There wasn't a car on the streets, nor a restaurant or cafe open anywhere when I arrived in Safed, Israel on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The lack of activity in a city of 30,000 was almost ghost-like, although we were told in advance that Safed's residents are widely recognized as the most observant of Jewish traditions and most specifically the Sabbath or Shabbat.
You'll see Safed spelled many ways - Zefat, Svat, Tsfat - depending on the faith or historical perspective of the individual behind the keyboard. No matter how you spell it, many call this town in the northern hills the Sedona of Israel. Located at about 3,000 feet above sea level and overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Safed is at a higher elevation than any other Israeli city. Because of its elevation or proximity to the heavens, Safed is considered one of the four Holy cities of Israel. Many believe that God's presence resides directly above Safed and that the Messiah will journey from this northern city on his way to Jerusalem.
As we sat on a bench in the Citadel Park, the highest point in the city, the tranquility of the day and the city rose to greet us. Or maybe it came down from the heavens above. The calm waters of the Sea of Galilee appear even more miraculous from this perspective.
Throughout the centuries, the Citadel mountain top, also known as Metzuda, has held strategic importance in the control of the Middle East, including a significant northern mountain pass into Syria and Lebanon. The remains of a Crusader fort testify to the early battles that were fought here. Another monument recognizes the names of 14 Israeli soldiers who lost their lives here during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
But we felt no hint of the violence that has marred most of this region for so many years, even as we walked the narrow streets and alleyways of Safed's former Arab quarter. The ancient stone walls carry pock marks from the street battles that took place here more than 65 years ago, the last time Arabs lived in this city.
The former Arab quarter is now home to artists and their studios, many of them Jewish immigrants from Russia. I was delighted to find a few of their shops open on the Sabbath and they waved me in with warm smiles and nodding heads.
Leonid Zikeev has made his home here since emigrating from Russia in 1991. The language barrier prohibited much conversation as I explored his gallery, but I was drawn to the many oils, dominated by the color blue, depicting Safed and the Galilee region.
Blue is prominent throughout Safed. Doorways of many homes and businesses are painted this color in order to ward off evil. The belief is that God is in heaven, heaven is in the sky, and the sky is blue, so evil will not enter through a doorway wrapped in God's presence or the color blue.
This spiritual interpretation is representative of Kabbalah, a study of the Bible and Jewish mysticism. Many people of all faiths come to Safed to study Kabbalah and become more centered on the needs of others and bettering life. Jewish mysticism is prevalent among observant Jews.
Maybe that's what you feel when you walk the streets of Safed on the Sabbath, an unprecedented interest in the world around you rather than yourself. Maybe it's the creativity of the artists and the lovely blue doors. Or maybe it's the fact that you are walking the streets of an ancient city where people over the centuries have fought and died for their faith.
Or perhaps, it's simply the fresh mountain air and the Sea of Galilee in the distance. I don't know, but there is something special about Safed that makes you think peaceful thoughts and want to know more about the world around you. That, in itself, is a good travel destination.
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A Midwest farm girl at heart, Diana Lambdin Meyer caught the roaming bug early in life. Diana married well - to a photographer who also has the travel bug and whose work in still and video complements her words. Now based in the Kansas City area, Diana is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers who makes a full-time living on the road and at the keyboard. Read about Diana's adventures on her blog, Mojotraveler or follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.
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