Alright, folks: Night 2 is where our honeymoon adventure in Tel Aviv really kicked off, so the next couple Travel Diary entries will be monsters. Grab yourselves a glass of wine, and strap in!
Last we left off on our second evening, we were headed back out into Tel Aviv after a bit of a nap. We retraced our steps to find a couple more second-hand bookstores we’d passed earlier in the day. The first two were a bit of a bust (one stocked only books written in Russian, for instance), so we stopped at a bar – Port Said – to fortify ourselves with a drink and a snack. This was our first opportunity to try our luck with a couple of local beverages: an Almond Arak and a Spritz Said. (Now, Arak is a whole other thing, one with which you should definitely be familiar before venturing into Israel – see my guide to drinking in the Holy Land here.)
The menu was amazing, with some excellent Hebrew-to-English translations. “Small food next to the alcohol” should be written in Sharpie on my fridge door back home.
We selected baked potato with crème fraîche, chicken liver cooked in butter with tahini, and the curiously named “sweet potato that you eat with your hands”. The latter was definitely the most fun to eat, all of those childhood mealtime etiquette lessons be damned!
Once fed and watered, we bypassed all other options to head straight to the Little Prince Bookstore/Café/Bar. I’m not even kidding: only our second day in the Promised Land and this was pretty much the equivalent of finding the Holy Grail for us. The bartenders were heavy on every pour, we could caffeinate as required, and we picked up a perfectly preserved secondhand copy of The Complete Works of Oscar Wild in English for 50NIS. Lord love a duck, they’re lucky we didn’t move in.
When we finally managed to drag ourselves away, we decided to make one more pit stop en route back to the hotel. Café Berlin is renowned for their cheap, delicious drinks (we actually found the place by Googling “cheap drinks in Tel Aviv” – you can take the Aussie millennial out of the inner West, but…). Indeed, Café Berlin’s entire cocktail menu was 2-for-1 from midday until 10:30PM. If the Little Prince was to be our new home, this would definitely be our weekender.
We sat out the front for quite some time, watching the staff stand around talking to each other and smoking cigarettes, seemingly determined to serve actual customers as little as possible. (I’ve mentioned traditional Israeli customer service before, and you can read our full account of their idiosyncratic ethos here.) When we tore our eyes away from that spectacle for just a moment, we witnessed a young woman carrying a large pizza prevent a child from running out into the street using only one foot; the 2-for-1 cocktails must have been doing the job, because we laughed for about 15 minutes.
It will not surprise you to learn, then, that we were a little stumbly as we made our way back to the hotel, and upon arriving we promptly passed out. Glorious!
The next morning, Day 3, we were feeling a little sore, so we marched ourselves back to Benedicts for another phenomenal breakfast. This time, we tried the traditional shakshuka (kinda-baked-kinda-poached eggs in chunky sauce), and a bunless brunch burger (GF option), and both came – once again – with a squillion condiments and sides. The brunch burger was slightly underdone (it erred on the very-rare side of “medium”), but we felt much better afterwards regardless!
We needed another little nap after that, before we could crack on with our day. You see, we had identified over brunch a significant hiccup in our plans for transit to the Dead Sea, which would require a slight change in plans for the day – and we’d need to have our wits about us.
We had booked two nights’ accommodation at Ein Gedi (the Dead Sea) for the coming weekend, and had nonchalantly planned to simply catch a bus when the time came to depart on Saturday morning. As it turns out, there are zero mass transit options on a Saturday, anywhere in Israel – it’s their bloody Shabbat! Once again, the ignorant Aussie tourists had proven themselves to be right nongs. Our options, according to the always-friendly and very-patient hotel manager at the Diaghilev, were to catch a cab (with a fare running in the vicinity of $250AUD each way)… or hire a car. The husband did a quick spot of Googling, and – believe it or not – the latter turned out to be the far more economical option (about $170AUD to rent the car for the duration of the entire Dead Sea sojourn, even factoring in GPS hire, fuel, and other incidentals).
Problem solved, right? Wrong! It was Thursday morning when we nursed our hangovers with a Benedicts brunch, and we had an all-day pre-booked tour of Jerusalem on Friday (departing 7:15AM). Our only opportunity to secure a hire car before the whole bloody country shut down for their day of rest would be that afternoon (Thursday). Right!
We switched gears accordingly. A few keystrokes later (seriously, check out rentalcars.com – they saved our arses) we had booked a car to pick up that afternoon. Then, as originally planned, we ventured back out around 11AM, back through Shuk Ha’Carmel to pick up some food for a picnic lunch. Once again, we were definitely ripped off by the merchants, but it was worth it for the amazing selection of Israeli olives, grapes, cold cuts, hummus, and three different types of cheese. This (getting ripped off and consoling ourselves with reassurances that it was worth it) was a pattern that emerged early and stuck with us the entire trip.
We walked down along the coastline into Old Jaffa – the oldest part of Tel Aviv.
We strolled along the Wishing Bridge (making our wishes at our respective zodiac sign stations, as per the tradition, of course), and found a nice shady spot on the grass for our very grown-up Mediterranean picnic. This lovely old dog snuck away from his owner to bring us an empty water bottle and sniff around for any bits that we’d dropped.
We poked around the square a bit more, and treated ourselves to a gelato…
… but then it was time to get down to business!
Rowan had carefully mapped out a route to get us to the airport via public transport, where we could rent a car and drive it back to the hotel (no amount of Googling could find us a car rental office in the city, so we figured we’d just go with it). The first leg – walking to the bus stop from Old Jaffa – went fine, but it all turned a bit pear shaped from there. The bus took foreverrrrr to arrive. I’m not ashamed to say: I was panicked. I swung my phone around wildly, trying to connect to the dodgiest wifi in the Middle East so I could download a copy of the timetable. My husband (the prick) remained cool as the proverbial cucumber, and sure enough – on my eighth attempt to re-load the website – the bus arrived.
The bus itself was fine: we didn’t have any trouble getting a ticket (we can’t speak Hebrew but our larrikin-tourist sign language is top-notch), and we weren’t travelling for very long… but we were dropped in what I can only assume is one of the circles of Hell. The throng that we had no choice but to join was made up of exclusively sketchy types, including one charming woman – clearly having a Very Bad Day – taking an alarmingly long hit off her homemade bong in the middle of the street. I told Rowan to watch his pockets, and clutched my bag close to my person, as we hurried on.
We found the train station, and (would you believe it) walked straight into a pack of soccer hooligans. There must have been a game on. The security was like nothing you’ve ever seen – dozens of IDF soldiers manually checking every bag, rifles slung across their shoulders and mouths set in steely resolve. We got through the scans and metal detectors, jostled on every side by men in football jerseys and scarves shouting non-stop at one another in some motley combination of Hebrew and Arabic. We joined the queue for tickets (though I say “queue” in the absolute loosest sense, the place was a fucking zoo). None of this boded well.
We somehow made it to what appeared to be the front (politely allowing dozens of angry teenaged boys barge their way in front of us, around us, behind us, under us…), and procured our tickets from the very unfazed young girl manning the desk. We dutifully navigated our way to the assigned platform, where we found yet more hooligans, hooliganing all over the joint, watched over by yet more soliders with big guns. Two minutes before our train was due to depart, the previous train still hadn’t left the station, and Rowan realised that the platform for ours had changed.
We hastened to the next platform, me gripping his hand for dear bloody life, and this time we ran straight into a different type of crowd. This one was ready to fucking riot. The train was there, sure enough, ready to depart with ample space for additional passengers to come on board (from what we could see through the windows, anyway)… but some prick with an earpiece and a God complex only let about five people climb on before summarily shutting the doors.
An Israeli guy crammed into the sardine-tin crowd just near us was having fucking None. Of. It. He was shouting and banging on the train door for a few minutes without pausing for breath. Then he whipped out his phone and filming Mr God Complex through the glass. That footage definitely made its way to the Israeli Today Tonight. The guy was pissed.
(And no, I have no photos or videos of any of this. Unlike Mr Israeli Public Transit Vigilante, I was hesitant to start snapping away in the middle of the angry mosh pit, under the watchful eyes of the men with the big guns. I decided to simply focus on making it out of there alive.)
We sensed that this crowd, under the lead of Mr Israeli Public Transit Vigilante, was about to erupt, so we bid another hasty retreat. There were about a billion announcements blaring from speakers in all directions, but they were all in Hebrew, so about as useful to us as tits on a bull. After a few minutes of scampering back and forth, we blessedly overheard one guy tell another guy in English that the next train to the airport was departing from Platform 3. We ran for it, and got there by the skin of our teeth.
We high-fived, once on board, thinking that we’d made it! Indeed, the train pulled out and it didn’t take long to get to the airport… but the adventure wasn’t over.
Upon arriving, we somehow managed to make our way to the car detailers’ office, instead of the service desk, and we found ourselves once again the recipients of some traditional Israeli customer service. We actually overheard another lost soul ask one of the detailers how to find her car bay, and the detailer helpfully suggested that she “go outside and look”. You can’t make this shit up, folks!
When we found the actual desks, it was another fucking zoo (as if we hadn’t had enough of that for one day). There were easily 100 people lined up at some of the outlets, all hot and cranky and tired from long-haul flights (like they could be anywhere near as harrowing as what we just went through). Thankfully, rentalcars.com had secured a car through Thrifty – by some divine providence, the only desk without a queue. We could have cried with relief by this point.
What’s more, the girl we dealt with actually gave us the best customer service we experienced in Israel (in that she smiled a bit and actually asked us a couple of questions). You know what, even by Australian standards, my hat goes off to her. We also scored our first honeymooner upgrade! Ding ding ding!
But don’t get too excited, more disasters would follow…
As we paid up, she stopped and glanced at us apologetically. My Visa card was declined. We’d booked and pre-paid the car online before we got there, but we couldn’t process the deposit for the GPS (which promised to provide us not only with direction through the clusterfuck maze of Israeli roads, but also free unlimited wifi for as long as we had it). She’d tried twice. I was on the verge of throwing a full-blown tanty, but my husband gently reminded me that he had his own card on his person. We had to log in to our internet banking using the (unsecured) airport wifi to shuffle the honeymoon funds around, which wasn’t ideal, but at least it worked.
After a bit more paper shuffling, and calling in the IT guy to replace the first GPS tablet she gave us (faulty, of course), we finally got a set of keys and we were off to the bloody races. The interaction had taken us about 40 minutes at the desk all up, but we still didn’t have it as bad as some folks. We overheard the guy in line behind us say that he had waited in line at Budget for over an hour, only to get to the desk and realise that his booking was with Thrifty. Poor bastard.
Anyway, even then, it took us a while to find the car. The signs on the sign-posts indicated very different numbers to the ones spray painted on the ground. It turns out, we should have followed the signs for Bays 13-20 to find our car parked in Bay 51 – silly us! Once we were finally, finally in, I quickly determined that Rowan and only Rowan should take the wheel. Israelis drive on the right, and I’m a nervous driver at the best of times; this didn’t seem like the time to learn how to do everything the other way around. This bloody wonderful husband of mine managed it like a pro, navigating the insane Israeli traffic and winding highways with just the GPS tablet to guide him.
(In all seriousness, that GPS was worth a hundred times what we paid per day to have it. The roads in Israel are a lot like Sydney’s, except back-to-font, apparently designed by a misanthrope who believes that cars will spell certain doom for all… plus, they’re populated by some of the worst drivers in the world.)
One final incident: figuring out how to get into the hotel’s garage. There were no buttons or buzzers, just a single sign in Hebrew on the doors. No amount of asking the doors nicely would make them open. I had Rowan park illegally with his hazards on, and rushed inside to beg for help… only the concierge was nowhere to be seen. When he finally moseyed on out and I hurried to explain, he was all “Oh, yeah! I saw that guy out there with the lights blinking!” (HMPH!). He pressed his magic button behind the desk and explained that we’d have to go through this charade every time we wanted to get in (given that we didn’t have an Israeli phone to call ahead, it was literally the only way).
So, by this point, we’re completely wiped. All we could manage was a quiet night in with leftover picnic lunch and a hot bath. (The baths at this hotel were freaking Ah.Maz.Ing., not to mention the genuine Dead Sea bath salts available all complimentary-like). The whole thing seemed pretty bloody funny in retrospect. It’s incredible what a sit-down and a belly full of food will do for your perspective. We were asleep before our heads hit the pillows, dreaming of the next day in Jerusalem…