Tel Aviv has made it big-time. The Lonely Planet Web site has ranked it third among the top ten cities to visit in 2011; only New York and Tangier outrank it.
Of course, this acclaim comes with tags that would make some Israel-lovers bristle: “a modern Sin City on the sea” where “hedonism is the one religion that unites its inhabitants.”
But that’s exactly why I love Tel Aviv: Going there from my home in Jerusalem feels like going abroad. Yet Tel Aviv is just an hour away by car or bus, or two hours by train, if you’re so inclined.
Speaking of trains, Tel Aviv’s newest attraction is the restored Jaffa train station, which after more than 60 years of neglect has been turned into a hub of entertainment, fashion, and culture. It’s in the former Arab neighborhood of Manshiya, which until 1948 linked the old Arab city of Jaffa and the modern Israeli city of Tel Aviv.
Restaurants, cafes, pubs, an ice cream shop, and a tapas bar; funky and high-fashion boutiques of Israeli designers; jewelry shops featuring local craftspeople; and a shop specializing in books on architecture are among the new businesses in the restored compound surrounding the Jaffa station. Cultural performances are planned, and there is even a kosher restaurant, a rarity in Tel Aviv.
Shoppers and revelers will note the special feel of the stone and concrete buildings, which were conserved by a team headed by architect Sary Mark and which bear explanatory plaques.
The Jaffa train station—the first in the Middle East—was built in 1892, when the Land of Israel was still part of the Ottoman Empire. The train chugged up to Jerusalem along the beautiful, winding route of the Sorek River and continued running on its original tracks until just a few years ago. Its current incarnation still follows the original route from Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem, albeit to a new station in the capital.
The train not only made it much easier for travelers to get to Jerusalem from Jaffa, whose port was the gateway to the Holy Land, it also made it possible to ship goods more easily. Thus it brought prosperity to the Wieland family, which lived behind the Jaffa station and had a factory that produced prefabricated concrete panels for use in construction. The Wielands were Templers, a sect of Christian visionaries from Germany who came to the Holy Land starting in the 1860s and who established seven settlements around the country.
The Wieland family home, their factory, their shop, and their storage buildings have been restored. The factory’s second floor had four impressive wooden beams, each made from a single pine tree brought from German’s Black Forest, Mark said, and these, too, were conserved.
Among the buildings in the compound are two private homes built by Arabs, the only two such structures remaining in the Manshiya area. There are also buildings erected by the British, when Palestine was under the British Mandate (1917–1948). British police were stationed in Manshiya to keep the peace between the residents of Jaffa and Tel Aviv. In one of these British buildings the conservators uncovered parts of a mural by Israeli artist Gerd Rothschild, and they can now be seen in one of the shops.
So when visitors follow the Lonely Planet’s recommendation and head for the old-new train station in the swinging city, they will also be learning a bit about its history.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.