Posts Tagged ‘lebanon’

Liking Lebanon Some More

October 21-22, 2009: Aside from general laziness, I took day tours in Lebanon partly because I really wanted to visit one of the two remaining

Khalil Gilbran

stands of Lebanese cedars. Even Lonely Planet recommended driving yourself or taking a taxi to reach the Chouf Cedar Reserve, and getting to The Cedars involved a bus to Tripoli, a shared taxi to Bcharre and a private taxi to the reserve.

Driving north out of Beirut we passed a lengthy traffic jam of inbound commuters, and a fully built up coastline at least as far as Byblos. I got a glimpse of the castle at Byblos as we went past, but the real interest lay inland, with views of the coastal mountain range. The scenery only got better as we turned inland, past vertical cliffs, deep gorges and tortured strata lines. But Bcharre was a disappointment: neither the scenery nor the town were particularly attractive. We stopped there to visit the Khalil Gibran museum, which contained a large collection of his art. I have to confess that after a few rooms I began to find the pictures repetitive, and turned my attention to the contents of his bookcases instead.

The Cedars near Bcharre

I had expected the Lebanese cedars to be tall and thin, but instead some of their spreading branches were nearly as wide as the trunks were tall. Sadly, the grove was also much smaller than I had imagined, and the guide told us that climate change threatened even those trees that were left. Cracks in the hard-packed earth demonstrated the on-going lack of rain. Walking under these ancient giants on a cool, grey, misty day I felt that I was attending a funeral.

Facade of the church at St. Anthony's

After another lengthy lunch we drove on through increasing mist to the Maronite monastery of St.Anthony at Qozhara. Originally a site for hermits, here the church was partially built inside a cave, and another cave nearby was a pilgrimage site, containing a bizarre collection of pots and pans, left by those who had had children after visiting. The otherwise missable museum contained the remains of a printing press dating to 1783.

My last full day in Lebanon should have featured a visit to the Roman ruins at Baalbek, followed by a wine tasting (yes, in Lebanon – Muslims are only around 60% of the population). But since the Ksara winery had a special event scheduled my tour had to start with the tasting. Not my favorite morning activity! Still, I found the Chardonnay, not a wine I would normally choose, surprisingly good, although I didn’t care for the rosé and thought the red too dry (and I do like my wines dry). The wines mature in barrels in underground caves, first discovered by the Romans, although the current winery dates back only to the early 18th century, perhaps the Romans also produced wine here.


Ksara is close to Zahle, at the entrance to the Bekaa valley, while Baalbek sits in the middle. We drove north up the valley, notoriously a Hezbollah stronghold, on a good divided highway, with Hezbollah flags decorating the lampposts in the median, but I couldn’t draw our guide out on the organization. On the other hand, she gave us lots of information, in French and English, on Baalbek. Although known now for the remarkably well-preserved Temple of Bacchus, and the massive columns remaining from the largely-destroyed Temple of Jupiter, originally this was a Phoenician site, with a temple to Baal. (Remember all those unflattering references to Baal in the Bible?)  While the site is large, most of the buildings have suffered badly over the years, but what remains standing is indeed worth seeing.

Lunch, back in Zahle, seemed to take even longer than on the preceding two days, and eventually our guide announced that our coach had a “small problem”. We never got an explanation of the “small problem”, but I had heard a distinct “bang” as we backed into a parking spot before lunch. We took off for our final stop in a different coach, with assurances that the original one would catch up with us. I certainly hoped so, as I had left several items on it that I didn’t want to lose, and viewed the Umayyad ruins in Aanjar with less than complete attention. Dating from the 700s, very early in the ascendancy of Islam, Romano-Hellenistic decorations had been married to an Islamic layout.

Umayyad City at Aanjar

Our coach had arrived by the time we finished at Aanjar, but we were running very late by then, and drove back to Beirut through mist and increasing darkness. By the time I finally reached my hotel I was happy just to walk round the corner for a final meal at Laziz – chicken livers, potatoes and red wine. The next morning I would return to Damascus.

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Liking Lebanon

October 19-21, 2009: The U.S. State Department, in its well-known nervous Nellie fashion, advised against ALL travel to Lebanon. The British Foreign Office only recommended staying north of the Litani river. Happily, I decided to follow the British advice. I found beautiful scenery, impressive sights, and a cosmopolitan capital city, plus I felt perfectly safe. In fact, after a week in Syria, visiting Beirut almost brought on culture shock, especially in the bustling Hamra district. Instead of women swathed in black and cafes full of men, everywhere I looked on Rue Hamra I saw young women in short skirts and tank tops smoking the remarkably popular nargileh! I saw the first Western chains, other than an occasional hotel, of the whole trip, with Starbucks, Costa, Subway and even McDonalds much in evidence. I ate one meal at Nandos, a South African chain I haven’t seen in the U.S., that sells delicious Portuguese style piri-piri chicken.

Old and new, just inland from the Corniche

The Casa d’Or was well-located just off Rue Hamra, and a couple of blocks

Along the Corniche

from what became my favorite place to eat, Laziz (http://www.timeoutbeirut.com/restaurants/article/1063/laziz.html), a place advertising traditional Lebanese fare. My first meal there, a late lunch, featured chicken livers in a delicious sauce and perfectly fried diced potatoes. Afterwards I walked north past the walls of the American University and down to the Corniche. The view of the Mediterranean was somewhat obscured by haze, and access to the water mostly blocked by private cafes. Aside from a few hopeful fishermen on the rocks, the views inland were more interesting, with lots of people strolling the promenade, and new glass and concrete buildings rising just beyond. In fact, on the Corniche you would hardly suspect that Beirut had ever been a war zone.

The next day I decided I didn’t have enough energy to head north to visit the Crusader castle and Roman ruins at Byblos, and felt that I shouldn’t waste an unusually comfy hotel room. I took care of some chores – paying my Capital One Visa bill, checking out hotels in Amman, doing a little grocery shopping (shampoo, yoghurt, orange juice). For lunch at Laziz I switched to pastry triangles – one set stuffed with spinach and another with chicken and cheese. I followed up with an actual macchiato at the adjacent Starbucks.

Then I visited the university, whose shining clean, honey-colored buildings were in stark contrast to much of the dirty grey stonework I had seen elsewhere in the Middle East. The site hovered just above the Corniche, with views out to sea. The university’s museum also impressed me, and I spent quite a long time with the well-lighted and well-labeled collections of Stone, Bronze and Iron age artifacts.

Beiteddine Palace

Rather than moving around, I had decided that Lebanon was small enough that I would stay put in Beirut and take day trips. I went with my hotel’s recommendation of Nakhal (http://www.nakhal.com.lb), although this turned out to mean that I spent longer than I would have chosen being driven to and from their offices way over near the National Museum. Especially on the way back – in late afternoon Hamra became one big, mostly unmoving, traffic jam.

Mosaic at Beiteddine Palace

The first day I went south, although not too far south. I had chosen to visit Beiteddine Palace, an early 19th century complex built for the Emir Bashir, because of the promise of a “magnificent collection of mosaics”. So, while both the interior and exterior decoration (carefully restored after destruction by the Israelis in the 1980s) impressed me, and I found the tour interesting, I was not pleased when our guide announced that we would have only 15 minutes to visit the mosaics. I was able to negotiate an extension, but still felt rushed. I would have chosen to spend longer admiring the beautifully maintained Byzantine mosaics and less time on lunch, although I have to say that Nakhal fed us well, with a full spread of meze and barbecue.

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To Beirut via Damascus

October 17-18 , 2009: Outside Damascus’ Khaddam train station, I rejected one taxi driver, who insisted on charging 300 SP for a 5km ride, and took the second, who settled for 100. He had some difficulty getting to my hotel, which we finally found nestled in a web of short one-way streets near a busy flyover. When the directions had mentioned Victoria Bridge, I had not envisaged multi-lane roads below as well as above the span. Still, the City Hotel (aka Al-Madinah) was walking distance from both the Old City and the National Museum and had helpful staff who gave me a big room with a street view. The lobby, with shiny, inlaid furniture was quite a sight, too.

The lobby at City Hotel

Despite immodium and antibiotics, my digestive system still felt fragile, but I

Shops mostly close for Friday in Damascus' souk

set off to explore regardless. A toasted cheese sandwich at the hole-in-the-wall Al-Santir, close to the hotel, went down successfully, so I carried on to explore the souk and the mosque. The souk felt almost formal: I strolled down a wide main street, with two story buildings supporting a metal roof, with few vendors calling out to me. Although all the local women had their hair covered, I noticed more variety than in the north, with fewer women in full black. The biggest surprise, though, was in the open space in front of the Umayyad Mosque, where stalls selling Qur’ans were nonchalantly tucked under soaring Roman arches. I stopped off for a delicious mint lemonade at Leila’s, before donning the required hooded cloak (beige, to distinguish infidels from black-clad believers) and entering the mosque. Although similar to Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque, Damascus’ was much more elaborate, and I had a lovely time admiring the detailed 8th century gold mosaics.

Damascus' Umayyad Mosque

Mosaics on the western wall in the mosque

For dinner I walked a short distance north to Al-Kamal, noting that Sharia Bur Said was much livelier and better lit than Sharia an-Nasr, which I taken back from the Old City. I dined carefully on lentil soup and a rice and meat dish washed down with a yoghurt drink.

Lonely Planet mentioned that the City Hotel was popular with Iranian tour groups, and when I went down to breakfast I found a big Iranian group in the dining room, with all the women swathed in black. The western tourists were hidden behind a head-high partition. I wasn’t sure who was being shielded from whom.

When I asked the front desk to call me a taxi to go to the Al-Samariyeh bus terminal, they sent a young man outside with me, to flag one down. He had instructions to negotiate for 150 SP, and had a little difficulty. The taxi dropped me at the front of the terminal, but then I discovered that buses and shared taxis to Beirut left from the far rear corner, where I had to put my luggage through a security check.

The actual road distance between Damascus and Beirut is quite short, just 30 minutes to the border from Damascus, and another 30 minutes on to Beirut. But clearing the border took a full 90 minutes leaving Syria, and another 30 minutes getting into Lebanon. I had to buy an exit/entrance pass to get out of Syria, as well as a visa to get into Lebanon. I crossed more than a man-made border when I changed countries. The countryside became quite mountainous, and greener, as we headed towards the Mediterranean coast.

The bus was supposed to go to Charles Helou bus station in central Beirut, but instead it dumped all the people who wanted to go the station at a road junction in the southeast of the city. Fortunately, an equally surprised Japanese tourist shared a taxi into town with me. I had a reservation at the Casa d’Or (http://www.casadorhotel.com) in the Hamra district, just south of the American University. Although my room wasn’t cheap, I was unprepared for its large size, or the fruit basket, or the mini-kitchen (although only the fridge was usable). It looked like I would be comfortable.

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The trip I most want to make is to follow the Silk Road through Central Asia, but it didn’t seem that this was the year. I got back from a month in France in May, and I didn’t feel that I had time to organize the visas and transport needed for a trip starting in Istanbul and finishing somewhere in the Himalayas, and leaving in August or September. So, having visited the eastern end in 2001, I decided to visit the western end this year, then next year maybe I could do the middle.

So Plan A was Eastern Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran.  But further research suggested I needed a Plan B.

  1. Turkey. I would start the trip in September, but this year Ramadan runs roughly from 22 August – 20 September. For that month, observant Muslims let nothing pass their lips from sunup to sundown. I have borderline hypoglycemia, and therefore have to eat lunch, but I wasn’t sure that I would find restaurants and cafes open during the day in the more conservative and less-traveled east. I also wondered about the availability of transport.
  2. Azerbaijan. Since the US started charging high prices for visas, other countries have reciprocated for people traveling on US passports. I was willing to pay the $131 visa fee (55 GBP for Brits), but then I learned that Azerbaijan had added a requirement for a Letter of Invitation (popular among former Soviet republics), which would run me at least another $75. Add in the cost of Fed Ex’ing my passport to Washington and back, and even if I didn’t use a visa service I was looking at well over $200 and it just didn’t seem worth the cost. Maybe the Azerbaijanis just don’t want tourists around – the Washington embassy website now says: “Due to technical reasons the Consular Section will temporarily work 2 days a week: on Mondays and Thursdays from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.”
  3. Iran. I waited until after the June election to apply for an Iranian visa, thinking that things might well be looser then. Well, we all know what happened instead. Based on posts on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree it seems that right now I can’t get a visa for either my US or UK passport. Rather than plan the trip and then regroup at the last minute when my application was refused, I reluctantly dropped Iran, too.

Well, the Silk Road was never a single rope, more a loose skein with threads slipping off in all directions. True, one route ran to Baku in Azerbaijan, another through Tabriz and on into Turkey. But further south goods were traded through Aleppo to Antioch, and via Damascus to Tyre. I still wanted to visit the Caucasus, but instead of Iran I’d make my first visit to the Middle East.

Plan B therefore was Georgia, Armenia, Eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. But I couldn’t work up great enthusiasm for the trek across Eastern Turkey, which would involve a lot of time on buses, not enough places worth a three night stop, and too much time added to the trip if I didn’t want to turn it into a bus marathon. Luckily, I learned that there’s a twice weekly flight from Yerevan to Aleppo.

Plan C:

  • Fly from RDU to New York on September 10th, staying for three nights. I’ll be visiting the city for longer than it takes to change planes for the very first time.
  • Fly New York to Istanbul to Batumi – Turkish Airlines say they will put me up in an airport hotel in Istanbul as I can’t make the connection to Batumi the day I arrive.
  • Roughly four weeks going overland through Georgia and Armenia, ending in Yerevan.
  • Flight to Aleppo on October 11th.
  • Roughly four weeks going overland through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
  • Flight from Amman to Istanbul for three nights.
  • Flight to New York for another three nights.
  • Fly back to RDU November 15th.

Let’s hope there won’t be a need for a Plan D. I am keeping an eye on the Georgia-Russia situation. Worst case I can fly Batumi-Yerevan instead of going overland.

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