Travel: Welcome to the promised land

Whether you're after shops, beaches, beauty treatments or desert treks, Tel Aviv has it all.
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU'RE going to Israel, it's no bad thing to make Tel Aviv your base. The young city - 90 years old - is a fascinating combination of sophisticated metropolis and developing country with an effervescent nightlife and streets - Dizengoff, Ben Yehuda and Allenby - that are a shopper's delight. Tiny antique and craft shops are crammed between elegant establishments selling fur coats or diamonds, and there are myriad cafes sprawling across the pavements. Avoid the spartan ones, and opt instead for the more luxurious east-European numbers, where you can feast on cakes that would have put 19th-century Vienna to shame. If shopping isn't your bag, Tel Aviv is stiff with museums and galleries. And, if you're a seaside person, the beaches are pretty, if not beautiful, and far from crowded.

I rarely found the local people anything other than helpful and friendly. It's almost impossible to go into a cafe without somebody talking to you, and a request for directions at the local shop can easily result in a heavy debate involving all its customers. The poor economy and recent influx of immigrants means that your taxi driver is quite likely to be an unemployed psychologist with the ability to speak six languages. This makes for interesting cab rides, and can be a comfort if you find yourself in need of therapy.

Israel is a small country, and the joy of Tel Aviv is its close proximity to, well, everywhere. The port of Jaffa is a couple of miles south of the city centre, a brisk 45-minute walk along the beach. This is one of the oldest cities in the world, and also one of the most beautiful. Destroyed by Napoleon, it was rebuilt at the beginning of the 19th century and ruled by the Ottomans until 1948. Today the centre has been restored and is awash with shops, galleries and studios selling jewellery, pottery, and paintings. Bars and restaurants are plentiful, too, but with its tiny stone streets, it's extremely pretty and the high numbers of visiting tourists mean that food here is expensive. In the actual port, where fish restaurants abound, although admittedly in much plainer surroundings, you can get an enormous fish supper for 60 shekels (pounds 10).

Food in Israel is good and cosmopolitan. It's by no means all gefilte fish and meatballs. The Israelis give new meaning to the word salad. No limp lettuce and tasteless tomatoes here, but fresh, succulent chunks of vegetables dressed in oil made from olives which may well have been crushed between the thighs of virgins.

A two-hour drive from Tel Aviv via the outskirts of Jerusalem takes you into the Judean Desert and the northern tip of the Dead Sea. The sheer awe-inspiring beauty of the desert is enough to make you weep. The mountains towered above us to our right, a thousand shades of cream and gold, while on our left glistening white salt rocks stood proudly out of the brilliant blue of the Dead Sea.

This is the lowest point on the face of the earth and it's famed for its health-giving properties: the air here contains 10 per cent more oxygen than the air over the Mediterranean.

The sea has a salt content nearly 10 times that of your average ocean and it's crammed to the gills with minerals. Natural hot sulphur springs are said to lower blood pressure, and the mineral-rich thick black mud that occurs on the shoreline has therapeutic properties as well as, and I quote, "cosmetic benefits". So we drove down to the Ein Gedi Spa in a quest for better health and greater beauty.

We emerged, some hours later, having soaked in the sulphur pools (wonderfully relaxing once you get over the smell); covered ourselves from head to foot in black mud; and undergone the ministrations of Danni, the resident masseur, a man with the bulk, sensitivity and touch of Mike Tyson.

Best of all, we floated in the sea, and yes, it really is possible to read a newspaper lying on your back in this waterlogged salt cellar.

This is the non-claustrophobic version of a flotation tank, and it was a truly extraordinary experience. But next time I go to Israel, and there will be a next time, I'm determined to give up on the shopping, and trek through that desert instead.

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