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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

2000 years of history, & Israel's answer to the Grand Canyon!

As readers of this blog know, Dan & I got to take Dan home to Israel and spend a glorious month there, thanks to his winning us tickets from The American Friends of Ben Gurion Univeristy of the Negev. My first posts were on Tel Aviv, Beersheva, the Dead Sea, Masada, and our wonderful "foodie-winey" days in the Negev Deseert. After breakfast and our morning wine tasting at Carmey Avdat Winery in the Negev Heights, we headed for Avdat, the spectacular ruins of a Nabatean City in the Negev Desert that was suggested to us by Prof. Rosen of Ben Gurion University of the Negev's Dept. of Biblical Archaeology. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Avdat is located on a mountain ridge in the center of the Negev Highlands, where the routes from Petra (in present-day Jordan) and Eilat (in southern Israel) converge and continue to the Mediterranean coast. This was where the nomadic Nabateans established a road station for their caravans. Avdat was founded in the 1st century BCE and named after the Nabatean King Obodas who was revered as a deity, and who, according to tradition, is buried there. On the acropolis of Avdat, the Nabateans built a temple complex and public buildings which served as a landmark to the caravaneers. Nabatean Avdat also included a residential quarter, a military camp, and various animal pens for camels, sheep, goats, and racehorses. The early temple of Obodas was built at the end of the first century BCE, and a new temple was built on the acropolis towards the end of the 1st century CE. In the debris of the entrance way numerous inscriptions were found, including some mentioning the Nabatean King Haretat. Northeast of the acropolis was a military camp, surrounded by a wall with corner towers and a gate, which housed the riders of the camel corps units protecting the caravan routes. A unique find of the Nabataean period is the pottery workshop at Avdat, including a room with a potters wheel and a kiln for firing; an abundance of pottery, including decorated Nabatean painted ware, was found here. In the middle of the 3rd century, Avdat was resettled as part of the southern defense system of Roman Palestine and became an important military outpost and the permanent settlement of Arabian nomads. On the acropolis, a temple to Zeus Oboda was erected in 267-8, which, like the previous Nabatean temple, was later dismantled, with the stones used in Byzantine buildings. The Roman residential quarter included several dozen courtyard-type houses, built along narrow, intersecting streets, and roofed with flat stone slabs supported by arches. Avdat reached the peak of its prosperity during the 6th century, with an estimated population of 3,000; it continued to serve as an outpost in the defense of the Negev, and an effort was made to renew the Arab caravan trade and grow new agricultural crops; several wine presses have been excavated. During this Byzantine period, the acropolis area was completely rebuilt, destroying and burying the remains of the temples and buildings of the Nabatean and Roman periods; the area was divided into a religious area of a monastery with 2 churches and a citadel. In the floor of the southern church are reliquaries for the remains of local saints, and in the floor of the prayer hall of the church are the tombs of clerical dignitaries; inscriptions dating from 542 to 618 provide information regarding the Byzantine Christian community of Avdat, including the name of the church: the Martyrion of St. Theodorus, named for an abbot of the monastery at Avdat who was buried in the church.
The citadel was built for protection against marauding nomads, and the fortress was surrounded by a wall with three towers and a gate connecting it with the monastery. A large cistern was cut into the rock in the center of the citadel courtyard, and there was also a small chapel for soldiers garrisoned here. The Byzantine residential quarter was erected on several terraces, and included caves with decorations of carved bulls heads, storage spaces, and a wine press cut into the soft limestone of the hillside. The structures excavated included courtyards and rooms roofed with arches covered over with stone slabs. Excavations of Avdat were started in 1958, and in recent excavations during the 1990s, a long section of a massive stone wall and a gate was found.
At the clever suggestion of Ben Brewer of Israel Food Tours, we sought out the 2000-year old wine press, and there enjoyed our bottle of wine from the Negev's Rota Winery!

Sculpture at Avdat

Dan, Avdat

Elisse, enjoying Avdat

Sculpture in Avdat

Dan, with out bottle of Rota Vineyards wine, in the 2000 year old wine press!

Elisse, enjoying modern Israeli wine in an ancient place...

Dan in the ancient wine press, Avdat

Preacher Dan!

Greek Inscriptions

Greek Inscriptions

Modern sculpture & ancient ruins...

From Avdat we drove through the Makhtesh Ramon - the Ramon Crater; Israel's answer to the Grand Canyon! 500 meters deep, 40 kilometers long, and 10 kilometers at its widest point, it's the largest of the 3 craters of the Negev, & the largest in the world! It is an amazingly beautiful place, and makes you think you're in Montana, or New Mexico, or Arizona- and yes, "Spaghetti Westerns" were filmed here! These craters were not created by meteorites, but are a unique geological phenomenon, and not to be found anywhere else in the world!

Yes, "Spaghetti Westerns" were filmed here!

Petrified forest in the Negev... 

New Mexico? Arizona? Montana? No- this is Israel!

Chillin' out in Mitzpeh Ramon!

This made me laugh: 400 kinds of vodka, along with other pain killers, at the Mitzpeh Ramon grocery...

Relaxing with a cappuccino at Mitzpeh's internet cafe...

The hotel we stayed in in Mitzpeh Ramon

I loved this painting on the hotel's elevator door...

Gourmet ice creams- & date liquer and other goodies- at a gas station in the desert!

After driving thru the canyon, we spent the night in Mitzpeh Ramon, and had a surprisingly great dinner in town! And in the morning we headed south for Eilat and the Red Sea!

Next: Biblical animals, Solomon's Mines & Egyptian Temples, and the Red Sea!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Israel: Negev Adventures: Goats, Wines, & Crocodiles!

As readers of this blog know, Dan and I spent a glorious month in Israel thanks to his winning us tickets from the American Friends of Ben Gurion University of the Negev. After days in Tel Aviv, Beersheva (getting to visit the Ben Gurion University of the Negev  campus & research facility), and then our stay at the Dead Sea, and exploration of Masada, our next two days were a grand, "foodie-winey" adventure in the Negev Desert, but before we left the Dead Sea, I HAD to have one more "dip and float" in the morning! Then Dan and I had our "tourist photo" on the Big Blue Bull in front of the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea, and breakfast at the Ein Bokek McDonald's, just to say we did!
View of the Dead Sea from our Crowne Plaza room...

D & E on the Big Blue Bull...

Yes, you can do Mickey D's at the Dead Sea!

Archaeological sites in the Negev...

 Driving thru the Negev, we found a truly unique place: The CrocoLoco Crocodile Farm at Ein Hatzeva Junction! CrocoLoco is a unique desert farm raising the African Nile crocodiles that were once indigenous to the area, and helping protect the species from extinction by providing buyers in the leather industry with a sustainable alternative to skins acquired through illegal hunting. We not only got to learn about them, Elisse got to play "pat-the-croco"!



Up close & personal!

Elisse, making nice-nice with a baby crocodile!

At an archaeological site in the Negev

Train crossing in the desert...

The Negev...

Petrified Forest in the Negev

Petrified Forest
 Heading for Naot Farm, a gourmet goat cheese farm in the Negev, we stopped along the way at the archaeological digs we passed, and to see the ancient Petrified Forest.  Seeking uniquely Israeli things to do and places to stay, so that Dan (as well as I) could experience as much "real" Israel as possible and meet some great people, I arranged for us to spend a night at Naot Farm, run by the charming and welcoming Nachimov family, where we got to pet the baby goats, see how their gourmet goat cheeses are made, stay in lovely Cabin 1 (you can see it on their website!), and enjoy a truly splendid breakfast that included a selection of their delicious goats milk cheeses and milk, as well as freshly baked breads, salads & spreads, honey (from a local Negev farm, which we bought), eggs, and fresh-squeezed orange juice! (I loved the handmade soaps in our guest room!) We bought food & Israeli wine at the nearby gas station store (LOL - if only US gas stations sold fine wine & made cappuchino!), and made ourselves a pasta dinner that night in our romantic little cabin, sitting outside on our desert porch with our wine, enjoying the cool desert night and a sky sprinkled with a billion stars...

Milking goats at Naot Farm

Dan & Elisse, petting goats at Naot Farm!


A desert night...

Chef Dan, making dinner in the desert!

A cappuccino & gourmet goat milk for breakfast!

Totally scrumptious breakfast, delivered to our cabin...goat cheeses, fresh OJ, breads, & salads...

Baby goats!

Tiny kids, all snuggled up!

Gourmet goat cheese...

Making cheeses by hand...

Our cabin in the desert...

I booked us stays at both this lovely, rustic farm bed-and-breakfast, and the Carmey Avdat Winery, where we spent the next night, so we got to experience a bit of the "off the beaten path" Israel I love so much. Once-upon-a-time (not so long ago!) Israel was "famous" for having one or two truly mediocre wines that were tooth-rottingly sweet- not any more! Israel now has more than 300 wineries producing internationally-acclaimed, award-winning wines, some selling for upwards of $300 a bottle, and wineries literally crisscross the country from the Negev desert to the snow-capped mountains of the Golan Heights! In a tiny country the size of New Jersey this is nothing short of amazing! The best part is that Israeli restaurants and bars feature and promote Israeli wines, so although Dan and I only had a chance to visit a few wineries throughout our month in Israel, we enjoyed a wide variety of Israeli wines throughout our stay. We tasted and bought wine at each winery we visited, and were able to bring at least one bottle of wine from each back to the Elkhorn Inn to share and enjoy with friends! (And  Elisse knows how to pack a suitcase! LOL)
On the way to Carmey Avdat, for example, we stopped at the Rota Winery, in the Negev Heights, which was suggested to us by Ben Brewer of Israel Food Tours , and we weren't disappointed! To stand out in the middle of a desert vineyard in the warmth of a spring morning, tasting a selection of fine wines with Erez Rota, the winemaker, surrounded by his sculptures, was one of The most delightful experiences we had on this trip!

Erez Rota & Dan, in the vineyards...

Desert sculpture by Erez Rota

Erez Rota, creating a desert wine-tasting...

A wine tasting in the desert at Rota Winery

We bought several Rota wines, including his excellent 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. A boutique winery, Rota is now producing more than 10,000 bottles a year, for export as well as domestic consumption, they are now certified Kosher, and his wines are, deservedly, doing well in international competitions!

Following the little "grape" signs along the highways, our next stop on the Negev Wine Route was the Nahal Boker Winery, where we ran into friends from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, who were showing Israel's wineries off to a bevy of journalists! We enjoyed a wine tasting with Moshe Zohar, who founded the winery together with his wife Hilda, and bought a bottle of his wine, as well as local olive oil, in the lovely shop/dining room that overlooks a Negev vista "what to die for"!

Moshe Zohar, founder of Nahal Boker Winery

Nahal Boker vineyards

Sculpture in the Negev mountains...

We arrived at our destination, Carmey Avdat Vineyards, in the late afternoon. Founded by Hanna and Eyal Izrael in the Negev Highlands, Carmey Avdat is a small, family-run winery producing approximately 6000 bottles of wine a year, based on Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and uniquely located on the terraces of a 1500-year old agricultural settlement on the ancient Spice Route! The vineyard is irrigated with water from the flash-floods that occur each winter in the Negev mountains, and the cold winters and dry summers have provided an ideal climate for growing wine grapes since ancient times. We had a lovely, romantic cabin, and a delicious dinner of veal with mushrooms, Vietnam-style spring rolls, zucchini with mint, fresh lemonade, and sweets was delivered to our door! We enjoyed it, together with a bottle of Israeli wine, on the little outdoor table overlooking their beautifully landscaped farm, and had a totally perfect evening! In the morning, after our delivered-to-the-door gourmet breakfast, we got to see the Izraels bottling their Port wine, and then had a wine-tasting with Eyal Izrael of their various vintages, buying bottles of our faves: their 2007 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and their truly fine Port, to take with us! (From Wines Israel: Carmey Avdat, Merlot, 2007: Dark garnet with a hint of adobe, medium- to full-bodied with good concentration and extraction, its tannins and spicy wood now integrated, opens to show appealing blackberry, black cherry, purple plums and chocolate, all lingering nicely on the palate. Drink now. Score 87. Carmey Avdat, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007: Dark garnet, medium- to full-bodied, with soft tannins and notes of spicy wood. On the nose and palate blackcurrant, blackberry and cherry fruits, those on a background of earthy minerals and a hint of mint on the finish. Drink now. Score 85).
Carmey Avdat Vineyards

Dan, in front of our cabin at Carmey Avdat

Dan & Eyal Izrael, at our wine tasting

Port, being bottled

Dan, at Carmey Avdat


Elisse, in our cabin's hammock!

Elisse, in the ancient/modern Carmey Avdat vineyards
Next: Drinking Israeli wine in a 2000 year old wine press, & Israel's answer to the Grand Canyon!