JERUSALEM, May 1, 2009 -- The Jesus Trail is 40 miles long and starts in Jesus' home town of Nazareth.
Recently completed, its route winds through the towns and villages of the Galilee region in northern Israel. This is the place where Jesus and his disciples established their ministry. It is a landscape steeped in the history of the New Testament and the gospels.
The free trail is the brainchild of local Israeli tour operator Maoz Inon, who runs a guesthouse in Nazareth in partnership with American David Landis, who has a track record in adventure tourism. They hope it will attract Christian pilgrims from around the world and help boost the local economy.
It took several years to plan in coordination with Israeli tourist authorities and has opened in time for the arrival of the pope and an expected spike in Christian tourism.
For Maoz, the Jesus Trail is not just about ticking off the famous bible locations.
"We believe by hiking and walking the trail, you will be able to meet and interact with the multicultural nature of the people that are living in the Galilee today," he said.
He is encouraging local businesses along the route to work with him and provide services to the tourists walking the trail. They range from operators of local guesthouses to people like Abu Youssef, who we met just outside Nazareth offering us delicious herbal tea in his olive grove.
Our first stop on the trail was the ancient Roman city of Sephoris. It was the main local town in Jesus' day, as well as the headquarters of the local Roman government. Jesus would have been a regular visitor and some now think he may even have worked in the town as a carpenter.
Then we came to Cana, the location for Jesus' first miracle, the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana mentioned in John's gospel.
The trail winds through the narrow streets and alleys marked by special yellow and white markings.
Further on we came to the Horns of Hittin, a famous topographical landmark. This time no biblical reference, but the very spot where, in 1187, the famous Muslim military leader Salahaddin defeated the Crusaders, signalling a bloody end to the Second Crusade.
Seeing the World Through Jesus' Eyes
From this dramatic high ground, there are breathtaking views down to the Sea of Galilee. When I walked the trail, it was warm and I was grateful for the cooling breeze. I wouldn't recommend it for July and August.
The trail's organizers hope for 5,000 visitors this year, but more than 100,000 a year within the next decade. They have already had hundreds of walkers, and e-mails from across the world are streaming in with inquiries.
When the final stretch of the trail hits the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, you start coming across some of the most famous places in Jesus' ministry. On a hill above the sea, the Mount of Beatitudes marks the spot where Jesus delivered the famous Sermon on the Mount.
Several hundred yards below lies Tabgha, where the gospels of Mark and Matthew tell the parable of the loaves and the fish, and the feeding of the 500.
Guiding me along the route was researcher Anna Dintaman, who is busy writing a guide for the trail. She knows the trail better than anyone, which she says gives her a special insight.
"Even when you come on a tour bus, you still feel it's the biblical Disneyland or something; but when you're walking and see there's real people living, there's real agriculture, real business, I think that puts you in touch with the reality of the history," she said.
The trail finishes at Caperneum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. When I finally got there, the sun was setting and it was difficult not to be affected by the beauty of the landscape. Whatever the strength of your religious belief, the Jesus Trail is a fascinating tour of this part of the Holy Land; just remember, don't try it in the summer.