My German country people are the world champions when it comes to travelling, Israel, however, is not one of their favoured destinations, so it was easy to organise the trip two years ago, we went to a travel agency, booked the flight and the hotels and four days later we were on the plane.
We aren’t pious and didn’t intend to go on a pilgrimage and tick off all the holy sites Israel has to offer, we decided to stay in Tel Aviv (where the international airport is) for two days to shake off winterly Germany and then to go on to Jerusalem for six days. Tel Aviv gave us what we had been looking for and more than was necessary to make us happy: we arrived in the middle of a hot spell, when we landed at midnight it was 22° C, ten degrees more than at home at noon!
Tel Aviv is the most modern metropolis of the whole Middle East with ~ 377 000 inhabitants in the city proper (greater Tel Aviv is the city with the largest Jewish population in the world), it’s the financial and cultural centre of Israel. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, for a period of eight months during the Arab blockade of Jerusalem, it also served as the temporary capital of Israel, later, when Jerusalem was proclaimed the capital, most embassies stayed in the Tel Aviv area.
Tel Aviv is dubbed The Green City and indeed we saw many streets with a lane in the middle flanked by trees on either side with playgrounds for children and benches for the elderly in between. The Ben Gurion Boulevard took us past the Ben Gurion House in which the first Prime Minister of Israel lived together with his wife to the architecturally unimaginative city hall on the Yitzak-Rabin-Square named after the politician Rabin who was assassinated here in 1995, from there we headed to the Ditzengoff Square praised in all guidebooks for its lively atmosphere and its daily flea market. But there was nothing going on, the whole city was seemingly dead, with hardly any traffic, nearly all shops were closed, we didn’t understand it, Sabbath would only begin at 7 am. Later we learnt that it was a religious holiday, together with the following Sabbath the Israelis enjoyed two free days, good for them, boring for us tourists.
Up to now we had seen streets and buildings comparable to the ones in Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, our point of reference when it comes to Mediterranean cities, not too elegant but not shabby, either, a rather well-kept provincial town. We headed back to the beach after asking directions in Russian (you should brush up your Russian before visiting Israel, it may come in handy what with the masses of immigrants from Russia!).
The beach of Tel Aviv is 10 km long and covered with light, nearly powdery sand. Due to the long weekend it was packed full, never in my life have I been on such a full beach, I was surprised to discover that I didn’t become panicky but felt good there. The people behaved well, there were no radios, the noise level was bearable.
The water is shallow up to the artificial stone barriers/wave breakers about 50 m away from the beach, the water was pee-warm as my grandmother would have said, with the many children it wasn’t only metaphorically so, I’m sure. Whatever, I enjoyed my first swim of the year.
From the water I had a perfect view of the shore which reminded me a bit of Miami, there are about 15 high-rise hotels (up to 16 storeys) and many smaller ones, about 50 altogether as well as the Opera house, they’re all modern but each building is built in a different style and that doesn’t look good if you ask me. Not that I would prefer the same style for all buildings, but a master plan by one architect would certainly have improved the cityscape.
Tel Aviv is a young city, not even 100 years old, it was started the 1880s as a substitute for the relatively expensive Arab neighbourhoods of Jaffa [a town in the south]. However, the city of Tel Aviv itself was established only in 1909. Owing to its proximity to the port of Jaffa (Yafo for the Israelis), and its status as the first Jewish community that immigrants saw when coming into the country, Tel Aviv quickly grew to become the centre of Israeli urban life, and it remains so to this day. The city was built into the empty dunes! I have the greatest problems imagining this, for me it’s one of the miracles of modern Israel.
We experienced a disappointment, however, when we tried to find the area in which between the 1930 and the 1950s approximately 2500 structures in the Bauhaus or International Style were built, this ‘White City of Tel Aviv’ became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003. We left the promenade at the Opera House and turned into Allenby St., not 100m behind the row of five-star hotels I saw a hostel-like establishment with room rates per hour, the façades of the houses were dirty and decrepit. Suddenly I noticed a really nice house in a side street but when we went near we saw that it was a ruin with holes instead of windows, a poor sight. The houses we passed must have been beautiful when they were built, from the style I’d say that they belong to the first generation of houses in Tel Aviv, but obviously nothing has been done since then and the whole area is turning into a slum. A taxi-driver explained that there was no law in Israel that makes the owners of houses maintain their buildings. Pity!
We didn’t find the Bauhaus buildings, never mind, we were depressed by what we had seen and decided to return to the promenade, but first it became worse as we suddenly found ourselves in the empty bazaar of a completely run-down area. Skinny cats were crossing the street looking at us with hungry eyes, oh dear. When I looked into the guidebook later to find out where we had gone wrong, I read that this area was especially picturesque. Picturesque, my back bottom!
The promenade is nice and well-kept, surprisingly little entertainment was taking place on it (this may have had to do with the religious holidays), in two days we saw and heard only one juggler, one musician, two women selling knick-knack and a group of Hare Krishna disciples. What we did see in abundance, though, were dogs and pregnant women (not orthodox ones who’re known to have many children). Judging from the way the children in our hotel behaved – one night up to 11 pm a horde of toddlers was running through the lobby, rolling across the carpet, sliding down the ramp for wheel-chairs squealing like a litter of piglets and no adult interfering – we must assume that Israel is a paradise for children.
Tourists who don’t eat in their hotels can find some eateries and bars on the promenade, there’s also a disco, the Dolphinarium, which was the site of a horrible terrorist attack in 2001, a young suicide bomber had mixed with the people waiting to enter, 21 people were killed, 120 wounded; a small memorial stands on the promenade. As the attack had taken place exactly five years ago, on June 1, it was decorated with flowers and handwritten posters.
We can recommend the restaurant ‘London’ (!) below the Sheraton hotel, besides good food at reasonable prices (I tried and liked hitherto unknown Israeli specialities) it offers a live-show every night starting at 9 pm. We had read that "Haifa works, Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv parties", from the little we’ve seen we can’t contradict this. One day when we came back to our hotel we heard loud music and saw about 40 people who obviously didn’t belong together dancing behind it in group formation and/or in changing pairs, what made the spectacle even more amazing was that it was 2 pm, about 30° C with 70% humidity!
We thoroughly enjoyed our two days in Tel Aviv, the more so as we had the feeling of being the only foreign individual tourists in the whole city.
*LIVES (in case you’ve forgotten your French)