YNET May 31 2007
Tali Heruti-Sover spent a weekend among the churches, restaurants and alleys
There are many good reasons to visit Nazareth, and recently another one has been added: “The Fauzi Azar Inn”- an ancient building that has been turned into a simple, pleasant guest house with a painted ceiling and a courtyard that invites relaxation.
In recent months the gates of a special and unique guesthouse have quietly opened. Fauzi Azar Inn is the name of the place located in the heart of the ancient city of Nazareth, and its owner is a blue-eyed young man with the surprising name, Maoz Inon.
We packed our bags and went to check out what the former kibbutznik was doing in Nazareth, and what exactly his place offered guests.
The car easily skipped over the Afula Road, swallowed the curves on the ascent to Nazareth, and slowly lumbered next to the dozen cars on the constantly jammed Paulus Street. We parked at the edge of the old city, according to the exact directions that Maoz gave us and we walked through its alleyways.
A single delicate sign pointed us to a large iron door that had a separate smaller iron door within. This opened and we experienced our first "Wow!": we discovered a large open courtyard whose shaded area was designed for colorful relaxation filled with cushions and mattresses. Families with children were reclining on these comfortable beddings. Everyone looked very satisfied.
A climb up the ancient stairs led us to the top floor. The main hall caused our second "Wow!": A giant painted ceiling extended five meters above our heads. The room was adorned with huge Oriental windows covered with wooden shutters that you can no longer find, from which you can look out over the red tiled roofs of Nazareth. In the background the sound of the muezzin constantly calling for prayers mixed with the slow chimes of the church bells. A pleasant aroma of coffee wafted through the air.
A Zionist guest house
Our room, one of only seven, turned out to be a small attic that was simply furnished. We did not find (thankfully) a Jacuzzi, and a quiet fan served as the air conditioning. The word TV was not uttered. "I do not sell facilities; rather, the atmosphere of the city", Maoz (30, married with a child) explains with a smile. "People come here with open minds and want to experience the slow pace of Nazareth.
"My aim is to get people to leave their rooms, tour, buy labaneh in the market, encounter the spices in a hundred-year-old mill, eat in the restaurants, and to interact with the other guests in the inn with whom they are sharing a kitchen and balconies. In short, to experience something different without having to leave the country", says Maoz.
He arrived in Nazareth after touring the world with his wife. The two, hiking enthusiasts, hiked more than a thousand kilometers in California and then went to conquer the South American trails. "In Israel we also have a beautiful walking trail", he says, "It is called the Israel National Trail. Before we left Israel, we hiked it for 40 days and discovered that it was lacking basic services for hikers such as the simple guest houses that you find on the trails around the world."
During their trip in South America the energetic couple decided to open a guest house on one of the points of the Israel National Trail, and when they returned to Israel they began looking for an appropriate location. "We decided on Nazareth", says Maoz, "because it is a unique place that would allow us to open an even more unique guest house". The tourist council in the city referred them to the house of Fauzi Azar, one of the city's rich men, that was built in 1880. Azar died years ago and since then his magnificent house has stood empty in the heart of the old city. In a matter of weeks, and after a few suspicious inquiries, Azar's daughter was convinced that it was worth appointing Maoz to manage the house. The house was reopened and renovated, and less than half a year ago the inn hosted its first guests.
Today the news travels from mouth to mouth. Israelis and tourists come to the inn and enjoy the unique experience, the Galilean air, and the attractive prices. "I hope that we will be the first pioneers in the old city of Nazareth and on the trail", says Maoz. "I have no doubt that with the right marketing the Israel Trail can become no less a magnet for Israelis and tourists than the Inca Trail in Peru and the Santiago de Compostela in Spain."
Maoz has another dream, to prepare a walking trail called the Jesus Trail, which would leave Nazareth and would be a three-to-five day walking trip through Kfar Tabor, Tiberias and Kfar Nahum. "The hikers would enjoy the trail, service providers from the periphery could make a living, and everyone would benefit from this unique trail," he says.
An Oriental-Yuppie meal and fireworks
We decided to have our Shabbat meal at a restaurant recommended by Maoz. Al Rida is located within walking distance of the inn, in an old house with an arched roof, heavy wooden furniture and a small garden.
The meals offered an interesting combination of the Oriental and world kitchen. For instance, we tasted finely chopped Arab salad, which in addition to the lemon and mint, included yuppie goat's cheese and a lot of croutons.
The mushrooms stuffed with sweet potato were outstanding and the beef dish had us licking our lips. We had dessert at the old sweet shop El Mukhtar on the main road, where they serve all kinds of baklava and knafa (Middle Eastern honey cakes) at ridiculously low prices.
Thanks to the city streets which are closed to traffic, we had a very calm night's sleep. Fireworks, which did not produce such an impressive display but made a lot of noise, sometimes disturbed the tranquility. The children, it is superfluous to add, enjoyed themselves.
Labaneh in the market and a circular tour
In the morning we hopped over to the market. A five minute encounter with the old women who come from the nearby villages yielded half a kilo of labaneh (NIS 4), 10 pitas (NIS 5) and a generous handful of olives that came with cooked cherries and cost a fraction of the price in the supermarket.
Armed with breakfast, we went on a tour with Fauzi, our excellent tour guide, in a circuitous tour of the attractions in the old city. The first stop was the White Mosque built 200 years ago and since then all the sermons given there are about loving your fellow man, peace and unity.
On the floor of the mosque is a large carpet painted with pillars. Between every two pillars sits a worshipper who is joined to a very straight line of worshippers, because "God", according to tradition, "does not like curved lines".
From the White Mosque we walked through the alleys of the market to the Basilica of the Annunciation, where according to Catholic tradition, Mary lived when she received the famous announcement. The beautiful church, built in 1955 on the remains of an ancient church, is full of pilgrims and tourists of all religions, and we spent a long time admiring the impressive mosaics on its walls.
It is worth noting the mosaic donated by the Japanese church which features Mary and her son, round eyed and wearing kimonos that are edged with real gold and pearls.
Near the Basilica of the Annunciation stands St Joseph's Church, that same carpenter who according to the New Testament married Mary after she received the news of her pregnancy from the angel. In the lower section of the church you can still see the ritual bath where, they claim, the Jewish carpenter immersed.
To close the circle it is worth seeing the Greek Orthodox church of the Annunciation. It is a white church decorated with bells, that inside has the springs where according to this tradition, Mary received the announcement. On your way there do not miss a stop at El-Babour - The Mill of the Galilee; a hundred-year-old family business where they grind more than a thousand types of spices, herbs and grains. The wonderful aroma envelops the street.
Three hours of the relaxing tour passed slowly. Tired and happy we easily navigated our way through the alleys back to the guest house only to discover that our satisfied neighbors already booked their rooms for Rosh Hashana. We will also return.
• Fauzi Azar Inn , Old City of Nazareth. Tel: 04-6020469, 054-4322328.
Prices: NIS 200-350 per night. Minimum of two nights during the weekend. Breakfast: NIS 30.
• Tour Guide: Fauzi Nassar Hana 052-2844787. Price of a tour: NIS 300-600.
• Church Hours: Seven days a week 8:00-17:00. The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation is closed every day from 12:00-13:00.
• Al Rida Restaurant: Al Bashara street, Old City of Nazareth. Tel: 04-6074404. Open Monday-Saturday 13:00-2:00. Sundays 19:00-2:00.
• El Babour Mill: Habankim Street, Nazareth market. Tel: 04-6455596.
Off the beaten track in Nazareth
Jesus' hometown is undergoing a modest but energetic renaissance
Associated Press May 1, 2009
NAZARETH, Israel — When Pope Benedict XVI pays a visit next month to the town where Jesus grew up, he will bring brief attention to a Holy Land destination that is at once world famous and unjustly overlooked.
Like the tour groups bused into Nazareth for lightning visits on their way to somewhere else, the pope will see the Basilica of the Annunciation, on the site where Christian tradition says an angel told Mary she would bear the child of God.
Like most visitors, the pope likely won't have the chance to savor the shabby Ottoman chic of the Old City, consume too many of Abu Ashraf's honey-drenched pastries, or watch the young and hip show off their clothes and cars opposite the Dandana restaurant. It's safe to assume he will not experience the ear-spitting repertoire of Chaos, Israel's only Arab heavy metal band.
Benedict XVI arrives in Nazareth on May 14, and will celebrate Mass with thousands of worshippers on a nearby hillside.
He comes amid a modest but energetic renaissance here, one that has seen new restaurants opening up and signs of vitality in the neglected alleyways of the Old City. Those willing to go beyond the city's holy sites and shops hawking olive-wood crosses will discover the ideal place to experience Arab life in northern Israel and a base for exploring the rest of the Galilee.
A good place to start is the Fauzi Azar Inn, which opened four years ago in an abandoned mansion in the Old City after its 34-year-old founder, Maoz Inon, pressed his family and friends into service and cleaned out the pigeon droppings and rubble that had accrued there over decades of neglect.
Named for a former owner and referred to by those in the know simply as the Fauzi, the building has been restored to something of its former beauty. It is the kind of place where you can enjoy a leisurely breakfast of black coffee and pita covered in the local zaatar spice while a spiky-haired backpacker emerges bleary-eyed from one of the dorm rooms and shuffles off to brush her teeth. Overhead are flowers and cherubs painted on the ceiling by Lebanese craftsmen in the late 1800s.
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The Fauzi, where dorm beds go for $17 (72 ILS) and private rooms for $50 (213 ILS) per person, is useful as a base for touring the city and the surrounding countryside. A new hiking route, the Jesus Trail, leads trekkers from Nazareth to Kafr Kana, where Jesus is believed to have turned water into wine, and on to other holy sites.
If hiking through Galilee hills sounds too strenuous, simply ask directions through the bazaar to Abu Ashraf's place while discarding any attachment you may have to healthy eating. Abu Ashraf Abu Ahmad can be found pouring batter or laying out circular pastries called "kataif" on a table facing the street.
Don't bother asking how they're made: The recipe is so secret, Abu Ashraf claims, that even his wife has no idea what it is. An outsider can only observe him stuffing batter with nuts and soaking it all in honey. The result is as good as it sounds and will provide the sustenance necessary to keep cruising the bazaar.
As you do, you might meet Hatem Mahroum, 30, who was Israel's welterweight boxing champion and has the immense hands and flat nose to prove it. He runs two shops here in the market and claims Nazareth's spinach is the best in the world. Or you might stop in at the Fahoum coffee store, where the smell of coffee beans and cardamom is overpowering and where the proprietor might subject you to a litany of complaints about how the city has neglected its old market in favor of the new Western-style shopping malls on the outskirts of town.
Those aren't the only complaints people here have, and they'll be happy to fill you in if you ask. Topping the list is the government's neglect of the town and its potential, part of a more general government disregard for the one-fifth of Israelis who are Arabs. Some might mention tensions between the Muslim majority and the one-third of the town's 65,000 people who are Christian. The two communities have sparred in the past, though today there is scant evidence of real conflict.
For a peek into Nazareth's ancient history, it turns out the place to visit is not a museum but a gift shop. The store, Cactus, became an archaeological site accidentally, when its owners undertook a renovation in the early 1990s and happened to discover an immense Roman bathhouse from the time of Jesus.
Martina and Elias Shama have since incorporated the ruins into their shop, and visitors can go underneath the floor to the arched basement where slaves stoked the fires that heated the rooms above. Ceramic pipes installed by ancient plumbers are still visible in the walls.
The bathhouse has helped revise the accepted view of what Nazareth was at the time of Jesus: A town with a grand public bath would have been a large urban center, not the poor backwater of popular imagination.
As evening approaches, you might be looking for another place to eat.
Those in a laid-back frame of mind would be advised to check out the ElReda, on the ground floor of another Ottoman mansion. The decor is heavy on wood and old photographs of mustachioed merchants, the menu includes fresh local produce and the soundtrack never changes: from 8 o'clock until closing time at 2 a.m. or so you will hear nothing but the ballads of the Egyptian diva Umm Kalthoum. That's the long-standing rule decreed by the owner, Daher Zeidani, a professorial type with glasses hanging on a string around his neck.
"You can listen to other music during the day, but after you hear Umm Kalthoum you can't hear anyone else. That's why you finish the day with Umm Kalthoum," he explained.
A taste of the younger Nazareth scene can be had not far away at Dandana, opened in 2006 by Fadi Saba, 31, and his twin brothers, Shadi and Rami, 27. Dandana serves European-style food and alcohol, and some nights the Sabas push the tables aside, bring a DJ, crank up the Arabic pop music and dance.
The Sabas say they are well-enough known around town that Nazareth daughters put them on the phone to calm parents worried about curfew infractions. "We tell the parents 'don't worry, they're in good hands,'" Fadi Saba said.
At the bar, the brothers said, you might meet local celebrities like soccer players or the members of Chaos, Nazareth's contribution to Israel's heavy metal scene. The band's MySpace page says the band started as "four friends from Nazareth" and identifies its style as "melodic death metal."
The town's young people are increasingly liberal, with young women far more likely to go out at night dressed to kill than they were a decade ago, Saba said. There are conservatives in the town, including Muslims who oppose drinking alcohol, he said, but they largely "keep it to themselves." There's no better place in northern Israel to spend an evening, he said, but acknowledged word was slow getting out.
"Take someone from New York or from Germany, and they'll only know Nazareth from the Bible — they think people over here are still riding donkeys," he said.
By Judith Sudilovsky - Israel 21C
One of the most recognized young entrepreneurs in the city of Nazareth is Maoz Inon, a 32-year-old Israeli Jew who fell in love with the city several years ago while hiking the Israel National Trail.
From the moment he stepped into Nazareth's old city, he knew he would return to the city which held such an allure for him with its hidden alleyways and exotic smells.
Three years ago with the assistance of the Nazareth Cultural and Tourism Association, Inon rented and renovated a 200-year-old Arab mansion, opening up a guesthouse in the center of the old city. The guesthouse is named after the original owner of the building, Fauzi Azar.
"I believe in this town and its ability to open up the tourism market. Nazareth has real potential," says Inon with his infectious smile. "They appreciate me here. They see that I believe in Nazareth, see how hard I am working to bring people here. I believe Jews and Arabs must live together on this land and I am working to put that belief into action."
None of Azar's five children remain in the old city and only two currently live in Nazareth, but one of his great-granddaughters, Surida Nasser, 35, works at the Fauzi Azar Inn as the day reservation manager preserving a connection to the family's old home.
When Inon first arrived three years ago, some 30-40 percent of the old properties in the old city had been abandoned - including the Azar home - as people left the confines of the narrow streets and old buildings for homes in the newer neighborhoods with better infrastructure and car access.
Now, Inon says there is a renaissance of sorts with young Nazarenes revamping their family's shops, offering new sophisticated restaurants and cafes for tourists. Wissam Abu Saleem, 31, serves Arabic coffee in a traditional Nazareth coffee shop which he has renovated and which his family has run for three generations.
"Maoz thinks of the future," says Abu Saleem. "What he does is good for me and for Nazareth, he sends me customers and I send him customers too."
Currently the inn boasts a six-person dormitory on the ground floor, which includes a traditional outside courtyard. Up a steep set of stairs on the second floor there are seven rooms capable of sleeping two to five people. Three of the rooms include a private bath.
A spacious kitchen allows guests to prepare their own meals with fresh produce bought at the nearby open air market. Expansion plans are in the works and Inon hopes to have a dining area and three new rooms for up to 12 guests ready within the next year. The ground floor also includes a traditional downstairs courtyard.
Inon proudly points out the intricate woodcarvings and colorful Italian murals of the renovated six-meter high wooden ceiling in the inn's central lounge. Sunlight pours in through three towering arched windows separated by white marble pillars. This is, he said, a typical setting for a wealthy 19th century Arab family.
"Nazareth is on a par with many of the beautiful cities in the world," he says, noting its strategic location in the Galilee near many Christian and Jewish holy sites and some of Israel's most famous natural parks and reserves.
Many tourists troop through the city to visit the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation and then quickly march to the other end of town to visit the Greek Orthodox Church by Mary's Well, without ever stopping to look around them and really see Nazareth, he says.
"They stay for half an hour and don't see what we see. They don't benefit from the city and they don't give back," he says. "Nazareth is not a picture-postcard town. It is life and you have to see it, experience it and learn it."
Inon eagerly shows guests around the streets of the old city, stopping at Ali Abu Ahmed's shop to sample a traditional sweet, popping in to chat with the owners of the Elbabour spice mill shop where the aroma of freshly ground coffee, cinnamon and local dried herbs tickles the nostrils, and shaking hands of newly made acquaintances and shopkeepers all along the way. He has learned the city's history from the local residents and shares it with his listeners.
He points out the traditional architecture and unique spots such as the Bride's Market where shop windows glitter with gold wedding jewelry and ornate white lace-decorated candles, for use in wedding ceremonies, hang on hooks in front of shops.
"Couples here come from all over the Galilee to buy gold," he tells his guests this morning - two Jewish women from Vancouver, Canada who decided to take a few days off the beaten path of site seeing.
"We weren't sure what it would be like," says Ellen Hamer, 53, who was on her third trip to Israel. "We thought it would be just Christian sites but it is fabulous. It is so friendly and safe. It is so nice to be in an Arab town. I wanted to see the whole country."
There has not been one cancellation to the Guest House even during the height of the tensions in Gaza and southern Israel, says Inon.
"It's a different world here in Nazareth," he says.
"I am optimistic," Inon adds "The people of Nazareth love tourists. They have dignity. Nazareth is a great place for the independent traveler and it is a great place to be. It combines Arab culture and Christian and Muslim traditions. But Nazareth is not just about Christian sites; it is about an authentic beautiful Arab city."