Jaffa, Israel: A Time Machine on the Outskirts of Tel Aviv
It Feels Like a Movie Location!
If you fly in to Israel, you will almost definitely start your trip by landing at the airport in Tel Aviv. It's where our journey began a few years ago. Tel Aviv is Israel's modern metropolis (a big contrast with the ancient quality of the rest of the country) located almost exactly halfway up the western shore of the country on the Mediterranean ocean. It grew up out of Jaffa (just south of the city) starting in 1909 as little more than a neighborhood, consisting of sixty Jewish families and eventually becoming the sprawling sight you see today. There are many wonderful accommodations, great restaurants, vibrant nightlife, and all of the other modern elements you'd expect from a big city. However, the focus of this article is on where Tel Aviv found its beginnings. In the much, much, older city of Jaffa. Which lies on a small peninsula just south of Tel Aviv. And if your main purpose in the Holy Land is Biblical in nature (as, I would say, most visits are) with the intention of visiting the big, popular, obligatory sights, such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Capernaum, and the like, you'll definitely want to add Jaffa to that list! You'll find out why in a moment.
Admittedly, we had never intended to visit the ancient city of Jaffa (also known as Japho, Joppa, and Yafo). We had booked a tour to Capernaum and Galilee that left from our hotel the next morning and then we'd be traveling down to Jerusalem the following day for the remainder of the trip. We had booked a room in downtown Tel Aviv and had some time before bed. It was evening but we still had some daylight left so we decided to get out and absorb some culture. Since it was dinner time, we also wanted to locate a restaurant. The hotel was only a couple blocks from the beach so we headed in that direction. We made it to the shore where we discovered a nice, broad, paved thoroughfare that ran along the ocean. We could clearly see Jaffa to the south as it jutted prominently out in to the ocean. It looked ancient, even from a distance. The area contained scattered palm trees and plenty of benches with people biking and roller blading past us as we walked. It almost felt like a stroll along a beach in California! We made our way south to Jaffa, which, I would say, took about a good twenty minutes to a half hour to reach from our hotel. It probably could have been reached much faster had we not been taking our time, enjoying the beauty of the amazing Mediterranean sunset! But, no matter what time of day you're there, you WILL regret not having a camera if you forget to take one! Thankfully, you'll probably have your smartphone.
We eventually made it to Jaffa, ascending a narrow, paved road in to the city. It would be only one of many old places we would encounter in Israel, but, it was our first so far and my initial reaction to Jaffa was one of being transported back in time. We were greeted by a network of alleyways and stone arches and staircases. The streets were lined with wrought iron shop signs that jutted out and torch style lights that dimly illuminated the pathways. So many adjectives could describe it...old, charming, unreal, quaint, intimate. The best way I can describe it is that it felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie or on the set of an epic Biblical film!
Jaffa was Israel's principle seaport for thousands of years. It's actually one of the oldest seaports in the entire world! Called Joppa in the Bible, it was where materials for both Jerusalem temples (Solomon's and Herod's) were unloaded. It was where Jonah embarked on his journey that eventually led to him being swallowed by a huge fish and spit out after three days. Jaffa was also where the apostle Peter fell asleep on Simon the Tanner's house and had his famous dream where the sheet was let down, containing four legged animals, and a voice telling him to get up and eat. Peter also raised Dorcus from the dead in Joppa. To me, no Biblical trip to Israel can be called complete without a visit to this ancient seaside town!
Another aspect of Jaffa you almost immediately discover is that it's a thriving artistic community. You'll find many little shops run by local artisans selling their creations. You'll also see smatterings of a modern, creative spirit here and there in the forms of sculptures, paintings, and fountains. Like the interesting one we found in the courtyard in front of our restaurant (see photo).
It was almost dark at this point and our main focus was finding a restaurant. We were practically alone in Jaffa because it was late in the day and also we were there in the month of March and the throngs of tourists hadn't arrived yet. It's actually a great time to visit. Not only because of the lack of crowds but also because Israel can become extremely hot as it approaches summer and certainly in the summer itself. And with as much walking as you'll be doing (LOTS OF IT!) you will want to take that seriously in to consideration! Back to dinner...we spotted a couple of places that looked interesting but decided to wander a bit further. We eventually happened upon a charming looking place, called Kalamata, situated inside one of the old, stone buildings, atop a long stone staircase. To add to this charm, it was located in a beautiful courtyard with the interesting, aforementioned fountain in front. It was a great meal and an excellent introduction to the local cuisine. It would also be the first of many similar side dishes we'd experience that seem traditional to the Mediterranean region. In most of the nicer, table service establishments we ate at, it was customary to bring a dish of several different kinds of olives (VERY common there) and also a bowl of a finely minced tomato, onion, and green herb sort of a dish. An American (like me) would probably think it's some sort of condiment for the top of hot dogs. I just viewed it as the middle eastern version of our American, pre-meal salad. Which, by the way, leads me to another important point. If you love your salads, with the big leaves of lettuce, huge chunks of tomato, shredded carrots, hard boiled eggs, and croutons, you may just have to go without. Although many places in Israel may make exceptions if requested (if they have the ingredients), it didn't appear to me in almost two weeks there, that our American version of "salad" was all that common. Another habit that Americans have to break when they're in Israel (as well as many other foreign countries) is the concept of drink refills. Almost everywhere you go in Israel, you will notice that drinks are generally smaller, if served in bottles especially (the Coke bottles were tiny) and there are usually no refills. You pay for each drink.
After a great dinner, we strolled some more, looking in shop windows and making our way to the boat docks. We also stumbed upon Simon the Tanner's house from the Biblical Book of Acts! It was late though and time to head back to the hotel to try and sleep off the jet lag. It was going to be a bit of a walk back. After a quick stop on the beach below Jaffa, where I imagined ancient ships coming and going so many millenia before, we left that ancient port town. Ready for the next adventure.
I hope you add Jaffa to your Israel itinerary. It's easily accessible and navigable by foot with plenty of eating and shopping possibilities and a great introduction to all of the ancient treasures of Israel. It also feels safe. As you will also find, Jaffa, unlike many other sights you will visit, Jaffa is in tact! It's an actual, working, ancient town! Not a pile of ruins where you're left to imagine it's long ago appearance.