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The Mountains West of Jerusalem

Start: Sderot Herzl in West Jerusalem.

Finish: Beit Guvrin.

Time: 2 1/2 hours, with minimal stops.

Best times: Late morning, year-round.

Worst times: Midafternoon, year-round. Driving westward into the sun on narrow, winding roads after midafternoon will be blinding.

When Hwy. 1 from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem ascends into the Judean Mountains at Sha'ar Ha Gai (the Gate of the Valley), you can catch a few glimpses of the true magnificence of the Judean landscape. Sadly, this is all of the Judean Mountains that most visitors to Israel ever see. Intensive construction of communities along the Hwy. 1 corridor to Jerusalem, the widening and straightening of the highway, and a forest fire in 1995 that destroyed 70 years of reforestation have all diminished the wonders of this once dramatic route. But "the secret places of the hills" (to quote the Song of Songs) still exist untouched in the countryside just to the south of Hwy. 1, filled with forested mountains, ancient terraced hillsides, and dramatic ravines and vistas. Most visitors who rent cars in Israel take off for the mountains of the Galilee and Golan, or the Negev Desert. This drive, starting just minutes from Jerusalem, will pass vistas as dramatic as any in Galilee, and introduce you to some of the simple pleasures of the hills.

From Sderot Herzl in West Jerusalem, take the right turn to Ein Kerem, and follow the road downhill to:

1. Ein Kerem

The birthplace of John the Baptist is now a semirustic village that has been incorporated into the city of Jerusalem. Although this is not part of the hidden countryside route that lies ahead, you might want to explore the churches of the town and walk down some of the local streets, where old Arabic cottages and villas are being renovated and gentrified into one of Jerusalem's most sought-after communities. No time to stop at the big restaurants at Ein Kerem's crossroads, but check out Sweet 'N Karem, right at the town center, for homemade ice cream or lavish homemade chocolates to take on the road.

Follow the main road through Ein Kerem, and around to the left out of town. At the beginning of Rte. 386, which is the main road we shall follow, take a right turn at the sign to Mevasseret and follow this side road (which becomes Rte. 395) for a brief detour to:

2. Sataf

This small nature reserve is busy on the weekends, when the cheese cave is open, but wonderfully tranquil the rest of the week. The Judean countryside is filled with springs that run through soft strata of limestone; these springs provide the basis for many of the communities in the region. Although Sataf is now a reserve, for thousands of years the spring here supported the villages that arose with each wave of civilization. You can visit the spring in a cave created over the eons, and crawl through a short man-made tunnel to a water collection pool. Swimming in the pool is supposed to be prohibited, but on both quiet and busy days, I've seen people try out the water. From the pool, you can follow pathways downhill to where Jerusalemites are allowed to rent plots of land and plant organic gardens watered according to traditional irrigation techniques. There is no admission fee to Sataf. Next to the parking area is a cafe/restaurant, good for soups, salads, and light meals. The view from the deck is great.

From the parking area near the spring, it's a short drive or a 45-minute walk (look for signs with the symbol of a picnic table) to visit the cave of Shai Selzer, the most wonderful goatherd and cheese maker in Israel. Here you can buy a variety of excellent goats' milk cheeses produced by three families that have permission to live on this mountain. There are Italian-style Parmesans, Alpine-style cheeses, blue cheeses reminiscent of the south of France, local varieties such as avitia (made to be eaten with watermelon), or mild soft cheeses wrapped in grape leaves -- great with fresh bread and fruit as you travel. It's open in summer on Friday from 4 to 7pm and Saturday from 11am to 7pm; in winter, it's open Saturday only 11am to 4pm.

After exploring Sataf, return to the Mevasseret turnoff, and turn right onto Rte. 386. You will pass the Monastery of St. John the Baptist of the Wilderness uphill on the left and continue along a road with dazzling vistas. Don't hesitate to pull off the road and enjoy the quiet and the views. Watch for an orange sign and a very small parking area on the right indicating the:

3. Nahal Katlav Nature Walk

This pathway takes you into a richly forested valley; in late winter/early spring the whole area is alive with rockrose, cyclamen, red buttercups, broom, wild licorice, and garlic. There are also Katlav Tulips, from which, according to local belief, all tulips throughout the world are descended. In the distance to the lower right, hidden amid the forest, look for a lone, domed building, the "tomb of the sheik." According to Muslim legend, hundreds of years ago a mysterious wanderer visited a nearby village. When he hung his clothes on a dead pomegranate tree before bathing in the local spring, the tree came to life and blossomed. His tomb was a pilgrimage destination until 1948, when the Muslim population was forced to leave the area. The Katlav nature walk can take 1 to 2 hours depending on your pace and how far you decide to go.

After the Katlav walk area, at a "T" in the road, turn right onto 3866 to Beit Shemesh. The road continues through a Jewish national forest named for the late U.S. vice president Hubert Humphrey, a strong supporter of the State of Israel. There are a number of picnic areas and vista points along the way.

At a fork in the road, follow the sign to the left, eventually leading into the small city of Beit Shemesh. You will pass through an industrial part, and eventually come to a traffic light at a "T" intersection. Turn left onto Rte. 38 to Beit Guvrin. After about 4km (2 1/2 miles), turn left, where an orange sign indicates the road to the:

4. Monastery of Bet Jimal

Founded, along with an agricultural school, by the Salesian order in the late 19th century, this monastery is surrounded by orchards that have an air of medieval otherworldliness. For years, the monks have pleaded with the city of Beit Shemesh not to develop areas adjacent to or in direct view of this beautiful enclave; in most directions they have succeeded. For many visitors, the highlight of a stop at Beit Jimal is a chance to purchase homemade wine and take in the exceptional view from the monastery roof. At the adjacent Convent of the Assumption of the Virgin (to the left), beautiful ceramics (among the best folk art in the country) are for sale, hand painted by the sisters (most of whom have taken a vow of silence). Walk to the right, around to the back of the monastery, and you will find pieces of a mosaic floor from the 5th- and 6th-century Byzantine Church of the Tomb of St. Stephen. Discovered in 1915, they are displayed alongside a small chapel. Further behind the complex are picnic tables with a view down to the coastal plain -- a wonderful place from which to watch the twilight. This site is believed to have been called, in ancient times, Kfar Gamla, the village of the great Talmudic leader Rabbi Gamliel.

According to Christian tradition, Rabbi Gamliel, who headed the Sanhedrin in Yavneh after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, was the teacher of Saul, who later became St. Paul. The Salesian school, closed for many years when it was cut off from its potential students on the West Bank, is again functioning. You may visit the monastery and its extensive countryside Monday to Saturday from 8:30am to dusk. The wine and ceramics shops and monastery buildings are open until 5pm.

From Bet Jimal, you can turn left back onto Rte. 38 south, and visit:

5. The Massua Forest

The forest features an excellent restaurant and beautiful vistas overlooking the coastal plain; it's a right turn off Rte. 38.

Take a Break -- Mitzpe Massua Restaurant, at the Ranger's Station, Massua Forest, Beit Shemesh-Beit Guvrin Highway (tel. 02/991-2464), a country-style restaurant with fabulous views, has kashrut certificates for both meat and dairy meals and an excellent and affordable cuisine. The Mitzpe Massua Restaurant is closed from late Friday afternoon until the end of Shabbat. The restaurant is open irregular hours. You must call ahead to reserve and discuss whether you want a light meal or a major feast and agree on a price. The restaurant is best during daylight, when you can enjoy the view. The appetizers and homemade breads are excellent. Farther south on the Beit Shemesh-Beit Guvrin Highway, as it passes through the Elah Valley, where the young David fought the Philistine Goliath with a slingshot, you'll find another good country dining choice, Kela David, a vineyard, winery, and restaurant/cafe at Givat Yishiahu (tel. 02/999-4848). Traveling south on Hwy. 38, look for a pink house in the fields to the left; access is via a dirt road on the left just past what looks like a junkyard. Kela David is not kosher, and is open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 10pm.

A good add-on to this drive would be to continue farther down Rte. 38 to the fascinating:

6. Beit Guvrin National Park

Now for some truly unusual archaeology. The park encompasses the Beit Guvrin caves, the ruins of Beit Guvrin, and the ruins of Maresha, a Judean town during the time of the First Temple. After the Babylonian destruction, Maresha was settled by Edomites, then Phoenicians. Eventually it evolved into a Hellenistic town that was conquered by the Hasmonean Jewish dynasty in the 1st century B.C. and forcibly converted to Judaism. Beit Guvrin was a strongly Jewish city from the late Second Temple period through the time of its destruction during the Bar Kochba Revolt of A.D. 132 to 135. Ruins of a 3rd-century synagogue have been found here, as well as artifacts from a 12th-century Crusader fortress destroyed by Saladin in 1191. Most of these finds are displayed in the collection of the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem.

The Arab village of Beit Jibrin stood here until the 1948 war; in 1949, the modern kibbutz of Beit Guvrin was built on the site. The ruins and vistas from the top of Tel Maresha (2km/1 1/4 miles from Kibbutz Beit Guvrin) are extremely beautiful. Some of the easiest caves to explore are the caves right at Tel Maresha. The 800 caves at Beit Guvrin are thought to be partly the product of natural erosion and largely the result of centuries of quarry activity by a number of different civilizations. Many are bell shaped, with light streaming in from quarrying holes on the ceilings, and have an odd, spiritual quality (one of the caves was used as a church in Crusader times). The caves have also been used as animal pens, water cisterns, and even as shelters for religious hermits; most recently they were a locale for Sylvester Stallone's movie Rambo III. In summer, the National Parks Authority has minibuses and guides to direct visitors to the best caves in this 500-hectare (1,236-acre) site. It's open Saturday to Thursday from 8am to 4pm (until 5pm Apr-Sept) and on Friday from 8am to 3pm. Admission is NIS 23 ($5.75/£2.90), with a small discount for students. The park has a snack bar.

From Beit Guvrin, take Rte. 38 back through Beit Shemesh and on to Hwy. 1, from which you can return to Jerusalem or drive northwest to Tel Aviv. Or, you can retrace the route back to Ein Kerem and Jerusalem.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.