Jerusalem is the kind of city where you want to walk everywhere in bare feet. There's no beach or boardwalk – nothing but Jerusalem stone, which is used to face every building, and often to pave floors, sidewalks and outdoor plazas. And when I spent my first summer in Israel, I really did slip off my sandals at every opportunity. The stones are big and square, smooth and warm and polished by time. I was just a typical university student, away from home and doing something that would make my mother cringe, but walking
everywhere with my shoes in my hand made me feel as free and wild as a travelling hippie.
Warm stone underfoot is not the only feeling I associate with Jerusalem. I loved the wind that would pick up out of nowhere and blow through the hot city at dusk, suddenly cooling the buses and crowded streets. The sounds were unforgettable, too – the rapid Hebrew, the Muslim call to prayer, even the odd silence on Saturdays when everything just stopped. You can't understand a place without knowing how it tastes, and Jerusalem was exotic that way as well. For a few shekels, my friends and I would go to a falafel joint downtown and load our pitas with fried chickpea balls, hummus, smoky eggplant, cabbage, pickles, lemony salad, tahini and hot sauce. We smelled like garlic all the time.
When my time in Jerusalem ended, I was sure that I'd be back soon – and often. Was I ever wrong. I got involved in school, then marriage, kids and work. Whenever it was time to choose a big destination, Israel was always too … too far, too expensive, too political, too dangerous. Exactly what drove me to get up and buy a ticket one dark Toronto morning was not so much a quest for religion as a search for a buried self.
And just like that, I was driving into Jerusalem on Route One, not knowing what to expect. I'd more than doubled my life experience since my last visit; how could anything about Jerusalem be the same?
At first, it wasn't. I walked into the Mamilla Hotel with the thrill of entering a sophisticated new space, rather than the comfort of rediscovering a familiar one. The attached outdoor mall, full of fancy international shops, seemed too slick. But as I walked under its graceful arches and felt the tumbled stones under my feet, I changed my mind. Maybe this was the real Jerusalem? Munching on a flaky spinach boureka from Roladin, I strolled happily, somehow managing to keep my shoes on.
To really get my bearings, I needed to walk. And so I walked – for the next five days. I started by entering the Old City at nearby Jaffa Gate, working my way through narrow paths and ancient sites where time hadn't made a dent. In search of a place where we used to get hot flatbread topped with za'atar (a Middle Eastern spice mix), I wandered from quarter to quarter, wondering if the sections had become more distinct from each other, or if I just hadn't noticed their sharp differences before.
Mornings were a time of joyful overeating. An Israeli breakfast isn't a bowl of cereal or a little croissant. I loaded my plate with cottage cheese, feta, cucumber and tomato salad and many types of smoked fish, as well as my new favourites – labne, a thick and tangy Lebanese yogurt, and ikra, a rich dip made with fish roe. To drink, I ordered botz – literally mud in Hebrew, but actually Turkish coffee made thick from boiling and lots of sugar.
Good thing I kept walking. I passed the stately King David Hotel, and the Montefiore Windmill, poised above a valley that looked and smelled just as I remembered. Setting out in the other direction, I found bustling Ben Yehuda Street and the falafel places that were still serving it up crispy with all the toppings. But the vibe felt touristy, so I ate one standing up, and pushed on.
Evening was on its way when I walked up to the old central market, Machane Yehuda, and the familiar breeze had started to stir. The narrow aisles were as alive as I remembered, the produce piled high and the customers in their modest dresses alongside the men in black hats, the nuns, tourists and little kids. This was the place where I'd tasted my first persimmon and fresh fig, a place where you could still buy pomegranates the size of softballs for about 30 cents each.
But wait – what had happened to my ancient market? Where did this stall selling extra virgin olive oil and trendy vinegars come from? And I'm sure that cappuccino bar wasn't here before? Certainly, back in the eighties, you couldn't get traditional halva (a dense, sesame paste candy) in flavours like passionfruit, mint and coffee bean. Nor would you have paid more than $10 for a thin slab.
I'd changed too. With chef school and travel under my belt, the market's brilliantly coloured spices and intricate Middle Eastern pastries were no longer strange but sublime. Less self-centred than a 20-year-old, I watched people more carefully, and thought about the places they were taking their market bounty. I wondered how it felt to really live in a place as complex as Jerusalem.
Turning a corner, I walked up to a market-based restaurant right out of an Alice Waters handbook. While sipping a cold Israeli rosé on Machneyuda's patio, I watched the waitresses hustling around in their jeans and hoop earrings, and behind them, the Hassidic Jews in their long coats and beards, averting their eyes and hurrying home with their parcels. The old Jerusalem was exactly where I had left it, and it still stirred in me those just-a-bit-wild feelings. And the new Jerusalem? My grown-up self was in love, again, and would not be waiting another 20 years to return.
Michael Bauer is an educator and adventure tour guide in Jerusalem. Here's how he'd spend a perfect day in Jerusalem.
"One of my favourite places to spend an hour away from the wonderful but intense Old City is the Austrian Hospice. Behind an uninviting door on the Via Dolorosa, you discover a peaceful building and garden, built in the 19th century by Emperor Franz Joseph himself. Climb a few steps into a relaxing Viennese atmosphere, get an excellent cup of coffee or a delicious apple strudel. You can sit around the little garden or even better, take your snack to the rooftop, where you'll find one of the most spectacular lookouts in Jerusalem. …
"The food that I would eat only in Jerusalem is meurav Yerushalmi, which translates roughly to 'Jerusalem mixed grill.' The dish is made on a flat grill and consists of chicken hearts, spleens and liver mixed with lamb and seasoned with onion, garlic and spices. The best place to get it would be one of the meat houses along Agripas Street, where each proprietor would be happy to claim the dish as his father's original invention." As told to Bonny Reichert
IF YOU GO
Air Canada and El Al both fly to Ben Gurion airport several times a week. From there, you can take a regular taxi, a shurut (shared taxi) or a bus to Jerusalem. You can also rent a car – the drive is easy, at least until you get into town.
Where to stay: Mamilla Hotel is well located and beautifully designed by Canadian Moshe Safdie. mamillahotel.com; from about $400 (includes breakfast).
Where to eat: Don't miss market restaurant Machneyuda for contemporary dishes like fluke and watermelon carpaccio, steps from ancient market stalls.
Emek Refaim is the main street of Jerusalem's German Colony, a neighbourhood that was first settled by the Templars in the 19th century. Today, the street is trendy and buzzingespecially at night. Try Marvad Haksamim (Magic Carpet) for delicious Yemenite food. 42 Emek Refaim
What to do: The nature reserve and desert oasis Ein Gedi is less than a two-hour drive away, offering some spectacular hiking and lush waterfalls. Just 10 minutes farther, experience the buoyancy of the supersalty Dead Sea
Special to The Globe and Mail