Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Byblos and Tripoli (the lesser of the famous ones)

We had overstayed our welcome in Beirut and thought we should head northbound. The question was how? The idea of dragging around luggage on a bus or service taxi had little appeal. Renting a car seemed more practical. We checked out of the Port View Hotel and caught an aging diesel chirping Mercedes to a row of car rental cubicles bunched together at the airport. With keys in had we piled in the luggage in the trunck and started heading north up the coast to the picturesque Jounieh in search of Jeita Grotto. Leaving the airport in southern Beirut  we passed a row proudly displayed Hezbollah, Amal Movement, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, and Ayatollah Khomenin signs posted along the median..   

With Arabic music playing and the a/c cranked, we patted ourselves on the back for renting a car. The question is how do we get to where we are going? On the tip of Jounieh we were on the lookout for any sign pointing to the grotto. The exit took us up the hill through a series of small towns and at some point in Jeita the road splits and you descend into the Nahr al-Kalb valley. You know you're on the right path once you pass the hall of fame sign then a house that looks like Noah's Ark halfway into the valley. 

A few meters later you arrive at two cement  gnome like sculptures and a group of guys attempting the roadblock approach with flags trying to make you pull over to their makeshift olives and honey storefront.  

Jeita Grotto is Lebanon's number one tourist attraction and is competing for a spot as one of the new seven wonders of the world. There are two limestone caves, the upper and lower. The lower one involves a 10 minute boat ride except winter it is closed due to high water levels. The underground river is also the souse of fresh drinkable water. Thinking of bringing your camera? Don't! There is a strict policy prohibiting cameras and thus I've resorted to "borrowing" images off the internet.

The upper cave stretches almost 7,000 feet (1.3 miles) with a walkway that stops visitors at the half-mile mark.  For me that was the point where the oxygen levels were getting low. Impressive and understandable why this attraction is a must see. Does it qualify for be one of the new 7 wonders of the world? Maybe so. You can check out their competition by clicking here

When Santa isn't busy entertaining children on his lap he vacations on the side of the road thrusting his hips, shaking a cane and puffing on a water pipe blowing out burnt motor oil from his mouth. Perhaps also bidding for the runner up spot for as a wonder of the world. 

Next on the list was the seaside town of Byblos also known and spelled as Jbail, Jbeil, Gebal, Gibelet. The fishing harbor is surrounded by fancy restaurants including Pepe's which was filled with photos of bygone celebrities and enough bric-a-brac to keep this ADD author busy for hours. 

The Crusader's Fortress built in the 12th century. Want a 360 view of it click here. The grounds include temples, city ramparts, deep wells, tombs, and Roman columns and amphitheater by the sea.

I'm guessing not a 12th century structure.

While walking around hardly any signs were visible making us privy to what we were observing. The one we did spot was on the edge of a deep well and there was no way in hell we were about to climb down there.

For some reason the song Cheaters Never Win by Love Committee popped into my head the moment we stumbled upon this sculpture. Really love the placement of the broken head bust.

City ramparts with the Roman era columns in the background.

In the old souq/market area of Byblos tucked along a narrow path lays Memoire Du Temps hosting 100,000,000 (yes one hundred million) year old extinct fish fossils. The fossils were discovered in the family owned quarry and many of the prize pieces are prominently displayed in museum collections around the globe. At the workshop/showroom/store you can see the owner and his nephew work away while telling you the histories about the fish. If you wish to own a piece of history you can do that for as little as $10 and it includes a certificate of authenticity. To learn and see more click here.     
This piece is about 4 feet in length. It looks like a string ray meets a jellyfish with a jigger of shark. At first spending the night in Byblos sounded like a good idea until we saw a row or more like a traffic jam of nice cars filled with hungry people salivating at the thought of a Sunday dinner. It was our cue to head further north before the sun faded into the Mediterranean.  
In theory Tripoli sounded like a good idea. We should have known better with the traffic going into the center. Once we reached the Old City it was like warping back to Cairo. What a difference an hour ride makes; the scene in Tripoli couldn't have been more different. The reason for leaving Egypt was to get away from the chaos, noise, and trash on the streets and here we were back in the middle of it. We felt compelled to find a room and suck it up for the evening. Our guide book it mentioned Hotel Koura complete with a reclining grandma in the living room. Sure enough we walked up the stairs to find grandma hanging out. The super friendly and helpful owner said we were out of luck and steered us to a couple of other places including the Palace Hotel. Once you get past the breast feeding teenage mothers and the begging children at the foot of the stairs to the Palace it is all downhill from there. Dingy rooms and stained sheets with the older European man ordering his team of resident prepubescent boys to get out of our way. Sonny thought we should start driving towards the area Al-Mina. He spotted a hotel in the guidebook that sounded promising but finding it was proved to be impossible. We inquired about directions several times to no avail and the last person we asked climbed into the backseat of our car. Our new passenger was older lady who spoke six languages and talked us into staying at monastery down the street instead. She would be our saving grace. After she secured our rooms and before we could thank her she disappeared into the dark. Once we got settled it was time for a pre-dinner beverages at Newlo's Pub and Snack (see photo above by Sonny). The decor included LP records on the wall, Spanish music, a Freemason woodcarving, and bottomless bowls of puffy snacks.      
Obviously we didn't consume enough puffy snacks, carrots, nuts, and beverages at Newlo's so we went out for a late dinner. I don't recall the name of the area in Al-Mina but the streets were narrow and civilized. We poked our heads into a couple of restaurants and decided on Hollywood. There were two other patrons seated at a table stacked full of half eaten dishes, a near empty bottle of Johnny Walker Red, and a freshly opened bottle of Arak (anise flavored distilled spirit akin to Ouzo and Raki). They were kind enough to pour me a glass Arak and insistent that I try his fish plate as he put some in his hand and fed me.

The man pictured above is the proprietor/cook/waiter/cashier of Hollywood. There was no menu, he told us to have a seat and he was going to make us "small fish." Out came a bottle of wine, water, and chicken livers. Later the cheese, salads, and mezes (hummus, etc) arrived. A giant plate of about 20 fish was next and we ended with exotic fruits. Two hours later we rolled back to the monastery.  
The hallway to our rooms. The rooms were large, spacious, clean, and above all quiet.

A little bit of green.

I think Sonny was expecting to be struck down by lightning, better luck next time.

My new truck!
Snoory come home.

Check Mark means proper dress and an X means improper dress. Tripoli is slightly more conservative.





Toobaco shoes for the little ones.

We saw images all over Lebanon of the popular former Prime Minister Rafic Hairi who was assassinated on Feburary14, 2005. There has been an ongoing Special Tribunal investigation and is due to deliver a verdict by the end of 2010. There is a suggestion that Hezbollah is behind the murder and their leaders deny any links to it. Hezbollah has stated that the investigation is a US/Israel plot to upset the balance of Lebanon and has vowed there will be consequences if the group is linked. 

Bye bye Tripoli...

...and hello mountains
Stay tuned as we take our misadventures east into the mountains and valley.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

From Cairo to Beirut

Riding down to Cairo on a Thursday evening via four wheels is never advisable. You want a train if you are traveling with fewer than four. With that said six of us piled into a van and braced for a long ride. Four hours later of battling traffic and the driver's Best of Bryan Adams CD we made it to our usual hotel, The President in the heart of Zamalek. It was time for a pre-dinner beverage at the Cairo Cellar located in the hotel's basement. A new Indian Restaurant opened over the summer and we decided to give it a shot. Our first clue should have been the lack of an Indian staff but we stayed for the pasty white and bland curry dishes. When the plates were cleared, it was unanimously decided that our meal definitely wasn't Indian. The following statement I'm about to make might come across as a form of prejudice and even hint at discrimination. I'm going to make it a rule that if I'm going to dine at an "ethnic" establishment then the owner, cook, and at least one server should be native to the country they represent. In other words I don't want a non-Cuban making me a plate of Ropa Vieja. When I lived in Alabama, my then wife Janet, her mom, and I were thrift store shopping on the west end and worked up an appetite for Chinese. We passed by a place with an all African-American staff cooking up eggrolls and fried rice. Where on earth have you ever seen non-Chinese operate a Chinese Restaurant?   

After the Indian fare we checked out the Khan al-Khalili for a nighttime shopping adventure. On our way to catch a cab back to the hotel Ana and I debated on which one of these paintings would look best in our apartment. As of yet a decision is still to been made. If we sign a third year contract then I'm pushing for the one on the top left. Sonny thinks it favors me most.

Christine feels that any of the magic and power the Pyramids once had has gone by the way side. Imagine if you didn't have a slew of salesmen leeching on to you trying to hock Chinese made souvenirs. How many times can you say no to a camel ride? Our driver Mohammed said "nothing is ever free" damn straight!

Muslim ladies with a Coors Light cooler, maybe they are keeping their Jimmy Dean sausages cool.

Mohammed drove us back to the Khan as more shops would be open from the previous night. Sonny and Christine scored some goods for friends and family back home. Next destination was City of the Dead (al Qarafa aka "The Cemetery") which is a long grid of enclosed family tombs stretching four miles. The departure from the insanity of Cairo into al Qarafa is quite drastic. Photos don't capture the eeriness the physical presence does, hence I will not be posting any pictures of the few I snapped. We later ended up driving down the narrow paths of Old Cairo.
Friday morning Prayer. Photo by Sonny.

Maybe this is an ironic statement of getting a benign brain tumor from excessive cell phone usage.
Our last supper in Cairo was at Gad. We were served up hearty portions of falafel, fries, hummus, eggplant dishes, and bread. Christine made a couple of falafel sandwiches to take on the road and several days later in Lebanon she was still in possession of them. We stopped off at City Stars Mall en route to the airport. What can you say, it was big and filled with shoppers. Sonny did manage to find the Fulla dolls he was searching for. To learn more about the Muslim-like Barbie chick here .
The above photo is the Razanne doll predating Fulla. "As with the other Muslim dolls, Fulla is kind and generous and loves and respects her friends and family"

The flight to Beirut was pleasant and uncontested. The driver taking us to our hotel was waiting at the gate past customs, that is service. You are pretty much golden entering the country as long as you don't have a stamp from Israel. Our first couple of nights were spent in Gemmayze at the Port View Hotel. Last year when Ana and I arrived the scene was significantly mellower. I get it, you aren't getting laid and you won't anytime soon so you have to be obnoxious and crank your stereo and peel away on your motorcycle. Sonny thought we had landed in some Euro trash neighborhood, I wouldn't have gone that far, it was a weekend night. We stopped off at the Bulldog for a couple pints of Almaza (Lebanese beer). To make matters worse, a girl walked into a bar passing out cans of a new energy drink called "Pussy" I'm sure Sonny's mom wasn't overly impressed. It was time to call it a night.   

There are several ruins sitting between buildings in Nejmeh Square near the Green Line. The Green Line is the road that divides Beirut between the west (Muslim) and east (Christian).  

One afternoon near my school in Alex, there were posters on a mosque depicting The Star of David with the Pepsi and Coca Cola logos. I took a photo of it which soon became a discussion with a couple of the locals hanging about. I asked for the meaning of the poster. One man answered that he didn't like the influence the west had over his country. I can't tell you how much western junk food products packages I see on the streets of Alex and other Muslim countries I've visited. They may hate the west and all but they still love their Micky D's and Twinkies.

Much of the area around Martyrs Square/Green Line area had been destroyed during the Civil War. We wondered how much of the ruins were affected. There are new buildings popping up all over. It is nice to see the city rebuild.

Ottoman Clock Tower still standing after a couple of decades of war.

We made our own walking tour from Gemmayze to Hamra to Piegon Rocks. We saw several reminders of the Civil War with security forces nearby making sure we didn't take any photos. Picture taking is a sensitive matter here.  

Newer building with unusual windows.

A creative solution to bullet holes,  just cover them up with a mural of doves.

In the states we call smoking flavored tobacco from a water pipe hooka, in Egypt it is called sheesha, and in Lebanon they call it nargileh. Well whatever you choose to call it, for $25 you can have it delivered to your home.

Sonny making his first Lebanese friend.

We figured that the import tax on BMWs and Mercedes Benz must be quite low as you see them everywhere.

In Lebanon they feed sheep apples and Egypt they cut their heads off. Happy Big Eid!

Pigeon Rocks on the west side. We enjoyed a lunch of Arabic cuisine overlooking Beiruts main attraction.

Keep out!

Just in case you didn't receive the memo "Falloutboy Roxs"

I'm thinking of a career change.

On the way towards Achrafieh/Ashrafiye through Mar Nicolas. The interesting about Beirut and Lebanon is all  the different ways a neighborhood or town can be spelled. Good luck using a map if you are looking for specifics.

Many of these types of buildings are being fixed or replaced. Ana found an interesting book: Beyroutes-A Guide to Beirut. The books opens with the chapter My City "A guide book is funny in many ways. Funny because you start writing its introduction only when you're about to finish its content." Along with the discussion that Beirut is a land of "small but hard headed refugees" it also includes a guided map to locations where assassinations took place. There is a bonus cut out guide to How to Survive in Dahiya (a Southern Beirut neighborhood). In Dahiya you will find Hizbollah (Party of God) thus making it a favorite target for Israeli missiles.  

Demetrius Cemetery in Achrafieh. It is located across ABC Mall.

Demetrius Cemetery in Achrafieh

Another image of Demetrius Cemetery in Achrafieh. The evening ended with The Greek Film Festival at Metropolis Empire Sofil. The movies were free and open to the public. Little Greek Godfather was first and was on par with watching a movie in Egypt (constant conversations and cell phones ringing). There was an unusual amount of kids in the audience. One kid got a bottle thrown at him for standing up too long, you gotta love instant justice. Between films we stopped at the snack bar and let me emphasize the term bar. I got a glass of wine and Ana got popcorn. Next up was Plato's Academy also staring the same actor from the previous film. We didn't have an opportunity to see the other four films but we figured he might be in those as well. Stay tuned for the drive up north!