November 2008


Blick is German for picture. And since it alliterates so well with barge, I thought to use it in this latest (and possibly last) installment of my Upper Egypt trip last year. Click if you would on the photo below for more photos from my trip.

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Day 3 in Lebanon (day 1 being our date of arrival) was our day to hang out in the city of Beirut itself, which meant a morning of shopping at an artisanal shop and walking around a bit followed by lunch by the sea at a restaurant where the patrons at other tables looked like they walked out of the sets of Miami Vice or Scarface or well, a James Bond flick. Guys in slicked-back hair and ponytails and girls in golden/snakeskin bikinis (okay, I exaggerate but there were a couple clad thusly). We split ways in the afternoon, Tiff and I to the museum which was manageable and had some real interesting artifacts, a few familiar sights (we met a version of our old friend Ramses) and a touching history of its own trying to save the collections in the face of war. Met up with Frances and her lovely mother that evening at a bar named for the Lebanese dialing code for a mellow round of drinks and dinner, very pleasant.

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Francois arrived bright and early on Sunday to take us to Baalbek, which out-Romans Rome in the grandeur of its ruins.  Some 80 kilometers north of Beirut on the way to, but a healthy distance yet from the recently bombed town of Tripoli, Baalbek offers a good contrast to the modernity of Beirut, with an atmosphere that appears to keep it in the Middle Ages even now. The change in atmosphere was obvious driving out there , not only in the quality of roads, but also the way in which people, especially women, dressed. Nary a woman without a hijaab (to give the phonetics of the way Arabic is spoken everywhere except in Egypt) except for the tourists, and an increasing number of posters with slogans praising the various early figures in Islamic history. We had a few Hezbollah guys thrust pamphlets at us through the car window, which our driver had to pay a few thousand Lebanese pounds/lira (Their currency worked in increments of thousands 1500 local to a dollar or thereabouts) for the privilege of not keeping! Keeping would have cost more I was given to understand. Foreign country…recent war… poor command of local language… So did we linger to argue or discuss the  issue or for that matter even pull over when they motioned for us to? The canny Francois, more savvy to their ways than us, wisely never stopped, threw some money at them and kept driving.

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Surely the temple complex in Baalbek has to be the largest I’ve ever visited. Just the “small” temple, often identified as one dedicated to Venus – the larger one is a Jupiter (or Jove) temple – by itself is larger than the Parthenon!!! And as old as these ruins are, they stand on the base of an even older structure, whose exact history is shrouded in mystery, being that there is no evidence, archeological or otherwise. The guidebooks and local signage claim that the standing pillars there are some of tallest in the world, and though my first instinct was to disbelieve (after all, I said to myself, I’ve been to Karnak!) the pictures and my second visit to the big K have me convinced. These pillar were enormous, and situated as they were along the rim of a rather high base to begin with, they really intimidate. Impressive structures and blocks aside, the temples also had some beautiful carvings – I was especially taken with the ceiling/gateway renderings of Bacchus (included in my slide show).

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Lunch (and we were extremely hungry by the time we’d finished wandering the temple and looking at the museum space) upon Francis’ recommendation (bless her heart she never once led us astray) were freshly made sweehas (Lebanese meet pies) which we bought by the kilo and assiduously finished, washed down with various drinks of choice including water, ayraan, juices etc. Stopped at the Ksra vineyards on the way back for a tour of the cellars and some (free) tasting. I will admit to being disappointed in the latter – the wines just didn’t live up to all that I’d heard from others. Granted they were better than the stuff we get in Egypt (what isn’t?) but nothing wowed me. Ho Hum and not very inexpensive at that. The deals we got at the Lebanese groceries were more impressive. Speaking of which, we stopped at one before heading back to our hotel that eve and I got myself some local wines and lots of good dark chocolate, the last of which bars I’m finishing up now just in time to restock when I go to Switzerland.

Mezze is the word they use in the Levant for the table full of snacks or appetizers that precede or replace entire meals. A buffet by another name… Anyway  click on the picture of the Boar’s head below to see pictures from the trip.

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Blow Bother Dash @#$!!!!

I’ve finally come to the conclusion that blogging is like photography. You (or I) have to make a choice. Either I can wield the camera or wiggle my fingers over the keyboard OR enjoy the experience with scant attention to recording it. Not that blogs like photos need to be recorded in real time, but still, one shouldn’t let so much time lapse that the events, names of places etc need to be dredged up from the depths of memory.

Take this post for instance, I had actually begun writing it back in October, right after my return from Beirut. But couldn’t finish for whatever reason and then the muse refused to strike and then, oh yeah I had two more trips (including the one that inspired the fried ancient native allusion) about which I haven’t really blogged either. And lo and behold its nearly time for my third trip after Beirut. So here goes a quick series of the sites, sights and my impressions thereof.

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Four friends with a mission. To get out of Cairo no matter what over the Eid break. Ideas overflowed – Malta, Cyprus, Majorca, Lebanon. Yasir was determined it had to be out of Egypt. But tix (the cheap ones) were all sold out. Cyprus didn’t seem to be working out for many reasons. Eventually when some of us were not doing anything about it, YK went ahead and booked for Beirut. I’ll admit I was hesitant. In fact had even told them to count me out but at the last minute decided I’d go anyway. Good decision that.

Lebanon, and especially Beirut, lies at the cusp of the Arab and Euro-Mediterranean world both geographically and culturally. It lies on the sea, but unlike Alex it’s not desert country. Reminded me a bit of Bombay actually with it profusion of high-rise buildings and a very Marina/Nariman point like lookout, in the area of Hamra which is where we stayed.

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This was how far I’d gotten before I stopped and never began again. And now I notice that all three of my travel companions have since posted their pictures and versions of our trip. (Check out their blogs I have links to all of them). So I’ll just fill in some of my impressions …

Once we’d checked in and stuff, we set out to do some exploring on foot, which is actually possible in Beirut because it’s a real city with proper roads and sidewalks and traffic that for the most part obeys rules. Okay,  so I actually had two near accidents with cabs starting up before I was actually in them, but that seemed to be my bad luck. A nice walk to, and then southward (mostly) along the seaside brought us a lookout point called Pigeon Rock, which as my fellow traveler YK has pointed out is a Beiruti photo nearly everyone takes. I did too, I’ll admit but since my efforts are not nearly as nice (worse camera and definitely less talent) I’ll leave curious readers to follow the link to his blog. Of my own efforts that evening, I’ll post the first of the lollipop garden sculptures I spotted during this trip. This one had pops of only one color – red. Others offered a larger variety of flavors, not that I tasted.

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Dinner that night – quick detour here to say that while not quiet in the league of the consistently superlative quality of eating out in Italy, Beirut can hold its own anywhere and has its fair share of representation in the superlative category – was a revelation of what really excellent Levantine cuisine should be like. Our friend Frances had reserved a table for us at what she had described as a Lebanese-Armenian restaurant called Mayrig, so there it was we went.  A a short chat with the waitstaff persuaded me (us?) to leave our dining experience in their hands, and the results were worth it. Of particular note was the unusual tabuleh salad seasoned somewhat differently from the usual variety and served with raw cabbage (most of first thought that was a joke!), three different kinds of cold kibbeh – lentil, potato and the classic lamb – and IMO the highlight of our experience, a delectable sour cherry sauce resplendent with whole dried cherries, which served as a base for some koftas. I would have been content with that sauce as both the main course and even dessert. All of which was accompanied by a nice wine, whose price did not break our bankbooks. Coming from Egypt where even crappy wines cost a fortune and where the 5-Star hotels like the Four Seasons can charge 130 Egyptian Pounds for a glass (not a bottle) of wine, this treat seemed almost too good to be true.

The next (Friday) morning, full of fuul olives zatar etc etc (the hotel appeared to alternate this offering with the “western” breakfast) we set off, driven by the friendly Francois, who is the cousin-in-law of Frances, with the general aim of visiting Byblos for the day. First though we went a little further North and visited the Jeita caves (at Tiff-through-her-student’s recommendation) which are possibly the largest limestone caves I think I’ve ever seen. It was a veritable Disneyland of phalluses (oops sorry pillars); stalagmites and stalactites and those that met, and included an underground boat ride, which certainly clinched the theme-park atmosphere.

Made it to Byblos around lunchtime, and after a leisurely seafood lunch at a table above a pier (best item the Provencal style baby octopi mmm) we set off on an equally leisurely stroll through the town. A charming little seaside town with a Crusader castle overlooking the sea and a substantial Roman ruin, im002581Byblos actually rivals Damascus in its claim to being one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities of the world. Furthermore it boasts relics that date back even further. Walking along the main shopping street we chanced on a shop selling fossils from a quarry some 10 miles out of town. The museum part of the shop had some real one-of-a-kind finds. A fossilized imprint of an octopus, which might well be the only known fossil of its kind, was my personal favorite but the shrimp fossils were kind of cool too. The Crusader castle was charming with its capstone, cracks, turrets, ramparts,  lookouts and basically all the goodies a medieval castle is supposed to come with. Since it was built upon the ruins of an ancient Roman village, there were further bonuses such as roman pillar, and crypt-like passages and a sarcophagus tucked away out of reach from all but the most intrepid (which now include in the ranks, Tiffany and myself). There were times I felt I was living in the pages of an Enid Blyton novel of my childhood, though the geography didn’t exactly match. But the sense of adventure most certainly did.

One would think that the caves and castles would have seen us (dusty and filthy by evening’s end) completely beat and ready for bed but the night had more for store in us – dinner at Frances & Alexi’s home. Their house is a 3-storey soon-to-be-magnificent edifice-in-progress in a little Christian village high above the city. Waay high above the city I should say, for  we took a cable car im002594to a certain point by a church – an exhilarating ride with spectacular views of the darkening bay as dusk crept in over Lebanon (I guess I’ve never gotten over my enthusiasm for funiculars and the like) – where Francois met up with us again to take us even higher into the mountains for a very pleasant evening with my favorite ingredients – good food and good company.

 

Or at least I feel I did. Whew after eight years of being Bush-whacked, its great to see someone like Obama elected to the White House. Plus it was a “real” election this time around. Not even a whiff of foul play. And also really really liked the classy concession speech given by John McCain.

The election outcome really does remind me of what’s great about the oft-wacky birthplace of mine that people call the USA. Am also proud to report that I did vote by mail. At least it counted this time around. Yeah!!!

Another one of those hilarious native moments that I was lucky enough to have my camera at hand for. Here’s the menu (from an un-named restaurant in Luxor, where the food was actually quite decent).

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So do you want yours grilled, fried or curried?