The Golan Heights Winery in Katzrin, Israel.



chris atchison for metro toronto

Golan Heights lookout was once a Syrian outpost that shelled Israeli villages across the Sea Of Galilee. It now serves as a popular lookout for photo-hungry tourists.

“We cleared mines for vines.”

Sometimes it only takes a simple chime to help put a country’s socio-political complexities in perspective for a traveller.

As the sun drooped below the hills that flank this Israeli road leading into the Yarmuk River Valley, two text messages served as welcoming reminders of the precarious nature of this region’s history.

El Hamal, as my guide refers to it, is the road that leads off the coveted Golan Heights, one of the most fought-over parcels of land in history. It now rests in Israeli control and boasts a mélange of almost 40,000 Jewish, Muslim and Druze inhabitants.

“Welcome to Jordan,” that first text read, my phone illuminating in unison with that alert ring. The second was a “Welcome to Israel” text message greeting.

Syria didn’t offer the same telecom welcome, but the twinkling lights of that country’s villages in the distance served as beacons just the same.

This tiny parcel of land is the point where the Israel-Jordan-Syria borders meet. The tall electric fences and bombed-out Jordanian bridge in the valley below are reminders of the clashes such as the Arab-Israeli Conflict and the Six-Day War, which left bitter divisions in the region.

While Israel and Syria still find themselves in conflict, particularly over the Golan Heights and alleged terrorist incursions from Syria into Israel, as well as Israeli military actions, relations between the Jordanians and Israelis have been normalized since the signing of the Israel-Jordan Treaty Of Peace in 1994.

The electrified fences that line the road’s shoulders are symbolic of the guarded peace between nations.

The drive along this swerving road complete, we reach our destination — the Hamat Gader Spa Village and thermal springs in the valley below.

Floating in a thermal spring next to a mix of spa-loving Israelis and international tourists at the apex of this international junction further puts the surreality of the Golan’s history into perspective.

Hamat Gader and its therapeutic springs have been a draw for spa-goers since the 2nd century AD. The ruins of the old Roman baths are still on-site and well-preserved.

“Many places in Israel are safe and here at the border it’s very quiet,” says Osnat Betezer, a manager at Hamat Gader. “All sides want to keep it quiet, I think.”

No bombs raining down, no hint of conflict, no significant security inconveniences — this is the current reality in and around the Golan Heights.

Back on top of that contested ridge — to which Syria still lays claim, with Israel’s jurisdiction still contested by the UN — the Golan Heights Winery is yet another symbol of a country trying to continually shift economic gears and boost its tourism image.

The winery, founded in 1983 and located in the tiny town of Katzrin, is considered one of the finest in the region, producing six million bottles each year of several varietals ranging from Gewürztraminer to Sangiovese and Merlot, and even ice wine.

“Our idea was to start a winery that would change the view of Israeli wine from around the world,” Golan Heights wine educator Valerie Hecht says of the founders’ goals.

After sampling some of their award-winning Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon, I’m once again reminded of that contentious history as I make the trek down roads lined with Israeli tanks, and past signs warning of mines in the fields neighbouring the Golan vineyards.

One of the largest tank battles in history took place in a nearby area, dubbed The Valley Of Tears, during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

But as Hecht cheerfully declares, “We cleared mines for vines.”

Such is the determination of Israelis to inform the outside world that change has taken hold in the area.

They are quick to point out that conflicts such as last year’s war with Lebanon aside, Northern Israel is largely peaceful. A stay at the nearby Ramot Resort Hotel overlooking the Sea Of Galilee and the city of

Tiberias in the distance reinforces that fact. Luxurious chalets replete with plasma TVs and spa tubs lure important tourist dollars, just as the nearby lookout over the Sea Of Galilee draws travellers seeking photos of the landscape below.

They pose next to Syrian cannons that once shelled Israeli settlements in the distance, which now stand as relics of a tumultuous past and — area residents hope — symbols of a peaceful future.