Trek meanders through a scenic, site-rich route from Nazareth to the Galilee
Cresting the summit of Tel Kinrot, the blue-grey waters of the Sea of Galilee come into view. It has been a steady climb for Ramon Contras, a devout Christian from El Paso, Texas, but he says he feels the spirit of the Lord behind him.
“I feel very happy to be walking on the steps that Jesus walked,” Contras told The Media Line. “I always remember that Jesus Christ walked all around here and he never got tired, you know, and everything he did we’re supposed to do.”
Contras is one of the first Christian pilgrims to hike the newly inaugurated Gospel Trail, which meanders across the Galilee region. Launched officially in late November, the goal is to get tourists off the beaten track of city sites connected with the life of Jesus and take them on the true path, the one that Jesus literally walked when he preached his ministry from village to village in the Galilee.
The Israeli Tourism Ministry has launched what it calls The Gospel Trail.
The trail starts at the outskirts of Nazareth, the town of Jesus’ youth, and winds some 62 kilometers (39 miles) until it reaches Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus called his disciples to him.
It was decided to start the trail at the Mount of Precipice, or Mount of the Leap, since that marks the spot where Jesus symbolically set out on his ministry. According to tradition, this is where a mob, angry that he evoked he was the Messiah, dragged Jesus to its cliff, his poor mother watching in horror. But before they could toss him off, he calmly "walked through the crowd" and leapt over the precipice. (Luke 4:28-31) Pope Benedict XVI visited the site in 2009.
The trail actually links three existing pathways used since biblical times and the Tourism Ministry and the Jewish National Fund put up the NIS 3 million ($800,000) to clean and mark the trail with dedicated stone mounds and produce maps and a website. According to the Tourism Ministry, two out of three of the 3.45 million tourists who visited Israel in 2010 were Christians. The government wants to make their visit better with this unique heritage trail.
“We believe that we will enlarge and increase the number of pilgrims that arrive in Israel, that arrive in the Galilee, that arrive at this trail by many hundreds of thousands of people. This is money for the treasury and helps to create small enterprises. It creates also the right positive image of the state of Israel,” Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov told The Media Line.
The trail is also open to bicycle and horseback riders. But most of the trekkers are expected to do it by foot.
“This is the trail that Jesus Christ did by foot with his followers. When you go on this trail you can image that you are walking in his footsteps and you can imagine what he saw, what kind of animals he saw, what kind of plants he saw, what kind of view he saw,” said Misezhnikov.
The route incorporates a number of important Christian holy sites, including Migdal, the village of Mary Magdalene as well as the nearby spring of Ein Nun. Father Juan Maria Solana, head of the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center and charge of The Holy See, says he is confident the trail would become popular.
It takes three or four days to hike the entire Gospel Trail as it passes through areas of stunning beauty and makes the Bible come alive. If it attracts enough trekkers, it also promises to attract businesses from bed and breakfast inns to cafes along the way in the Jewish and Arab communities that line the trial.
Misezhnikov says his Tourism Ministry has repositioned the way it markets Israel and has made the Christian audience its top priority audience. The Gospel Trial was made for them.
“This is the most important market for us. This is the majority of the people who are coming here and this is one of the brands and I am very proud to say we developed it under my watch,” he said.
“Many, many Christians from all over the world want to follow the footsteps of Jesus Christ. As you know we cannot follow by car or by bus, or by plane, but by just walking. So I think this is a great initiative. And it will be blessed by many, many people,” Solana says.
Israel is one of the most industrialized nations in the Middle East and yet here in the Galilee hills one can see the same flora and fauna and vistas that existed 2,000 years ago. Amir Moran, project manager and planner of the Gospel Trail, says he was inspired by the Santigo Trail in Spain.
“I saw many heritage ways in the world and I thought to myself why don’t we have one of our own where Christianity started?” Moran told The Media Line.
“I think the experience is totally different [walking the trail] because when you come by bus you go out of the bus and enter the church. This is one thing. It is important, but it is not like having the experience of walking and spending time and seeing the landscapes of this area where everything started.”
The Gospel Trail answers a growing trend for theme tourism, Moran says, pointing to tours based on food, composers and battlefields, for example. “People want to travel but want a specific subject, narrative, to conduct their own journey around it,” he says.
For Fernando Betancourt, a Christian minister from Arizona, being one of the first to walk the Gospel Trail makes his pilgrimage to the Holy Land all that more extraordinary.
“Walking the Gospel Trail gives you a very spiritual experience where you feel drawn closer to the presence of the Lord,” he told The Media Line. “As you walk the trails, just by thinking you are walking where Jesus walked and where he taught his disciples and he preached and performed miracles is really a spiritual experience all in itself.”