Spa Village is Hotsprings Heaven: Discovering a Boutique Hotel in Hamat Gader, Israel

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What could be more relaxing than a day or two at a hotpring spa?  Travelling slowly in Israel can be a challenge, particularly if you are a tourist who wants to catch as many sites as possible in as little time, so taking a day or two for relaxation is a great idea. With swaying palm trees,lush foliage surrounding the two pristine pools,sounds of a waterfall and the tinkle of wind chimes you can easily be convinced to slow down for that day or two.  Pristine, turquoise pools filled with healing mineral waters are the heart and center of this hotspring spa getaway.    Hamat Gader, Israel, home of the ancient Roman hot springs spa has sprung to life in its modern reincarnation. Alongside vast public pools, a boutique hotel tucked away in a quiet corner allows guests quiet and privacy along with the extra comfort of staying overnight allowing them to enjoy the springs at all hours of the day or night.  To my mind, this is about as close to the Garden of Eden as one can get in this lifetime.

Sulfur springs

The highlight of any visit to Hamat Gader Spa Village are of course, the sulfur springs.  Known for their outstanding mineral properties, in healing everything from arthritis to high blood pressure to digestive disorders, you can choose between warm, hot, or hotter.  The hottest springs clock in at 42 degrees Celsius, and are hot indeed.  There is a small sign that says one should not stay in longer than ten minutes, but I highly doubt that the sign is needed.  I was able to last for just three.  Other pools are a mere 38 or 40 degrees Celsius and sport the added attractions of natural waterfalls, Jacuzzi jets, and hydrotherapy currents.

Bathing, bathing and more bathing

There is not much to do at Hamat Gader but kick back and enjoy the waters.  To that end, you can bathe in the very large public pools, the two smaller pools exclusively for the guests of the hotel, or your very own private Jacuzzi filled with mineral waters on the large wooden porch attached to your room.  All pools share the same water source with the same healing properties. In your personal in-room Jacuzzi you can set the temperature to your liking and while away the hours in perfect solitude.

Thailand in Israel

The Spa Village hosts approximately 30 individual wooden guest houses that have a Thai village feel to them.  The elephant sculptures that adorn the gardens add to the Asian feel.  Each guest house has a large room with a comfy queen size bed, closets, sofa ,coffee table and cable tv. A small fridge stocked with free beverages and a bottle of wine are included as well.  On the attached porch you will find the above mentioned Jacuzzi as well as a kettle for boiling water and all the fixings to make a nice cup of coffee or tea.

Blue Bar

Part of the boutique hotel complex includes a small restaurant called the Blue Bar, situated right at the edge of the pools.  It serves a deluxe, gourmet breakfast every morning replete with hand pulled espresso or cappuccino, and eggs made to order, along with a full buffet of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and herring.  It is easy to fill up on the delicious, fresh food served with a smile.  The restaurant is open for dinner as well, and serves fish and pasta daily, with side dishes of rice, potatoes and cooked veggies. A colorful salad bar is open each evening alongside the hot dishes, with an ever changing variety of salads.  Most room reservations include both breakfast and dinner, but if yours does not, it is worth adding, as the nearest restaurants are a ten to fifteen minute drive from the hot springs.  Eating on site is both easy and tasty.

Massage the day away

Spa Village at Hamat Gader is dedicated to creature comforts and stress reduction.  To that end, the full hotel package includes not only breakfast and  dinner, but also a 45 minute massage per person. The massage center, staffed by experienced masseurs and masseuses, offers a variety of treatments ranging from Swedish massage, to shiatsu and Thai massage.

Caveat Emptor!

Before signing on to this relaxing vacation, it pays to keep in mind that the sulfur smell is pervasive (I personally love it) and the weather can climb to 40 degrees Celsius in the summer time.  Wintertime is high season in Hamat Gader, and prices are accordingly higher.  Our visit during the low season set us back 1400 shekel, or $370 for two people. That included the room, breakfast and dinner for two, and two forty five minute massages.

A relaxing getaway

Whether you are a weary tourist, or a stressed out business traveller, taking a night or two at Spa Village, Hamat Gader, is a wonderfully unique way to recharge tired batteries.  Nestled in a corner of Israel, near the Sea of Galilee, and not far off the tourist trail, the natural scenery is breathtaking  and the miracle of the sulfur pools is not to be missed.

Traveler’s Tips:

  1. Drink plenty of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
  2.  Don’t plan on doing too much. Sulfur tires you out.
  3. Use plenty of sunscreen.
  4. Don’t feed the alligators!

Book your stay here

 

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Kosher Italy

Travelling kosher in Italy can be either frustrating or fun, depending on how you decide to look at it.  Outside of the cities of Venice, Milan, Florence and Rome where one can find kosher restaurants, there is virtually no ready made kosher food to be had.  That can leave one on the outside looking in on diners enjoying their wine and pasta or pizza at sidewalk cafes or classy restaurants.  Alternatively, if you plan it right, kosher eating can be an adventure indeed that leaves you feeling both satisfied and right in the swing of things.

Our last trip to Southern Italy was a perfect example of the latter.  We chose to stay in apartments with fully outfitted kitchens and our clothing shared space in our suitcases with kosher wine, cheese, crackers, tortillas, coffee, tea, one frying pan, one pot, a knife and some disposable dishes and cutlery.  Thus when we arrived in the early evening at our first apartment in rural Saint Agate high above the Amalfi Coast with a bird’s eye view of Sorrento, we were ready to hit the local shops and start preparing dinner.  By the time we set out the only store that was open was a fruit and vegetable market that had some basic groceries as well.

What fun it was to explore the local produce, some of which looked vaguely familiar, while other items were totally new.  We picked some of each, and enjoyed in particular the red raddicio which added beautiful color and crunch to our salads.  We of course purchased local virgin olive oil, and olives, as well as coffee for the espresso machine (non-electric) that we found in the kitchen.  Eggs, lentils and barley rounded out the shopping list.

Radicchio

Radicchio

Coming home that first night we enjoyed wine, cheese and olives while the spinach frittata was cooking.  The next morning following my friend Sara’s advice, we made a hearty lentil/vegetable soup that cooked while we were eating breakfast and getting ready for departure.  What a treat to have supper waiting for us at the end of our long day of touring the Amalfi Coast.

We made sure to eat hearty breakfasts each morning that would hold us for most of the day.  One day it was omelettes, another day quesadillas using the tortillas and cheese from home with sauteed onions and mushrooms.  Yum.

When the local market opened we were able to find Barilla pasta, and buffalo mozarella (made from cow’s milk)  and these both enriched our menus and made us feel like we were eating Italian fare along with millions of tourists and locals.

Buffalo Mozzarella

Buffalo Mozzarella

We spent Shabbat in Naples in a beautiful apartment with views to Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples and we arrived on Friday afternoon just in time to kasher the oven, bake challah, and cook the pasta and fresh salmon that we had bought along the way.  Friday night was a feast!

When we realized on Saturday night that the “kosher” pizza we were hoping for wasn’t going to happen in Naples, we made our own, using the leftover challa, tomato sauce and … buffalo mozzarella. It was an okay substitute but the pizza the following night in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto was far better.

In addition to pizaa we enjoyed eating the local Jewish specialty of fried artichokes at  BaGhetto restaurant.  It’s what I would call an “interesting” experience that need not be repeated, but the food there was very tasty and the waitress was lovely. We enjoyed kosher Italian chianti with our dinner but were happy that most of the wine we had imbibed during the week came from Israel.  While it was lots of fun to eat out and celebrate the end of our trip, to my estimation, our home cooked food was at least as good, if not better!

Some additional information you may find useful:

A list of kosher restaurants

List of kosher foods in Italy

Another kosher list for Italy

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Spring in Southern Italy

Southern Italy was our destination as we set out with our dear friends and not a small amount of trepidation as to whether we would still be good  friends by week’s end (I am happy to report that we are).We landed in Rome, rented a brand new BWM (10 km on the odomoter) and after stuffing our bags into the almost big enough trunk, our adventure began.

The Four of Us

The Four of Us

Seasoned slow travelers that we are, we prepared our friends for the notion that we would not see everything there was to see, nor even a fraction of what is to be found in Lonely Planet or Rick Steve, but that what we would see, we would savor and enjoy.Deciding between Pompeii and Herculaneum was our first joint decision, but since our friends had made all the land arrangements and left the touring to us, Heruculaneum it was. The rain clouds parted as we parked at the edge of town at the “scavi” (Italian for excavation).

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Herculaneum

This major site goes largely unnoticed compared to it’s much more famous sister, Pompeii, and as far as I am concerned that was all to our advantage as another tenet of slow travel is to avoid crowds.    The day we visited there were a few tourists there and thus we were able to leisurely explore the site, without being trampled by the  hordes.  We picked up a local tour guide who showed us the highlights of the site and went into great detail about the differences between Pompeii and Herculaneum.  When Mt. Vesuvius blew it’s lid on the Ninth of Av in the year 79 (a mere nine years after the destruction of our temple in Jerusalem) it first covered Pompeii in thick ash, and only a day later, when the wind changed sent hot mud streaming down the mountain to cover the much closer Herculaneum.  Herculaneum, the summer watering grounds of Roman upper crust society,  was thus preserved down to the furniture and wall frescos, and of course the grisly remains of human skeletons were found too.  The site is quite remarkable and we enjoyed our introduction to ancient Roman culture with its emphasis on joys of the flesh and not too much worry about the world to come.

After driving through Sorrento, up the winding mountain road to our villa in the town of Saint Agate, we were happy to settle in, unpack, and run out to the local fruit and vegetable market for garnet red raddiccio, mushrooms and espresso coffee.  Enjoying the wine and cheese we brought with us from Israel and the local olives, as our food cooked, it seemed like an auspicious first day, and a wonderful start.

Day two dawned partly cloudy to the aroma of fresh espresso.  After a hearty breakfast we set out for the Amalfi Coast renowned for its breathtaking scenery, with cliffs meeting the sea at precipitous angles, and little villages virtually hanging off the sheer side of the mountains.  We weren’t disappointed and caught some beautiful views.

Amalfi Coast and Positano

Amalfi Coast

Positano

Positano

As you might imagine, the roads are sinuous and winding and provided some not insignificant challenges to our wonderful driver, Mike . Sometimes it is the better part of valour to just sit and wait like when we met the bus below on a road wide enough for one.

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.We spent some time in the town of Amalfi, wandering the streets and alleyways and visiting an interesting paper museum.

Town of Amalfi
Town of Amalfi

The next day we set out for the island of Capri, a short boatride from Sorrento. While waiting for the boat we enjoyed exploring Sorrento, a quaint seaside town, with many reminders of it’s glorious past.  Some of those reminders are the archways in buildings.  Others, like the local “men’s club” below, are truly fantasti remains of ancient glory.  There were actually men playing cards in the corner!

Sorrento Men's Club
Sorrento Men’s Club

Capri, the playground of the rich and famous is a charming seaside island.  We took a cable car ride up the tallest mountain, and wandered around soaking up the views and atmosphere, deciding that it was worth a one time visit, but we didn’t have to return.

On the way to Capri
On the way to Capri
Cable Car over Capri
Cable Car over Capri

Friday was spent packing up, grocery shopping, moving on to Naples and getting ready for Shabbat.  Little did we know what was in store for us.  When we stepped into our apartment in Naples we found ourselves in a palace.  The view on to the Bay of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius was world class.  The antiques and furnishings were museum class, the chandeliers would be the envy of any housewife in Boro Park.  We baked challah and cooked wonderful food, enjoying the bounty of the Italians both the sea and the land.

"our" view of Vesuvius
“our” view of Vesuvius

“Our” Palace in Naples

Shabbat was spent like most of our shabbatot: davening, eating, sleeping, walking.  We went to the only active synagogue in Naples, a twenty minute walk from our place.  Total membership: 100.  Not too impressive, and not overly friendly.  My overriding impression is that it is a struggle to be Jewish in Naples, and it is remarkable that the synagogue even exists.  Saturday night we went for a walk in search of a kosher pizza that wasn’t to be.  Walking on the seaside promenade where the four lane boulevard was closed for pedestrian traffic was clearly what most  Napolitans were doing. It felt like the whole city of 3 million was out at 10 PM walking the streets- grandparents, youngsters and even little babies. The boulevard is lined with restaurants, all offering pizza, as Naples is the birthplace of that most wonderful of foods.

Sunday morning we met Roberto Modiano, our local Jewish tourguide.  He packed an amazing amount of sites into the five hours we were with him.  We started out on an unremarkable Napolitan street.  Little did we expect to see the thousands of skeletons that greeted us as we entered the caves that were actually the leftover stone quarries.  The earth under Naples is called “tuffo” and this is the yellow building stone that is used in this area.  Naples sits on more than 150 kilometers of tunnels and caves, with very few of them opened to the public.  We were luck to see two.  The first was the dumping grounds of Naples during the black plague in the 1500s and the more recent malaria plague in the 1800s.  Tens of  thousands of corpses were dumped here.  As time passed, local people would “adopt” a skull, and build a box for it.  They would come to visit the skull, and bring offerings, asking for intercession in the heavens above; requests might be for health, marriage, or children.  When the miracle was wrought, the happy supplicant would show his thanks by preparing a plaque, or building a nicer box for the skull.  This practice went on until the 1950s when it was outlawed and the cave was closed.  After a massive cleanup effort, the caves were reopened only a couple of years ago.

Thousands of Skulls
Thousands of Skulls
Adopted Skulls
Adopted Skulls

After touring more subterranean sites, seeing ancient Greek and Roman ruins, as well as palaces, we also saw the remnant of the Jewish Quarter, noted only by a small street sign.  There are virtually no remainders of Jewish presence in Naples, and in fact the Jews were here for only a very short time after the expulsion from Spain in 1492.  They came back in the 1800s, but the community was always quite small.

Subterranean Naples
Subterranean Naples

Before leaving Naples we stopped at it’s most famous coffee shop for world class coffee served by barristas who are proud of what they do.

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Making Coffee is an Honorable Profession

Sunday afternoon we loaded up our trusty BMW and headed off to Rome.  We stopped on the way for breathtaking views from the top of  Monte Cassino.

Mounte Cassino
Mounte Cassino

Arriving in Rome in the evening we were most disappointed with our “kosher” B & B, Cesar’s Palace, so we decided to cut our losses, and stay there only one night, rather than two.  We salvaged the night by driving down to the Jewish Ghetto and eating in Ba’Ghetto, an authentic Italian dairy restaurant.  We finally got our pizza.

On our one day in Rome we did a walking tour  of downtown Rome, guided by the tireless Rick Steve, revisiting favourite piazzas and fountains, the Pantheon, and enjoy the world’s best coffee at Café D’Oro right near the Pantheon.  We grabbed a cab to the Vatican Museums where with the help of audio guides saw highlights of this most amazing of museums.  The Sistine Chapel was the final stop of this visit, and once again the irreverent Rick Steve guided us through it, this time on a downloaded audio (highly recommended).  Seeing the famous panel of God creating man is slightly underwhelming, but the overall effect of the Chapel, and the richness.

Roman Fountain
Roman Fountain
Roman Market - Campo Fiori
Roman Market – Campo Fiori
We ended our wonderful trip with a celebration dinner, this time at the meaty BaGhetto.  All in all a wonderful trip.  Fortunately I threw a coin in the Trevi Fountain so I know that I will be back soon.
Throwing a Coin in Trevi Fountain

Throwing a Coin in Trevi Fountain

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Kosher Venice

For the kosher traveler Venice is a wonderful place to spend a few days or more.  On our current stay there we rented an apartment and brought with us a couple of pots so breakfast and lunch were a breeze.  Part of our enjoyment of Slow Venice was shopping with the locals in the small supermarket just over the footbridge which supplied us with milk, eggs, yoghurt and Barilla pasta.  The large outdoor market was a twenty minute walk away, and there we rubbed shoulders with local Venetians and were able to partake of the proliferation of colorful produce and the very fresh fish.  There were many kinds of greens and mushrooms that we had not seen before and we enjoyed trying them out.  Also readily available were sun dried tomatoes and pure olive oil which turned our pasta into a gourmet’s delight.

Outdoor Market

Outdoor Market

In terms of strictly kosher provisions there is a grocery store called Volpe  (Ghetto Vecchio, phone:  041-715178)  that sells kosher produce and bake goods.  It is located just a few steps down from the Chabad House in the Ghetto.  The store has long hours and excellent baked goods that are under the supervision of the local Jewish community (not Chabad) and while the counter people and we had no common language we had no trouble making our purchases and enjoying the fare. The fresh rolls and cakes added a nice touch to our late morning breakfasts and evening tea.

Right across from Volpe grocery is a kosher pizzeria, run by the local Chabad that serves coffee and sandwiches as well.  We did not have the opportunity to sample their wares, but the aromas wafting out of the small storefront were mouthwatering.

Eating at GamGam on the Canal

Eating at GamGam on the Canal

The high point of our Kosher Venice was the famous Gam Gam Restaurant located at 1122 Cannaregio, Venice (Main entrance of the Ghetto by the GuglieBridge).  GamGam has been around for close to twenty years under the kashrut supervision of the Chabad Rabbi Rami Banin and is the most remarkable of restaurants.  During the week it looks like a typical Venetian restaurant that fronts one of the many canals.  In fine weather diners can choose to sit at outdoor tables and enjoy the water traffic and soak up the unique atmosphere of Venice.  If weather is inclement the indoor seating is in two rooms that are tastefully appointed with pleasant lighting and ambiance.  When we ate dinner at GamGam on a weeknight, many if not most of the diners were tourists who did not look particularly “kosher” or Jewish, and were just looking for a good place to eat.  That reassured us that prices were reasonable. The menu included some Venetian specialties such as pickled sardines (yum) as well as typically Israeli and Jewish cuisine.  It was all tasty and prices seemed on par with other restaurants in Venice.

The fun begins on Shabbat and Jewish holidays  when GamGam undergoes a facelift and becomes the local Chabad House, serving meals to one and all without charge.  Donations are of course gratefully accepted and in fact encouraged but no one will be turned away, and the hospitality is amazing.  Hundreds of people are served  wonderful three course meals prepared by the Rebbetzin Shachar and her staff every Shabbat of the year.  It is both remarkable and heartwarming.  The Shabbat that we were there the restaurant was packed to overflowing, and four long tables were set up outside to accommodate the overflow.  Rumor has it that during high season in the summer meals take place in two shifts and over 300 people partake at each meal.  Eating at long communal tables with fellow Jewish travelers is always an interesting adventure and this is an experience not to be missed!

One last kosher option is the guesthouse/pension Giardino dei Melograni (phone number: 39 041 8226131) that is located right next to the Chabad House on the large square of the Ghetto and is under the supervision of the Chief Rabbi of Venice.  When we visited Venice they were sporadically operating a restaurant on the patio adjacent to the hotel called Hostaria del Ghetto, and we ate a lovely late lunch there accompanied by a bottle of Italian Kosher Prosecco. (Maybe that’s why the lunch was so lovely!).  The restaurant was not inexpensive, but the food was tasty and authentically Venetian.  Several days later we walked by the restaurant and it was closed, so it pays to make sure they are open before making plans.

Our Waiter Pouring Prosecco

Our Waiter Pouring Prosecco

All in all, Venice is an easy destination for the kosher traveler, and highly recommended.

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Kosher Budapest

On our recent mid-week stay in Budapest we enjoyed the sites offered by the Jewish community as well as the kosher eateries available nearby.  Our first stop after arrival was at the bakery/tea shop called Froelich at 16 Dob Ut. offered fresh baked goods including apple and cherry strudel.  One might sit there and enjoy the pastry with a cup of coffee but we were in a rush to make our guided tour, so we packed up some treats and were on our way to the Great Synagogue.

Great Synagogue on Dohanyi Street

Great Synagogue on Dohanyi Street

 The architect of this building, a Christian, was clearly influenced by the churches in the area, and the synagogue is more reminiscent of a church than a shul.  In its heyday there were 15000 families, and while it has been totally renovated and is in pristine shape, today there are no more than 200 families who count themselves as member of this synagogue.  One of the interesting features of the synagogue is an organ that is played by a non- Jew, granddaughter of the original organ player of this synagogue.

Making our way up the block from the synagogue we found three kosher eateries, Carmel, Hanna, and Carimama, a kosher pizzeria/dairy place.  All three eateries are located on Kazinczy Ut within about fifty meters of each other.  While they all advertise that they are open until 10 PM, in December, when we visited the only one that was open late was Carmel. As a result we ate there twice, and are unable to report on Hanna.

Carmel Restaurant

Carmel Restaurant

Carmel is an upscale glatt kosher restaurant with two main rooms, very nicely appointed with excellent service.  The large menu is illustrated with pictures of some of their choice dishes, which makes it a bit easier to choose.  The restaurant prides itself on Hungarian dishes including goulash soup, Hungarian noodles, fried blintzes and much much more.  We ate there on two occasions, and both times the food was excellent and beautifully served.  The vegetable soup was filled with the flavor of winter root vegetables including parsnips and carrots, while the Hungarian goulash soup was brimming with meat, potatoes and paprika.  Main courses of schnitzel and beef stew were hearty and filling, as were the vegetarian options of eggs and noodles, a typical Hungarian dish, and the potato blintz with mushroom sauce.  We polished off the meal with a local specialty called Gandal pancake, a pancake filled with nut cream and covered with chocolate sauce.  Delicious.  All this came at a price.  The restaurant was definitely not inexpensive.  Our meal, each night cost around 15,000 forints (approximately 300 shekel, or $75.) without tip.

The pizzeria, Carimama,  is a more reasonable option, and also provides a wide range of dishes beyond pizza.  This includes salads, soups, pastas, and some traditional Hungarian dishes as well. We enjoyed a pizza for two (2500 forints – 50 shekel) and purchased a Hungarian cake (750 forint- 15 shekel) to take home and enjoy with tea.  At the pizza shop one can also buy kosher bread and baked goods.

Farther along the street there is a small kosher grocery with items imported mostly from Israel and the UK.  We looked high and low for something to buy that might be Hungarian, and all we could find was sweet tokay wine (pass on that) and paprika, which we bought.

Budapest, when all is said and done, is easy on the kosher traveler.  If one enjoys the fruits and vegetables at the breakfast bar, and takes advantage of the kosher eateries, you can feel that you have taken advantage of Hungarian cuisine at its best.

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