Golan Heights, Israel: wineries and minefields

The Golan Heights in winter are covered with snow. The layer is not thick, but it’s there. On the highest mountain, Mount Hermon, which measures just 1,000 meters altitude, even a ski slope was created. The region blooms in the spring. This is the best time to hike the Golan Trail.

Autumn also is a good time to visit to this region of Israel, as this is the moment when thousands of birds migrate between the three continents. Jordan River Valley resounds then a thousand birds’ voices, chirps, tweets, squawks, songs.

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Read my other posts from Israel:
1. Negev desert – the best adventure in Israel
2. About stupidity, saving life and dehydration in the desert 
or check out all of them here!

Can you enjoy the Golan Heights in the summer? Maybe, but not because of the views. It’s hot, muggy, the earth is yellow and burnt, and the landscape is not really inviting. Fortunately, the Heights, although it is a relatively small area, have many attractions to offer. Especially if we are focused on outdoor activities and less on the sightseeing.

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Golan’s landscape in summer

Tanks and minefields in the Golan Heights – is it safe?

Golan Heights is a pretty tough place. Even the Bible describes this region – called in Scripture Bashan – as in issue, which neighboring tribes were fighting about. Not surprisingly, Golan is a mountainous terrain, very important from a military point of view (it is possible to attack Damascus and northern Israel from here). Therefore Israel and Syria are still arguing about it, and Lebanon interfere from time to time in this argument, too. However, Israel controls the Golan over 50 years already.

When we (me and my family) were in Israel for the first time in 2002, we lived just at the Golan in one of the military bases (my dad was a peacekeeper soldier of the United Nations). I do not remember the tanks, neither I have seen them now, but there’s no denying that they lie abandoned somewhere. I remember many minefields that stretch for miles along the main roads. Fortunately, they are marked. Unfortunately, cows cannot read.

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source: flickr

Although the Golan is a disputed and mined area, it is safe. It is true that the missile attacks in Syria, seen from Golan especially at night, may be a bit scary, but they do not happen too often. I had the opportunity to watch one of them (actually “watch” is too big word). We sat by the fire next to our hostel in Odem, when suddenly the night sky lit up twice, we also heard a bang and shooting somewhere in the distance. We were surprised and returned to the hostel, but Liad, the owner of the hostel, said that all military operations in Syria are about 15 km from us, so we are relatively safe, but sound and light can reach us. Syria is not interested in attacking Israel, it has its own problems right now. Such excesses are a matter of habit, but for us it was something completely new.

However, many people travelling to the Golan Heights and locals consider this region as safe. Me too. I’ll definitely go back there to visit places that I haven’t had a chance yet to see.

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Is it a land mine…? I hope not!

What to see on the Golan Heights?

My favorite spots are the Banias waterfall and the Nimrod fortress located on the top north of Israel, near the border with Lebanon. I think you can’t be closer to this country.

A 2 km long walking trail leads to the Banias waterfall. I love this place because even if the entire Golan around is burnt and hot, it’s cool and green here by the river. Beautiful. The trail starts from the ruins of Caesarea Philippi, ancient town where Jesus told Peter that he is the rock on which Christ will build his Church.

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A Nimrod is one of the most impressive fortresses in Israel. Dates from the 12th or 13th century. But we do not know exactly by whom and for what purpose it was built (the crusaders or the army of Saladin). It is clear, however, that  the fortress was almost impregnable as it was built on a hill and surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs. Today visitors can see the walls, gates and towers, of which there is a splendid view of the landscape around, as well as underground water tanks and secret passages.

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When you’re on the north of the Golan I also recommend to visit Odem and the Odem Mountain Winery, where I have tried some of the best wines in my life. They were not the cheapest (is there anything cheap in Israel?!), but I fell in love with the flavor! I bought a bottle and I regret not even a single shekel I paid!

Wines from the winery in Odem are kosher. In this case, kosher refers to the production itself, so everyone can pick the fruits, but only religious Jews can touch the juice.

Golan Trail, the main walking trail in the Golan Heights

The trail runs from north to south of the Golan Heights and is 125 km long. It takes from 6 to 8 days to pass it. The trail begins at Mount Hermon, and ends at the Sea of Galilee (this direction is easier to hike). It is considered one of the most beautiful trails in the country, because the hills are cut by streams, and the trail runs through the Kibbutzim, Druze villages, nature parks and reserves, and the ancient and modern ruins associated with the Israeli-Syrian conflict about the area.

Bear in mind that the Golan Trail is not a part of the Israel National Trail.

Where to sleep in the Golan Heights? In Odem!

Unless you plan to hike the Golan Trail, and only want to find a good base from which you will know better the whole region, I sincerely recommend you to stay in the Golan Heights Hostel in Odem.

This is one of the best and coolest hostels in which I had the opportunity to sleep. It’s clean, the beds are comfortable, it’s light and the interior design is really cool. The kitchen and common room are spacious, and the hostel has a big backyard (it’s like a forest) with armchairs, tables and hammocks.

Every evening in the GHH a dinner for guests and volunteers working in the hostel is prepared (for a fee), and almost every day the owners organize all sorts of trips to places completely unknown to tourists. One day I joined the trip just to chill out by the Jordan River and we found a place literally like the movie – under a large tree, surrounded by the river from both sides. It was very hot, and we just relaxed and had lunch by the river. So cool! 🙂

Of course this is only one of many leisure opportunities organized by the owners of the hostel. Besides, in Odem it is also a great winery (which I mentioned already above) and hiking trails nearby.

One of them leads to the Big Juba, literally ‘a big pocket’ in Arabic. It is a crater, one of the 23 in the area. It is 60 meters deep and has a diameter of 250 meters. Probably it was created by the release of gases from the earth (Golan is a volcanic land), but there is also a theory that the craters are the remains of the meteor shower.

Golan Heights conceal many other interesting places, such as the ruins of the ancient city of Gamla or the nature reserve of Yehudiya Forest. If you are interested in visiting Israel for its nature, be sure to come to the Golan. If you prefer active recreation and hiking trails, also you should visit this region. And if you prefer the history, both modern and ancient or Biblical, you should already know which place to see.

Do you think that the Golan are a good idea for a trip? Do you think that the difficult political situation in the region and the proximity of Syria would be a sufficient reason for you to skip a visit there? Share your thoughts in the comments box below!

My visit to the Golan Heights was possible thanks to the cooperation with the Tourist Israel and the owners of the Golan Heights Hostel, whom I thank very much for help!

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