Old-World Charm In The New Jaffa
Tue, 02/07/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
The Jaffa clocktower.
The Jaffa clocktower.

It used to be the place you simply arrived at if you walked too far along the Tel Aviv city coastline. But now, after vigorous renovations that have taken the best part of five years to complete, the ancient port of Jaffa has been renewed and transformed into a bustling tourist site that is well worth a visit in its own right.

Cleaned up and more accessible than ever, Jaffa boasts a wide variety of religious, artistic, historical and natural wonders, most of them hidden in its narrow cobblestone alleyways. And its fascinating mix of residents demonstrates that coexistence between the world’s three major religions is not just a crazy dream.

My recent visit to Jaffa begins at the seam line where South Tel Aviv ends and Jaffa begins. Even though the two are linked by one municipal authority, Jaffa’s old-world charm is a startling contrast to Tel Aviv’s avant-garde hipness.

At the geographical point where these two distinct worlds meet, signs of the recent renovation work are clear. A wooden deck juts out from the seaside boardwalk, overlooking the sparkling blue Mediterranean Sea. To the north is the magnificent cove of Tel Aviv’s coastline, and to the south are the breathtaking Arabesque buildings, minarets and church spires of Jaffa.

Stairs lead directly down to one of the newly spruced-up beaches, but I was there on a blustery day, so soaking up the sun during my visit was not an option. A stroll along the wide walkway, however, with views of the sea on one side and the patchwork of old-world buildings on the other, was wonderful.

Of course, the charming picture would not have been complete without a scattering of Jaffa fisherman standing patiently on the rocks trying for a fresh catch.

Approaching the marina, several newly opened cafés serving hot wine or Sachlav (a thick Arab yogurt drink), which is welcome insulation against the cool breeze blowing up from the sea. Tables and chairs on the boardwalk face the sea, and I am sure they have their appeal in warmer weather.

A little further along, in one of the revamped storage houses, is the wonderful and unique Nalagat Theater. Originally established to help provide jobs for people who are hearing and sight impaired, Nalagat has made a name for itself worldwide as one of the few theater groups run by blind and deaf actors. Even if you don’t take in a show, step inside to sample food at either the Kapish café or the Blackout restaurant. Both are managed and run by people with disabilities.

While the port is entrancing, be sure to venture beyond the apartment buildings that border the sea to find an enchanting maze of narrow alleyways. Each turn presents a hidden art gallery or souvenir shop of some kind, and the passageways will eventually lead you out to Jaffa’s central square, next to the Hapisga Gardens.

On warm days, with their stunning views of the Tel Aviv skyline, the sea and the coastal towns to the south, the gardens are the perfect spot to picnic. Deep inside the the gardens is the mystical Wishing Bridge, which, ancient tradition holds, will grant the wish of anyone who crosses it, touches his zodiac sign (the streets in Jaffa are all named for one of the Horoscope signs), and looks out to sea.

One site that I also recommend is the hanging orange tree. Cleverly suspended by wire from the corners of surrounding buildings, the orange tree symbolizes the sweet citrus fruit that once grew in orchards around Jaffa and made this small historic town famous throughout the world.

It is advisable to pay a quick visit to the Old Jaffa Visitors Center, located in the central square between Hapisga Gardens and the port. For a small fee, visitors can experience the Jaffa Tales museum, which tells a multi-sensory story of Jaffa’s historic past and its role in modern day Israel. Included in the price is a personal audio tour that visitors can take around the town; it points out all the historic and religious sites that Jaffa has to offer.

One British tourist, who gave her name only as Tamar, was taking the audio tour on the day that I visited. In Israel for 10 days, she said she had not originally planned to visit Jaffa, but on this day she was glad that she had taken the time to visit the city.

“I did not realize there was so much to see in Jaffa,” she said, adding, “Its beauty is overwhelming.”

Outside of the galleries and historic sites, Jaffa also has some of the best eateries on this side of the Mediterranean. Offering a mix of traditional Arabic foods such as kebab, humus and falafel, to fancy French cuisine and even standard Israeli cafés, Jaffa is a good option even for a nighttime meal.

It is also worth mentioning that, alongside the various restaurants and café’s, Jaffa is known locally for the famous Abuelafea bakery. Open since 1879, the bread shop, which provides cakes as well as rolls and other delights, takes up several store fronts along the main Yefet Street and is a local landmark.

Abulafea, like many other local stores and restaurants, is owned and run by members of the local Arab-Israeli population. While they are proud of their city’s support of peaceful coexistence,  lately they have complained of feeling threatened by the ongoing process of gentrification and renovation, which has pushed up the price of property and appeals to a more affluent population.

No visit to this historic town would be complete without a stroll though the “shuk hapish pishim” or flea market. Old coins, stamps, furniture and other collectibles can be found there. Like the streets that surround the market, its wares are an enticing mix of old and new.