Although we’ve only been back at work a month, it’s time for a vacation- Ramadan is ending and we have off for Eid Al-Fitr. So my colleague Diane and I decided to head to Lebanon, just three hours away from Sudan by a BMI flight.
We arrived in Beirut and felt a bit discombobulated at first- the high rise apartments, the beach, the mountains, it was all so different from Khartoum. The first day I went to the mall and had Starbucks! and a movie! and bought two sundresses!! I know, I know, not what you’re supposed to do on a cultural vacation, but all things I couldn’t do in Sudan.
The next day I was ready to sightsee. First stop was a day trip to Sidon, home of a small crusader castle, the Musee du Savon, and a very cool souq. I spent a pleasant day in Sidon walking around and seeing the sights and learning about the Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Muslim, Crusader, Turk, and Mamluk history of Lebanon.
The next day I went on a day trip to Byblos (both Sidon and Byblos are one hour from the capital, so no reason to change hotels each time). Byblos is where the alphabet began- the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet was “aleph” and “beth”. A cute little fishing harbor, strongly reminiscent of Greece (not that I’ve been there yet), and a great museum dedicated to ancient fish fossils. I bought a fish fossil that is 80 million years old! And of course some Roman ruins and a crusader castle to explore. On the way back I rode up the mountain in a “teleferique“, basically a ski lift/cable car contraption that quickly gets you to the top of a mountain and lets you see amazing views and get some fresh air. If you click on the link I made, and wait a second, you’ll get a little animation that actually feels like you’re on the “terrorferique”!
On Friday we tried to go to the museum in Beirut but it was the start of Eid, so it was closed. Instead we hopped on a bus and cruised over the mountains almost to Syria, to visit the ancient Phoenician city of Baalbeck, dedicated to the Phoenician sun god Baal. Later the Romans built some of the last pagan temples (dedicated to Jupiter, Bacchus, etc) before the conversion to Christianity. Baalbeck is the most well preserved site of Roman ruins in the Middle East. We saw some great ornamentation and amazing architecture and thoroughly enjoyed our day there.
The next day we decided to pack a day bag and head up to the Cedars ski resort area for some cool air. Although it was only September, and no snow, the area is still great for cooler weather and the famed Cedars groves. We went through Tripoli, stopping only for some pastry and coffee, and then took a smaller bus to Bcharre, a small mountain village that hosts a great hostel (Tiger House) and also the Khalil Gibran museum (author of The Prophet, who was born in Bcharre). Along the way we met two British guys, Joe and Fraser, so we hung out with them for the rest of the day and visited the Cedars park and shopped for souvenirs, and found a bar to drink beer and smoke nargileh (hubbly-bubbly, hookah, whatever).
We should have just stayed in Bcharre another day, it was so beautiful, but Diana and I wanted to have lunch at Pepe’s fishing club in Byblos and go see the Jeita grotto, an amazing cavern. Lunch was awesome and the cavern- wow. The upper cavern is explored on foot while the lower cavern is explored by boat. Seriously, this place was great. There’s a contest to name it one of the 7 wonders of the natural world and they have my vote!
Another day trip the next day to the south, visiting Tyre and stopping briefly in Sidon again. Tyre is very close to the Israel border so lots of armed checkpoints, tanks, guns. But everyone very friendly (well, as long as you’re not Israeli). In Tyre is the largest remaining Roman hippodrome in the world. And of course that’s where my camera battery ran out! But luckily Diane’s was still going strong so she was able to capture the moment.
We ran into Joe and Fraser again and decided to go to Zahle the next day and spend the night and track down this Lebanese winery we had heard about. Zahle is a cute little town up in the mountains, halfway to Baalbeck, on the west side of the Bekaa valley. We found the winery, which includes caves going back to Roman times, which were expanded to tunnels during Muslim/Crusader times- altogether 2 km of tunnels, where they now keep the wine as it ages. We toured, we sampled, and then we walked through the town and collected a dinner of roast chicken, cheeses, and breads, and ate in the upstairs reception room of our 18th century mansion-turned-hotel. Along with our wine we had bought at the winery, our after-dinner conversation went on until midnight, complete with a spirited discussion of Israel, Palestine, and the Bible.
The next day Diane and I went to Aanjar, a Muslim Ummayyad capital city from the 700’s. The ruins were practically deserted, perfect for wandering around and taking pictures. That evening we returned to Beirut and went to Gemmayze Street, the area of the bars and nightclubs, for a final visit out on the town with our new friends. The next day, we finally visited the Beirut museum– one of the best in the world, not too overwhelming, and with a fabulous documentary about the ways the museum protected the artifacts during the Lebanese civil war- and then we all went to the mall to see one last movie, eat one last sushi dinner, and do any last minute shopping. And then suddenly it was time to return to Sudan.