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Travel: Another side of Israel

Beyond religion, there are centuries of history, culture and cuisine to explore

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Israel attracts millions of visitors annually for religion alone. But wonderful and important though the religious sites are, there are other reasons to visit. They include:

Tel Aviv - much of the city, on the shore of the Mediterranean, was planned in the 1930s on a garden theme. Vegetation is tropical; the ambience lush. Cooling breezes waft through the neighbourhoods.

Then from 1935, Tel Aviv became a destination of choice for artists and architects fleeing Nazi Europe. Some brought with them the modernist principles of the German Bauhaus school of design and architecture (which would go on to shape the hugely influential "International Style" of commercial architecture).

Four thousand Bauhaus buildings were built here - mostly low-rise apartment complexes, horizontal in design with minimal (but gorgeous) detailing, and functional and egalitarian in keeping with the spirit of the time. This "White City" is now a (very living) UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Food and wine - the Israeli cuisine is Mediterranean and Middle Eastern; the produce in this agriculturally self-sufficient country plentiful and fresh. At the Turkish-style Pasha restaurant in Tel Aviv we dined, typically, on tapas-style hummus, dolmades, minced lamb with pine nuts, kebabs and salads.

Later, at the Tishbi Vineyards in the northern Carmel Mountain region, the dishes that came out of an exuberant open kitchen were imaginative, copious and organic - and accompanied by award-winning pinots, merlots, Rieslings, cabernets and chardonnays.

Fourth-generation vintner Golan Tishbi trained in New Zealand, but remains passionate about wine-making in Israel, saying: "It began with Abraham." His vineyards extend from Upper Galilee, close to the Lebanon border, south to the Negev Desert.

Caesarea and Akko - along the north coast, near Haifa, rest two ancient ports in the process of rediscovery. Caesarea, a Roman then later Crusader city, has emerged from the dunes with an aqueduct, largely intact, and massive amphitheatre.

Akko (or Acre) is both "a Pompeii of the Middle Ages" and contemporary home to a sizeable Arab-Israeli population. Its subterranean Crusader City, once housing as many as 30,000, features a Knights Hall, courtyard with cells in use as recently as the British Mandate (Jews were incarcerated), and newly excavated tunnels and latrines - even gravestones dating to 1290. There's a large Arab souq here, too.

Haifa - sprawling down steep slopes fronting onto curvaceous bays, Haifa is a knockout. The Baha'i faith took full advantage of the setting by building a shrine and garden that spills down this hillside in 18 perfectly ordered terraces.

Roman mosaics - in hills outside Nazareth (today a city of 64,000), sit several crumbling Roman villas. Predominant among them is Tzipori, described in the 1 st century AD by commentator Josephus Flavius as "the ornament of the Galilee." The highlight today is exceptional Byzantine floor mosaics.

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