By Yulia Prilik-NivPosted: Thursday December 15 2016, 12:08pm
If there’s one place in the Motherland that’ll get you into the Christmas spirit, it’s Nazareth. Christians treat the city with special reverence, and a Christmas visit is sure to be a unique one for the winter holiday season.
The month of December, which includes both Christmas and the countdown to the New Year, is the ideal time to visit Nazareth. The city puts on its holiday finery with lights and decorations glistening in the crowded streets. In the city’s two most important churches, Roman Catholics and adherents to Greek Orthodoxy station decorated trees and sponsor concerts and other events. Christians and non-Christians alike can enjoy the authentic experience by walking through the market and the city’s narrow lanes and alleyways.
One of the newer landmarks in the old part of town is the Fauzi Azar Inn, founded a little more than a decade ago in a ruin that had not been touched for the previous 18 years (abrahamhostels.com/nazareth). It has since become a vibrant and lively hub of tourism, and the centerpiece of a host of new hostels and tourist sites. In addition to serving as a place of lodging and for personal meetings in the living room and inner courtyard, Fauzi offers its guests free tours to hidden local gems that stray from standard tourist attractions.
In addition to Fauzi Azar Inn’s tours, there’s also Yalla Basta, which offers special culinary tours as well as special Christmas-themed fare. (nazeret.co.il)
All activity reaches a peak in late December, when the city is packed with Israelis and tourists from all over the world who are eager to witness holiday festivities. Here's a look at some of the Merry happenings this year:
Coffee and the local parliament
Fahoum Coffee imports green coffee beans from coffee-growers around the world such as Colombia, then roasts, grinds and markets the product. Another interesting stop in the Nazareth market is the Abu Salim coffee shop, otherwise known as the local 'parliament'. It’s located in an arched old building where several iconic beverages—but not a crumb of food—are on the menu. It’s a cherished local institution where three generations of Nazareth residents can sip cinnamon and almond tea or pomegranate lemonade, while playing backgammon or discussing current and past affairs.
The Shoghul eid crafts shop at 35 al-Bisharah Street offers handmade embroidery of the kind that Arab girls from traditional families begin learning around age nine. Also, on offer are traditional Arab jewelry, makeup and other items of top-quality handwork.
The bazaar's temple of spices
Not far away is Elbabour Galilee Mill – one of the obligatory stations for anyone visiting the Nazareth market –where spices and unique blends are on display for later distribution all over Israel (elbabour.co.il). We arrived just as they were roasting sesame and spreading bounties of choice pistachio on a carpet. Though the sheer abundance is enough to confuse even the most experienced at-home cook, no one should bypass purchasing a small bag of za'atar prepared on the spot, the contents of which are prepared with a secret family recipe. Next, anyone addicted to fresh local herbs like alush and hubeiza should capitalize on the opportunity to visit the vegetable market in the early morning to get the pick of the crop.
Masses and church concerts
The holiday spirit is felt in full force in the city's spectacular churches, including the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation and the Orthodox Annunciation Church. A visit to any of them – in proper modest dress, naturally – is highly recommended. It's worthwhile reserving a place in advance for masses and concerts.
Additionally, it may be a good idea to pass by the Greek Orthodox Diocese (at the edge of the market near the al-Mutran guest house) for a view of the decorated ceilings. While it’s the residence of the Greek Orthodox archbishop, the real reason to go is to peek into a hidden cave – or more precisely, a cave system – which by all appearances served as a hidden refuge for people in Roman times. Entry to the cave is permitted when the complex is open from 09:00-15:00, provided you bring a flashlight and leave a small contribution. Finally, at the Mary of Nazareth International Center, you can get a virtual look at the life of Jesus' mother as well as witness special celebrations for Christmas.(en.mariedenazareth.com)
A social and cultural initiative
Liwan, based in the city's center, is a social and cultural project aimed at preserving the city's cultural heritage and communicating it to visitors. Guests can sip coffee, see original local works of art and participate in musical, cinematic and artistic events. (facebook.com/liwannazareth)
The annual Christmas procession is held on December 24 on the city's main street, from the Diana Restaurant on Paul VI Street all the way to Mary's Well Square near the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. The area around the square is packed with cafés and other venues of recreation and entertainment. If you want to remain at the center of all the action, the Rimonim Hotel's prime location makes it a good place to stay.
Street food and chef restaurants
Nazareth is no less than a culinary powerhouse. It has everything from family factories making tahini and halva to chef restaurants, food stands, and popular-priced grills serving skewered meats. Tishreen Restaurant has two locations: the first is located at the top of the mountain in Nazareth Elite, which offers a magnificent view, while the second, located in the Lower City, is older and more authentic. Though the menus of the two restaurants differ, they both offer traditional and seasonal dishes, many of which are roasted in the stone oven at the entrance. The diverse food selection includes traditional Arab and local dishes along with things that fit nicely into the 'fusion' category. The same diversity characterizes the clientele, which is typically comprised of a mix of locals and tourists. The old restaurant is located in a fascinating stone building with windows facing Well Street, and is especially decorated during the Christmas season (tishreen.rest.co.il). Next, Mama Salt Room and Café is a relatively new and promising spot. As its name indicates, Mama began as a salt room and evolved into a kind of family salon and café offering a spread of salads, sandwiches, and sweets such as pancakes, French toast, and more (04-6377807).
A musical Christmas
During the months of December and January, the Polyphony Foundation sponsors a series of concerts by leading Jewish and Arab musicians:
December 19 – Pianist Andreas Schiff in a gala Christmas concert with the Galilee Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Saleem Abboud Ashkar.
December 21 – “Misa Criolla,” conducted by Yishai Shtekler, with soloist Yonit Shaked Golan, the Collegium Choir, and an ensemble of authentic South American instrumentals.
Where to stay this Christmas Eve?
Rimonim Nazareth Hotel
The hotel preserves the city of Nazareth’s unique character as a meeting place of three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Every Christmas Eve the hotel serves a festive dinner in the holiday spirit, exposing guests to a unique and magical hospitality experience. Located in the heart of Nazareth’s Old City, between the bustling alleyways and byways of the market and in proximity to attractive tourist sites including the grand Church of the Annunciation, the Spice Market with its intoxicating aromas and more. The hotel’s restaurant offers kosher food plus rich and diverse breakfasts and dinners. For hotel guests there are guided tours of the town and its most interesting sites (for a fee). The Rimonim Nazareth Hotel recently launched a cooperative venture with the Yalla Basta tasting plan; guests spending two nights or more in the hotel are given a tasting card entitling them to six different foods from the Nazareth market.
Fauzi Azar, in the heart of Nazareth’s busy market, is the third of the three hostels in the Abraham Hostels chain. It had only five beds when it was established in 2005 in a picturesque, historic building. After expansion, it now has 65 rooms that encompass dormitory and family rooms, public spaces and easy access to the market, cafés and restaurants, as well as to the city of Nazareth and Christian holy sites. Large public areas are a perfect place to share experiences with other travelers.