a new visitor centre houses the remains of a fishing boat dating from the time of Christ.

Next stop was Jerusalem, and our journey took us though Israel’s infamous ‘wall’ – mostly a fence – and into the West Bank, an arid area that is noticeably less well developed. Stopping at a new site on the banks of the River Jordan, where John the Baptist is believed to have done his evangelising, we watched Orthodox priests perform a baptism. It’s an incongruous setting, with the river forming the border with Jordan and each side of the road a minefield, the legacy of past conflicts and a reminder of the uneasy peace Israel has with its neighbours.

In Jerusalem, Amir was again our guide on a tour past Israel’s parliament, the Knesset – modelled on the Parthenon in Greece – and the fourth-century church that marks the Valley of the Cross, where the wood to make Christ’s cross was gathered. A short cycle uphill takes us to the Hass Promenade, which offers a magnificent view of the city, including the Mount of Olives and the Dome of the Rock.

Cycling down to Jerusalem’s Old City, we stowed our bikes in a yard before exploring the ancient alleyways and joining first Jewish, then Christian pilgrims at the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, supposedly built on the site where Christ was crucified.

That evening, after the traders had pulled down the shutters of their shops in the bazaar, Amir took us back and led us on a cycle trip through the maze of empty cobbled streets.

Our final day took us once again into the countryside, this time in the Judean hills around Jerusalem. The trip began in the valley where, legend has it, David slew Goliath. Once again, the roads were virtually free of traffic, and the sun shone gently on our backs. Really, it is the only way to travel.