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.