A magnificent land full of memory lanes

Return to Israel and find something new among the familiar sights.

By Julie Burchill, January 6, 2011
Tel Aviv: This easy-going seaside city is probably the most tolerant in the world. Locals live and let live on the city’s beachside promenade.

Tel Aviv: This easy-going seaside city is probably the most tolerant in the world. Locals live and let live on the city’s beachside promenade.

I always love the feeling of voluntary solidarity with Israel which I experience when going through security with El Al. When the young man or woman says "There is a reason I am asking you these questions", tears spring to my eyes and I really have to stop myself from blurting "I know. I know it all. My life for you, Israel!" in case they think I'm a loony and stop me from boarding.

But this time I had been mucked about so much by the Fattal Hotel chain PR, that my brain was experiencing turbulence before I even set foot on the plane.

I tried to put it out of my mind as, shortly after an early-morning touchdown, the cab sped towards the Leonardo Boutique Hotel in Tel Aviv's diamond district, where my friend Nadia and I were due to spend one night before a weekend in Eilat. I had thought it wise to ceaselessly reiterate the fact that we would be arriving sometime around 5am. We arrived at six to find no rooms in our names.

When we were finally given one with a camp bed crammed in, the toilet was just a few feet from the bed and, for style's sake, didn't even have a door - just a plate of glass with gaps at the top and bottom.

At breakfast we were confronted with lipless milk jugs which poured all over the table, butter pats which wouldn't open and a juicer which fell upon one when touched, and concluded that the hotel was like one of those fantastic-looking people who you look forward to sitting next to at dinner but have nothing to say. In this case, it was like they spilt stuff on you, too.

Getting there

El Al (020 7121 1400) has return fares London-Tel Aviv from £323.60. El Al's Superstar Holidays (020 7121 1500) has one-week packages in Tel Aviv from £802 per person, based on two sharing. Two-centre options of four nights at The Dan Tel Aviv and three nights in Jerusalem, from £995 per person, or three nights at the Dan Tel Aviv and four nights Eilat, staying at Meridien Eilat, from £1108.00 per person, including flights on El Al's new TA-Eilat service. All accommodation is on B&B, and all packages include flights.

It was also completely at odds with the laid-back boutique-hotel ethos to have one of those icky "you touch it, you take it" mini bars dispensing beer and Snickers bars, or to have the hairdryer on a timer. All the purple alligators and retro prints in the world won't make you hip if you exhibit such tragic cheese-paring tendencies.

Sporty and shallow, Eilat is the opposite of every Jewish stereotype. I used to like it a lot. Then I got stuck there for a fortnight earlier this year when that pesky volcano did its thing, and by the time we got out I never wanted to see the place again. That we were back, speaks volumes about how much I love Israel.

When, as instructed, we rocked up at 11.30pm to check in at Herods, the charming girl on the desk inquired innocently: "What kept you? Your room's been ready all afternoon." I am a patient broad, but if I had had a grape to hand, I would happily have crushed it in sheer molten fury.

Luckily, the sheer ludicrousness of the place makes it impossible to stay miserable for long: if Liberace and Cecil B DeMille had built a love-nest together, it would look like Herods, where life-size jester statues are caught forever mid-caper, prancing bronze ibex and horned rams preen by the swimming pool and stone cats spit spume upon swimmers.

But with restaurants like the Boston Grill and CafeCafe to eat at, a beachful of bars to booze at, a sea full of fish to squeal at and an ice-palace to cool one's heels in, Eilat is one of sweetest seasides I've been beside.

Then it was time to fly back to Tel Aviv, where, with relief, we checked in to the Dan Tel Aviv. Partly, it's that Dan is my husband's name, so whenever I see a Dan sign shining out, I feel I'm coming home. But if I didn't have Dan, Tel Aviv would be the place I'd want to live, probably in a Bauhaus flat near Hayarkon Street.

The Bauhaus aspect of Tel Aviv makes an interesting point about Israel; whereas in another country, you might drag yourself to a museum to find out about a nation's history and culture, here it's all around you.

Last time I was there I found my favourite-ever building, Etzel House, while on the way to dinner at Manta Ray. This time, as always, Nadia and I dropped our bags and headed straight to Mike's Place, the best blues joint outside New Orleans, just a Woo Woo's throw from the Dan, for quesadillas and Key Lime Pie shots.

The signs "Good People, good food and great beer" and England fans welcome" reflect the easy-going welcome here, despite the fact that in 2003, a suicide bomber approached Mike's Place and blew himself up at the entrance, killing three and wounding more than 50.

On the way back from the bar, we stopped to look at metal sculptures I'd never really noticed before; so sleekly do they fit into the walkway leading from the Dan to the sea. Together they make up the Aliya Bet Memorial Gardens, a beautiful tribute to the second wave of homecoming diaspora Jews mythologised in my favourite film, Exodus.

In Israel, public art means something and is as beautiful and useful as the graceful wooden gazebos scattered along the silken white sand from the Old Port to Jaffa which allow bathers to retreat from the shimmering heat.

And in Tel Aviv the attitude is live and let live. In the restaurants where you can smoke and take dogs, or the rooftop pool at the Dan where Rihanna recently lounged and where the toddler's pool, now free of tots, plays host to an Orthodox lady, fully clothed, sitting in the water and sharing a cheeky fag with a bikini'd girl, you often feel you must be in the most tolerant city in the world.

"Tel Aviv for playing, Jerusalem for praying", goes the line, and pulling up at the Dan Panorama, where the excited Christian tour groups are gathering, you know you are in a place like no other. I don't know Jerusalem like I know Eilat, and I doubt that I could live there, but a trip to Israel which doesn't include it feels hollow. It is simply the most sorrowful and splendid place on earth.

After a brilliant early dinner at the kosher restaurant Olive & Fish - the hospitable manager and his bottle of arak made us linger longer than was wise - and an early night, we were raring to go next morning, to see this amazing place of which the Talmud said: "Ten measures of beauty descended on the world - nine were taken by Jerusalem, one by the rest of the world."

I've done the Jerusalem walking tour before, so we jumped on to Bus 99, the red double-decker which shows the stunned tourist everything, from the view of the Old City and the Temple Mount from Mount Scopus in the north, to the Judean desert in the south.

You can alight and disembark at any of the 28 stops, but we sat tight for the full two hours and stared out of the window in wonder, crying discreetly at the songs about Jerusalem which punctuated the tourist narrative on our headphones. Next day we flew home and much as I love TA and Eilat, it's always Jerusalem which is my most searing memory of this small, magnificent land.

Last updated: 11:02am, January 6 2011