October 13, 2022: Car-Free on the Slopes of Mount Carmel
After 3 days in Tel Aviv which included my friend Roni´s wedding, it was time to keep exploring. I decided to visit the city of Haifa because I had never been there on my previous 2 trips to the country. From Haifa, I would spend another 2 days in the region.
Haifa is Israel´s third largest city. It is a coastal city located on the steep slopes of Mount Carmel of Biblical fame. Haifa is probably best known around the world for being the international headquarters of the Bahai faith. Within Israel, Haifa is known as an industrious blue-collar city.
To reach Haifa, I decided to take the train. The trains in Israel go between all the major cities. I would describe the trains as a commuter rail. Due to Tel Aviv´s size, there are 4 stations in the city, all in a row. Most Haifa-bound trains stop at all 4 of the stations. After boarding the train in Ha´Hagana, it took 75 minutes to reach Haifa. There are two stations in Haifa, but I took the last stop, which is in a large shopping mall. I then walked 10 minutes to Europcar to pick up my rental car.
To my surprise, the Europcar staff said that their store got attacked and they could not give me a car…despite all the staff being there and the building appeared to be fine. I argued but they said that nothing can be done.
So, I walked over to Budget. Since the price was more expensive, I decided to start the rental tomorrow instead of today, which now gave me a car-free day to explore Haifa.
From the mall/train station, Haifa has a series of rapid bus lines to take you into the city. However, the buses require a special card to pay the fare and I could not figure out where to get the card….so I pretended to tap my credit card and rode for free. While later than expected, I made it to Haifa.
Like I normally do, I decided to start my trip by visiting the biggest attraction. Haifa´s biggest attraction is the Bahaí Gardens.
Bahai is a religion founded in the 1844 in Persia (now Iran). The first prophet was a man named the Bab. He preached that an even greater prophet was soon to follow him. For that, he was executed in 1850. In 1863, a man named Bah´u´llah declared himself to be that prophet. He was exiled from Persia to numerous places around the Ottoman Empire, but eventually was taken to Acre (an Israeli city 30 minutes north of Haifa). He remained in Acre until his death. During his life, Bahaú´llah wrote 1500 letters which outlined the Bahai faith.
The basic tenets of the Bahai faith are the following:
There is one God. Oneness of the human race. Founders of other great religions such as Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha are part of a series of prophets sent by God culminating in the Bab and Baha´u´llah. Abandonment of prejudice of all kinds
Additionally, Bahais believe in the right of each person to search for truth, universal compulsory education, elimination of excessive poverty and wealth, and an understanding that faith must be consistent with scientific knowledge. Honestly, this sounds pretty amazing!
Today, Bahais lives in almost every country in the world. There are no clergy. Local affairs are governed by local councils, of which there are over 10,000. Global affairs are run through national headquarters in Haifa. The global governing body, known as the International House of Justice, rules on spiritual issues that were not written about by Baha´u´llah and allows the faith to adopt to modern times.
The headquarters are in Haifa because Baha´u´llah picked the spot to house the remains of the Bab, which were smuggled out of Persia. His ruins are houses in a domed building in the center of the gardens.
Above and below the shrine are 19 terraces. The gardens and shrine are paid for by donations from Bahai around the world. Admission is free and donations are not accepted by non-Bahai. In 2008, the gardens were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The main tourist entrances is midway up…which meant a long steep stair climb. Eventually, I reached a gate and discovered that the Shrine of the Bab and the garden have separate entrances. The Shrine of the Bab can be toured independently, while the main part of the gardens requires a tour.
The domed shrine is located at the very center of the gardens. To enter the shrine, I had to take my shoes off and stand in line. After 10 minutes, I was ushered into a simply decorated carpeted room full of natural light. In the center of the room, behind a screen were a series of purposely places objects such as vases and flowers, and in the middle, the remains of the Bab. I later learned that the objects hold no religious or spiritual significance, their purpose is purely aesthetic.
And aesthetic it was – I felt so happy and at peace here!
Next, I walked to the main garden entrance to take a tour, as most of the Gardens cannot be viewed from the street. While I was able to quickly get onto a tour to see this beautiful place, the tour happened to be in Hebrew…so I did not learn anything.
After the tour, I checked into the hostel right in the center of town in a neighborhood called the German Colony. The hostel had immaculate vibes all around – they were even playing the entirety of ABBA´s greatest hits.
For lunch, I went to an Eastern European restaurant in the center of town that was highly recommended in both Lonely Planet and on Google. The place was packed, and I had to wait 15 minutes to get in. Luckily, they were able to sit me inside at a table with an older couple and two of their grandchildren. The couple lives in the United States, but their son is a professor at a university here. So, every year they spend a few weeks in Israel to visit their family.
I ordered a spicy pork loin that was absolutely delicious!
I then caught the bus up to the Stella Maris Monastery. The monastery is where the Carmelite Order was founded. Unfortunately, the monastery was closed for renovations. So instead, I walked down the slopes of the mountain to reach the Cave of Elijah.
The cave marks the spot where Elijah hid and prayed before challenging the priests of Baal on the summit of Mount Carmel in the Book of Kings.
The cave is now a Jewish holy site. The inside is a synagogue with a barrier in the center to separate men and women. The cave was crowded with people in prayer, often aloud, but there did not seem to be any leader. Rather, everyone was praying on their own. A man told me that I was very smart for visiting the best place in Haifa.
From the cave, I caught a taxi to the Madatech, a child-friendly science museum that is supposed to be a true Israeli institution. The entrance fee was nearly $30 and the museum closed in 90 minutes, so I decided to not go. Instead, I walked around town and relaxed in the hostel until dinner.
For dinner, I met up with my friend Yoav, who I met during the Spanish language school in Antigua Guatemala. Since then, he got married and started an engineering school here in Haifa.
We then got kunefe, a sweet pastry for dessert.
Back in the German Colony, the streets were hopping with mostly Muslim 20-somethings out for a night on the town. Maybe it’s cultural, or maybe the people I encountered are just awkward, but the men seemed to have zero confidence around the women. Ha!
With that, I went to bed to begin my road trip around the north of Israel starting with Acre.
Haifa seems like a great place to live. The topography is gorgeous with plenty of outdoor opportunities, jobs seem to be plentiful, and it seems more affordable than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. It also is multicultural and tolerant of many religions. Now, all that does not translate so much into a vibrant tourist destination. Yes, there is enough to do to spend a day here, but no more.
That said, Haifa is a fantastic base to explore the rest of the region due to its location and large number of restaurant, nightlife and lodging options including one of the best hostels in the world.