Tel Aviv gears up for Eurovision

“Eurovision is described as gay Christmas,” says James Murphy, a tourist from London who came to Tel Aviv to escape the cold weather.

May 15, 2019 20:59
Tel Aviv’s Shpagat staff get their bodies painted with flags

The staff of Tel Aviv’s Shpagat get their bodies painted with flags representing countries participating in Eurovision. (photo credit: GIL HAYON)

 ‘I wanted to kick my daughter out so I could rent her room to tourists,” joked a Tel Aviv mom while smoking a cigarette outside of a high-brow Allenby Street bar. You might say it’s a true Tel Aviv response to how they’re preparing for this year’s most anticipated cultural event.

The city has been in motion, assembling all of the moving parts for the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest. Trucks were seen racing down Allenby while city employees shoved Israeli flags into mounts attached to street lamps. It may have been in preparation for Independence Day, or a display of patriotism as the city braced itself for hordes of Eurovision-comers.

Some Tel Aviv staples are ready for the week-long event, including famous dessert spot “Hamalabia,” gay bar “Shpagat” and “Haiku Skybar” atop the elegant Lighthouse Hotel on Ben Yehuda Street.

Twenty-somethings with backpacks and skateboards often sit outside Hamalabia to play shesh-besh (backgammon, as we know it) and drink beer. The hot spot draws crowds for its unique malabi custard topped with rose water syrup, crushed peanuts or shaved coconut. Both dairy and vegan cups run 10 shekels a pop. This, and many other local gems can be found at the Eurovision Village, said to be the largest in the contest’s 63 years. The village is nestled in Charles Clore Park in Jaffa, overlooking the Mediterranean. The port city in south Tel Aviv has one of the oldest harbors in the world and has been conducting business for around 3,500 years.

Itay Armon, freshly 19, is bursting at the seams – putting his game of shesh-besh on pause long enough to tell The Jerusalem Post how excited he is to welcome the whole world into his backyard.

“I’m ready to celebrate with them in the Euro Village,” Armon said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing all the people and watching the grand finale with them. I also want to meet with the contestants. Mostly, I’m looking forward to the people coming here. That’s the best thing about it. They’ll come here and go out to bars all night! People from Sweden or Cyprus. I’m looking forward to talking with them and learning their culture. I like that.”

Armon strongly believes the world is going to love his hometown, noting that had it been in Jerusalem, the celebration wouldn’t have been as comfortable for everyone, particularly the gay community. He also mentioned the growing number of vegan restaurants in Tel Aviv that cater to preferences of modern diners. Moreover, the enthusiastic teen plans to meet his favorite participants at the “Wiwi Jam” party in Jaffa hosted by the popular Eurovision-focused Wiwibloggs.

Aside from the variety of Tel Aviv’s restaurants, there’s another major draw: Tel Aviv’s gay-friendly culture. It’s a necessary component for any host city; Eurovision is a widely celebrated event in the gay community. Tel Aviv is considered a haven for gays in the Middle East, and Shpagat is considered a sanctuary for bar-goers. Surprisingly, it’s the only official gay bar in the city.

“The whole week is going to be one big carnival. This is a big deal for Israel and for gay people, because it’s a huge gay event,” Shpagat’s event producer Shir Portman said.

The bar, located on highly-trafficked Nachalat Binyamin Street, is planning an event every night of Eurovision week. Management has the roadway cordoned off for pedestrians only, so it can become the venue for a street party.
The schedule is as follows:

• Monday: “Isravision,” the story of Israel told through Eurovision songs that have represented the country over the years, by guest lecturer Niro Taub
• Tuesday: Drag show
• Wednesday: Girls’ party, because Wednesday is always girls’ night at Shpagat
• Thursday: Street party
• Friday: Cross cabaret drag show
• Saturday: The big event. Shpagat is showing the Eurovision finale on big screens and hosting a “We Can’t Believe It’s Over” after-party

Portman is planning to serve at least 400 people per night throughout the week. Bartenders, wait and kitchen staff had the flags of participating countries painted across their bodies and then posed for famous Israeli photographer Gil Hayon.
“We take Eurovision pretty seriously,” Portman said.

The head party planner says Shpagat makes an effort all year-round to be international, welcoming the gay community from around the globe.

“You can come any day of the week and hear 15 different languages in one place,” Portman said.

But being international isn’t the focus. “It’s a safe place to be who you are, whatever you want to be. It’s a place with good music that gay and straight people can relate to. You can let your guard down at Shpagat.”

Shpagat patrons say Tel Aviv doesn’t know what’s hit it.

“Eurovision is described as gay Christmas,” says James Murphy, a tourist from London who came to Tel Aviv to escape the cold weather. “We’re having a Eurovision party [in London] and inviting 30 people to the house. The music is largely terrible. But it’s not about the music; everyone is in it for the show. It’s an extravaganza.”

Murphy’s partner, Ciaran Kinsclla, was born in Ireland and recalled contests from his early years: “When you’re a child growing up in Europe in the early ‘80s and ‘90s, Eurovision was probably the biggest show of the year for most families. The music was irrelevant, it was the big TV night, the musical acts. The biggest drama is the voting at the end of the night,” Kinsclla reminisced.

Moving 18 stories up from the street to the roof is Haiku Skybar – the hottest rooftop in the city. Perched atop the Lighthouse Hotel, one side of the lounge showcases a view of the glistening coastline, and the other an impressive panorama of Tel Aviv’s skyscrapers. Bar’s manager Tomer Bachar says Haiku, too, is hosting a party every night of the Eurovision week.

“I can’t tell the secret, but it’s going to be a great theme, and we’re hosting some of the Eurovision performers. That’s all I can say,” Bachar quipped. 

You could call him tight-lipped, but it’s no secret that Haiku regularly hosts upper-echelon events and often has celebrity sightings. Fauda star Itzik Cohen was recently spotted ordering bottle service alongside friends at Skybar.

“It will be packed with 300 to 400 people per night. The whole city will be packed, and this is one of the most exclusive places in Tel Aviv. Eurovision will be a great party, it will be like a holiday for us. The whole city is waiting for it,” Bachar said.

The bar serves eight signature cocktails, and is tacking on others designed for the event.

There is something, however, that makes Israeli cities different: a lack of transportation on Saturdays. Tel Aviv, along with the rest of the state, does not run buses on Shabbat (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). The municipality, however, is providing free bus service to and from the concert throughout the weekend. In order to protect foreigners, the city is also posting clear signs on taxis with fixed rates so cabbies can’t take advantage of unsuspecting customers. Bars and restaurants plan to participate in special deals to offer tourists 10-shekel items, and authorities have eased up on how late music can be played.

In addition to signs spread across the city, help desks are set up at Ben-Gurion Airport to relay information to travelers – in English. Volunteers are deployed around town to help wanderers. The city has even given classes on how to be polite to tourists, targeting tough vendors at the Carmel Market, lifeguards and city cops. The Jaffa Port will tout an orchestra and gigantic radio to blast tunes of Eurovision’s yesteryear – an homage to Eurovision classics from the past. On Friday evening, on the north end of the city at the Tel Aviv Port, a special Shabbat service will be hosted by the city.

Another event unique to Tel Aviv is White Night, known in Hebrew as Layla Lavan. This infamously wild night has party-goers concert-hopping and enjoying music and drinks until the sun comes up. Much of the entertainment and refreshments are provided by the city. White Night falls on the second night of Eurovision, which is the semi-final.

While New York is often called the city that never sleeps, Tel Aviv proves its claim to the name time and again. There’s even a designated “stay-up-all-night” scheduled on the city’s calendar. It’d be wise for Ben-Gurion Airport to convert its many information booths into cots for the 20,000 tired tourists awaiting their flights home.

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