At the entrance to Jaffa, the tangle of roads dotted with flea market stalls becomes a lounge furnished with rugs and armchairs, sofas and console tables, vintage design tables and chairs, for the patrons of its open-air restaurants and bars. Israel has been an immigration destination for centuries, seeing a boom after the Law of Return in the fifties led to some 700,000 Jews moving here. Furniture, fabrics and memory fuel this market at the port. Flowers and wooden chairs, porcelain and brass, old worn fabrics, dresses with strips of embroidery like those Maria Grazia Chiuri used to design for Valentino. In the evening, a short walk will never be enough to take in all its picturesqueness: the colors of the tablecloths, shiny Italian-made paints, plates and mosaics, vegetables, fish and kebabs, green glasses for dark wines. A confusion that is difficult to link to one particular image and perhaps this is the true sense of Jewishness: a mix of Trastevere and a Moroccan souk, Portofino and the meat packing district stateside, Sicilian jasmine and German sheet steel. The rugs laid out in the middle of the street create a path through a series of lounges. After dinner, a stroll under low arches with corners in tuff stone, through oleanders, wisteria and cypresses. An easy walk, it takes you to the highest point of Jaffa and then down the other side to the sea.
Its slightly raised position on the Jaffa hilltop makes the Setai a seafront hotel in the entire city worth choosing. A former war fortress at the entrance to the port, it is all built in tuff stone (the only building material allowed in Israel), with obviously newer stone used for the three floors added to the ancient base. The swimming pool makes the most of the views on different levels: three sun terraces, with clear glass parapets that fit in with the modern setting. The seafront roads are chaotic, but the Setai is in another world from the crowds on the beach. The outdoor furnishings are easy-to-find catalogue purchases, chairs and sofas that seem to have been chosen without any interior design project in mind. No incense in the lobby as you would imagine, but the fragrance of flowers, warm white petals with a hint of citrus. Design in the public areas works on the contrast with the stone, and a book of photos by Anne Liebovitz: the steps of the ancient war fortress create a backdrop for the lounge, Arabian fabrics in red are mixed with vases and solid wood. Breakfast is served in an inner courtyard within the walls, its airlessness an error difficult to condemn, as serving breakfast in the Mediterranean breeze is a privilege that is not a given even the best hotels in Italy and France. The carpet in the bedroom corridors is already old (followers of this column will be skeptical about a hotel that, in 2020, still overlooks something like a strip of carpet). The rooms are small even for the superior categories, and their same basic furnishings with neither research nor care recall a standard room in a business hotel close to an industrial estate. Remember that the room is only worth its overnight rate if it has a sea view, from the fourth floor up. Opening the curtains at the side of your bed to the sight of sea and sky is still a good start to any day.
‘Birds’ are the best way to visit Tel Aviv. This brand name is used generically for all electric scooters, even for its competitors Lime and Wind, as Bird just sounds right. They are easy to find in the morning, as soon as you step out of the Setai, on the other side of the roundabout under the arch or on the way to the beach at the start of the cycle path. And then off on your Bird with the wind in your face. The sea air continues to Boulevard Rothschild, identified as the city’s main street: a counterpart and a mix of Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Down the middle of the avenue, two rows of trees line a path for pedestrians, bikes and definitely for Birds. Then up to the Norman, considered perhaps the city’s top hotel, with modern English seating in Portuguese wood and Italian sheets by Frette. Yet even here there is little attention to detail: plastic window frames, tiles outside that look like cobbles in the suburbs, and yellowed grass under blooming flowerbeds. We mention this because it embodies Tel Aviv today: a city with resources and wealth, capable of running four underground lines simultaneously, with property prices higher than the international market, a crossroads for cultures from all over the world, and yet lacking that detail that stems from an awareness of your origins. This is obviously the history of humankind from all over the world, but literature insists that great movements be recognized by their small touches.
The streets that cross Boulevard Rothschild lie in the shade of secular trees that remind us how this land was the garden of the world. The buildings are covered with foliage in every shade of green, plants wind around buildings and creep into courtyards, like at Herzl 16, which gets its name from its address, one that in Tel Aviv is now just a restaurant for most people, while in any other part of the world it would be a player for big retailers and a reference for international publishing. The same attitude is shared by Hotel Montefiore, perhaps the address best recommended by this column on this trip. The streets in this area feel like Spring Street in the Village, the Montefiore has no pool, no luxury spaces, but it does have the attention continually sought by those who choose when they spend. On the return to Jaffa, still flying along on your Bird, you go down through Nathavel: a nemesis of the Marais in Paris, Mayfair in London, Brera in Milan, where a 100 m² apartment may cost up to 4 million dollars. The restaurant on the corner is a bistro, the noise of the words is not drowned out by the traffic. The fragrance of the flowers is as emotional as a summer bike ride on an evening in Versilia. The dusk and the door of a private home, the foliage of another tree caresses your face like when you would go home with salt-encrusted hair and the dampness was the tears that you would never dry in your life. This coast of Israel, this human landing place that saved man’s dignity, not even a century after having condemned the god of love two thousand years previously, does not look like any other place in the world: it is the rest of the world that looks like this place.
David Razi’el St 22, Tel Aviv-Yafo,
6802919, +972 3-601-6000
Nachmani St 23-25, Tel Aviv-Yafo,
6579441, +972 3-543-5555
Montefiore St 36, Tel Aviv-Yafo,