"WOW,” says my (non-Jewish) friend. “Whenever you’ve banged on about how gorgeous Israeli men are, I always thought you were just being biased. But you weren’t. They are. This is madness.”
Olivia and I are one-and-a-half hours off our brilliantly Israeli El Al flight – think warm bread rolls, smoked salmon, mid-aisle prayer, non-stop gossiping between flight attendants and passengers because Israel is small and “everyone knows everyone”. Having dropped our things in a sea-facing room at one of Israel’s oldest hotels, the Dan (pictured below), we’re now in a bar.
The bar is called HaMaoz (King George 32) and, like everywhere else cool in delicious but derelict Tel Aviv, looks like nothing much on the outside. Inside, though, and on the covered, somewhat sleepily-guarded terrace (no bombings for a while), it is rammed to the rafters with hipsters. The bar is done up to be like a living room, with fridge magnets, homey sofas, cupboards, home-style toilets and other recycled domestic bits and pieces. This is a typical example of Tel Avivian bar style: desperately creative, as though its customers’ lives depend on having somewhere super-cool to see and be seen and to drink, at night. In some ways, they do – known as the Bubble, Tel Aviv stands apart as a hedonistic, forget-the-politics-and-your-woes enclave in Israel. You can dance with drag queens, gyrate in a club done up as a church complete with stained glass windows and an altar, pick up a threesome on a rooftop dancefloor or eat the finest food you will ever find in a posh, mosaic-tiled restaurant.
Back to HaMaoz. We find some space next to an almost comically attractive young man, who is chatty and friendly, informing us that he is a domestic pilot and beach lover – his regular spot is on Gordon Beach (the long Tel Aviv beach is divided into several parts; Gordon isn’t far from our hotel) and we are welcome to join him there the next day, Wednesday (mid-week beach lounging is the norm in TA).
When he leaves, we meet someone else, an intense, bald-headed advertising creative, who invites us to his apartment for some supper, despite the hour being after 1AM. We contemplate his offer (friendly rather than creepy in the context of a country in which European social norms are all but meaningless and midnight dinners, or 3AM street snacks of bourekas and falafel are de rigueur), but decide to head home, via another bar on the street. It’s packed despite being 2AM on a Tuesday night, with more cool and beautiful people lounging in luxurious chairs and talking intensely at the bar.
The next day we hit the beach, the pulsing heart of Tel Aviv. Here, hippies (and there are many in Israel – as anyone who has travelled to India will know), models, pervy old men, ball-players and posers come together. It stretches from the Hilton at one end all the way to the minarets and pale stone of Jaffa at the other. It’s November but the sun is scorching at 30 degrees and the Mediterranean is balmy. Heaven – but we soon get twitchy feet and begin to stroll.
We wander into Neve Tsedek, the oldest quarter of the city and its most charming – in a sad departure from its humble origins, this also makes it the most expensive. High-end boutiques selling interesting clothes – many made by the new wave of avant-garde Israeli designers – sit cheek by jowl with patisseries, luxury ice cream parlours and wine bars. A new development at the southern end of Neve Tzedek’s main street, Shabazi, is a favourite with the numerous French tourists and contains beautiful bistros, stalls and boutiques.
We dip into a split-level bookshop, which feels like somebody’s house, and spend a while among the wonderful range of Jewish and Israeli history and politics books. Olivia selects an amusingly incongruous accompaniment to our decadent beach-lounging and bar-hopping: the controversial Invention of the Jewish People by raging left-winger Shlomo Sand. But then, this is a city of contrasts, with both a highly evolved culture of hedonism and a populace that is cynical, and often in denial, thanks to seemingly insoluble existential angst and threat. Parties on one hand, grave danger on the other.
Night-time brings what I look forward to most in Israel: eating (although breakfast is also a source of wonder. Try Benedict, on Rothschild 29 and 171 Ben Yehuda, and the Breakfast Club on Rothschild 6, for perfect pancakes, bulgar wheat with pomegranates, or full Israeli breakfast of eggs, tahina, fresh bread and salad.). Tel Aviv’s main market, Carmel, heaves with fruit and vegetables the colour of cartoons, as well as spices and herbs that can lift any salad to a paradisal realm. One restaurant, Carmela B’Nachala (Hatavor 46), sits on Carmel’s fringes to better absorb its fresh produce, and the meal I once had there is still in my all-time top five dinners. The herb salad will forever stay with me.
The ultimate culinary find this trip was Abraxis North (40 Lilenblum St), where we crooned and swooned over a single perfect roast sweet potato, head of roast cauliflower and mountain of tomatoes (the chef is famous for his love of tomatoes).
Next day, we went to Jaffa and explored a beautiful Palestinian art show in a warehouse by the harbour – just one of hundreds of shows in this hyper-creative city at any one time. We wished we had time for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, a tour of the Bauhaus architecture for which the city is known, and a dance show at the world-famous Susan Delal Centre.
My advice is this: try not to sleep. It’ll help you make more headway into the bank of pleasure and culture the city is built on.