Located in the heart of the Judean lowlands, the biblical city of Maresha, and the Byzantine/Roman city of ancient Bet Guvrin/Eleutheropolis, sprawl over tranquil low hills abuzz with thousands of cicadas.
Day 2- Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park, Israel
After waking early and fortifying ourselves with eggs, toast, hummus, feta cheese and pots of tea for breakfast (which we prepared in the kitchen of our rented apartment), we left Jaffa/Tel Aviv and drove for a 1.5 hours to Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park.
We used the GPS to find our way through farmland and a maze of highways. Most of the route was on a toll road (marked by a blue highway sign); unlike locals, who are billed by mail for use of the toll highways, the cost is absorbed for tourists by the car rental agency (though I rather suspect that the toll cost is built into the overall rental fee).Approximately 500 caves containing some 3,500 rooms extend over the 740 acres of this World Heritage Site.
A plethora of tombs, enchanting bell-shaped quarry caves, underground cisterns, olive oil presses, baths, columbaria (dovecotes), stables, and water tunnels abound in these ancient biblical cities.
In Maresha alone, some 85 columbarium caves have been discovered, with tens of thousands of niches.
The map suggests that the entire park can be visited, on foot, within 3-4 hours. Unless possessed of extremely long legs and indefatigable energy, I would suggest this is impossible.
Doing a combination of driving and walking, it took us a 4.5 hours to complete the touring route. May-hap we are sloths, but I imagine the combination of heat and fascinating historical sites had something to do with our leisurely pace.
Descending into the cool interior of an eerie dovecote pocked with 2000 green-scummed pigeon-sized niches, or a black-and-white marbled cave-quarry inhabited by bats, was a sheer delight in the 40 degree Celsius heat.
One can readily understand why the ability to hew a home underground made this prime real estate back in 9th century BCE.
Although there are water stations at most sites, we carried water bottles and drained them constantly.
At the end of the day, salt from our bodies covered us like sand. It was a truly glorious heat.
The last three sites (the Roman Amphitheatre, the Crusader Fortress, and the Bathhouse) are actually located outside of the park, north of the entrance, on the other side of the road. By the time we reached them under the blistering post-noon sun, everyone else had sensibly retreated. We had the place entirely to ourselves.
Clearly, this section of the park is favored by visiting elementary schools, for one has ample opportunity to pose with gaudy, life-sized cartoon gladiators and Roman soldiers in the amphitheatre (which one cannot do in Rome) .
Late afternoon, we drove back to Jaffa/Tel Aviv, exchanged clothes for bathing suits, frolicked in the crashing surf at nearby Charles Clore beach, and once again ate at the Lebanese Restaurant on Yefet Street, near the Clock Tower.
Have you been to Israel and have something to add? We’d love to hear from you!
TIPS FOR VISITING BET GUVRIN (ALSO CALLED BEIT GUVRIN)
Tip #1: Always drive with several large bottles of water per person on board! We saw an accident in the opposite direction that had cars parked under the blazing sun in the 40 degree heat. The traffic jam stretched for over 5 miles, all of it at a complete standstill that must have lasted over an hour. The Israeli police and ambulance on site showed no interest in clearing a lane before the next coming of Christ.
(Side-note: The last time I visited Israel was in the mid 80’s and I was a little worried about check-points and gun-toting soldiers on the road… but the worry was groundless. Our journey was as uneventful as a trip around a British roundabout (perhaps even safer), with nary a check-point or soldier to be seen.)
Tip#2—Bring your own lunch! While there is a small gift-shop in Bet Guvrin Park, the only food for sale is nuts, ice creams, and soft, freshly heated Jerusalem bagels (baygaleh), the latter which David assured me was fantastically heavenly. There is a gas station located right across from the park entrance (near the Roman Amphitheatre) but we made due with nuts and bagels rather than brave the grimy, greasy gas-station cafe.
Tip#3—Sunscreen, hat, water-bottles, sunglasses are handy, and scorpion-proof footwear (i.e.–no sandals!) are a must.