I’m revisiting Israel, as it’s ages since I was here, visiting Jordan, Israel and Palestine. My old photos aren’t great. As their strap line says, 'There's nowhere like Israel'. I’ve never been to Tel Aviv. And there was a great offer on my Virgin Air Miles.
Getting in is very straightforward. No visa, no forms to fill in, no Covid requirements. And a blue printed authorisation drops into my hand, as several countries are not very happy about passports with Israeli stamps in them. So they ‘ve given up doing it. The immigration official isn’t exactly welcoming. But she’s allowed me in.
I’m renting an apartment in Jaffa and it’s Saturday – Shabbat in the Jewish religion - so I’m taking a taxi. Though first, I have to avoid all the hustlers, who try to edge me into their vehicles and charge double the correct rate. One even puts my bag into the boot of his car and I have to jostle with him to retrieve it. Then, I find the authorized queue. Little English is spoken here and nearly all the signage is in Hebrew or Arabic. My short, puzzled looking driver gesticulates at me instead.
Tel Aviv, officially, Tel Aviv-Yafo is the economic and technological centre of the country, home to most of the foreign embassies, who shy away from recognising Jerusalem as the capital. It’s the largest city in the country, if East Jerusalem is not considered part of Israel. If it is, then Tel Aviv is the country's second most populous city, after Jerusalem.
Tel Aviv has the largest economy per capita, in the Middle East, and more importantly, according to some lists, has the highest cost of living in the world. I’m stocking up in the supermarket. Shopping here is not as bad as the Cayman Islands, at least.
Tel Aviv is a modern city - founded in 1909 by the Yishuv (Jewish residents), as a housing estate on the outskirts of the ancient port city of Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew, hence the full name of the city). It was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The growth of Tel Aviv, due to immigration by mostly Jewish refugees, soon outpaced that of Jaffa, which had a majority Arab population. Tel Aviv was allowed to develop into a city in its own right.
My apartment is in Jaffa (Yafo) – now part of Tel Aviv-Yafo. Jaffa was not historically part of Israel. Ancient Jaffa (or Joppa) was the northern most city of the biblical Philistines, much coveted by Judea. Archaeological evidence shows signs of human settlement there starting in roughly 7,500 BC and the city was established around 1,800 BC, at the latest. Its natural harbour has been used since the Bronze Age.
There was considerable debate, as to the future of Jaffa, after independence It wasn’t wanted by the affluent boroughs of Tel Aviv, but it was eventually amalgamated with the city. Overall, the population of Israel is 20% Muslim and 1% Christian. Here more than a third of the people are Arabs. There are ongoing friction - complaints about discrimination and marginalization.
The local beach has large wooden shady areas with trellis type roofing. So I park myself on the edge of one of these. The pillar makes a convenient backrest and I'm thinking I can retreat into the shade as necessary. The sand is so fine and soft you can rub it onto your skin along with the sun tan lotion and it doesn't hurt at all.
But the locals or fellow tourists have no concept of personal space. Or don’t care. One family parks themselves right next to me and two small boys, aided and abetted by their father, create a huge walled castle networ,k which encompasses the whole of this canopied area. The other side of me rapidly fills up too. Another small boy of sand throwing inclination. Until I gesticulate to his parents that he should cease. And a couple speaking Italian and broken English. He poses arms outstretched while she takes the pictures at his command. They've cut off my escape route entirely.
When the babies aren't squalling there's the ongoing clack of matkot games. It's the Israeli version of beach or padel board tennis. And, some fishermen have just hauled a net onto the beach and are picking out the glistening fish.
Parks and canopies run behind the beaches most of the way to the old port at Jaffa. The port area might be old, it’s partly backed by old churches and a monastery. There are also renovated houses with jettied windows. But the expensive yachts moored up there are entirely modern. And a newly constructed quay is lined with plate glass chain restaurants.
Inland, there are older creamier buildings with arches (the modern ones often incorporate the shape of these) and the Clock Tower. Probably the most well know landmark in the area. There are bougainvillea filled parks (gorgeous against the blue sky) and gardens to wander, a warren of narrow streets, with views across the bay, to the new city, if you can find your way out. There's a beautifully decorated mosque, a proper pink canopied flea market, and a plethora of stalls selling food and goods of all descriptions. It definitely has 'atmosphere'.
In Tel Aviv, scores of white towers (mostly hotels and apartments round here) march down to the sea. This is the thronging Good Time Capital of the Levant. You can sunbathe, shop, eat and drink, to your heart's content. Or at least, as far as your wallet will allow.
There are more parks, running alongside the beach. And there are bicycle lanes. These have to be crossed cautiously. They're mostly used by scooters and electric bikes and both whizz by at alarming speed. Usually on the pavement, despite all the impressive infrastructure. The scooters frequently have an additional passenger on board. Sometimes the bicycles do too. Standing on the luggage rack.
As in England, the bicycles don't take a lot of notice of traffic lights. And neither do the motor bikes. It's exceptionally disconcerting, trying to cross the wide boulevards, uncertain when some huge machine is going to dart out in front of you.
Tel Aviv, has, as one would expect, numerous museums and galleries and is famous for its nightlife. The string of beaches (are wide, with more of that soft sand, though busy and urban, covered with sunbeds. It looks like one long stretch of sand to me, but each section has a different name. Jerusalem Beach is one of the most popular. Currents and rock don't augur well for swimming. There are designated swimming areas, mostly created with rocky arms in the sea and plenty of life guard stations. Tannoy announcements, vigorously warning swimmers (I assume - it's all in Hebrew) punctuate the click-clack of matkot. The promenade is thronging in the evening, right along to the south of Jaffa. And there's a food festival taking up the whole of one park. Loud music over speakers, police with automatic rifles posing on platforms and queues jostling to get in.
Although it's newer, Tel Aviv still has enticing narrow streets, lined with flowers, sculptures and cafes, behind the sea front towers. Wandering through here brings me to the Carmel Market. This, mainly one street bazaar, is delightful. It's mostly food stalls of all descriptions and most of it looks delicious.
To the other extreme, there's the White City. Tel Aviv is home to the world's largest concentration of International Style buildings, including Bauhaus and other related modernist architectural styles. Collectively (although they're spread out ) they've been dubbed the White City and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I’ve scoured the internet and picked out some for a walking tour. It mostly covers Rothschild Boulevard, and is so often the case, most of what I want to see is being reconstructed or refurbished. I’m sure they check my calendar when they plan these works.
I'm due to start at the Independence Hall (Number 16). This is where the Israeli state was declared in 1948. (Read more about the history of Israel here.) It's also known as Dizengoff House. Meir Dizengoff was the first mayor of Tel Aviv, one of the main drivers for Israeli independence, along with first Prime Minister Ben Gurion. His name pops up all around Tel Aviv. Sadly, the hall, which I've read is now a museum of history, is surrounded by hoardings and looks to be half demolished. Instead, I chat to lovely La'el, on a bench in the small square in the centre of the boulevard. This is very much small coffee shop under shady tree country. La'el lives here, but she's never heard of the White City or the term Bauhaus.
Next, the Great Synagogue. Definitely not a Bauhaus building, it's worth a slight detour, from the boulevard. Though opinions are divided as to whether this is a beautiful building. Perhaps striking is the right word. more brutalist with its concrete, pillars, buttresses and circular cut outs. It's looking a little worse for wear, but an upgrade is in the pipeline.
The U shaped Engel House (number 84), Number 61 Rothschild (plenty of curved balconies) and the Rubinsky House (residential and the curves are hard to see from the street, just off Rothschild). Habima Square, low, flat and brown, is home to the Habima Theatre and the Cultural Place. It stretches across the top of Dizengoff Street. This is a big shopping area, lined with cafes and boutiques. which takes me. north east, back down to the beach area.. In the middle, Kikar Dizengoff, a circus or plaza, with fountains and views across to the up market apartments in the Dizengoff Tower. Just behind the promenade, my favourite Bauhaus building, with its mirrored loops - 96 Hayarkon.
My apartment is another of life’s disappointments. It’s marketed as high end, cosy and luxurious, by the beach. Well, it's five minutes from the nearest beach, and I can cope with that. Though half the area is currently fenced off for building work. That’s not the owner of apartment’s fault. But the dust, mould, stains, peeling plaster and dirt inside are. The building itself is nice - and so could the apartment be, if it was looked after. There’s also a mosque, just over the road, with accompanying muezzin through the day and night. Description says its during the day only. Advertised as charming and specious - well that’s accurate. Cosy charming, high end. Recently renovated. The pictures are clearly ancient.
Tel Aviv-Yafo is also known as the Big Orange. Jaffa orange production is the only large Palestinian industry still remaining. Whilst cotton, soap and ink declined, orange cultivation became big business and Jaffa is surrounded by orange groves. The oranges were developed by Arabs who crossed the original Chinese orange with other varieties to produce a sweet fruit with a tough skin that would travel well. And so oranges became big business. There's even a visitor attraction here - a sculpture that depicts a suspended orange tree. Though the economy and lack of water has meant that citrus production doesn't thrive as much as it once did.
The smaller Jewish city of Bat Yam, just to the south, was initially a contender for an alliance with Jaffa, instead of Tel Aviv, but it was deemed insufficiently wealthy to support the area. Bat Yam is a 15 minute stroll from my apartment. It’s a gentle place, unremarkable cream and white high rise blocks, quiet roads and a gorgeous beaches backed by lofty cliffs. There are rip currents and small rocky islands galore along this coast too and much of the lovely sand is covered with large signs, prohibiting swimming in big red letters.
Fortunately, the Jerusalem Beach here has a huge pool, within the sea, created with rocks, and surrounded by several lifeguard stations. It also has beach cafes and lots of sunbeds. And, even though it’s the weekend, it’s not too crowded, at this end of town. Trying to attract a waiter's attention is another matter.
A day tour up the coast, from Tel Aviv, necessitates an uncivilised start. The roads are empty when I set off at 5.30 a.m., but there are still adventures to be had. I'm doused by the huge sprinklers set up in the parks to keep them green. And I find myself somehow inside the hoardings set up for the food festival, with apparently no exit. It's panic stations for five minutes while I retrace my steps.
Three lane highways. Manicured roundabouts decorated with flower beds. Avenues lined with jacaranda trees in bloom. The buildings are all cream or white, occasionally venturing daringly into beige or light brown. The traffic, crawling into Tel Aviv, is terrible. A million commuters each day. Fortunately, we are going the other way.
The orange groves are receding (out of sight and in size). Swallowed up by new housing. Each new apartment constructed must have an air raid shelter. Mine seems to be the bedroom. No Wi-Fi reception in there..
Further north, avocados ( the main Israeli export today ) bananas ( under gigantic tents of shady netting), pomegranates (apparently they are very good ones) and vineyards (there are 350 wineries in Israel, though the best Israeli wine is said to come from the Golan Heights). The swathes of golden sand , alternating with rocky patches continue, whenever we meet the coast, as we wind north up Highway 2.
Caesarea is famous for its historical remains. It was first settled by the Phoenicians and then became first, the capital of the province of Judaea (not to be confused with the smaller, earlier Judah). and later Syria Palestina, when Judaea was merged with Galilee. The Roman city was founded by Herod the Great (37-4 BC), who sycophantically (as was common) named it after Caesar Augustus. It's often referred to as Caesarea Maritima. to distinguish it from all the other Caesareas. The Byzantines followed and later the crusaders fortified the port. Further invaders, such as the Mamluks, preferred to utilize other areas and Caesarea once more became a fishing village.
It has a theatre (in good condition and still used), the usual baths, a large hippodrome or circus and the ruins of Herod the Great's Palace. At least, the guide says it’s a hippodrome and a theatre. He is adamant that there are no amphitheatres here. The leaflet I’ve been given says the hippodrome is a Herodian amphitheatre, which could seat 10,000. There are the remains of another hippodrome, further out, (200 AD), that could seat 30,000. To the north, there's also the remains of the moated crusader Castle, which was built on the site. Caesarea developed around its port, a huge hub in Roman times. But most of it's under water now. We're zipped round at top speed. Hardly time to take photos, let alone listen to the guide's version of history.
Ten minutes later, we are allowed to hop off the bus and view the aqueduct, snaking along the beach – 10 kilometres long and eight metres tall. Herod had to build it, as there was no fresh water in the area. It was later extended (doubled in size) by Hadrian.
Next stop, Haifa, a huge port city, which has taken over from Acre (Akko) in terms of importance. There's a large industrial area with petrochemical plants that are said to significantly raise cancer rates in the region. They've talked about moving it. But it hasn't happened yet.
There's a great panorama across town, from the slopes of Mount Carmel. And a stunning view of the Baháʼí Gardens. They're built on 19 levels, as 19 is a holy number for Muslims, with the gold domed tomb of the Bab, Muhammed Ali in the centre. Bab means gate or door.
The Baháʼí Faith is a tolerant religion, emanating from Iran, which essentially attempts to unite all faiths (saying all are worthy). It has three central figures: the Báb (1819–1850), the herald, or messenger (hence gate), a John the Baptist like figure who taught his followers that God would soon send a prophet who would be similar to Jesus or Muhammad, Baháʼu'lláh (1817–1892), who claimed to be that prophet and his son, Abdu'l-Bahá (1844–1921).
The Bab was sentenced to death in Tabriz. He was tied up and forced to face 750 riflemen. Astonishingly they all missed (or so the story goes). So the Bab ran away, but was recaptured and this time the execution was successful. His body was stolen away to Israel and buried in the shrine here.
Baháʼu'lláh was persecuted, and imprisoned, but only exiled to Iraq. Abdu'l-Bahá was released from confinement in 1908 and able to make teaching trips to Europe and the United States. Today, the religion is estimated to have 5 to 8 million adherents, spread throughout the world.
Acre, known here as Akko, also goes back a very long way. The earliest evidence of settlements dates back to 3000 BC. Until the British came, it was the foremost seaport in the region. It's probably most famous for its role in the Crusader Wars, when it changed hands several times. There's a whole crusader castle church and crypt underneath newer, Ottoman buildings. These were simply laid over the crusader chambers, which were filled to the brim with sand. No-one realised these additional layers were there, until the 1990s. The sand was scooped out to reveal extraordinary vaulting on lofty ceilings and tiny underground sandstone passages, linking the buildings. It's a very impressive display, making good use of projectors to recreate scenes from the past and overlay them on the stone.
Lunch in a tourist restaurant with pickled cabbage, olives, flatbread, weird hot hummus, shawarma ( turkey scraps) and chips. One date each ( though I have the temerity to take two).
The obligatory tourist shop ' with craft demonstration '. It's another whistlestop tour. There's just time to admire the mosque. the second largest in Israel and to scoot down to the port and through the bazaar, which is mostly shuttered for the afternoon. Past a whole row of restaurants, lights strung all round in a large square. It looks like a fun place for the evening.
As far north as we can get, is Rosh Hanikra. This is where the British, and others, tunnelled through the rock and suspended 15 bridges, to create a train line between Haifa and Beirut during World War II. They blew up the main bridges, to prevent Lebanon sending in weapons, after the state of Israel was created. The border gate here remains firmly closed and the guard on duty declines invitations to have his photo taken today.
We descend to the grottoes on the world's steepest (and probably shortest ) cable car. The caves are suitably azure, filled with foaming waves and linked by slippery paths.
As nearly everyone who lives in Tel Aviv is Jewish or Muslim pork is unsurprisingly, in short supply. most of the sandwiches on sale are egg or fish. There are plenty of restaurants serving shellfish. The food is good, but (unsurprisingly, give the information above) expensive. As are the very tempting cocktails.
The beaches and restaurants are crowded on Friday thru Saturday - Shabbat. Every table is reserved at the nicest places on Friday evening, when I'm relegated to the bar.
And my taxi driver, back to the airport, argues over the fare. 'It’s a third extra on Saturdays', he says. 'It's 180 shekels.'
' Use the meter ',I insist. He does.(It's the law.) Complaining every five minutes. But, the roads are fairly clear and we clock up 140 shekels.
'You win', he declares, as he unloads my bag.
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