Birthday Indulgence at חמת גדר Hamat Gader
The Romans were a rather smart lot. Wherever they "went" (conquered, occupied, owned, influenced, appropriated, enslaved, educated, enriched, raided, paved, plumbed - and the list goes on) they were savvy to the natural resources local to the region. Since they heralded from a hot country and often ventured into hot, dry and arid territories they became expert at finding water. All sorts of water. They built palaces by the sea, acquaducts to transport fresh water to settlements and they liked their baths.
By the 2nd Century, bath houses were a feature of most territories under the auspices of the Roman Empire.
In Judea and its neigboring provinces the same was true. Under the rule of Herod Antipas, then ruler of the client state, an ancient hot springs were discovered in Eastern Galilee in the province of Decapolis. Herod ordered the 10th Roman Legion to begin construction of "proper" pavillions to house the natural hot spring located near the ancient Greek city of Gadara. The site included the bath houses and a theater that held up to 2000 seats. Later the site was modified in the 5th century to include a synagogue and much later a mosque.
The ruins of the Roman bath house are extant on the modern site of חמת גדר (Hamat Gader) located in עמק הימוך (the Yarmouk River Valley) at the intersection of Israel, Syria and Jordan. The springs are a natural wonder with water pushed to the surface at a steady 42 C. and at a rate of 500-700 cubic meters per hour. The water is rich in minerals with a high concentration of sulfur.
On the road from כנרת (Kinneret - Sea of Galilee) it is impossible to imagine the hot springs are just 20 minutes away. There is nothing in the geological horizon that matches the description of the baths or the drama of the river valley. But a few short kilometers driving north on the east side of the lake there is a sharp turn to the left. The road immediately begins to rise and become increasingly narrow and windy. Five minutes later the road is gravel with no shoulder and a dramatic fall to an deep cavern between our little dirt road and verdent Jordan on the opposite side.
Suddenly as we round the bend and it is 2000 years ago. The hills are alternately green and yellow. There is a double barbed wire fence to remind us that we are on the border. There mosque on the other side of the valley is broadcasting the call to prayer. There are no other cars on the road and I am worried we are travelling into an unknown area.
The road begins to descend and get even narrower. I cannot see anything but trees and the most remarkable landscape. Then suddenly we are in a parking lot with a ticket office. We have arrived.
We go to the ticket office and - of course - they tell us we are in the wrong spot and that we need to be on the other side of an electric gate. We drive to the gate and phone the number and like magic the gate opens. We park the car and start getting the bags out of the trunk. A very good look man drives up in the ubiquitous golf cart and tells us to get in - and away we go.
The noise increases, the number of people increases. We can hear water. Then we see the hotel and the spa. Wow! There are hundreds of people bathing and more or coming. How they got there without our seeing them on the road is a mystery, but there they were.
We checked in to the hotel and walk down the little path to our cabin by the sulfur pool. I feel like I am back in Japan. We put on the flip flops and the robes provided for us and waited for our massage (part of the package).
Soon we are blissing out in the hands of expert masseuses. We come out of the treatment room and jump into the pool. There is a coffee bar at every turn and if you stay in the hotel you can drink as much instant coffee as you can tolerate.
That night we eat at the Caravan Restaurant. They had many things on the menu. I wanted the one pasta dish. I'd had enough lamb and kabob. I ordered the pasta - they didn't have it. I ordered the fish - they didn't have it. I took the kabob.
On the way back from the restaurant the place was hopping. Thursday night is the weekend in the Israel. The pools on the public side (non hotel guests) were packed. Everyone was coming with a mangal (portable BBQ) and supplies. The modern spa does not look much like the formal Roman bath. It is a bit wilder but nonetheless fabulous.
Next morning we wake up and debate whether to go back to the Caravan restaurant and partake of the limited offerings. Lucky for us, the hotel has an Israeli breakfast. We got back into our wet bathing suits and went back in the pool.
Relaxed and chill we start on the long ride home to Tel Aviv.