Waldorf Astoria, the newest luxury jewel of Jerusalem

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Weddings in Israel are usually extraordinary events, with a high concentration of joy and warm with welcoming families, gorgeous outfits and lavish food. The choice of the location is usually a long process as everyone wants to offer the best one. And what can be hotter than Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem, the chosen one even by Conde Nast as the best hotel in the Middle East?

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Long time residents of Jerusalem still cannot believe that this place, on Agron street, is finally more than an empty building about to fall. Initially Palace Hotel – the first ever luxury hotel in the Middle East – in the 1930s, property of the infamous Haj Amir el Husseini, it was purchased by the government in 1948 and turned into a building for offices. After being abandonned, the building was bought in 2003 by Reichmann family who invested $150 millionn in the refurbishing process. In March 2014, it was launched as the luxury hotel Waldorf Astoria, operated by Hilton Hotels and IPC Jerusalem. It is considered the longest restoration project in Israel’s history, but the results seem to be worth the waiting.DSCN0505

The architectural works were coordinated by Yehuda Feigin, who added to the original Waldorf Astoria standards a lot of Moorish, Arab or Roman influences. The fragility of the white marble is fixed with strength by the metal structures of the stairs, wrapped in the natural light entering from the huge windows.

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Etheral fragile glass presence, work of a team of glass artists that brought their materials from Czech factories coordinated by the local glass artist Jeremy Langford are bringing a touch of peace and serenity to the massive interiors.

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As in the case of many hotels of Jerusalem I had the priviledge to visit lately, the rooms are designed according to the highest modern standards – every guest is handled a tablet for checking emails, for instance – while keeping a classical ambiance.  Internet is available through both the public network and the special wifi offered complimentary in the rooms.

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Every one of the 226 rooms is an island of rest and peace. It suits both single and family travellers, with different price and standard categories. A slice of the lavish luxury from outside is brought in every room, either it is the chandellier or the delicate orchid flowers or the huge mirrors. The bathroom toileteries are signed by Salvatore Ferragamo.

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The atrium is the backbone of the hotel, aimed to bring the varied world of Jerusalem within the high walls brought together by the massive arches. Most of the artwork is local, as it is the inspiration. Couples dating for the first time are whispering their introductions near a cup of coffee or fresh juice, their emotions getting lost in the high ceiling. Who know how many of them will come back soon at the tiny reception asking for an appointment for renting a wedding location?

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The small octogonal marble atrium is organised around the special Waldorf Astoria clock. The flowers and the honey and brown colours of the upholstery are matching the reflexes of the watch. There may be many shadows in life, but we just need to see the good side of things…The clock, a Waldorf Astoria trademark, has 4 faces, with numbers written in Arabic, Hebrew, Roman and European style.

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Back visiting some of the rooms, I am notice so many small details, like this delicate glass lamp trunk that brings so much emotions in the corner.

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Following the local tradition, guests are welcomed with full heart and a generous bottlle of local wine. It may help to relax when preparing for a business meeting, for sure.

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Tired after walking the busy city, one can rest in the corner and watch the streets from under the fine and elegant curtain. Everything is set to be special in this hotel, with the smallest of the rooms being of 37 sqm, when the average is of 30 sqm.

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The more parts of the hotel I am discovering the more I feel like in a small city. Every once in a while you can rest and enjoy your time, surrounded by the games of light.

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At the beginning of January, the hotel is not very busy, but I am told to wait and see the time of the Jewish holidays of Pesach or Rosh Hashana when it is hard to find an available room.

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Sometimes, I feel like I am the guest in a huge castle, whose gigantic dimensions are made more human through the warm of art.

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One of the staples of the hotel are the glass chandelier, glittering like little diamonds, put together after days of work. The ballroom can host around 900 people, the right amount of guest to have to a wedding, isn’t it?

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On the way to any of the 12 meeting rooms, the warm colours of art can make you smile. It is also about emotions here, but the positive ones.

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When the natural light is missing, the combination of the chandeliers reflected in the mirrors and enlightened by the reflexes of carpets and walls create an universe where you expect wonders.

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About expectations and wonders is talking also the lobby art installation in the lobby, by Jeremy Langford, a metaphor of peace and hope.

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Either I stay on the old or the new side of the hotel lobby I start to feel at home. This city cannot exist outside history and the architectural solution implemented here brings together all the layers of history and influences that are part of the big story: Roman or Greek arches, Byzantine mosaique, massive marble columns, Oriental carpets, European glass, tailored furniture with exquisite upholstery or Turkish crafts.

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Even the nature from the hills around Jerusalem is brought, wild presences framed by the orderly lines.

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It is past the middle of the day and it is about time to stop the exploration and have a taste of the fine dining.

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The cheese raspberry cake accompanied by icecream not only looks good but it is also delicious, with a balanced mixture of fruity aromas.

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One of the most unforgettable impressions is left by the geometricall chocolate lava cake, also accompanied by icecream, but served warm. While going one more bite ahead, I cannot but think about how many changes these walls had seen and how there is always a hope for good. This, but especially the chocolate cake, qualifies me for a permant returning visitor status in this oasis of luxury.

Disclaimer: I was offered a complimentary tour of the hotel, but the opinions are, as usulal, my own. 

Discovering a different Jerusalem

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The local saying goes that Tel Aviv is the city where people never sleep, while Jerusalem is the city of praying (with Haifa working for both of them) but times had changed and so did the old city. With an entrepreneur mayor and a generation of new creative people it is impossible to hold on the old division. Having the chance to live here like a local for a month gave me a different perspective on the state of things. What I’m just saying is that that there are many changes taking place and you only have to stay a bit more and live there to seize it…

DSCN0192You can start your journey from the lobby of the 1001 Night ambiance of the American Colony Hotel. Built at the beginning of the 20th century around a stone-paved courtyard, dotted with grenery and housing a central fountain, it become one of the favourite gatherings places for Western diplomats, statesmen, journalists and VIPs, among which Sir. Winston Churchill, M. Gorbatchov or Giorgio Armani. Although I am definitely the big fan of the nearby King David Hotel, I like to come here once in a while, for the green landscape and the view from the top of the tower, easily seen from many standpoints in Jerusalem.

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After walking a bit more you will find the Teddy Kolek park, a oasis of quietness on the edges of the old city, named after the mayor of reunited Jerusalem. The water game of the fountain brings a fresh view over old things. Everything is changing but some things still stay the same.

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‘Jerusalem stone is the only stone that feels pain. It has a network of nerves’, said Yehuda Amichai in his Poems of Jerusalem. A visit in the old city cannot avoid a visit to the Wall, but for every visitor, the walls and the ancient cobblestones are telling a different story.

DSCN0210Behind the old doors there are so many stories of happiness and hope and maybe bitter memories too. I remember that some years ago, I started a chit-chat with an old lady at a burger shop within the old city, to discover at the end of the meal that she witnessed most of the big events of the last 4 decades, as a permanent resident within the walls. Talking with the people in Israel is much more easy than, let’s say in Germany, and if you love story, you will have for sure your good slice of it.

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After so much history, one may need a break and one of the best places to do so is at the Liberty Bell Park, with its replica of the famous bell. It was designed by the Israeli-born Danish sculptor Ulrik Plesner who designed another more joyful piece, Jerry the Dragon. From there, one can decide to spend more time in the bubbling Rehavia – if you love sushi, Rehavia Sushi is highly recommended – with its young life of restaurants, bookstores and interesting concerts taking place round the week.

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But sometimes, you don’t have to go too far away to meet the unexpected. Behind the old courtyards of Machane Yehuda, there are many things going on some of them with a special artisty touch.

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Dare to go on and you will find enough street art to delight you eyes. And no, you are not by mistake in East Berlin or in the Florentin area of Tel Aviv…

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As I said, things changed a lot in Jerusalem in the last years and don’t be surprised to find out co-working offices for rent in the middle of the border to the tradtional quarters. The startup-up nation means more than Tel Aviv and the Google offices in Haifa.

DSCN0364True is that you don’t have here the sea and the beach that invites you to a pleasant life, but believe me, many locals in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem don’t hang out at the beach every single afternoon, because they have a lot of work to do. But everywhere, a glass of fresh smoothy is always welcomed and that you can find in Jerusalem too.DSCN0378

As for the cultural and night life, things changed since the opening of the Tahana Rishona as a place of events and gatherings. Established in 1892, part of the Jaffa-Jerusalem line, near the German Colony, it still keeps the old setting and part of the rails, but was turned into a meeting point for young Jerusalemites. When the station was inaugurated, it was an occasion for Eliezer ben Yehuda, the creator of modern Hebrew, to write a song of praise and create the Hebrew work for train: rakevet. Nowadays, you wonder where the food, wine, jazz and other kind of festivals can be found in the old city, there is only one answer. And especially this time of the year, it seems that the list of attractions is getting pretty busy.

DSCN0386Jerusalem does not have the fancy Dizengoff, but has enough malls – including the Mamilla which is elegant enough for someone used with the high standards of Tel Aviv built in an area that was a no man’s land back in the times when the city was divided – and small stores to fill your bags and empty your cards. If you are looking for some vintage, check the Agrippa Street flea market, with its special nostalgic items. Every time I go there I am sure will find some old time object from my aunts’ kitchens in the old country.

DSCN0411Biking as it is no tomorrow, East Berlin style, is something relatively new in Israel, but especially in Tel Aviv, is done in fancy style, with expensive electric bikes. Bike rentals are something fresh new in Jerusalem too, but biking is less adventurous.

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Many probably don’t know that Jerusalem hosts one of the centers for creative designers and book illustrators in the region, Bezalel Academy of Arts. The works created by the young graduates can be seen not only at the flea markets in Berlin, but also in the small design shops and pop-stores from Emek Refaim.

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Nachlaot is usually considered rather part of the religious areas, but without noticing, at least the faces of the buildings are changing too. With more and English speakers relocated here, it will take not too much time till you will see some new things popping up. If you want to have a respectful look at a different world, paying a short visit to Mea Shearim area – the dress code matters, but when you are invited to a sophisticated party you also try not to go on hot pants and swimming suite, isnt’t it – can be interesting. Some of the pastry shops in the Bukharian area are too tasty and cheap to be true.  DSCN0513

The fact that Jerusalem is slowly changing too, is also this huge piece of red street art, near Machane Yehuda, which  is chaging in the wind like the dress of a dancing tomato (My imagination is not always that creative, you know). A couple of streets away, from any rooftop of the builldings of King David Street, one can look eastwards and westwards and see where and how everything changed and is about to change.

DSCN0519What I hope will never change, are the recipes of these sweets pastry. They are perfect and should stay like that. For ever.

Photographic Jerusalem

DSCN0002One of the non-fiction books that changed at a great extent my way to see the world was James Elkins’s How to use your eyes, pledging for a reconsideration of our sight focus. Practically, there is no ‘uninteresting’ corner and the street offers millions of opportunities to challenge the classical way of seeing. Such a perspective is especially useful when it comes to visiting places enjoying a particular fame, which might not always be in their advantage. Jerusalem, for instance, is highly reverred for its holy places and traditional lifestyle in some parts of the city. But what about its people and places? Are all the same? Is everything only black – with a bit of white? Or there are some hidden colours too?DSCN0009With these questions in mind, I started my early morning photographic tour with Ouria Tadmor, a local photographer with deep knowledge of the city, and especially of its people, part of a complimentary experience offered by LocalYoo, gathering a network of knowledgeable people all over the world. Another challenges that I was ready to cope with was my relatively limited photographic ability to go more into taking pictures of people instead of the empty streets and lifeless buildings that I usually do.

DSCN0047But what can you do for not bothering people? Or not to feel an intruder in their private street life? You just have to go on and start taking photos. Rarely people will get angry on you and they will end up ignoring you, explained Ouria. The most important is to have patience and set up a standpoint from where you can get the best views. In this case, we established our temporary photographic headquarters near the famous market Machane Yehuda, a favourite spot not only for those looking for fresh vegetables and fruits and other local foods, but also for politicians who are always making a last tour de force here before the first round of voting. We spent some good dozen of photographies at the light train station, spotting the many differet layers of the Jerusalem society.

DSCN0105Entering the market, I kept pushing the button and taking more and more photos. As in the case of writing too, it is important also to have in mind a specific topic for your photographies. Even a simple plastic bag can say a lot about a person, his or her life, choices and also future.

DSCN0119I lived in Jerusalem either as a tourist or as a local many times, but I never have enough of Machane Yehuda. Every time is special and this time it was special too because I was finally learning also how to play with lights and shadows, how to appreciate the smoke of a cigarette which may create extremely interesting contrasts and how to just go on and take pictures. Everything was more alive and started to be even much happier with my photographies.

DSCN0133Not only the people can send a lot of interesting lively messages at Machane Yehuda, but also the modest vegetables getting ready to be cooked for the Friday evening meal. DSCN0149My photographic tour finished after a couple of hours, but now I was confident enough to start putting into practice the knowledge. So, I kept wandering the streets of old Jerusalem looking for some new visual attractions. As expected, did not need to wait for more, and close to the main street, an artist lady was doing open air painting.

DSCN0150There is something Jerusalem, and Israel in general, that you cannot find in big Western cities: the openness of the people keen to get in touch with you, help you get for directions or, in this case, explain their work of art in process.  DSCN0157Jerusalem is also a city of art and artists, with one of the most important art academies, Bezalel, being hosted here. In the last years, small design shops and concept stores were created presenting interesting design and especially, my favourite ones, book illustrations. Hidden yards near Machane Yehuda are also precious hideouts of old and new art. If you are into antiquities, the flea market on Agrippa is a good source of inspiration and displays old samples of the history of Israel too. Every time I go there I discovered old objects that we also used to have at home like old weights and books. DSCN0165Hungry for more photography, I ended up for the next hour at another busy spot, the governmental area, where you can also notice a lot of differences and all the many layers of the Jerusalem society. DSCN0171There is also street art present there, under the form of some colourful bikes, that are becoming more and more popular not only in the fancy Tel Aviv – where the electric bikes are the most have, despite the impressive prices.  DSCN0246As usual, my favourite time of the day for photographic adventures and solitary city discoveries is the early morning. Another day, I am back in the center getting into the mood of busy coming and going of people and their colourful wares. DSCN0200

If I want some quietness, I have Teddy Kolek park, on the edges of the old city, named after the famous mayor of the united city of Jerusalem. DSCN0202Another source of infinite inspiration is, obviously, the Old City, which offers always noteworthy details, not only for the photographer, but also for the historian or anthropologist. This time, a massive delegation from Nigeria was visiting the Kotel – the Wall, and by the chance of life, I was there to catch the moment.  DSCN0206Inside the city walls, in the old Jewish quarter, life has also a certain trace of continuity, unbroken by the political, social or any other changes. Old books are made based on the genuine knowledge of the ages. And you can be also there, ready to turn the moment into history. DSCN0211As usual in Jerusalem, the history is the quiet guardian of the present and the hope for the future. One of the symbols of hope is the old Hurva synagogue in the old city – a former ruin changed into a beautiful house of prayer and learning. Hope is also the message sent by the many people, many of them youngsters from all over the world, that stop here for a while during their usual trips to Israel. Maybe sooner or later they will also come back for good. DSCN0215On the way back going out of the old city, the shops all along the way are hiding hundreds of histories about people. Imagine how many stories were told over the tea or coffee made in these metal pans or the emotions of the children lightning their first Hanukka candles! DSCN0236Is not that difficult to put into practice Elkins’ lessons in Jerusalem. Looking a bit higher than usual, I notified the laughing face of the former immigrant shelter of Tiferet Zion v’Yerushalaim, created in 1908 by Rabbi Shmuel Levi, who immigrated from the US. The building was used as a hostel aimed to absorb thousands of immigrants over the years. The sundial and the additional clocks on the facade of the buildings were aimed to show the sunset hours in different parts of the world, useful for calculating the Shabbat times. DSCN0532Jerusalem is also a city of music, not only through its regular open air and special concerts held in small underground bars, but also thanks to its talented street musicians. From the moment I discovered The Rabbi and the Gypsy Lady passionatelly singing I could not resist coming back over and over again. They have the amazing power to inspire you to live your life at its fullest, but with a meaning.  DSCN0233Of course there are so many other things my eyes did not see yet in Jerusalem, but my heart knows they exist. See you soon, Jerusalem!