4. Nazareth

I flew from Birmingham to Tel Aviv via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, who have justly boasted the accolade for three years running of being The Best Airline in  Europe; and caught the train along the coast to Haifa

On a previous visit I had been looked after at St Charles Hospice by the Sisters of the Rosary but felt that midnight was a little late (or perhaps early - Mass was at 5am) to be knocking on their door, so I checked into the Port Inn

In the morning I took a local bus to NazarethI sat at the front and watched the road whilst the young driver checked his Facebook, texted and called his friends and occasionally glanced up to give the steering-wheel a jerk or apply a little pressure to the brake when some sort of alarm indicated that he was exceeding the speed limit.   I was the only passenger until outside the Gishon Detention Home we picked up someone who had the demeanour and dress of a dissatisfied resident.

I found my way through the 'pilgrim' souk to the Sisters of Nazareth Convent Guest House which offered a haven of calm - unless of course you still harbour a childhood fear of nuns
("... please dress modestly and speak softly, strict curfew at 11pm").

The Sisters of Nazareth Convent Guest House

There is scant reference to a Canaanite village called Nazareth existing 2000 years ago, but there is unequivocal evidence of a Christian community here by the 3rd century.  

Around 6 AD the ancient Galilean city of Sepphoris, just 4 miles from present day Nazareth, was being rebuilt as a regional capital by Herod Antipas and even closer the new settlement of Japhia – plenty of work to attract builders and artisans to the area; perhaps a carpenter from Judaea where the Jews were oppressed under Herod Archelaus's Roman military might.

Today Nazareth's community is evenly split between Muslim and Christian.  The skyline of the old town is dominated by the modern Basilica of the Annunciation, designed by the Italian architect Giovanni Muzio and completed in 1969; it stands on the site of a Byzantine church circa 352 AD and several later churches. 
The Basilica of the Annunciation from the rooftop of
The Mary of Nazareth International Centre
The Grotto of the Annunciation
As part of a policy to Judaize the Galilee, Nazareth is clearly suffering through economic under-development and over-population as the neighbouring Jewish urban centre Upper Nazareth (Nazrat Illit, in Hebrew), intended to become today's economic and administrative Galilean capital, squeezes the lifeblood out of the old Arab town.  Her impressive crumbling mansions tell of a different economic past. 
In many ways Nazrat Illit is a microcosm of Israel.  Shimon Gafsou the far-right mayor will be seeking re-election in just three weeks.  His campaign has hit the headlines in the UK* not least because civil rights groups have complained to Israel's attorney general that he is running a campaign 'consisting wholly of racist incitement'.  
'I will stop them from building an Arab school. 
I will work to construct neighbourhoods for Jewish citizens. 
Nazrat Illit is a Jewish city' 

Amongst other policies, since 2010 Gafsou has alienated local Christians by banning Christmas trees from public display.  
It was only a short walk uphill to 'Diwan El Saria' where owner Abu Ashraf is famous for his qatayef  ['Ramadan pancakes', filled with walnuts, Akkawi cheese (more like clotted cream) served with a sugar syrup dip]; with a few Taybeh beers, this was beginning to be another birthday to remember!

My afternoon meanderings took me to the beautiful St Gabriel's Orthodox Church

St Gabriel's Church, Nazareth

and at 7pm our little group gathered for dinner at a table 'reserved for the Americans'.
No shortage of quotations around Nazareth
*The poster boy of Israeli 'racism' , Sunday Telegraph 15/09/2013