Following football - in Tel Aviv

ENGLAND football fans have been supporting their team across the Middle East and Europe in the last few days. Last weekend NIGEL PICKOVER took his three sons to the first of two matches in Israel - and found fascination at every turn in the coastal city of Tel Aviv and its near neighbour Jaffa.

ENGLAND football fans have been supporting their team across the Middle East and Europe in the last few days. Last weekend NIGEL PICKOVER took his three sons to the first of two matches in Israel - and found fascination at every turn in the coastal city of Tel Aviv and its near neighbour Jaffa.

SQUEEZING every last drop from eight mighty Jaffa oranges, the street corner bartender looked as proud as punch as he handed us cups of much-needed refreshment.

In the myriad streets of Jaffa, which exude the ups and downs of the town's fascinating 3,000-year history, there was only one drink to be had on this sunny spring Sunday.

My story begins and ends with an appreciation of those juicy, sweet, oranges, which provided such a lovely drink for the four of us last weekend. Jaffa oranges, or Jaffa cakes, are brands seared into the memory banks.

But what do many of us know about the Jaffa from which they take their name … Israel's fascinating port and town stronghold which lives and breathes its history?

The names of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth may be more familiar, but Jaffa, set on - and alongside - a rocky headland.

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After the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah - and a more recent upsurge in violence in nearby Lebanon, I wondered what it would be like to take to the tourist trail in the Holy Land.

So, after the miseries of the Israel-England football and the 0-0 snore draw, we decided to spend the Sunday morning cheering ourselves up with sightseeing, and Jaffa was a most welcoming “host.”

Coming out of Tel Aviv, a £7 taxi ride took us to the Old Jaffa visitors' centre where archaeological works continue today and a video details the various rulers who made the port and town the Gateway to the Holy Land. From Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, to rulers from Turkish lands, Romans, Richard the Lionheart's Crusaders in the 12th century , to Napoleonic, Palestinian and now Israeli rule, this part of the world has had its fair share of bosses!

So what made Jaffa so special for me?

What I liked was that this is a three-in-one location - with something for everyone:

1)The ancient port and the alleyways and walkways that lead to and from it.

2)The historic heart with its churches, synagogue, mosque, visitor centre and “wishing bridge”

3)The town centre - and its amazing flea market.

One highlight was the “wishing bridge” where you find your own sign of the zodiac, make a wish and it will surely come true. From the bridge there are incredible views down and along towards Tel Aviv and its high-rise offices and hotels set against a sweeping, sandy, shoreline.

Our other great find was the Jaffa flea market, which has captivated traders and visitors for centuries. Here I felt I had been cast into some giant street theatre - the atmosphere was that of Istanbul and its incredible, aromatic, underground Grand Bazaar. Every second shop was filled with fabulous antique furniture and bric-a-brac. An entrepreneur could import items which would make a fortune on the UK market.

All too soon it was time to head back to Tel Aviv, a striking, confident city, which is Israel's financial hub and emotional backbone.

The previous day (before that match!) we had enjoyed lunch at a beach-side bar … and were delighted to meet former England manager Glenn Hoddle, and former players Jamie Redknapp and John Barnes - all in Israel for TV and newspaper reporting duties.

Later we played beach soccer with a happy, vibrant Israeli family from Haifa. They were in town for the game, and we all had a great time.

Our hotel, the Sheraton Moriah was under external renovation, which was a little off-putting, but the rooms were fine and we enjoyed our overnight stay.

This city, which has suffered some grievous attacks over the years, is cosmopolitan and chic … and trying to shake off the difficulties of a recent past where there have been rocket attacks and bombings - one which killed 27 youngsters at a nightclub. We didn't feel threat at any turn - and hope to return one day soon to meet both Israelis and Palestinians, many of whom just want to get on, prosper and live in harmony.

In the early 1990s I enjoyed a trip to sacred Jerusalem, the “big drop” to the Dead Sea, the “big high” and emotion of the shrine at Massada and the fun of action-packed Eilat, on the Red Sea.

My March break has re-kindled all the joys of yesteryear and he desire to explore Israel more fully in the future. This is a phenomenal travel destination - and let's hope peace moves from shaky to permanent so we can all share the joys of the Holy Land, which seeps into the soul and touches your senses in a magical, mystical, way.

And now back to those oranges!

On this short break we met the Israelis who have a special kind of “joie-de vivre” that I haven't experienced anywhere else. They squeeze out of life all they can - every drop … just like the bar-tender and his Jaffas.

For me, I'd like to squeeze in another trip to Israel … just as soon as I can.

Coeur-de-Lion, aka Richard the Lionheart, crusaded in Israel. He lived between 1157 and 1199 and ruled between 1189 and his death ten years later.

He was an early traveller and sightseer and spent only six months of his ruling decade at the top in England … telling everyone he hated the English weather. Know the feeling?

Where: Tel Aviv, Israel

How to get there: Five hour flight from Heathrow.

Cost: I found £350 per person return flights for this May and it is very easy to sort your hotel via the web.

Contact:

Israel Government Tourist Office, 180 Oxford Street, London or see www.go-israel.co.uk

For flights: www.elal.co.uk

Hospitality:……………..

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