Our trip into Lebanon was a bit of an adventure in itself…
From Krak des Chevaliers we took a taxi to the town of Tal Kala, and from there a microbus to the border. Things at the border went smoothly enough, but once across it appeared we would be at the mercy of the predatory taxi drivers who hung around offering the only onward transport from that point. Thankfully, a bus full of Syrians headed down to Lebanon to work and/or visit family was pulling out of the border post just as we were leaving. We flagged the bus down and climbed aboard. This was no luxury coach (not by a long way) but the fascination of our fellow passengers at our presence there with them made it an entertaining 90 minutes. All in all it was a bit more expensive, a bit faster, and much more interesting that the simpler route which would have taken us back to Homs, Syria, then on a scheduled bus service across the border. The afternoon was just beginning as we arrived in Tripoli (Trablous in Arabic), Lebanon’s second largest city.
Building Facades in Tripoli’s medieval market
We didn’t spend too long in Tripoli (not quite a full day) but it was still an interesting place, and I’m glad we visited. Some highlights:
The souq: More than anywhere else in the middle east this place had a REAL medieval feel to it. Partly because of the architecture (everything in stone, very narrow streets, tiny shopfronts with big spaces in behind) and partly because of the goods on sale (with the exception of some of the clothes, almost everything there could theoretically have been made in the 1300′s.)
The narrow streets of Trablous’ market. Our introduction to Lebanese hospitality came here. It was more about chatting than giving of gifts (as was the case in Syria.) Which worked out okay, because Lebanon is a much more western influenced country, and it seemed that virtually everyone spoke a bit of English or French.
Ali: Thsi guy knew how to get visitors to follow him on a tour of town. You don’t say “want a tour” or “I’ll give you a tour… cheap price” or anything of the sort. You grab them and say “here, I’ll show you something really cool” (like an abandoned Ottoman hammam only reachable by walking through the back of a fruit juice stall) and then say “this is my home! I love it here, and would like to show you around. I do this as a volunteer (though if you feel like it you can give me a tip when we’re done.) ” We spent most of our afternoon in Trablous with Ali, and he really did show us some neat stuff. If you’re ever in Trablous, Ali will almost certainly find you, and it’s definitely worth tagging along with him for a bit.
A dome in Trablous’ Grand Mosque. All throughout the city were former Byzantine churches that had been converted to mosques, virtually all of them having the common feature of a dome with a (formerly) windowed top from which the old bells had been removed.
Trablous was fun (and I kind of wish we’d stayed a bit longer) but the road called, and we headed down the coast for Beirut the morning after our arrival.
The Lebanese coast was interesting. At many points along the way you could have mistaken it for a bit of southern California… The scenery, architecture, and even the advertisments by the roadside were often very similar, though the impression never lasted TOO long, as sooner or later a cement plant, a profusion of simple arabic road signs, or a row of crumbling old buildings came along to erase it.
Arriving in Beirut was a bit of an adventure. First there was the traffic. It wasn’t that driving habits were any WORSE than in Syria. In fact they were about the same. It was just that in Lebanon the roads were wider, in much better shape and carried a lot more cars, so that the same poor driving practices could be carried to further extremes. Coupling this with the fact that Beirut was probably the least pedestrian friendly city I’ve ever been in, finding our way out of the bus station and to our hostel on foot was a challenge.
Find it we did, however, and our couple of days in Beirut were lots of fun.
Our first day took us on a walk through the city to the national museum. The streets of Beirut are interesting. So much of the city is pretty and old, or shiny and new, but every now and then you’ll look down a side street and catch a glimpse of a crumbing building scarred by bullets and mortar shells from the time of the civil war.
Bullet scarred buildings in Beirut
This occaisional disquiet is reinforced by obtrusive military presence. In fact, Beirut was probably the most militarized city I’ve ever seen. At almost every corner there were soldiers with automatic weapons, and every fourth one or so sported an armoured personnel carrier covered with camoflauge netting. Despite how distressing it sounds, we got used to it pretty quickly, and in next to no time, our only worries came from the aformentioned traffic.
French Mandate architecture in Beirut (Covering roughly the period between the first and second world wars, the French Mandate to run Lebanon had a powerful and lasting influence on the country.)
The national museum in Beirut was quite the place. It isn’t particularly large, and the collection is pretty, but not truly spectacular (like, say, the British Museum.) What it does have going for it is presentation. All of the exhibits are laid out in a gorgeous, spacious building constructed of cream coloured limestone and dyed concrete. They’re beautifully lit, generally well explained, and visiting the place is a real pleasure (except when the lights go off halfway through your visit. But that only lasted 10 minutes or so, and seemed to be a regular feature in most Lebanese cities anyhow.)
Part of Beirut’s reconstructed downtown. Many of the damaged buildings simply had their facades replaced, very often in an imitation of the original style (e.g. French Mandate, Ottoman.) The huge amount of construction going on (as well as the general appearance of prosperity) led me to wonder where all the money was coming from, especially since Lebanon didn’t really seem to have any major industries of its own.
The faux-Ottoman mosque (if you take a look back at the Istanbul entry it should look familiar) that was part of the reconstruction of downtown Beirut. As if to illustrate the (relatively) new harmony between religions that we observed everywhere in Lebanon, an Orthodox church was constructed right next door.
While our first day was spent in fairly touristy fashion, our second day in Beirut could easily have been that of a native Beiruti. In the morning we made reservations for dinner in the evening. We followed this up with a wander through the city’s reconstructed downtown shopping for some new clothes for Sarah (there’s actually a specific reason behind this, but it’ll have to wait for a later entry.)
As if to underscore the cosmopolitan nature of Beirut, we saw a Capoeira (a Brazilian Martial-Art-Dance sort of thing) group at the farmer’s market
The afternoon was spent with a leisurely stroll along the waterfront promenade known as the Corniche (just about the only place in the city where it’s pleasant and comfortable to walk.) On our way back, the Corniche was just packed with families and groups of friends out to enjoy the sunset and warm Saturday evening air. They were walking, cycling, roller-blading, playing badminton, or just hanging around having a picnic or sharing a nargileh (water pipe, usually filled with wonderful smelling flavoured tobacco.)
The “beach” along the Corniche. Beiruti’s love their swimming and sunbathing, which is obvious from the fact that they are willing to call this a beach. There were even a few women out, highlighting Lebanon’s much more relaxed attitudes. This was a relief to Sarah who had gotten a bit tired of being stared at, and even more tired of me nagging her (often for no good reason) to cover up her arms, head, back etc. etc.
The Pigeon Rocks at the end of the Corniche
Our Saturday night was (almost) the pinnacle of the (middle class at least [and unlike a lot of countries in the region Lebanon DOES have a large middle class]) Beiruti lifestyle.
We arrived just in time for our 22:30 dinner reservation (everyone in the middle east eats very late) just off the world famous Rue Monot. Rue Monot was formerly part of the “Green Line” that divided the Christian and Muslim halves of the city during the 16 year Lebanese civil war. After peace came, however, it was rapidly transformed into a trendy line of bars, clubs and restaurants, that have now expanded to cover several city blocks.
Sarah during our fabulous dinner on Rue Monot (did I mention how good the gnocchi was?)
Our dinner was absolutely fabulous. The Lebanese wine (a Cab-Sav, Merlot, Syrah blend) was delicious, my pasta was very good, and Sarah’s gnocchi was without a doubt the best either of us had ever tasted. While I’d been loving middle eastern food, a steady diet of it (especially on a low budget) led to this wonderful meal being something of a relief… Especially as Beirut is pretty much the one place in the Middle East where you can be guaranteed a good meal in a non-middle eastern restaurant. The atmosphere was wonderful too… The next table over was a big group that were having a huge, lively dinner and chattering away in Arabic, French and English all at once (Beirut may well be one of the most multi-lingual cities on Earth.) The street below the terrace where we sat was packed with cars full of people on their way out to clubs, on their way home from dinner, or just cruising around and showing off.
Traffic on Rue Monot. The number of expensive cars (and clothes, and watches…) was a bit of a shock and, for a while I found the seeming obsession with material goods in Beirut a bit off putting. In the end, I grew to like the city and found it a nice break from the “real” middle east.
We didn’t QUITE have the full Rue Monot experience as we decided to forgo the fancy (and from what I gathered, monstrously expensive) clubs and head home for an early(er) night before our trip up into the mountains the following morning.
Me fingering the huge wad of 1000 Lebanese Lira (1000 lira = about $0.70) notes we got as change one evening from a shop owner when we tried to pay for two beers with a 50 000 Lira note
Tags: Beirut, Lebanon, Llew Bardecki, Travel, Tripoli