A perfectly preserved Crusader city, located directly underneath a city conquered in turn over the centuries by Canaanites, Romans, Turks, and the British, the Old City of Akko is a riveting, spell-binding journey into the past.
Day Four—Akko (the city of Old Acre), Rosh Hanikra Grottoes, and Carmel Beach, Haifa
For our last day in Israel, we woke early, ate breakfast in our rented apartment, and headed north in our little rental car to Akko, eager to tackle our ambitious itinerary for the day. Traffic out of Tel-Aviv/Yafo was, as always, clotted and mildly fevered, but once we hit the major highways north, the journey was swift. We reached Akko and the city of Old Acre by 9:00a.m., which, at the height of summer, meant there was ample parking available along the Western Sea Wall, on Hahaganna road. (Later in the day, the area was packed with cars).The port of Akko was first mentioned in relation to the Greek campaign to conquer Egypt in 527 BCE and was built during the reign of Ptolemais II (285-246 BCE).
In the 13th century, Akko became the capital of the Crusader Kingdom in the Holy Land, but after the Ottoman conquest, it was neglected and reduced to a fisherman’s harbour.
Alas, garbage is strewn about most of the sea walls and the promenades of Old Acre stink of urine. The views of the sea, however, are splendid.At that early hour, we were the first to reach the eastern end of the Templar Tunnel, the entrance to which we walked by twice before discovering, as it is a humble little shack. We purchased a “bundled” ticket which permitted us access to the Templar Tunnel, the Hopitaller Fortress, and the Treasures in the Walls Museum.The Templars were a monastic military order that guarded European pilgrims arriving in the Holy Land from the 12th to the 14th century. The tunnel served as a strategic underground passageway linking the Templar fortress at the western end (opposite to where we started) to the port, a distance of 350 meters.With water burbling beneath the tunnel’s boardwalk, and with our backs stooped in places due to low archways, the cool, dark passage perfectly captured the romantic mystique I’ve always associated with the Templars. We exited at the western end of the tunnel, at the 18th century Khan Al-Umdan, a large caravanserai near the port and once the hub of international trade.
From there we happily lost ourselves in the picturesque maze of alleys and streets of Old Acre.Somehow, we eventually found ourselves at the el-Jazzar Mosque. A brochure informed us that the inscription over the entrance declares that the mosque was consecrated in 1781, early in the rule of Ahmed el Jazzar in Akko.
In Arabic, the mosque is “Jama El Basha”, the Mosque of the Pasha; formerly, it was called “Jama El Anwar”, the Mosque of the Lights. The largest mosque in Israel outside Jerusalem, it is also the largest mosque built in Israel during the Ottoman period. Women must cover their legs and arms to enter, and the fee/ticket-taker at the entrance has a number of long wraps to serve as skirts. I thought it deliberate that they were handing infidel women skirts patterned with flames.
After the mosque, we once more became splendidly lost in the twisting alleys of Old Acre, despite the plethora of little street signs posted on the stone walls.
We eventually wandered into a colourful alley replete with cafes and the kinds of clothes that jingle with fake coins and are popular with people who like dreadlocks.
This may or may not have been Market Street, the main thoroughfare of the Old City (we were by now completely lost). During the Crusader period, Market Street led from the Hospitallers Gate in the north, along the route of the market to the port.
We then wandered through the Turkish Bazaar (or we think we did—we still weren’t certain where we were).Eventually, we made our way to the Enchanted Garden, a delightfully shady spot that is aptly named.
From there we proceeded into the Hospitaller Fortress and the Knights Halls.
The sheer scale of this fortress is mind-boggling, especially when one envisions that beneath its cross-vault ceilings, in its halls hewn from stone, knights and barefoot pilgrims teemed, over 700 years ago.
The headquarters consisted of built-up wings constructed around a large central courtyard, where the knights practiced their sword-fighting skills.
By the time we finished wandering through the Fortress, far more of the day was gone that we’d anticipated. Weary but determined to use our last ticket, we found our way towards the Treasures in the Wall Museum, which boasted that “the items on display shed light on the fabric of life in the Galilee over the past 150 years.”
Dusty, ill-lit, and perched on the urine-reeking-and-litter-decorated Eastern Wall, this tiny museum reminded me of a rundown antique store stuffed with any memorabilia older than 50 years. While there were a few items of interest in there, it was definitely not worth the time, effort, or money to visit.
The day was growing late. We deliberated upon the feasibility of speeding north to the Rosh Hanikra Grottoes in time to see it before closing, and, given the heat, the late hour, and our desire to splash about the seaside, we reluctantly decided we’d forgo the grottoes. Instead, we made our way back to the car (once more going through the Templar Tunnel, as tickets allow passageway both east and west), plopped into our 4-wheeled oven, and zipped along the roads to Carmel Beach, where we frolicked in the waves while a lifeguard angrily blared through a loudspeaker at all the swimmers who dared venture too far into the rambunctious surf.After I was stung nastily by jellyfish, we made swift use of the beach showers and hastened to the car, returning to Tel Aviv exhausted and happy. Instead of dining that night at The Lebanese Restaurant (we’d had our fill of falafel for the day), we ate at the Cafe Bistro Rogette, adjacent to our rented apartment on Hamelech Hiram in old Jaffa. David had a beef stroganoff made with scalloped potatoes, and it was so divinely creamy, my vegetarian self ignored the strips of dead cow in order to savour some of the creamy ‘taters. I had ordered stuffed vegetables, which were bland and heavily laden with rice. Laced with some of David’s stroganoff sauce, they were heavenly. Service was memorably slow, if not downright disdainful.
Tip 1: More Time!
I’d like to wave a magic wand and re-do the day so that we toured more of Old Akko in less time and managed to see the grottoes to the north. Short of decreasing my age by about 20 years and taking the kind of high-performance drugs that some athletes use, I don’t imagine there was any feasible way of achieving this in 38 Celsius heat.
As it was, we thoroughly enjoyed Old Acre, which warrants a day or two in itself, as there was so much we missed in our visit, such as the Turkish bathhouse, the Underground Prisoners Museum, and the Ohr Torah and Ramchal Synagogues.
Tip 2: Ticket scams
There are scam artists on Old Acre’s ramparts and sea wall promenades who insist you buy a ticket from them for the “enjoyment freedom” to wander the walls. The tickets look legitimate. One accosted us, but by simply telling him we’d already paid for a ticket at the Treasures in the Wall Museum,he sheepishly returned to the wall he’d been lurking behind before he’d pounced on us.
Tip 3: Parking, and The Need to Arrive Early
Again, as with all the places we visited in Israel, we easily found parking as it was height of summer and the intense heat kept the majority of tourists away. Due to the very limited parking available in the old city of Akko, this looks like it would be a real issue when it is not the `off-season’.
Have you been to Israel and have something to add? We’d love to hear from you!