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Off-the-beaten-track tourist sites in Israel

  • Published in Travel

An underground bullet factory, a series of prehistoric caves, beachside biking, an experiential museum - it's all here.

By Ariel Blum
Israelis are the consummate explorers. Whether they're traveling overseas to exotic locations (Thailand, India and South America are today's hotspots), or inside the country, the people of Israel are passionate about digging up the most unusual, off-the-beaten-track adventures. And that enthusiasm is infectious: Given the country's small size, visitors to Israel increasingly want to go beyond the Israel Museum, Masada and the Tel Aviv boardwalk.
This almost mischievous devotion to sniffing out the next big thing is inculcated from a young age. Field trips are a regular part of Israeli school days, from first grade and on. By the time they've reached adulthood, some Israelis might even feel jaded, like they've seen it all.
Fortunately, Israel is chock-full of unusual museums, surprising hikes, hidden restaurants and even prehistoric caves just waiting to tempt the intrepid traveler. So off you go, into the wilderness of discovery.
Two gems in Rehovot
We start at the Ayalon Institute. Tucked away on a lonely hill in the outskirts of Rehovot, the Ayalon is often referred to as the "underground ammunition factory" because its main attraction is 13 feet underneath a "fake" kibbutz laundry facility and bakery.
Just prior to the War of Independence, leaders of the nascent Jewish state realized they needed bullets to defend themselves, and the British weren't letting any ammo in. A group of pioneers from the Jewish Scouts movement, as well as the Haganah (and later the Palmach) military forces, dug a large 300-yard underground chamber with nearly two-foot-thick walls and ceilings. In it, they built a factory that churned out 40,000 bullets a day between 1945 and 1948.
To hide what they were doing from the British, the factory was built under a "training institute" intended to prepare immigrants for kibbutz life. The main entrance to the factory was under the central drum of the laundry's washer. An alternative opening was under one of the 10-ton baking ovens, which could be moved along a set of metal runners.
A tour of the Ayalon Institute includes a guided explanation above ground and an exploration of the dimly lit factory itself. There are all kinds of fascinating tidbits: how the laundry was kept running 24 hours a day to conceal the sound of the machinery, and how primitive sunlamps gave workers stuck underground a makeshift tan.
Smack dab in the center of Rehovot's Weizmann Institute of Science, one of Israel's most prestigious research centers just south of the Ayalon Institute, you'll find the Clore Garden of Science. Set over 800 square meters (960 square yards) of green lawns, 58 hands-on exhibits demonstrate the laws of physics, solar energy and water power.
The exhibits include a 49-foot-high wave machine; a solar-powered fountain (you can change the direction of the solar panels and see the change immediately); a solar furnace that can instantly set wood on fire; water sprinklers that surround you with a rainbow; and various sound exhibits where visitors walk on drum pads and operate pendulums and turbines. Probably the most exciting attraction is the TrampoLuna, which simulates a moonwalk. You're attached to a long suspension cable and, as you bounce through the air, you feel only 1/6 of your normal weight - just like on the moon.
The exhibits are aimed at the kids but are just as enjoyable for their parents. Due to the summer heat, the Clore Garden is closed midday during July and August, re-opening later in the evening.
Outside-the-box museums
Moving farther north, the Palmach Museum in Ramat Gan tells the story of a fictional group of young Palmach recruits in the years before Israel's founding. The Palmach was the elite fighting force of the Haganah, a pre-state underground military organization (you will remember it from the tour of the Ayalon Institute). The museum has no displays or documents; instead you walk through a series of rooms populated with films, artifacts and full size "dioramas." By the end of the 90-minute tour, you may cry as characters you have gotten to know (played by professional actors on video) don't survive the War of Independence.
The Herzl Museum in Jerusalem is another atypical museum where visitors walk through an interactive experience - this time, telling the life story of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl. The premise is that Israeli actor Lior Michaeli is asked to play the part of Herzl in a movie. Michaeli's process of learning more about his role propels visitors through four rooms of the museum. Each describes the changes Herzl underwent, from his early years as a bourgeois European to his post-Dreyfus Trial transformation into an international statesman and journalist who convinces his cohorts that "if you will it, it is not a dream."
At both the Palmach and Herzl museums, presentations are available in many languages, including Hebrew, English, Spanish, French and Russian.
On the other side of the capital city from Herzl is Jerusalem's Museum on the Seam, a little-known gem that calls itself a "socio-political contemporary art museum that presents art as a language with no boundaries." The slogan is ironic, given that the museum is built right along the former pre-1967 "seam" between Israel and Jordan, just west of the Old City.
The Museum on the Seam aims to provoke; some of the exhibitions that have been displayed include "Dead End," dealing with the threat that violence poses to our social fabric; "Equal and Less Equal," which explored slavery in a world of globalization and migration; and "HomeLessHome," looking into the differences between the private, public and political spheres. The current exhibition is called "Westend" and it asks whether there can be dialogue between the West and Islam - or only a clash of civilizations.
The museum building was constructed in 1932 and served as an army outpost from 1948 to 1967. Between 1970 and 1997, it housed a permanent exhibition about the reunification of the city. The current focus on politics and society started in 2005.
Cycle cities
Tired of museums? Israel is rapidly becoming a biker's paradise. In recent years, a variety of government bodies, including the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, as well as the Israel Cycling Federation, have been mapping out a 744-mile cycling trail that starts at Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights and ends in Eilat, traveling by way of the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea.
There are "feeder routes" all over the country (you can cycle on a dedicated bike path all the way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem). The goal is no less than turning Israel into a magnet for "bicycle tourism." If you're not ready for the full trail, two lovely routes can be done in a couple of hours each.
HaYarkon Park, one of Tel Aviv's loveliest stretches of urban green with mostly flat terrain, plenty of trees and well-planned rights of way, is particularly popular with bikers. There are two rental shops - one in the Ganei Yehoshua section of the park near the bird sanctuary, and BikePlanet at the far eastern end.
The ride from BikePlanet to the water takes 30 to 40 minutes depending on how fast you're pedaling, but don't stop there - the path continues through the middle of the old Tel Aviv Port, past the city's prime beaches and fancy hotels, all the way to Jaffa. And here's a surprise: the bike route is actually part of the Israel Trail, normally only for hikers (and sporting the familiar blue, orange and white trail markers).
Further north, you can bike along the Hula Valley. Located off Highway 90 in the northern Galilee, between Tiberias and Kiryat Shemona, the valley was once a swamp so filled with mosquitoes that early pioneers had no choice but to drain it entirely (while all too frequently succumbing to malaria themselves). It was later reconverted to a lake when modern environmentalists realized that the waterless valley was wreaking far worse ecological damage.
The Hula Valley is right on the great Syrian-Africa Rift and is a necessary stopping point in the fall and winter for some 500 million birds (from 400 species) migrating from Europe to Africa and back. Tens of thousands of birds, including cranes, storks, pelicans, cormorants and egrets, stay in the reserve year round. Ever watch a thousand cranes all, well, craning together? It's a beautiful sight.
Bikes can be rented at the main entrance; a leisurely ride around the lake takes about two hours. For a less strenuous adventure, book a four-seat electric golf cart. Note that because this is a national park, there's an admission fee.
From books to caves
Once you've had your fill of museums and biked to your heart's content, you might want to take a break. Jerusalem's Tmol-Shilshom is more than just a place to grab a bite. It's also a literary-culinary meeting point. Located in a 130-year-old building in the downtown Nahalat Shiva neighborhood, the café takes its name from a novel by S.Y. Agnon (translated loosely as "Those Were the Days").
Journalist and author David Ehrlich opened Tmol-Shilshom in 1994 in a space formerly used as a private home. The menu of creative pasta and fish recipes is divided cleverly into sections such as "Introduction," "Plot" and "Conclusion."
Recent authors passing through Tmol-Shilshom have discussed Bialik's Hebrew poetry, Sufism in Israel and J.D. Salinger's classic Franny and Zooey. An English-language creative writing workshop usually takes place in the fall. Oozing ambience from its arched ceilings and authentic stone walls, the café owner claims that a fair number of romances have begun there; the website even has a section showcasing couples who have met and fallen in love at Tmol-Shilshom.
Israel is well known, of course, for its antiquities, dating back several thousand years. But the country can also trace its roots back almost 500,000 years to the days of the cavemen. Truly one of the most off-the-beaten-track adventures in the Holy Land, the caves on Mount Carmel - 15 minutes south of Haifa and 45 minutes north of Tel Aviv - contained evidence that both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals lived here at one time.
You won't find real remains lying around anymore - archaeologists long ago snapped these up during digs starting in the 1930s - but the caves are impressive nonetheless. The layers of sea sand in the Tabun cave, for example, indicate that the coast was much closer during the Paleolithic age. A skeleton of a Neanderthal female, dating back some 120,000 years, was found in this cave. Next door, in the Skhul cave, 14 more human-looking skeletons were found. The third El-Wad cave shows signs of a 10,000-year-old permanent settlement. Primitive tools including hand axes, fishhooks, scrapers for treating animal skins, sickle blades and more, were found in all of the caves.
You can pick up a travel guide at the ticket window. A circular trail through the valley and up the ridge takes about two hours. To get into the caves requires climbing up a fairly steep ladder. There's also a nice wooded area, and you can buy pita and other picnic supplies from the nearby Druze villages.
From the days of the cavemen to the wonders of modern science, Israel has such a wide range of attractions that you could spend a lifetime here. Actually, that's not such a bad idea. On or off the beaten track, there's never a dull moment in the Land of the Patriarchs. Now, get out there and explore!

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