Northern charm

Northern charm

From Alexander the Great to Napoleon Bonaparte, via Marco Polo, from the Romans to the British, via the Ottomans, the ancient city of Akko (Acre) has seen them all. This Crusader city in Israel’s north is believed to have been continuously settled since the Phoenician period, and what is visible today is characteristic of a fortified Ottoman town from two centuries ago.

Between them, the heady fragrance of za’tar spice sprinkled upon fresh flatbread in the bakeries hidden in the narrow lanes of the Arab souq, and the call for midday prayer floating from deep inside the towering minarets reaching up towards the sky, stand testimony to these Ottoman origins. (In fact, my trusty guidebook suggests that the city has remained more or less unchanged since Marco Polo passed through it over 750 years ago on his way to China).

Meanwhile, the remains of the Crusader town, dating back to the early 12th -late 13th century are intact at two levels, above and below street level at the main citadel. These provide curious visitors and serious historians alike a fairly clear idea of the capital of the medieval Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.

A new world

The entire history of the Crusades was pieced together after excavations began in the area in the 1950s, revealing subterranean structures that stayed more or less intact even as others had been built on top of them by following generations. As I walk through the underground hall that now serves as an art gallery — what a marvellous idea to have such a contemporary and creative set-up in such an ancient and volatile site — I can sense that the thousands of years of history weigh heavy on the red walls and the curved arches of these chambers.

The name ‘Akko’ is supposed to have Greek roots ­— from the word for cure ‘aka’ — since Greek mythology has it that Hercules once found therapeutic herbs to heal a serious wound in this very city.

After being in the shadows all along, Akko has suddenly been finding itself in the spotlight of tourists along the Mediterranean trail, looking for a historical pit stop. And with 4,500 years of chequered history and the UNESCO world heritage status for its old city, it serves as the perfect offbeat destination for jaded travellers like me.

From the citadel, I exit the slightly claustrophobic Templars Tunnel into the fresh air. Well, not quite, since the path leads straight into the teeming Arab souq, lined on both sides with shops offering everything from multihued headscarves to mounds of frankincense.

Breakfast is already a distant memory by then, and the street stalls selling aromatic breads beckon, as we stop to taste from the friendly women who take the pita and boureka straight out of the ovens for us.

Everyone in Akko, Jews and Arabs alike, has a ready smile and a friendly word for Indians. From the souq, we wend our way through more crowded alleyways towards the old port, deftly missing the clip-clopping horse carriages that somehow manage to squeeze through these impossibly narrow spaces.

From Akko, we head further up, towards Rosh Hanikra in the north-western end of Israel, very close to the Lebanon border (at one point, a distance boards suggests that Beirut is much closer than Jerusalem).

Here, the aquamarine Mediterranean meets a bunch of chalky limestone cliffs, creating a dramatic series of sea caves. The network of Rosh Hanikra sea grottoes were formed in the aftermath of underground shocks that ripped the bedrock open, slowly letting seawater permeate into the gaps, forming tunnels and caves over thousands of years.

From near the parking lot, a dizzyingly steep cable car zips us down 200 feet to the entrance of the caves in a couple of minutes. I make my way gingerly through the slippery passage for a closer look at the grand spectacle of the sea waves crashing ceaselessly against the unyielding rocks, a fierce battle of wills played out by two powerful forces of nature.

Freedom to be

I end the day getting lost once more in a labyrinth of winding passages and steep stone staircases, this time in the town of Tsfat (also called Safed). Known to be a centre for Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism for several centuries now, it is also one of the four holy cities of Judaism. However, the vibe in modern Tsfat comes from its interesting mix of conservative Jews and Bohemian artists who throng its streets.

Tsfat is just perfect for an evening of aimless wandering; from ancient synagogues to kitschy souvenir shops and vibrant art galleries, I find myself stopping every five minutes to peek at something new or quirky that catches my attention in this small town tucked into the hills of the Upper Galilee region.

Everyone knows about the superstars of Israel’s tourism circuit like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but who knew this country had such stellar secrets hidden up its sleeves, far away from the buzz of the main cities?

DH Newsletter Privacy Policy Get top news in your inbox daily
Comments (+)