by Christian Lütjens
Jaffa’s historical old town lies in the shadows of party metropolis Tel Aviv. It just waits to be ‘conquered’. It is used to it after all.
What happened before we were seduced by gay party life that dragged us into the big cities? Before we went clubbing, partying and sex? Well, anybody? Dust? Childhood mainly. And with it the books about fairies, mystic worlds and adventurous journeys. You wished to join Baron Münchhausen riding a cannon ball, travel to Taka-Tuka-Land with Pippi Longstocking or travel with Sinbad to oriental magic worlds. Naturally, that did not happen. So you kept reading stories until puberty moved your focus to yourself and your homo-sexuality. You had to understand what that meant and what it meant to live it. After the initial rush was over, you focus moved back on travels. Tel Aviv being one special destination.
It is difficult to turn your back on modern Tel Aviv’s party and beach life. But it is imperative you do in order to take a trip to the origins of your childhood dreams. After a 45 min walk or 15 min taxi or bus ride from gay Hilton Beach you reach Jaffa, the legendary port city that is already mentioned in the Bible as Joppe. Caliphs and sultans ruled here, crusaders and pilgrims stopped here, and Napoleon also left his prints here. The city has beenconquered and reconquered so often in the past 4000 years that studying the timeline can make you dizzy. It is best to leave it and simply surrender to the oriental charm of this place entrenched in history.
In contrast to modern Tel Aviv most buildings here are several hundred years old and look Arabic. The old centre has been carefully renovated in recent years. Museums, restaurants and boutiques have moved into the vaulted buildings. The port is only used by fishermen and small sailing boats these days. But you can still imagine sailors and globetrotters disembarking here centuries ago and strolling through narrow alleys and stairways in search of pleasures or accommodation. Somehow the ghost of old stories and adventures still seems to linger on here.
The 33-year-old Shai, who lives in Tel Aviv but takes a break from the hustle and bustle of the big city in Jaffa, has followed the development of the quarter in recent years. He still knows the somewhat run-down, abandoned Jaffa of ten years ago. “At the end of the nineties, Tel Aviv’s first gay party took place here in a cellar club on Market square. “Sweet’n low” was its name, just like the sweetener, and I have very fond memories of it. Dancing, getting to know people, going down to the port at dawn and having some fun. It was a great time. But the club hasn’t existed for a long. Today there is a gallery in this place.”
But Shai can also see the positive aspect of old buildings being renovated. He roams through the narrow streets full of enthusiasm. They are named after signs of the zodiac and were signposted with pretty tiles by local artists. Shai pauses on “Wish Bridge”. You can see the sea from here, but you should not miss the twelve panels decorating the railing of the bridge. Each one shows a different sign of the zodiac.
“If you touch the plate with your own zodiac sign and wish for something, it will come true,” he whispers and stops in front of the panel featuring Cancer. He puts his hand on it, closes his eyes for a moment and then laughs: “Okay, done. Without revealing his wish, he hurries on. Past a romantic amphitheatre hill, where couples and groups picnic in the light of the late afternoon sun, down into a sandy valley, that has a mighty obelisk in its centre. But the ancient pylon is not what is really exciting about this place. It is the mounds that surround it. They contain shards of pottery and tiles from several centuries of human civilization. You don’t even have to dig long to find what you’re looking for. Scratching the fragile wall of one mound a little is enough to reveal a slightly curved piece of baked clay, which might have been part of a jug. Or to a bowl or to an amphora. Hobby archaeologists and other curious people will find it difficult to stay away from this place. But we move on. To the old bell tower, the landmark of the quarter, and to Hapishpeshim flea market.
The lively bazaar looks like a big bucket in which the flotsam from Jaffa’s rich history was collected. You can find anything here, from a gramophone to a high-tech spotlight. But Shai keeps pressing on. He wants to show me the floating tree (a really impressive piece of art in public space), and the parent house of the internationally acclaimed artist troupe “Mayumana” (one of the few modern buildings in Jaffa). And then there is the estate of artist Ilana Goor, which is located in the rooms of a former Jewish pilgrims’ hostel and is half museum, half private house. Here you cannot only admire Goor’s expansive work, but also pass her kitchen and terrace, from which you have a diffrent vista of the city and on the sea.
Readings or dinner parties take place here at night from time to time. But not tonight. Shai has ordered a table at “Cordelia” for 9 pm anyway. “In Israel you normally have dinner at this hour.
“Most restaurants get crowded at half past nine”, he explains, turning from the main street into an inconspicuous, somewhat weathered archway. Shortly afterwards he opens the door to “Cordelia” – an almost baroque ‘temple of pleasures’ with vaulted ceilings, chandeliers, flower arrangements, fantastic food and a gay chef named Nir Zook. The restaurant is like Jaffa itself: elegant, historic, inspiring. Münchhausen would certainly have liked it here. Pippi too. And Sinbad anyway. Finally winning over them. And there is also party life in Jaffa on weekends. Then it is all happening at “Theatre Club”.
Homepage of Israeli tourism board with useful tips, photo galleries and compact information on sights and accommodation (from luxury hotel to kibbuz).
Comprehensive website of Tel Aviv and Jaffa giving information on sights, guided tours, nightlife, restaurants and beach life.
Tips and information about the gay scene including event calendar.
HOW TO GET THERE
Lufthansa offers 4 daily departures to Tel Aviv non-stop from Frankfurt, 5 from Munich. Berlin will be the third airport linked to Tel Aviv effective summer timetable. Return tickets start at 580 Euros – look out for special offers on the airline’s homepage.
All information on Tel Aviv’s gay scene can be found at Spartacus International Gay Guide or iPhone App.