After all that, we made it. We landed safe and sound in Tel Aviv, just two more among the 17,000,000+ international passengers that have passed through Ben Gurion Airport.
The second flight was looooong, and particularly dull: check out our “amazing” window seat view!
… and yet, it was still one of the best flights of my life. Why? Because the airline finally got my gluten-free meals sorted!
The air-hostess thought we had dead-set lost our minds when we literally fist-pumped in unison upon the meal’s delivery. I didn’t care. I have never devoured an in-flight meal with such joy and gratitude. Finally properly fed, I got to snooze for a bit while my husband watched boring action-hero movies on the in-flight entertainment system.
After landing, we made it through immigration and customs mostly without incident, save for our first experience of Traditional Israeli Customer Service (as we later came to call it). The official had absolutely no compunction about taking her time fixing her hair back in a scrunchie before acknowledging the existence of a holidaymaker in front of her. She was also steadfast in her refusal to smile (a central tenet of the customer service ethos: never look pleased to be serving someone), though I thought I may have detected a glimmer when I told her our reason for traveling was a honeymoon.
Our first real sticky moment came once we’d collected our bags; we quickly realised that “just hopping on a bus or a train” wasn’t going to be as simple as we’d anticipated… even with the combined powers of two paper maps, a bunch of signs in Hebrew, and our phones. The airport wi-fi was sketchy at best, and we
may have definitely banked a little too much on English being the lingua franca. We found signs that looked like they may have pointed to a bus stop, but we couldn’t actually see any busses. There was a timetable of some sort on the wall, but it could have been for busses or trains or the bloody planes that day, for all we knew. Long story short: we ended up getting definitely ripped off by “David”, one of the shonkiest cab drivers we have ever encountered.
David clearly sensed our desperation, and swooped in to save the day with his offer of safe passage by cab into Tel Aviv. He took a very strange and roundabout route (we panicked a bit when there were signs saying “Tel Aviv straight ahead” and he turned right – which happened more than once); he waved off our concerns with an explanation in heavily-accented English about traffic congestion. He chain-smoked the entire way, strong-armed us both into trying sips of his cold (and kinda murky?) coffee, and did not use his indicator once… but he was also really lovely, on the whole, and got us to the hotel in one piece, so we felt we had no choice but to fork over the fistful of cash he demanded. Important lesson number one: 250NIS (around $100 AUD) is far too much to pay for an airport transfer, and you should really sort something out ahead of time, lest you end up in the hands of David.
We checked in to The Diaghliev Live Art Boutique Hotel, where we received our first “mazel tov!” from the receptionist. The room wasn’t quite ready (not surprising, given that we’d arrived at sparrow fart, once again), so they kindly offered us a complimentary coffee while we waited. We managed to quickly establish ourselves as “those bloody Aussie tourists” in our attempts to order a long black – turns out, they’re called Americanos in that part of the world (important lesson number two).
We were pretty hungry by this point, so we left our bags with the front desk and ventured out to find something to eat. The Diaghliev is right off the famed Rothschild Boulevard, one of the central streets of the city of Tel Aviv, so that was where we wandered (a bit bleary eyed). The day seems to start pretty late in Tel Aviv – even though it was approaching 10AM, not a lot of restaurants or cafes seemed to be open for business. Still, as luck would have it, we found a place that was seating patrons (the Landwer Cafe), and even stated in English on the menu that there were gluten-free options available. What a win!
My ever-adventurous husband ordered a glorified sandwich, while I took advantage of the opportunity to sample a local delicacy – “shakshuka”, which is eggs kinda-baked-but-kinda-poached in a chunky sauce. This one was tomato-based with feta and eggplant, and it was amazing. By-the-by, it also came with one of the best gluten-free bread rolls I have ever tasted. Even the husband conceded that the texture was pretty damn close to the real thing.
Still, all the delicious food and cultural curiosity in the world wasn’t enough: the jet lag was really starting to clobber us. Our batteries were practically flat by the time we made it back to the hotel lobby, and the minute our room was ready we hit the sack. We slept for 14 hours straight!
A bit of a waste in one sense, perhaps, but we were so refreshed and rested upon wakening (at 4:30AM) that it felt well worth it. Plus, the beds at the Diaghliev were just so damn comfortable, it would have been a shame not to use them to their full potential.
Our observation from the previous morning held true once again on Day 2: Tel Aviv really doesn’t have many signs of life early in the morning. This is not good news for jet-lagged travellers fanging for another brunch before the sun’s up. Luckily, the Israeli Time Out in our hotel room had conveniently written-up a 24-hour breakfast spot just up the road called “Benedicts” – apparently, every Israeli has a Benedicts story, so it’s quite the institution. To be honest, you’d kind of expect a 24-hour institution to be a seedy refuge for drunks demanding plates of grease, but Benedicts was not so! It was fucking phenomenal – classic Eggs Benedict for the husband, classic Israeli breakfast for me (omelet with veggies and not-very-classic bacon), both with sides.
Ah, yes! The sides! Important lesson number three: every single meal in Israel comes with about a half dozen condiments, and some kind of chopped salad. Even breakfast. Pictured above: tahini, avocado-hummus, tuna-mayonnaise, and a salad of red onion, tomato, cucumber and capsicum. We swore immediately to serve all meals like this when we returned to Australia; Israelis just do it right.
Even though it was still early, we headed off in the direction of Carmel Markets (Shuk Ha’Carmel), which were supposed to open at 8AM – except that we were forced to detour almost immediately given the dawning realisation that neither of us had thought to use the bathroom before leaving Benedicts. Important lesson number four: public restrooms aren’t exactly common in downtown Tel Aviv (well, not ones that we could locate or identify, anyway), and this led us to hike halfway around the city and down the coast before finding one on the beach.
Once that was dealt with, we felt much better (unsurprising). We doubled back to check out an amazing secondhand bookstore we had passed in our search. It was a lot like Gould’s in Newtown, in that books covered every single surface and indeed seemed imperative to the structural integrity of the building, except that it was about one-sixteenth of the size and divided into Hebrew and English. I had a bit of a cackle when I realised that Hebrew books open on the other side (they read right to left) – seems obvious in retrospect, but it gave me quite a kick at the time regardless. We picked up a book each, and carried on our way.
We finally made it to the shuk, and in a way it was lucky that our bladders forced us to spend the morning traipsing around the city – the advertised 8AM opening time is more of a guide than a hard-and-fast rule, as things don’t really seem to kick off until about 11AM. In additional to the usual souvenirs and clothing and bric-a-brac, there were incredible stalls packed with cheese, meat, hummus, olives, and everything else you can imagine.
Coming out the other side, we found a little hole-in-the-wall where we could (already!) check off one of my must-do items for Israel: “falafel without gluten”!
See, traditionally falafel is made with chickpeas; however, mass-produced falafel (which is pretty much all that is available in Australia) has been “stretched out” with wheat flour, or – failing that – cooked in a fryer alongside other foods containing gluten (making the risk of cross-contamination astronomically high). So, I was bloody excited to finally get some falafel that wouldn’t make me ill, made by Middle Eastern hands in its homeland, no less!
It was freshly made before our very eyes, and it was delicious, and it was cheap. We were still pretty stuffed from our Benedicts breakfast, and we got so much more than we’d expected (given the price) we ended up taking the leftovers with us in a doggy bag for later.
From there, we wandered around for quite a while trying to find “Neve Tzedek” (the tourist district, apparently). We followed every single sign exactly as we should, and we found ourselves walking up and down a labyrinth of indistinguishable residential streets. So either the signs were a smidge inaccurate, or the Israelis have really misunderstood what tourists are looking for in Tel Aviv.
Still, we noticed some interesting things as we hoofed it:
- There are pride flags everywhere – Tel Aviv has to be one of the most LGBTIQ-inclusive cities I’ve ever visited
- Everyone has a dog. Literally, everyone. My back was starting to hurt from all the dogs I stooped to pat in the street.
- Those who aren’t walking a dog are either on a phone or riding a bicycle. The most likely scenario, however, is that they’re doing all three at once, and if you get in their way, they will run you down, no questions asked.
- Everywhere has vegan options. We actually saw more signs for vegan menus than for kosher ones.
- Tel Aviv is chockers full of hilarious street signs and graffiti. My favourites included a warning sign that said “DANGER OF DEATH!”, the very poignant “God is Homeless” spray-painted onto the side of a temple, and a poster that declared “Israel is for Sexy Lovers!”.
Tel Aviv is a lot like Newtown, really, if it was plonked into the middle of a Queensland summer and everyone only spoke Hebrew.
Circling back to the hotel, we stopped into a liquor store to ask after “sabra” – a choc-orange liqueur made in Israel that my mother had asked us to chase down. It was far more difficult to find than we had anticipated (and you’ll hear more about our search in subsequent travel diaries). I did have the presence of mind to ask the store owner how best to drink it, and his response was simply: “However you like!”. So that’s good to know…
And with that, we clomped back to our room for a bit of a rest and a regroup, before venturing back out to sample Tel Aviv’s famed cosmopolitan nightlife… For the hottest tips and insider advice on the Tel Aviv experience, be sure to check out this amazing guide from Lonely Planet!