Sunday, October 18, 2009

October 16 – Acre

Today we docked in Haifa, Israel, so we decided to take a train trip to the historic Crusader port of Acre (or Akko, as it's now known). The train station is right outside the port gates, so this was one of the easier trips we could make.

After a half an hour train ride, we ended up in Akko new town, and attempted to find our way into old Akko. Tracy asked the security guard at the station who seemed shocked that we'd want to walk there – "take a taxi, because it's a 15 minute walk". It was hot, but not that hot, so we ignored this advice and started to walk in the general direction. We asked another woman if we were going the right way, and she said, "take autobusi" over and over again.

Ignoring this advice, we met another girl who spoke English, and asked her whether we should go straight on or go left – "yes", was the confusing answer. "But which one?", I asked. "There are many ways to Akko", she replied mysteriously. "But which is the right way?", I tried again. Still she persisted in sounding like she wanted to be helpful, but in fact, being of no help at all, "you can go this way, or you can go that way, but you will end up in Akko".

As all roads appeared to lead to Akko, we eventually found our way to the enormous medieval walls that enclose the old town. The city's a really intriguing mix of Christian crusader churches, Arab markets and mosques, and Jewish synagogues, all set in a maze of atmospheric historic alleyways. We walked around the sea walls, and then through a secret tunnel dug out by the Knights Templar, that runs underneath much of the old town. As you crouch your way through the narrow tunnel, with channels of water running both sides, it wasn't too difficult to imagine the days of the Crusading Knights and their struggles to claim the Holy Land for Christendom.

We then visited the huge Citadel built a thousand years ago by the Knights of St John, with its enormous Gothic halls, refectory and hospital to care for sick pilgrims on their way down to Jerusalem.

As the Jewish Sabbath was due to start at sunset today (Friday), the last train back left at 2pm (to make sure that the train workers can be back home in time for Sabbath), so we caught the train with lots of gun-toting soldiers returning home for the weekend.

After lunch onboard, we attempted to explore Haifa, which was a fairly thankless task, given that pretty much everything was by now shut for Sabbath. It was boiling and humid, and as Haifa is built up the side of the very steep Mount Carmel, without buses or the Cable Car, it was virtually impossible to get to the interesting bits of town, so we gave up quickly, before we passed out from heat exhaustion.