Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Jerusalem

The Holy City’s historical legacy is well documented, but its new bridge, museums, boutiques and restaurants reveal a beautifully modern face too, says Caroline Roux.

February 04 2010
Caroline Roux

You expect the world’s finest cities to mix the old with the new, but until recently a visitor to Jerusalem would be rather more engaged with the past than the present. The ancient reverberations of its Old City are timelessly appealing: the Roman cloisters, casually used as an impromptu art gallery; the sixth-century Byzantine street, the Cardo, which provides the quickest route through the Jewish quarter; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the sites where Jesus was crucified and buried. Fairly hard acts to beat.

Nonetheless, a fresh Jerusalem is emerging. A stunning new bridge by Santiago Calatrava was officially opened at the city’s principal western gateway in June 2008; the Israel Museum will reopen in July, with a glittering addition of glass-walled pavilions by James Carpenter, an American architect; and an hour away in Holon, a shapely new design museum by the Israeli-born, London-based Ron Arad will stage its first exhibition in March.

Then there is Mamilla, a district slotted between the Old City and the mostly Jewish West Jerusalem, which has undergone an ambitious (and controversial) redevelopment. Where there were once barricades and crumbling properties, now there is a swanky shopping street, a state-of-the-art designer hotel and a world-class gym and spa – with some chic, serviced apartments on the way. It’s Jerusalem, just not as you know it.

The relationship between the Old City and the Mamilla district is, in true Jerusalem style, extreme. Mamilla Mall, completed last year and designed by Haifa-born architect Moshe Safdie in honey-coloured Jerusalem limestone, has the laid-back charm of a Californian open-air mall. Intended as Jerusalem’s Rodeo Drive, it includes sports brands such as Nike and Adidas alongside Rolex and Versace; there is also an Apple store, Mango, H Stern and cool-looking cafés. Along its length are older buildings, which have been moved and reconstructed, each brick numbered to ensure that it was replaced perfectly. At its end, you emerge at the Jaffa Gate, the imposing south-west entrance to the Old City, restored in 1969 thanks to a large donation from the Jewish communities of South Africa.

Within minutes, you are walking along the Cardo, the reconstructed main street of the Byzantine city – the traditional answer to the modern mall with vendors selling monkey nuts and football shirts and “authorised antiques”, which are often vessels said to be from Herod’s time. The best way to spend money here is on freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, thick with tannin and pulsing with antioxidants.

The Old City really packs them in, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with its incredible patchwork of ownership – Armenian, Coptic, Roman Catholic, Ethiopian and Greek and Syrian Orthodox. A magnet for visitors, it absolutely teems with attention-deficit tour groups, camera phones at the ready, and devout pilgrims, longing to run their hands over the Anointing, or Unction, Stone. (The Ethiopians didn’t make it into the rambling interior. To find them, you must head to the roof – steps at the 9th Station of the Via Dolorosa take you there – where they have constructed a mini-village of mud huts and a tiny monastery filled with a shocking pink altar, flowery carpets and a collection of non-matching chandeliers.)

You won’t find many from that cross-section of visitors in the foyer of the sleek Mamilla Hotel, which opened last autumn. It is the city’s first purpose-built designer hotel, and its proximity to The King David and The David Citadel, the previous luxury flag bearers, is geographical only. While architect Moshe Safdie has been sensitive in filtering Jerusalem’s unique light into its cathedral-sized foyer, Italian designer Piero Lissoni was charged with creating a cosmopolitan interior that both smart travellers and switched-on locals will be drawn to – the eclectic mingling of imported traditional furniture, Chinese and mid-century modern pieces suggests that this is a self-consciously international spot. But an espresso bar at its entrance is more likely to be used by busy Jerusalemites for quick meetings than Americans who’ve just flown in from Florida; as such, it links the hotel into the day-to-day life of the city.

Upstairs in its 194 rooms, liquid-crystal bathroom walls turn from transparent to opaque at the touch of a button. Floors are laid in warm oak, banquettes clad in pale leather and the presidential suite is entirely lined in natural rosewood. Black metal doors line generous, softly lit corridors, though everywhere glimpses of traditional Jerusalem stone connects guests to the city’s heritage. In the roof terrace restaurant, modern European-Mediterranean dishes are served to diners gazing out over the Old City and drinking local wines which, like the architecture, have been subtly brought up to contemporary standards.

“There were six wineries in the 1970s, making terrible wine,” explains Mamilla’s sommelier, Yiftach Lustig. “But the industry exploded in the 1990s and now there are excellent boutique wineries, some of them providing us with just one wine a year.” Among these, the family-owned Benhaim in Kfar Azar produces some credible Cabernet Sauvignon, including a 2004 vintage that’s aged for 24 months. Its boutique label has a boutique price, however, and in a restaurant, one can expect to pay more than £32 a bottle for the pleasure.

Architect Safdie enjoys acclaim for his way with a shopping mall and a hotel; in Jerusalem, though, his reputation is more tied to the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, a short drive from the centre. Here, Safdie has engineered a huge Toblerone-shaped slab of a building, nearly 600ft in length, through the centre of the Mount of Remembrance. For some, the architecture might lack fluidity, but the experience could not be more extraordinary. The exhibits range from victims’ possessions, to photographs, to reconstructions of ghettos, to compelling films. But it is the storytelling guides who enhance the content, while the architecture insists on a confusing, disempowering route through the top-lit space (which some have likened to Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin).

The museum arrived in 2005; Calatrava’s Chords Bridge in 2008. Named for its 66 steel suspension cables that swoop 390ft upwards and carry a light railway and pedestrians, it is intended to look like a harp, suggesting the legendary musical passion of Jerusalem’s founder, King David. Indeed, the city celebrates its historic love of music in many ways, most notably at the Israel Festival, taking place this year from May 24 to June 10. If you like American jazz, Indian dance, German singing or Spanish ballet, something will appeal.

Film buffs should visit in July, when the Jerusalem International Film Festival screens hundreds of films over 10 days; past jury members have included Jane Fonda and Peter Ustinov. In any case, a visit to the Cinémathèque in Hebron Road is essential. Its programme of local and foreign films is quite surprising in a generally conservative city (it was one of the first places to flout the Sabbath and open on Friday nights), and it offers the best view over the whole city.

Then there’s the Design Museum in Holon: an estimated £17m project with a curving exterior created from ribbons of rust-coloured Core-Ten steel and two gallery spaces – the upper gallery is 1,640sq ft and filled with natural light. In any other country, it might be a long shot to put a major new cultural institution in a municipality of 200,000 between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; but Israel breaks rules. The museum aims to tell the story of design through local directorship (design – except in high technology and medical equipment – is not a national strength) and hopes its iconic architecture, destined for postage-stamp appearances, will be as seductive as its internal exhibits eventually are.

But it’s not just in grand architectural statements that Jerusalem is finding its way forward. In the food market of Mahane Yehuda – one of the most delightful places you could choose to shop for provisions, or simply to wander – the odd chic little shop and charming boîte is popping up. In HaEgoz Street, you will find a stylish womenswear boutique at number 30, where former theatre costume designer Limor Tov sells coolly contemporary pieces from Shk120-1,000 (about £20-£167). Around the corner, the Machaneyuda restaurant serves updated Mediterranean food to a young crowd.

Contemporary cuisine is also gaining ground. In West Jerusalem at Cavalier, with its yellow walls, you’ll find variants on French dishes; while at Scala in The David Citadel Hotel, which offers a fabulous view of the Wall by night, the carpaccios and sashimis are out of this world; and Gaza Street, with its boutique ice cream shops and cafés, tingles with energy.

Holy City it may well be. But while Jerusalem’s new additions won’t soon be eclipsing its staggering history and religious significance, they are certainly lightening up the mix – and providing visitors with even more reasons to come.

See also

Middle East