Hamam al-Basha, i.e., The Old Turkish Bathhouse Museum, Acre, Israel

If you’re ever in the historic town of Acre, Israel (it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited ones on the planet), I strongly suggest a visit to Turkish Bathhouse Museum. Granted this museum dedicated to the Ottoman Bathhouse tradition (which they inherited from the Romans) is incredibly touristy, but that said, it’s multimedia presentation designed to bring history to life, is in my opinion what makes the Hamam Al-Basha one of the most entertaining and educational tourist attractions in the whole city, and worth at least a full hour’s worth of your time.

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When I first told my Israeli friends I was planning to spend a full 29 days in Acre’s old city, one of them literally blurted out, “WHY?! There’s NOTHING to DO there!” IF what you’re looking for is things like night clubs and theater, then they’re right… however, IF you’re a fan of all things historic… which I am… then they’re entirely wrong.

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The city of Acre is located on the western edge of the Northern district of Israel, just above the modern city of Haifa, and importantly (from the historic perspective) is one the only natural ports along the Holy land’s Mediterranean coastline. That is why it was one of most important port cities in the world during crusader period, when it served as the foothold for the almost all of the Christian Knight’s into the birthplace of their religion during that period. It’s important to remember that while the first Crusade, an attempt to take back the area from Islamic rule, came over land via Turkey, the second and third ones both came over sea, and utilized their heavily defended fortress port city of Acre — which they were able to keep control of the whole time —  as their base).

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As a result of its historically changing ownership, Acre (english)has many different names, in Hebrew it is Akko, while in Arabic it is Akka, and there are a few other names besides. Like I already said, this city is often overlooked by Jewish tourists to the country, because its past is predominantly Muslim and Christian. However, that said, it is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements on the planet, with most of its pre-crusader heritage still buried under a thousand years of other historically important buildings — and yet to be discovered (although you CAN see some of it if you know where to look).

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That said, the Turkish Bath Museum, also known as Hamam (sweat bath) El Basha (sort of like “The Prince”) in Arabic… (or The Prince’s sweat baths) … can be a bit hard to find in the twisty alley ways of Acre, although you’ll see signs all over town pointing out the way to it.

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The next thing to be aware of is that buying tickets for Acre’s attractions is kind of tricky.

As shown in the photo above, the multi-site ticket includes :
Hospitaller Castle/Knights’ Halls    – the city’s main attraction.
Templar Tunnel – and another, smaller tunnel.
Pasha’s Turkish Bath/Hamam al-BashaOkashi Museum -a small art museum.
Treasures in the Walls Museum
Rosh Hanikra

While these tickets may be purchased at multiple locations, but the main one is the visitor’s center, and if you do it there you get to see a short 15 minute movie on the history of the town.

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Ticket booth at the visitor’s center

The #1 attraction in town is the The Hospitallers‘ Fortress (Aka the Knights’ Halls)… but you can NOT buy a ticket for that which does not includes a mess of other things, the Templar’s tunnel (which it totally worth seeing), the Treasures in the Walls Museum (which is part of the tickets but not mentioned on ANY of the description signs for said tickets… IF you’ve seen everything else and still have time go see it, but if you skip it you won’t have missed out on anything special) … and a pathetic excuse for an art museum displaying all of the lesser pieces of Avshalom Okashi which is a complete waste of time (I graduated from one of the top Art schools in the world, and WHY the city demands you see this collection I don’t know).

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Basically it’s a collection of his works that no museums or collectors wanted (you’re not allowed to take photos while inside the museum, probably because they don’t want word getting out about how bad this collection sucks). Okashi was a painter so influential that while he’s often mentioned alongside other better respected artists, poor Avshalom doesn’t even merit his own Wikipedia page — even though he somehow DID manage to get his own museum. He was a very lessor part of the Ofakim Hadashim or New Horizons art movement in Israel, which helped to develop a distinctively abstract Israeli sensibility to art, which is still highly influential today (Israeli art doesn’t look quite like any other art style, but there is a cohesive feel to most of it). And he chose to live his final years in Acre, so I’m guessing when he died his family were stuck with a bunch of paintings no one wanted, not even them, and they left them to the city.

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To the combined Fortress ticket you can add one to the Baths…. or you can buy a ticket for the baths and the tunnels that does NOT include the #1 attraction… the Fortress… You can NOT however buy a ticket JUST for the #1 attraction, which is Fortress
or a ticket to the #2 attraction: the Templar Tunnels,
Or one for the Baths…
SO, you will HAVE to buy a combo ticket of some sort to see any of those —
And the tickets to the Fortress all include the aforementioned hideous art collection and the Treasures in the Walls Museum (which isn’t bad, but shouldn’t be considered any sort of priority if you’re on a limited schedule).

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With the ticket to the baths comes an audio guide, available in 8 languages

… the good news is it’s good for all of that year (if you buy it Jan 2019 it’s good through Dec 2019… If you buy it at the in Dec 2019 it expires at the end of that month), and it’s fully transferable — you can hand it off to friends or relatives who live in Israel to use whatever bits you haven’t. As such, your best bet is just to buy the either the combined ticket WITH the baths, or IF you intend to go up to Rosh Hanikra anyway (its at the Lebanese border and they do NOT provide transportation to get up there) [However, keep in mind that the ONLY historical attraction in Acre NOT included in any of the combined tickets (which include all the Arab controlled attractions), is the one to the old English Prison, which is controlled by the Israeli military.]

The package of tickets that I had initially bought, to my chagrin as I had SPECIFICALLY told the woman at the counter of the visitor’s center (where the Knight’s hall is) that I wanted to see the baths…

only to find when I arrived to the baths that what she had sold me did not include it!! (Be sure to double check your tickets.) So, when I got there… this guy said as far as he was concerned it wasn’t worth the extra price, and offered to quickly first walk me through the whole thing while explaining to me what was going since they couldn’t give me the headset because I didn’t have a ticket.

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He was more than bit annoyed when after he was done, I decided I wanted go ahead and pay for a combined tunnel and bathhouse ticket… which meant seeing the tunnels a second time.

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After you buy your ticket and get your headphones, you’re led into a outdoor courtyard area, where sit and wait for the next introductory overview film to begin — each film lasts about 15 minute, with a few minutes between to allow the room to clear and for the next group to enter

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While there (I had about 14 minutes to wait upon entering) I met and got friendly with one of the local cats, who seemed a great deal more domesticated than most of the cats of Acre …. the place is TEAMING with feral cats. This guy was following me around and demanding more scratches….

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The above picture is the entry room, just as you enter from the patio area …  Here you take a seat and enjoy a 15 minute movie that is projected onto the one empty wall to the right, which you listen to with your headphones…

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The movie focuses on the history of Acre and the building of bathhouse during the Ottoman empire, and the audio tracks come in eight different languages: Hebrew, Arabic, English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian. (The Chinese and Japanese tourists don’t seem to come here much.)

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In addition to explaining its history, it also explains the cultural importance of the bathhouse to the community (it was much more than just a place to take a bath) up through modern times, when it was it fell into disuse because of the advent of modern plumbing.

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Note the image top right and compare to the tableau below

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After the movie you’re led into a long hallway lined with lithographs that narrate the sorts of things that would take place here…. and if you pay attention you’ll notice that many of the statues arranged throughout the bathhouse (so as to bring the place to life) were based on these drawings.

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After that hallway you turn into what had been another one lined with a series on rooms on either side, but when they converted it into a museum they removed the interior walls  (the ones that would lined the hallway) so that they now serve as the stages for a series of tableaus of what would have occurred within those areas.

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And as you approach some of the rooms, films with dialogue are played on their back walls in order to make the tableaus even more lifelikeUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2c2c.jpg

Notice how this photo (with me in it) is the same room as the one above, only the movie which had triggered upon my first having entered had played out. That said, if you didn’t get to see the little movies, or the sound track was off, I found if you leave the room heading back towards the main film room… and then WAIT for that film to finish for the next group and then reenter this section, you’ll get a second chance to see it all…if you have that time to do that…  the soundtracks and such seem to be timed on how much time they designers believe it will take for people to move through, rather than being triggered by actual movement.

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After you pass through the hallway of small tableaus, you will pass through a doorway into a very large room circular, where the steam bath was located… 7w25W1pASp+%3949t40pgw_thumb_ebae.jpg

… and it has actual steam which is kind of cool. Again in this room there is a sound track that coordinates with a film played on one of the walls, and also from ONE of the statues which a moving face projected onto it, just like the tech you see at Disney world in the Haunted Mansion.

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This larger central room is circular, but sits in a square building… as such at the corners of the square are a series of smaller rooms that you can sort of peer into. I suppose the center of the room was the hottest location, too hot for some, and the side rooms while still steamy brought the temperatures down a bit. All in all I found my visit here highly enjoyable and other people I talked to also said they really enjoyed this museum.

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The Templar’s Tunnel, Acre, Israel

In the historic city of Acre, Israel, is a 350 meters/985 feet long tunnel. It is known as the Templar Tunnel, because it is believed to have been built by the Knights Templar during the crusader period (1095 A.D. – 1492), and though lost for over 700 years, it was rediscovered in 1994, and is now one of the city’s major historic tourist attractions.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_e6ee.jpgThe city of Acre  is located on the western edge of the Northern district of Israel, just above the modern city of Haifa, and importantly along her Mediterranean coastline. She has many different names, in Hebrew it is Akko, while in Arabic it is Akka, and with a few other names besides. Often overlooked by Jewish tourists to the country, because its past is predominantly Muslim and Christian, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements on the planet.

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While her history is long and varied, for the purposes of this blog I’m interested in the Acre’s role during the Medieval period; when because of its location on one of the very few natural ports in The Holy Land, and hence was of great strategic importance to anyone wishing to take part in a Christian pilgrimage to the area, she served as the capital city of the Crusader states.

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The tunnel had been essentially lost for 700 years, but it’s import had been “rediscovered” in 1994 because a woman living in one of the homes built above it. When they dug down to figure out the problem, they stumbled upon the tunnel, which had been converted into part of the towns sewage system.

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Evidence of its sewage system past is still there

As the saying goes, you can’t dig a hole anywhere in Israel and NOT find something of historical importance. Although converting the tunnel to a sewage pipe probably happened after the time of the Mamluks — slave soldiers, not unlike the unsullied in the Game of Thrones— who during the Mamluk Sultanate kicked the crusaders out of the area, at which point not only had its import probably been already forgotten, but history is written, and as often erased, by the victors.

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A public bathroom located directly across from the eastern entrance to the tunnel, and above the tunnel (kind of funny if you think about it)

Between 1291 when the Mamluks kicked out the crusaders and 1920, when the British were granted the mandate by the League of Nations to take over control of Palestine from the Turks’ collapsing Ottoman Empire, the fact is no one in the area cared about Templars, let alone their tunnel.  All the glory was to the Muslim empire that had taken it back from invading Christians… so turning their tunnel into a sewage pipe was probably seen at the time as fitting and appropriate.

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Once re-discovered The Acre development company, in co-ordination with Israel’s Antiquities Authority, cleared away the dirt and excrement filling the tunnel, and found whatever of historical value there was within it; all the while preparing it to serve as a local tourist attraction whose doors initially opened to the public in 1999… although repairs, rehabilitation, and extension of the tunnel continued through 2007. Today, the water that once carried you-know-what out into the ocean still runs (you can even see where it enters into the now destroyed Templar castle), but now people throw coins into it instead, supposedly for good luck.

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The Knights Templar, or Templars, were a catholic monastic military order that have long served as a focus of fascination and urban myths, both good and bad.  They were founded in 1119 to protect pilgrims who came to see the holy lands from Muslims and highwaymen (being a pilgrim during that period was a very dangerous activity, with dead bodies littered along the paths); initially WILDLY popular with the faithful, once the Crusades were over and the holy land was lost support for them faded, at which point their size and wealth made them a convenient target for a deeply in debt King Philip IV of France, who was deeply in debt to them financially. They were then completely disbanded by Pope Clement V.  If you want to learn more about them I found this GREAT pod cast about them by the guest host Dan Jones, who is an internationally best-selling historian/author of non-fiction works.

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The tunnel runs from what is believed to be the destroyed Templar palace on the western part of the city, on the Mediterranean’s edge, whose remaining walls are now shallowly submerged beneath the water (but still visible)

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The tunnel, according to one of the multiple short movies shown in the tunnel (this one is just towards the eastern end), is thought to have been built to go under another the Pisan quarter (a quarter within the city of Acre that was controlled by people from the Republic of Pisa) who were not friendly with the Templars and tended to charge them taxes to pass through their area…

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and, in addition to that would try to stop the Templars from taking “sacred relics” related to the story of Christ out of the city. [I say sacred relics in quotation marks because one sort of has to, like the 16th century Dutch humanist Erasmus, question their authenticity. To quote his commentary on just how many places claimed to own pieces of the true cross… “if all the fragments were collected together, they would appear to form a fair cargo for a merchant ship.”] The Templars, didn’t take kindly to the Pisan’s interference in their business, and in response built this tunnel…traveling UNDER the Pisan quarter, from their castle to the port

Location map of Akko Port; A) The sea-front of the Pisan quarter (insert Fig.6); B) The Western Basin, (insert Fig. 2b) 
[source of the photo, “New insights on Maritime Acre revealed by Underwater and Coastal Archaeological Research”]
In the image above, the destroyed Templar’s Palace is the Green roundish thing at the bottom left of the town, the Templars tunnel is shown as a line of red dots, the sea-front of the Pisan quarter is marked as A, while the port that the Templars were trying to get to is in the Western Basin, marked B (I’m not sure WHY they couldn’t just park boats alongside their castle, but apparently they couldn’t.

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So of course there are TWO entrances to the tunnel… the EASY one to find is adjacent to the destroyed palace directly adjacent to the big parking lot and the world-renowned Uri Buri restaurant (considered one of the three restaurants in all of Israel, and the country’s best location for seafood). At the bottom of the stairs at this entrance is a set of two buttons, either of which will initiate an audio narration describing the tunnel (no video). However, if a large group is coming through, I strongly suggest waiting till they’ve passed to push it as you won’t hear it otherwise.

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The tunnel’s “Eastern Entrance” is now marked on Google (Feel free to send me chocolate in thanks)

The hard one to find is buried in the alleyways of Acre across the alley from that public bathroom I showed earlier … in fact when I first arrived in town Google maps did NOT have EITHER of the two doors marked!!! (As in all manner of folks can be found wandering around trying to find the bathroom! Not to mention the Eastern entrance to the tunnels) While I was there I submitted a request to Google that they fix that, marking for them exactly where it was located… and if you’re wandering around the town trying to find that entrance using Google maps, you can thank me for the fact that

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Eastern Entrance

By comparison to the easy to find entrance (which is kind of plain and squished) the eastern entrance is actually quite fancy looking on the inside, even though it’s really easy to miss on the outside (especially when the doors are not open for business). And the squishiness is not just at the entrance… At that east end of the tunnel, the ceiling is very low…. [well either that, or (much more likely) the walkway for tourists is placed very high up within the tunnel because that end is close to the Mediterranean, and probably dips down lower than the other side does, and as such is deeply flooded with water.]

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At this end are two narrow tunnels, one in each direction, with ceilings that become progressively taller (or shorter if you’re coming from the other end). That said, from the perspective of the average tourist, it starts out with you having to bend down very low in order to pass (the ceiling was at about the height of my arm pits), and then the further into the tunnel you go (heading east) the higher the ceiling moves (the bottom picture I was JUST able to stand full height to 5’4″ — my travel buddy that day was a few inches taller than I).UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2be6.jpg

At this point in the tunnel (picture upper left) she was just getting to where she could stand tall… and the walkway — which is you look is clearly elevated (there was the equivalent of a little river running under it) is lit up, and had little glass windows embedded into it showing where various archeological finds were discovered — the originals are in a museum, these were just pictures of the objects found. And the ceiling gets taller the further east you go (which supports my elevated walkway theory), until you get to this point in the tunnel, where the ceiling gets REALLY tall and vaulted… and they seem to have found a 2nd layer to it or some such

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all photos of the same location, but from different angles

The above photos are taken of the same location but looking both directions — double tunnels at one side that join at this point into one huge tunnel. As you can see at this point in the tunnel (on the left side of the photo above) there’s yet another movie screen showing more about the history of the place, that once again comes with narration in either Hebrew or English. The movie doesn’t restart, the track being played just switches languages based one which button you press, even if its mid film.

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From that point on, instead of two narrow tunnels it’s one wide one…  but still with the windows in the walkway where they found things…. and the blue wall is where the easter exit/stairwell is located.

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As you can probably tell from the photos (no I did not change my T-shirts while in there) I actually traversed the tunnel twice. The first time was on a temperate day (high of 68 — 70 F) with a new friend who I had met the night before at the Airbnb I was staying at (an American girl doing her post doctoral studies at Tel Aviv University). The 2nd time I went on a hot day (closer to 85 F), and I decided to go there thinking that in the tunnels it would be cooler… I was wrong… while it wasn’t as hot as outdoors it was HUMID down there, because of all the water running under the walkway, and therefore the even less comfortable the outdoor heat which was dry.

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In order to go into the tunnel you’re going to need a ticket… and this is where things get a bit complicated (see above). You COULD buy a ticket to go to the tunnel which includes the Turkish baths (you can’t get one to just the tunnel) … but … The MAIN attraction in Acre is the Hospitallers‘ Fortress (aka Knight’s Halls)… and in order to see it you HAVE to buy the combined ticket. As such, if you have ANY interest in seeing that you’ll want to buy the combo ticket… I strongly suggest including the Turkish Bath… but if you’re in town with no car, do not get the Rosh Hanikra ticket as that is very far away and does not include any sort of shuttle bus to get you there.

In fact the ONLY attraction NOT included in a combined ticket combination (which includes all the Arab controlled attractions), is the ticket to the old English Prison, which is controlled by the Israeli military

Nzar Khoury Guest House & Airbnb, Acre, Israel

If you’re ever in the historic town of Acre, Israel (it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited ones on the planet) and looking for a place to spend the night that is nothing fancy, but clean and HIGHLY affordable, look no farther than Nazar Khoury’s Guest House. I stayed here for almost a full month, and LOVED IT. If you want to book with him you can either call him directly (see number below), or use Booking.com, Agoda, or Airbnb (like I did — you may need to be signed into your Airbnb account in order to see that link, I’m not sure).  That said, while he has four different rooms available, his place is so much more affordable than the other places in town, that he tends to be full almost continuously (or at least was while I was there). UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_de83

Be warned, this is NOT a fancy hotel, with elevators and bell boys, but rather his family home that he grew up in, which he has converted himself in order to accommodate guests. He runs it himself (the guy in image above) and for the most part does a pretty good job of it … If you stay here you’ll be getting an authentic experience of how the locals live.

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His home, which is located about four floors up, has a patio that overlooks the mediterranean ocean and the old Ottoman built seawallramparts of this historic, and once militarily strategic town.

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The wall is currently being renovated; I was hoping they’d leave this long enough for me to get a shot of the sun setting in the middle of it, but no luck, it was only there for a few hours.

It is an almost idyllic place to sit and enjoy the ocean. While there you can also get to know some of his other guests (I met more than few people that way) as you all watch the setting sun while nibbling on the free munchies he provides.

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This picture (above) was taken at around sunset — as you can tell by the golden color of the stones, and if you look up towards the Nzar Khoury sign, you’ll spot some guests, particularly the guy in the black shirt, talking to each other while enjoying said it from the patio — next to him was in fact his wife (who was distracting him from the view).

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The moon, just moments after the sunset

The great part about having stayed at the Guest House for almost a month was how many different sunsets I was able to watch… no two ever exactly the same

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From his home you can easily see Acre’s famous lighthouse, and Haifa across the bay.

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On VERY clear days you can just make out the second holiest Bahá’í temple in the world, known as the Shrine of the Báb, it’ll look like a vertical strip from the top of the of the mountain to the bottom, with one very large building in the middle of it. I know all about the Bahá’í because one of their temples isn’t far from the home where I grew up, north of Chicago. But like I said, you can only see it on VERY clear days… otherwise the fog and or smog (depending on the color — fog is white, not brown) will block you from seeing it.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ba6.jpg

Just to the right of the lighthouse is the remains of a submerged crusader castle. On days when the wind is low and the water is still, you can just make out the walls of the various rooms of the building…

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_df48.jpgon other days you’ll see fishermen (who aren’t actually supposed to be there, but the police don’t stop them) fishing either off the exterior wall of that castle, or netting up fish caught in the pools they create.

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Getting to his place is however NOT the easiest thing for people with mobility issues (it is NOT wheelchair accessible). The image above is the first set of stairs you’ll need to climb. These were built by the ottoman controlled Acre and were built more to be comfortable for horses pulling carts, then they were for humans. That said, the built-in ramps would have been a lot more helpful if they were filled in (so to speak). If you try pulling a suitcase up them, or a cart, the wheels will constantly slip off to one side or the other. (I’ve not seen anyone even TRY to negotiate them with a wheel chair.)

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The Stairway and Church’s doorway, decorated for the wedding

Nzar’s home — which is built upon the remains of a Crusader Church — is just next door to the St. Andrew’s Church (Greek Catholic), which is accessed from the parking lot by that same stairway. So, if you’re lucky, as I was, from his balcony you’ll be able to watch an Arab wedding party ceremoniously lead the bride to the altar.

At the top of the stairs you make a hard left (if you go right you see the church’s front door which is usually locked) and you’ll see the big metal door that marks his entrance

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The guest house’s  doorway and staircase

Push it open (it’s never locked)… be careful not to pull the handle (sometimes it’ll come off)… and you’ll see a very uninviting steep staircase that’s about 2 stories high with a banister that is just a rusty pipe bolted to the wall… that wiggles a bit if you lean on it (so don’t if you don’t absolutely need to). That said, while I was there a 90-year-old gray-haired grandmother with a seriously bent back put me to shame on those stairs.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2b6d.jpgOnce inside you’ll see an apartment with VERY high ceilings. These are traditional to the region, and act as a sort of natural air conditioning system, as the heat rises above your head, and the cold drops to floor level. That said, no two spaces are on the same level. All the bedrooms are a step up to a place where you can leave your shoes, and then another step up to the bedroom area… the en suite bathrooms are yet another step up.

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The skylight viewed from above

My bedroom, where I stayed, has a skylight (image of it from the building’s roof)… but it’s currently the only one like that does. Unfortunately there were no way to block that light… so I ended up having to go to sleep earlier than normal in preparation for an 8am wake up (after a 6 am one, at which point I covered my head with a pillow)

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The setting sun as viewed through the doorway to the patio

At night, Nzar lights up his sign, so you can still easily see it from the parking lot below. IF you’re in one of the rooms that lines the back alley, as I was, and pop your head out the window, you’ll an large number of swallows (who you can watch at around sunset feasting on the mosquitos, G-d bless them), hanging out on the electrical and telephone wires that line the way.

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That said, I WARN YOU… they wake up really easily from things like the flash on your camera; and if awoken, they will fly around like crazy idiots for the next hour or so, chirping noisily. DO NOT WAKE UP THE SWALLOWS. That said, if you’re there during Ramadan, as I was, the wake up call before sunrise to allow muslims a chance to have breakfast, is ALSO going to wake the birds… you’ve been warned (ear plugs are your friend, as is a pillow over your head).

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Me, blogging while sitting on the patio on an overcast day

Uri Buri: A World Renowned Seafood Restaurant in Acre, Israel

Located at the edge of the Mediterranean, in a completely renovated 400 year old Ottoman building in Acre, is what many consider to be the best fish restaurant in all of Israel, Uri Buri. According to Forbes Magazine, it is one of the three restaurants in Israel any traveler to the country must try…. and considering the place was literally a 4 minute walk from my Airbnb for a month… how could I not. That said, if you go to seafood restaurants hoping to be able to get a healthy low-fat meal… this is NOT the place for you. The place offers up what can best be described as Israeli/French/Asian fusion food, that’s heavy on the cream and oils.

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The sign faces the ocean and the road… and is translucent (so I was looking through from the back)…  I reversed the image making the writing no longer backwards

I knew Uri Buri was there and that a couple had spent the night at my Airbnb just so that they could have dinner there, and it was supposed to be THAT good… but as it was also really expensive. While in my 50 odd years, and they’ve been odd… I’ve had occasion to eat at some of the world’s top restaurants, I really do tend to prefer expensive meals when someone else is paying for them. If I’m going to pay three times the price for my meal I want it to taste three times as good as the cheaper alternatives… and that rarely happen. ONCE in my life, while in Kyoto, Japan, I got taken to french restaurant that only at like 14 people at a time, and was so expensive that the menu didn’t include prices (as in if you care about price, you probably shouldn’t eat there anyway) and that meal was SO good it was better than sex…. but like I said, I wasn’t paying that night. So, while I knew Uri Buri was just next door… I hadn’t really considered going in.

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That said a friend of the family, when he came to pick me up to bring me to his parent’s for dinner, when he saw I was literally a stone’s throw from the place — well not with my pitching arm but a GOOD thrower could do it from the patio of my airbnb, see the image above — he said that I HAD to eat there at least once while I was staying in Acre. See the red and blue sign on top of the building on the left side image, that’s the patio of the airbnb I stayed at for 29 days; the stone building on the right edge of that image is Uri Buri… as is the low flat squarish building visible from the patio, looking down. THAT is how close I was to the place…

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So of course I HAD to go there…. how often in life are you THAT close to world-famous restaurant? The first time I went was a weekday at three in the afternoon —  without a reservation. In spite of it being mid-week and middle of the day, they told me they had no spare seating inside; but they could, however, seat me outside… if I was willing. It was one of those odd days when it is too hot to sit in the sun while too chilly to be sitting in the shade, and insanely windy…. but, never the less…  I said yes.

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For this first visit, I approached Uri Buri as I do MOST restaurants… I explained about my fatty liver diagnoses, what that meant in terms of my dietary needs, and asked them what they could serve me that would not piss off my doctors. They promised to bring me a very low-fat grilled piece of fish that was healthy… on a bed of purred squash with balsamic… sounded good… and looked very good

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Sadly, on closer inspection the fillet had been pan-fried, and was dripping with oil. My first thought was that maybe the concept of my having a serious medical condition that demanded I eat very low-fat meals had fallen on deaf ears…  Later I considered that maybe the food here was normally SO ridiculously oily, that from the chefs perspective this in fact was their idea of low fat by comparison … as in maybe the dish is normally served swimming in rosemary butter.  That said, it was clear to me that really, no one could eat come here with the expectation of a really healthy meal.

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A picture of my host, Nzar

Afterwards my Airbnb host, who had converted his childhood home into a guest house… suggested that I really should try Uri Buri’s tasting menu at least once before leaving. [For this they charge you for every item you eat, but the portions are smaller than if you ordered each dish alone.] This Airbnb, while GREAT, has a host who loves his guests and demonstrates that love by laying out a daily Smörgåsbord of food… and my impulse control is NULL… as a result my diet has been LOUSY during my stay anyway, and I’ve gained a good bit of weight… so in my mind, I might as well try this famous tasting menu as I’ve decidedly screwed my diet anyway …. and then try hard to get back on the bandwagon afterwards.

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When he got to that table, I heard him speaking in German to the customers, NOT Israelis

So I went back about two weeks later in order to try their tasting menu, and discovered why that is: see the guy who looks like Father Christmas? He’s the famous chef who owns the restaurant. Looking at him as an American, yah he’s a bit on the heavy side… but looking at him as an Israeli… I can not overstate this… he’s morbidly obese. Walking around Israel, IF you see anyone that’s anywhere near as heavy as he is.. than either they’re tourists visiting from abroad, or moved here recently, after having spent most of the lives in countries that have obesity issues. Israeli’s are almost never fat by US standards (at worst they develop a bit of a belly in old age). This is because they eat a diet that’s very low in processed foods, and because meat is very expensive here, if there’s protein on their plates at all, it’s usually chicken, fish, lamb or mutton — and for many its only eaten one meal a day, with the rest being vegetarian (or an egg). Most meals consist of a small amount of meat protein, and high amounts of vegetable ones… like hummus. And all meals arrive with multiple vegetable salad options on the side. As such, the average Israeli can afford to eat his cooking to no ill effect, because it’s not a daily thing. He on the other hand DOES eat his own cooking daily … and well… nuff said.

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All of the folks in this photo were Israeli (I heard them all speaking Hebrew), note the sizes

This time I also arrived mid-week, and without a reservation at about 2:00 in the afternoon, but this time it was during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan (and I had noticed a significant drop in tourists to the guest house since the festival began). As such I was guessing I could probably get a table, and yes, this time they were able to seat me inside the building … and I ordered the tasting menu.

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17 ₪ and 14 ₪, so  $4.76 & $3.92 USD

The first course was a seafood bruschetta, with some sort of white fish sitting on a puréed eggplant with what I thought were poppy seeds and drizzled with olive oil.  It came with an espresso cup full of mushroom soup. topped with truffle oil, according to the waitress. Immediately I was like, “huh?” as this is an ingredient while trendy is usually considered verboten by top ranked chefs, who consider it an abomination. But this guy prides himself on being “self-taught” so … whatever. The soup was consistent with how Israelis like their mushroom soup (there’s a particular taste to it, not how I like it but… this is Israel and it’s how they expect it)… but already between the cream in the soup and the truffle oil, PLUS the oil drizzled on the bruschetta … my body mouth and stomach were going, SERIOUSLY??!! But at this point my body isn’t really used to a lot of oil at one time… most people are. So… fine, whatever…

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18 ₪ = $5.04 USD

The next course was a Scallop sitting on a purée of artichoke with spirulina syrup. First I had a hard time understanding what the waitress was saying — she had a very strong Israeli accent — and then once I did I was kind of surprised. In the states this is usually the word used for the dietary supplement, not the food… which basically is just a high protein blue-green algae (the sort of thing that was supposed to solve the world’s food shortages once upon a time, think Soylent Green). I suppose spirulina sounds better than algae to the average Israeli… most of whom are a bit pedantic when it comes to food. That said, The scallop was a few seconds under cooked (you can see that in the picture… it should be clean white ALL the way through, not just at the edges… while not being rubbery (which is over cooked). This one is solid white at the edges and then shifts towards a sort of translucent white … which means not fully cooked. But that said… I regularly eat scallop sashimi and/or sushi, but still, this was supposed to be cooked, not seared. And, if that weren’t bad enough… it tasted slightly fishy (so not particularly fresh). Also, you couldn’t really taste the artichoke at all while the after taste of olive oil was strong. When the waitress asked me how I like it, she get defensive and said that was how the scallops are supposed to be when cooked… ah no, sorry.

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The next items were “Caramelized Tilapia on a bed of Beets” along with their signature dish  … “Salmon Sashimi with Wasabi ice cream/sorbet” — which the waitress I had the first time I came here had been trying to push at me as something “really special!”

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27 ₪ = $7.56 USD

 

 

Firstly, lets start with the tilapia… a fish I HATE by the way. Sometimes referred to as the aqua-chicken, because it’s the easiest sort of fish to farm in pools and hence super cheap… it’s not any one sort of fish, actually, but rather a random assortment of small white fish that have been selectively bred in order to assure they grow quickly and survive in captivity. Basically the same way we’ve screwed with chickens and cows … which is how it got its other nickname, “frankenfish.” There’s a lot of debate about this fish and how healthy it may or may not be at this point. But, that said, it’s almost always a very very mild fish, and as such is great to serve to people who don’t like fish…. because it barely tastes of anything. If you then go and  give it a teriyaki glaze, which is what they did… calling it caramelized was a bit of a misnomer, then you’re not really going to taste ANYTHING because teriyaki is a pretty strong flavor. If you then place it on top of pickled beets… YUP, not fresh beets which would have been great… these were pickled… sort of Jewish food 101… well then between the pickled beets and the teriyaki you’re REALLY not going to taste the fish. The fish was completely overpowered by the other items on the plate. This time the waitress said I didn’t have to eat it if I didn’t like it… but beets are good for you, and pickles are probiotic… so I finished it like a good girl…

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Then there was salmon sashimi with wasabi ice cream, their signature dish… which I was told to eat on the provided bread (good bread, tasted like multi grain)… I skipped the butter cause… butter

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The salmon was ok, except for once again having been drowned in a sweet teriyaki sauce rather than just soy (there was something really glutenous about it). I think again it is because Israelis who eat sashimi do so because they want to be seen as cool, not because they actually enjoy raw fish. So add sweet soy and they’ll like it more. As to the Wasabi ice cream… firstly it didn’t taste anything isn’t wasabi, not even the American sort which ISN’T (no really it’s not) … the American stuff is usually made of the mildest horseradish they can find, with color added (actual wasabi has to be ground fresh and eaten within about 15 minutes of grinding… and has a mild floral sort of thing going on that opens your sinuses gently, rather than painfully) …. This stuff however was a very STRONG horseradish, as in it didn’t even TRY to approximate wasabi.

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52 ₪ = $14.56 USD

It was like the horse-radish Jews eat at passover … straight.. so we can experience the suffering of slavery. Only this was that… with a lot of sweet added to it. When the waitress asked me my opinion of this dish, she was like: “well you’ve never had wasabi ice cream before!” And I was like, actually I have, many many times. The waitress was shocked as she had believed the chef had invented the stuff…

 

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17 ₪ = $4.76 USD

The next dish was finally one that made me happy. It was seafood soup, what looked like squid and shrimp cut up small, with coconut milk and a touch of curry.  The heat began as barely perceptible, although the taste of curry was there, and then grew as I ate it but never past the level of a soothing warmth. Total winner! One thing to know is that in Israel seafood does not mean a mixture of fish and shellfish, as it does in the rest of the world; rather, it means shellfish. Fish is fish, but seafood is shellfish; this is a way of distinguishing between kosher and not… fish in Israel is always KOSHER fishes (fins and scales that are easy to see and remove), and seafood is not… so it might include catfish, shark, dolphin, etc., but I’ve never seen it.

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69 ₪ = $19.33 USD

The next dish was Shrimp in a Mediterranean sauce—- LOTS of garlic, oil, what I thought was fresh parsley but the menu said was coriander …and enough lemon that the garlic tasted almost pickled … along with a few bits of sliced up jalapeños.. this dish had a nice fresh flavor and wasn’t TOO oily (once I allowed the sauce to drip away from the shrimps)

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free apparently

She then asked me how full was I, as there are still two main dishes to go, and did I have room for both? I thought about it, and said, no I really could only do one more, so she gave me a choice from those two options. Then she brought out a sorbet to clean my palette of all the garlic… first taste was still full of garlic so I thought it was mango but she said it was mandarin orange… when I said it wasn’t sweet enough and had a bit too much bite… she said that’s how they are in Israel… ok fine… it did what it was supposed to do, clean the palette.

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The final main dish was Trout in a cream sauce with green onions, and a side of risotto. It arrived with … lots of fan-fair in a super hot cast iron pot. The the fish was allowed to finish cooking in the bubbling cream sauce, and was then moved to the plate and a dish of yellow rice was then dumped in the cream and stirred “to make risotto” according to her. My brain went straight to… “risotto isn’t just rice with sauce added to it” … but I kept my mouth shut (it’s a starchy variety of rice cooked a specific way).

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67 ₪ = $18.77

The resultant side dish was heavy on the cream but tasty … and the fish is good

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For dessert I decided to getting the Palestinian dessert knafeh which she promised me would be the very best example of this dish I’ve ever had. In Acre they make it differently than how its done in Tel Aviv — where to my taste it is WAY too sweet… in Acre its subtly sweet, and to my mind, much tastier. She promised me that this one would be way better than even what’s sold by the local bakeries in town. After my having “already had wasabi ice cream” issue, she wanted to know if they had a flavor I’d never had… She assumed it would be Cardamon, but I’ve had that and rose….  so she’s said she’d bring it with date ice cream … but brought the requisite rose-water ice cream as well

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42 ₪ = $11.76 USD, and she threw in the 2nd ice cream free

the Rose Ice cream was actually Meh… inferior to what I’ve had before, but the date ice cream was really nice… the knafeh was … eeeh… again not WAY better than the other places in town. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2b2b.jpg

Toward the end of my meal a young German couple arrived who were VERY excited to eating here (like seeing a movie star excited) … according to the girl there’s a German travel food show that this restaurant was presented on as a MUST experience once in your life kind of place….

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That said, my very FILLING lunch (my stomach was distended) took two hours to eat and came to 323 ₪/shekels…  ~$90 USD…. before the %15 tip… and in spite of it feeling like I’d eaten a lot of food (mostly because of how much cream and oil my stomach was having to deal with… it was almost gurgling because of all the gas… I was a farting machine for the rest of the day) with the possible exception of that one soup… nothing struck me as being worth the price. By US prices (and keeping in mind it was small portions of every item) it doesn’t seem to bad… but any other restaurant in town would give you a triple portion of that shrimp dish for $14 USD and with it would be huge portions of at least six different salads (humus, tahini, Jerusalem salad, beet salad, cabbage, tabouleh, etc.) which are ALL YOU CAN EAT, like at a Korean place…. plus all the pita bread you need to go with it.

How to eat during Ramadan in an Arab town, such as Acre (Akko/Acco), Israel

This month is the first time in my life I’ve spent Ramadan in an Arab town. I’m SO naive about these things that I didn’t even THINK about that when planning this trip.

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  1. First thing to remember is that while Arabs are of two predominant religious groups, Muslim AND Christian. The first keeps Ramadan, the second does NOT…
  2. … and not all sects of those two major groups are alike. While Bahá’í and Druze are both, historically, offshoots of Islam, the Bahá’ís DO keep Ramadan but the Durūz/Druzim [transliterated Arabic & Hebrew spellings for the plural] do NOT …
  3. Christian owned restaurants tend to hire mostly Christian workers (friends and family), and are in retrospect easy to spot because they’re the ones that offer beer and wine options on the menu.
  4. Muslim owned places do NOT have beer or wine on the menu.
    *Noting this distinction in advance will tell you which of your favorite eateries are likely to be open or not
  5. And of course, Acco being in Israel, there are a handful of Kosher places in town… that hire Jewish workers and as such will be open: This includes the VERY expensive Uri Buri (which will demand reservations), which has won all sorts of culinary awards, is considered to be one of the best resturants in Israel, and while it has shellfish on the menu is also set up to cook Kosher food. (Warning: its “French” style, so after a full meal here, you’re going to want to go out to eat)
  6. That said, NO restaurant can afford to be closed for one month every year!!!
    According to my Airbnb host (a Xtian who has lived here his whole life) the first THREE days of Ramadan is when it’s an issue. Employers give their muslim workers that much time to acclimate into the pattern of NOT eating during the day, and then will open back up for business because there’s a tourist market that has to be served.or of course you can load up the fridge in advance and feed yourself… something I neglected to do…

When in Israel, which cell company should I buy my sim from?

International roaming is NEVER as good as it should be, and can also be very expensive. As such, IF you’re a tourist, traveling in such a way as to stay in a country a month or more, than you’re going to NEED to buy a prepaid sim card from a local carrier (suffering for a week or so is manageable, but not a month). I only spotted one carrier company selling prepaid sims in the airport and as I later learned they’re not necessarily going to be your best choice. Various carriers in Israel, such as Orange (which is changing its name to partner) offer a wide variety of sims for travelers with contracts of 1 week, 2 weeks or a month… BUT because of data coverage issues, its best to research in advance which company’s sim to buy based on your specific travel plans… IF you’re only going to Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, then pretty much any provider will work and you can just go with the cheapest one… but if your plans include historically Arab towns, or more out-of-the-way locations, then you’re going to have explore which carrier provides coverage where. In other words, there’s no easy “best” answer… sorry

Israel is a TINY country, and is one of the most advanced high-tech countries in the world; as such I’d EXPECTED them to have great coverage, just like equally high-tech and even more mountainous South Korea does — a country also in a state of war. In Korea it really doesn’t matter which company you sign up with, cell phone coverage is affordable, and not only is connectivity a given assumption (your phone works in Seoul’s train tunnels AND at the tops of mountains in bumblefuck Korea), but with that phone connectivity also comes access to the internet that is omnipresent, fast, and reliable. So you’d expect this to also be true in Israel… but it’s not. Up until recently only two providers existed and it was expensive and bad; recently an opening of the market has brought down prices and increased coverage, but at the price of customer service (which has gone from bad to worse).

When I arrived, My US provider’s roaming (T-mobile) completely failed me my first night out, even though I had read that their roaming coverage in Israel was actually pretty good and there’d be no need to buy a sim. When my plane first landed my roaming worked just fine in the airport (phone and data), so I had hopes, and didn’t buy the sim cards sold there (which actually turned out to be a good thing). However, once I’d arrived, and unpacked and was ready to go out… I discovered that once I was a few steps away from my Airbnb, which was located right next to one of the major tourist hotels and smack in the middle of two major tourist draw areas (so you’d expect coverage)… I could talk and text but found I could NOT contact Uber to call myself a taxi to the restaurant where I was meeting up with friends (see my post on how YES Israel has Uber, no matter what you’ve read), and had to walk back within range of the house’s WiFi to do it.

Then, later that night, when I ordered my return Uber (using the restaurant’s free WiFi), I found I could no longer see the taxi’s progress to my location or even which taxi was the one sent after I had stepped on to the pavement in front of the place. Again, I had to go BACK into the boundaries of their WiFi signal and reboot the app, and then had to stay there till the taxi arrived, rather than at the edge of the street as I normally would. Forget about using google maps to give me walking directions from place to place, unless I downloaded the map to my phone, but even then, the directions function didn’t work (I had to go low tech and actually READ the map for myself). So with US roaming I had 3 bars for making phone calls but NO DATA!!!!

I don’t know about you, but when I’m looking at cell providers nothing pisses me off faster than seeing three or four bars for cell coverage, and NOTHING for data. Not to be repetitive, but in this day and age ISSUE is increasingly becoming data, NOT the ability to make a phone call. This is ESPECIALLY true when you’re traveling to see the place, rather than on business (business folks still need to make calls). But I’m retired, I really don’t use my iPhone much as a phone anymore. I only makes calls when I really need to and almost no one calls me other than doctors offices and businesses, I’m far more likely to text or use a messenger app of some sort. My friends are either on Facebook or they email me, or use videophone applications to reach me … As such, my iPhone is my link to the world, when out and about, and it’s how I find my way around strange cities, call myself a cab, and decide where to eat.

That said, once I started doing my due diligence (rather than just buying the first sim card I saw) which sim card to buy turned out to be a far more complicated question than I would have imagined. As this web page that I found shows (it tracks current data coverage by carrier/provider, with distinctions for 3G, 4G, etc.), data coverage in Israel kind of seriously sucks.

When using the page you have to select a provider from the pull down menu, and then zoom in to specific neighborhoods to see actual coverage. Looking at the results, the map shows that if you stay in Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem, pretty much any sim will work. However, if like me your trip is going to include spending a full month in places like the Historic town of Acre (pronounced as Akko), located just north of Haifa, not so good. Haifa has GREAT coverage, Akko’s kind of sucks. What was REALLY irritating was learning that even though my T-mobile is roaming using Cellcom’s network, and I was IN neighborhoods where cellcom had STRONG coverage, my T-mobile sim wasn’t seeing that data stream …

I have a theory that this may be because T-mobile’s roaming only sees 3G and 4G and in areas that have upgraded to 4G+, it just can’t read the stuff… but its a theory only.

Anyway, If you can I STRONGLY suggest contacting your host and or hosts and asking them WHICH provider has the best data coverage in the places you’ll be spending the most time. My Host in Tel Aviv had suggested the provider Golan, as the best and cheapest, but I discovered it had NO coverage, NONE in Akko, where I was going to be on my 2nd month. So I contacted that host, and he suggested that I buy the Orange sim (which recently changed its name to Partner)

ALSO, MOST of the shops that are selling sim cards in Israel have HORRIBLE customer service — they’re NOT like in the USA. (At this point I want to kill the guys who sold me my orange card just for being asses). Most of the sellers are just little stalls in malls and such and the folks working them only know what he has in stock and expects you to show up knowing what you want. If you want help making the decision based on needs you’re going to HAVE to go one of their Customer service centers . A way to know is if there’s a guy standing behind the counter and you didn’t have to take a number to talk to him, expect NO CUSTOMER SERVICE. The ones where they actually know enough and have been trained to help you, for those you’ll have to take a number and then sit and wait to see a guy who is SITTING behind a counter. Standing means no customer service, while take and number and sit = customer service.

Israel DOES have Uber, of a sort.

[Updated Sept. 18, 2019]

Before coming to Israel I was trying to find out DID Israel have Uber, and every website I saw said they did not. Even locals I spoke to told me “Uber doesn’t work in Israel.” This is in fact WRONG…  It does … at least for as much as you the customer actually care… You open your app, you call for a ride, you get one… it’s just going to be from an actual licensed taxi with a yellow taxi thing on its hood… but you get your ride and pay via the app, and let’s face it that’s all we as the customer actually care about.

That said, you ARE going to want to use Uber. When I grabbed a cab at the airport without Uber, the girl who talked to me when I got into the cab at the designated cab stand, officiously informed me that my cab would only cost 110 shekels because the cab could only charge me based on the distance (not the time) and because of the location I was going to that was the charge. She handed me a print out with a website to reach for feedback (but no mention of the set charge), and she promised me he would take my credit card. When I got there he said his WiFi didn’t work, so he couldn’t charge the card… and when I asked how much, he said that because of how backed up the highway had been, and how long it took to get here, the fee was 145 shekels. I was too tired at the time to make a stink — because Israeli’s LOVE to argue ….  So I just paid the extra and let it go… but knew I’d just been ripped off.

[that and I was once punched in the face by a shoe repair man, in Israel, because I had refused to pay as he’d totally botched up the job — SERIOUSLY, not making this up, and I now know better than to NOT expect a potential for violence when in Israel … I’ve seen more than a few minor fender benders turn violent over the years — keep in mind a good chunk of the population has PTSD.]

[update: the next time I took a cab from the airport from the same taxi stand, this time the driver was a woman. She asked me if I had GETT installed on my phone (see below), an app designed for Taxi cab companies rather than “sharing economy” drivers, and as such has apparently has an neat little feature that if you’re already in the cab that you hailed off the street you can pull all the cabs adjacent to you as you’re moving along (you see their faces and names) and then pick the cab you’re in and use the app to pay them. She then asked me, “how much did the woman at the airport say the ride was going to be?” and she input into my app that amount. So it’s a case by case based on how honest the cab driver is.]

So yes, you’re going to want to use Uber if for no other reason than the cab drivers get paid via the app, and this gives them no opportunity to pull that kind of con on travelers.

Oh, and in Israel cab drivers are NOT generally tipped, although waiters in restaurants and bars still are. Cab drivers don’t expect it, and the app isn’t set up to do it. I do NOT however know if they’ll give you bad feedback if you don’t, which is what was happening in the USA which is why Uber added after the fact tipping.

In Israel it’s not Uber so much as the Uber business model of the gig economy that’s illegal; i.e., individuals using their own cars to drive as taxi’s. If you think about it that’s probably a good thing as Israel is a country in a state of war and terrorism is most definitely a thing. You’ve all heard the stories of the folks faking being Uber drivers in order to rape or steal from people, well in Israel using Uber to kidnap and kill could easily become part of the terror campaign, so I understand why the Israeli government wouldn’t allow it.

That said, you can STILL use your Uber app to get a ride. Apparently, Uber has teamed up with licensed cab drivers and given them access to their software. When you call an Uber what arrives has a formal yellow “Taxi” thing attached to their roof. I think what’s happened is all the small independent companies and/or drivers, who can’t afford to have the sort of software/app/etc that Uber has are the ones who have teamed up with Uber. Israel has in fact a LONG history of this sort of small businessman… before it was nationalized all busses in Israel were privately owned and operated by their drivers, even though they were on organized routes. (My mom had more than few friends who were doing this for a living back when I was like 4 years old).

[Update]

For those who who have an issue with Uber, GETT (mentioned above) is a different app that also will get you a cab. It was the first taxi hailing application in Israel and most cab drivers use it.

That said… as a result of traveling back and forth to Israel, and swiping out sim cards to local carriers, experiencing app updates, etc., I’ve discovered that Uber has no issue with all of that… but GETT will forget all your information on a semi regular basis so when you go to hail a cab you find yourself having to RE-install all the credit card information over and over again because of either swiping out the sim or updates in the app. And when you’re in a hurry and wanting a cab, you do NOT want have to sit down, pull out your credit cards, re-enter all your info, and THEN be finally able to call a cab….