Acre, Israel - The water washes over me. Sometimes almost burning, sometimes shockingly cold.
There are no windows, only circular holes in the dome-shaped ceiling that filter the morning light, but I sense the Mediterranean Sea a few steps away. Lying on a hot slab of marble, I breathe in the steamy clouds of the 400-year-old Turkish bath. I've arrived at chef Uri Jeremias's Efendi Hotel in Acre, in northern Israel. Time to let go.
Blissfully forgotten by many tour buses despite its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the walled port city of Acre has been inhabited for more than 4 000 years. At the crossroads of the trade routes between Europe, Asia and Africa, the peninsula harboured Egyptians, Persians, Romans and Arabs before the crusaders made it the capital of their Kingdom of Jerusalem, leaving a remarkably intact complex of ruins. Centuries later, the Ottomans added their own imprint, often on top of former construction.
Today, it might as well be the fief of Jeremias, a self-taught, white-bearded prophet of fish and seafood whose simple whitewashed restaurant, Uri Buri, (“buri” means mullet) is often lauded as one of the best fish restaurants in Israel. And now, Jeremias is launching cultural seminars to introduce travelers to the Western Galilee, his beloved region.
Jeremias, 71, was born five miles away in Nahariya. Thrown out of school at 16, he says he spent many years backpacking, then travelling in a minibus, first throughout Europe, then to Afghanistan and India. As he discovered, because of “the magic of the markets and the connection between flavour and culture,” the kitchen in his bus became a meeting point for fellow travelers. But it would be another 20 years until he opened Uri Buri.
“People tend to order the food they know,” he said. “So we tailor our tasting menu to what's best that day, to expand their repertoire.”
I didn't know I liked fresh anchovies - plump, meaty and lightly brushed with local olive oil, vastly different from the sad and salty shrivelled specimens that adorn our Caesar salads. A sliced branch of calamari - poached, then grilled - seemed the perfect pillow for caramelised zucchini petals, and the wasabi sorbet on top of salmon sashimi offered an ideal combination of fire and ice.
In 2003, Jeremias bought two adjacent 19th-century Ottoman houses in the old city, a few steps from his successful seaside eatery, and spent the next nine years working to meld them into what has become the 12-room Efendi Hotel, the only luxury boutique hotel in Acre.
“The renovation lasted until 2012,” he said. “The department of antiquity, the fire department and the planning commission argued endlessly.” But Jeremias, whose beard harbours a certain resemblance to that of King Solomon, prevailed.
“I wanted to bring back the soul of these homes,” he said. “Who needs stainless steel or glass?”
From the breakfast room carved out within an old chapel, I descended a long stairway to the cool wine cellar, where the walls show strata of different stone patterns dating from the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. But the vaulted lobby, more than 21 feet high, combines joyful contemporary furniture and ancient artifacts, creating a sort of hip historical atmosphere.
Upstairs, I noticed a bouquet of ceramic paintbrushes decorating a long, rustic console carved from a tree. Everywhere, towering French windows opened onto the roofs of the ancient town and the sea beyond, letting in an intense morning light. The height and dimensions of the public areas, the gray marble floors and the formal chandeliers could have lent the hotel a sense of grandeur, but the warm smiles of the young staff spoke only of comfort and warmth.
“ 'Efendi' means lord,” said Roi Samogora, the hotel manager. “The Efendi Hotel was the house of the lord of the town.”
“So is Jeremias the new lord?” I asked.
“No, it's you. It's your house now.”
Across from my room on the second floor, the marble floor extends to a massive eight-meter-long balcony. The frescoes seem to take their inspiration from the emerald green roof of the minaret and the indigo sea in the distance.
Jeremias has reason to be most proud of the minutiae involved in the restoration of the painted ceilings and cornices. In tribute, a pair of pants stained with the paint used by the Venetian artists who spent many months restoring the frescoes lies in a small alcove next to photographs showing the stages of the renovation.
“I didn't want to create a museum,” Jeremias said. “But we documented every paint tone and every floor tile. After the repair, we replaced them in exactly the same way.”
It's that passion for this region and its history that led Jeremias to launch the “Crusaders Seminars,” a four-day immersion involving lectures, archaeological tours and food-and-wine experiences, led by Efraim Lev, a professor who is both a historian of medicine and a tour guide. Attendees stay, of course, at the Efendi and eat at Uri Buri.
I would have to come back for the seminars, but I walked through the old town and into the ancestral covered souk of Acre, allowing the dim light and the aromas to transport me to a different, ancient era. I stood in line for delicious, smooth hummus at the stall of Humus Said and then bargained like a fiend for the most fragrant spices at Hamudi Kurdi Spices and Turkish Coffee.
Back at Efendi for the sunset, seated on low cushions on the rooftop, sipping wine the colour of honey, I knew the modern highway to Haifa wasn't far, but as the timeless call of the muezzin rose above Acre, I let go of past and future. For once, I stayed still.
* Bigar, who is on Twitter as @frenchiefoodie, is a food and travel writer based in New York.
If you go...
Where to stay
Louis IX St.
The property features 12 rooms, a wine cellar dating from the Byzantine era and a peaceful rooftop overlooking the sea. Rooms from about $281 (about R4 000) per night.
Where to eat
93 Haganah St.
Simple whitewashed walls serve as chef Uri Jeremias's canvas for dishes highlighting a range of seafood preparations. Entrees start at $24.