Beirut Wrap-Up

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I have been enjoying Beirut and its surrounding area for the last 3 days.

When I was not walking around town looking for streets that do not exist anymore, trying to take service taxis to get me somewhere for the regular 1000LL ($1 = 1500LL) or waiting for the 10PM bus ;), I visited some places of interest.

Without any doubts, the highlights have been the National Museum and the Jeita Grotto.  

National Museum

The National Museum of Beirut is one of the best museum I have seen so far in the Middle-East. It has been fully restored after the war ended and amazingly, most of its collections and important items have been preserved thanks to ingenious systems and hard work of the museum staff. The whole story of how the collections were protected during the war and how the museum was restored and reopened are actually presented in a very nice 15 minutes movie. 

The museum is very well organized and documented (in Arabic, French and English). The pieces that attracted me the most were the two sarcophagus of Achilles from the Roman period, the mosaic of the seven wise men, the young boys statues and the collection recovered from the two Phoenician kings in Byblos that are just mind boggling.

Also to be noted is the mosaic of Byzantine period with the inscription “Envy is an evil. It has beauty however. It eats out the heart and the eyes of the jealous”

For an overview of the collections, you can look at their website that is very well done too! 

Jeita Grotto

I visited the Jeita Grotto (Caves of Jeita) yesterday. It is very close to Beirut so you can visit it as a half-day trip from there. The only bad thing about them is that the company that exploits them is actually trying to create some sort of an attraction park there and as a consequence, it is quite expensive to get in.

But once you get into the caves you forget about it as the caves are just amazing. I have visited a lot of the caves of the South-West of France when I was 10 y/o and I only remember the Gouffre de Padirac to be that impressive. There are two caves; The superior cave is the most impressive in my opinion with very large open spaces and great looking stalagmite and stalactite formations. This is highly recommended.

Both the museum and the caves did not allow taking pictures so you will have to check the respective websites to get an idea of what it looks like. 

I am now in Aleppo (Helab) back to Syria after a 7-hour bus ride. No incidents except for avery nice Syrian border immigration agent that was not happy with the performance of the French football team! He still let me through without any hassle though, Ouf :).

Super Night Club

Wednesday night 9:50PM.

The next football game is about to start in 10 minutes and I did not have dinner yet. I had made my way to that sandwich place close by to get some take-out food. I am just waiting for the skewers to cook and the clerk to fix my sandwiches. It is a quite hot inside so I am waiting outside when the strangest, most surprising and unexpected, and the wickedest thing in this whole trip happened.

A bitten down old bus parks in front of me. The front and back doors open and from there spill out women of all shapes and sizes wearing the most outrageous “club” outfits preferably 2 sizes too small. There are not just one or two, but more than 20 women, mostly white, that make their way down a small alley to a place called the “Excellence Super Night Club”, ignoring all the guys hanging out in front of the sandwich shop.

I had read about super night clubs in the guide book and the section on night clubs in Beirut or Jounieh (party town close to Beirut) spells it clearly: Stay away from super night club as they are not really night clubs but strip joints.

I knew that there were 2 or 3 of these clubs in the street but I could not believe what was happening there. I was so astonished seeing them arrive all together in this bus, of seeing them so out of place that I did not even think about taking a picture! Thinking about it, it might have saved my camera and myself some hard bitch-slapping as some of these girls were definitely bigger, stronger and meaner than me ;).

Weird experience!

P.S.: The owner of the Italian restaurant nearby told me it was happening every night at 10PM so if you are ever in Beirut, plan your dinner accordingly ;).

[06/17/2006: Edited after constructive comments from my Editor In Chief :)]

La Vie de Chateau (2)

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Yesterday started as well as the day before had finished when we were served a great breakfast of freshly backed croissants, chocolate croissants and baguettes with some cheese, butter and jam (As we had agreed on with the chef the night before).

The idea was actually to stay one more night at the hotel after Mr Kamal had brought to our attention that the best Lebanese wineries were not so far and he could arranged a tasting and lunch at one of them. First, we had to deal with Rod plane tickets since he had booked for early today and we thought we should be back in Beirut the night before his flight. Changing the ticket ended up being a costly option so we thought about other options since we really wanted to go to the winery and staying at the hotel one more night was definitely a nice proposition. Talking with the very helpful reception, we found out that we could get a ride to the airport early today for a very decent price and we would get on time for Rod’s plane if we left at 6:30AM so that solved the issue.

We left for Chateau Kefraya at 1PM and one hour later, we were on the domain. It turned out nobody else was there and we had the cave and restaurant for ourselves.

We first started with a great tasting with the clerk going over all of the chateau’s wines and telling us more about wine in Lebanon and histories of the chateau. We got to taste a large sample of the wines he had. He did not get older than 2000 for the great Red Chateau Kefraya and did not offer any of their top-end Comte d’M though. The top-end having only started recently, it might have been too young anyway.

We then sat up for lunch. The menu was again all in French so I translated some words to Rod. We set for deli meat plate, coq au vin for me and a filet sauce Roquefort for Rod and a cheese plate to finish. And of course, a bottle of red Chateau Kefraya 2000 to accompany the meal! I was very pleased with the whole experienced but Rod did not like his main dish that much. The sauce Roquefort was not very good and the steak was cooked medium while he had requested rare. And they charged us two servings of tapenade while we had not asked for it or told it was not free. (Yes, I can be picky)

The rest of the day went very well with a smooth ride back to the hotel to watch France-Switzerland and Brazil-Croatia and a nice dinner again.

This morning went as planned with a great breakfast again and the added advantage of having Mr Kamal himself driving Rod to the airport and me to Beirut as he had some business to deal with here.

Rod and I parted ways again for the third time in less than a month. He is going to London for some days and down to Spain from there. I am sure we will meet again soon.

All in all, our experience at the Hotel La Memoire has been great. It is a very nice hotel with a lot of charm and a great staff.

For the two days we were there, we were the only guests in the hotel so we had all the staff working for us. At the same time, there were so many of them that it looked a bit curious at times.

If I had to be perfectionist, I would change the dinning outdoor area to wood personally as it is not up to the rest of the furniture. The staff is a bit inexperienced but all the little imprecisions are easily forgotten when you see that they really are enthusiast about working there and doing whatever it takes to help you on any matter. Some little things are not perfect yet but what can you expect after nine days. Having talked quite extensively with Mr Kamal and some members of his staff, everything will get very smooth very soon and Hotel La Memoire is promised to a bright future. If you go to Baalbek, be sure to check it out.

Being able to enjoy the beginning of an hotel like this is quite an experience and I enjoyed it a lot since everybody was so enthusiastic about making our stay comfortable. I hope this enthusiasm does not get lost as time passes and the hotel becomes more famous and more busy. Great memories!

These 3 last days have definitely been different than the rest of my trip. I think I needed to splurge a little bit after traveling kind of rough for the last month. This was perfect! Now, back to normal ;).

La Vie de Chateau

After Sunday evening’s splurge, we had decided to go back to our normal travel style. The plan was to travel to Baalbek to see the ruins of the ancient Roman city. We hoped on one of the service minibus to Baalbek and were there around 2 hours later.

We only planned to stay one night in Baalbek so we had to check in an hotel and go see the ruins. The first surprise when we arrived was that a lot of construction going on in front of the hotel that seemed best based on Lonely Planet (2003). We still got in and asked for a room. I did not like the rooms because they were quite shabby and it was smelling moldy. Since we were only staying for one night and Rod wanted to get to the ruins fast, we still checked in after the owner had told us it would go away with some aeration.

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We went on to visit the ruins. The ruins are quite compact and it does not take that long to visit them. There are three temples:

  • The main temple was the temple of Jupiter that must have been massive with columns of 20 meters but there is not much left standing today.
  • The second temple and the most impressive is the temple of Bacchus that was called the small temple at that period. It has nothing of small to tell the truth and it is quite well conserved. Very impressive!
  • The third temple is actually not on the main site and cannot be approached. You can see the temple of Venus from 15 meters away when you are outside the main complex. It is not in a very nice shape though.

Construction work of the theatre for the Baalbek festival starting July 13th are going on so it removes a bit of the site. The amphitheatre is located in between the two main temples so it was not preventing us from visiting though.

There are also two museums on site and they should not be missed as they are very nicely documented and present some nice pieces.

The guide and people are raving about Baalbek but I still prefer Jerash for its cheer size and overall conservation and restoration state. Baalbek is not to be missed still and I would advise to visit it over Palmyra if you had to make a choice.

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After visiting the ruins and the nearby cool looking mosque, it was time to get a beer and watch some football so we went around looking for a bar. Experience taught us that your best bet when you are in a smaller town in the Middle-East was to go for the bigger hotels.

And we started with the most famous and actually oldest hotel of Baalbek. The Palmyra hotel is located near the ruins and was considered the best hotel in town by the same Lonely Planet Middle-East. It is a great looking building with a nice garden but the reception was not very friendly. It was not bad but nothing very inviting so we decided to move on and try our luck somewhere else.

We did not really know where to go from there since there was nothing else in the guide. But on the way to Baalbek, we had seen commercials on the side of the road about an hotel called Hotel La Memoire that was not in the guide. And we also had seen an indication of where it was located when we had arrived in town. So we decided to go and check it out. Maybe we would be luckier.

The hotel is not very far from the main road actually but still far enough to be in a calm little street. We climbed the steps of the entrance and made our way to the reception where we were very well greeted by the receptionists. Soon after, the manager showed up and offered to set up a TV so that we could watch the games.

Sadly, the hotel is not serving alcoholic beverages so far so our hopes for beers were a bit shattered. Mr Kamal, the manager, offered us to try a non-alcoholic beer as a welcome drink and this is something you should not refuse in Middle-East.

While we were drinking and some staff was setting up the TV for us. We had a very nice discussion in a mix of French and English about the hotel, Baalbek and the Bekaa Valley in general. It turned out the hotel was only open for 9 days! And since it was still quite new, guests were scarce.

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Mr Kamal then gave us a tour of the hotel. It is a very nice boutique hotel of only 9 rooms. Every room’s door has a very nicely handmade metal cover. There is a VIP suite, a Junior suite with a balcony with a view of the ruins and 7 other rooms with either a king bed or two king single beds. Each of them is richly decorated but not overloaded. Quite modern with touches of ancient. For example, our room had this old chair and ottoman that I wanted to take home with me. Each room comes equipped with at least one plasma TV, A/C, a personal fridge and safe box. The hall and lecture room are richly decorated with ancient furniture. The two outdoor areas are very nice.

I was quite sold to the idea of moving there by then but Mr Kamal was still not there yet. After realizing we had just seen the old Roman temples, he graciously offered to lend us the hotel car with a driver to take us around town to see other sites of interest.

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The very young driver took us to some places. The first one was the site of “the largest stone on earth” that is a stone carved out by the Romans to be used at the temple complex. I am not sure if it is the largest stone on earth but the story of the site that was provided to us by the unofficial guard is quite interesting :).

The driver then drove us around town to the main park and “lake”. It allowed us to realize that Baalbek was actually a big city with 150 000 inhabitants as we would learn later.

As we got back to the hotel, we were both sold for sure and decided to move from the shabby hotel to this great place. I don’t think we will ever regret it.

We first had dinner but since the hotel does not have menus yet, the chef came out of his kitchen and gave us some ideas of what we could get. We went with his suggestions and got served a fine meal. It was not as good as the dinner of the day before but it was definitely good. The waiting staff was clearly inexperienced so service looked a bit hectic at first but nothing bad happened :).

We finished the evening watching Italy-Ghana projected outside on one of the white wind protection placed around the terrace.

Diner de Classe

While I usually kind of dread dinning out by myself preferring take out in these occasions, one of the advantages of traveling with someone is that eating out becomes a cool proposition. Since Rod and I share a liking for good food and good wine (Rod being better at wine appreciation than me actually!), we decided to try one of the best restaurant of Beirut yesterday evening.

The restaurant we chose is named Al Mijana and was highly recommended by the guide as the best place to splurge in Beirut. Good because it is what we were looking for! We walked the 20 minutes from our hotel to the district where the restaurant is located and started looking for it. It actually was not that easy because the street names are most of the time not indicated in Beirut, in place, you find something like “Rue 52” (for street number 52). We walked around for quite some time trying to guess in which street we were and could not find the restaurant. As often in this case, it was only when we had decided to give up thinking the place did not exist anymore that we finally ran into it.

The first thing that was clear was that even if I had put on my best t-shirt, I was not dressed for the part and we got a chilled reception by the Maitre d’O. We were not asked to leave though as it can happen in some places in France so a good point for the Lebanese. Still, the Maitre d’O did not seem to want to seat us outdoor close to the rest of the patrons at first and it is only when I insisted a bit talking in French that he found us a table there :).

As a side note, as I have noticed since I am here, speaking French does help in Lebanon in general as it is associated with luxury and the elite. For example, menus in fancy restaurants are only provided in Arabic and in French. Also, it is not rare to meet people that only speak French or that speak French and English but that prefer to speak in French. Sorry Rod but this was a good training for you ;).

The rest of the evening went very well with a great service, great Middle-Eastern food, a very good bottle of Chateau Ksara and very yummy fruits at the end. Price was actually OK for the experience.