My first impression of Tel Aviv was that it looked an awful lot like Miami: long stretches of sandy white beach, high-rise condominiums and sunny weather conducive to flip-flop wearing. Yes, a lot like Miami, but with considerably less people congregating near the water. I had often heard the city described as a hedonist’s paradise, but perhaps Him and I didn’t stay up late enough to join the party; the two days we spent in Tel Aviv proved pretty staid.

Tel Aviv Coast

Tel Aviv coast

We bought bus tickets (NIS 19 each) through the Egged company at Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, 218 Yafo Street, and the journey northwest to Tel Aviv lasted only an hour. The driver, who somehow managed to devour a falafel and fries as he steered, deposited us at Tel Aviv’s massive Central Bus Station (HaTachana HaMerkazit HaChadasha), 106 Levinsky Street, where we caught a city bus (NIS 7 each) to the southern part of town and then walked a handful of blocks to the Eden Hotel Group, 11 Yishkon Street.

What were once residential townhouses dating from the early 20th century have been renovated into two distinct guest quarters located a few blocks from the beach: the Eden Boutique Hotel and an annex known as the Eden Guest House. The former is a frou frou Victorian confection festooned with floral prints and pink bow wallpaper. When stepping through the front door and entering the lobby, one’s eyes are naturally drawn to a nearly life-sized painting of two men: a dark-haired gentleman sporting a goatee and bubblegum pink lapels and his seated companion, an ascot-ed redhead. The two, a couple, are Russian immigrants Michael Ustinov and Sergei Solovyov, the founders of the hotel.

Eden Hotel Group

Portrait of Michael Ustinov and Sergei Solovyov, founders of the Eden Hotel Group

With our cumbersome hiking backpacks and two-day-old clothing, Him and I were a perfect foil to the dapper gentlemen and their hotel’s dainty decor, a fact that must have been evident to the concierge because he promptly escorted us to a studio room in the Eden Guest House. This section of the hotel chain is a complex of modern, beachy units located around the corner and about a block away from the main building. Our room, featuring a king bed, a modest bathroom and a small kitchen, was practical, comfortable and, at $140 a night, reasonably priced considering the neighborhood.

Though breakfast was not included with our room (and proved to be a bit pricey when purchased in the “Eden Bistro,” a frilly, white tablecloth kind of place), Tel Aviv’s open-air Carmel Market (Shuk Ha’Carmel) is just 300 meters away. We bought hot chicken subs from a vendor for lunch and, for dinner, cheese, nuts, bread and produce to complement the remaining jumbo-sized dates from Jerusalem. Then we set out to explore.

According to the Virtual Israel Experience, Tel Aviv is the first all-Jewish city of modern times. Originally named Ahuzat Bayit, it was founded by 60 families in 1909 as a Jewish neighborhood near Jaffa. The name was changed to Tel Aviv, meaning “hill of spring,” in 1910.

For an interesting account of Tel Aviv’s founding, visit the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo’s website.

The city’s name comes from Ezekiel, Chapter 3, in the Bible:

Tel Aviv map

Tel Aviv Map

“The Spirit then lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness and in the anger of my spirit, with the strong hand of the Lord on me. I came to the exiles who lived at Tel Aviv near the Kebar River. And there, where they were living, I sat among them for seven days—deeply distressed.”

With the exodus of Jews fleeing persecution in Europe around World War II, Tel Aviv’s population swelled. Today, it is Israel’s second-largest city (after Jerusalem) with more than 400,000 residents.

If the Seaport (Namal) to the north is Tel Aviv’s party center, the ancient but still active Old Port City of Jaffa (Yafo) to the south is the city’s historic (and thus, touristy) hub. Despite the crowds, Jaffa proved to be our favorite Tel Aviv attraction. We walked there from our hotel on the Tel Aviv Tayelet, a lively shoreline promenade frequented by cyclists and dog walkers. (Be sure to stop at the Banana Beach bar and have a waiter bring you a frosty – but expensive – draft Goldstar to enjoy from an Adirondack chair on the sand).

Legend has it the name “Jaffa,” meaning “the beautiful,” came from Japhfet, one of Noah’s sons, who founded the city after the flood. Jaffa is also said to be the spot from which Jonah embarked on his ill-fated maritime adventure. The port is a quaint cluster of white stone buildings, turrets and docks situated on a promontory bounded by the Mediterranean Sea. Fishermen in boats and on foot are a common sight, as are members of Tel Aviv’s friendly feral feline population hoping for leftovers. Landmarks include St. Peter’s Church where Napoleon Bonaparte stayed in 1799 and the wooden “Wishing Bridge” connecting Peak Park with Kdumim Square (Touch the relief of your zodiac sign, look at the sea and make a wish). Within Peak Park is the Gate of Faith, a four-meter-tall sculpture symbolizing the entrance into the Land of Israel. In addition to the intricately carved gate, the park offers a nice view of Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the sea.

Searching for the Jaffa Flea Market, we stumbled across the Jaffa Clock Tower in the center of Yefet Street. Rising three stories, the tower is one of seven constructed in Israel during the Ottoman Period. It was built circa 1900 by a Turkish sultan to commemorate the silver jubilee of his reign.

Hamsa key chain

My Hamsa key chain

I’m a sucker for knickknacks, and those for sale at the Jaffa Flea Market (Shuk Ha Pishpishim), located east of the clock tower, ran the gamut: Mattel action figures, vintage furniture, brass fixtures, Persian rugs, victrolas, shot glass souvenirs, menorahs, dusty clothing, lamps, clocks, pots, books, rotary telephones, ceramic tiles – all on display under tents, within shops and even strewn about on blankets in an open square. But a light rain had started to fall by the time we reached the thick of it, and we wandered among the aisles of cheap jewelry and tourist tchotchkes because the awnings offered shelter. There we purchased cheap Hamsa key chains for our backpacks so as to help our gear jingle and jangle even louder as we hurried through airports, bus depots and train stations. Each key chain featured a Traveler’s Prayer:

“O’ Lord may your love protect me on my journey and guard me from perils on the way. May I reach my destination in peace and fulfill my mission. May I return to my home with joy and in peace. Amen.”

old photograph

One of two vintage photographs I found at the Jaffa Flea Market

By the time the rain clouds finally dispersed, the blankets in the square had become a wet soggy mess of abandoned junk. In passing, I found two black and white portraits dispatched by the wind across the square and into a puddle. The first picture showed a businessman whose thick jowls and rubbery lips seemed better suited to a Chicago Outfit mug shot. The second picture featured a middle-aged couple with mix-matched mandibles; she was saddled with a man’s strong, square jaw and his chin appeared soft and rounded.

Who were these three strangers? Why were their personal photographs for sale at a flea market? Chances are the subjects had died long ago, but didn’t they have any surviving family members who might have preserved these mementos? Perhaps the subjects had been among those fleeing Europe for Israel in the 1930s and 1940s. Do you recognize them? Can you decipher the (Hebrew?) writing on the back of the couple’s photograph?

Like I said, I’m a sucker for knickknacks, so I decided to dry the long-forgotten photographs and, once we returned home, provide the trio with a somewhat dignified resting place within my trip scrapbook. There they will remain until some long-lost relative claims them. Chances are, their presence will merely serve to confuse my own descendants as they sort through my belongings after I’m gone – unless, of course, my belongings also end up for sale at a flea market of the future.

vintage photograph

Found at the Jaffa Flea Market