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Sculptures and silhouettes

I’ve a great imagination. It doesn’t take much for me to imagine myself somewhere, to transport myself to another time and place, and let my mind wander to the point that the goose bumps are followed by tears. Hey, I used to cry at Coronation Street!

IMG_8792 (800x599)Walking up to top of Mount Bental, past the sign for the quite surreally namedcoffee chop, Coffee Anan (which means coffee cloud), and a host of peculiar iron sculptures, I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotion that would surface in the next hour or so. To be honest, I was clueless. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when the Syrians attacked the Golan Heights with 1500 tanks and 1000 artillery pieces, Israel matched this might with 160 tanks and 60 artillery pieces. Syria’s aim: to reclaim the territory that had been seized in 1967. Israel’s aim: not to give an inch. Heavy casualties resulted and the valley below was christened the Valley of Tears.

IMG_8794 (800x600)My first reaction to the black metal silhouettes was one close to despair. I’d had enough of commercialism; I wanted some authenticity, not yet another show, purpose-built for tourists. But as I wandered, eavesdropping on the talks been given by various guides to visitors from the USA, Europe, and Australia, the magnitude of what had taken place, here, 1165 metres above sea level, sank in.

IMG_8815 (600x800)For nearly 20 years (1948-1967), when Syria controlled the Heights, it regularly bombarded northern Israel from this point. In 1967, when Israel came out atop the Six-Day War, it won itself this strategic vantage point from where it could closely watch Syria’s movement. It’s also of vital importance for water as the area accounts for more than a third of Israel’s total water supply. And as was repeatedly mentioned in the days I was there, long after the geopolitics have been resolved, the fight for water in the region will continue.

IMG_8800In response to the apparent mobilization of its Arab neighbours, early on the morning of June 5, Israel staged a sudden preemptive air assault and destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground; later that day, it incapacitated a great deal of the Jordanian and Syrian air power as well. Without cover from the air, the Arab armies were left vulnerable to attack, and, as a result, the Israeli victory on the ground was also overwhelming. By the time the United Nations cease-fire came into effect on June 10, Israeli units had driven Syrian forces back from the Golan Heights, taken control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and driven Jordanian forces from the West Bank. Notably, the Israelis were left in sole control of  Jerusalem. The warfare resulted in the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees and brought more than one million Palestinians in the occupied territories under Israeli rule.

IMG_8803 (800x584)IMG_8805 (600x800)Wandering down the steep steps into the tunnels that connected the bunkers, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the claustrophobia, the frustration, the fear that the soldiers must have felt holed up, shelling the guts out of the land below. As recently as May this year, shells were exchanged across the border and the wars of old show little sign of abating.

In the valley beneath, fruit and vegetables grow peacefully. Tourists wander through the vineyards. And life continues with a sense of what passes for normalcy. I had hoped to come away with a better sense of where my sympathies lies but the more I learn, the more confused I am becoming. And I’m increasingly wondering at the minds of those who can so clearly come down on one side or the other. Amidst the interminable shades of grey, I can see very little black and white.

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The valley of cheers

The last thing I expected to see in the Holy Land was a vineyard, which, given the fabled wedding of Cana, was somewhat silly of me. Back in 1967, when Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the closing stages of the six-day war, I don’t for a minute imagine that growing wine was top of its reasons for doing so. But in 1976, after a failed attempt by Syria to reclaim the area during the Middle East War in 1973 (when the heavy tank action resulted in the valley being christened the Valley of Tears), the first planting took place. Now, about 1500 acres are home to 17 vineyards, 16 of which are on Golan Heights and one is in Upper Galilee. Each of the vineyards is within a 40/50  minute drive of the winery in Katzrin.

IMG_8836 (800x599)IMG_8865 (800x590)The hills and mountains in the region climb from 400 to 1200 metres and the three wine regions produce just about all the wines I’m familiar with … and more. The Golan Heights winery itself is  owned by four kibbutzim (collectives), four moshavim (cooperatives) and the Galilee and Golan Heights Vineyards, Inc. It’s here that 40% of Israeli wine exports is produced alongside 20% of the local market share. Suitable soils, high altitudes, and the right topography caught the attention of some visiting experts from California who reckoned the region was perfect for vine growing – v0lcanic soil, rich in acid, that drains well. Ancient stones unearthed show reliefs of grapes and suggest that this wasn’t exactly a new idea, just one that had perhaps lapsed over the years.

IMG_8847 (582x800)Northern Golan is home to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier and Pinot Noir (and others I didn’t recognise). Central Golan has the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah (and more I’ve never come across). And Southern Golan has Muscat Canelli as well as its share of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. You can ski on Mount Hermon in the winter and an hour later, swim in the Sea of Galilee. Something for everyone.

IMG_8869 (800x600)About 300 hundred containers ranging in size from the massive 200 000 litre tanks to the much smaller 1000 litre ones hold enough wine to fill 5.8 million bottles each year. Every tank is precisely controlled to ensure that its contents do what they need to do before being aged in French oak barrels, each with a working life of no more than six years. White wines age from 6 to 8 months while the reds go from 6 to 26 months, depending on the age of the barrel. Humidifiers run constantly to keep the wood from cracking and to prevent the wine evaporating through the walls. The history of each barrel is captured on a computerised bar code and the assembly line is mind-boggling to watch.

IMG_8878 (800x578)Everyone has his job… from ensuring that the labels go on straight, to adding the inserts, to unboxing previously boxed wines for specialised branding. I could have watched it for hours. Anywhere from IMG_8886 (800x589)15 to 20% of the bottles are boxed and then later, once the orders come in, unboxed and labelled for US, German, Far Eastern, and domestic markets. A massive blue Japanese robot called Bottleman lifts the boxes onto pallets in preparation for their journey to the table. Everything runs like clockwork. It’s hard to believe such capacity, used as I am to the family wineries in Hungary where the closest thing I’ve seen to a conveyor belt is granny passing the bottle to grandad to fill it from the barrel.

 

IMG_8894 (600x800)IMG_8896 (600x800)IMG_8897 (600x800)The wine-tasting that followed  included instructions on everything from how to properly use a corkscrew to which wine is best to eat with ice cream. And they certainly ain’t cheap.  I was tempted by the Yarden Muscat as it has brandy added to it (that’s a combination I haven’t tried before), but invested instead in a bottle of Rosé to be broken open on some special occasion.

Interesting how this was one of my favourite spots this trip – and not a cross or a relic to be seen anywhere.

 

 

 

Grateful 47

Airports are a wonderful laboratory in which to study the human mind and make-up. I am convinced that some people pack their frustrations  alongside their socks and then spend their two hours at the airport before boarding trying to dump those frustrations on someone else. At Malta airport this week, my flight to Munich was delayed by a whopping 26 minutes. It was due to board at 9.05 and when nothing had happened by 9.20, some people were getting a tad anxious. Three men  – one German, one British, and one Maltese – were in particularly irritable moods. They seemed to be travelling individually but were drawn together by a shared frustration. They had connections to make in Munich – that was obvious – but hey – sometimes connections are missed.

The Maltese guy was having it out with the airline staff – he had a business meeting he needed to get to and why was the plane late. Technical difficulties. What kind of technical difficulties (as if that mattered!). Technical difficulties. Then the British guy adds his two pennies worth of a rant and explained that technical difficulties meant that there was no plane and we wouldn’t be flying at all. Then the German, for good measure, starts on about airlines having no respect for schedules and the importance of people.

In the meantime, on the TV in the nearby café, reporters in Syria were telling the world about two explosions in Aleppo that had killed 28 people. I sat between the TV and the trio, as if watching a tennis match. I thought briefly about pointing out to them that all the complaining in the world wouldn’t make the plane appear. I thought about mentioning that the people they were yelling at had absolutely no control over the situation. I thought about showing them the idiocy of their ways: so their plane would be late and they might miss a connection but at the end of the day, they would be alive.

But I didn’t do anything. Instead, I sat back and gave silent thanks that somewhere along the line I’ve learned to put things into perspective. As  Alice Caldwell Rice so famously said: It ain’t no use putting up your umbrella till it rains.