When you’re down and troubled, and you need some lovin’ care, and nothin’, nothin’ is goin’ right...you don’t even need a friend; rush up the Israeli coast to Acre’s Efendi Hotel and hurl yourself into its hammam: soon you’ll feel healing vibes knocking at your heart!
Built by a Turkish pasha four centuries ago so that his masseuse/lover could pamper him in private, the space of the Turkish bath had romantic beginnings, until Mrs. pasha kicked her rival out of town.
Today, the hammam offers hot-stone massages and herb-infused teas, as well as traditional soap-sud scrubs on a heated marble slab. “Klappp!” go your feet as David from Azerbaijan expertly aligns your energies; “Whooooshhh” goes the water as it washes away stresses and strains. Magic.
Feeling healthy, amble along the seaside flanked by a 12th-century sea wall to Uri Buri, ranked by Trip Advisor as the world’s 19th best restaurant. Tuck into a tender Coquilles Spirulina (Coquilles St. Jacques, Jerusalem artichoke puree, and fresh seaweed), followed by a cauldron of sea bass in coconut sauce; top it off with geranium ice cream that giggles down the gullet.
Gaze at the sea, scrubbed and satiated. What a blessed way to take a day off from the craziness.
What's the drama in the Israeli city of Acre?
Drama is not new to Acre. First settled in the Early Bronze Age over five millennia ago, the city has been conquered, destroyed, rebuilt, and conquered again by just about everyone in the land-grab business, although the ancient Israelites couldn’t wrest it from the Canaanites. Persians and Egyptians ruled there and were expelled; Syrian Seleucids hung out within its walls. Judas Maccabeus drove Greeks out of Galilee into the port seeking shelter; Cleopatra captured it while being beautiful. Herod worked up a sweat in his custom-built gym; Romans and Muslims came and vanished; Luke and Paul spent a fun day there with friends. Crusaders, Mamelukes, and Ottomans swung in and out; Napoleon was repulsed at its gates by the Turks.
The British converted the fort into a jail, where they incarcerated and hanged Jewish underground members; Israel captured Acre in the War of Independence. Today, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Baha’i share the city for the most part in peace, often cooking or congregating over an Uri Buri sashimi salmon.
Uri Jeremias, portly proprietor of both the famous restaurant and the Efendi Hotel (in the heart of the Old Town, it tops TripAdvisor’s Middle East Boutique Hotels), is a colossus of a man. A stately fellow with an iconic white beard and twinkly eyes, Jeremias looks like a prophet, or maybe a messiah; he moves in a biblical background. Acre, or Akko in Hebrew or Akka in Arabic, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on Earth.
Jeremias has done his bit for this ancient land. In 1967, he flew home from his travels to volunteer for the Bomb Disposal Unit. With the war won, he wandered through Nepal and Kathmandu, accruing friends and worldly wisdom, while assimilating age-old cooking secrets. “There’s a power to good food,” Jeremias muses, as we slurp Porcini Gnocchi in creamy mushroom sauce, green onion, and truffle oil. “You play music, light a fire, get some fragrant aromas floating on the coals … people will find you. It’s hypnotic.”
Uri Buri (buri is Hebrew for a yellowtail fish) was born out of cooking for friends, his signature dishes were too good not to share. The restaurant opened in 1989 and instantly became a go-to landmark. With its stone arches and delectable treats, the restaurant stuns from first sight and bite. There’s no music, no patterned plates; the silverware is simple. Nothing detracts from the food – and the food is fabulous. Slices of crunchy persimmon arrive slathered in mascarpone cheese, sprinkled with raw shrimp and fish eggs. (Not exactly kosher, but the vegetarian and vegan options are also sublime). Sorbet cleansers of organic mandarin (from his daughter’s farm) or arak and marzipan explode on your tongue; yum yum yum.
Jeremias lives as he eats, with gusto. “I wake up each morning as if I have another hundred years to go,” he proclaims. “If I’m wrong, sue me!”
With that attitude, when two adjacent dilapidated homes became available in the Old City twenty-something years ago, Jeremias, then in his fifties, was the only bidder. The rooms were cracking and cavernous, but foundations from one thousand five hundred years ago add gravitas to even the moldiest walls. Jeremias set about renovating the ruins in painstaking detail: rotting support beams were extricated and replaced with treated cedar; a Roman type high alkaline floor was laid in the wine cellar to eliminate mustiness. Peeled-off paint revealed original artwork which was lovingly repainted by renowned Italian artisans. Materials were matched to each epoch; ascending layers of stonework were plastered differently by expert stone masons, who replicated original blends. Walls were intricately connected so that the houses could shake and resettle; golden lamps were burnished and connected to the grid.
The 12-bedroom/suite Efendi (“good sir” in Arabic) Hotel, with its soaring ceilings and opulent elegance, soon became a byword for pampering and pleasure. Platters of fattening delights by tall windows, can’t-get-up-from-these-comfortable-beds, claw-foot baths, and ancient paintings make it tempting not to leave the rooms. But breakfast is worth getting dressed for – schedule two hours in the Crusader dining room. Arrive hungry.
For a time, in a land where planting a tree can topple a coalition, in a corner of Acre at least, Arabs and Jews seemed to cook up coexistence in a cauldron. The mixed staff work harmoniously together; Ali Marin, the Arab executive chef, weaves his magic in the kitchen with a cosmopolitan team. Guests flowed through the restaurant and hotel; life swung along like in a dream. It almost seemed too good to be true, and then it was. In May 2021, set off by yet another Hamas-Israeli war in Gaza and trouble in Jerusalem, riots broke out in Acre and other mixed cities in Israel. Some of the rioters were hooligans, some were right-wing Jewish vigilantes, others were Arabs who saw Jeremias’ work as creeping exclusion and oppression (despite the equal work opportunities and long friendships). In a few short hours, marauding groups of Arabs threw Molotov cocktails into Uri Buri and fire-bombed the Efendi Hotel. In the ensuing chaos, guest Avi Har-Even, 82, a former head of Israel’s Space Agency, was killed. Jeremias’ wife and daughter, sheltering in the bathroom of the restaurant they’d gone to protect, were told to evacuate before the place was sacked. In one appalling night, Jeremias saw his life’s work go up in smoke.
Yet he remains optimistic. “I’m not busy with hatred, revenge, or pettiness,” Jeremias declares. “I aimed to bring the restaurant back to business as soon as possible, bring back sanity, and a better future for my children and grandchildren.” Both properties have been meticulously restored once more; fish are sizzling on the grill again (in lemon and turmeric), and the Arab/Jewish staff are back at their stations.
Jeremias unequivocally rejects all charges of “exclusionary gentrification” in Acre and insists that his vision encompasses everyone. “If I give work, hope, education, and a future to Arab families in the Old City, is that bad?” he asks. “When I started, everything was broken here: the electricity, the sewage. Suddenly tourists arrived, and things were buzzing. Everybody benefited.”
“Both optimists and pessimists eventually die,” he says. “Might as well enjoy the ride.”
Let’s toast to that – over salmon in spinach-martini sauce in Acre! ■
The writer was a guest of the Efendi Hotel.