Forty-five minutes southwest of Jerusalem, visitors to Israel can experience one of the country's most tightly held secrets: the Valley of Elah. The recent Oscar-nominated movie, In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, may have done more for its name recognition than David's epic battle against Goliath which raged here, but this region, flanked by the gently rolling hills of Judea, still remains one of the Holy Land's less frequented gems.
Minutes after exiting Highway 1 linking Israel's two major cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the verdant approach to the Valley of Elah gives way to secluded monasteries and vineyards where Israelis and more and more travelers come to sample the rising stars in Israeli wines.
The region surrounding the Valley of Elah is one of the hotspots of Israeli viniculture. Wine exports from the country have doubled since 2001 with France the number two importer of Israeli wine after the United States.
Meteorological Monks and Hand-Painted Pottery
Nearby, down a gently winding road, Israel's first meteorological station still functions and is maintained by monks within the confines of the Beit Jamal Monastery. During visiting hours, visitors admire the remains of a mosaic from a 5th-century Byzantine church that occupied the site until the Persian invasion of 614. A more modern structure erected by Salesian monks in the 1800's stands today, as well as a second church for the 32 Sisters of Bethlehem, who are sworn to a vow of silence. This idyllic setting is often the venue for concerts and a favorite pit stop for cyclists. Even when there are no performances, the nuns wordlessly sell charming, hand-painted pottery.
Rustic Cookery and Idyllic Scenery where David Slew Goliath
Visitors to the Valley of Elah in spring are greeted by a carpet of red anemones and multicolored lupins. Hiking amongst the remains of ancient towns like Azeka and King Hezekiah's Sokho help conjure up the epic biblical battle between David and Goliath, which the Bible tells us took place here. Centuries later, Arab armies surged up the valley to conquer Jerusalem.
Ancient wine presses dot the ruins, attesting to the valley's winemaking importance over the millennia. In summer, hikers and bikers bask in the shade of forested Britannia Park and along the banks of Nahal Sorek, one of Israel's longest watercourses. When it's time to eat, a plethora of charming country restaurants serve up an array of culinary treats.
Carved Out by Hand: The Underground City of Beit Govrin
At the southern end of Route 38, which leads from the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway to the Valley of Ellah, stands the biblical town and now national park of Beit Govrin. Originally a Jewish settlement dating back at least 3,000 years, the sprawling city over time became home to Byzantine Christians and later Muslims. Impressive bell-shaped caves and underground chambers were hollowed by hand out of the soft chalk creating an entire underground city. In the park, which stretches over one thousand acres, visitors clamber through the subterranean columbaria where carrier pigeons were raised, and see mosaics, ancient churches and Byzantine tombs. During Chanukah, Beit Govrin's caves serve as a popular candle-lit venue for concerts.
The Valley of Elah is an easy day trip from either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv - less than 45 minutes from either. Those wishing to sleep over can choose from an assortment of bed and breakfasts and even monasteries.