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.

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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.

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!

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… 🙂