Given we only live a mere hour’s drive from Israel’s largest city, Tel Aviv, it’s surprising how few times we’ve actually ventured over there this last year – especially as it’s meant to be one of the hippest and happening cities around. Only yesterday the newspapers here were reporting how Tel Aviv has been listed as #3 in Lonely Planet’s top cities to visit in 2011.
Tel Aviv is the total flipside of Jerusalem, a modern Sin City on the sea rather than an ancient Holy City on a hill. Hedonism is the one religion that unites its inhabitants. There are more bars than synagogues, God is a DJ and everyone’s body is a temple. Yet, scratch underneath the surface and Tel Aviv, or TLV, reveals itself as a truly diverse 21st-century Mediterranean hub. By far the most international city in Israel, Tel Aviv is also home to a large gay community, a kind of San Francisco in the Middle East. Thanks to its university and museums, it is also the greenhouse for Israel’s growing art, film and music scenes.
Well ‘lucky us’ being only so close to this exciting metropolis on the Mediterranean – for all its supposed charms the city still remains a bit of an enigma. Unfortunately arriving to the city by bus involves navigating what can only be described as the bus terminal from hell; a multi-story building built like a parking lot with an insidious labyrinth of creaky elevators, dark stairwells, trashy shops selling pirated goods and greasy food outlets – and the adjacent neighbourhoods aren’t much better. The sleek white Bauhaus architecture that makes parts of Tel Aviv so attractive couldn’t seem further away.
Still once you get away from this monstrosity the city does prove to be everything that Jerusalem isn’t. It’s hard to think of two cities so diametrically opposed located so close to one another.
This weekend we ventured over to Tel Aviv to see catch up on the latest from Yoni Bloch, one of our favourite local pop/rock stars, as he put on a gig with a full brass and string band. The concert took place in a bland, out-of-town themed bar (no Brixton Academy here) and the crowd seem to be populated by secular middle class families – maybe not as hip and happening event as the Lonely Planet has perhaps imagined in Tel Aviv, but nevertheless worth the schlep from Jerusalem – if for nothing else the excuse to sleep over in Tel Aviv, with a large apartment at the top of high-rise at our disposal.
The only slight annoyance was that even here in the most secular of Israel’s cities the supremacy of religious regulation means that public transport comes to a complete standstill from Friday evening to Saturday evening. So while we may well have been able to enjoy the pleasures of the plentiful non-kosher restaurants and cafés, we ended up doing our fair share of trudging back and forth across the city.
As the sun set of over the Mediterranean, the city’s various skyscrapers lit up the skyline, a view we could take in with all its brightness from our balcony; a slight contrast from the view out over the orthodox synagogue and semi-dilapidated buildings that make up our Jerusalem neighbourhood.
Saturday afternoon was spent doing the stereotypically liberal and secular Tel Avivian thing, sipping lattés in a street side café whilst reading our way through the Haaretz newspaper (Israel’s only broadsheet paper – and willing to criticise Israel), not to mention keeping half an eye on the live Arsenal game they were showing on the TV set. Bliss! And for a moment we could almost kid ourselves into believing that Tel Aviv is indeed like any other Western city and that the prison-like states of Gaza and the West Bank, a mere stone throw away, are really are not of our concern or repsonsibility. Alas…