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Acre through the ages
By Barry Davis
05/02/2014
Perched by the seaside, the scenic city has an abundance of historical, well-preserved sites and so much to do.
 
Acre has a lot going for it. It has a delightful perch by the seaside and an abundance of history and the well-preserved – and nicely restored – remains to prove it. And just last week a new cultural enterprise in the form of an attractive program of operatic performances was announced.

According to Dudu Harari, the CEO of the Old Akko Development Company, Acre’s many attributes have not gone unnoticed by people all around the country or by people from all over the world.

“Last year we had over a million tourists in Acre, with at least 52 percent of them from abroad – and that’s only incoming tourism via tourist agents. We don’t have the figures on foreign tourists or Israeli visitors who came here independently,” he says. “There’s a lot to see here.”

There certainly is.

“The Israel Ministry of Tourism through the Old Acre Development Company, has invested over NIS 500 million in Acre over the last 20 years,” says Harari. “And there are four new hotels currently under construction.”

Harari and his colleagues clearly have their sight set on the future and developing the town’s tourism infrastructure as much as they can. But Acre, like Jerusalem and many other locations around the country, is also constantly looking to delve into its historical riches to increase its already impressive volume of tourism activity.

In addition to the beach, impressive ramparts, leisure and entertainment spots and burgeoning hotel accommodation offerings, Acre has a veritable cornucopia of street-level and subterranean delights that are tailor-made to bring in the crowds.

The Old City incorporates a multitude of forts, synagogues, mosques and churches, as well as a labyrinth of alleyways that date back centuries to the early Ottoman era and before. And there are plenty of the eight-centuries-old remains of an era when the Crusaders ruled this part of the world.

Far below the bustling city streets and alleyways there is the Knights’ Hall, which comprises a network of long cavernous chambers with 10-meter-high vaulted ceilings and thick dividing walls connected by great arched entrances. There are remains from right across the centuries, including the Prisoners’ Hall, which the British Mandate authorities used to incarcerate members of the Hagana, Irgun Zva’i Leumi and the Stern Group, some of whom were subsequently executed. Archaeological work is ongoing, so tourists may discover more treasures of the past if they pay the city a return visit.

Acre was also home to the Templars, who made their way over here at the behest of the pope in the 12th century. They initially settled in Jerusalem, and when the capital was taken by Saladin, they made their home in Acre and settled in the southwest of the Old City. Today, tourists can stroll along the 350-meter long Templar Tunnel, which extends from Templar Fortress in the west to the port in the east. Visitors can get a better handle on the history of the underground passageway by watching animated short films screened on the tunnel walls.

Back over ground, the 18th-century Seraya – or Turkish castle – is well worth a visit. The castle housed high-ranking Turkish officials and has two floors built around a paved central courtyard. The Ottoman building was laid over the remains of St. John’s Church from the Crusader period. The Hama al-Basha, a traditional 18th-century Turkish bathhouse, is also well worth a visit. The facility was in regular use until the 1940s; and you get an idea of the goings-on there spanning two centuries from a very entertaining sound-and-light show.

Acre will also be hosting a new large-scale cultural venture – three days of opera and classical music that will take placed June 1921, immediately after the Opera at Masada series. The program takes in performances of three works by Mozart, including two operatic works – Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute – as well as his Requiem.

“We want to bring opera to the country’s periphery,” says Harari. “Opera started out as entertainment for the masses but later became something that only the well-to-do could afford. We are selling tickets at reasonable prices that anyone can afford.”

The Magic Flute will be rendered in a family-friendly version, based on a Hebrew translation by Ehud Manor.

“We have sold almost half of the tickets already,” continues Harari. “The idea is not to have a one-time event but to have opera in Acre every year. That will add a lot to what we have to offer tourists.”

One of the city’s historical gems is the Hospitaller Fortress, which dates back to the mid-12th century. It is about to be pressed into exciting new service. Work is currently under way at the contemporary Hospitaller Center to be part of the International Experience.

“They have been working on this for a year,” explains Harari. “The first part will be ready in April and the last part in June. People will be able to come to the Experience and get 4,000 years of the history of Acre. People will walk around the different areas with headphones and get explanations and commentary in 10 languages about events that have taken place there across the various eras. Each area will also have archaeological finds that pertain to the period in question.”

The International Experience will provide a modern and exciting presentation to convey the riches of the city’s history in as user-friendly a manner as possible. “There will be real activities going on there for people to see,” he says. “The visitors will walk through the various eras. When they get to the Crusader Era, for example, they will come to a large Crusader market with all sorts of craftsmen actually at work, such as a blacksmith, a potter and a glass blower. You can also buy the things the artisans make.”

Naturally, food will also be featured in the Experience.

“There will be a Crusader dining hall,” continues Harari, “where you will be able to buy genuine Crusader-style food.”

Add to that actors in the role of Henry II – the reigning English monarch at the time of the First Crusade – and his queen, as well as dancers, pyrotechnic displays, juggling and knights in armor engaged in dueling, and you end up with an all-sensory and very immediate historical experience.

With so much to do in and around Acre, staying overnight is very much worthwhile.

Acre offers visitors a host of options suitable for all styles and budgets. From the exclusive boutique hotels Effendi and Akkotel, to the Palm Beach Club Hotel and The family-oriented Templar Youth Hostel and Guest House - you are sure to find one which will be perfect for you.

For more information about Acre, tours, activities and accommodations, go to www.akko.org.il/en/

The article was made possible with the help of the Israel Ministry of Tourism www.goisrael.gov.il and www.goisrael.com


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