If your health and fitness allow

Yossi Melman , 5/20/2009

Tel Aviv is a small town compared to cities in the United States or Western Europe. Its topography is flat, its freeways crowded with vehicles, and it has few "green lungs." Even the few parks in the metropolis are unfortunately shrinking from year to year, for the realization of the Zionist fantasy expressed by Natan Alterman - "we will clothe you in a robe of concrete and cement."


woman in Park 

In the past decade, since the beginning of Mayor Ron Huldai's tenure, this fantasy has been channeled mainly into construction for the wealthy - high-rises reaching for the sky. The mayor and his officials are not known for their affection for popular sports, and do not go out of their way to nurture them. This doesn't look like a promising start for writing about Tel Aviv as a venue for athletic activity in general and running in particular. But surprisingly, despite these drawbacks, Tel Aviv has varied and enticing routes for anyone who loves to run. It has a large, well-kept park with plenty of greenery, a beach, a wide seaside promenade, a river and leafy boulevards. All these create a geographical mosaic with a rich and interesting history, not only of the century that has passed since the founding of Tel Aviv, but going back thousands of years.

In addition to the running experience and outdoor exercise, routes in Tel Aviv can provide any runner with added intellectually stimulating value. As someone who has run in New York's Central Park; on the banks of the Moscow River, in the Boulogne Forest and along the Seine in Paris; along the Thames canals and in Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath in London; along the Vistula River in Warsaw; on the old pavement stones in Prague; on the broad avenues of Madrid; on the Caspian beaches in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan; and in the desert dust of Ashkhabad in Turkmenistan, as well as many other places, I can testify that Tel Aviv has nothing to be ashamed of.

Hayarkon Park

Like a blind horse on its way to the stable, I go out every morning for my daily run along regular routes. From my neighborhood in Ramat Aviv, not far from Tel Aviv University, I turn to Namir Road (or the Haifa road, as it is popularly known). With the exception of the early morning and late night hours, this is not an ideal route for running. You don't have to have the nose of a wine connoisseur or even of Saddam Hussein's official food taster in order to fill your lungs, without wishing to do so, with the polluted air emitted from the exhaust of thousands of vehicles winding along tthis traffic artery in a huge traffic jam. The sidewalk is narrow. On one side are trees and on the other the serrated and dangerous fence of the Eretz Israel (formerly Haaretz - no connection to the newspaper) Museum.

Fortunately, the run along Haifa road is short, less than half a kilometer. I arrive at Hayarkon Park - officially known as Ganei Yehoshua. The park is the jewel in the runners' crown, their Mecca. It is named after Yehoshua Rabinowitz, a mayor of Tel Aviv in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Rabinowitz, bespectacled and cross-eyed, had the image of a typical political activist of the ruling Mapai party (a precursor to today's Labor Party) - an intriguer, a wheeler-dealer, a mentor of political patronage who took care only of his friends. But Rabinowitz may be the most outstanding example of the nonsense promulgated by public relations spin. Contrary to his image, he was perhaps the best mayor Tel Aviv ever had since its establishment. During his tenure, Tel Aviv began to become what it is today: Israel's cultural capital, an effervescent city bustling with vitality. The city that never stops. More than any of the mayors who succeeded him and reaped the glory, Rabinowitz was responsible for Hayarkon Park and the promenade.

Entry into the park presents the runner with a dilemma akin to that in Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken." This is how the poem begins:

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both ..."

I propose calling this spot where the path splits the "Frost Junction." But unlike the poem's author, runners can run on both roads. In effect, Hayarkon Park offers four roads, two on each river bank. You can run westward and you can run eastward. On both banks, you can run on an asphalt route, and anyone who suffers from hard surfaces can find a softer paved gravel path alongside the asphalt. The eastward run passes through a wood of eucalyptus trees that cast a giant shadow. You can enjoy the chirping of the birds and watch the elegant water fowl swimming and in flight. The birds are not deterred by the murky waters of the stream. After about a kilometer you can digress from the route, cross southward a wooden bridge and enter an elliptical running track on the site that is called in Hebrew Rosh Tzipor (Bird's Head). This loop, surrounded by areas of soft grass and woods, is almost two kilometers long, and it includes two routes, one for cyclists and one for runners. The Bird's Head route passes near Tel Napoleon in Ramat Gan.

The tel (Hebrew for "hill"), got its name because of the story that Napoleon's army camped on this spot at the end of the 18th century during the siege of Jaffa. The original name is Tel Grisa, which was the site of early settlements dating from the third century BCE up to the 12th century. In archaeological excavations, vestiges of the fortifications of a Canaanite city were found at the tel, as well as ruined palaces and a large well that is part of an ancient water project.

The tel is a desirable destination for those riding mountain bikes, with several steep descents. Runners who want more strenuous exercise can climb to the top of the hill. Anyone continuing on the route along the bank of the Hayarkon River, or returning to it from Bird's Head passes an area used for Scout camps, where there is also a petting zoo with several cute donkeys. The path curves and reaches the national Hadar Yosef athletic stadium. The distance from Namir Road to the stadium is about 4.5 kilometers. Anyone who wants to vary the monotony of running can enter the stadium and do a few speed intervals.

Two bridges

From the stadium, there are options for going on with the run. One way is to continue eastward on a gravel path that turns into a comfortable sand dune. This route passes through citrus orchards, which have a heady fragrance in spring and can take you another 15 kilometers to the sources of the Yarkon stream. It is recommended for good runners, and is one of my favorites, perhaps also because my parents - who at their request had non-religious funerals - are buried in the nearby Kibbutz Einat cemetery. I would like to be buried there, too. In my will, which contains precise staging instructions for my funeral, I ask my fellow runners, if their fitness and health allow, to arrive at the cemetery at a run, precisely on the route described here.

Anyone who doesn't want to or cannot run too far should return from the stadium westward to Namir Road. There, at the "Frost Junction," you continue westward for about another 2.5 kilometers, the first point where the road diverges. The route is exposed and treeless, and therefore not recommended for running at midday. You pass two wooden bridges - which are illuminated with lots of colored lights at night - and arrive at the estuary where the Yarkon flows into the Mediterranean. To the north there is another wooden bridge, the Wauchope Bridge.

The original bridge, from which fishermen cast their rods, was built in 1938, in a period of prosperity and expansion for Tel Aviv. The bridge is named after Sir Arthur Wauchope, the British high commissioner at the time, as a mark of appreciation for his sympathy for the Zionist idea and his contributions to Tel Aviv. It was built at the spot where the British army, led by General Allenby, crossed the river on rafts on the night of December 20, 1917, after a failed first attempt, and captured the Turkish outpost that controlled the Yarkon crossings. North of the bridge is the Reading power station, which supplies electricity to Tel Aviv and the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. This station, like the nearby Tel Aviv port, was constructed during Wauchope's time, as part of the British government's policy of strengthening the Jewish community in Palestine and suppressing the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-39, which protested British support for Zionism and the settlement of Jews in the Land of Israel.

What runners will not see are the orchards and huts that were once located on both sides of the river; they belonged to residents of the Arab villages of Sheikh Munis and Jamusin, whom the Israeli army evicted from their homes and fields in the 1947-1948 war. The distance from the stadium to the estuary is about seven kilometers.

The beach promenade

From the estuary, you turn south on a soft boardwalk that is comfortable for running, and run along the beach. The view of the sea is never disappointing, whether there is a wonderful Tel Aviv sunset, a sea as calm as a crystal surface, or the stormy waves seen during the city's few days of winter. The run takes you along the beach to Jaffa. It gives you a feeling of relaxation, and - at the risk of sounding kitschy - a sense of wonder and thoughts that moments like these make life worth living. After about a kilometer, the deck turns into a promenade made of hard paving stones, which leads you toward Jaffa. Even for those who like, and even prefer, to run on the sand, it is not recommended. Every few hundred meters there is an obstacle - here a drainage pipe and there piles of stones.

Running along the promenade can be entertaining, certainly for an accidental tourist. You pass several official beaches where swimming is allowed; the most interesting of them is what might be called the "ultra-Orthodox version" of a nudist beach. Even before you pass the Hilton Hotel, you arrive at a beach surrounded by stone walls, where swimming is reserved only for the ultra-Orthodox, with separate days for men and women. There are even secret reports that less-righteous Tel Aviv girls use the edges of the beach on women's days for topless sunbathing.

The distance from the Yarkon estuary to Jaffa is about 6.5 kilometers. Jaffa is one of the most ancient cities in the world, associated with the biblical story of the Prophet Jonah, he of the somewhat enigmatic visions who was swallowed by a whale. You can also lengthen the route, enter the heart of the old Jaffa port and watch the fishermen's boats returning from far out at sea with their catch. But at present the port is undergoing a facelift, and it's unpleasant to run there. When the renovation is completed, another park with paths and running routes will be built to the south of Jaffa port, in the direction of Bat Yam.

An urban run

Anyone who wants to sense a real urban running experience in the streets themselves should not continue all the way to Jaffa. Less than halfway, near the Carlton Hotel and the legendary Gordon swimming pool, which uses sea water and is also undergoing renovations, you can turn east to Ben-Gurion Boulevard. After you pass the home of the first prime minister you'll arrive at city hall - don't look at it, it's ugly - turn south to Chen Boulevard (in Hebrew, Chen - H.N. - are the initials of the national poet, Haim Nahman Bialik). Continue until you reach Rothschild Boulevard and central Tel Aviv. This is the young and beating heart of Tel Aviv, which sanctifies a culture of live-and-let-live that has turned the city into what it is today - a bastion of liberalism, secularism, a longing for hedonism, culture and art.

You can enjoy running on the boulevards, but it can also be a distressing experience, requiring a talent for evasion in order to avoid bumping into the hordes of two- and four-legged creatures, as well as cyclists, who are not known for their consideration for their pedestrian neighbors.

Rothschild Boulevard, less than two kilometers long, will lead you to the beginning - not of the run, but of Tel Aviv - to the Neve Tzedek and Shabazi neighborhoods, which were built in the 19th century on the edges of Jaffa, and from which the founding fathers of the city set forth. Thanks to them, we can enjoy running in Tel Aviv today.

Yossi Melman, a member of the Haaretz editorial board, is an avid runner and a triathlete who has completed 18 marathons and dozens of triathlons, including four Ironman competitions.

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