Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Gem of a Tourist Center on our Doorstep

About an hour north of Tel Aviv, nestled in the Carmel Mountains between picturesque Zichron Yaakov and bustling Haifa, a Druze village called Daliat el-Carmel has become a popular weekend destination for bargain-hunting, ethnic cuisine, family activities and exploring history. "This is the southernmost Druze town in the world and the largest in Israel," says Ragaa Mansour, a member of the Druze sect that is based mainly in Lebanon and Syria. "We have a wonderful market, known throughout the world, and also lots of restaurants, caf├ęs and inns."
Activities in Daliat el-Carmel and environs run from olive pressing and weaving demonstrations to biking, horseback riding, nature walks and guided 4x4 excursions.

Visitors also flock to the villages to sample stuffed grape leaves, squash dishes, mansaf (lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and served with rice or groats), mujadara (a lentil and onion pilaf), bulgur, homemade labaneh cheese and fresh pita bread sprinkled with za'atar and hummus. Villagers even bake and sell pita at roadside stands for those who can't wait to find an eatery.

"The Druze are very polite and really welcome tourists no matter if they are English-speaking, German-speaking or Hebrew-speaking," says licensed tour guide Akiva Oren. "The food and the market are the main attractions, but on weekends the main street is so crowded with Israeli visitors that you may have to wait in line."

Exploring Druze heritage
Two years ago, Mansour opened the
Carmel Center for Druze Heritage, a hands-on living museum dedicated to showcasing the traditional dress, foods, crafts and industries of the Druze people, religion and culture.

Home of Israel's national anthem
Mansour points out the little-known fact that the words to Israel's national anthem, Hatikvah, were written in Usfiya, her hometown.

The Saturday market
No matter from which direction you're driving into Daliat el-Carmel, says Oren, the bonus is the beautiful scenery from all approaches. Even from the direction of Usfiya, which is where last year's devastating fire began and burned down much of the Carmel forest, the vistas are breathtaking, he says.

On weekends, hundreds of Israelis from the center and north of the country drive these roads to find bargains in Daliat el-Carmel's old marketplace, located at the heart of the village. Open on Saturdays, when many Israeli retail centers are closed for the Jewish Sabbath, the bazaar boasts dozens of stores offering varied wares, alongside stalls featuring Druze staples such as olive oil, olives and pita bread.

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