Parade of life with bronzed bodies heats up beachfront

After touring holy sites and exploring archaeological ruins, you may want a brief respite from serious sightseeing.

When you're ready to simply relax and have fun, Israeli style, check into one of Tel Aviv's waterfront hotels and spend a couple of days on the beach and promenade.

The mile-long, wave-patterned pavement is Tel Aviv's most popular public space and blessed with a Mediterranean climate. Tel Avivians use it year round. Designed by prominent Israeli architect Yakov Rechter, the promenade was completed in 1984 and extends the entire length of the city's sandy beach.

It attracts all sorts of people, many of whom never get wet. Card-playing retirees, young mothers with strollers, schoolchildren on field trips, Sunday philosophers, pigeon feeders, street entertainers, Russian immigrants, joggers, jugglers and rollerbladers all come for the water view and each other.

Some arrive early in the morning, others in the afternoon or evening. And a few, it seems, spend the entire day there. And why not? Invitingly furnished with pergola-shaded benches, movable white chairs and fanciful sculpture, the promenade is comfortable, attractive and free.

Date palms and planters packed with African daisies, lantana and portulaca create a resortlike setting. Every 100 yards or so, shallow ramps and steps connect the promenade to the beach. Cafes, restaurants, public restrooms and showers are located at the bottom of most ramps, and several outdoor restaurants and cafes are on the promenade itself.

What appears to be the quintessential Mediterranean seaside city was originally modeled after European garden suburbs built during the early part of the century. Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 by European Jews, who were determined to build the first secular, modern Jewish city in what was then Palestine.

That the land they bought was within walking distance of the Mediterranean was unimportant to these city planners. They celebrated each new house, street and public building that was built on the sand, not the sea view or the beach. They built the city with its back to the sea.

Because HaYarkon, Ben Yehuda and Dizengoff, the main streets nearest the water, run north and south — parallel to the Mediterranean, not perpendicular to it — three-and four-story stucco buildings blocked much of the water view.

Seaside living was a new experience for most Tel Avivians, who had emigrated from landlocked Eastern Europe. One who enjoyed it was David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. When he was in his 60s, "the old man" was photographed doing yoga headstands on the beach.

Today nobody seems worried about skin cancer. All the blue chaise longues face the sun, and thong bathing suits are almost as common as bikinis.

You can rent a chaise for $2.50 a day. For a few dollars more, an attendant will bring you a roll and botz, Hebrew for mud — thick, strong Arab coffee. If you understand Hebrew, free entertainment is provided by lifeguards, who use the bullhorn to greet friends they spot on the beach.

One morning as I was peacefully drinking coffee and watching white ripples crisscross the water, I (and everyone else on the beach) heard an excited voice: "Yossi, Yossi, it's me, Dubi. Where were you last night? It was a great party! Call me later!"

By 10:30, the sand is too hot for bare feet, and the quiet is over.