David, Goliath, Grapes, and Stalactites
by Simon Campbell
Most visitors to Israel streak along Highway 1, the 40-mile expressway linking Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in about 45 minutes. Buses do it, cars di it, trucks do it, even tourist motor coaches do it. The six-lane highway from Tel Aviv crosses the Plain of Sharon, skirts Ben Gurion International Airport, then rises through the Valley of Ayalon, where, 3,500 years ago, Joshua bade the sun stand still. 25 minutes after leaving Tel Aviv, the highway enters the steep Shaar Hagai Valley and snakes up to Jerusalem, 2,800 feet above sea-level, in a mere twenty minutes. Drivers and passengers look eagerly left and right at the hills reforested with pine trees, at the valleys, farms and villages. And they marvel at the green fields reaching to the horizon. But only rarely do they give through to taking one of the exits off the highway to see what lies beyond. Pity.
Exiting Highway 1 at the Shaar Hagai interchange and winding south along Route 38, travelers arrive at Kibbutz Tzora. Founded in the 1940s, Tzora has a variety of industries, including a burgeoning boutique winery that produces excellent dry red and white wines. Visitors shop for the kibbutz's excellent fruits, vegetables, breads and cheeses and also tour this flower-filled cooperative village that dates back to the heyday of the pioneers who made the desert bloom during Zionism's early years.
The Massive Columbarium - Twelve miles beyond Tzora is Bet Guvrin, whose "bell caves" were built for storage some 1,500 years ago. Some of the caves are as little as four feet high, some as tall as 50 feet, with dramatic rays of sunlight coursing through domes ceilings to warm the frigid chalk interior. Nearby, the city of Maresha was a substantial metropolis 2,500 years ago and the excavations of today's Tel Maresha reveal remains of Israelite, Greek and Roman cities. Its enormous underground chamber, the Columbarium, is particularly impressive, a vast vault in the shape of two crosses, whose walls are lined with niches believed to be originally for housing pigeons.
David and Goliath Were Here - Returning from Bet Guvrin to Tzora, Route 375 swings east into the Valley of Elah, where the young David slew the giant Goliath with his sling-shot three millennia ago in a battle between the Israelites and Philistines. The valley is calm and green and the Elah brook still gurgles as it has for thirty centuries and more. Recent research at Beersheba's Ben Gurion University of the Negev has posited that the 9'10" Goliath (6 cubits tall, the Bible tells us) undoubtedly suffered from a tumor of the pituitary gland, a common symptom of gigantism, that impairs the vision of abnormally massive people. As visitors stroll through the valley and recall the event that helped make David a monarch of exalted status, they can ponder whether Goliath's neurological disease was the source of the young shepherd's victory or whether it was the intervention of divine will, as traditionally assumed...or perhaps a conjunction of the two.
Sorek Stalactite Cave - Just before returning to Highway 1, make a right and arrive at one of Israel's most spectacular natural wonders. Discovered accidentally in 1967 during blasting at a nearby quarry, the Sorek Cave is one of the world's most perfect stalactite caves. Smaller than many in other countries, the Sorek Cave nevertheless contains every kind of stalactite and stalagmite formation known on the planet. Israel's National Parks Authority has garnered international commendation for the beauty and subtlety of the lighting installed in the cave, which permits the natural colors and shapes to be seen at their best as visitors clamber up and down its wooden staircases and carefully constructed pathways. Because of the formations' delicacy, photography is only permitted one morning a week (Fridays).
Back on Highway 1, twenty miles from Tel Aviv, an elegant edifice appeared to the north, the Trappist Monastery of Latrun, where visitors can sample and buy the monk's Domaine Latroun wines, fiery brandy, olive oil and honey. Exiting the highway at the Latrun Interchange, travelers tour the monastery, vineyards and gardens, as well as the nearby remnants of the Crusader castle of Le Toron des Chevaliers. The Trappist monks are members of a silent order and their monastery, built in 1890, recalls the traditional burial place of the "good thief" crucified with Jesus, known since the Middle Ages as "Domus Boni Latronis" (Latin for "resting place of the good thief")...hence the name, Latrun.
From Latrun, driving southwest along Route 3 brings travelers to Kibbutz Tal Shahar. The Soreq Winery opened here in 1994 and has evolved into one of the Judean Wine Route's best wineries, producing dry wines from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes. The grounds of the kibbutz make a delightful picnic stop: buy wines, local cheeses and fresh bread from the winery story.
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