Although this column doesn't usually cover hotels, how could we resist the invitation of Jeff and Benay Katz to come and inspect their boutique B&B situated in a centuries-old Safed house, especially when they invited us to stay overnight?
It's a long haul to Safed from the center, but it was well worth it. The Artists' Colony Inn is a beautifully refurbished old building which retains the authenticity of its origins, while at the same time providing every modern facility. But in addition to the physical comforts of the place, it achieves the aim of its owners which is to connect to visitors on much more than an innkeeper/tourist basis.
"We deliberately made the lobby cozy and inviting," say the owners. "We want to sit and shmooze with our guests, make them feel at home and advise them about what to see in the area."
The hotel was opened in May and already there are glowing reports in TripAdvisor. For people who are basically beginners in the tourist industry, this is very gratifying.
The couple met here. He had immigrated from Toronto in 1972 and she from Racine, Wisconsin, in 1975. They lived in Moshav Timrat for many years and had both worked at various things unconnected to running a B&B. Jeff is a civil engineer who worked in hi-tech before opening his own company creating sterile rooms. He also qualified as a tour guide, which now comes in handy. Benay studied special education and Jewish history, worked as an English teacher and medical secretary and wrote a book together with her niece Liza Wiener called Waiting for Peace - How Israelis Live with Terrorism. But owning a hotel had always been a dream.
"Every two years we used to take the five children to Europe or the States. Sometimes we'd camp or have a caravan and sometimes we'd stay in a B&B. We fell in love with the idea and felt that one day we would do it."
That day arrived two years ago when they began to look for a suitable location for their dream hotel.
"We considered several places including Rosh Pina, but were told there were already too many beds there. And we didn't want to become a part of the rat race, or provide Jacuzzis with candles and rose petals floating around in it," they say.
Their concept was much simpler: to provide a place where visitors can just hang out, choose a book or magazine, help themselves to great coffee, talk into the night with their hosts and retire to a super-luxurious bedroom. Then to get up the next morning for a freshly made Israeli breakfast prepared by Benay before one's eyes. All this with a kashrut certificate and an atmosphere guaranteed to provide a restful but eye-opening vacation.
They found the house, which is situated in one of the narrow cobbled streets of the old city of Safed, and even in its dilapidated condition saw the potential.
"It had originally belonged to one of the 12 artists who started the colony back in 1949," explains Jeff, "and it had been split up into five different units. All the walls and arches were covered in plaster. We hired a designer and a builder and began to investigate exactly what we had acquired."
Within a short time and with the help of a strong hammer they discovered the stonework beneath the plaster and exposed niches that Jeff thinks were blocked up 300 years ago. They also saw that the arches had stood without any concrete for the same length of time.
"Now they have cement between the stones, but only to stop the dirt from coming out," he explains. Many of the arches are still decorated with original stone relief images of birds and animals.
The four bedrooms, which bear the names of four of their children, all have slightly different décor but the original arches, niches and stonework are ubiquitous.
"We replastered a lot of the stonework once we started to decorate the rooms," explains Jeff. "We felt that it was too overpowering to sleep in a room where all the walls are stone."
To illustrate this he shows me one of the outer rooms around the central courtyard, which is destined to become the wine cellar - and which has been left in its stark, unplastered state.
All the bathrooms and some of the niches are tiled with colorful handmade tiles produced in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.
They have put seating areas at every level of the house, so that guests can take their breakfast not only in the entrance lobby but also in the courtyard, where herbs flourish in pots and geraniums hang from ancient niches, or up a short flight of steps to a corner which gives an uninterrupted view of Mount Meron and much of Lower Galilee beyond.
On the top level they have made their own living quarters and concentrated much of the effort in the long narrow room which acts as kitchen, computer room and laundry.
"I knew I would spend a lot of time here," says Benay, "so I wanted it to be a happy room."
The unusual rounded Polygal ceiling serves several functions - it allows plenty of light in and attempts to echo the arched look of the rest of the house rather than a conventional flat ceiling. The Polygal is manufactured in Kibbutz Megiddo, where their son-in-law's father lives.
Benay does most of the cleaning herself and the grown children help out when they come home. She even does the B&B's laundry.
"I went to the local laundry with my sheets and they told me they
couldn't guarantee I would get them back as soft and white as I wanted
them so I do them myself."
Artists' Colony Inn is hard to find in the muddle of narrow winding
streets and steep inclines of Safed. But Jeff and Benay are only a
phone call away and once you get there you almost don't want to leave.