Matt Rees is an award-winning crime novelist living in Jerusalem, whom the French magazine L’Express called “the Dashiell Hammett of Palestine.” As a journalist, he covered the Middle East for over a decade; Yasser Arafat once tried to have him arrested, but Matt eluded him, to write his quartet of novels about a Palestinian detective, and two historical mysteries about Mozart and Caravaggio.
Here Matt shares with us his top spots in the city for hanging out with his 6-year-old, Cai, and 2-year-old, Mari.
What do you love most about Jerusalem as a place to spend time with children?
Israelis and Palestinians love kids. They’ll never tell your children to be quiet or to stop running about and sit down. They’ll interact in a playful way with even the smallest children. Despite its reputation for political violence, it’s safe on the level of personal security and so kids can run around in the parks without much concern.
What are your top spots in Jerusalem with kids?
- The First Station is a recently renovated Turkish railway station from the Ottoman period. It’s now the town square of secular West Jerusalem with restaurants – kosher and non-kosher – and daily events, like small children’s concerts and dancing. It also has a nice toy shop where you can rent bikes or go-karts for the kids to ride along the adjoining bike path.
- The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo is one of the few places where the city’s Arabs and Jews rub shoulders (they don’t really mix, even here). My two-year-old is a fan of the new wolf exhibit where you walk through a tunnel in the wolves’ habitat.
- Across the valley from the zoo on the slope that leads up to Bethlehem is Ein Yael. It’s the site of a Roman farm and villa that was excavated and where children can indulge in the skills that would’ve been part of the farm’s activities, including clay pot-making and feeding goats.
Any hidden gems we’d otherwise miss out on?
The Teddy Fountain is across from the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City. It’s a wide area where water jets out of the ground. Kids can run through the water, which is turned on every day during summer on the hour. At 8 p.m. the water jets are synchronised to a light show and music, which even impressed cynical old me.
Where’s great to eat with child-in-tow?
- The Aroma sandwich bar on Emek Refaim is pretty no-nonsense and has variety for those picky eaters.
- Mordoch is the best of the Middle Eastern restaurants in the neighborhood near the Mahaneh Yehuda market, which is known to Israelis as the “shook.” Anything from skewers, to hummus, to moussaka and kubbeh soup.
- Lina is the best hummus restaurant in the Old City. The service is unexpressive for adults, while children will generally get a smile.
- Levan, the restaurant in the Cinematheque complex in the valley below Mount Zion, has a great view of the Old City from the terrace. If you have little kids who, like mine, are prone to wander mid-meal, you can track them through the corridors of the film center while your spouse chows down.
Where do you suggest visiting friends and their kids stay?
Like many places, Jerusalem is now very expensive for hotels. Which makes short-term apartment rentals the best bet, particularly for kids. Colony Suites has places right on Emek Refaim, which is a fairly happening street by Jerusalem standards.
What would you recommend families not do when they visit?
Hike in the summer. “Get lost” in the Muslim Quarter. You’ll get way too hot in the first case. In the latter case, the local kids will throw small stones. Not big enough to hurt, but enough to freak out your kids.
What’s the best way to get about Jerusalem with children?
Really taxis are the only option in the eastern side of town (the Palestinian neighborhoods). In the west side it’s fun to take the new Jerusalem Light Rail tram, if you don’t have that form of transport at home. It goes right along what was once the border between Israel and Jordan.
You need an easy escape from the city. Where do you head?
For a short trip, Ein Karem is the village (now a neighborhood on the edge of Jerusalem) where John the Baptist grew up. Visit the churches, eat at the restaurants. But not on Saturday, because it’s mobbed by Israelis who have nowhere else to go (a lot of Israeli restaurants shut up shop for the Sabbath, whereas Ein Karem stays open). A longer jaunt will take you down to Jericho and the Dead Sea. The cable car from Jericho up to the Mount of Temptation is quite a trip, but the monks in the monastery at the top aren’t always the friendliest of guys.
A family day-trip to Bethlehem: a good idea?
Bethlehem has, of course, had some violent times in the last decade and a half. But it’s fine just now, and there’s no sign of it being anything other than a pleasant day trip in the immediate future. The Nativity Church is fascinating, including a duck down into the cave where Jesus is said to have been born. Up the street, the Milk Grotto is fun for kids, as grottoes go. The cave is white stone, said to be because a drop of the Virgin’s milk dropped there as she breastfed Christ.
And finally, you have a babysitter who’s happy to be paid to stay all night. What’s your perfect Jerusalem grown-up night out?
Well, you really should just drive 40 kilometers to Tel Aviv. But if you don’t want to go that far, the Nachla’ot neighborhood is the cool scene in Jerusalem. It’s near the “shook” and was until recently a pretty rundown area of shoddy housing in the center of town. Now the shoddy housing has been rented by students and hipsters who need their cute little cafés, bars, restaurants and ice-cream shops.