After Lisbon and Portugal, since we were already in Europe, we thought we would check out a more off-the-beaten -path place; and we ended picking Lebanon. Why Lebanon? Why not? It is in the Levant (a historical term for Lebanon, Palestine (includes Israel), Syria, Jordan); where there is a lot of history of all the 3 major monotheistic religions of the world, has a amazing history, and we like to push the boundaries a little 🙂
So we flew from Lisbon to Beirut via Rome on Alitalia. We landed in Hariri international airport mid-afternoon, cleared immigration and customs with no issues, and our adventures started. Lebanese cellular providers are not part of the cellular data arrangements that TMobile has with many countries, for free data. Knowing this, and having researched before we got there, we headed to the shop at the airport selling local SIM cards. Unfortunately, the shop’s computer was not working to sell/activate the SIM card, so we could not get cellular data, and hence no Uber 🙁
So we had to get a local taxi, which I had read were notorious at the airport for ripping off tourists. We went to the Tourist Police stand, and the policeman hailed us a taxi. I asked the policeman how much it should cost us, and he said it was metered. Got the same answer from the taxi driver. So we got into the taxi and started driving to the hotel. Soon as we left the airport, we noticed that the meter was running wild and running up a big bill. So we told the taxi driver to either stop and fix the meter issue, or take U$20 flat charge, or take us back to the airport to the Tourist Police. The taxi driver at first acted dumb (no English), then put on another meter which was not working, and argued with us (in English) that the fixed fare was $30.
Dilshad stuck by her guns, and argued for US$20 or back to the airport. At this point, the driver went silent and kept driving and dropped us off at the hotel, and quietly took US$20. Phew; this could have turned ugly. Not a good start to Lebanon, but we had been warned which is why I wanted to avoid taking a taxi in the first place.
Our hotel was the Crowne Plaza (got a great rate, so no B&B) in Hamra, which is western Beirut, and used to be predominantly Muslim during the sectarian conflict.
This era of prosperity ended when the 1975 Lebanese Civil War broke out throughout the country. During the war, Beirut was divided between the Muslim west (Hamra) and the Christian east (Achrafieh). The downtown area between East and West Beirut, home of much of the city’s commercial activity, became a no man’s land known as the Green Line. Many people died, and many fled to other countries, and much of the city was devastated. A particularly destructive period was the 1978 Syrian siege of Achrafiyeh, the main Christian district of Beirut, during the Hundred Days’ War.
Another destructive chapter was the 1982 Lebanon War, during which most of West Beirut was under siege by Israeli troops. Since the end of the war in 1990, the people of Lebanon have been rebuilding Beirut, and by the beginning of 2005, the city had regained its status as a tourist, cultural, intellectual & commercial center in the Middle East. The reconstruction of downtown Beirut had been personally driven by Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Rafic Hariri was assassinated in 2005, allegedly by Syria. A month later about one million people gathered for an opposition rally in Beirut. This Cedar Revolution was the largest rally in Lebanon’s history, led to the last Syrian troops withdrawing from Beirut in April 2005.
During the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, Israeli bombardment caused damage in many parts of Beirut, especially the predominantly Hezbollah southern suburbs of Beirut. Israel also implemented a naval and air blockade over Lebanon; & bombed the runways at Beirut International Airport and the major Beirut-Damascus highway.
In early 2008, after the government decided to disband Hezbollah’s control, violent clashes broke out briefly between government allies and opposition forces, before control of the city was handed over to the Lebanese Army. After this a national dialogue conference was held in Doha at the invitation of the Prince of Qatar. The conference led to a new president of Lebanon and established a new national government involving all the political adversaries. Peace and development followed.
Beirut had been destroyed and rebuilt 7 times during multiple major wars and minor skirmishes. Sound scary? 🙂
After settling into the hotel, relaxing & getting our bearings, we got the concierge to show us a cellphone store (it was right opposite the hotel) where we purchased a local SIM card that gave us some combination of talk time and data, for $30. Seems like we can pay in Lebanese Pounds or in US$’s everywhere in Lebanon, according to the cellphone store guy. That is good news and means their currency is very stable.
We them went out to see Hamra by evening on the streets and the corniche
We checked out the menu at these seaside places along the corniche, but they were mostly fast food, so instead we went to the Lamb House nearby, for a very nice meal of Kebabs and salad. Cost came to US$17 for both of us, including drinks. Food appears to be very reasonably priced here. We then called it a night.
Next morning, we made an early start and walked towards the American University of Beirut, and stopped at a busy local bakery; where they were making the typical man’oushe breakfast
Man’oushe is a soft dough pizza type meal, sprinkled with herbal za’atar (a wild thyme-sesame-olive oil blend mix) that is folded in half, and eaten piping hot out of the oven, like a sandwich. It tastes sour/tangy and was delicious. It was at this bakery that a nice Lebanese lady, Violet, befriended us and told us that she and her husband had both been University Professors, and that she had recently retired after the death of her husband. She bought us some pastries from this bakery, and then took us nearby and showed us her apartment building, and invited us to visit her for coffee on her 4th floor apartment anytime. Wow, what a nice friendly welcome from a total stranger.
After thanking Violet, we then walked over to the American University of Beirut, founded by some American clergy in 1866. The university had very nice grounds one block back from the Mediterranean Sea; very valuable land I am sure.
After walking around the grounds, we took an Uber to the city center to check out various sites and mosques etc; below are some scenes from there, as we walked the City center
We then walked to behind the parliament building where some City Government offices were located, and came across the excavations of an old Roman bath
We then walked towards a couple of very old mosques
The Al-Omari Grand mosque was just being opened for noon prayers, and the caretaker allowed us to go inside and check it out.
Lots of history everywhere.
This was a very nice mosque, and had several pamphlets that talked about how the Quran dictates the rights of women, to dispel western misconceptions. Very progressive.
We then walked over to the Samir Kassir square; which was built in the city center to commemorate his assassination by a car bomb, who, as a journalist, reported on atrocities committed during the wars and was critical of the Syrians. This garden received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2007.
We then walked over to the nearby Mohammed Al-Amin mosque, which is named after the prophet. It is a large mosque built in the Ottoman architecture, and is a prominent landmark of Beirut at Martyrs Square
During construction of this mosque, they discovered Roman ruins around it
By this time, we were hungry, so we called an Uber, and asked him to take us to a good Falafel restaurant in Hamra. So he drove us to his favorite falafel joint, but it was closed, so he took us to Babar, which is a very famous place in Beirut for fresh juices, falafels and shawarmas.
We then walked to our hotel which was close by, to relax before going out in the evening
That evening, we decided to go check out the Armenian area of Beirut. So we called an Uber and went over to the Bourj Hammoud neighborhood. Ubers were costing us about $3-$6 per ride within the city, so very reasonable.
Bourj Hammoud happened to be east of the downtown area we had been in earlier that day. The area was quite lively, and distinctly Armenian, including street signs. One Armenian lady came over and talked to us and told us a little about the neighborhood and where to go. Very friendly.
It was now getting dark, so we walked into a gulley to a hole-in-the-wall place that came highly recommended for Armenian food; the Resto Ghazar, which is actually a bakery (Ghazar Bakery) and restaurant. This was a nice small cozy place with a very friendly and helpful manager.
He recommended we try typical Armenian dishes like Subeurek (a soft dough pastry with cheese, butter and parsley; Armenian Cheese pie) and Manti (small boats of dough, filled with meat, baked, then poured over with a sauce that the pasta soaks up, and then covered with a yogurt sauce and sprinkled with sumac; yummy. Cost of this meal for 2 of us, with Ayran (buttermilk) was $14; very reasonable.
As I paid for this delicious meal, I realized that I was missing my Amex credit card; which I had used to pay with at Babar restaurant earlier that day. The manager kindly called Babar for us, and they advised that we should check with them the next day.
We got an Uber and went back to the hotel. On the way, we drove through the Gemmayzeh neighborhood, which on Gouraud Stret was very lively with lots of young people handing around in Bars, restaurants and night clubs; apparently the happening place of Beirut. Upon getting to the hotel, we checked to make sure the Amex card was not being compromised (Babar or other strange bills had not shown up yet). Then went to sleep for a good night’s rest.
More Beirut next