Taking a ‘trip’ on Israel’s port city’s scenic new cable car
By David E. Kaplan
Looking for something different to do in Israel, consider taking the train to Haifa and experience something literally UPLIFTING – the new spectacular cable car ride up Mount Carmel.
I went with my son and grandson, where we caught the train from Tel Aviv – a super scenic ride hugging most the time the Mediterranean coastline – and disembarking at the Ein Hamifratz Mall just north of Haifa, which adjoins the cable car station. I had not been to this mega mall since 1992 when I visited – out of sheer curiosity – to see an intact Iraqi Scud missile that had lodged without exploding in the Mall’s roof in the course of the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Although Israel had not participated in this conflict – a 35-country military coalition spearheaded by the US in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait – Saddam Hussein nevertheless tried to entice Israel by sending this malicious ‘gift’. He regrettably sent many more but Israel never took the bait.
There was talk at the time of leaving this ugly hunk there permanently as a tourist attraction – it ‘attracted’ me – but no, it was wisely removed and today, during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, the mall was buzzing with Israelis from across the country. Many were there – as were we – to experience the cable car – a 17 minute ride up, well over a half-hour return. Its a total distance of 4.4 kilometres and an elevation gain of 460m. Called – Rakavlit (a diminutive of רכבל, meaning cable car, and itself a contraction of רכבת, train, and כבל, cable), it starts at the HaMifratz Central Bus Station that includes the railway station and Lev HaMifratz Mall then a short ‘hop’ to Krayot Junction, which Israelis are more familiar as “Check Post”, followed by Dori Street Station, then two stations covering the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and finally arriving at the University of Haifa at the top of Mount Carmel.
On the walk from the railway station through the Lev Hamifratz Mall to the cable car station, you pass endless restaurants and coffee shops with delicious confectionery and aromas that soon wear down any resistance – after all, the mountain is not going anywhere and can wait.
Using my ‘Rav-kav’ (a smart card for making electronic payments for public transportation across Israel) and being a senior, the ride cost only a paltry two shekels and to our surprising delight, despite thousands using the cable cars every hour, there is no waiting. The cars arrive every five seconds and moves quickly – unlike Israeli traffic. The cars take six comfortably but we had a car to ourselves.
The first station we arrived at was still on the flat before the ascent. This was ‘Check Post’ at a location that had been since time immemorial a junction or crossroads of sorts but was given this nickname during the British Mandate that came to an end in 1948. The name is derived from ‘inspection post’, indicating this had been a major British checkpoint at the intersection where they sought to apprehend Jewish underground fighters in the lead up to the 1948 War of Independence. Although today its official name is the “Krayot Interchange“, its old name is more in common usage. So, as there remains no scud in the roof of the Lev HaMifratz Mall, so too there remains no visible presence of the once British military administration. They are conflicts of the past and dwell only in the minds of those who remember. Most the people enjoying the day were born after these events, and their sights were on the present and future, not the past.
From this station begins the sharp ascent, which solicited a sharp cry of joy from Yali, my grandson who was really enjoying the excitement. As we rose higher, the views were spectacular. I looked to the right and saw on a far mountaintop, moshav ‘Manof’, a community settlement started in 1978 by South Africans – including my brother Sidney Kaplan. Located on Mount Shekhanya in the Lower Galilee, where once the lingua franca was English with inimitable South African accents, today, the population of over 800 are Israeli speaking Hebrew. From the cable car, it was a cluster of specs, one of which I assumed was my brothers house that was on the moshav’s ring-road.
As we ascended higher, we peered to the very far north and could see the mountains separating Israel from Lebanon and to the west, the blue expanse of the Mediterranean Sea. Straining the eye, we could see Nahariya in the far distance and then closer, Acre with its Crusader walls. Haifa Harbour looked busy with many ships docking. With so many people waiting for long ordered cars – a current global problem – I‘m sure there were murmurings, “I hope my car is arriving in one of those ships!”
We were now high above mountain forests and what I found most fascinating as I peered directly below was the size of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. A public research university established in 1912 then under the dominion of the Ottoman Empire, the Technion is the oldest university in the country. Offering degrees in science and engineering, and related fields such as architecture, medicine, industrial management, and education, the Technion is in the world’s top 100 universities in the 2022 Academic Ranking of World Universities. Its faculty members include four Nobel Laureates, three in Chemistry.
Peering below at the buildings between so many trees, I wished I could have picked out that special palm tree planted by Albert Einstein when he visited the campus in 1923. It still stands today in front of the Technion’s original building. He was later to tour America to raise funds for higher-education in Palestine, an issue he said he held “close to his heart.” As he expressed at the time, “I do what I can to help those in my tribe who are treated so badly everywhere.”
The Einstein legacy continues to this day with four Technion Nobel laureates in nine years. In 2004, Profs. Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko received Israel’s first Nobel Prizes in Science. In 2011, Prof. Dan Shechtman followed on, and in 2013, Prof. Arieh Warshel received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Ascending even steeper, we crossed above a serpentine mountain pass meandering through dense forest until finally we arrived at the last stop – the University of Haifa, next to the towering Eshkol Tower that pinpoints Haifa from afar. Even from my brother’s patio on moshav Manof, you can clearly make out the tower.
Founded in 1963, Haifa University has a student body of approximately 18,000 students with the largest percentage (41%) of Arab-Israeli students. However, being vacation there were few students about and before the cable car docked at the summit, we went past the impressive Hecht Museum of Archaeology and Art. It is well worth a visit. The museum features a special exhibit of an ancient ship that dates to the fifth century BC that was found off the Mediterranean shores of Kibbutz Maagan Michael in the 1980’s. The museum is the initiative of the late Dr. Reuben Hecht – founder of the “Dagon Silos” in the port of Haifa and a founding member of the University of Haifa Board of Governors. From his youth, Dr. Hecht was interested in the archaeology of the Land of Israel. An ardent Zionist, he strongly believed that archaeology was an important expression of Zionism and that the discovery of ancient artifacts was proof of the link between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. The museum in his name is a reflection of his philosophy.
Also in close walking distance from the cable car station and well worth a visit, is literally the ‘high point’ of Haifa – the 30th-floor observation Eshkol Tower, designed by renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
Take the elevator up to the 29th floor and from there take the stairs up to the lookout point which provides the best view in Haifa of Haifa and of all of northern Israel.
Looking at the view from the top of the bay and the beautiful suburbs on the Carmel, I could well understand why South Africans, particularly those from Cape Town, chose to make Aliyah (immigrate to Israel) to Haifa in the 1950s and 1960s. It would have scenically reminded them of the home they left and the desire to fulfill their Zionist dream with one proviso – to be near the sea. No wonder in those early years of the State, there was such a strong South African community in Haifa. The way Israel’s third largest city is growing, and a South African Jewish community again on the move, Haifa may well again attract future generations of South Africans.
These were this writer’s thoughts gazing at the view of Haifa bay but the thoughts of my grandson was more of the expectation of the fun ride back on the cable car.
“Let’s go,” the impatient four-year-old said.
Following Yali yacking to his cousins about the trip, I will be returning with the rest of my grandkids. After all, the cable car was undoubtedly the HIGHlight of our day in Haifa.
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