A friendly Efendi

A 16th-century Ottoman building has been transformed into one of Acre’s standout hotels.

The Efendi, an Ottoman building that has been transformed into one of Acre’s standout hotels (photo credit: ASSAF PINCHUK)
The Efendi, an Ottoman building that has been transformed into one of Acre’s standout hotels
(photo credit: ASSAF PINCHUK)
There is a sense of throwback about Acre. As you wander through the alleyways of the older part of town you can almost imagine yourself over in Baghdad or, possibly, Tangier, in days of yore. There is a dusty charm to the place that captivates the imagination, and relaxes the heartbeat.
It is among those quaint backstreets that you will find the Efendi Hotel, a boutique establishment unlike any other you are likely to encounter on your travels. It might be down to the fact that it is located on a narrow side street, but the entrance to the hotel is nothing to shout about. If you don’t see the Efendi sign jutting out above the doorway you might even miss it. But, if you take the trouble to tug on the handle and venture inside, you can step into an ambiance that one could describe as enchanting, and even magical, without being found guilty of hyperbole.
The first thing you notice is a palpable sense of space. The lobby area couldn’t rival a Hilton or a Sheraton in terms of lateral proportions, but the vaulted ceiling and suitably dimensioned and designed light fittings tower above you.
The term “boutique” intimates the non-formulaic, and that is exactly what you get at Efendi, along with a personal touch. All the staff we encountered during our two-nighter there were friendly and helpful, and not in a routine schooled way. We felt they genuinely wanted to help us, and for us to enjoy our stay there. That we did, in spades.
A word or two about the building. On our arrival, we were given the grand tour starting from the basement level which now serves as a cozy wine bar. But a millennium and a half ago, the Byzantine locals of the day made good use of the site until the Crusaders came over from Europe, in the 11th century, and replaced them. The buildings on the site of the Efendi were clearly prime real estate back in the day, and the Crusaders were eventually ousted by the Ottomans, who made good use of the place for several centuries.
The remnants of the archaeological time line can still be seen today at the hotel – testament to the way Uri Yirmias went about his business. Glorious past notwithstanding, when Yirmias came across the adjoining 16th-century Ottoman buildings which now house the hotel, they were in a sorry state of disrepair. Apparently, the municipality had been trying to offload the property for some time but, in view of its woeful condition, few were even willing to consider touching it with a proverbial bargepole.
However, Yirmias saw the potential submitted a bid and, around 15 years ago, became owner of the properties which he quickly knocked into one. It took more than eight years, and close to NIS 30 million, to bring the place up to the desired standard of creature comfort and, no less important, aesthetic appeal and authenticity.
The historical roots are evident all over the place – from the carefully rehabilitated vaulted arches to the walls and delicately painted ceilings. The latter were restored to their original exquisite beauty by a team of local artisans, and Yirmias also had a bunch of experts from the School for Historic Preservation in Venice flown in for the job.
The room we were given sported a superking- size bed which offered a perfect vantage point to appreciate the floral-painted ceiling ornamentation, more than five meters above us. Luxuriating in the retro- style bathtub, with the Mediterranean Sea lapping away just the other side of some whitewashed rooftops, was a blast too.
IF THERE are any “pockmarks” in the Efendi offering you could point out that not quite everything about the place gleams. In places, the floor tiling in our room sported the evidence of a few years of sterling use, but that would be tantamount to nit-picking.
All told there are a dozen guest rooms at the hotel. Considering the floor space at Yirmias’s disposal, he could have been forgiven for increasing the accommodation offerings, but that is clearly not part of the luxuriously bearded septuagenarian’s mind-set. Yirmias is a maverick, a classic out-of-the-box thinker. That left-field approach also comes across in his famed Uri Buri restaurant, down near the seafront. It is primarily a fish eatery, but Yirmias was happy to devise some inventive vegan dishes for our gastronomic pleasure. “I don’t go for ‘accepted practice,’ in food or anything else,” he points out, when we meet for dinner. The fact that the place was jam-packed, World Cup soccer TV programming notwithstanding, said much about the place’s popularity. “I don’t like to go over old ground,” Yirmias adds, although, during the course of the evening, he did produce a hefty photography tome with some evidence of his wild younger days, in places like Hamburg. There, in the early and mid-Sixties, Yirmias encountered The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.
Back at the hotel we were able to sprawl out on the huge first-floor balcony, with its comfy cushions, and take in the sea breeze. And there are three more communal large open spaces to be enjoyed, with outsized sofas, a plank-like table with intriguing depressions which, Yirmias informed us, was specially flown over from the Himalayas. Typical of the man. There is also an enormous oval-shaped table in another part of the first floor, with a very large chandelier overhead, and, if you fancy a game of chess, there is an outsized set strategically positioned between two comfy armchairs.
More refreshing marine air can be had on the rooftop, which also has a compact bar, and, should you require anything more in the way of tension-dispensing facilities the hotel also has a restored 400-year old hammam- spa with a slew of massages and other treatments on offer.
Breakfast is served on a long wooden table, which evokes images of a medieval knights’ hall, and neatly offers a confluence for socializing with the other guests.
There is plenty more to enjoy in Acre, and we took in the Akoshi Museum of Art and the Turkish Bathhouse, and particularly enjoyed the Treasures in the Walls ethnographic museum.
Just one word of warning, if you like sleeping with the windows open you might be awoken before dawn by the sound of a muezzin wafting across the sleepy Acre rooftops.
While that was, at first, a little startling, and then entertaining, the canine chorus that joined in sent us back to sleep with a giggle.
For more information: (04) 729-9799 and www.efendi-hotel.co.il
The writer was a guest of the hotel.