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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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.

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!

The “NO PHOTO” day

Last night we attended the wedding of the year – with the most gorgeous bride and groom, held in the swankiest hotel in town, with the most yummy and copious amounts of food I’ve eaten in years, and lots, and lots of dancing.

This morning Tom and I set off to discover Beirut, starting with a walk to the weekly farmers’ market held at the Beirut Souks. Walking past an unnamed building, with a pretty wall painted in the Lebanese flag, I stopped to take a picture.  Queue the first soldier with a machine gun running at me shouting “no photo!”.  I said sorry, stowed by camera and carried on walking.  En route, the heavens decided to open and we spent most of the 20 minute walk strolling through the rain, being hooted at by taxi drivers coasting beside us trying to convince us to get in.

Eventually we made it to the Souks, in time for the monsoon-esque downpour.  We huddled under the outdoor marquees with the sellers, being treated to free tasters of all their wares (ranging from handmade chocolates, to little Lebanese pies, to Syrian wine) – us being the only mad tourists visiting the market in the rain.  We came away with many little pies (double the amount we paid for), a pot of tea leaves, and a weird-looking fruit called a “Tourmella”.  The seller promised us a cross between a pineapple and a mango, with the green peel to fall off on its own when the fruit is ready to eat.  Well, we’ll see I guess.  Interestingly, every single seller decided to speak to Tom in English, and me in Arabic, bewildered by my apologies and insistence that I don’t understand.

Onwards we went, visiting the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St George, and arriving outside the Lebanese Parliament.  “Can I go inside?” I asked the armed guard, doubtfully.  “YES OF COOOOURSE!” he grinned.  Looking at the barbed wire fence, dubiously, I said, “Are you sure?”.  “Yes no problem.” OK, I thought, so I tried in French.  Looking alarmed, he said “No No No No”, laughing, and waved us on our way.  Didn’t think so.

At the beautiful turqouise-roofed Al Amin Mosque I was handed a full black burqa to put on over my hot pink raincoat, with the attendant good-humouredly grinning “We don’t allow colours”.  The inside was incredible, with a very ornately decorated ceiling.

On leaving, I tried to take a picture of the city panorama.  This time a very angry man with machine gun shouted at me to stop taking pictures… (WHY???).  We also visited the Martyr’s Statue, sadly lost in the middle of a busy square full of parked cars and building works.

With the skies opening again, we headed back towards to the Souks, trying to take pictures of the Government Palace and some nice architecture on the way.  Naturally, “no photos” (even of derelict buildings).  We also were met with guffaws of laughter when we asked if we could go inside the Palace. We stopped off for a beer at the Souks to plan our next move, in a quirky roof-top bar, decorated as a garden with plants growing from the walls.  The friendly attendant pulled up a heater to next to my chair, telling me “You look colder than everyone else”.

Setting off home, we decided to visit the old Jewish quarter of town, boasting the city’s biggest and oldest Synagogue.  On the corner of the street, barricaded with barbed wire, an annoyed looking soldier stomped out: “What?” “We want to visit the Jewish quarter”, we said.  “It’c closed”, he said.  “Can we visit the Synagogue?”, we asked.  “What’s that?” “The Jewish temple”, we answered.  Looking confused, the soldier sent us back in the opposite direction, concluding that all roads in the area are closed.

Trying to be tricky, we decided to try the other end of the street.  This time, as I rounded the corner, a soldier came running.  I smiled, asking: “Can I take some pictures?” The good-natured man replied, “I don’t mind, but you’ll be in trouble with the police if you do.”  Oh well.  After a brief chat with the soldier about England, the weather, us assuring him we definitely do love Lebanon, and listening to his recommendations of where to visit, we walked off back home.

The conclusive lesson for today? No photos.  Not even if you’re a tourist girl in a pink raincoat.

Our first day in Lebanon

At 4.45am, January 1st, 2015, Tom and I set off bleary eyed and still possibly a bit drunk, to Beirut, Lebanon, on one of our signature wacky trips.  This time, the trip is provoked by the wedding of one of my oldest and best friends, Lidija.  I can’t wait.

After a quick flight, we disembarked in Rome, Italy, for a 6 hour layover, prompting a bewildering rush to the centre of beautiful Rome.  My first time in the city, it is dazzling and confusing in its endless grandeur and pomp.  I didn’t know cities exist in the world which heave with such spectacular architecture everywhere you look.  Where to even point the camera? After a quick walk around the streets surrounding the forum and the Colosseum, it was back to the airport to get on our connecting flight to Beirut.

Following a flight during which we categorically awarded Alitalia the “rudest staff in the air” prize, we landed in Beirut.  A very merry man was waiting to wring our hands, welcome us, and march off to the car (which we eventually found in the carpark, through a team effort of “spot the flashing car lights”!).

Arriving in the Hamra district of Beirut, my heart sunk as, from the car window, I spotted our hotel, over the piles of rubble, down a dauntingly dark alleyway.  Oh-oh.

Nonetheless, a very friendly man ushered us inside to the hostel, which seems to be the only building in the street to survive intact and lived-in.  Squeezed into the lift on the way up to our room, our friend, explained to us that we’re very welcome in his Syrian hostel, which is usually for local Syrians, the owner being Syrian.  I’ve never been more terrified.

Our room was a throw-back to backpackers Kenya, with a 1 metre squared balcony allowing us to take in the view… of, well, rubble.

We quickly decided to venture out for dinner, so queue the first Beirut lesson: when crossing a road, just close your eyes and run.  Crossing a road in Beirut, is easily one of the most death-defying stunts I have ever performed.

We found a lovely little local cafe in a side street, where we plonked ourselves down and realised we don’t understand anything on the menu.  We ordered two local beers, and pointed at two pieces of “mezze” to take.  “That’s not a meal”, our waiter told us, in rusty English.  So we pointed at something else, “No”, he said.

“We don’t understand the menu,” I told him. “Can you help?”

“Take everything,” he said…

Finally, we arrived at a selection of foods (not everything), and enjoyed a very tasty Lebanese meal, before bravely venturing back to our hotel for a well-earned sleep.

In the morning, we spent over an hour wandering the streets for breakfast, being told that breakfast is only served from 11am onwards.  Maybe a lesson that breakfast isn’t eaten over here? (We’re still not sure).  We packed up, and jumped in a taxi to a new hotel (we had high hopes).

10 minutes into the drive, the taxi driver thrust a mobile at Tom, saying “my boss”… to which Tom was explained we must get out of the car and walk the rest of the way, as the streets are closed on Fridays.  Bewildered, we got out, and took out my free map of Beirut.

After 30 mins or so of wandering hopelessly around the streets of Hamra with our suitcases, a girl walked up to us: “Can I help you?” We went on to try and figure out where we needed to go, before another 2 young men walked over: “Do you need more help?” In the end, our 3 new friends helped us off in the right direction.  Apparently Lebanese students are unbelievably friendly!

Another few blocks down the road (and a bit lost again), a young couple stopped us: “What are you looking for, can we help?” (Again!!!) This time they were able to give us directions which got us straight to our new hotel, which MUCH to our relief is lovely!

We spent the afternoon wandering the streets of Hamra, trying to take it all in.

Now to get ready for the wedding of the year… 🙂