The Rothschild Boulevard is long, broad, and crammed with Bauhaus buildings. It’s the living vein of downtown Tel Aviv, and the avenue that could well be the region’s Fifth. Someone wrote once that it smelled of old money. I inhaled deeply and didn’t want to stop.
I get it—Jerusalem is the holy land. I loved its endless history and Biblical awesomeness, but Tel Aviv was exactly the kind of holiness-free antidote I needed after. “It’s not necessarily the most beautiful,” said Galit Reisman, a fashion entrepreneur who took our group through parts of the city. “But you know the Japanese philosophy of wabisabi? That beauty works in disharmony? It’s kind of a mess, but easy, cool, vibrant and alive.”
Reisman was right—it was very messy. Every neighbourhood was marked by dilapidated houses, ivy-strewn edifices or buildings in need of a concrete reinforcement and a fresh lick of paint. They wore the kind of dishevelled look that could any day now be branded as sexy, much like the ruin bars in vogue in parts of Budapest. But she was also right on the other points: the city was a delightful, throbbing, energetic mess.
Tel Aviv is a party capital, a start-up hub, a queer favourite. It’s also an unabashedly 20th-century city whose melange of architectural styles embraces the 1920s, 30s and 40s all at once. There’s much to contest about the Israeli government, but for two days I tried to balance my wariness of the politics against the wonders of the polis.
In the 1880s Jewish families began settling here, just outside the Arab port of Jaffa. When the 1900s rolled around, more families began to trickle in and in 1909, with the purchase of 60 plots expanding further inland, Tel Aviv was officially formed. As Jews from Germany began fleeing Nazi rule to come here, they brought with them a distinctive, yet functional style of architecture known as Bauhaus. The buildings are squat, unadorned and unpretentious. And the city has more than 4,000 of them, including a Bauhaus Centre, dedicated to all things Bauhaus.
Some that were built before or after the peak of Bauhaus were simply eclectic, roping in different influences, others built after the peak came to be known as brutalist. I walked around one morning drinking all of these in through the grand Rothschild and all its intercutting streets. “Walking around—that’s the way to see it,” said Revital, our guide, slapping her hands together. “I am proud of you.”
I was proud of me too. I found alleyways crammed with graffiti, a market bursting with hummus and halva and pomegranates the size of planets. I found the city’s oldest kiosk, outdoor sculptures and a stray, ocean-facing mosque. Some balconies had planted national flags, pledging their allegiance to the Israeli nation, many more hadplanted rainbow flags, pledging their allegiance to the gay nation. After the heavy sanctity of Jerusalem, where every second stone seemed to be imbued with historical meaning, Tel Aviv felt so thoroughly updated and utterly unselfconscious as to be an urban repudiation of everything Jerusalem stood for.
That is not to say the past has receded entirely. In some places it’s just got a hipster twist. This is most apparent in the old seaport of Jaffa, once an Arab city, now a decidedly trendy outpost, where gentrification has vanquished any traces of shadiness. “This used to be a rough neighbourhood,” said Gal Krampf, who guided the group through the Ilana Goor Museum. “And old Jaffa was the rough within the rough.” But the 18th-century multi-storied building we were propelled through was all class—paintings and installations by prominent artists, including Goor herself, Israel’s foremost woman artist. The sculpture garden on the top floor had a commanding view of the Mediterranean Sea, but the highlight was a devilishly playful work by Vered Aharonovitch, featuring a twist on the Neptune-fountain theme. Here a bunch of little girls had stolen his fountain and were terrorising him with it.
Across the road, Ben Zion David, a Yemenite Jew, had kept up an eight-generation legacy of crafting silver jewellery, a trade distinctive to the region he came from. We were quickly ushered in to watch a short video on the art. The jewels were impressive enough. The Ethiopian coffee that came in Lilliputian cups alongside was black, fully-spiced and intoxicating. I reached for a second.
At the counter, Guy Madmoni shook his head, full of long, salt and pepper curls, ruing the decline of the unique art form. “I call it natural selection,” he continued. “If the design doesn’t sell, it will die out.” Madmoni, whose grandparents fought in the 1948 independence war when Israel became a state, pointed to lavish pictures of Jewish brides in Yemeni finery. “But like every tradition it’s dying out,” he said. “Because of globalisation, people want to do the same thing.”
A morning of art is great, but how can one visit Israel without infusing some intrigue into the itinerary? Of course I wanted to know where the Mossad works. Revital shot me down. “Well no one knows that,” she said. Still, when we walked through Sarona, the old German Templar colony that had now been transformed into a trendy market place, I found part of an antenna, the only remnant of the old Mossad wireless office. A complex once inhabited by a Christian community, the group was tossed out after the end of the Second World War (they had supported the Nazis and were no longer welcome in the new Israeli state). The original houses still stood, separated at a respectful distance from each other, some now converted into stores. The busy market was just thrumming to life in the afternoon. We ate on the move.
That was a welcome change from the multi-course meals. The problem with being in Israel was that the starters never stopped. Finished those pickled carrots and hummus? Never mind, we’ll get you some more. Not finished those gherkins and cucumbers? Never mind, we’ll get you some more anyway. This otherwise excellent working principle is entirely unsustainable because when the second course arrives you’ve already been hummus-ed out within an inch of yourself. But you groan and carry on.
And maybe go to the beach later to expend it all. Don’t forget, this is a city on the Mediterranean, so the beach is virtually mandatory. Much of the old port area and docks have been converted into eating and walking zones. Swanky new buildings graze the seafront. The boardwalk hums with activity. Small planes fly overhead to the adjacent airport. And there’s nothing quite like a high speed chase on a Segway to take it all in.
El Al operates a direct flight between Mumbai and Ben Gurion International Airport.
Tel Aviv is most famous for its Bauhaus buildings. Sauntering through the Rothschild Boulevard provides ample examples of this and other 20th-century styles such as art deco and brutalist. The Bauhaus Center, a gallery and exhibition space, is a repository on all things Bauhaus. It also conducts walks and has a store that sells posters, books, maps and souvenirs. Gordon and Frishman are popular beaches in Tel Aviv. To visit the seafront by Segway, rent vehicles from Sego. A two-hour ride costs ILS170/Rs3,000.
Jaffa, the ancient port city, a 30-min drive from Tel Aviv, hosts boutiques and sea-facing eateries. It also has the old church where Saint Peter, a disciple of Jesus, often considered the first pope, raised a woman from the dead. There is also a wishing bridge just across, offering unmatched views. Not far off, the Ilana Goor Musuem has a formidable art collection (entry ILS30/Rs550). The Ben Zion David Yemenite Silver Art Gallery, Workshop and Museum on the same street has maintained the Yemenite craft tradition.
Sarona Market, once home to old German settlements, now has a lively outdoor eating space. Carmel Market sells everything from fruits and trinkets to clothes and halva.