The ghosts in the machine

The 19th century lurks in every corner, and intertwines with the new and the chic on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim Street is a mixture of different centuries coming together to create a distinct identity. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim Street is a mixture of different centuries coming together to create a distinct identity.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
How many times have you read a book that influenced you so much that you set out on a journey after reading it? This happened to me recently after I read a book called Jerusalem – A Creation, that a dear friend gave me as a present.
According to him, my relationship with the capital of the Jewish state is at best ambivalent. I guess I had always viewed Jerusalem as outdated and overly religious.
But with every page I turned, I discovered the city’s charm and colorful people.
It turns out that this was exactly the goal of the book’s authors, Ruth Tzafati and Dorit Greyber, who set out on a journey to meet Jerusalemites in their places of work and homes.
The first place I visited was the Mount Zion Hotel on Hebron Road, which overlooks the Mount of Olives, Emek Refaim Street and the beautiful domes of the Scottish Church.
In addition to the desire to pamper yourself in a fantastic boutique hotel, the interesting history of the Mount Zion Hotel’s structure makes visiting the hotel very attractive.
The building used to be the St. George Hospital for the Blind, which was in operation here since 1860, and was later turned into an inn. Twenty years ago, the structure was renovated and turned into a hotel, and as you walk through its corridors today you can picture the pilgrims who must have slept there on their way to the Old City of Jerusalem, which is just down the hill. Each hotel room has a unique design, and visitors can view the ancient hamam (Turkish bath) that is still functioning.
It’s amazing to think how just a short while ago, this entire section of the city was considered the Wild West of Jerusalem. Much of this area remained under Jordanian control until 1967, and Arab snipers used to shoot at Jews from here. There are a number of authentic buildings from the pre-state era in the vicinity, as well as a plethora of cultural activities.
From the hotel, if you set out on foot you will quickly come upon the First Station complex, from which the first steam train in Israel set out toward Jaffa. The railway, which was inaugurated in 1892, was meant to bring Christian pilgrims from the port of Jaffa to the holy places in Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem municipality is very proud of its new boardwalk, which begins at the railway station and is seven kilometers long. It is appropriate for walking and bike riding and crosses through the German Colony’s numerous bohemian cafes and artisan shops.
When you leave the railway station, walk toward Liberty Bell Park and then turn left toward Emek Refaim Street. This is one of the few flat streets in the city, so it’s the perfect place to take a stroll.
The first building you will see was built by the Templers in 1882 – you will recognize it by the large bell sitting on its roof. The building is currently empty since it is embroiled in a legal battle, but it is opened once a year for viewing. At one time it housed Templer monks, who did not consider the building a church, since they claimed they did not need a building to make them feel closer to God.
Later, the Armenian community used the building as a church until 1967.
As you continue along the street, you will pass by the first Templer house built in the neighborhood, which is now joined by many cafes and small boutiques. If you turn left on Lloyd George Street, you will come upon the first movie house built in the city.
Then turn right on Smuts Street so you can salivate over the gorgeous houses here. Take another right onto a path called Jimmy – which surprisingly enough is named after a puppy! This path will take you back to the main drag.
When I was touring the area, at the corner of Hemelitz and Emek Refaim streets, I noticed considerable movement of women in and out of a store and so I ventured in to see what all the fuss was about. What I discovered was a store run by a young designer called Yael Schwartz who has been designing vintage and modern clothing for a decade now.
But I hadn’t come here to shop, so I went back out and sat down for a light meal at the famous Caffit restaurant, which functions as a bar in the evenings.
Next, continue along Emek Refaim Street and then make a left onto Azaria Street, then turn right and walk along the boardwalk for a few steps, and then turn left onto Shimshon Street and continue until you reach Derech Beit Lehem. Turn right on Beit Lehem and make a quick stop at the European-style Grand Café, whose delicacies and decor fit right in with the neighborhood’s quaint style. From here, you can continue strolling through the streets of Jerusalem, or go back to the starting point.
■ Translated by Hannah Hochner