10.06.2017 - 18.06.2017
Saturday, Sunday 10th - 11th June.
No direct flights from Manila to Beirut (not that surprising), and so as we were touching down in Dubai en-route anyway, we decided to stay a couple of nights. Arriving late we checked into the Sofitel and promptly fell asleep hoping that jet-lag wouldn’t suddenly arouse us in the middle of the night.
We needn’t have worried – we awoke about 6ish (a lie-in compared to Manila) and enjoyed a decent breakfast downstairs. After a quick wander outside we eventually caught a public boat all the way to the north of the city, passing the Burj hotel and various other landmarks such as the Palm and massive, sky-tickling towers packed too close together.
At the other end we passed through old Dubai, finding possibly the only café serving food and drink during Ramadan as well as the old Souqs. So hot, I don’t know how the locals fasted all day. We kept on popping into public toilets with bottles of water smuggled in bags etc…
But, we ended the ‘fast’ on floor 148 of the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world. Baclava and soft drinks were brought out as the sun finally faded from view. A stunning view, looking down on top of already incredibly high buildings far below us. The fountain show started up in the man-made lake 148 floors below us and gave us a different perspective on the event.
Later, after riding the mightily efficient light train service now in operation in Dubai, we were back on the waterfront by the Sofitel. We found a falafel place and completely over-ordered and over-ate. Great food though.
Dubai is quiet during Ramadan. Cafes are shut, few people are around – the religious festival seems to grind the city to a halt until sundown. Then, the restaurants and cafes come alive with fast-ending Iftah buffets.
Monday 12th June.
We flew from Al Maktoum Airport in Dubai. Barely open after renovations, we found ourselves almost alone in a huge airport. There were two flights only operating that day and the one we were on was about 15% full. We arrived into Beirut mid-afternoon and after some feeble negotiating our expensive taxi driver happily deposited us at Le Commodore hotel in the area of Hamra in Beirut. With time to spare we went wandering.
The impact and effects of the Civil War were immediately obvious. New buildings with massive balconies stretched impressively skyward. The centre of Beirut near the old souqs had been re-built and although it lacked atmosphere (and people) one day soon hopefully, it will once again bustle with activity. Talking later with local people we discovered that the purchasing of the land and the gentrification of this part of the city may not have been completed in an entirely honest manner. This was a shame as it did (and does) have the potential to be beautiful.
In other places empty structures riddled with bullet holes provided a solemn reminder as to the grizzly and all too recent past.
Beirut, we found, is expensive. However, we came across a great little place called Le Patio (a strong French influence throughout the country was evident at all times) that served good local wine at cheap prices with a decent view of the sun dipping into the Mediterranean.
Nearer our hotel we found a lovely little restaurant called Abu Naim and we tucked into our first Lebanese food. It was just as good as we hoped it would be – hummus, matabal, tabouleh, wonderful freshly baked bread and various egg-plant dishes. We ate too much – something that would turn out to be rather a common theme.
Tuesday 13th June
We woke early and set off for the Corniche which proved to be only about a 15 min walk away past the university. We ventured left after hitting the sea and eventually found the Bay Rock café overlooking Pigeon Rock. The coffee was over-priced and poor, but the view was excellent. We got back in time for breakfast at the hotel.
Then to the national Museum, which deliberately avoided any mention of the Civil War unfortunately and preferred to focus attention on Beirut’s Phoenician and Roman past.
We then headed to Tawlet – a wonderful little café, famous for its food. And rightly so. We stayed ages, trying everything their buffet offered. Lebanese food truly is fantastic. Needing a walk afterwards, I returned slowly to the hotel via the old souqs again and Marsha went shopping. We met in a bar later and ventured up to Iris – a roof-top bar. Not knowing quite what to expect, we suddenly found ourselves in amongst the rich and famous of Beirut. Clearly out of place in shorts and t-shirts and flip-flops, we decided against staying and having a $20 drink. Instead we found another roof-top bar (Grey’s) and in a much quieter environment enjoyed a slightly less expensive drink before returning home.
Wednesday 14th June
The previous day we’d organized a taxi to pick us up. Geiss was the driver’s name and he took us to Batroun north of Beirut along the coast. There, we hired bicycles just as the wind picked up and the first few drops of rain fell. We rode around the old souqs and found an old Phoenician wall on the coast serving as a sea defence. There was even a small Roman theatre in someone’s garden!
We rode the bikes back nearly as far as the town of Byblos. Here, in a town continuously inhabited for 8000 years, the Dravidian alphabet is thought by some to have originated. The little port was very picturesque, little boats bobbing up and down peacefully in the water. A group of small schoolchildren excitedly cheered on teachers desperately trying to set alight and send a fire lantern into the sky. It all could have turned nasty when one of the teachers finally let go thinking the flaming lantern would rise gloriously upward. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Instead, it pitched to the side and drifted through the group of traumatised children who scattered for safety.
We watched from afar, and after checking that nobody was suffering from third degree burns we ventured up to the castle. Mostly in ruins, it still gave great insight into what it would have been like to live there centuries ago. It had great views out along the coastline.
Then to the souqs, yet more great food and a persistent waitress who at one point I thought literally wouldn’t let us leave unless we’d recorded online how lovely she and her service was.
From Byblos to the surprisingly wonderful Jeita Grotto en-route to Beirut. Cave systems don’t generally do it for us – but this one was tremendous. Massive stalagmites and tites in cavernous underground spaces. Far below us through precarious cracks and crevasses in the rock we spied a blue river still gauging out a path.
The visit involved a boat ride along the underground river later on. We only travelled several hundred metres upstream – apparently many km have been discovered though. Has to be said, this outdoes the Philippine underwater river in Palawan that beat them to the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.
Back in Beirut – we were still full from our massive lunch and so we had an early night.
Thursday 15th June
Geiss picked us up again – pretty early at 730am. We drive over the 2000m high hills of Lebanon to the east of Beirut and down the other side into the Beqaa Valley. Across the valley, not 20 mins away was the border with Syria. This was Hezbollah territory, indeed we saw shirts and caps with the Hezbollah image of guns lovingly adorned for sale in many places.
Roman and Phoenician ruins are in evidence everywhere in Beirut and its surrounds. It is weird to see Roman ruins riddled with bullet holes! But, there is no better sight in the Middle East than Baalbek. Our visit to this huge Roman site was made all the better by being there alone – no other tourists whatsoever – for the first hour. Gradually we were joined by 10 or 15 others.
Huge columns supporting decorative ceilings that would have once formed absolutely enormous temples dominated the skyline. We wandered around happily for a couple of hours snapping photos that we knew couldn’t do justice to the place.
Occasionally persons from Islamic State snatch people from here, but we saw nothing of this.
In fact, the people were very welcoming. On the ride over we stopped at an Arabian sweet store and the owners were so happy to see us they gave Marsha a free piece of Lebanese cheesecake. Then, before visiting the ruins, we stopped at what was claimed to be the largest stone in existence. There, a shop owner came out and gave us coffee for free.
After Baalbek we visited 2 wineries for tasting – Ksara and Kefraya. Both were very good, especially the first for some superb whites and at the second more for the reds. We stayed and had lunch at Kefraya – once again eating far too much, meaning that we didn’t go out for dinner again. Instead, we popped out for a walk along the Corniche and ended up at a rooftop bar watching the sunset. Later we explored our local area and found several bars and we propped one up for a while before going to bed.
Friday 16th June
Friends of friends kindly met us at the hotel and took us to the Teleferique cable car. 650m further up the hills afforded us great views of the Lebanese coastline. The ‘Our Lady of Lebanon’ was perched on a pedestal above us.
We stopped off at an ice cream store on the way home – it was absolutely huge. That evening we went to Anno – an Armenian restaurant near our hotel which we’d been recommended. With good reason, great food.
Saturday 17th June
Marsha found a walking tour online that had been reprised. For 3hrs we joined about 12 others wandering around the city hearing about the history. To be honest, the guides weren’t that special, but what made it super-interesting was the other people in the group. There was a local lady who described the area before, during and after the civil war. She pointed out old buildings still displaying war scars as well as showing us newer structures and explaining what used to stand in its place. Then there were the local men and women who poked their heads into our tour as it continued and gave their honest opinions on modern day Beirut. A Brazilian, who currently works in Syria, described life in that war-torn country. He presented a place free from fighting and blamed the western media for stirring up trouble. The truth was probably somewhere in the middle – but it was very interesting talking to him.
We stopped for lunch at an Albanian restaurant again – easily the best value place we went to: Badgeur. Highly recommended – and artisan place.
Once again, we ate too much and decided to walk it off with a long walk home and then along the Corniche later. We eventually caught a taxi to a local pub called Ferdinand and had some non-local type food for once – a burger. It was a great little place though.
Sunday 18th June
After breakfast we took a taxi to Sidon and met up with our friend again. We visited the old fort situated on the water in the town and then a soap museum. Then we escaped the hot weather and drove into the hills up to Jezzine. We enjoyed a drink overlooking the low hills below and a waterfall to our side. The coolish breeze blowing in our faces was refreshing after the heat of Beirut.
Back down the hill and off to Beirut again. As it was Ramadan, we decided to do an Iftah on the waterside at Boulevard Beirut. This is a buffet designed to end the day-long fast. We hadn’t fasted but, enjoyed it all the same.
Then a little sleep before the alarm roused us just after midnight and it was sadly time to say goodbye to Lebanon. There were places still to visit and many reasons to come back. The hills to the north remained unexplored as did all the monasteries hiding away up there, the Cedars where all the skiing takes still need to be seen and then there were so many good places to eat we still hadn’t made it to.Lovely being in the Middle East again.