Before traveling to Israel, the only thing I knew was that I really enjoyed the company of the Israeli people I had encountered on my travels. Going by this, I assumed that Israel would make a great place to visit. Before even boarding the plane, an Israeli lady had started a conversation with me and welcomed me to visit her pizza joint on Ben Yehuda street (one of the main roads in Tel Aviv). Landing at midnight might seem a scary time to arrive in a dark and foreign land, but I instantly felt at ease. Not because of the army guy standing next to me, whose huge rifle nearly hit me in the face as he swung round, but because of the relaxed vibe, the abundance of hipsters on customized cycles and scooters hopping from bar to bar and the still busy restaurants with flocks of local night-owls eating al-fresco and chatting enthusiastically. There are many ways in which Israel both lived up to my expectations and exceeded them:
Tel Aviv Beach
When I visited in November, the weather was perfectly sunny without burning my skin, the beach was relatively tourist-free, no endless rows of sun loungers and no salesmen shouting for you to buy something. In fact, at the first jewellery stall I came across, the vendor gave me a free gift (a small, square, silver charm, which I’ve been wearing for luck ever since). The water is calm, clear and shallow. After a 5 minute swim out into the Mediterranean sea, my feet still touched the ground. But the best thing about this west-facing beach, is that the water is warm enough in the evening that you can bathe in the glorious, golden sunset with its dreamy pink hues shimmering gently on the surface of the water.
Old Jaffa (or Yafo)
This is the oldest part of Tel Aviv, much of which has been renovated and spruced up with lots of delightful attractions. Strolling around the cobbled streets, I noticed iridescent clouds in the sky, which I’ve never seen before. Apparently they are quite a common sight, but I felt it to be as magical as a rainbow. I was surprised to see such a strong interest in Astrology here. The wooden ‘wishing bridge’ has 12 shiny bronze plaques depicting each star sign. It is said that if you hold the plaque and look out to sea whilst making a wish, that wish will come true. Did I try it? Yes. Did my wish come true? Yes! Not far from the bridge is an Astrology-inspired fountain, which depicts the signs of the zodiac as large stone characters humorously spouting water.
Old Jaffa has an eclectic mix of goods on sale, from rare antique treasures at the flea market to boutique designer craft shops flaunting silk batik and quirky creations. Thankfully, bartering is still acceptable and I had fun bagging myself a bargain. In the industrial part of Tel Aviv, there is a wonderful art market (Nachlat Binyamin) where you can find pottery, glass blowing demonstrations, paintings and jewellery being made right in front of you by some slightly eccentric artists. I purchased a small but exquisitely made mini-kaleidoscope key-ring, so I could carry a piece of art around in my pocket. At the very end of the market a portly lady serenaded a crowd of locals with traditional Hebrew songs which they all seemed to know the words to and sang along enthusiastically, if not entirely in tune.
For vegetarians, the options are plenty and the weather is just so favourable for eating outside! The easy option for re-fuelling is to grab some traditional Felafel and Hummus, but there is a popular dish here, which is just perfect for brunch, called Shakshuka. This plate of poached eggs sitting in a bubbling hot tomato and capsicum sauce, originated in North Africa, and is spiced with cumin and cayenne pepper, the sauce is perfect for pitta dipping. For those with a sweet tooth, try some crumbly squares of Halva, which is generally made with sesame paste (tahini) but sometimes from Semolina or nut butters. The sheer variety of flavours available at the market is daunting, but it’s a good excuse to try a few samples. As with many hot countries, there are cool ice-cream parlours on every street, most of which have a very fine selection of healthy frozen fruit lollies (not the sickly sweet type, but actual real blocks of blended frozen fruit), which are absolutely delicious alternatives to ice-cream.
Israel is teaming with musicians and its possible to encounter every type of live performance at the varied drinking establishments around the city, from wild, leather-clad, death-metal bands to Bob Dylan cover bands. One night we listening to live electronic synths with haunting vocals sung by a young waif-like girl and her harp, while the next morning I was being hypnotized by an acoustic busking duo playing hang drum and violin (known as Rankin Abergel) at the market. The following night, at a Spanish themed event, I was entranced by the deep gravelly voice of a Spanish Flamenco guitarist, while his beautiful partner stomped her tiny feet and flapped her dress in passionate sweeps to his strumming songs.
The biggest street party of the year comes in the form of Purim, which is a national holiday in March celebrating the deliverance of the Jews to salvation. It’s the best time to get dressed up and go drinking and dancing and see the locals at their most creative. Israelis go to town with their fancy dress costumes, which in 2017 included locals dressed as fruit bowls, flower pots, famous monuments, Adam & Eve, and even Jesus himself. One celebration you may want to avoid (unless you are celebrating with locals), is Yom Kippur, as every single business closes for the 25 hour fast and the whole city grinds to a halt. This happens right at the end of September.
We came to this glorious, gourmet food court for dinner one evening, it took quite a while to decide which of the culinary delights to choose from. The array of sizzling stalls provided such a feast for the eyes as well as the belly, even Ottolenghi himself would be impressed! In the square directly outside, we found a massive sound-system, blaring the sounds of Salsa and Kizomba, while a dance instructor led the way at the front, encouraging the crowd with some easy to follow moves. This weekly event goes on for hours and is a complete free for all, where every generation can be seen shaking their stuff. Not only is this fun, but it’s free and you can rock up without booking.
Walking in Jerusalem one evening, we came across a large group of about 30 Jewish men of all ages dancing on the pedestrianized streets to the bolshy sounds of Hasidic Techno music, creating an atmosphere of celebration and infecting passers-by with a dose of joy. Apparently, this dancing takes place on most Saturday evenings, to welcome the Shabbat (or Sabbath) day of rest.
As with any cool place, artists rule. One artist in particular, Mr. Soloman Souza, has single-handedly turned the whole of Mahane Yehuda Market in the heart of Jerusalem into his personal gallery of portraits. He is a London-based artist, but has Israeli roots. By day the market hosts food tours and cooking workshops, but by night, the shutters come down to reveal hundreds of works of art, featuring famous and historical faces, including the likes of Amy Winehouse and Einstein. I caught Soloman spraying a fresh portrait of the late Leonard Cohen just after his death last year. It’s worth noting that this market also becomes a great place to drink at night, with hip bars and restaurants staying open late on a Thursday.
The Dead Sea
This is by far one of the strangest sensations I have experienced in my life. We hired a car and drove to the lowest point on earth. Here, the Dead Sea (which is actually a lake) holds so much salt that one can float freely without any effort whatsoever. The shoreline was eerily abandoned, not a hotel or restaurant in sight. We parked up at a place called Kedem (at least that’s what the map said) and walked down to the coast where we found a couple of hot springs flowing into the sea. On entering the thick, viscous, water, my feet hit a sludge of soft mud, and I slowly slid in… The water was warm and oily, but pleasantly weird. I gathered the soft mud from the floor and spread it across my skin, creating a mud-pack. Little did I know that we would struggle to find a shower, but as luck has it a small camping ground was being constructed closeby and we managed to rinse away the salt, leaving a smooth silky refreshed layer of skin.
The Jewish sense of humour was nowhere more evident to me than in Jerusalem. The market stalls are full of t-shirts and kippahs (Jewish caps) printed with joke slogans such as “Jesus Saves, but Jews Invest Wisely!”, “Talk to the Hamsa” and “Don’t Worry, Be Jewish”. Not only this, but within the cramped space of the old city walls, can be found deeply religious Jews, Muslims and Christians living peacefully side by side. At our hotel, I unwittingly received a blessing from a Chinese Christian woman, who spontaneously recited a long speech in Mandarin, holding her Bible in one hand while the other hand gently gripped my shoulder. A tear genuinely dropped from her eye as she performed the blessing. Jerusalem is a truly an eye opening experience!
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