Acre, Israel, also known as Akko, is one of the oldest cities in the world and has a long, fascinating history. It is a natural harbour on the Mediterranean and has been inhabited for at least 4,000 years.
We spent several days in Akko last May at an amazing boutique hotel, Arabesque. There was really only one reason I wanted to go to Akko, which I will explain further, but we planned to use it as a base for day trips to other parts in the north end of Israel that we wanted to see. We didn’t venture very far in the end, having been enchanted the instant we passed through a portal to the Old City, and spent most of our days exploring the geographically small area within its walls.
We arrived by bus and then spent several minutes trying to figure out how to get from the bus station to our accommodations. We finally learned of a local bus that took us closer to the Old City, but most of it is car free (technically speaking), and there was road construction on the main road in, so the bus dropped us off in a decrepit parking lot near the sea. I pulled out my mobile phone to help guide us the rest of the way. We eventually discovered that it was a much shorter distance than Google Maps made it.
We found ourselves in the cool, dark passageways between the outer walls. They were lined with freshly caught fish on ice, marble pestle and mortar sets, cheap plastic buckets and storage bins, pomegranate-shaped ceramics, nargilah in a variety of sizes and colours, piles of sweet-smelling fruits, bins of seemingly useless items, patterned scarves – myriads of items to appeal to both the tourist and the local. We noticed one of the walls had a sign pointing the way to Arabesque, so we followed it rather than the uncertain route on my phone, winding our way through more passages, twisting ahead out of sight and breaking off into offshoots, until we found the next sign. We walked right past the door of Arabesque, but some children playing out in the passage noticed us with our backpacks and swarmed around us. They rang the bell of the door we were standing by as we looked around, lost. As it opened, we noticed the sign above it.
Inside was paradise. The building is a remnant of the Ottoman Empire, a few hundred years old, but its beauty has been restored to that of its early days and radiates charm and comfort. We instantly felt at home there, and our hosts for our five nights there made certain the feeling never dissipated.
The retreat is owned by the writer Evan Fallenberg and his son Micha. Evan was out of town while we were there but Micha was the ultimate host, preparing amazing breakfasts for us each morning and even taking the time to make us a mouthwatering fish dish on our last evening. He also knew the city and area very well and gave us a ton of information and tips on what to do and where to eat. Feeling slightly overwhelmed by all the information, names and directions, we decided the best starting point would be the rooftop bar of the Efendi Hotel, also a fantastically restored building, to watch the sunset. We had plenty of time to get there so we followed the sea wall around to the harbour and tried to get our bearings. We didn’t, of course, but we did learn to signs and recognize a few of the key intersections of passages.
It was still early when we arrived at Efendi and we had our own private bartender escort us to the roof to serve us a sundowner. He was very friendly and curious about us, but we had just as many questions for him and ended up having a lengthy, enjoyable conversation before more guests arrived for the spectacle and we were left to ourselves while he worked the terrace.
Sunset was slow and large beyond the sea, burning the sky above the waves red while casting blue and pink glows in the sky over the Old City. I didn’t know where to look as both sights were breathtaking.
Fortunately we had enough time to enjoy the entire panoramic view cast by the disappearing sun.
Once night settled in, we crossed the Old City in as straightforward a fashion as the paths allowed, to reach the Khan Ash Shawarda, a former caravanserai built over a convent from the Crusader era and restored, now filled with cafés and restaurants. It was still very warm outside and the square was soon packed with people watching the dozens of outdoor TVs showing a popular Arab reality show that we had trouble following but everyone else seemed to be enjoying. Laughter was nearly constant. The food at the restaurant we chose wasn’t particularly good, but the experience was worthwhile. We went back another day for lunch and found an excellent, simple café that we returned to for fuel when we were close enough.
The next morning we learned that the next few days were a Jewish holiday, effectively shutting down the public transportation we had hoped to use for our day trips. Within Akko this wasn’t a problem as the city is small enough, and really only possible, to explore by foot. Akko is predominately Muslim so day-to-day life would not be affected by the Jewish holiday, except it also happened to be Ramadan, which we realized before we went to Israel, so many shops in the Old City were closed during the day. We realized we would be relying on taxi more than we had anticipated though, so revised our plan to essentially no plan at all.
That morning we walked to the outer wall of the city and met a taxi there that drove us the few kilometres outside of Akko to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, which is surrounded by a stunning garden. It was very hot and we wore respectable, skin covering clothes, which protected us from the sun but not the heat.
The gardens were fantastic, but I will let the photos speak for it. We walked down a very long, burning bright path lined with borders which were in turn lined with cypresses, to reach the inner gardens surrounding the shrine. We had to pass a little security quiz to enter this part and were given instructions on what was going to happen and what was expected of us upon crossing the threshold. This was all said respectfully and informatively, and we were greeted at the end of the path, just outside the shrine, by a guide who walked us through the shrine and told us a little about it. Inside was a small room with its own green space and water feature. It was very soothing and I imagined a very peaceful place to meditate – which a few of the faith’s followers were doing inside.
We then could stroll through the surrounding gardens quietly and reflectively before making the long walk back to the entrance gate of the outer gardens. From the road we tried to hail a taxi but few passed and none stopped. We were walking along the busy road which was blessedly lined with shade-providing trees when we came upon a bus stop with someone standing at it. We thought that was a good indication a bus may actually come, and one eventually did. We rode it in to town, the outer city of Akko, and noticed many shops were open so we decided to take a look around and get something to eat.
Since the city was so lively, we thought maybe the reason that brought us to Akko, the Underground Prisoners Museum, would be open too. We walked to yet another part of the Old City we hadn’t seen yet, trying to find the museum. We could walk around the outer prison walls but couldn’t find an entrance. We asked and were directed to the city fortress. The fortress is actually a complex and you can buy a ticket to see the major sites of Akko there. The prison museum is run by the military and requires a passport check, which we had brought with us just in case, but it was closed. So we decided to check out the Hospitaller Fortress instead. We took the excellent audio guide, but it was so full of fascinating information that we were lost in the dark halls of the fortress for hours, and realized we were late for our included entry to the Turkish Baths, or Hamam al- Basha. We rushed over, through the garden courtyard of the fortress, passed the bus parking lot and shops of its outer walls, and into the pedestrian passage to the entrance of the baths.
The Hamam al- Basha is visited via an automated tour with audio and video guides, lights indicating which door to go through next as they open and close. It starts with an introductory video introducing us to the imaginary multi-generational family of attendants. It takes less than an hour and as we were the last entry of the day, we were the only two people in the group for that run of the tour. The videos are quite funny and the displays in the rooms of the bathouse are very well done.
The tour was really informative, discussing not just the history of the baths but of the city they were built for during the Ottoman Empire and after. We really enjoyed it and the fortress and even went back the next day to redo the fortress tour, having been given too much information the first time around to remember much. The Underground Prisoners Museum was still closed. But we did get in eventually…
For dinner we went to an excellent seafood restaurant recommended by Micha. We thought we had the wrong place because it was nearly empty and we were told we probably needed a reservation, but the server told us it was very strange to have it so empty and was probably because it was still early in the month of Ramadan (it was already dark outside when we arrived). The restaurant is called El Marsa and is right in the Old City port, with excellent food and service and a decent looking wine cellar too. For fresh seafood and wine, the prices were very reasonable.
This post is getting quite lengthy, so rest your scrolling fingers and stay tuned for more on the Underground Prisoners Museum visit and the other sites of Akko, as well as a day trip to Haifa, in Part 2 of this entry.