German banter in a backstreet coffee shop in Sidon

For our last day in Lebanon, we were off back to Sidon to look around for the day – our main target being the sea castle built by the crusaders.

As luck would have it, in the morning the sun came out, so we arrived in Sidon at the castle in relatively bright (but still cold) weather.

The sea castle does what its name suggests really – an old castle is built in the sea, with a long stone walkway linking the castle to the land.  Waves crash overs the walls, such that the ground floor of the castle has little pools and waterfalls across it as the seawater drains out of the building back into the sea.

The castle really is stunning and well-maintained despite its age, and from the top of the tower, the panorama over the city to the snow topped mountains in the distance is breathtaking.

As we left the castle, to look around the souks, the weather turned and clouds started rolling in.

The souks at Sidon are apparently the oldest in Lebanon, and are positively labyrinth-esque.  Following a few twists and turns, we found ourselves lost in the alleyways, but content to wander around hoping we’d eventually recognise something.

We did. We eventually stumbled out onto a square which we saw earlier in the day, also housing the oldest mosque in Sidon – which dates back to the 13th century.

As the rain started to fall, we made to visit the mosque, but were stopped by an old man scurrying out of his house.

“Don’t go in, the mussul-mens are praying!” He shouted at us, still scurrying towards us.  Reaching us, he said, “Come in and have a coffee with me, then when they finish praying you can go inside.”

As it was raining, we decided, why not?

Following him into his house, it turned out to be a coffee-shop of sorts – plastic tables and chairs drawn up around a make-shift fire-burning stove, with a humongous Arabic teapot on it.

In the room were a collection of old men, sipping tea, smoking waterpipes, and clearly not at all perturbed by the Imam loudly calling everyone to prayer.

We were served up cups of Lebanese coffee, and ordered to pull up close to the fire.

Soon, one of the men asked if we speak German.  Well, not really, we answered.  He looked disappointed, and fell silent.  “No German?” he tried again, after a while.  Well, a little, we said.  My limited German knowledge has largely filtered away over the past 12 years of not using any of it, so the idea of holding a conversation seemed pretty unfeasible.

However, brightening up, our friend launched into spirited conversation in German and signlanguage, telling us all about why we shouldn’t be wandering around the souks alone (the “mussul-mens” will kill you, they will take you into their house and kill you), why we should rather visit Sidon in the summer (very nice, lots of fish, everywhere), why its better in Beirut (you can get beers), and to immediately taste their tea (very good, it will make you fall asleep).

Starting to fear we might never be allowed to leave the friendly little cave, we made our excuses and said we wanted to visit the mosque.

If we really insisted, the little crew of friends tracked down who was apparently deemed to be a suitable tourguide – a nice young man with a few words of English, who showed us round his mosque despite the prayer circle taking place in the middle of it.

Saying bye to our friends, we popped for some mezze lunch before driving back to Beirut to drop off the rental car.  After 2 hours of driving round and round a largely one-way and completely gridlocked Beirut, we were very, very happy not to have to drive there again for a while.

We walked over to the Duke of Wellington pub – small dingy pub in the backstreets of Beirut, where we had been befriended by the manager and only waiter (read, free drinks and a table-full of snacks, to accompany the running commentary they gave).

It’s been quite the trip.

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