4000 years

Akko is old. Very old. It was inhabited without interruption for over 4000 years. It did get destroyed and rebuilt a few times but it still feels that old. It reminds me a bit of the medina of Marrakech, with the same maze of narrow alleys and markets,  except better maintained and cleaner.

The main attraction is the crusader citadel, built by Templar Knights 800 years ago. It’s a large complex with huge vaulted halls,  courtyards, and an entire underground city,  all very well maintained with only a few gaps filled in with modern materials. They really make you feel like the knights might walk in and sit down in the huge dining hall any moment. There is also an old Turkish bathhouse,  the Hammam al-Pasha, a forgettable modern museum and an intriguing historical museum in the city wall that packs more artifacts per square meter than any other museum I have been to, arranged in historical workshops. Akko also has a delightful old port.

Saturday in Israel is the Shabbat,  where everything shuts down,  even public transport and most restaurants. Not so in the old town of Akko because it’s 90% Muslim. Getting back to Tel Aviv was also easy -  trains and buses are out,  but large taxi vans,  Sheruts, still operate. My connection in Haifa was seamless,  the drivers are happy to help. During the hour-long drive from Haifa to Tel Aviv I had to sit on the floor though; demand for Sheruts is high on Shabbat.

Israel’s Mediterranean coast

I am still amazed how close everything is in Israel. In a few hours you can go all the way up or down the coast from Tel Aviv. Caesarea is an hour north. It’s an old town dating back before Roman times that was turned into a fairly large city by the Herod.  Many large caverns open to the beach, ruins of Roman homes with mosaic floors,  a large marble terrace with columns,  a bathhouse with the remains of the underground steam heating system, and the obligatory hippodrome (U-shaped horse racing circuit with a side business of gladiator fights) and theater,  which is still used today. All that with beautiful views of the sea.

Next stop was Haifa. I found it rather boring,  and for some reason everybody I talked to was grumpy and unhelpful. I never found that bus that would take me north,  so in the end I went with a (grumpy) taxi driver.

Akko,  on the other side of the bay from Haifa, is the opposite. It has a stunning old town, a maze of ancient sandstone houses with a maze of narrow alleys,  arches,  vaults,  markets,  and tunnels. One of those,  the very long Templar Crusader tunnel, runs from the Templar’s main temple complex in the middle of the town to the sea. Most of it is still intact, with a few repairs done in modern times. Now I now why the Haifa are so grumpy: they’d rather live in Akko.

No elephants

Asia – images of elephants, pagodas, monks in orange robes, and noisy scooters. But not this time. I am in Jaffa, Israel, at the western edge of Asia. It’s easy to get here, there are no formalities of any kind and none of the interviews and inspections I was expecting. Israel is far nicer to tourists than the USA.

Tel Aviv is a beautiful city with lots of trees, if you ignore the hotel highrises at the coast. I chose a hotel in Jaffa, a quiet old town at the southern edge of Tel Aviv. And in this country, when something is old, it means that it was old when the Romans came.

The northern old town is, appropriately, a maze of narrow twisty passages, although not huge and all those art galleries and souvenir shops take away some of the charm. The southern old town is larger and doesn’t have this problem, and I have seen few tourists there. They go where the souvenirs are I suppose.

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