Forty minutes by train from Haifa, lies the city of Acre. Also known as Akko, Ako and Akka it is the holiest city of the Bahá'í faith and one of the oldest (5,000 years) continuously-inhabited settlements on Earth.
We’d travelled north for a day trip to visit Crusader remains from the time of the Knights Hospitaller and Templars. Before arriving, though, we were treated to some street art on the two kilometre walk from the train station to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Old City of Acre.
Like all good tourists, we walked through the city gates to the pretty Tourist Information Centre where we were able to purchase our combination ticket to the main attractions: the Hospitaller Fortress, the Templar Tunnels, Okashi Museum and the Treasures in the Walls Museum. For an additional fee they also include the Turkish Bath, but we took into consideration our, I mean our kids, limited attention span and declined, thinking that would be overkill.
Instead, we decided to fork out an extra 10 shekels for each of the kids to have the Virtual Reality tour - a 360 degree experience that guaranteed eight minutes of silence for us as they underwent modern day entertainment about the past.
Both kids rated the VR experience brilliant, although I’m sure we got the better end of the deal, as apart from the peace and quiet, we also got to see the priceless expressions on their faces as they looked randomly around at, what was for us, completely nothing.
After the VR introduction, it was onward, Christian Soldiers to the Hospitaller Fortress. The Knights Hospitaller or Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem to give them their full title, were a military, monastic order founded in the 11th century to provide care and safety for pilgrims who visited the Holy Land. Alongside the Knights Templar, they became the most famous and formidable military orders in the Holy Land and built many of the more substantial Christian fortifications, including the Hospitaller Fortress. At the height of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Hospitallers held seven great forts and 140 other estates in the area.
To date, an area of about 5,000 square metres has been excavated of the Hospitaller Fortress, encompanning the central court and the northern, eastern and southern wings. This provided us with more than enough space to wander around and get a feel for life as a Crusader knight.
The people now in charge of the fortress have done a real good job of providing a range of visual displays to supplement the bricks and mortar that have been excavated and restored. Projections of scenes onto walls and floors made sure that our kids stayed engaged for most of the hour or so that we spent here.
The Crusaders, of course, weren’t destined to last. As we’d learnt earlier in our travels, Saladin conquered the Kingdom of Jerusalem after winning the Battle of Hattin in 1187, whilst inflicting heavy losses on the Crusaders. The Third Crusade launched afterwards did eventually recapture Acre in 1191, where it then became the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and from here the religious orders made their headquarters in and around the city.
However, in 1291, close to 200,000 Mamluks laid siege to a force of about 20,000 Crusaders with the inevitable result being defeat for the Templars and Knights Hopitaller. This defeat signaled the end of the Jerusalem crusades, with no further efforts made to recapture the Holy Land thereafter.
Moving on from the Fortress we wandered through parts of the attractive old city taking more than the odd wrong turn, which helped us “discover” some other sights we wouldn’t ordinarily have seen.
Eventually we stumbled upon Ha-Dayagim Venzezia Square, in the old port area, which afforded some great views of the Acre clock tower built above the Khan El-Umdan (Khan of the Pillars), an inn constructed in 1784.
After our feed of chips (the fish looked a bit too non-battered in the menu pictures for our sensitive wee ones), we located the signs leading back to the Templar Tunnels. Only discovered in 1994 due to a blocked sewer pipe that required fixing, the tunnel was built by the Knights Templar connecting the Templar palace to the port.
To be honest, this one fell into the “looks better on paper than seeing it in the flesh” camp. Running for 150 metres, its not exactly of Waterview Tunnel proportions, but back in the day when it was constructed, it represents a pretty impressive feat.
Exiting the tunnel took us not that far from Acre’s Lighthouse, where we were then able to walk the old city’s seawalls taking in views out towards Haifa in the distance.
After all that walking, it was time to take one more hike back to the train station. En route we took in the Treasures in the Wall Museum. Had I done a bit more research, I might’ve been a bit warier of visiting, as it is described as being a “cultural museum in a historic fort showcasing vintage household items & tools used in everyday life”. When visiting, it reminded me of some sort of flashed-up Uncle Arthur’s old tool shed. Certainly not worth paying for and unless you’re really desperate for something to do in Acre, I’d recommend giving it the big swerve.
So, with aching feet (see what I did there?), we departed the fair city of Acre and headed back home to Haifa. With the benefit of hindsight, I would probably have swapped accommodation in Haifa for Acre. Or at least substituted a couple of days/nights, as the vibe in Acre was pretty cool and there was plenty to see and do. Certainly, it is a prettier place than Haifa and even comes with its own Bahá'í gardens, which I would dearly have loved to check out.
But these are all pretty minor concerns, as our time in the north of Israel draws to a close. Tel Aviv’s own bohemian vibes and beautiful beaches are calling, so its time to get our own chill on and head south for some R&R.