Caroline Bixer checks into a new boutique hotel in the heart of Tel Aviv and finds she doesn’t want to leave
The Dan or the Hilton? The Hilton or the Dan? Which is it to be? Having married into a Jewish British/Israeli family, I’ve been to Tel Aviv a fair few times over the years. And before every trip there’s always been this burning debate.
Well, sorry Dan, Hilton – and Sheraton too, for that matter – but you guys no longer quite do it.
Norm and co have arrived in town.
The Norman, at 23 and 25 Nachmani Street in the White City district, is the latest in a number of boutique hotel openings that began here a couple of years ago and it has created something of a frisson among style-conscious Tel Avivians.
The sight of super-chic Israeli business men and women hard at breakfast meetings on its terrace is a sure sign that in certain circles the Norman is on the scene. So the Norman is new and fashionable – but not cool in the understated British way. This place is full of breathless enthusiasm.
Over our four-night stay, every member of staff I spoke to, from receptionist to pool attendant, is ‘super excited’ about working here. Adam, the obliging concierge, shows me around as if he were the hotel’s owner.
He darts from room to room pointing out notable features, like the glass elevator with exposed workings and the hand-painted wall motifs and the numerous original contemporary artworks all created by local artists.
These have all been paid for by the hotel, not as much of a statement of the obvious as it sounds as many hotels take art on loan, with artists often losing out financially. And, yes, there is something to get breathless about, something more than another trendy boutique hotel with a rooftop Japanese restaurant.
During the early part of the 20th century, when many of Europe’s architects emigrated to Israel, there was a period of unprecedented building activity in Tel Aviv.
Aims were simple – to design homes and workspaces following the Modernist mantra of form follows function. Hence today’s fascinating plethora of International Style and Bauhaus buildings that first gave the White City its name.
Indeed, with more than 4,000 such structures, this area has more than anywhere else and in 2003 was named a Unesco world cultural heritage site. The Norman, fashioned from two 1920s’ houses, is one of the earliest examples of this architecture.
As you walk the streets around the hotel, you realise the ‘renaissance’ tag is no exaggeration. Almost a century on, construction is everywhere. From iconic Rothschild Boulevard to shabby Allenby Street, you find buildings covered in scaffolding, signs that a ‘project’ (a favourite Israeli word) is under way.
Just in the nick of time judging from some of the dilapidation and graffiti, it is as if people have rediscovered the value of what was here all along.
Furthermore, now Modernism is officially historical, here is a heritage to be treasured. This means something in a country where the present is so fragile.
To be sure, as local tour guide Avihai Tsabari tells me, part of this something is spiralling prices.
Wanting to live in this revitalised area, he like many others recently relocated to the White City. But for now he rents. On his salary, he cannot afford to buy and the 100 per cent tour cancellations he mentions before last year’s 26 August ceasefire cannot have helped.
For architectural buffs, there are guide books to the most spectacular buildings but if you’re pressed for time you can take the Norman’s glass elevator.
On the roof you can enjoy the infinity pool and a view that gives you the full impact of the cityscape with its sheer number of the buildings in one place.
Variations in height and style become more evident from an aerial perspective; the acres of white cubes with their clean lines and flat roofs come in all different shapes and sizes.
As Liora Meron, an Israeli architect, points out, the International Style as adopted by Tel Aviv was far from purist and an eclectic Israeli influence that comes from a Middle Eastern climate and way of life is ever-present. And, of course, there are other buildings, including a nearby massive water tower covered in scaffolding and topped by a menorah.
This, too, is under construction and doubtless destined to become some new gallery or restaurant or maybe another boutique hotel. And finally, outdoing and outlasting all man-made edifices, is the clear and calming view of the Mediterranean.
So the Norman has grown out of a desire to fuse past and present. Its painstaking conversion has taken eight years and it has had to comply with new stringent preservation rules that have inevitably come about. Every effort has been made to re-create these buildings and the oasis of a garden that, with its grapefruit trees, sits neatly in between them in the style in which they were originally designed.
This is not to say the Norman has got everything right. An abundance of large, spanking new art books that you just know will rarely be opened heaped on every available surface is too much of a boutique cliché for my taste.
A slavish adherence to period reproduction furniture and decor also means genuinely original features are somewhat swamped, and I find myself playing a guessing game of ‘spot the original’. But in attention to detail and comfort, the hotel is spot on.
Large Apple Macs are dotted about the premises for guest use, there are quiet meeting rooms for business or pleasure and, most importantly, the bed linen was possibly the best I have ever slept in.
Eating and drinking options abound, with French-inspired Mediterranean cuisine served in the Norman restaurant. Taxi drivers, hoteliers, shop keepers – they all want you to love and admire Tel Aviv as much as they do.
Not many people inhabit a city that, in living memory, was desert sand. And not many people inhabit a city so palpably threatened by tragedy every day.
So they get a little excited – and why not? A very long poem titled Castle in the Sand runs down an interior wall from the very top of the Norman to the very bottom.
Signed by Norman Lourie, hotelier and grandfather of today’s owner, it is not an especially brilliant poem but its opening lines make their point well enough:
In the beginning, that was nothing but the murmur of the sea, sand dunes in Galilee.