Jaffa tales

In the bustling Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality of Israel lies one of the oldest port cities in the world. Gustasp and Jeroo Irani take us on a guided tour

The air was filled with the aroma of grilled kebabs, freshly-baked breads and a miscellany of fragrances emanating from the numerous cafés and food stalls that lined the narrow streets of Jaffa’s (or Yafo’s) famous flea market, called Shuk HaPishpushim in Hebrew. Rainbow hues of plump red pomegranates, sun-kissed oranges and bright greens painted the display shelves of vegetable and fruit shops. We made our way through a busy crowd, spotting local artists showcasing paintings, designer jewellery and other intriguing creations on makeshift display tables along the way. This marketplace in Israel’s ancient waterfront city left quite an impression on our senses. It was no less than a cultural melting pot, where wide-eyed tourists, locals and residents from Tel Aviv let their hair down.

Later, we strolled down the waterfront promenade, where a lighthouse overlooked a shoreline washed by the dark blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Across the bay, Tel Aviv, with towering skyscrapers casting a shadow over its sandy beaches, glistened. Unlike its modern landscape, which traces its origins to more recent times, Jaffa is one of the oldest port cities in the world, dating back to the biblical times. The latter is believed to be the ancient port from where the prophet Jonah sailed before being swallowed by the Leviathan (a biblical sea monster) and where King Solomon imported the cedar logs from Lebanon to be used in the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

One of the tallest turrets in the city belongs to St Peter’s Church. Constructed in the early 20th century in the Baroque style, the latter sits at the top of the Jaffa Mound. Underneath the church and to its side are remnants of a Crusader fort, beneath which a Byzantine church is buried. The fort was part of the city citadel during the reign of Louis IX, the king of France.

Our guide Rolli, a charming lady of Indian origin settled in Israel, was, however, intent on giving us a peek into the modern and artistic avatar of Jaffa. Before we set off, we stopped at a local café to sample some traditional Israeli cuisine – hummus (a rich, creamy paste of chickpeas with a hint of nuts, sprinkled with olive oil), which we scooped up with pita bread.

A drizzle greeted us when we stepped out. But we were not perturbed, as rains are a blessing in this fairly arid region. We hurried down narrow stone-paved streets and ducked under archways. A grilled gate; murals in brilliant colours on building walls; a brass door with intricate etchings; an altar tucked into a crevice between two buildings; musicians strumming on guitars… Despite the rain, we stopped to admire and photograph these sights, which added character to an ancient town that has now become a retreat for a number of modern artists.

The sky eased up by the time we reached the Ilana Goor Museum, located in one of the numerous picturesque alleyways of Old Jaffa. The building which houses the museum is over 270 years old and was originally an inn for Jewish pilgrims. The display at the museum boasts over 500 works by artist Ilana Goor, as well as other renowned artists from Israel and beyond, such as Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore. The museum gallery also features exhibits ranging from jewellery and Judaica (items related to or associated with Jewish culture, especially those forming part of a collection or treated as subjects of study) to furniture, lighting and sculptures.

Our journey into a new world, nestled in an old setting, culminated at the old Jaffa railway station, which operated between 1892 and 1948. Today, all that remains of the meter gauge line, which once ran all the way to Jerusalem, is a few metres of track on which a railway carriage is parked. However, the area around the station complex has now been transformed into an entertainment and leisure park studded with edgy designer boutiques, classy restaurants and a children’s play area.

In the evening, we looked out from the balcony of our high-rise hotel in Tel Aviv. Below us, a lively beach buzzed with activity while, in the distance, an ancient lighthouse beckoned, filling us with a rush of fond memories. The lines between the two cities – the old and the new – seemed to blur.

The authors are avid travellers and the views expressed in the article are their own

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