After our two-week pass through Italy it was time for some adventure, so off we flew to Israel, a new country for me though Mark had been here in the 1980s. Our first stop was five days in Tel Aviv a city sometimes described as Europe in the Middle East due to its Mediterranean beaches, cafés, and lively culture. My first impression was that that was pretty significantly overstated. In fact, I thought it was markedly seedier than I’d expected. Over a couple days, though, I grew more enamored of the place.
(It’s probably worth noting that I was bound to be comparatively unimpressed with the European nature of Tel Aviv after coming directly from Italy. As I write this while sitting in a hotel on the West Bank it occurs to me that if I went to Tel Aviv from here it would feel very European compared to this!)
One of the first things you notice in Tel Aviv is the architecture. It reminded me of a slightly downscale Miami or LA, but Mark explained to me that the architecture is called Bauhaus, named for a German art school that operated from the end of World War I until the Nazis closed it down in 1933. Many of the Jewish staff emigrated to Tel Aviv where there are today some 4,000 buildings in the simple, direct, modernist Bauhaus style; Tel Aviv is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of this. The style is not exactly what you would call pretty, but somehow it works as all the buildings we would see along a couple major arteries just fit together.
The other big thing about Tel Aviv, of course, is the beach. There is nothing like a long Mediterranean beach to keep me happy and Tel Aviv has it in spades. We were lucky in that unseasonably warm weather had extended beach season into the end of October so we got a bit of time in the sun.
There is an amusing part of being on the beach. These are big, public beaches with the municipality renting chairs and umbrellas at wonderfully affordable prices, like $4.50 a day or something. But every so often you hear a recorded announcement over a loudspeaker, first in Hebrew and then in English, that there are no lifeguards on duty, that swimming without a lifeguard is dangerous, and that people must leave the water immediately.
And no one does. A little while later the announcement is repeated and everyone ignores it. Over and over again. What’s that all about?
Another thing you notice in Tel Aviv is all the electric mini-vehicles. We’ve started to see what they call “e-bikes”, bicycles with small electric motors that help a rider keep up a pace or go up a hill. Here in Tel Aviv, though, they’re everywhere. And e-scooters and weird e-skate-board-kind-of-things. There are so many more than we’ve ever seen anywhere and they all go measurably faster than I would expect. They totally blur the line between motorized vehicles and self-propelled and bring to my mind all sorts of questions about licensing and safety and sidewalk usage and all that. Just another idiosyncrasy we’ve found.
OK, here’s something not so great we discovered in Tel Aviv: the food is remarkably expensive and really not very good at all. Eventually we found one or two places with decent food, but the prices were insane. Of course, it didn’t help that we’d just come from Italy, where food is amazing and often inexpensive. But wow, the first night we go to a restaurant and the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu (oh, wait, they didn’t print a menu, but the cheapest bottle of wine available) was $70. We just kept running into food that was OK but at prices that you would expect for amazing food. Sad!
And then there was a day trip up the coast to Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. In part the trip was just because ultimately there wasn’t that much to do in Tel Aviv, but we did want to just see a bit more of Israel and Haifa is the home to the Bahai World Centre, the holiest place for those of the Bahai faith and another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What is Bahai, you ask? It’s a religion founded in the mid-19th century in Iran that today boasts some five million to seven million adherents. It tries to respect and incorporate all the great religions of the world but that, of course, is a profound threat to religious leaders who know the real truth. So the then-Shah had the founder executed and his remains lie in the Bahai World Center.
Our interest was less in having a religious experience – I have this feeling that we’ll have plenty of opportunities in Jerusalem – than in seeing the gardens. They are, simply, the most beautiful and perhaps perfect gardens I’ve ever seen. Just stunning, built on the side of a massive hill, with every blade of grass and flower in perfect form. You couldn’t go lie on the grass, of course, as is my wont, but it was beautiful.
And then finally, the great story from the start of our time in Israel. On the way back from Haifa Mark and I were sitting apart as the train was crowded. At one point the seat next to him was empty and a very traditionally dressed Jewish man started to sit down. First, though, he asked Mark “Are you Jewish?” When Mark assured him he was not, the guy smiled kindly, bid Mark a good day, and moved on to somewhere else on the train. Apparently touching Gentiles is prohibited?
This could be a fun 11 days!