In the north of Israel lies a fertile plot of land home to many farms and wineries known as the Golan Heights. Although it is particularly contentious, as this land was seized from the Syrians during the Six Day War and never returned (as many of Israel’s other conquests were), it is worth a visit to hear from the locals what this land means and understand the strategic, yet controversial, reasons Israel still lays claim over it.
Driving to the Golan
After searching for many tour options to transport us from the metropolis of Tel Aviv to the countryside of the Golan Heights, we finally decided to rent a car and make the drive ourselves for the added flexibility. Driving in Israel is actually quite easy and safe. The only visible difference between driving in Israel and the US is that occasionally you will be stopped at a checkpoint if you are entering or exiting any highways or roads that cross through occupied territories such as the West Bank. The checkpoints are simple for travelers; all you need to do is show your passport and you will be waived through.
That being said, I’m not recommending you VISIT these particularly dangerous zones. The walls surrounding these areas were built up to keep the peaceful community safe from things like suicide bombers. Some may consider this a social injustice and the imprisonment of innocent communities, which, for the individuals who want to live peacefully, I believe it is; however I also completely understand Israel’s desire and need to protect the safety of its people. Perhaps this is controversial to say, but I did feel much more secure driving in the country knowing that these safety precautions were in place.
Wine tasting – Assaf Winery
Our first stop in the Golan was a very small but quaint winery known as Assaf. Assaf is a family run winery that has been operating for about 20 years. Here we sat in the tasting room to try four of their wines. As a white wine drinker, I actually found all of their red wines to be incredibly delicious, most notably, the Cabernet Souvignon Silver, which we treated ourselves to a glass of in the beautiful courtyard. If you do go to Assaf for a drink, don’t pass up the opportunity to also try the delectable bites available from their classically-trained chef (also a member of the family).
Galilee Jeep Tour
After our stop at the winery (and a couple hours of relaxing), we drove our rental car to Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar to meet our tour guide, Oded, from Galilee Jeep Tours. The tour was enlightening, personalized, and well worth the $165 price tag.
We started our tour by driving around the Kibbutz itself and learning about agriculture and the history of these self-sustaining communes. We asked our guide Oded about how the division of labor and profits work in such a system and he explained that their methods are becoming much less communal than they once were, but everyone who lives on the land pays into the community and profits from its harvest. On our tour we drove through a dairy farm and a pomegranate patch and were actually able to pick and eat pomegranates right off the branches! (It was the end of the season and they were done harvesting.)
Next, our tour crossed over the Jordan River to land previously owned by Syria. We had to follow strict (and very rocky) paths up the hillside because much of the area is still covered in Syrian land mines. Driving areas (and cattle grazing areas) have been thoroughly searched for mines, but, because this process is so costly, the rest of the land is fenced off and treated as an active minefield.
After we made the climb up the hill with our Jeep (thank goodness for four wheel drive), Oded brought us to an old Syrian bunker where he told us more of the history of the Golan while the sun was setting. As you look out from the bunker, you can tell exactly why the Israelis kept this land – to forfeit it would be to forfeit their own safety. The land overlooks the entire northern region of Israel which could easily become targeted from this vantage point. Our trip to the Golan Heights really made me appreciate this.
Overall our trip to the Golan was highly successful, delicious, and informative. I would definitely recommend taking a tour with Galilee Jeep if you get the chance. Our guide was so friendly and happy to answer all of our questions, no matter how ignorant. Plus, at the end of the tour, I really needed to pee and all of the public places of the Kibbutz were closed, so Oded was kind enough to let us into his mother’s home (she lives on the Kibbutz) to use the toilet. I am very thankful to him for the wonderful tour and for not making me do the awkward pee-pee dance the whole drive home.
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Have you ever been to the Golan? Do you have strong political feelings about this land? Feel free to disagree with my stance in the comments. I’m up for a good, respectful discussion.