Akko has the habit of getting older every year, but by 40 years.” Uri Jeremias, our host for tonight’s dinner and a man who looks as much like Santa Claus as any I’ve ever met, pauses like he’s waiting for us to solve his riddle. “When I started this restaurant in Akko 21 years ago, it was declared as 4500 years of living history, now it’s 5300!” He laughs, his long grey beard grazing his round belly. We clink glasses of Israeli chenin blanc in appreciation.
This is the last in a long line of impressive Akko (also known as Acre) facts Jeremias has been telling us as we’ve dined with him in his famed seafood restaurant Uri Buri, housed in an old Turkish stone mansion looking across to the Mediterranean Sea. Over the past two hours, as we’ve devoured his deliciously fresh and uncomplicated seafood dishes, Jeremias has told us that this small Israeli port city is a perfect example of co-existence. It’s where Jews, Arabs, Christians and Baha’í live and work peacefully together, without tension and almost no police or army presence – a rarity in Israel.
He has also told us that Akko is surrounded by excellent small farms and wineries, creating the high-quality produce and unique flavours that are putting Israel so firmly on the foodie map. It’s surrounded by stunning national parks and is historically rich too, he tells us, holding remains of Crusader towns dating back as far as 1104.
I understand all the convincing. After all, Akko is located in northern Israel’s Galilee region, where travel advisory sites will warn you to exercise a high degree of caution when visiting. It’s just a 20-minute drive from the heavily fortified Lebanese border and off the track beaten of most Holy Land tourists. Jeremias has already outlined how difficult it can be to promote international tourism to a region where the travel warnings are severe, and from where news stories in the international media are almost entirely bad. And yet, just one afternoon in Akko has already rendered any winning-over unnecessary. We’re completely smitten, and convinced that this northern region just might be one of Israel’s best-kept secrets.
Admittedly, these feelings have so far largely been induced by the charms of the Efendi Boutique Hotel. Also owned by Jeremias, the 12-room hotel is one of Israel’s most luxurious, a merging of two Ottoman-era palaces, that Jeremias spent eight years painstakingly restoring and converting with the help of Israel’s Antiquities Authority. After arriving earlier in the afternoon and admiring the meticulously restored ceiling frescoes, the 400-year-old Turkish bath and the Crusader-era wine cellar and bar, my travel companion and I headed straight up to the breezy rooftop terrace for a sundowner. The Mediterranean Sea was winking at us from a few hundred metres away. The Muslim call to prayer was ringing out around us. We looked out over the crowns of the city’s mosques, synagogues, churches and Baha’i temples and raised our glasses to unity. To finding, in a country largely identified by its divisions and conflicts, a place where different cultures and faiths live peacefully side by side.
As morning dawns, we step out onto the dishevelled cobbled streets of the fortified old city and wander through winding alleyways lined with ancient sandstone buildings, their window frames painted green and blue, washing flapping from lines strung across their facades. We pass Muslim women in head scarves and street signs written in Arabic, a just-married Christian couple having their wedding photos taken by the seafront, and smiling, wizened fishermen hawking their wares from hole-in-the-wall shopfronts. We peer into Ottoman-era granite caravanserai and through carvings in the ancient stone ramparts to the roiling green sea, and get turned around in the zig-zagging alleyways of the market, filled with the scent of spices and cardamom coffee, freshly smashed tahini and frying fish.
It’s a fascinating insight into Akko’s cultural fusion, and Jeremias was right; we haven’t seen a single gun-toting soldier all morning, a ubiquitous sight in other parts of Israel including the tourist hubs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The most intriguing side of Akko, however, and one of the main reasons why its old city became Israel’s first UNESCO World Heritage site back in 2001, lies beneath our feet. Escaping the fierce midday sun, we make our way underground into the 350-metre-long Templars’ Tunnel. Created in the 12th century by the Knights Templar, it strategically connected their main fortress in the west to the city’s port in the east. Walking through the dimly lit stone passageway in the footsteps of the Crusaders is an extraordinary experience, and one that truly drives home the idea that this is one of the oldest living cities on the planet.
Soon, it’s time to farewell Akko and drive into the Upper Galilee to our next destination, Safed. We’re not quite ready to farewell the Mediterranean Sea yet though, so we take a detour along the coast to the Lebanese border. There, set into the cliffs hovering above the sea, we discover the Rosh Hanikra grottoes. A small red cable car takes us down to the caves, which have been naturally carved into the cliffs by the forces of the sea over millions of years. We wander through a network of tunnels linking the caves, stopping every few metres to watch the green ocean slapping up against the stark white chalk cliffs. It’s hypnotising and also a little strange, watching something so peaceful in a place just 100 metres away from where the 34-day Lebanon War raged over a decade ago.
The sun is starting to set by the time we arrive in Safed. A golden glow is sweeping through the town’s biscuit-coloured stone alleyways, setting the stained-glass windows that characterise the town ablaze. By happy chance our arrival in the city, a centre of Kabbalah Jewish mysticism since the 16th century and one of Judaism’s four holiest cities, has landed on a Saturday, the Jewish Shabbat day of rest. The town’s boutiques, restaurants and art galleries are all closed for the day, giving us the perfect opportunity to watch the quiet streets fill with devout local families strolling after synagogue. We walk along with them, passing men dressed in heavy black coats and rabbit fur hats with tight, shiny ringlets hanging by their ears. The women are in turbans, modest blouses and ankle-skimming skirts, many trailed by four or more children. It’s quiet; the air is still. We agree that this place seems touched by a special energy, but the atheists among us decide it probably has something to do with Safed being the highest town in Israel. A few hours later, however, we find ourselves on the rooftop of our guesthouse, chatting to the devout owner who has other ideas.
“There’s a reason why the energy in Safed is so special,” he tells us, nodding his head towards the mountains spreading out before us.
“The famous second-century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who wrote the Zohar (the chief work of the Kabbalah), was buried in that mountain over there. So, they say Safed has geula, or redemptive energy and light, coming down to it from heaven.”
Whether or not we believe in the geula, it has played a part in drawing spiritual seekers to Safed since the 16th century. Back then, Sephardic rabbis, sages and poets escaping the Spanish inquisition settled here, making it a destination for Jews wishing to get a blessing or advice from the rabbis, and giving the city a unique, bohemian character. Today this atmosphere remains and continues to draw not only Kabbalists and new-age hippie types, but also many artists and creatives.
In the town’s Artist Quarter, we spend hours exploring the dozens of small art galleries and craft boutiques, selling everything from handmade candles and jewellery to weavings and ceramics, scattered among the synagogues. When the heat of the day gets too much, we take the 20-minute drive to the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s biggest freshwater lake and the place where Jesus supposedly walked on water. The lake’s circumference is dotted with Christian holy sites, including the Mount of Beatitudes and the ancient village of Capernaum, and numerous small beaches. We stop at one called Hukuk, laying our towels out under the palm trees, surrounded by dozens of picnicking Arab families.
A lazy afternoon of slipping in and out of the water and reading on the grass ensues. We don’t see a single foreign tourist the whole time, nor do we when we arrive back in Safed for a sunset dinner at Gan Eden mountaintop restaurant. As we nibble tasty fish kebabs and charred eggplant salad accompanied by crisp Israeli chardonnay that golden light is thrown over the mountains once more.
Wine has been produced in the region since ancient times, but it’s only in recent years that the country has become known for its thriving wine economy. Of the its five wine regions, the Galilee’s high elevation, hot days, cool nights and well-drained soils make it the most suited to grape growing. As we drive further north, we pass through rolling hills covered in vineyards, that sit alongside orchards and cattle ranches. When we reach the Golan Heights, the closest area in Israel to the Syrian border, we also start to see abandoned Syrian bunkers and tanks. They’re sombre reminders of the tumultuous history of this area.
Conflict, however, feels worlds away as we start our hike through the Yehudiya Forest Nature Reserve. The rocky terrain is carpeted with dry yellow grasses, stocky olive trees and the remainder of spring’s purple globe thistle flowers. It is beautiful in that raw, elemental way Israeli landscapes often are. After 90 minutes of sweaty hiking, the earth finally splits open and drops into a lush canyon, from the bottom of which a deep natural pool beckons. As soon as we reach its banks we throw our sweat-soaked bodies into the cool water, and swim surrounded by hundreds of hexagonal basalt columns formed from lava flows millions of years ago. It’s otherworldly.
Afterwards, we lay out on the smooth rocks under oleander trees heavy with pink flowers. Aside from a lone park ranger quietly building a small rock cairn by the shore, we’re the only ones here. We wonder why, for perhaps the tenth time since arriving in northern Israel four days ago, this region isn’t crawling with tourists. For the moment, though, we’re glad we have it all to ourselves.
Cathay Pacific Airways flies to Tel Aviv via Hong Kong from every capital city for about US$1218 return. From Tel Aviv, you can hire a driver or rent a car to get up north, or take a train, which takes roughly two hours.
The Efendi Boutique Hotel is set just 100 metres from Akko’s seafront promenade. Its 12 bright and airy rooms are spread over three levels, are all modern and air conditioned with WiFi, and outfitted with antique furniture. An excellent Israeli breakfast is included in the room rate, and a spa session in the ancient Turkish bath is not to be missed. From US$304 a night.