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Lucire: Volante
israel



Haifa’s Baha’i temple A meeting of cultures

City of hopeful

Haifa could very well be Israel's answer to Utopia, with its blend of coexistence, culture, cuisine and ambiance
by Elyse Glickman

 

While most local tour guides will lead visitors around their city with a great deal of affection and good humor, Haifa guide David Brown and the management of the historic Colony Hotel in the old Templar-established German Colony are downright proud of their hometown, and for good reason. Though Haifa is a port city and a popular weekend getaway destination for people living in Tel Aviv, it is equal parts a city of the future as it is of history.

The Colony Hotel, delightfully balancing old and new, is a perfect starting-point and base either for a Haifa city break or an extended stay in Israel’s north (which may cover the Golan Heights and Galilee). Though the building is 103 years old and has the look and feel of an upper-class private home, it features modern amenities, elegant-but-comfy rooms and a prolific breakfast spread with foodstuffs sourced from the local markets.

The Colony Hotel’s manager and staff also treat you like a returning friend, and will candidly steer you to their personal favourite places to eat, drink and shop. This decided home-away-from-home is at the centre of the German Colony, which itself benefited from a gentrification renaissance in the ’80s and ’90s and is now peppered with colourful bars, cafés and a mall featuring outlet stores with discounts on several popular Israeli clothing brands, as well as shops selling travel essentials such as SIM card for your cellphone.

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On my first night in town, Brown arrives a good 30 minutes before our appointed time so he can show me why Carmel Centre is a must-do hub of entertainment for somebody new to the city. Granted, the neighbourhood was more alive than usual given that it happened to be Purim (best explained to non-Jews as a festive answer to Hallowe’en), but Brown still emphasized that the neighbourhood was bustling almost as much on any weekend or holiday night. In addition to diners and revellers, there was also a small but wonderful local craft fair, interesting boutique storefronts and an impressive array of street food.

Though my guide coyly tries engage me in a quick sandwich food purchase with some of the vendors and with popular carry-out sandwich place Zesty (which has a particularly enormous line of people), he ultimately has something better in mind, knowing I am a foodie. He takes me past Zesty into a courtyard that gives way to a festive, aromatic restaurant simply named Meat. He reveals that Zesty is the fast food extension of that dining establishment.

Despite its straightforward name, Meat is a hidden gem—sophisticated and savvy, even though it doesn’t quite fit the fine dining, bistro or casual dining categories. All the steak dishes, big enough to share, arrive artfully arranged on sizzling plates. A filet mignon flanked bacon, cheese and green beans is smoked for five hours in a special smoke chamber and then oven-roasted for twelve, giving it a decadent butter texture.

The predominantly Israeli wine selection is also impressive, and the owners (Ron Galanti and Tzahi Yarhi) are also intent on helping you choose the perfect match for the specific steak or fish dish you order. You don’t just order a cabernet. Ron insists upon something sublime like Odem Mountain’s Cabernet 2009 Reserve, aged for 24 months and a 2012 winner of the Terra Vino world wine competition. The salads and sides, meanwhile, reflect that the owners not only have a good handle on the global “farm-to-table” restaurant trend, but also a very unusual spin on it.

The next morning, Brown starts off the day with a quick tour around the German Colony quarter, telling fascinating stories behind various landmark buildings as well as eccentric historic figures such as 19th century author, mystic and diplomat Lawrence Oliphant, who hired Naftali Herz Imber (best known as the author of the ‘Hatikvah’ lyrics) as his secretary. There is also a stop at the the Haifa City Museum, built in a former Templar school, which was hosting an Indian and Arab Cinema film festival, as well as Just Meat, another high-concept un-steakhouse staged in the space of a former French restaurant inside a building dating to 1872.

A vibrant 300 m stretch leads to the foot of the hill where UNESCO heritage site-certified Baha’i Gardens stands as a living testament to the success of multiculturalism and tolerance here. Brown smiles broadly when he talks about how everyday life in Haifa defies any preconceptions people may have about Israel in general, and in the most cheerful, life-affirming ways. While there are three distinct quarters for Jews, Christians and Muslims, the borders blur and people mix freely at area markets. The presence of Haifa University and a business quarter housing outposts of some of the world’s largest high-tech companies make it as much of a world future city as it does a world heritage spot.

Once I had my historical bearings, we drive to the pinnacle of the hill that is home to the Baha’i Temple to wander its gardens and the interiors open to the public. Even with the awe-inspiring spread and panoramic views, Brown insists you cannot really grasp Haifa’s whole-hearted embrace of coexistence unless you see the rest of the city in its proper context.

The next stops are to Dado Beach and Meridian Beach to view rare plant life specimens and engage in prime people-watching, and a pass by Haifa University and Technion—Israel Institute of Technology.

After more scenic strolls through some of Haifa’s more affluent hillside neighbourhoods, we spend time at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art at the crest of Mt Carmel. The impressive collection of 7,000-plus Japanese treasures was brought into Israel by Felix Tikotin, an architect and art dealer in 1956. The collection was later housed in a full-blown museum opened in 1960. Tikotin’s dream, right in line with Haifa’s raison d’être, was that this collection would serve as a means to broaden the Israelis’ knowledge about Japan. For a longer visit, Brown recommended a visit to its sister museum, the Haifa Museum of Art, which houses a vivid permanent collection of contemporary painting, sculpture, and prints by Israeli and foreign artists.

In the interests of broadening my knowledge about multiculturalism in everyday life, Brown takes me to the Old Quarter of Haifa (which ironically begins where the old clock tower stands, in the shadow of the modern landmark government Sail Building). While he regrets some of his favourite Ashkenazi restaurants are only open for dinner, we enjoy an enormous lunch at Arab lunch-spot Allenby, named for a British general who operated in Haifa in 1918 and known for its version of the Egyptian dish ful (olive oil, chopped parsley, onion, garlic, and lemon juice).

Though full from ful, we manage to sample wonderful pastries, falafel and fruits sold at the Arab Market in Wadi Nisnas in the Arab and Christian quarter. Seemingly random murals, metal sculptures and mosaic tile walls punctuate the area visually, while cardamom and cumin bring an aromatic sensibility to the place. Perhaps not surprisingly, it provides the backdrop for an annual festival where the residents celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas and Ramadan, and each other’s imprint on the city.

As I have to be on an 8 a.m. bus for Jerusalem the next morning, Brown advises I enjoy my dwellings at the Colony Hotel, watch the sunset on the hotel’s roof while eating the leftover falafel and desserts from Wadi Nisnas, and then return to my room to watch diverse residents bring the city to life in a big way, as it does almost nightly in the German Colony. •

 

For more information on Haifa, visit www.tour-haifa.co.il/eng/. To contact guide David Brown, call 972 52 225-1736.

 



 

Brown smiles broadly when he talks about how everyday life in Haifa defies any preconceptions people may have about Israel in general, and in the most cheerful, life-affirming ways. While there are three distinct quarters for Jews, Christians and Muslims, the borders blur and people mix freely at area markets

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.

 

 

 

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