August 6, 2021

The Sofia: The new Tiberias luxury hotel with a Zionist background

By Barbara Sofer

Sofia is the name of the new classy hotel in Tiberias, and there’s a story behind it. Owners Raul and Sophie Sarogo plan to make Sofia the first in a chain of Israeli five-star boutique hotels that will bear their Zionist grandmother’s name.

They had to start off the chain in Tiberias because of their family story. Tiberias was a beloved stopping place for their ancestors, so-called Shami Jews who lived in Harat al-Yahud, the Jewish quarter of Damascus. Tiberias was 100 km. away, an easy donkey-ride where Grandma Sofia, born in 1895, developed her childhood affection for Agam Tabaria, the Sea of Galilee, aka the Kinneret.

In Tiberias, the first stop was getting their travel passes from Turkish officials in a stone building above the sea. By 16, Sofia was telling her many suitors that she insisted on living in the Promised Land. But when the security situation in Damascus became dangerous, her worried brother scuttled her off to safety in Argentina, promised as bride to a Syrian Jew in Buenos Aires. “She was a weeping bride, but eventually loved him,” says Raul Sarogo. Ten children later, Sofia was widowed and demonstratively sold the family’s considerable businesses. When she made aliyah, her grown children and grandchildren followed.

“We were the wandering Jews coming home,” says Sarogo. He was three, the son of Sofia’s youngest son, Reuven, a building contractor whose last business deal before his death was buying an old stone building being used as a seaside IDF rest house. Only when Raul – also a contractor – read his grandmother’s diary did he realize that the building was the place his grandmother stopped with her parents to get travel passes. “It became obvious that we would name our hotel Sofia,” he says. The hotel synagogue is named for his father, Reuven.
Delayed – like the family heroine – but this time by the coronavirus closures and restrictions, the Sofia opened in March 2021 for Passover. The nostalgia for the family history – Sarogo who heads the Israel contractor’s organization gets teary when he tells it – led to the successful combination of old-world touches and contemporary hotel style and convenience. This is not a hotel like many in Tiberias that have changed names and managements, nor one of the half-built properties that became city eyesores. It’s brand new, located somewhat north of the center of town on Palmah Street.

The lobby and spa are paved in rescued hand-painted burgundy and turquoise floral tiles that came from Damascus. The dining buffet includes Grandma Sofia’s recipe for stuffed zucchini. But the smart rooms feature electronic wall pads (easy to use) to change the lighting to bright, romantic or night with a subtly lit path to the bathrooms. The air conditioner remembers how chilly you like the room.

OUR ROOM, the standard, called “Premium Lake View,” easily passed my “opening-the-door test.” This is my reaction of pleasure or disappointment when first opening a hotel room door. My heart either lifts in appreciation of a certain level of luxury or sinks in disappointment. The understated décor in tans and browns with wooden panels is relaxing and tasteful, nothing that would take away from the gasp-worthy view of the Kinneret. The high-end pillow-top mattress is extremely comfortable, and if you are bringing a child or grandchild, a separate bed can be pulled out from beneath, with ample space in the 29 sq.m. room.

A word about kids. Although Israeli summer means that most local travelers are indeed accompanied by their children – and there were many at the hotel – Sofia is more of an adult hotel. There’s a sophisticated workout room, a stunning wine cellar and a Turkish hammam. This isn’t a hotel with a kiddie club and playground. When we were there, the kiddie pool drew an equal number of toddlers and adults sitting in the water in deck chairs, where, as in the fashionable infinity pool, you get a panoramic view of boats skimming over the sea. But if you are bringing children and exploring more of the sites in Tiberias and the north, there are also suites for parents with up to three children. Accessible rooms are also available.

Clever use of space is evident inside and out, where the 120-room hotel has risen seven floors between stucco 1970s apartment houses. The owners are also negotiating to get a private beach space at the Kinneret. If so, they’ll have to provide shuttle service until the municipality pulls up its bootstraps and provides adequate infrastructure for tourists. There are actually Roman steps from the hotel to the waterfront, but they look as if they haven’t been repaired since legionaries climbed down them. Sarogo hopes the initiatives of private entrepreneurs will push the city into investing in infrastructure, including a boardwalk like Tel Aviv’s, that will take advantage of the unique beauty of the Kinneret.

Perched on a hill, Sofia’s architects have used every meter to provide considerable outdoor eating space for a city hotel. A first wedding has taken place here, and the roof with its spectacular view and breeze is also a possible venue for celebration. A tapas restaurant will open on the roof, followed by a chef restaurant.

In the meantime, the food served in the dining room is excellent. The nearness of the Kinneret plus the Syrian Jewish background are reflected both in the dining room itself and the cuisine. The dining room is divided into sections by ceiling-to-floor hangings of an open-weave wire mesh that recall fishing nets and create more intimate areas. Dishes like burekas agala, hand-crafted burekas filled with egg and vegetables, join the plethora of more traditional Israeli salads for breakfast. You can get typical cheesecake and also sweet cheese knafeh. There were nine kinds of fish at breakfast, and salmon, salmon tartare, lox and drum at dinner.
Assorted features I particularly liked: the room’s desk with free Internet and plentiful electrical sockets; the large square built-in rain forest shower head in the bathroom (the bathroom is distanced from the bedroom instead of the trendy frosted-glass-enclosed toilets I never understood in other luxury hotel), the handsome paneled wood doors that guarantee quiet.
Tiberias is, of course, very hot in the summer, and I appreciated the lemony-mint slush passed out gratis around the pool and the ubiquity of cups and cold water fountains. Listening to the saxophonist playing beneath the stars on the roof combined with the moon over the water was magical.

Even if you’re not having one of the classic or holistic treatments at the spa, it’s worth going up to the first floor to get a better look of how the old customs house visited by Sofia has been integrated into the modern hotel that bears her name.

Current prices for bed and breakfasts on for a room like ours are around NIS 1,100 per night for a couple.