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Israel: The secret citadel

Twelve miles south of the Sea of Galilee you’ll find the mountaintop Belvoir Fortress — what’s more, you’ll probably have it all to yourself

Israel: The secret citadel
Belvoir Fortress. Image: Alamy

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“I wouldn’t if I were you,” says Moshe, my guide. “We don’t eat them off the tree like that.”

I’d picked a plump indigo olive off a low-slung branch and am poised to pop it in my mouth. “I mean, it won’t hurt you but it will be bitter,” he adds.

I squeeze the fruit between my finger and thumb and the juice perforates its ripe, thinning skin. It seeps beneath my nails and dyes my fingertips a deep purple ¬– I lick it off. Bitterness cloaks my tongue. I look at Moshe and his crystalline blue eyes laugh before he does. I should have left it as it was.

Olive trees flank the path up to Belvoir Fortress — a 13th-century Crusader stronghold in the north of Israel, near the Sea of Galilee. It’s situated atop a basalt mountain in the Belvoir National Park. Owls hoot in chorus as we cross the bridge over the cavernous moat and into what remains of the fortress. Only the first floor stands today and it’s incredibly well preserved. In fact, it’s the best-preserved Crusader fortress in the country. When Saladin’s forces attacked it in 1888, they pulled down the top two floors and the resulting rubble shielded and miraculously safeguarded the ground floor. I feel tiny as I walk through what would have been the vast corridors of the outer fortress.

Belvoir is based on the same concentric castle layout as the Tower of London — although, unlike its British cousin, it lacks crowds. In a country stuffed with historic sites, this fortress finds itself low on the list of must-sees — a lone family are the only other visitors during my visit. They chatter in Hebrew and the children’s laughter chimes out as they dart between what would have been the fortress’s rooms. I imagine this reverberating around corridors once covered by an arched stone ceiling.

Belvoir Fortress was built by the Knights Hospitaller between 1168 and 1189. They may have been on something of a mission, but the Crusaders certainly made time for aesthetics. Looking up, I see the dining room still sports its limestone ceiling. Seeing as the local stone is basalt, this raw material would’ve been transported here from miles away to decorate these magnificent spaces.

The sun has burnt through the morning’s haze to reveal views over the valley below. I stand next to the Eastern Gate and look across the Jordan Valley. It sits in the Syrian-African Rift, explaining the sharp drop below me. It’s a formidable strategic position. The boulder-strewn landscape cascades down to a plateau where gleaming rows of polytunnels twinkle in the sunlight. Highway 90 — Israel’s longest at 280 miles — snakes its way along and the River Jordan parallel to this. Beyond the river is Jordan itself.

It’s an enviable vantage point, and by far the most beautiful place I’ve visited so far in the Northern District. I just can’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before. Later in the week, I meet Sharon, a Jerusalem resident who admits she’s never heard of Belvoir either. Moshe laments this but I feel that just perhaps, like the olive, some things are better left untouched.

uk.think.israel.com