Decadent Tel Aviv
Text Ted Botha Photographs Ted Botha, Photo Library, The Bigger Picture/Alamy, M.barzilai/thereportage.com Most of us, if asked to name the sexiest beach city in the world, would probably come up with a short list. On it you’d find the usual suspects: Miami, Rio, Sydney, Cape Town. Ibiza (an island) and the Riviera (a concept) don’t count. A name you wouldn’t find, but definitely should, is Tel Aviv. I had some serious misconceptions myself about Israel before my journey there. The religion I was expecting was more Judaism than hedonism, a fact that seemed to be reaffirmed by several Orthodox men chanting morning prayers near me during my El Al flight across the Mediterranean. So imagine my astonishment when, over the course of the next four days in Tel Aviv, I didn’t see a single overtly religious person. If I did, it didn’t register with me. That was probably because I was too busy taking in all the non-religious things going on around me. First of all, I was too busy looking at the scantily clothed bodies on display, lying on the sand in the sun, or strolling or jogging along the 10 kilometres of beachfront, which stretches from the ancient port of Jaffa in the south to the modern boardwalk of the new port in the north. Secondly, I was too busy strolling along boulevards named Rothschild and Montefiore, where young lovers sat at cafés; or moseying down quaint streets in the White City, whose buildings transport you back to the 1920s and where you can surely spot some starlet lookalike hanging out at a corner restaurant or exiting a newly opened boutique hotel. Thirdly, I was too busy eating salmon sushi; a tortilla topped with black beans and guacamole; cheesecake made with melted white chocolate at Herbert Samuel; or a breakfast of the sparkling wine Cava and delectable shakshuka (eggs cooked in a tomato sauce with halloumi) at the beachfront Manta Ray. Fourthly, I was too busy wandering through the Bar Mitzvah celebrations of the son of magnificently wealthy Georgian immigrants in the gigantic conference hall of the Inter Continental David Tel Aviv. There, among the 500 guests, stiletto-wearing, almond-eyed women who had been poured into their evening dresses had a full-time hair and make-up team on duty to keep them looking fresh until 5am, and the bill for the spectacular (but not unusual) event came to the equivalent of some R2-million. Lastly, I was too busy rubbing shoulders with party-goers at Abraxas and Nanuchka, two of the many bars where the crowds are so thick you have to walk around with your drink held high above your head, before heading to Minus 1 to dance with the hordes squeezing in on a Friday night. Looking around the frenzy of clubbers through the smoky, alcohol-infused atmosphere, I totally forgot that it was the beginning of Shabbat, or the sabbath, when families usually stay at home and have dinner together. Which made me think: Tel Aviv is being wrongly publicised. Israel, as far as most of us are concerned, is the Holy Land and has been sold to us as such since time immemorial. Or at least since it became independent in 1948, or since the launch of the Israeli Tourism Board, which, like many people selling the country, is starting to rethink its marketing strategy. And rethink it they might. Selling Israel as the Holy Land is a bit like selling Las Vegas as a gambling resort. You’re preaching to the converted. You don’t have to tell Christians, Muslims and Jews all over the world about Jerusalem. They will come. And they do. By the busload. Daily. The day I went to Jerusalem – hazily perched on hills and in valleys, its eastern edge abruptly falling away to the desert, which extends to the Dead Sea – the buses were parked in rows as far as the eye could see. Tour groups from Russia, Indonesia and France were so plentiful that each one’s leader needed a distinctive sign (a Disney umbrella, a garland of flowers atop a long pole, a huge pink hat) to stop his or her followers from getting lost. Being in the Holy City was a moving experience – both spiritually and physically, as you literally get carried along by the rest of the tourists and worshippers – but it is a world away (although only 50 kilometres) from Tel Aviv. That schism was highlighted in a popular magazine on newsstands when I was in Israel. If Jerusalem was the Holy City, it said, Tel Aviv was Sin City. Bars and clubs stay open so late that eatery Benedict serves breakfast 24/seven. Gay life has mushroomed to the extent that numerous nightspots go gay once a week, the city recently got its first gay club, and there’s a gay beach. Restaurants such as Herbert Samuel and Messa are packed, the dishes are world class, and the staff helpful and sexy to the point of distraction. The populace dresses in such skimpy outfits – but with Parisian chic, I must add – that they seem to be making a point. And the point is this: we might be Israeli, and we’re proud of it, but we’re totally and unashamedly secular. If Jerusalem was sober, continued the magazine, Tel Aviv was drunk. If Jerusalem was involved with its past – dating back thousands of years, and ruled at various points by the Babylonians, the Romans and the Mamluks – Tel Aviv was all about the present. Tel Aviv, after I’d been there only a day, reminded me of a combination of Marseille and Miami – narrow back streets that lent themselves to exploration, creamy-coloured, early-20th century architecture, the boulevards bursting with cafés and stores, a slightly forlorn and yet instantly lovable edge, a balmy climate. No wonder its residents – who seem to hail from all corners of the world, from Buenos Aires and Ukraine to Canada – call their city the best in the world. It’s an accolade you hear over and over again, like they are trying to urge you to come and see what Tel Aviv is all about. Tel Aviv was created in 1909 by Jews who were living in the Arab port of Jaffa, which is as old as Jerusalem and is said to have been created by Noah for his son. They started their own, Hebrew-speaking settlement on some dunes a few kilometres up the beach. Neve Tzedek, like several neighbourhoods in central Tel Aviv, fell into disrepair until about a decade ago, when the city authorities began a concerted effort to spruce things up. Now, amidst the original houses, there are chic boutiques and little eateries, especially along Shibazi Street. In the 1920s, architects who had trained in Berlin designed the biggest collection of buildings in the world to follow the famous Bauhaus style. Collectively, these structures are known as the White City, although they aren’t really white or a city, spread as they are all over downtown. In the Soho-type district of Shenkin, youngsters attached to cellphones hang about outside gelaterias and small designer boutiques. Even the old port of Jaffa has seen a makeover, and you can lose yourself in narrow ancient streets and alleys that take you from an old marketplace, called a shuk, into a trendy jostle of galleries and cafés. It is in Shenkin, after barely 24 hours in the city, that I give myself over to the hedonistic treat that is Tel Aviv. I decide to eat a meal at four in the afternoon. Heading to the popular restaurant Orna and Ella, I find the tables full of sleek, dark-eyed, sun-kissed lovers. Before long they will clear off to rest for a while, knowing that they have a very busy night ahead of them. This, after all, is Tel Aviv. This story was originally featured in the February 2010 issue of House and Leisure.