The Times Picks Up on Tel Aviv

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

London's Times newspaper has picked up on Tel Aviv's 100th birthday with a nice tribute to the Mediterranean's capital of cool:

Barely 7am and the sun is already beating down as my feet pound the wet sand. Huge breakers, the remnant of a winter storm, are crashing to my right.

Tel Aviv's glitzy hotels and tower blocks line the promenade to my left. Through the mist kicked up by the waves, I can see the hazy outline of ancient Jaffa to the south, a fortified tangle of narrow streets dating back 5,000 years. The beach is already busy with dog walkers, runners, surfers and early-morning yogis.

Almost exactly 100 years ago, there was nothing here except the vast sweep of sand and a few fruit orchards. But Jaffa was at bursting point and houses were already going up outside the walls.

As the story goes, a group of 66 families from Jaffa, dreaming of a new, spacious utopia in which to live, stood in the sand dunes and drew lines in the sand to define the boundaries of what would become Tel Aviv. To divide up the plots, they had an impromptu raffle, using sea shells.

It's hard to picture today. Tel Aviv in 2009 is a heaving metropolis of 390,000, busily spreading its tentacles east and north to create a metropolitan area of three million.

The centre is a cluster of colourful neighbourhoods, impressive Bauhaus architecture (protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site), hip bars and some of the finest fish restaurants in the Mediterranean. The seafront has to be one of the world’s most stunning urban beaches – long, wide, sandy and spotlessly clean.

Just 44 miles to the south, a fragile cease-fire is holding in Gaza. Here in the city, tourism officials are hoping that the political situation won't affect their birthday extravaganza, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Centennial Year, a century since that seashell raffle.

A summer of celebration kicks off in April with concerts, exhibitions, sporting events and parades. On April 3, the whole city will become one massive street party with open air food stalls, dance performances and street artists. On April 17, descendants of the original 66 families will gather in Sir Charles Clore Park to recreate the original photograph of the Zionist pioneers, grouped hopefully on the empty sand.

There’s an international marathon on April 24 and in June, the RS:X European Open Windsurfing Championship takes place on Gordon Beach, a world-class festival which is expected to attract several Olympic medallists.

Tel Aviv will stay awake all night on May 27 (not that it sleeps much anyway) with the annual White Night celebration. Rothschild Boulevard, one of the main thoroughfares and location of many of the most beautiful Bauhaus buildings, will become a stage for re-enactments of city scenes from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, with professional actors and lavish staging.

Carmel Market, the city’s biggest fruit and veg market, will stay open all night, as will Nahalat Binyamin, a chichi craft fair in a neighbouring street. Restaurants, clubs and bars will all be open till dawn.

In June, the Blue Festival, a celebration of food, art, culture and music, will take over the alleyways of old Jaffa and also relaunch Jaffa Port, currently being spruced up to house new boutiques, galleries and restaurants.

The September holiday of Rosh Hashana will see Rabin Square carpeted with flowers, a joint event with the city of Brussels. A good time to plan a short break is July 16, when Milan’s La Scala will perform Verdi’s Requiem in Yarkon Park – for free.

Failing this, the magnificent Tel Aviv beach will be recreated in Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna and New York’s Central Park this summer, with beach games, DJs, parties, Israeli food and musicians, free and open to all.

One might question what Israel has got to celebrate at the moment. But although the political debate never stops, life goes on in Tel Aviv, as it always has against 100 years of troubled, turbulent history. While Jerusalem, less than an hour down the road, is sombre and devout, Tel Aviv is a party city for the young.

Security is ever-present but nobody stays behind closed doors in fear; not even politicians. I arrange to meet a friend at the Cafe Tamar on hip Sheinkin Street, on a busy Saturday morning. The cafe is a boho, lefty hangout straight out of the 1950s, all formica and faded political posters.

I arrive to find it packed with film crews. A beefy security guard accosts me and asks for ID, as I am carrying a camera and a notebook. He turns out to be the personal bodyguard of a Rafi Eitan, a senior government minister who has chosen this very public place for a meeting.

As the elderly politician emerges from the cafe, my friend tells me that Eitan, a former spy, was in charge of the Mossad operation that captured Eichmann, orchestrator of the Holocaust, in Argentina in 1960. I am awestruck.

But Tel Aviv is full of surprises. It’s so accessible. I wander the alleys of Old Jaffa, poking my nose into galleries. In every one, the artist is there, happy to chat. I meet Frank Meisler, who creates intricate metal sculptures and whose ‘Jerusalem Sphere’ pieces are owned by royals and heads of state worldwide.

I talk to to Ilana Goor, an amazing artist and sculptor who lives in her own museum, creating flocks of bronze birds, jewellery and metal furniture. I call in on Adina Plastelina, the atelier of Adi and Sami, who make exquisite jewellery out of rainbow-coloured plastics and keep unearthing pieces of 3,500 year old pottery as they carefully renovate their studio, a former Turkish bath.

In the city’s new Hashmal Garden area, a cluster of unassuming streets around a scruffy little park, young designers have taken advantage of cheap rents and moved in. You can meet them and buy straight from their studio-shops; handbags from Kisim , featured in the movie Sex And The City, pretty gold and silver rings from Mira Mory and stylish leather and gold accessories from Hagar Satat.

Like the city itself, their optimism, energy and joie de vivre are invigorating.

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