Sunday, 6 December 2015

Run-down charm of Jaffa - history and hipsters galore

It's Saturday morning and it can't be must past 7 am. Yet the cheerful chatter and heated debates from the street below makes it clear Jaffa is already wide awake. 

The vendors are opening their stores; somewhere someone is sweeping the remnants of the night before. Just a few of hours earlier these very streets were bubbling with music and life. Don't these people ever sleep? I'm tired- I've only landed a couple of hours before. The light clawing its way through the shutters is playing with the decorative tiles on the floor so gleefully I, too, surrender. New day is about to begin and I can't wait to be part of it. 

The last shreds of reluctance fall away on the steps leading up to the roof top terrace in my hostel, a 19th century townhouse. These are the last weeks of November we're living, but the sun is blinding. The thermometer registers almost 26c. The tiredness gives way to a broad smile. This is going to be a good day. 

Down below there's view over Old Jaffa, sea and Tel Aviv. Oh how many good days I'm going to have!

For lovers of run-down romantic Jaffa is a dream come true. Tel Aviv is only a couple of kilometres away, but feels like a different planet.

Jaffa has been inhabited since 7500 BC. It's mentioned in the Old Testament quite a few times as one of the cities given to the tribe of Dan. Owing to its seaside location it's been an important port for a long time and was used to import Lebanon's famous cedar wood (so legendary they portray it in their flag!)

In 636 it was conquered by the Arabs and has since then boasted a significant Arab population. 

The Arab-Jewish relations have not always been very warm here either and the tensions grew especially during the British Mandate from 1917 onwards, escalating in the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. Israel has been accused of trying to wipe out Jaffa's Arab history and since 1990 an effort has been made to for instance restore Arab landmarks.

After the First Crusade of 1100 the Crusaders took over. Battle for the ownership of the city continued between Arab ruler Saladin, Egyptian Mamluks and the Crusaders. In 14th century the city was actually destroyed out of fear for new Crusades. 

In 1515 Jaffa, much like rest of the region, fell into the hands of the Ottoman empire. The French (always the French...!) had their turn in 1799 with disastrous consequences for the locals. First there were Napoleon's killing spree, then there was the bubonic plague that arrived at their wake. 

Life stabilized in 19th century and the first decades saw the building of a synagogue and a hostel for the Jewish pilgrims on their way to their holy cities.

Back in 1170 there was one reportedly Jewish resident in Jaffa. The second half of 19th century saw the number go nearly 800. The Zionist migration at the dawn of the 2oth century the Jewish population grew significantly and some of them set off to build a Jewish neighbourhood north of Jaffa - the area which went on to become Tel Aviv.

Many Jews stayed in Jaffa though - already then the cost of living in Tel Aviv was way beyond their reach.

Same continues to be true. Jaffa has been known as a bohemian area, a popular among the younger generation and as such has attracted lots of creative, artistic types. The lively hipster culture hasn't gone unnoticed by the property developers and the gentrification of recent years has resulted in priced going through the roof, forcing many of the people who made the city what it was move out in a search for a more affordable housing.

Jaffa is still a delightful mix of dilapitated deliciousness, designer hotels, small boutiques in houses that have taken a fortune to restore and new ambitious developments that require such fortunes only the likes of Madonna can afford to even dream about them. Oh, and that hipster vibe.

During weekends the restaurants of the Promenade and the famous flea market area are full of trendy Tel Avivis getting together for brunch...

... the renovated hangars at the port house pop up galleries, cafes and alternative theatre companies...

... and the narrow alleyways of the former Consulars' Quarter are full of little artisan workshops.

Jaffa and all those maze-like streets close to the port are full of little gems offering glimpses into the intriguing history of the town. And off season you get to have them all to yourself - there isn't a selfie-obsessed Russian tourist in sight!

Every now and then you detect the scent of incense lingering in the air - a sign that tells you Jews and the Muslims aren't the only ones with a long presence in Jaffa. Traditionally this has been home to Orthodox Christians, but these days you're just as likely to bump into a Catholic school, Maronite church, Armenian monastery or a Lutheran service.

And another perk of seaside location is ... there's no shortage of fresh fish and seafood. 

You can either have fish and chips straight from the fishmongers...

...or treat yourself to a real seafood orgy, washed down with some local Riesling.

The Promenade is full of fish restaurants, where, as you're admiring the view from the terrace (and dreaming of having a boat of your own...!) the time flies by and before you know it, it's late afternoon with the sun's about to go down.

And hey - no harm in that. Those markets can always wait until another day!




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