Tuesday 15 April 2008
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Tel Aviv: "Haifa works, Jerusalem prays, and Tel Aviv plays"

Philip Jacobson witnesses the boisterous joys of mammon in Tel Aviv

A DIAMOND bright afternoon in Tel Aviv and a carnival is in full swing along the five-mile strip of dazzling white sand only a stroll from the city centre. Israelis love a crowd, and the open-air cafes on the promenade are heaving. Joggers and skaters weave through the throng heading for the beach, past an exuberant samba band and a string quartet of young women in bikinis busking Mozart.

As it happens this is a Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, and less than an hour's drive away, much of Jerusalem will be shrouded in devout observance until sunset. Cars that stray into the ultra-orthodox areas may run the gauntlet of a volley of stones.

But Tel Aviv is a secular and cosmopolitan city, and shabbat is celebrated with a boisterous Mediterranean joie de vivre. Here, the sun and sea set the rhythms of life: the beaches swarm with people from dawn to dusk, happily bearing out the saying that while Haifa works and Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays.

Of course, Tel Aviv cannot entirely avoid the daily toil - the city by the Med is, after all, the country's financial centre. But behind the buzz of business deals, round-the-clock construction and traffic jams, the cheerful hedonism shines through.

I feel fairly qualified to judge contemporary Tel Aviv because on my first visit, at least 25 years ago, it struck me as a bit of a hellhole - hot, noisy and surpassingly ugly for the most part. Even by Israeli standards, the people of Tel Aviv seemed brash and abrasive, barely concealing their scorn for foreigners, especially fellow Jews on a pilgrimage from the United States. It was a relief then to retreat to the soothing ambience of Jerusalem, with its serene beauty and invigorating climate.

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When I mentioned that to an Israeli friend, Ze'ev, who knows both places equally well, he offered me a brisk lecture on how history and sociology had shaped the municipal character.

In the early Seventies, Tel Aviv was still finding its feet, he explained, unsure of its identity and acutely conscious of its rough edges. "You should remember that while Jerusalem's history stretches back for ever, Tel Aviv isn't even as old as this century."

A sepia photograph taken in 1906 shows the 60 Jewish families who founded the city on a desolate stretch of sand dunes north of the Jaffa port, posing in all their Edwardian finery. The motto they chose was "I shall build thee and thou shalt be built", but it took another 40 years before their vision of a vibrant metropolis began to emerge.

Today, Tel Aviv is the biggest Jewish city in the world and it is still expanding. It hums with energy and excitement and the Israelis do not hesitate to compare it with New York and Paris, pointing out that it is ninth on the list of the world's 10 most expensive places to live.

On my last El Al flight into Ben Gurion airport, the purser announced that we would shortly be landing in "the city that never sleeps" and boasted that Tel Aviv nightlife now attracts dedicated clubbers from all over Europe.

According to Ze'ev, the door policy at celebrity bars, such as Samaya and Onix, is just as ruthless as anything you'll find in Soho or Manhattan. The same goes for clubs such as Allenby, recently nominated by a British Airways magazine as one of the great new rave venues. In line with the times, Israeli bouncers prefer to be known as "crowd designers", while one of the scantily clad young women advertising escort services introduces herself as an "entertainment coordinator".

The central areas around Dizengoff Square have everything from old-style cafes, where drowsy patrons linger over the papers with coffee and sticky cakes, to the clamour and glamour of the glittering shopping malls that have become the meeting point for the smart set.

Cafe Tamar in Sheinkin Street has trees growing inside it and, regulars claim, it is as old as the city itself. Try a Bedouin coffee, laced with cardamom.

Although hard drinking among Israelis is fairly uncommon, Tel Aviv has its share of decent bars. Among them is Joey's on Allenby Street, an American-style place with rock music from the Sixties onwards. The live music scene is also good. Jazz and blues sets at Logos, in the Carmel district, and the Terminal on Gordon Street are packed each night.

Most bars serve excellent local beer and should be able to rustle up Israeli wine. The Golan whites are improving fast but don't come cheap. Licensing hours in Tel Aviv operate on a "last man standing" basis, so don't assume anywhere is closed just because the shutters are down.

Like the rest of Israel, the Tel Aviv of old used to be a gastronomic desert. A taxi driver I once asked where to find good Middle Eastern cuisine thought for a moment, then suggested: "Beirut?"

Not any more, though. A new generation of chefs is teaching people that there is more to eating out than bolting down felafel, humus and matzo balls from the innumerable, and generally reliable, street stalls.

"Israelis have finally begun to accept that it isn't immoral to spend a lot on good food and enjoy it," says Yisrael Aharoni, whose stylish Golden Apple restaurant in central Tel Aviv has won a hatful of awards. Dinner for two can cost more than £100, but as one local food critic observes, "Israelis used to scrimp and save to go to Paris and spend that much in a mediocre brasserie."

On Ze'ev's recommendation, I ate at Muscat, one of the more affordable and relaxed restaurants in Old Jaffa. Overlooking the central square, Muscat offers enormous helpings of authentic Middle Eastern dishes, including spicy soups and beef cooked in a choice of fig, plum or red wine sauce.

Although people from Jerusalem would never agree, Tel Aviv has taken over as Israel's cultural capital. The range of museums, galleries, theatres and concert halls can be a bit overwhelming for visitors with limited time, but the Friday issue of the Jerusalem Post contains by far the best guide to what's on.

Forced to choose between major attractions, I'd go to the Nahum Goldman Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, with its absorbing history of the Jews over 2,500 years; the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performing on home ground at the superb Mann Auditorium; opera and ballet at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Centre; and art at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion.

But a guided tour of the city's Thirties architecture in the International/Bauhaus style would be equally enjoyable, while a few hours exploring the exotic Yemenite quarter is another option. Jaffa's famous flea market is overrated.

If the beaches call, try the stretch where Gordon Street meets the seafront, but be prepared to rinse oil traces off your feet afterwards. Detergent and brushes are provided free.

Although Tel Aviv has been the target of many terrorist attacks, the tension that periodically envelopes Jerusalem is rarely evident. "It takes a lot to keep people indoors here at night, especially at the weekend," says Ze'ev.

What with the heat and humidity, Tel Aviv can be an exhausting and exhilarating city. I like to follow the example of a Spanish-born couple who moved here from Jerusalem because they found the powerful religious lobby culturally and socially stifling.

Late one night, they introduced me to Tel Aviv's equivalent of the paseo - a leisurely stroll along the Herbert Samuel Esplanade. We savoured the breeze of the sea, downed a double espresso in one of the packed open-air cafes and watched the people go by.P J

  • Discount specialist Flight Centre (0990 666677) offers direct flights to Tel Aviv with British Airways from £232 (including taxes). Philip Jacobson stays at the Basel on the seafront (00 972 3 520 7711). Comfortable and friendly. Double room with breakfast from £105.

Tel Aviv basics

Getting there
Jon Hibbs flew to Tel Aviv with Cyprus Airways (0181 359 1333), which has regular flights via Larnaca for £261 return plus taxes (£20 UK, £10 Tel Aviv, £9 each for any stopover on the island, and £7.30 passenger service charge). Although other operators fly direct, Cyprus Airways connects with all the capitals of the Middle East, allowing you to combine a trip to Israel with, say, Lebanon, thus bypassing the land border, which is closed. Shared taxis connect Ben Gurion airport with Jerusalem 24 hours a day for less than a tenner each.

Staying there
Accommodation is scarce at Easter and should be booked well in advance, though Arab hotels in the Old City may have vacancies. The Hashimi Hotel on Suq Khan Beir El-Zeit Street has been upgraded under its American owner, Alan Salhab, with clean en-suite double rooms for about £20 (00 972 2 628 4410).

Further information
British citizens do not require a visa for Israel. The Christian Information Centre at Jaffa Gate has details of all the religious services (00 972 2 627 2692).

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