Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Haifa, Israel: A Place I've Never Been

I've been around the world, and I-I-I-I have seen many cities situated on and around mountains and hills, two of my favorite things.

Istanbul, Rio, Penang in Malaysia, Cusco and Machu Picchu in Peru, Tiberias overlooking the Sea of Galilee, my birthplace of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and pretty much every major city and region I've been to in Italy (Rome, Florence, Siena, Bologna, Pompei, Genoa and the Chianti region in Tuscany), with the exceptions of Milan, Venice and Pisa, come immediately to mind. Those cities and towns either offer breathtaking views of undulating terrain, or their buildings are judiciously peppered around and/or on the inclines so as not to completely obscure the natural element.

But Haifa, an underrated city in the north of Israel, appears to be something else entirely. The closest I've probably come to seeing anything quite like how I imagine it must be inside the city limits might be San Francisco and Lisbon. Both are hilly metropolises overlooking major bodies of water, but their upswings are not nearly as dramatic as Mount Carmel, a centerpiece of northwestern Israel that peaks -- figuratively, not literally -- in Haifa, the country's third-largest city.

From a distance, the architecture in continuous chunks of the mountainous Carmel city looks like it covers the slopes entirely, while in others, the mountainside appears to be building-free, with the town instead sprouting from the top. Capping off Haifa's Mount Carmel scene from way below is the edge of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea. I'm pretty certain I'll be seeing it all in my dreams tonight.

Riding by the natural and architectural spectacle in a train from Tel Aviv to Akko (aka, Acre, billed as one of the oldest continuously populated cities on the planet), I didn't know where to look: The mountain or the sea? No matter which way I turned my head, I was going to miss an amazing view from the surprisingly high-tech locomotive (which was equipped with complimentary Wi-Fi and outlets, nearly all of which were being used by passengers to charge their smart phones).

When the train pulled into Akko just before noon, 90 minutes after leaving Tel Aviv, I was certain I'd gotten off at the wrong stop. My 70 NIS ($20) round-trip ticket was from Tel Aviv to Akko, but during the entire three hours I spent in Akko, I couldn't stop thinking about what I was missing 30 minutes away, back in Haifa, which I had neither the time nor the energy or wheels to explore after leaving Akko. I've been told it's impossible to get around there without a car, a warning that makes complete sense after what I saw off in the distance to and from Akko/Tel Aviv.

So today it was Akko on foot, which was hardly a letdown, considering the seaside views and antique architecture of the old city. It also has the best hummus in the world, a boast I'd heard several times (most recently from my favorite bartender at the 6th of May in Tel Aviv) that The Pisan Harbour, a restaurant overlooking the sea, confirmed. But if I make it back up north again before I leave Tel Aviv on Sunday, I know exactly where I'm headed: to Haifa, to give both sides (the mountain and the sea) their due.

Extra! The windows of the hi-tech train were too dirty for me to take photos of Haifa en route to Akko, but I did get a few decent shots of my afternoon in Akko's old city.

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