So I left Cyprus on Saturday night on a very quick 40 minute flight to Lebanon. The good folks from Explore Lebanon Tours were there to pick me up and drive me from Beirut to Byblos, about 40 minutes north of Beirut where I will stay until Friday (since the tours through Friday are in the northern part of Lebanon) after which I will move south to Beirut.
Anyway, about 40 minutes after leaving the airport, we reached Byblos Sur Mer, my waterfront hotel for the next 6 nights. By the time I got to bed, it was well after 1:00 a.m. so I was very happy I had not planned any tours for Sunday. Instead, I spent the day relaxing on the deck, took a quick walk around (but quite frankly it was too not to enjoy the walk) and then went back to relaxing on the deck of my hotel room.
Around 4:00 there was a huge commotion below me with drums beating and horns blowing … wedding. So I grabbed my camera and proceeded to watch as the bride exited to the music as she was showered with rose petals. The tradition is called a zaffa and takes place before the ceremony and is symbolic of the bride leaving her parents home. It was quite the scene as the bride danced around in circles to the music and down the street to the car that would take her to the ceremony. Fortunately, I had camera ready and captured the event, as best I could through the palm trees.
And as fabulous as the wedding scene was, it may have been beat by the brilliant sunset I witnessed off my deck. Simply out of this world gorgeous with boats sailing along the Mediterranean as the sun set in the distance.
On Monday morning, Elie (my guide and driver for the trip) met me at the hotel at 9:00 a.m. for the trip north to Tripoli. Now the interesting thing about the trip is that as we crossed into the “north sector” of Lebanon, we had to pass an army checkpoint. Apparently the checkpoint was established in 1979 after a group of Christians were massacred by a group affiliated with Syria and is still used to control the flow of people from the north to the south. The checkpoint is now controlled by the Lebanese army.
So once past the checkpoint, we made our way into what is recognized as the poorest area of Lebanon, the city of Tripoli, which is teeming with Syrian refugees. Everywhere we looked, we saw Syrians running fruit stands and coffee stands with many children working the stands. In fact, it is a huge issue in the country as the Syrians are being subsidized by the Lebanese government to the detriment of the locals. Syrians are given money for every child they have to send them to school, but the Syrians simply pocket the money and have the kids work in unregistered businesses. With the money incentive, the Syrian families have 6, 8, 10 children to keep the money flowing all the while the Lebanese are suffering through the worst economic crisis in their history. Brutal.
Anyway, after bobbing through heavy traffic, we drove up the Abu Samra Hill to the Castle of Saint-Gilles aka the Tripoli Castle, which was built by the Crusaders in the 12th century to control the roads surrounding the castle. And quite frankly, I found the castle in pretty good shape given the number of conflicts that had occurred in this area as well as the number of earthquakes.
Once through the entrance, I wandered past the moat and through a series of gates before entering the inner portion of the castle. The castle included a cemetery, and Ottoman prison (downstairs) and a large rectangular building that no seems to know what it was used for. There was a Frankish church with an Ottoman mausoleum and large baptismal baths.
When I wandered downstairs, I found little slits for windows, which were used by the soldiers for shooting arrows out at the enemy.
I also visited the tiny museum, which provided a history of the castle and the area surrounding Tripoli where various artifacts have been located including a Roman bust found near Batroun, which is a few miles south our Tripoli.
Now perhaps the most impressive part of the castle was the stunning, and I mean stunning, view of Tripoli. You could literally see the entire city and all the way to the sea. No wonder the castle was built on this hill. The enemy would not have stood a chance.
So after the castle visit Elie and I wandered down the chaotic hill (cars driving every which way, as people and motorcycles weaved in and out of the roads) to reach the Tripoli souk.
First stop was the remains of the 13th century Hammam Ezzedine, which was constructed by Emir Izzedin Aibek between 1293 and 1298. And being the clever fellow he was, the Emir did not import the construction materials for the hammam, but instead he took choice marble fragments, sculptures and basins from Byzantine and Crusader churches which he then used to construct and decorate his hammam. Unfortunately, the hammam is in need of a lot of work and is only in the early stages of restoration. Given that the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development has only pledged $310,000 for the restoration, it is going to be a while before the hammam is fully restored.
Anyway, after the visit to the hammam, we entered the souk. Now I have been to a lot of souks, but I have to say this souk was rather underwhelming. Lots and lots and lots of clothes, the occasional bread stand, an area where tailors were plying their trade and of course gold … lots and lots of gold jewelry. However, I didn’t see any spice stalls or craft stalls. It was rather disappointing.
There was one highlight, though. Eli took me up a staircase to a boiling hot room where a family handcrafts soaps and have apparently been doing so for decades. The soap came in different scents and I swear that the jasmine scent was a strong as if I was smelling a branch of a jasmine bush. Gorgeous. The family explained to me how they mixed the ingredients (mostly olive oil, lye and essential oils from local flowers), where it cooked down into a mixture that is poured into a square mold and left to cool for 24 hours. The mold is then cut into squares and viola … soap.
And while the soap lesson was fascinating, the room was so stifling hot I was literally shedding water just by standing there so after a quick purchase, we walked back down the stairs and out of the souk.
We then walked back up the hill past the Al Mansour Mosque (I opted not to visit as I had not brought my scarf for my head or my long skirt) and then through the chaos of the street and to the car where we drove 20 minutes through the streets of Tripoli to the “old train station”. Now I am not sure what I was expecting, but this was not it. The station had been closed for 30 years (although employees apparently are still paid … which Eli attributed to government corruption), but it looked like it had been abandoned for centuries. The locomotives were rusted, the buildings were just shells and there was grass and weeds everywhere. Yikes. It was a “ghost train station”, with no hope of ever being resurrected again. So very sad to see.
At this point, we had seen all there was to see in Tripoli so we opted to head back to Byblos. Eli suggested we make a quick detour to see the Our Lady of the Light Monastery … not so much to see the monastery, but to see the magnificent views. And the views did not disappoint. Absolutely gorgeous.
We then drove along the coastline before cutting back through a beautiful little village (filled with magnificent homes and gardens) before meeting up with the freeway and the 1 hour trip back to Blybos.
Once back at the hotel, I decided to sit in the lobby to upload my videos and pictures (internet is 1990s slow in my room) and I started to talking to these two women (whose room is next door to mine). Turns out they are Lebanese Canadians from Ontario (Susie and Alisa), and Alisa is the cousin of Nazim Kadri, the all star NHL’er with the Calgary Flames. The two had been visiting the Beqqa Valley (where Susie’s family is from) and were a wealth of info on what to see and do when I go to the Beqqa later this week. They spent about an hour showing me pictures of the area, including Susie’s husband’s ancestral home and giving me restaurant recommendations. Super interesting ladies.
Anyway, awesome first tour day in Lebanon. Tomorrow I am off the see grottos, a mountain church and do a tour of Bylbos. In the mean time, I am going to go and enjoy the sunset.