On Sunday, after relatively no sleep from the night before (due to the Art Fair), I was up at 9am to meet Dana, head to the train station, and venture up to the Northern Israeli City of Akko. I was especially excited to go to Akko because it is a very mixed city where Jews and Arabs live side by side, it is so steeped in history, and supposedly one of the most beautiful cities in Israel. First, however, I had the pleasure of taking my first Israeli train ride. There is a train station that comes right to the university which makes getting around Israel so convenient. I don't remember the last time I took a train, but it is such a great way to see the country. The tracks ran through lush green valleys, then there were times where all you could see was desert like scenery, and then all of a sudden we were traveling along the coast, with the entire ocean to the side of us. It was a great ride!
When we arrived in Akko I was blown away by the scenery. On one hand there was the new city with modern apartments, shops, and cafes, and only a few minutes away was the gorgeous stunning, and ancient old city of Akko. Before we ventured into the Old City, home to the Al-Jazzar Mosque, the prisons that held Jewish and Arab prisoners during the British protectorate, and the old Turkish baths, we met up with a woman Dana knew from her previous job (Ghada, a teacher and mediator from Akko), and she took us to this amazing restaurant right on the water. Since Akko is a mixed city there are more relaxed Kosher laws meaning it is much easier to find non Kosher food. We ate at a gorgeous seafood place and I took full advantage of the fact that the food I was about to eat was something you could probably only find in one or two places around Israel. I had a delectable dish of muscles in a garlic cream sauce, and devoured the entire plate as if I had never eaten food before. The view from the restaurant was unbelievable; right on the water overlooking all of Haifa.
After a delicious, intoxicating lunch, Ghada was able to get us free tickets to tour most of the sites in the Old City, and personally delivered us to the gates and left us to explore. At the entrance to the Old City was a beautiful Garden where we picked up our maps, planned out what we were going to see first, and began our tour.
First it was off to the Citadel of Akko where we explored underground tunnels, caves, caverns, and had the feeling of being in an underground city made of stone and rock. The underground tunnels were used as passage during British rule, although I'm sure their significance goes back centuries before during the time of the Crusaders. It was as if I were walking back in time; standing in the middle of history herself. The simplistic beauty of the stone walls and arches were overwhelming, and the architecture was fantastically fascinating. I don't know what it is about Old Cities, but I can't help falling in love with them. Maybe it is because there is so much history there, or maybe it is because that history is so well preserved and free of modern influences, but whatever it may be, I found myself completely taken in by Akko's charms.
When we had finished our exploration of the Citadel it was off to the famous Turkish Bath house (Il-Hamman Il-Turkey), and there is only one word to describe it: Stunning! The first room of the bath house was called the fountain room, and it was constructed of beautiful stone and marble. It was the room where all the men would gather, remove their clothes, see specialists and doctors, and get themselves ready to go into the hotter rooms and steam rooms.
After seeing a short film on the history of the Bath House, dating back to the time of Sheikh Al-Jazzar himself, learning of how men and women would come here to see doctors, rest, relax, gossip, and catch up with friends (separately of course), we continued our tour through the other rooms. We went through the warm rooms, hot rooms, the steam rooms, and really got to see first hand how the bath houses worked. Along with their gorgeous architecture and beautiful stones, they had statues which really gave us a feel of how people used the various elements of each room in the bath house.
When we finished our tour of the Bath House, we did a little more Old City exploration and then met Ghada who took us to meet with another one of Dana's contacts (she met all of these people through her old job and had quite a network in Akko). We drove from the Old City into new Akko to the Municipality where we met with the head of the Social Work department. He was a very nice man who had about 45 minutes to show us around the new city and beaches of Akko. We left with him from the municipality and walked a few minutes to the city met the ocean. It was absolutely breathtaking. The view was magnificent and it was absolutely picture perfect. It was as if God took the best aspects of Old Jerusalem, and the best aspects of the beaches in Tel Aviv and threw them together to make Akko.
When Dana's friend's 45 minutes was up we went back with him to his office in the Municipality, and had about 30 minutes to hang around there while we waited for Dana's 3rd contact to come and show us around in the evening. We sat outside of the municipality, relaxing from our rather hectic day, and after about 30 minutes a man named Ilan came to meet with us. The best way to describe Ilan is by saying he is a little man with a larger than life personality. He reminds me of a male version of my Bubby :-). He is very involved with his community and is a native resident of Akko. He speaks his native Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and English, and is so involved in co-exsistence, peace making, community betterment, and so on. He decided he would take us to his neighborhood so that we could see, first hand, co-existence at its best. He lives in a very mixed community filled with Arabs, Jews, and Russians, and he is so proud, to say the least, of where he comes from. He glowed when he told us of how the residents are working to make the community more beautiful, took us to a few community gardens, and then took us to a sort of community center where we met some more residents of his neighborhood. I immediately struck up a conversation with a young man who was Israeli but spoke Arabic, and we found a good amount of things to talk about. He was trying to figure out my connection to Arabic, and when I told him I had no immediate connection, he told me at first he thought I might be Lebanese, because I have the look of many of the Lebanese singers. Super huge compliment in my book :-). After a while at the center, and an invitation to meet the guy's family (the one who I was speaking Arabic with), Dana and I were getting hungry, so Ilan took us to get some delicious Akko Pizza! I naturally got pizza filled to the brim with every type of olive (I'm quite obsessed with the olives here), and it was magnificent!
After a great dinner, and even better conversations, it was time for Dana and I to head back to the train station. We didn't want to take the chance of missing the last train and being stuck without a hotel in Akko, so we left ourselves enough time to make it back. We said our goodbyes to Ilan, and were on our way. We made it to the station with no problems, got on the train, and ended up back home around 11pm. It was such an amazing day filled with amazing activities, and I met so many great people. I can't wait to go back and visit, and know that this is just the beginning of my exploration of this amazing country! Since the last few days were extremely hectic, we all decided that today would be used for rest and relaxation. Tomorrow it is off to Haifa, and then Wednesday it is back to school after a wonderful five day vacation!
Stay tuned for a more reflective post today and then a post about Haifa tomorrow!!!
Missing you all,