This is the cosmopolitan, young Middle East. Israel’s second largest city is a hotspot of urban culture, cutting-edge cuisine, electronic music and art. The unique modernist Bauhaus style architecture rubs shoulders with contemporary skyscrapers and Jaffa’s historical heritage. Get ready for endless surprises.
A tale of two cities
Tel Aviv and Jaffa were once two cities. Modern and cosmopolitan, Tel Aviv was founded in the early 20th century; Jaffa dates back 3,000 years and is one of the world’s oldest ports. In 1950 they were united, with Jaffa becoming Tel Aviv’s historic centre.
In Jaffa, Catholic places of worship, such as the Franciscan Saint Peter’s Church or the Armenian Saint Nicholas Monastery coexist with the Orthodox Monastery of the Archangel Michael, the Libyan Synagogue and the Al Bahr Mosque. In the narrow streets leading to the harbour, we find small boutiques, galleries, design shops and restaurants that receive fresh fish from boats that have worked the Mediterranean since time immemorial. Over the centuries, the port has been governed by Arabs and the Ottoman Empire, and been subject to Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest in 1799, and occupation by British troops during the First World War. The waterfront extends alongside the beaches near the Clock Tower, a popular monument that marks Jaffa’s vibrant centre, with its ancient and contemporary commerce, markets, bars and the permanent hustle and bustle of people and traffic, day and night.
In addition to the thousands of Bauhaus-style buildings in the “White City”, Tel Aviv’s skyline is also one of skyscrapers that recall Miami. The Sarona area is an example of a place that has successfully restored its historical heritage. In 1871, before the city was founded (1909), a colony of Germans from the Temple Society, a Protestant sect, settled in what is now the centre. They left after the British colonisation and the area, which was recently restored, became popular for walks among the wide cobbled streets, gardens, lakes and historic buildings, now home to shops and hotels, and surrounded by skyscrapers.
“When high noon on a summer’s day / makes the sky a fiery furnace / and the heart seeks a quiet corner for dreams / then come to me, my weary friend!” A simple piece of paper on the wall of a vegan restaurant in Tel Aviv recalls Hayim Nahman Bialik, considered by many to be Israel’s national poet. This reminder is like many in a city full of plaques commemorating patronage that helped the country develop. The coexistence of historical roots and an innovative, avant-garde, progressive Tel Aviv is obvious, undermining the most common preconceptions about the country. The place is intense, as are its markets, streets, bars, restaurants and beaches, where the 50 kilometres that separate it from Jerusalem seem to have at least another zero.
Excellent examples of this buzz can be found at Jaffa’s flea market (Shuk Ha’Pishpishim), the streets that make up the Levinsky market, the farmers’ market in the port of Namal, the authentic Carmel market (Shuk Ha’Carmel) and the sophisticated Sarona market, and many others. Almost all of them boast a mixture of stalls selling coffee, cheeses, salads, juices, sweets, wines, sausages, spices, fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and other produce common to Levant countries, as well as their Turkish and Greek neighbours.
It’s no coincidence that Israeli identity had diverse origins, such as the nationality of parents, grandparents and even the young people who gather in the Florentin Garden, little older than 16, 17 years old, with a mix of German, Polish, Russian and Bulgarian roots. More evidence of this multiplicity are the old American and German neighbourhoods. Generally speaking, there are three basic areas: Rotschild Avenue (the modern centre); Jaffa (the old city); and the beaches to the west.
Days are fast moving and you soon realise that Friday and Saturday are “European weekends” and that Sunday is just like a Monday. That said, there isn’t much difference in the number of people running or walking on the streets and beaches, sitting in the crowded cafes and bars, or perched on the countless scooters and electric bicycles weaving through the rather chaotic traffic. During the sabbath period – late Friday to late Saturday -, there is no public transport and many shops are closed.
“If all the Bauhaus-style buildings were restored in Tel Aviv, the city would be much more beautiful,” says one of the employees at the White City Center, which is located at Liebling House, in the heart of the capital. The centre’s extensive archive is organised into areas, such as buildings, places, architects, contractors, companies and residents. For those who recognise the style, which is closely linked to the architects Walter Gropius and Mies Van Der Rohe, Bauhaus founder and professor respectively, Tel Aviv’s Modernist buildings are literally around the corner. There are around 4,000, 400 of which have been restored, representing the world’s largest collection of this type of architecture. Tel Aviv’s White City – named after the shade of most buildings – was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003. This area was the product of Sir Patrick Geddes’s urban plan, with buildings designed by European and Israeli architects.
Various examples are found along the central Rotschild Avenue, however, it’s in Dizenggof Square and the surrounding area that these architectural riches are most visible, like the iconic Esther Cinema & Hotel.
That said, the city isn’t particularly harmonious in terms of the buildings, different neighbourhoods and commercial areas. The high-rises changed those 1930s and 1940s projects. Etan Kimmel, one of Israel’s most famous architects, believes that Tel Aviv “is, to some degree, still looking for its identity”. Between orientalism, Eclectic architecture, the Modernist period and contemporary buildings, Kimmel sees integration as the most effective solution, stressing that the Israelis brought concrete where almost everything was stone. The key word is “diversity”. Creator of the Mount Herzl Memorial in Jerusalem, founder of Kimmel Eshkolot Architects and responsible for various public projects, Kimmel also designed the L28 Culinary Platform, the first restaurant to focus on new and creative interpretations of Israeli cuisine. The city is all ups and downs, old and modern, clean and dirty, contrast and multiplicity, differences and what makes it the same.
Just over 100 kilometres from Tel Aviv, we discover the UNESCO World Heritage site and ancient fortified city of Acre, which was founded around 1800 B.C. It has been continuously populated since the Phoenicians resided here and boasts buildings from the time of the Crusades.
With his long white beard, the well-known chef and hotelier Uri Buri walks the streets with a unique swagger. This is the man who bought two 1,500-year-old buildings in 2003 for his Efendi Hotel, which only opened in 2012, after loving restoration by a German specialising in old buildings. In 1987, he inaugurated an eponymous restaurant, near the port, which this year was voted one of the world’s 25 best fine dining places on the Tripadvisor travel website. In this renovated Ottoman house, things are busy and the atmosphere lively. It’s a simple recipe: fresh fish and seafood, home-style cooking, top-quality produce, excellent presentation and the art of Uri. The wine list only has Israeli bottles, but there are about a hundred to choose from.
Halfway between Tel Aviv and Acre, the Carmel Winery in Zichron Yaacov is a must. The founder of Israel and ex-Prime Minister, Ben-Gurion, worked here, as did Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Ehud Olmert. The company was founded in 1889 by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who already owned the Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux. In the early years, while still under Ottoman rule, the baron negotiated with the caliph that the wine would be exported. Like much of the country, most of the grape varieties are French, but The Wine Route of Israel says that the Argaman grape is Israeli, combining the French Carignan and Portuguese Sousão varieties.
Lively nights, busy beaches
There are shops, residences and plenty of people on Derech Jaffa, in the heart of the city. A street much like many others, it is distinctly urban and off the tourist trail. In the middle of it, there’s a perfectly normal building, with shops on the ground floor, flats and a gate that closes at night. All that’s left is a smaller door between the outside world and what happens every night in the courtyard. Those running the internet radio station, Teder.fm, open their doors to a bar, pizzeria, vinyl record shop and a restaurant. Concerts, parties, DJs, online broadcasts, and countless events have now transformed the place into one of the hottest nightspots in Tel Aviv.
The city is known for its all-night parties and electronic dance music, as well as heated conversations in cafés and bars, like the Herzl 16. Run by Adi Mahalu, it’s located where a chic café and Asian restaurant, Disco Tokyo, operate during the day.
Tel Aviv is busy both night and day and has a close relationship with the Mediterranean. From Stella Beach, south of Tel Aviv, to Metsitsim to the north, before the Yarkon River, there are many stretches of sand, including the Gordon in the city centre. Along the waterfront, there is no such thing as a quiet time. From very early in the morning, there are people around, families and friends. The warm air and sea temperatures, at least until the end of November, help forge this close bond with the sea.
by Augusto Freitas de Sousa /// photos Enric Vives-Rubio
web design & development 262media.com