Thursday, February 16, 2017

Romantic Weekend in Israel’s other Walled Old City

We lift our glasses of champagne to toast the setting sun. The Mediterranean is golden, nearly wave free as evening falls. Framing our view are white roofs topped with solar panels and satellite dishes. We hear vendors’ cries from the alleyway below and the muezzin’s call from a nearby mosque. We drink our champagne as the sun dips into the magnificent sea.

We are in Acre (Akko in Hebrew), a small city located across the bay from Haifa. Our sunset view is from the rooftop of two ancient houses beautifully preserved, restored, and merged into the boutique Efendi Hotel. We are at the start of a romantic weekend, a gift in honor of our special birthdays this year from our family. We are eager to explore the wonders of this colorful old city.

When you think of “Old City” in the context of Israel, you think of Jerusalem. Israel’s capital is known for its history, religion, and political conflict, all centered around holy sites situated within Ottoman era stone walls. Yet, there is another walled city in Israel dating to ancient times with no less history, no less beauty. And in contrast to the religious strife in Jerusalem, Akko’s old town is marked by tolerance and cooperation.

Akko is a mixed city of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. It is also the holiest city of the Bahá'í faith. Akko’s story dates back to ancient times. The Greeks visited; the Romans conquered; Arabs and Crusaders followed. Napoleon lay siege to the walled city for two months but was repulsed by the Turks. Akko’s prison housed Jewish underground fighters in the years before Israel’s establishment.

Sites to visit include the colorful market, the Underground Prisoners Museum, and the Al-Jazzar Mosque, which is the largest mosque in Israel outside Jerusalem. Much of the wonders of Akko can be seen underground. The 350-meter long Templar Tunnel extends from the fortress to Akko's port.

Even more impressive is the Kingdom of the Knights, an enormous underground complex below Akko's citadel. An audio-visual walk takes visitors through huge halls, chambers, an artisans’ alleyway, and a crypt, all recently renovated and restored to the beauty of their Crusader days.

The Efendi Hotel offers luxurious accommodations in 12 rooms and suites, each touched with romance, style, and an attention to detail. Our room is large, a suite really, with a painted ceiling and views looking over the rooftops towards the brilliant blue waters of the Mediterranean. Breakfasts are served in a vaulted hall at a table fit for the knights who once visited the city. Within the walls of the hotel one can sense the stories, secrets, and mysteries that have been part of Akko’s history for thousands of years.

Our stay at the hotel includes a tasting dinner at Uri Buri, the leading gourmet fish restaurant in the country. The interior is small, unpretentious. We are asked if our meal should include seafood (we said no), or if we preferred not to have spices added to our dishes. And then we were served a multi-course meal, each with a different type of fresh fish. From a fish soup to mouthwatering portions of sea bream served in yogurt; trout in creamy spice and green onion sauce; and sea bass in coconut milk, chili and apples – all of it absolutely delicious.

Situated on the port, there is no shortage of fresh fish and seafood restaurants in Akko. In the alleyways of the Old City you can find many oriental restaurants with meat and fish specialties, as well as the ubiquitous hummus eateries.

Although one can become a bit disoriented in the labyrinth of paved alleyways, getting lost is part of the fun. The sites are close together and the friendly locals are quick to offer guidance. Akko rarely features on tourists’ itineraries, which is a shame. A romantic weekend retreat in the Old City of Akko, or a stopover on a trip to northern Israel, is a truly rewarding and enjoyable experience.

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