Israel’s Jesus Trail From Nazareth To The Sea Of Galilee.
It took five minutes into my pilgrimage for somebody to offer me free food. Leaving my inn, a converted 19th-century mansion in the Israeli town of Nazareth, I’d turned the corner to make the initial ascent toward the Franciscan Mensa Church. The church stands on the site where Christ was said to have dined with his apostles just after his resurrection. A smiling man with a lazy eye, standing by the trailhead, decided I should dine, too. He handed me a chocolate bar, gesturing toward the orange trail markers that demarcated the route. He mimed something approximating “difficult climb,” then also gave me a piece of burma—a sticky, pistachio-studded pastry—the honey staining my fingers. But of course, I had to try this, too. With a combination of hand signals and makeshift Arabic, I tried to convey “delicious,” “thank you” and “please stop: I cannot fit anything else into my bag.” I spent nearly as much time eating with strangers as walking during my trip earlier this year along the Jesus Trail, a 40-mile trek connecting several major sites of Jesus’ life, from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee (also called Lake Tiberias). But that was, according to the Jesus Trail’s founders, the point.
Established in 2007 by David Landis, an American Christian hiking enthusiast, and Maoz Inon, an Israeli Jew who owns the Fauzi Azar Inn, the Jesus Trail was designed as a counterpoint to the usual pilgrim itineraries that revolve around Jerusalem, about two hours away, and Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee town where Jesus started his ministry. This alternative trail, intended to entice curious hikers as much as pilgrims, links religiously disparate areas—Muslim and Christian towns such as Nazareth and Cana, the Orthodox Jewish kibbutz of Lavi and the Druse temple at Nabi Shuaib. The trail’s founders hoped it would encourage travellers to spend their money on local businesses, rather than large-scale hotels and packaged tours.
But spending money on the trail, I found, proved difficult. A half-hour after I met my first benefactor, I met my next two. After climbing the vertiginous stone steps of Nazareth’s Old City, passing teenagers doing tricks on motorcycles, I headed through the city’s industrial suburbs toward the wildflower-dotted hills that took the trail into the wilderness. Just before the hills, I passed a house under construction, where the two workers waved me over and insisted I come in for a cup of tea. They sat me in a plastic chair, handed me ice cream, more chocolate, water and an energy drink for my journey, then explained their situation. They were a Muslim and a Christian who had decided to share the cost of building a house to sell later: economy triumphing over religious differences. They were worried about me—”A woman hiking alone?” They pointed out the way to Zippori, one of the key sites along the trail, where the ruins of Roman houses still stand, across a thorn-latticed field. “Don’t get lost,” they told me. This advice seemed overcautious at first. After all, the Jesus Trail is hardly arduous. Most of the trek marked every 30 feet or so, wends across flatlands and low hills. But the trek’s first wilderness section lacks a footpath, and the trail markers are not always placed intuitively. Spotting those orange blazes—painted on a stone, on the trunk of a tree—demanded deep concentration. And travelling during a rainy week, I was one of the few hikers on the trail, so was left largely to my dubious navigation skills. As I traipsed past cow-guarded streams, down grassy hills in the shadow of a forest, I started to follow the orange markers leading in the opposite direction. I noticed this only when I arrived once more at the Nazareth house-in-progress, three hours after I began. The men laughed at me for several minutes before one of them gave me a ride part way to my next stopping-point at Cana, free of charge. He dropped me off in front of his mosque (it was time for Friday prayers), and he arranged a taxi to take me the rest of the way.
This sort of intense hospitality characterised the rest of my journey, too. That night, I stayed at a guesthouse in Cana, where Jesus is said to have turned water to wine, and where Orthodox and Catholic churches commemorating the miracle echo each morning with rival choral music. Sami Bellan, the puckish owner of the guesthouse, crowded with porcelain Virgin Mary figurines, decided to “anoint” me in the Galilean fashion with local olive oil, rubbing it into my forearms and the back of my neck before bringing me a plate of biscuits. When, a day or two later, it started to rain near Migdal—once Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene—I sought shelter in a children’s horse rental stable; the proprietor refused to take any money for the cardamom-thick coffee I consumed.
But few could equal Rivka Arfman, the elderly proprietress of my guesthouse in the Jewish town of Moshav Arbel, the last overnight stop of the trail. I’d spent that Shabbat morning hiking from Kibbutz Lavi, one of the few remaining religiously Orthodox kibbutz collectives in Israel. “You must be hungry,” said Rivka, in her thick German-Yiddish accent. She insisted I try her chicken soup. (“Make sure you salt it,” her husband whispered. “Back when she was more in love with me, she used to salt it properly.”) Later, Rivka’s husband took me into the garden to pick rich-red grapefruits to take on the next day’s 10-mile hike. When dinner—ordered from a local pizzeria—arrived, it came supplemented by Rivka’s homemade tuna salad.
The final leg of the journey led me up and down the crags of Mount Arbel, pockmarked with caves, which, legend has it, once sheltered Crusaders. I ate the Arfmans’ grapefruits under an olive tree and sought shelter from a rain shower at an abandoned banana farm near an old Ottoman bridge. The main road was less than 20 minutes away as the crow flies, but I spent two hours lost. When I saw the Sea of Galilee, at last, three days after I’d first set out, dusk was already spreading. I was exhausted, sticky with sweat. The taxi drivers I phoned to return me to Nazareth were all busy. A Franciscan monk offered me little but a sympathetic shrug. The leader of a Spanish pilgrim tour bus tapped me on the shoulder: “Do you need help?” I must have looked lost, tired, hungry—in short, like a pilgrim. The bus was going to Nazareth. “Could I use a ride?” The pilgrims cheered when I got on. They’d picked up another straggler, too, an Arab Christian called Osama. He shared a box of walnuts and dried fruits with me: the last free meal of my journey. The trip back to Nazareth took all of an hour on the highway. Over the last of the walnuts, Osama taught me all the Arabic I would need, he said. “Al-amdu lillāh.” Gratitude: for new friends, for the kindness of strangers. Or simply, “Hamdillah. ” Thanks be to God.
THE LOWDOWN: Walking Along Israel’s Jesus Trail
Hiking There: The Jesus Trail goes from Nazareth to Capernaum, via Cana, Lavi and Moshav Arbel, and can be done in three to five days. The trail is relatively easy (one intense descent from Mount Arbel, notwithstanding) and consistently marked. Hikers are rarely more than an hour’s walk from the main road, where it is possible to call taxi drivers (such as Josef West: 050-7535661) to shorten bits of the journey—though you may need to wait a while for an available cab.
Staying There: The traditional start of the Jesus Trail is Nazareth’s Fauzi Azar guesthouse, a historic mansion with an open courtyard, tips-only walking tours and other activities, including cooking and Arabic lessons (from about $70 a night, fauziazarinn.com). In Cana, the Cana Guest House is popular with pilgrims and hikers alike (from about $70 a night, canaguesthouse.com). The simple self-catered apartments at Moshav Arbel’s Arbelit Lodge are worth staying at for the comic patter of the Arfman family alone (from about $72 a night, booking.com/hotel/il/arbelit-xx-xx.html)
Credit: Tara Isabella Burton for The Wall Street Journal, 24 December 2017.