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November 2, 2011 By:
Around 1966, during her "one last fling" before settling down to marriage, my mother took a big trip to Europe with a detour to Israel to visit friends of relatives residing on a military base near Tel Aviv.
On one of the days she visited, they brought her to Caesarea for a picnic. What she remembered of that day was eating particularly excellent hummus and bread on a nearly empty beach with clear blue waters and interesting ruins from a hodgepodge of eras.
Although visitors to Caesarea today can still picnic alongside fascinating biblical, Roman and Medieval antiquities, they also have a nice option to enjoy those sites as they sip a frozen mint-lemonade or cappuccino at one of the relatively new cafes that have sprung up.
Such cafes join an elaborate and very family-friendly complex at the Caesarea National Park that includes an antiquities section along with a couple of museums that bring history alive in 3-D.
One could only imagine how visionary city father King Herod would react to such a tribute, along with modern Caesarea's plush landscaped residential streets; a business and high-tech park housing approximately 170 companies and employing about 5,500 people; and golf fairways.
Though this is one domain that will, alas, stay within the modern visitor's imagination, Herod, along with Rabbi Akiva, Hannah Senesh and Baron Rothschild are brought back to life through the magic of cinematic 21st century computer technology at the park's theater.
Historic time-tripping at the park complex is broken down into sections. Upon entrance into the buildings, guests are greeted by a 3-D apparition of King Herod and his historic friends at the touch of a button; visitors can ask them whatever questions they may have in mind.
The Time Tower phase lets visitors slow the pace, allowing for a more detailed, in-depth look at the park, observing Caesarea as it existed at different points in history (thanks to lifelike computer animation on a big screen).
With the imagery come details on the various architectural and technological breakthroughs of each era that allowed Caesarea to evolve into a commercial and cultural center many times over.
The visual timeline goes back 2,300 years, starting with the Hellenistic period.
Old Joins New
"Going through this national park is like walking through a history book, and no matter your background, seeing the ruins up close, filled in by technology, gives one a greater appreciation of their roots," says our guide, Helen, who is also a proud resident of Caesarea.
"It's amazing how the old and new together can really help a visitor gain an understanding of what life was like here."
While guests may have vivid visions of ceremonies at the various temples and horse races at the hippodrome, other ruins are kept meaningful and relevant for the modern age. The theater still operates as a performance venue for international and Israeli pop and rock acts while the national park throughout the year hosts cultural art festivals, jeep tours, yoga classes, treasure hunts and -- yes -- picnics at the beach.
Diving enthusiasts can enjoy the bonus experience of viewing the underwater ruins in the archaeological park beside the port.
Though the indoor museum wing of Caesarea's park has an adjacent souvenir shop carrying all the tchotchkes you would expect to find -- such as key chains and stuffed toys -- there are some surprisingly enticing galleries and shopping opportunities on the park grounds.
The Art Nova Gallery (www.artnova.co.il), just outside the Time Tower, offers a locally developed approach to traditional wall art with canvases made from felt-like synthetic fibers that do not collect dust.
Top Israeli jewelry, Judaica and home accessories designer Ester Shahaf (www.ester-shahaf.com) also has one of her flagship stores on site as well. Though her signature pieces integrating elements of art nouveau, Mediterranean and abstract designs can be found in fine museum and synagogue shops throughout Israel, the United States and other countries, it is impressive to see all that color and intricate metal work under one roof.
Modern Caesarea offers a host of activities, from the golf courses to fancy day spas, boutique hotels, the respected Ralli Art Museum and a historic site that houses the remains of a magnificent palace with a mosaic floor of amazing birds and a rare table top inlaid with glass and gold.
Although Jerusalem is widely considered to be the penultimate spot to immerse yourself in the ancient world and explore how the events and religious underpinnings are relative in today's world, Caesarea is now in an era where it can broaden that perspective with the footprints it left in the sand.