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Israel: Heart of the world

In search of the perfect blend of culture, history, religion and beautiful people? From the sun-kissed beaches of Tel Aviv to the ancient glory of Jerusalem, Israel’s beguiling cities exude enough intrigue and hedonism for a long weekend.

Israel: Heart of the world
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■ The weekend: A four-day twin-city break divided between Israel’s two biggest cities for a taste of the country’s ancient past and thriving present

Requirements: Curious single travellers seeking an intoxicating mix of history, culture, miles of pristine beaches and a thriving nightlife scene

■ Fits the bill: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are just an hour apart, so combining the two couldn’t be easier

Budget: £900

 

In the blue corner, one of the most vibrant cities in the Middle East, a playground of beaches and excess; while in the red, an ancient metropolis revered by millions, the streets of which have been walked by the most iconic individuals of all time. It’s a tough decision. But why settle for one city break when you can have two?

History versus hedonism is not a dilemma that applies to Israel. While Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are as different as two cities can be, combining them on the same trip is not only possible but easy — they’re just an hour apart.

I start in Tel Aviv, greeted by the warm lapping shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Bronzed and toned locals strut along the miles of soft sand, posing, playing volleyball and prancing in the surf. This is a city to see and be seen in.

It’s a gentle introduction to a metropolis that lives life in the fast lane. Founded in 1909, Tel Aviv — meaning ‘Hill of Spring’ — is relatively young. Once nothing more than swamps and sand dunes, it began life as a small suburb of the nearby ancient city of Jaffa, which still overlooks Tel Aviv to the south. Today, it’s a place of long boulevards, high-rise buildings and a picture-perfect coastline.

For over 4,000 years, Jaffa, along with Jerusalem, was at the very heart of this ancient and fought-over land. Its bustling port was one of the most important in the region but that dominance subsided as Tel Aviv slowly emerged from the shadows.

City guide Irit Doron shows me around Old Jaffa, explaining its colourful history as we stroll towards the famous Ottoman clocktower. “Lots of people have invaded Jaffa over the centuries — the Turks and the Egyptians, of course. They stormed the city after hiding in clay pots,” she says.

From there, we continue to the hilltop Franciscan monastery of St Peter’s, whose tall belfry has dominated the city’s skyline since its completion in 1894.

Moving on, Irit leads me down a number of steep stone staircases and along narrow alleys that twist and turn until we reach the Ilana Goor Museum and Gallery, displaying the eccentric Israeli artist’s collection. Housed in a mansion built 250 years ago for passing Jewish pilgrims en route to Jerusalem, the extravagant venue showcases a curious collection of paintings, sculptures, jewellery and furniture among its many vaulted rooms and stone archways.

My first day in Tel Aviv is drawing to a close all too soon. The developed beachfront is still busy with smitten couples holding hands as the string of tall hotels behind, mostly chains, starts to glow in the evening light. These properties are especially popular thanks to their close proximity to the beach but lack the character found in more intimate lodgings such as Eden House, a boutique B&B in the Yemenite Quarter.

The rooms are individually decorated but all are equally kitsch and cosy, filled with colourful wallpaper, floral bedspreads and antique furniture. Some even have footclaw baths with only a velvet curtain for privacy.

I explore the more modern side of Tel Aviv the next morning in the extraordinary White City district, so named for its abundance of Bauhaus architecture. I wander around Neve Tzedek, a quiet neighbourhood that’s blossomed in recent years. It began life back in 1886 as one of the first settlements outside of Jaffa and this cluster of narrow streets, lined by small houses with red roofs, has become one of the city’s most desirable neighbourhoods following a wave of new shops, cafes, restaurants and galleries. Sweating under the midday sun I seek refuge with a scoop of watermelon and mint sorbet in La Mamma del Gelato on Shabazi Street.

Besides the dramatic architecture and beaches, Tel Aviv’s nightlife has also helped put the city on the map. Keen to avoid the tourist traps, I enlist the help of an expert — man about town Ido Weil certainly knows a good time. Not only does he have his finger firmly on the pulse of all the trendiest places long before they’re officially hip, but he’s also started his own bespoke after-dark tours of the city tailored to your particular tastes whether you’re looking for sophisticated speakeasies or all-night raves. “There are so many unusual places to go out. You just have to know where to look,” says Ido as we arrive outside an unmarked black door on Rothschild Boulevard.

People stroll by without giving it a second look but we discreetly slip inside and are greeted by a rugged interior of concrete pillars, bare brick walls and giant vaults. “Welcome to Jimmy Who. It used to be a bank but it’s been converted into a bar,” says Ido over the booming music. “It opened just a few months ago but it’s already one of my favourite places to go.”

Despite feeling a little worse for wear after one too many passion pits at Deli Bar, a cocktail lounge hidden behind the counter of a delicatessen on Allenby Street, I awake the next morning with a sense of excitement. I’m bound for Jerusalem: cradle of humanity for thousands of years, fought over to the death, and sacred to millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims around the globe.

Step back in time

This holy city is only an hour’s drive east from the head-spinning streets of Tel Aviv and by mid-morning I’m standing in the hushed Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is said to have been arrested before his crucifixion.

I take in the entire scene from the Mount of Olives across to the Kidron Valley. Jerusalem — considered the capital of both Israel and Palestine — stretches out in every direction but my eyes are drawn to the fortified Old City, flanked by towering stone walls and eight formidable gates.

The cobbled streets within have seen more history than most nations. Sparkling in the sunlight is the gold-plated Dome of the Rock, sacred in Islam as the place where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. For Jews, it’s the spot where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son and the site of the first Jewish temple, later destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon in 587BC.

A second temple was constructed but that, too, was destroyed and all that remains of the complex is an unassuming outer wall that has become a focal point of Judaism.

I approach the Western Wall slowly, mindful of the countless pilgrims placing their palms on it, heads bowed in silent prayer. Some stand with their noses almost touching the coarse sand-coloured blocks; others rock back and forth while reciting scriptures from small black books; fathers explain the significance of the wall to their young sons.

It’s an emotionally charged place and it’s not uncommon for Jews to be overcome here with grief for the loss of their sacred temple, giving rise to the wall’s other name: the Wailing Wall.

The Old Town is divided into four districts: the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian Quarters, and I set out determined to explore almost every inch of them over my two days in Jerusalem. I wander down every alluring alley infused with the scents of spices and incense, marvel at the most beautiful churches, immerse myself in the Biblical settings around every corner, and dine on fresh houmous and falafel from the street-side cafes.

Tearing myself away from the Old Town, I spend an afternoon roaming ‘new’ Jerusalem — from the chaotic Mahane Yehuda fruit and spice market to the Israel Museum, whose large-scale model of Jerusalem in 66AD provides an insight into how the city looked 2,000 years ago and the way it has been transformed since. But the indisputable highlight is the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of 800 ancient manuscripts discovered in 1946, including the oldest Biblical text ever found.

Back in the Old Town after a night at the luxurious Mamilla Hotel, I walk the Via Dolorosa — the 2,000ft path that Jesus, carrying his wooden cross, is said to have walked to his death. Translated as the ‘Way of the Sorrows’, the route through the busy streets, lined with souvenir shops, is clearly marked with nine ‘stations’ where significant events happened that fateful day: the place where Jesus fell to the ground, for example, and another where he came face-to-face with his mother in the crowd.

There is no shortage of churches in Jerusalem but I, like most, gravitate towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although the claim is disputed by some, many believe this to be the site of Jesus’s crucifixion.

Upon entering the darkened church, I see groups of people hunched over a large piece of marble on the floor. Kneeling to kiss the pinkish slab, they touch the place where Jesus’s body is said to have laid after his death. Upstairs, meanwhile, a long queue snakes around two small chapels. One by one, devout Christians wait to file past and touch the rock that supposedly held the cross.

The very foundations of Jerusalem are built on belief, yet the city delivers regardless of personal religious persuasions. So richly layered, it’s a place that really must be seen to be believed.

The perfect day

■ 10am: Take in the view of Jerusalem’s Old Town from the rooftop terrace above David Street Tourist Market.
■ 11.30am: Get lost in the labyrinthine lanes of the Jewish and Christian Quarters, discovering hidden churches, tea shops and trinket stands along the way.
■ 12.30pm: Tuck into lunch at Abu Shukri. It’s no frills but the houmous and freshly baked pitta bread is sensational. 63 Al Wad Road.
■ 2pm: Drive to Tel Aviv and delve into recent Israeli history with a visit to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1948. 16 Rothschild Boulevard.
■ 5pm: Relax on Banana Beach as the sun slowly begins to dip below the horizon, basking the surfers in a warm golden light.
■ 7pm: After a seafood dinner at the port, paint the town red with drinks at Jimmy Who bar. www.jimmywho.co.il

Must do: The walls of the Tower of David provide the blank canvas for a nightly light show telling the story of Jerusalem from its first settlers to the present day. www.towerofdavid.org.il

Israeli Tradition: There are few local dishes as loved as shakshuka, a delicacy of poached eggs cooked with spices and tomatoes, usually served in the frying pan it was cooked in. Try it at the Dr Shakshuka restaurant in Old Jaffa.


ESSENTIALS

Getting there
British Airways and El Al fly from Heathrow to Ben Gurion airport, close to Tel Aviv and a 40-minute drive from Jerusalem. EasyJet flies from Luton and Manchester. www.ba.com   www.elal.co.il   www.easyjet.com
Average flight time: 5h.

 

Getting around
Cheap and efficient buses connect Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 39 miles apart, from £3.20 one-way. www.egged.co.il
A taxi will cost approximately £50.

 

When to go
Spring (March-April) and autumn (September-October) for the clear skies and temperatures around 20C.

 

Places mentioned
Ilana Goor Museum. www.ilanagoor.com
Eden House Hotel. Doubles from £107. www.ehpremier.com
La Mamma del Gelato (Anita Cafe). www.anitaglida.co.il
Nightlife tours of Tel Aviv. http://tlvnight.com
Jimmy Who Bar. www.jimmywho.co.il
Deli Bar. 47 Allenby Street.
Mamilla Hotel. Doubles from £200. www.mamillahotel.com
Israel Museum. www.imj.org.il

 

More info
www.thinkisrael.com
Bradt’s Israel. RRP: £15.99.

 

How to do it
A four-night trip with Cox & Kings, with two nights in Tel Aviv and two in Jerusalem costs from £879 including return flights, transfers and accommodation. www.coxandkings.co.uk

Published in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)