A Travellerspoint blog

Lebanon

Grottoes and Levantine Conclusion


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large_5550_12794649143918.jpgPlaque at Dog River.
Grotto Excursion and More

This is my last day in Beirut [Beirut-travel-guide-1041297] before I fly out in the evening to Dubai then Colombo. There’s a whole day to fill. I invited Claire (also staying at the hostel) to join me in going to the Jeita Grottoes.

We made a brief stop at Nahr al-Kalb (Dog River or Lycus River for those familiar with history) . This river is marked with many historical plaques commemorating victories over the centuries, ranging from Arabic, Roman, French (Napoleon), Greek and ANZAC etc.

The Jeita Grottoes themselves were pretty amazing, but unfortunately no photos are permitted:

* The Upper Grotto consisted of a very deep cavern which visitors walk through in amazement because of the size and complexity of the formations.large_5550_12794649144709.jpgPlaque at Dog River.They’re not just plain up-and-down stalagmites and stalactites ... the patterns can be likened to trees, honeycomb etc.

* The Lower Grotto is not as big but it is slightly flooded. Visitors are barged through the grotto. The illumination within, reflected on the water leaves shimmers of aqua and gold on the formations. It is just so so so beautiful.

We filled in the rest of the day at Byblos [Byblos-travel-guide-1319134], which is an ancient harbour with Roman remains ... civilisation there existed before Roman times and the various civilisations built on top of the ruins of the previous.

Racial taunts gone wrong

While at Byblos some Lebanese tried doing some racial taunts thinking that I was from China .[http://images.travbuddy.com/5550_1279464915696.jpg]Claire & I at the Grottoes ... transport is provided to get around.... it went like “shing shong shing shong” because the “ch” sound does not exist in Arabic, and their closest equivalent is “sh”. Or strictly speaking it should be “tsh” ... that’s how they handle foreign words like “Karachi” (kinda spelt as Karatshi in the Arabic script).

The Lebanese Riviera

On the way back to Beirut, we took a bus that didn’t take the motorway but the coastal route. Only then did we realise the full extent of the Lebanese Riviera.

The coast was dotted with many hotels with pools packed to the brim. There were also amazing huge restaurants with both alfresco and air-conditioned dining.

Then there are the Beach Clubs ... this is not about swimming in the sea. There may not beven be sand. There are pools but it is all about posing, eating, drinking and dancing all day in the trendiest swimwear .large_5550_12794649153338.jpgByblos Harbour... getting wet seems optional and secondary.

Conclusion before Leaving the Levant

Before this trip, Syria was my favourite country as it had an interesting mix of Roman, Crusader, Ottoman and Arab relics. All this was made better by the amazing value ... things used to be ridiculously cheap.

But now, it isn’t that cheap ... it’s still not expensive. I still like it heaps ... but I’m starting to think if there should be a new favourite? Maybe not.

People in Syria are still hospitable and genuine (by and large). Lebanon in general is similar ... but Beirut is (and has been for a while) a very glitzy and hedonistic place. The food (including ice cream) in Syria is often just as good for a fraction of the price, but in Beirut, it’s all about being seen and wearing the right gear.

I’m not sure if I’ll be back to Beirut for a fifth time ... but I certainly won’t turn down another Syrian adventure if it fits in well with my future plans!

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Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Lebanon Comments (0)

Bar-hopping in Beirut


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Tedious Border Crossing

I chose to take a bus from Damascus to Beirut [Beirut-travel-guide-1041297] rather than a shared taxi. The actual time you spend moving is around 2 hours. Then there's another 2 hours with the immigration formalities ... an hour on each side of the border.

This is the first time I've used this crossing, as all my previous experiences have been with the border crossing north of Tripoli. It was busy for people and passenger vehicles ... for trucks it was a nightmare as I could see them backed up for kilometres.

Combined with a passenger having some issues (not knowing all the required information on the arrival card), our journey took over 5 hours!

My theory is that a service taxi shouldn't be much quicker if it arrives at the checkpoint when a bus is there too ... but if there's a next time, I'll certainly be paying a tad more and using a taxi.

Bar-hopping in Beirut

This is my last night in Beirut, so I'm acting half my age for a change! I got invited out by other travellers ... we bar hopped ... we had cocktails and drinks at two places (during Happy Hour). This was followed by ice cream and people-watching in the Beirut Central District area. I piked before 11pm and skipped the third bar ... not sure if there was a fourth!

Our hostel is in the Gemayzeh area ... it is rather sleepy during the day but it certainly throbbing by about 10pm when the bars and restaurants come alive. People eat late and party late into early hours of the morning.

Tummy Torment?

It is uncanny that my tummy is slightly unwell tonight. I'e been fine eating off the street in Syria and I'e been fine ... then after a day eating in glitzy Beirut, I' having issues. It may not be bug-related ... it could be just too much olive oil!

Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Lebanon Comments (0)

Little Australia in Lebanon


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large_5550_12784369545900.jpgThe Qadisha Valley looking out to Bcharre, with its stone houses and terracotta roofs.
This morning I took the bus up into the hills and the Qadisha Valley, which is the stronghold of the Maronite Christians. The bus was meant to be a fraction the price of the shared taxi but as the driver was on the phone when I boarded, I couldn’t confirm the price ... so he overcharged me at the end ... but it wasn’t by much in the scheme of things. It was a very Christian mix of passengers and a very Christian bus with its adornments ... so how very Christian of the driver too! But the need to make a living (or sometimes greed) overrides any religious belief.

I hopped off the bus at a village called Bcharre [Bcharre-travel-guide-1041276] which is the home and resting place of Khalil Gibran, a famous poet (things like that are lost on me).large_5550_12784369552335.jpgAnother view of Bcharre.But I didn’t do a second visit to Bcharre for him.

On board my flight from Dubai to Beirut, I sat across from a 71 year old Lebanese Australian (Pat) who invited me to his village Kfar Sghab. From Bcharre, there were no shared taxis so it would have been a private taxi only ... the driver wanted too much so I tried hitching. I soon found that I didn’t have the right assets for the job.

When I had given up, I TXTed Pat to say that I wouldn’t be making it but he picked me up from Bcharre. After a stop to have his car washed and valet’ed we proceeded to his holiday home ... it was a stone, concrete and marble mansion.

His grandson was with him and his brother was coming up with another family member from Sydney tonight. What impressed me what the Lebanese in Australian try their best to maintain their culture:

* Some come to visit annually and escape the Aussie winter.large_5550_12784369567663.jpgKhalil Gibran.
* They own homes here.
* The second generation born in Australia (ie. grand children in this case) visit too ... and they can even speak Arabic still.
* They’re still strongly religious, (Maronite Christian in this case).

There is a Parramatta Road in Kfar Sghab. About 15,000 Australians trace their roots to this town!

I’m grateful for the hospitality ... I was offered lunch, arak, to stay, shower etc. After nice long chats on the balcony overlooking the Qadisha Valley, I was dropped back to the lowlands on the side of the motorway to bus back to Tripoli (they had to head to the Airport to pickup bro). I didn’t leave empty handed as I was given a goody bag of Lebanese sweets (I refer to them as cakes).

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Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Lebanon Comments (0)

Moving up the coast


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large_5550_12785111481827.jpgClock tower in Tripoli.

The other Tripoli

This morning I moved up the coast from Beirut [Beirut-travel-guide-1041297] to the second largest city, Tripoli (Trablous) ... which bears the same name as the one in Gaddafi-land (Libya). The coastline is very built up along most of the way with high-rise apartments, beach clubs, factories etc.

One thing I’m certain of is that Beirut is the place for the rich and the beautiful ... but you don’t have to wander far (eg. southern Beirut) to see Yemen-like conditions. That’s the same in Tripoli. The divide between rich and poor is quite great.

It is easy to forget that Tripoli is a large modern city as well ... over the years and even now, I have to keep reminding myself that Tripoli is in Lebanon .large_5550_12785111497803.jpgThe main square; gotta pull out the pics from 2002 to compare. Can't remember it being so smart... not Syria. It just seems like worlds apart from modern Beirut that I tend to associate it (around the Old City anyway) with Damascus and Aleppo.

I do faces really well

This morning, as I was making my way to my “Pension Haddad”, a man offered to help me ... he said that he is Haddad’s neighbour. At that point I recognised that he was the owner of the Pension we stayed with 8 years ago which was opposite Haddad. I apologised profusely for not staying with him this time as he had renovated and put the prices up substantially ... he had gone a bit upmarket.

Meet the Haddads

My Pension is interesting :

* Coming up to the 2nd floor (English designation), was a shocker. The stairs was filled with rubbish including blood-stained tissues.large_5550_1278511149654.jpgThe main square; gotta pull out the pics from 2002 to compare.
* It is an extended family with grandmother, mother, daughter, aunt etc.
* I have a room with three beds; so not sure if you call that a dorm room ... it has a balcony where they hang their washing so I suppose I have to leave the door open for them during the day to access. It gives them air and light too into their living room.

Is the Magic still there?

Tripoli’s main attraction is the Citadel of St Gilles of Toulouse. It’s part of the Crusader movement down the Levant in the 1100s but what we see now was rebuilt in the 1300s. Second time round, it is still more than impressive. It’s quite surreal that you can have a 700 year old Crusader citadel with an Middle Eastern medieval labyrinth and modern city all side-by-side.large_5550_12785111504174.jpgMaamoul (cake) shaped soap.

The soap factory has changed a bit in the last 8 years. They made plain blocks of soap (of different colours and scents) then. Now, they are nicely packaged and they even have soaps shaped like cakes ... my favourite is the ma’amoul shaped soap.

It’s not quite the special treatment we got 8 years ago when we got given a private tour by the kids, of the upper level why they dry their cannonball soap of different colours and scents ... followed by a clamber on the rooftop and hopping on the neighbouring ones including the hammam!

Yes, the magic is still there second time around. It’s not quite the same but there are lots of finer points I’m picking up on second time round (including in the cuisine) that makes it very rewarding too.

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Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Lebanon Comments (0)

Holiday in Hezbollah Land


View 2010 Colombo, Lebanon, Syria & Aceh on alexchan's travel map.

large_5550_12783231245212.jpgThis is what Baalbek used to look like.
This morning I took my third trip to Baalbek ... yes, it is that good ... it is the most impressive Roman ruins I’ve been to (not that I’ve been to that many). The Lonely Planet says it outshines any of the Temples built in Rome itself.

This has always been a poor and conservative area and the Hezbollah have made inroads into the people’s hearts by providing what the government hasn’t ... schools, water, medical etc. Like the Islamist party in Yemen. A bit like the Salvation Army.

What’s different this time is that the Hezbollah have setup an information centre right at the entrance to the Baalbek ruins. I took a peek and there were no-holds-barred pictures of body parts and charred bodies from Israeli attacks.

Local vendors are now also selling Hezbollah T-shirts. Not a good shirt for going through airport security or customs on the way home.

By the way, the thing that was conspicuously absent on this excursion were Syrian soldiers. The Syrian withdrawal after my second trip has left the intercity roads now staffed by Lebanese soldiers.

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Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Lebanon Comments (0)

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