My holiday to Israel feels like a distant memory, and I am very much behind on all the things I want to write about it. A busy work schedule, a couple of little adventures to Wales and Dartmoor, my 30th birthday, a second job to make some extra cash and a lot of time in the gym training for some big challenges have seen me spending less time on my little corner of the internet.
However, I have been think a lot about what I can say about my time in Israel, in particular the few days I was in Golan Heights. This North-Eastern part of the nation is often missed by tourists, but if I had to pick a favourite region, the Golan Heights would be it.
In the Golan Heights, there is a stark contrast between the tremendous landscapes that invoke a sense of freedom and joy, and the signs warning of landmines and bombed out Syrian villages that were abandoned after Israel took the region in the 6-day war.
Despite the sorry sight of abandoned buildings covered in bullet holes, it is the rolling hills, wild flowers, outdoor lifestyle and the peace and quiet that have really stayed with me.
So if you’re looking to get away from it all, have a look at my top tips for your time in the Golan Heights.
Where to stay
I cannot recommend Genghis Khan Hostel highly enough. It isn’t your average hostel – whether you want a dorm or a private space, you will be sleeping in a Mongolian yurt. Each yurt sleeps between 6 and 10 people, so it’s a great place for families and groups. However, it’s friendly towards singletons, with the shared dorm yurt option. I opted for the dorm, but the site is delightfully quiet during the week, so I had the enormous space to myself.
If you think yurt living will be basic and uncomfortable, you’re in for a pleasant surprise at Genghis Khan. Each dwelling is kitted out with colourful mattresses, a table, a fully functioning radiator, plug sockets and a secure, lockable front door. There is fairly decent wifi throughout the yurts and gardens, and excellent communal areas.
Next to each yurt is a private, clean bathroom block in a small shipping container style structure. Flushing toilets and hot showers with good water pressure make for a comfortable stay.
There is a spacious, well-equipped communal kitchen and plenty of picnic benches outside where you can eat your food. While breakfast isn’t offered, there is a nearby shop for groceries so you can stock up and prepare your own. But the real treat is the cornucopia of different fresh herbs growing in recycled tyres in the garden, which guests can pick and use to make tea.
Genghis Khan Hostel is relaxed, peaceful and will help you connect with nature. Sleeping beneath canvas, enjoying the silence, and looking at the blooming flowers will leave you feeling happy and rejuvenated.
What to do
If you like getting outside and being active, Golan Heights is the place for you. With mountains, rivers, endless trails and the Sea of Galilee only minutes away, I was in paradise.
It was sheer luck that I was there in spring, but undoubtedly the best season for the Golan. Lush green landscapes with bright cornflowers and poppies punctuating the hills were a highlight. I was informed by locals that the vibrant vegetation would be dead within weeks and the greens would be replaced with browns
You won’t be short of places to hike in the region. Trek up Mount Bental for a spectacular lookout of the surroundings. There are also nature reserves galore so you can’t go wrong – try Nehudiya Nature Reserve for waterfalls and natural pools you can take a dip in.
There is a good mixture of well-trodden paths that will lead you to the most perfect of photo opportunities, and the chance to carve your own route in the landscape. My investigation of some old Syrian ruins may have left me covered in nettle stings, but it was totally worth it.
There are so many hills, mountains, army bunkers with viewpoints, and you can get up close and personal with Syria and Lebanon. My advice would be just to scour a map and see what takes your fancy. There are some great lookout points just off of the road, but to get the best experience, hike from the road into the hard-to-reach corners and you will be rewarded with true seclusion.
If camping is your vibe, find a quiet spot along the River Jordan. It is perfectly legal to wild camp and light fires, so you can get away from it all and cook a luxurious meal. I enjoyed sweet potatoes, roasted vegetables and a glass of wine as the sun went down.
If you’re feeling brave, a swim in the Jordan in the morning will wake you up and make you feel utterly alive. It’s freezing, but it’s worth it!
Golan Heights has more than just natural delights – there is a wealth of history in the region. Israel’s tumultuous past with Syria is evident, with bombed out shelters, mine fields and abandoned villages near the border. Still-functioning army bunkers and UN peacekeepers at lookout points give a real sense that no one feels truly safe, and there is always a risk of things flaring up again.
The minefields were quite alarming, the warning signs so frequent that they might as well have been ‘keep off the grass’ notices. They are, at least, all signposted clearly and regularly checked by the military, who have maps so they can safely navigate through the area.
The mines are simply supposed to be a deterrent for people who might want to invade Israel and capture the holy land. As an outsider, it feels pretty barbaric to blow people up for trespassing, but I’m massively oversimplifying the situation with that emotional response.
On a more positive note, for history spanning 2,000 years and architectural gems, check out Sussita. This expansive Roman ruin offers a peek into the way of life in days gone by.
Remains of large houses, toppled stone pillars and a still-functioning Roman path would probably make for an internationally renowned landmark in any other part of the world. However, in Israel, one of the most historically rich locations on the planet, Sussita is an off-the-beaten-path secret. There is no ticketing, staff, or anything to draw tourists in. Simply hike up the long path, past some stunning mountain views, and explore. An abandoned archaeological centre gives a sense that maintaining the site isn’t a funding priority.
The secluded nature of the ruins might alienate the kind of tourists who want a café, a gift shop, and a tour guide, but for you and I, it feels like our own little corner of Israel to discover.
Eating and Drinking
The best falafel I have ever had in my life was in the Golan Heights. This is a bold claim, but one I stand by with conviction. I spent much of my two weeks in Israel seeking out and sampling different falafel, much of which was fantastic, but over a month later, I am physically salivating as I remember this one particular falafel lunch.
For excellent flavour and a crispy, satisfying coating, head to Nadal in Mas’ade, a Druze village in the foothills of Mount Hermon. All of the food there is great quality – hummus, aubergine and homemade goats cheese topped with olive oil.
The best part? The hospitable owners just keep bringing out more food until you can’t take any more.
Aside from good, simple, hearty food, the Golan Heights is famous for its wine. Check our Pelter Winery for an exquisite tasting of different locally grown wines and homemade goats cheese. After tasting quite a range of reds, whites and a rose, I had become enamoured in particular with some of the earthy reds. Unfortunately, I couldn’t bring any home as I was travelling with hand luggage only, but I know now to look out for Israeli wines, which I never would have considered
The short answer to this is hire a car and self-drive. The public transport is limited, and having a car will give you a lot of freedom. However, if like me, you can’t drive, or don’t want to, it is certainly doable.
Travelling around using a mixture of buses and hitchhiking was in fact a real highlight. Yes, it meant some uncertainty, and it meant having to leave a bit of extra time for a journey but it really is the best way to experience local life.
I know I bang on about this, but as a tourist, public transport is your best bet for immersing yourself in a new culture (well maybe other than markets). It’s also a great way to challenge yourself as you navigate a new system, often in different language.
Let me start with hitchhiking. Most people have an opinion about it, whether it’s a cracking adventure or a death risk. There are, of course, places on this planet where it isn’t advisable, but in Golan Heights it is a very normal way of getting around. Young people and soldiers in particular can be found at every road junction with their thumb out.
Of course, there are risks, but everyone who picked me up on my travels spoke about how safe it is, as long as you use your common sense and trust your gut. I met a broad range of people, from a lady with whom I had a passionate discussion about the misconceptions of Palestinian people, to a mother who spoke no English but had the warmest, most welcoming smile.
You should get picked up pretty quickly, and while the driver may not be going all the way to your destination, it’s always best to go a little bit further along to get closer to your final point.
As for buses, they exist, but they are very sporadic. Coming in from Jerusalem was fine, the 966 runs direct twice a day, but you can travel in between more regularly if you change at Tiberias.
Once you’re there, there are local buses that run between towns and villages, but they are infrequent, and expect all of the signage at bus stops to be in Hebrew, so it can be hard to work out which one you need.
Golan Heights is like this other world, a natural paradise, a spiritual retreat. The overarching feeling I had there was one of freedom. It isn’t densely populated and you have space to wander and be alone. It is the kind of place I want to be when my mental wellbeing is low, and I need some time to reflect.
Sometimes life is a struggle. We wrestle our thoughts and our demons. But going back to my time in Golan Heights, carefully selecting and picking herbs in the garden outside my yurt, or fighting the current in the River Jordan, makes me feel like everything will be okay.