What to do with a week of vacation time in early June? Our criteria was tricky. We wanted to swim in a warm sea, enjoy high culture in a gay friendly and historically interesting city... and it had to be within four or five hours from London. The answer was Tel Aviv!, Israel's secular, seafront, cultural capitol. The world's first modern Jewish city is only one hundred years old, but has been progressing at a starling pace and has become a sophisticated global destination. There is now a world class culinary scene, fabulous beaches on the warm Mediterranean and a sexy, multi-cultural population that is out for a good time. Tel Aviv and all of Israel are still dealing with on-going conflicts and hostile neighbours on all sides, but that just added to our excitement. While my mom was worrying about our safety, we were checking into the beach front Hilton without a care in the world.
The conflicts on this tiny strip of land, only 260 miles long and 70 miles wide, have been going on for thousands of years. It is the spiritual ground zero for three of the Great Religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And all three belligerently and ceaselessly continue to bicker over who can lay claim to the Land of Milk and Honey and who are the Chosen Ones. I find it all historically fascinating while not giving a rats ass about who wants to follow what scripture. The Israelis understandably take their security very seriously. We flew on the Israeli carrier EL-AL, and had to be fully interrogated before we even approached the check-in counter. Machine gun wielding soldiers are watching every move in this part of the terminal. When they found out we were a married, European gay couple with no religious affiliation, the air was noticeably more relaxed. Apparently, gay terrorists
are few and far between.
Tel Aviv had to grow very quickly without much regard to architectural achievement when Israel became its own country in 1948. Tens of thousands of people flooded in and had to be housed. Therefore much of the city is made up of rather squat, dull looking apartment blocks peppered with more interesting Bauhaus style buildings in some areas. Most of them are not well maintained, creating a hippy dippy Bohemian atmosphere. The country spends so much on security that infrastructure and maintenance are clearly neglected. But still, there is something very delightful and welcoming about the city. These days many of the old blocks are being torn down and replaced with shimmering luxury high rises. And then there are those 14 kilometers of idyllic Mediterranean coastline beckoning with bars and cafes, swimming beaches, swanky ports and all manor of water sports. Amongst the glitz and the grunge, the sun and the sea, there's a lot to like about Tel Aviv. But be warned, it is every bit as expensive as a European capitol city. A beer on the
beach will cost you $10 and expect to pay at least $250/night for a decent hotel room. That's crazy money for a destination in the Middle East.
On our first day we walked the length of the beachfront from the Hilton on the north shore to the old port of Jaffa to the south. Unlike modern Tel Aviv, the old port of Jaffa is in fact very old. The Bible tells us that Noah gave the port of Jaffa to his youngest son after
the Great Flood had subsided. The prophet Jonah sailed from Jaffa when he had that encounter with the pesky whale. Biblical tall tales aside, this port has thrived for an astonishing 4,000 years and has been sacked and rebuilt at least fifteen times over the centuries. It is now Tel Aviv's coolest place to hang out, with thriving markets during the day, and grooving bars and restaurants heaving with the young and beautiful into the wee hours. We found a great spot called Akbar (same name as my favourite bar in L.A.) and enjoyed some fabulous percussion-heavy live music and the Jesus look-a-likes pouring wine at the tables. At the end of the evening, I asked the owner if I could pay with American Express. She said "Honey, I'm Jewish. You can pay with a
kidney if you want to."
When we decided on Israel, I was thinking we were in for a week of pickled fish, hummus and falafel. To our delight, we found that Tel Aviv's food culture is world class, with quality ingredients and artistic presentation. Our local friends Amir and Ravit took us out to a chic wine bar that served the trendiest tapas. Seafood dishes with Turkish, Greek and Arab influences washed down with sublime locally grown white wine. Freddie and I usually go with our gut feelings when choosing restaurants. I can honestly say, every meal we had over the seven days was excellent, from beach cafes to swanky Brasseries. We had heard about a local dish called Shakshuka that we wanted to try. Ravit said we had to have her home made version of this North African dish made with tomatoes, peppers, eggs and spices cooked over high heat. Of course, it was amazing. The Israeli weekend is from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. It is called Shabbat (the Sabbath) and is strictly observed. Shops and restaurants close, no business can be conducted, and all public transport comes to a halt. It is a time for rest and
contemplation. The devout will spend the time in prayer, while the more secular will head to the beach with the family. We joined Amir and Ravit and their three gorgeous kids to build sand castles and splash around in the warm sea.
On Sunday it's back to business as usual, and we were able to rent a car and drive out to the deep desert. The freeways are kept in perfect condition, and since they snake in and out of
Palestinian territory they are considered neutral zones. They are kept secure by young soldiers with big guns. Without exception, all young Israeli men and woman are required to serve in the armed forces. Three years for men, two for women. As part of their training, they are required to climb Masada. A remote table top mountain overlooking the Dead Sea. It is poignant and symbolic site. In AD73 ten thousand Romans surrounded the mesa and laid siege to the fortress where the Jews had refused to submit to Roman rule. Rather than be taken as slaves, all nine hundred and sixty men, women and children committed suicide. Freddie and I took the cable car to the top of Masada to commune with the spirits, and then hiked back down the mountain in the baking mid day sun. The downhill hike nearly killed us, so we had new found respect for the
soldiers that hike up with twenty kilos of gear on their backs.
Back down in the valley, we were at the lowest point on Earth. The Dead Sea lies thirteen hundred feet below sea level and is perpetually blazing hot. No life survives in the soupy brine (hence the name) but the fabled water is said to cure any number of ills. We joined a couple of dozen other hopefuls to splash into the hot salty water, and cover ourselves with the purple mud along the shores. It didn't do much to ease our aching muscles from our hike down Masada, but the experience of laying in water six times saltier than the ocean and have our bodies literally pop to the surface was amazing. The light sparkles off the icebergs of salt, and it is easy to imagine yourself on a planet in a galaxy far, far away. We brought ourselves back down to Earth with a swim in a cool, fresh water pool in a spa not far from the seashore. I doubt I will feel the need to visit The Dead Sea again, but this once in a lifetime pilgrimage was unforgettable. A big fat tick on the bucket list. On the way back we stopped at the Israel Museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. The oldest documents in existence were found in a cave next to the Dead Sea by a shepherd who was looking for a lost goat. These fragile strips of parchment are laid out under glass in a huge white dome that resembles the stone casket in which the Scrolls were
After our trip to the ancient lands, it was good to be back in cutting edge Tel Aviv. Back on the beach in front of the Hilton, the city was getting ready for the huge Gay Pride celebration. Rainbow flags were billowing from every available surface. It was a surreal sight to see Orthodox Jews all in black from head to toe sitting next to Muscle Mary's in hot pants in the trendy neighbourhoods. At dusk Freddie and I walked up to the New Port area with its fantastic selection of bars, restaurants and outdoor theatre areas. In one section we came across an Argentinean quartet playing for several dozen older residents dancing the Tango. Snaking around the dancers were a bunch of heavy metal dudes and chicks waiting in line to see Metallica. Further down the pier from them a hundred people were doing an outdoor yoga class. We stopped at a beautiful cafe for wine and nibbles and did shots of tequila with a group of lads from Minnesota on a trip to the Holy Lands. Next to the cafe was a luxurious venue hosting a grand Bar Mitzvah with a loud jovial group dancing the Hava
Nagila. If ever there was a cultural melting pot, we were sitting in the middle of it.
Over eight million people from five continents have made their home here in Israel. Each has brought their own colourful, cultural identity and added it to the mix. And of course, millions more come to visit the Holy Lands on the trip of a lifetime. But even the least religiously inclined can not help but be moved by this fascinating county. Tel Aviv is the best and safest place to start the journey, whether you are here to pray or to party. We were so glad we made the journey to this little country with the long history, and I'm sure we will return again. Shalom.