Shit, there’s one of my students,” says Roee, pronounced Roy, wearing the smallest Speedos shekels can buy, stomach you can bounce pennies off, hand locked inside his boyfriend’s, the other somewhere around mine, Marlboro Light hanging out of his mouth like he just stepped out of a cliché.
“He can’t see me smoking this cigarette, can he?!”
It’s the thick of Tel Aviv Pride and what looks – and feels, real good – like the whole city has plonked itself on Gordon Beach, which isn’t the gay one, but is the gayest beach on earth one Friday each June. It’s where the march – political and fun – ends, with the kind of crowds senior royal wedding balcony displays attract. Everyone’s off their toned tits on something or other, the sky’s that colour blue you see in brochures, and the music’s far too loud for sober people. It’s the best party you’ve ever been to.
And on a scale of one to gay, it’s Liza getting bummed in Halston on poppers during that scene in SATC/Movie/2 while Valley of the Dolls plays in the background. Which is really gay. And the thing Roy is most concerned about is one of his students seeing him smoking.
“I’m a role model,” he says, readjusting his penis.
Which is why we heart Tel Aviv so much we could burst. And don’t anyone come out of a bag on us right now about the nuanced political situation in Israel, because it really isn’t that straightforward. And besides, this is a travel piece, not The Andrew Marr Show. And another besides; Tel Aviv is among the friendliest, happiest, most liberal places we’ve ever been. And ANOTHER besides; when you have a bubble of tolerance – and we’re talking hardcore Jews in all the garb not giving a rat’s arse when you walk past them holding hands in a common-or-straight downtown high street – among the sea of horror that is the rest of the Middle East, and much of the rest of Israel, then it would be churlish to pick that particular nit.
It’s a bit tatty round the edges, sure. For a city that just over a century ago was nothing but sandy knolls it’s got a wizened feel to it, almost rushed in parts like they couldn’t build it quick enough. But it’s also fit to bursting with some of the world’s finest examples of Bauhaus architecture, thanks to the immigrant Germans running away from the Nazis in the 30s and 40s. One thousand and odd modernist gems glistening under that almost-constant sun, enough to give the city UNESCO World Heritage status and the nickname ‘The White City’. Down on Sderot Rothschild is where you’ll find a walkable glut of them; time it with sunset and you may as well stick around for the buzzy café/bar scene.
And before Tel Aviv there was Jaffa, the ancient walled city now swallowed by its bigger neighbour and serving as its must-go-to historical theme park. It even gets a cameo in the Bible, but more importantly it’s where Clash of the Titans is set. If you like that, there’s also a crazy-ass flea market; if you like food, you could eat out for weeks without going to the same place twice and still being impressed; for something kooky, Dr Shakshuka (Eshel 3) has pots and pans hanging from the ceiling like an eccentric old fool and the Libyan-Moroccan food is bountiful and darn good; for seafood, try Kalimera, right in the port, if you can get a table. For cool, get back to Tel Aviv.
The gastro scene here is off the scale. Even if Tel Aviv wasn’t aiming international with its restaurants, the food would still be phenomenal – we’re talking the best of the best Mediterranean diet Dr Christian tells us to eat, with a kick courtesy of Arabic neighbours; combine a concerted effort to appeal to the most urbane demographic in the country, plus that wily nod to the right sort of tourism – gays, basically, plus friends of – and you’ve got some of the loveliest, hottest, happening-ist restaurants outside of your NYLON-type cities. Like Orca (Nahalat Binyamin 57), and the never-knowingly-not-rammed brasserie in the beautiful Montefiore Hotel, and this wonderful Spanish restaurant called Tapas 1 (Ha’am 27) where the waitress joined us, bottle of vodka in hand. Oh, and the one everyone’s trying to get into, Taizu, strangely located in the very corporate Levinstein Tower over on Begin Road.
But back to gay, not that it ever really went anywhere. In fact, gay is all around Tel Aviv. They even built a centre in its honour a few years back, a poignant statement partly in response to the senseless – in that the guy was crazy – murder of two young gay kids, which serves as a focal point for the myriad LGBT cultural happenings throughout the year. It has a rather lovely café, sits beside one of the city’s prettiest parks, Meir, and is a big old handshake from the city to its gays. We don’t remember seeing anything like that in other cities, let alone one with neighbours from hell.
While the scene swells during the summer months, increasingly with Brits and Americans, it has a sturdy presence all year round, with Evita at its axis. Ask someone’s gran where it is, and she’ll know. Nights continue at whatever’s fashionable and days while away down on the gay beach, Hilton – it’s in front of the Hilton Hotel, true story! It isn’t big, but you’ll see why people make a meal out of Tel Aviv men. National Service is so clever!
As we write, Tel Aviv has commissioned a monument to the gays executed during the Holocaust. We know what happened, but this is the hate that so often daren’t speak its name in this part of the world; there isn’t a single mention of gays in the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, for example. But this city sees things differently. It’s not going to be a monolith to gawp at, but a corner of Meir Park, a real part of the city, which says it all.
For further information about Israel, visit thinkisrael.com. El Al offer flights from London Luton to Tel Aviv from £360.40 per person or from London Heathrow to Tel Aviv from £390.95 per person, elal.uk. Hotel Metropolitan has rooms from £103 per night, hotelmetropolitan.co.il
Words Stephen Unwin