‘People go to Tel Aviv to play, to Jerusalem to pray’, the saying goes, so taking time to experience the vibe of Israel's most fashionable city is a must. Not long ago, most travellers would have headed straight to the Holy City (only an hour away by road), but today there are plenty of reasons to linger in one of TA's boutique hotels.
The restored harbour area is lined with stylish restaurants and trendy cafés; stroll along the promenade, hire a citybike or a Segway to explore the streets lined with designer shops, impressive galleries and 'Bauhaus' buildings (designed by German Jewish architects fleeing the Nazis). Then there are the city's beaches – no fewer than 16 – where you can sail, kayak, waterboard, or simply cool off on a hot December day (a good month to visit).
In contrast to Jerusalem's history stretching back thousands of years, the country's second city is a youngster, growing from a small settlement in the sand dunes in 1909 to the international hub it is today. It encompasses the ancient town of Jaffa, familiar to anyone who listened at Sunday School to the story of Jonah and the Whale.
Tel Aviv is also the starting-point of an alternative to the well-trodden route of Nazareth, Galilee, and Bethlehem, but still leads you to Jerusalem for a glorious finale. It brings alive the fascinating period of the medieval Crusades, featuring fairytale castles, heroic knights, fighting monks, and the English king who could barely speak English, Richard the Lionheart.
We learn at school about 1066 and all that, but our memory of any historic events in 1095 may be a little hazy. That is when Pope Urban II launched the first of nine Crusades, exhorting aristocratic warriors throughout Europe to lead their troops to the Holy Land to massacre the 'infidels' who then held Jerusalem, and to wrench it back from Islam to Christianity. His call to action unleashed two centuries of slaughter and revenge, all in the name of religion.
The first Crusader Kingdom, with the prize of Jerusalem at its centre, was held for 88 years, while the second, much smaller one, without Jerusalem, lasted 100 years, ending in 1291. As power shifted between the followers of the Bible and the Koran, both sides committed atrocities, while a constant stream of pilgrims set out on a once-in-a-lifetime spiritual quest.
Christian monks who laid down their prayer mats and cared for the sick arriving in Jerusalem were called 'hospitallers', or the Knights of St John, and were the originators of today's St John's Ambulance. The Knights Templar (so-called because they based themselves at Temple Mount in Jerusalem), were a monastic military order formed to guard travellers on their arduous journey.
Later, their role included 'looking after' their funds, too, by acting as bankers in exchange for a hefty fee. They acquired so much wealth and power that on returning to France after the Crusades, they were deemed a threat to King Philip IV, who rounded up as many as he could and had them burnt at the stake.
Romans and ruins
But along with the gory history, the Crusades left a legacy of intriguing archaeological sites, some of which are still being unearthed today.
Ten miles up the coast from Tel Aviv lies Apollonia, generally overlooked by tourists who make their way to the better known Caesarea, 21 miles further north. Its location on towering cliffs gave it strategic importance; an impressive citadel commanded the site, surrounded by a wide, dry moat to deter attackers. It was at a battle here in 1191 that Richard the Lionheart defeated Saladin and returned as a hero to his lands in France.
In 1265, the pendulum swung back again as the city fell to the Mamelukes in a 40-day battle, when the fortress's 2,000 inmates were killed. Plus ça change...
Soon, Caesarea capitulated, too, in just one week. Today, its historic rock ruins and modern rock music attract thousands of visitors each year. "You haven't made it as a musician if you haven't played here," I was told. Concerts are held in the open air in the Roman theatre, where the original stone tiers are filled with fans of performers as diverse as Tom Jones and Madonna.
A spectacular discovery at Caesarea a quarter of a century ago – and another reason Israel is a history lover's paradise – was the hippodrome, where Ben Hur-style chariot races were held in Roman times. Although it was not far from the palace of King Herod, founder of the city in 22BC (not the cruel Herod of Biblical notoriety – this one died before Jesus was born), it only came to light in 1992 when the tip of a stone column was seen protruding above the ground. It turned out to be Roman.
Following excavation of the entire site, you can relive in your imagination the thrill of thundering hoofs as expert charioteers rounded the corners, cheered on by crowds of thousands.
Secrets of the Knights Templar
The next must-see city is Akko (Acre), the second most important centre after Jerusalem in Crusader times, and the site of the last major battle before Christian forces retreated to Europe. Nearly five centuries later, the Ottomans simply built a new city on top of the rubble, preserving below a vast Crusader complex. Here you can see the remains of the knights' halls, churches, dining rooms, fortresses and prison. "One of the most exciting sites in the world of archaeology," is one expert's view.
As recently as 1994, an underground passageway leading from the Knights Templar fortress inland was discovered when a woman called a plumber to fix a blocked toilet. The domestic pipes were removed – and a system of tunnels was revealed. Who knows what other finds are still to be made?
No visit to Israel would be complete without a stay in Jerusalem, once captured by Crusaders and now captivating tourists. It has always been a contested city, claimed by three faiths – Jews, Muslims and Christians – and in December 2017, President Trump recognised the city as Israel's capital, reigniting the dispute.
It is possible to visit most of the holy sites, though be prepared for security checkpoints, and for men and women to be separated at, for example, the Western (Wailing) Wall. Meander through the busy, stone-flagged alleys in the Old City, avoiding hawkers keen to sell you a plastic crown of thorns, and enjoy the peaceful surroundings of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, rebuilt in 1149 by the great Crusader Queen Melisende. Reputed to mark the spot where Jesus was crucified and entombed, this was the final destination for pilgrims who had endured the hardships of an epic journey.
For the tourist of today, there are no such hardships. A new international airport is due to open at Eilat, to relieve pressure on the main entry point at Tel Aviv, and travelling around this small country is straightforward. If you hire a car, you can drive from north to south in eight hours, but that would be to miss all the spectacular locations along the way.
Two words of warning – avoid summer. The months of July and August are unbearably hot, even on those tempting beaches. Best to choose a time when you can swap the worst of the British weather for a wholly different experience.