So I had no plans on Tuesday and ended up wandering around the very quaint (and very old) neighborhood where my hotel was located called the Gemmayzeh. Now this neighborhood is near the waterfront and very close to the site where the August 2020 explosion occurred that resulted from a large amount of ammonium nitrate being illegally stored at the port of Beirut. (There were hundreds of deaths, thousands of injuries, hundreds of thousands left homeless and billions in property damage.). The area is just starting to recover and there is construction all over the place.
Now my hotel is one of the first to have been rebuilt. In fact, the hotel is so popular, they have built an additional hotel across the street with another adjacent building under construction.
Anyway, I decided I would take a walk around the area and started by climbing the famous Saint Nicholas steps, then walked down the hill towards the waterfront and weaved back and forth along the VERY narrow streets. Shop owners said hello and I received a lot of waves. And while I thoroughly enjoyed my walk through Gemmayzeh neighborhood, the one overwhelming annoyance was the relentless begging from little Syrian children. I would shoo them away only to have them follow me. Shop owners would shoo them away and they would return. The Lebanese people are beginning to reach a breaking point. The Syrians are working illegally. They are undercutting Lebanese in bidding for work (construction etc.). They don’t license their vehicles and if they get into an accident, the Lebanese end up paying for the damage. It is an untenable situation with almost 2 million Syrian refugees camped out in Lebanon, a country of less than 6 million people.
And the Lebanese government is not helping. The government continues to provide monthly stipends to the Syrians to send the Syrian children to school. But rather than send the kids to school, the Syrian parents pocket the money and send their kids out to beg (and then have more kids so they can receive more money). Keep your eye on this situation. The Lebanese are at a breaking point.
Anyway, after my 2 hour walk around the neighborhood, I went back to my hotel and had a message from Amal Kleib. I was going to have dinner with her family thanks to arrangements made by my hotel via a company called Travelling Spoon. Amal and her sister, Hanan, were going to pick me up at 4:00 to take me to Aramoun, a suburb outside Beirut for a traditional dinner with her family.
Just before 4:00, the ladies arrived and we were off in the challenging Beirut traffic. (Two lane roads, with four lanes of traffic and motorcycles weaving in and out.). We chatted about my trip and I told them about the wonderful folks at Explore Lebanon and the amazing sites I had seen. And before I knew it, we were climbing the hills above Beirut and pulling into a parking area from where we took at 2 minute walk to the Kleib family home.
Now the home was absolutely beautiful built in the early 20th century using old stones from the area. Amal’s grandfather built the home, did all the iron work (which was gorgeous) and planted the garden. The home had a magnificent terrace with views towards Beirut and the Mediterranean.
After arriving, and meeting another sister, Abeer, I was introduced to Khaled, Amal’s husband, and Amin and Nada, Amal’s dad and mum. Now Amin was something else. He is 89 years old, ramrod straight, not an ounce of fat on him, and still goes up and down stairs to his work area and garden multiple times a day. The family finally convinced him to let them put railings on the stairs and also built a platform around some trees as Amin still wanted to climb ladders to harvest the oranges, walnuts, pomegranates etc. growing in the garden. And sharp as a tact. What an amazing man.
Anyway, the family gave me a tour of the home, the lovely garden. They grow literally every kind of fruit and vegetable you can imagine and Nada (the mum) makes her own yoghurt. No wonder folks in this area live so long!
After the tour, the sisters showed me what they had made for dinner (the table was piled with food already), but advised they still had four more dishes to make: Kibbeh, tabouli and babba ganoush (each of which I had eaten at Elie’s home) and a desert called maakaroun (made with semolina flour, deep fried and then soaked in sugar syrup).
So the ladies took to the kitchen while I tried to stay out of the way. Now the interesting thing about how they made the kibbeh is that rather than stuffing individually shaped balls of dough as we had done in my cooking class with mother Teresa, they placed a layer of dough in a pan, layered the stuffing on top and then placed another layer of the dough topping it with oil. They also cut cute little designs into the top of the dough.
While this was going on Hanan was grilling and peeling the eggplant. The eggplant was then mashed with some lemon juice, tahini and garlic and viola, babba ganoush. The tabouli was then made (don’t call it a salad … according to Khalid there is bulger in the mixture and since that is a protein, it is a main course).
And while all this was going on, Nada (the mum) kept looking in on what the sisters were doing. I could tell it was driving her crazy not to be helping and slowly but surely she eventually took up residence in the kitchen and completely took over. It was a riot to watch as the sisters eventually ceded the kitchen to mum. Suddenly she was telling them what to do and stepped in to make the maakaroun. She reminded me a lot of Elie’s mum. A real professional in the kitchen. She kneaded the dough and flipped it back and forth showing that she had probably done this more times than I can count. And when it came time to rolling out the little dough balls, Nada insisted I try to roll the little maakaroun (which are rolled on a grater to form a design).
So once the food was all prepared, we sat down for the most amazing meal, which also included spicy potatoes, chickpeas in olive oil, veggies, cheese, stuffed olive leaves, olives (spectacular from the garden) and … well take a look at the picture. And on top of all this, I was given little shots of arak, an anise flavoured drink mixed with water. It was delicious although Amin scolded me for falling behind his pace. (Amin told me that the secret to long life is fresh food chased with arak. The guy was amazing.)
The conversation was wonderful. They were surprisingly up on American politics. Did not understand how anyone could vote for Trump and were conncerned for the 2024 election. Khalid, in particular, seemed to know more about the American landscape than most Americans. Very bright, well read guy.
So while we chatted, we ate. My favourite was the babba ganoush. Smoky, smoky goodness. And interestingly enough, the kibbeh, was a bit different from what I had eaten the day before with Elie and his family. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but still very good.
And just when I thought I was finishing up, someone would pile more food on my plate. I swear to God, I was going to roll out of there. Eventually, I had to say “no mas” so we retired to the little living room area where we had coffee, the wonderful maakarouns (tasted a tiny bit like a bake doughnut), grapes and apples.
We sat and chatted about my travels and all things America, while Amin kept cutting apple slices and putting them on my plate. Eventually Amal had to tell her Dad no more. I am certain Amin would have continued cutting the apple slices for me all night long.
By 8:30, it was time to go back to Beirut. The hospitality this family showed me was incredible. The dinner, along with the cooking class with Mother Teresa, and Baalbek were hands down and far and away, the most amazing days of my trip and perhaps in the top ten of things I have ever done in my travels. Simply a fantastic three days!
So Wednesday morning, it was time to pack up. Elie was picking me up at noon for a tour around Beirut before dropping me off at the airport at 5:00 p.m. for my flight back to Cyprus. First up was the National Museum of Beirut which displays archaeological artifacts from all of the major sites I had visited including Tyre, Byblos, Sidon, and of course, Baalbeck.
The museum consisted of three floors. The first floor featured statutes, sarcophagus, mosaics and carvings dating back thousands of years and all the way through the Byzantine era. The condition of some of the archaeological treasures was incredible. In particular, a second century A.D. sarcophagus from Tyre, which told the story of Achilles, was in near perfect condition. It was remarkable.
There were also pictures of what the museum looked like following the 2020 port explosion and a section dedicated to an archaeologist who helped preserve the treasures during the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990 (including erecting huge concrete blocks around the building to protect the treasures from gunshots).
The lower floor featured the history of the various finds in necropolis and cemeteries dating back to thousands of years B.C. There were large ceramic pots with the skeletal remains inside showing how the dead were buried dating back to 4500 BC. There were elaborate sarcophagus, and jewelry and jars that had been buried with the dead (much like the Egyptians).
Perhaps the most impressive find was the tombs of Burj el-Shamali near the Tyre necropolis where frescoes had been painted on the walls of the tombs. The frescoes were transferred from the tombs and were placed in a room to recreate the original find. The frescoes remain vibrant and really, really amazing.
And adjacent to the fresco room was a cold room where three mummies from the 13th century were on display. The clothing was still in decent shape and the skeletal remains had very little deterioration.
After visiting the lower floor, I walked up two flights to the top floor where the finds on this floor dated from the Phoenician era all the way through the Byzantine, Arab and Mameluk eras with smaller statutes, lots of coins and jewelry and tiny figurines found in the Temple of the Obelisks at Byblos.
Now these figurines were fascinating to me (since I had really enjoyed the Temple of the Obelisks at the Byblos Castle.). It is believed, that worshippers began leaving the little figurines in the temple and there were literally hundreds of them. Pretty amazing to see as they date back to the 3,000 BC Phoenician era.
Anyway, I spent about two hours in the museum before meeting back up with Elie and crossing the street to the Mineral Museum, a private museum in Beirut. Now I knew nothing about this museum, but it displays an incredible 2,000 minerals/stones from over 70 countries and is believed to be one of the most important private collections of minerals in the world.
And once inside, I was astounded by the number of minerals I had never heard of. We wandered around, saw the second largest uncut diamond in the world, raw gold, and more stones than I have ever seen in one site. One of the coolest displays was the radioactive stones. When you flip the lights the stones glow. Gorgeous.
The museum also housed a display of fossils found in Lebanon and dating back hundreds of thousands of years. The most amazing fossil, for me, was the Pterodactylus a 95 million years old fossil that was believed to be a cross between a pelican and a seagull. Astounding.
So after the museum visit, Elie and I took a drive around Beirut, taking in the Freedom Statute erected in 2021 during the last efforts of the Lebanese to revolutionize the government (sadly not successful), the Mohammad al Amin mosque (the largest mosque in Beirut), the Ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine ruins on the site, the adjacent Saint George Church and a monument in Matisse Square to the Lebanese Civil War that was riddled with bullet holes and had been left as a reminder to the people that war solves nothing.
We then drove along the waterfront and walked around Zaituny Bay, home of the Beirut yacht club, marina and lots of restaurants and cafes. Yet another area also rebuilding after the explosion.
Our final drive by was to pass along the 5 km corniche where the Lebanese love to come and walk, visit and enjoy the food carts that pop up at night.
We stopped at the famous pigeon rock so I could get one more photo before Elie drove me to the airport. My time in Lebanon had sadly come to an end. I can’t say enough about the wonderful people in this country including the fabulous, fabulous folks at Explore Lebanon, including Elie, his brother Luka, Mother Teresa, Perla, and Romeo and of course, the entire Kleib family. The hospitality is truly legendary, the sites are simply amazing and the food is out of sight. Anthony Bourdain was 100% spot on!