As we are not able to go anywhere at the moment, I have been nostalgically remembering fun trips from last year. Last January it was Nazareth….
Visiting Nazareth felt like going on a pilgrimage and I guess that is exactly what it was. Famous as the birthplace of Mary and the childhood home of Jesus the town is steeped in Christian history.
Nazareth is a classic example of a ‘48’ town. That is to say that the residents are predominantly Arabs and it was part of Palestine until the formation of Israel in 1948. Many Palestinians still used this as a description it itself for example ‘it’s in 48’ or ‘I’m going to 48’. Jews, Muslims and Christians now live together in Nazareth but it was difficult to tell how harmonious this arrangement was in practice.
I wanted to stay somewhere that had original character and the Fauzi Azar Inn certainly had that. It was set right in the heart of the Old City and was a beautiful Ottoman-era building set around a pretty courtyard. It was all high ceilings and arched doorways with several grand entertaining rooms. We had a basic yet elegant family room but the inn also offered bunk rooms for the younger and dare I say it, stragglier travellers, who arrived with their heaving rucksacks looking for a traditional hostel set-up.
I was fascinated to learn about the history of the Fauzi Azar Inn. It had been an Arabic family home which had fallen into disrepair and sat vacant for many years. A young Israeli guy wanted to open a guest house in Nazareth and he became interested in the building and approached the family. They were highly sceptical about working with an Israeli Jew and felt that to sell the property to him would be a sell-out which would dishonour their father and grandfathers name. They also didn’t see the attraction of Nazareth as a tourist destination and thought the Old City dirty and dangerous.
The guy had charm, vision and perseverance which won them over in the end and resulted in a strong partnership which still involved the original family and has restored and preserved the building with respect to its heritage. Through a collaboration with a hostel in Jerusalem, it has also secured a steady stream of tourists which (when we visited in pre-COVID times) was helping to inject fresh life and energy into the Old City.
The main attraction in Nazareth is the Church of the Annunciation where the Angel Gabriel is said to have told Mary that she would bear the Son of God. The Church itself was a wonderful mix of modernist architecture and ancient stone. The Upper Basilica Dome which dominated the skyline was built in the 1960s. Within the Church, the ancient stones of the Grotto of the Annunciation marked the spot thought to have been Mary’s house. It was an eclectic mix of styles and eras which could easily have jarred but felt strangely harmonious.
A stone’s throw away stood the more modest St Joseph’s Church where Joseph’s carpentry workshop is thought to have stood. It was quite something to step inside the scenes of the nativity story like this and when we visited, the Church was airy, spacious and accommodating of visitors. There was a casual accessibility that felt refreshing compared to the crowds often encountered in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
The highlight for us were the mosaics outside in the grounds of the Church of the Annunciation. Nations from around the world had been invited to gift a tall mosaic portrait of Mary in their national style. The result was colourful and entertaining with Mary adorning all manner of gowns and costumes from kimonos to harem pants as well as more traditional garments. It was a unifying and celebratory display of Christianity around the world.
That afternoon we climbed the steep path beyond the Old City in hope of visiting the Church of Jesus the Adolescent. I desperately wanted to see evidence of young Jesus as a teenager as those years seemed overlooked, but it was not to be. We got a bit lost, the walk was too long and we called it off when we stumbled upon a kanifeh shop offering strong coffee and syrupy puddings to perk up the kids.
There were further culinary treats in store that evening, when we chanced upon a restaurant called Alreda for dinner. On entering, it had the atmosphere of a gentrified pub where everyone knew each other, and older men gathered to play board games as they smoked. The atmosphere was warm however, and the staff were attentive. The menu described itself as Arabic fusion and it was perfect for the kids with juicy Arabic sausages and pizzas with exotic toppings as well as more traditional Palestinian casseroles and special dishes.
Nazareth was charming and I felt sure that we had only scratched the surface of it. There were many more notable churches to explore as well as Old City nooks and crannies to get lost in. Most of Nazareth closes on a Sunday but there are ample hikes in the Lower Galilee region including the 65km Jesus Trail which I would love to take on another time.