24 hours in Rome

Our flight back to London from Beirut was broken by a 24 hour stopover in Rome – lucky us!

Arriving in Rome on Saturday evening, we checked into our hotel and immediately charged out to try and catch a late dinner.

Staying near to the Pantheon, there were plenty of tourist restaurants, but with a bit of searching down the backstreets we found a suitably local little dive, full of boisterous Italian families eating and making merry.

We squeezed into a corner table, and ordered cheap pizzas and house red, and had the best dinner ever soaking in the atmosphere.

Not wanting to go home yet, we decided on a tiny, busy wine bar, where we could perch up at the bar and tasted two different local reds, and snapped pictures of every single corner of the tiny deli.

Next morning, we were on a mission – to walk from our hotel to the Vatican by midday, taking in as many sites as possible on the way.  Naturally, because it was just our luck, it was raining.

Our first stop was the impressive Piazza Navona, followed by a visit to the Pantheon, and the Trevi Fountain – which unfortunately cannot be spotted for all the scaffolding around it, and the lack of all water.

We made it to the Vatican in time to see the Pope appear and give his Sunday midday speech to the crowds assembled there.  Quite the showman, he paused frequently for applause, laughter, and cheering, before waving everyone off on their ways.

We stood in the 40 minute queue to visit the St Peter basilica, which was simply stunning and definitely worth the wait. Inside the basilica is covered in ornate gold paintings and mosaics, and statues of previous popes stand guard around the walls.  Pope John-Paul II’s tomb is also in one of the alcoves.

Running out of time, we started plodding our way back to the hotel, stopping off for lunch at another local dive.

The stereotyped Italian service was at full force, with the owner-waitress refusing point-blank our request for cheese on our pasta, mumbling angrily about how our meals would be ruined if we put cheese on them before stomping off to ignore us for a while longer.

Nonetheless we enjoyed our wine and pasta, before rushing off to the hotel to grab our bags and get back to the airport, for our flight home.

24 hours in Rome was stunning, but not nearly enough. We evidently barely scratched the surface of a truly wonderful city, and it’s with a very heavy heart that we realise our holidays are over.


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.

Wandering around Roman ruins. Literally.

Today was an unbelievable day.

After waking up, and having a Lebanese breakfast of foul and pita, with pomegranate juice, Tom and I set out to visit the famed Roman ruins of Tyre – one of the oldest cities in the world.

Buying our ticket at the gate, a nonplussed attendant waved in a general direction saying “start there, then walk in that direction”.

Turning the corner, there’s no way I can explain what we found.  We were quite literally stood IN Roman ruins.  We walked under a free standing arch, along a Roman road, to find hundreds of sarcophagi, scattered around the area.  No barriers, no restricted area, just a field full of incredible history that apparently no-one seems to care about.

Wandering among the necropolises, many of the sarcophagi had been cracked open – presumably by looters – the ancient, inscribed tops of the tombs lying upturned and shattered. Inside, the human bones lay scattered around.

On the road, almost perfect mosaics lay unprotected, for visitors to walk on.  It was astounding.

What is one of the world’s best preserved hippodrome ruins is found at Tyre, many of the arches and columns which once surrounded the field still stand; as well as a few parts of the stands.

One particular part of the stands are still perfect, rising approximately 20 metres tall, in pure white rock steps, topped with exquisite columns. Here aswell, no-one regulates visitors, so we were able to carefully climb the steps and sit, as the Romans did so long ago, and imagine the races that would have taken place on the round grounds.

I could go on about how beautiful the ruins were, but what left us most speechless was the fact that these ancient ruins lie, totally ignored, among the houses of Tyre, and visitors willing to pay a nominal fee can wander freely through the ruins!

Walking round town, we found 2 further sites – one of which we wandered into without even needing a ticket. The gates were left open, to the ruins of an old temple, old Roman town (houses intact), and whole streets of marble columns still standing.  It’s truly breathtaking.

We stopped at the old port of Tyre for a lunch of a whitebait-esque mini fish, overlooking the port which is partly flooded from the storm.

After a walk through the souks back to our hotel, we headed off for Sidon ( aka Saida).

Arriving in Saida, we checked into our hotel, to find a semi-shut, freezing building with no amenities, and an inordinately unfriendly receptionist – yet another of the small grouping of Lebanese men who have looked through me like I, as a woman, don’t exist, or worse, do exist as a form of particularly disgusting scum.

Having found out that, no, there’s no internet so we can’t work, and no, they’re not opening the restaurant tonight, and that yes, the only place to eat in town is that tent on the street serving kebabs, we asked: “Can we buy a beer anywhere?”

No, nowhere in Saida.

5 minutes later, we were back in the car to Beirut, for a good night’s rest in a warm hotel, a nice meal, and people who are positively happy to see tourists (even of the female variety) in their town.

The biggest storm in 10 years

Today was a long, tiring, slog of a day – although we did make the best of it and get a portion of things done as planned.

As it turned out, the storm which started yesterday is the biggest storm the region has seen in 10 years, and it raged all night with a vengeance.  The windows rattled as the wind howled, rain and hail lashed down, lightening lit up the room every few minutes and the longest, loudest thunder claps I’ve heard kept us up most of the night.  I’ve honestly never witnessed a storm like it.

In the morning, the storm just continued in the same vein, threatening all our plans to visit the ancient ruins at Byblos.  We eventually decided to put on our battle gear (all the clothing we have), and we ran out in the torrential rain.  We got soaked to the skin by the time we made it to the Byblos castle, at which point the rain stopped for long enough for us to visit the old castle.

The castle at Byblos has been around since the first few millenia BC, and has been restored, added to, and rebuilt by all the successive rulers of the area since.  The current main castle dates back to the 1100s, when the crusaders built up the citadel which still stands.  The whole area is very interesting and beautiful, set between the mountains and the sea.

The heavens opened again just as we were wandering around the ruins, prompting us to run through the old souks back to our hotel.

We packed up and left for the Jeita Grotto – a huge cave, full of some of the biggest stalagtites and stalagmites in the world – one particularly stunning specimen was over 8 metres in height.  Unfortunately, because of the rain only the upper cave was open, the lower cave – through which a river runs, and can only be visited by boat – was closed. We visited the upper cave, and then went for a spot of lunch in the restaurant overlooking the valley.

Then it was back in the car for a slog of a drive to Tyr – one of the oldest cities in the world.  We made it 3/4 of the way there, before the motorway disappeared, and we found ourselves at a military checkpoint, in the dark.  We got in a pickle, and stopped a couple of meters past the soldier (now shouting at us in Arabic).  Pointing a torch in our faces and shouting, we grinned madly saying “Tyr Tyr, sorry sorry” – to which he immediately lightened up, and  told us “Me this is my road, I say yes you go or no you don’t go – OK?”, OK, we assured him, can we go? “OK so me I say you can go to Tyr, you’re welcome”.  Saying our thank yous, smiling and waving, we pulled onto a dark, barely-tarmacked road, and hoped to heaven we were headed in the right direction.

At this point my trusty iPhone came in handy, and actually managed to navigate us through the backstreets and rural paths to Tyr, all the while the rain lashing down and the lightening flashing away.

We eventually pulled up to our hotel, to find our balcony door doesn’t  close, and our curtains are flying away in the wind.

However, they claim to have a sauna and steam room, so I’m off to find that now… and warm up.

The amazing day of snow, thunder, lightening and rain

Today we were up bright and early with the plan of going hiking in the cedar reserves.  After a breakfast of Lebanese cheese, foul and salad, we set off for the cedar park – the rain starting to pour down just as we left the hotel.

The higher we drove, the colder it got, and by the time we arrived at the park entrance it was punishingly cold – but the rain had stopped.

A very friendly park ranger explained that we could only be allowed in with a guide, as it was likely to snow, and they didn’t want tourists (as if there were any others apart from us) getting lost in the mountains. He also said we weren’t allowed hiking, again because of the snow, but he would get in our car and show us all the best spots.

So off we drove, the very bubbly Hassan overjoyed to be able to show off “his” park to the mad English tourists who had turned up in the middle of winter.

The cedar reserves are absolutely breathtaking.  At 1700 metres, the panorama of the surrounding hills littered with little villages is stunning, and the actual cedar trees in the reserve – white with snow – are so beautiful, it’s difficult to do them justice in an online blog.

At one point in the drive, Hassan braved up, and ordered us out of the car – just as the snow started tumbling down. He wanted to show us the oldest cedar tree in the reserve.

So we pulled on all the clothes we had, styled turban-esque head-wraps out of scarves, and set off hiking through the trees, as the snow absolutely whipped down.  It was worth it, we made it down to the 2,000 year old tree.

After much photo taking, we hiked back to the car, drove down to the guide’s headquarters, and said goodbye to Hassan – yet another incredibly friendly Lebanese person, who we will remember as an integral part of our trip, someone so very intent on showing us the best time, and showcasing his little part of Lebanon as best he could.

Driving back down the hills, we stopped off at the Beit Eddine palace, a beautiful ornately decorated old palace at the top of the valley, with a maze of rooms fitting for an oriental royal, and with a sweeping view over the valley.

Stopping off to collect our things from the hotel, we were back on the road, this time destination Byblos – to the north of Beirut.

As we started driving, it soon became clear that we were driving into a storm – of a scale I have rarely experienced.  The rain poured down, thunder and lightening clapped away, and the traffic went mental.  Driving very slowly through the river that had become of the motorway, we eventually made it to Byblos – storm in full swing.

We have been given a room directly on the seafront on a very high floor, with a glass window overlooking the sea. The size of the waves rolling in is astonishing, and the sheer noise from the whistling of the wind is deafening.  The power has been out 3 times while I’ve written this post, and the windows are leaking rainwater all over the hotel lobby.

While the snow made the cedars all the more beautiful, and a place I will never forget – PLEASE cross your fingers that this storm ends by the morning, so I can actually see some of Byblos!!!

And the road trip begins…

This morning we were up bright and early to pack up and ship out of Beirut, to start our driving tour of Lebanon.  We were initially hindered by an annoying taxi driver, who accepted the fare having been told the address, and only about 20 mins into the drive (on the other side of town) did it become apparent he had no idea where the street with the car rental office was. After much swearing in Arabic on his part, I jumped out the car to ask a friendly soldier for directions, followed by us driving 20 mins back in the same direction to the tune of much more swearing by the driver.   We eventually got to pick up our car an hour late, but at least we were off.

Tom drove us out of Beirut – which is quite a hair-raising feat, and we followed the coastal road south before turning inland towards the Mount Lebanon area.

We followed winding paths up into the hills, the temperature getting ever colder; and guessing the right way to go based pretty much on an eeny-miney-mo method of navigation, due to the fact that street signs are non-existent or in Arabic.

Luckily for us, we made it to Deir El Qamar, our first stop, in no time at all, and checked into a lovely hotel which is a converted old school, with views over the valley.

The very friendly hotel manager sat us down, gave us nuts and wine, and we discussed what to do with our afternoon. Before long, he had decided he would come out with us for the day, so we piled into his car for a tour of the town.

First we visited the old centre of Deir El Qamar, with exquisite buildings dating back to the 1500s and earlier.  However, it soon became apparent that our friend the hotel manager knows very little about the town, and in fact, only moved here 3 months ago.  So as we passed the local mayor’s office, I ducked my head in to ask for brochures about the town, to receive a very useful and informative 10 page guided tour of the town.

We spent hours strolling around the old palaces, mosques, churches, souks, and winding backstreets.  We also visited the wax museum, located in the old Emir’s palace – now essentially a palace full of life-sized wax figures of historically important people.  The old museum attendant obviously hadn’t had many visitors recently, and got inordinately excitable about the people portrayed in wax, often demanding that we take pictures of particular people.

One duo did tickle us – in the corner of one room stood George Bush senior, alongside the sitting Hezbollah commander Nazrallah… a bizarre pairing indeed!

Trekking around town, we also came across an old church, which was done up in the 16th century, but originally dates back to 451 A.D.

We jumped back in the car and our friend whisked us off to the Moussa Palace – simply put, the strangest place I have ever visited.

2 floors were filled with life-size dolls depicting everyday Lebanese life – some clustered around dinner, some outside farming, some dancing – all very eery looking dolls. Walking to the next floor, we were met by a 1-eyed man offering us cups of Lebanese coffee, and while we drank it he insisted on singing Arabic songs and beating a pestle and mortar for rhythm.  By the final floor of the museum – the underground cavern housing a gun collection – we were well and truly ready to leave, only for the power to go, and we found ourselves plunged into darkness underground, surrounded by fake people and guns.  Using our phones for light, we scarpered up the stairs and into the light.

Our hotel manager friend took us to lunch at his favourite snack bar and ordered us chicken wraps with garlic dip, with the restaurant owner grilling the chicken skewers on a fire in front of our eyes.  Very tasty!

Now it’s time to wrap up for the evening as temperatures are dropping.  I write this sat under blankets, with 2 pairs of socks on, gloves and a scarf, and still shivering.  It’s sure cold in the mountains.

Our last day in Beirut

Today was our last day in Beirut, before embarking on our 5 day road trip around Lebanon.

After a quiet morning working in the hotel, we set off to the National Museum of Beirut (in the absolutely torrential rain).

I have to say, I’m incredibly impressed with the National Museum, and KUDOS to the people who preserved it and loved it over the war years, and restored it so meticulously thereafter.

I have to admit I didn’t have the time to read up sufficiently on Lebanon’s history prior to arriving, and having spent a few days looking round Beirut, I’ve certainly felt the lack of knowledge.  The sheer mix of Christian and Islamic cultures, of Arabic, Roman and Greek influences – evidently spanning centuries – has baffled me, and made me wish I had better history of this region.

The museum begins with a brilliant exhibition of B.C. artefacts, ranging from statues of Egyptian gods to Roman mosaics.  The geek in me was stunned by the way Egypt, Rome and Greece merge – statues of seated gods with increasingly Greco-Roman features; Caucasian-featured figures with hieroglyph inscriptions.

Then a brilliant exhibition on the history of “Lebanon”, and the various powers that ruled/conquered – from the Egyptians, to Alexander the Great, to the Byzantine empire, to the Arab conquest, Crusaders, and again the Arab return.  I really began to make more sense of the mish-mash of culture in Beirut, and just how far back that dates.

We watched a 15 minute film about the restoration of the museum.  Impressively, all the artefacts were preserved from war by the then-museum director, by hiding all the pieces in concrete casings – which were only broken open in the 1990s, and then painstakingly restored into the very valuable small museum it is today.

On the afternoon, we visited the Omari mosque – the oldest mosque in Beirut, which was originally built as a Christian church, but then converted, leaving a very familiar church-esque building, with all the trappings of an ornate mosque.

We finished our day in Beirut with a walk along the waterfront to see a special rock formation off-shore, as the sun set.

In the evening, we enjoyed some coffee and chatter with the newly wed Lidija, and a mutual friend Judy who we haven’t seen in 12 years (!!), followed by dinner on the bustling Hamra street.

This has been our last day in Beirut, a city which has left us, to be honest, quite confused. Filled with so much history, and so much potential, it feels like Beirut shies away from its traditions and culture – trying to rebuild a city with Western glass skyscrapers and Starbucks.

I hope one day soon the focus shifts to saving the incredible architecture, and culture, we caught glimpses of – and which seem to be treated with disdain currently.

Tomorrow we head off on a wild road trip around the country – starting with the Cedar reserves, where we are told it snowed today – just to make things more exciting!

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