Lebanon – Day 6: Tripoli

I was really excited to visit Tripoli.   Like Tyre and Saida, I never visited this city before.  It has a reputation for being a very old city because the wars that ravaged Beirut left Tripoli mostly unscathed. I’ve always thought Tripoli had an ancient literary vibe to it, but maybe that is because I obsessed over the burning of al-Saeh Library a few years ago.

On our way to Tripoli, we stopped at the Our Lady of Noorieh Monastery.  It’s a Greek orthodox monastery with a beautiful view of the Mediterranean.  No one needs to stop for long, but it is quite lovely and has a nice olive farm on it.

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Eating at Tic Tac Abou Rami
Photo Credit: Josh Ferris

Our guides for the day, were our friend George’s parents, Rosa and Antoine.   They took us to a restaurant called  Tic Tac Abou Rami.  It was delicious.  They served us chickpeas about 5 different ways.  While we waited for a seat, the neighboring bakery gave us a piece of pita straight from the oven.   It was so good. We ate fatteh, hummus, ful medames, chickpeas in a tahini sauce (not blended), and lots of vegetables.

After brunch, we made our way to the famous souks of Tripoli.   While we were exploring, Antoine wanted to take us to the famous Soap Khan.  This is a courtyard in the middle of the souk that was made for the soap makers.   We all walked into a shop that sold blue jeans and through a backdoor into the courtyard.  We went to a soap workshop that started in the 15th century.   The place is called Hajjar and they make really high-quality soap.   We ended up buying quite a few souvenirs from the store and Holly B. got a free massage!

We continued to explore the souk and found our way into a sweet shop.  We tried a few things, but the one to stand out to me was something called jazarieh. It was a candied squash dish with nuts. It was very interesting. From there, we visited the crusader castle called Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles.

This castle was built in 1100.  It’s a massive structure on top of a hill, that provides a nice view of Tripoli.   We did not have a guide while we were in it, so I only know what the guide book says.   There is not much of the original structure left, but the Lebanese military still uses it (though I do not know what for.)

We ended our tour of Tripoli with dessert at the famous sweet shop called Hallab 1881.  This was the most disappointing thing in Tripoli.   The desserts were good, but nothing to seek out.   We had mafroukeh and kanefeh. The owners tried to give us a tour of the back and all we saw was a used deep fryer. My suggestion is to spend your calories exploring the stalls and street food in the souk, rather than at Hallab 1881.

On our way home we stopped to swim in the sea.  We were told about a swimming spot at a brewery in the town of Batroun. Behind the Colonel Beer Microbrewery was a beach bar called Colonel Reef.  It was a very different than the beach in Tyre.  It was a rocky mess of a beach with a long dock, but it was a lot of fun.    One minute the water would be over your head and the next minute you’d be standing on a rock that had you completely out of the water.  I scraped my knees a few times. The beer was good. I enjoyed the lager more than the passion fruit beer.

Photo Credit: Spencer McGee & Josh Ferris

On our way home, we decided to stop at Diwan Al Hashem in Zalka for shawarma.  It is considered some of the best shawarma in Lebanon.   They make many different types of meat, including testicles!   We went for a simpler order of one beef and one chicken shawarma.   I did not enjoy the beef shawarma.  Their recipe includes putting lamb fat in between the meat on the spit to give it extra flavor.   I’ve never loved lamb and the gamey smell that it produces is a real turn off for me.    The chicken was excellent, but I could have done with a less sophisticated beef version.

Next – Lebanon – Day 7: Byblos

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Lebanon – Day 5: Tyre and Sidon

We added one to our group this day.  Samer’s 4-year-old nephew, Maroun decided to travel with us for the day.   He was a great sport about everything. We picked up our guide, Rana Tanissa with Lebanon Untravelled and made out way south.  Rana leads tours with USAID in Lebanon.  Maroun suggested we stop at a ka’ak bakery for breakfast and we all thought it was a great idea.

Ka’ak is a ringed bread stuffed with things like cheese and or za’atar covered in sesame seeds.  They were very good and we totally made a mess of the car.  There were sesame seeds all over the place.

Our first stop was the Sidon Sea Castle. The castle was built in the 13th century by the invading crusaders. I think it is particularly interesting because it is built on a small island off the coast. A causeway was added when the Mamluks defeated the Europeans and took the city.  There is a lot of speculation on what the island was used for before the castle.   Some hypothesize that it could have been a palace for a Phoenician king.

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Photo Credit: Spencer McGee

We did not visit anything else in Sidon and traveled to Tyre (also called Sour). I’ve wanted to see Tyre for more than 15 years. When I was in school I read about Alexander’s siege of Tyre and was flabbergasted. Basically, back then there were 2 cities. There was island Tyre and mainland Tyre. The people of Tyre used boats to go back and forth. Well, he decimated mainland Tyre, used the rubble to build a kilometer-long causeway to get to the island. There was a land bridge in the shallow water that connected the island to the mainland and he just built it out to reach the of island Tyre. When Alexander arrived at the impenetrable city he killed everyone who could not bribe there way out of it. (History note, those who did buy their way out went to create a new city called Carthage.) Now, there is not an island.  The causeway filled in over the years, and Tyre is a city on a peninsula.

The first place we visited was the Al-Bass Tyre necropolis and the Roman Hippodrome, another UNESCO World Heritage site. This site was affected in the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel (ps. 118). The second ruins we visited were the Al-Mina archaeological site. There are Roman baths and mosaic floors in this area.

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Photo Credit: Samer Badr or Spencer McGee

After feeling like we accomplished the history goals we headed to the beach. We went to a place called Cloud 59. Here we could get a table, order lunch, and enjoy the beach. It was really fun. I was probably the whitest and fattest person on the beach, so I drew the gaze of many a chiseled and tanned Lebanese. I recommend this beach to everyone. It’s a cool vibe, the sand is great, and the food is pretty good. Maroun really enjoyed swimming with all of us and we had a lot of fun with him.

On the way home, we got some coffee to go (called hand-me) and retired to Broumanna for the night.   We ate some food at Chafica’s house and all got to bed early.

Next – Lebanon – Day 6: Tripoli

 

Lebanon – Day 4: Cedars of God

Before you read this post, please know that climate change is killing the Cedars of Lebanon.   There is a very good possibility that these once timeless behemoths will meet their end all due to us.

Today we used a guide I found on Reddit.   His name was Kamal Abi Karam and he is an adventure guide who works in Oman.  He is Lebanese and spends the summer months in Lebanon.   I’ve visited the Kadisha valley before.  It is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site.  This valley is a place where Christian (specifically Maronite) monks hid from foes in the past.  Every time some US politician (cough … republicans) talks about Christians under attack in America, they should hear the stories of these people. Hell, in 517 these monks contacted Pope Hormisdas saying “hey, these other Christians are trying to kill us. Help.” Tales as old as time.

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Photo Credit: Josh Ferris

We stopped the van for some photos and took a small hike to the monastery of Deir Mar Elisha.  There is an icon of St. Elisha from the 8th century in it.  Most of the monasteries in the valley are only accessible by hiking, but this one has a small road and parking lot.

The Cedars of God are in Bsharri and they are one of the last forests of the ancient Lebanese cedars.  In the forest, there are trees that are more than 2500 years old.  You can walk amongst the trees for a small donation.   It’s a really wonderful and tranquil place. You are quite literally walking in a village of endangered species.  One should feel honored to be with those trees and I savored every moment.  There is a very real possibility that this forest may not be here in the near future. If you go, please stay on the path.  This forest is extremely fragile and the work to care for it is boundless.

After the forest, we headed for lunch. Cedar Heaven in Bcharre is where I finally ate the famous kibbeh zgharta. First, the restaurant.   Cedar Heaven is the beautiful outdoor restaurant near a cliffside overlooking the valley.    It’s shaded, cool, and there is a small breeze.   It is a spectacular view.

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Ok, now let me explain kibbeh zgharta.  A shell is made by mixing meat and bulgur and then that shell is stuffed with fat and a little meat.   This entire concoction is then grilled and or baked.    You are served one (big) kibbeh, and when you cut into it the hot fat flows onto the plate.   It is delicious and incredibly unhealthy.  This type of kibbeh is only made in this town, and it is quite rare, even in Lebanon.

IMG_4962When we returned, a few of us went to Maria and Edward’s house to: see the kids, enjoy the sunset, and of course, eat.  They are great hosts.  I worked hard to buy the affection of the kids with the remaining gifts from the United States. The painting set probably caused a lot of agita.  It was a fun night of hanging out with loved ones and enjoying their hospitality.

Next – Lebanon – Day 5: Tyre and Sidon

Lebanon – Day 3: Beqaa Valley

Today is the day when our group is complete.  Two more people arrived from an extended layover in England and got to Broumanna at 5 AM.   At 8:30 we loaded into the van and headed to the mighty Baalbeck in the Beqaa Valley.

We stopped to get some man’oushe on the way. Have I talked about man’oushe yet? Basically, the Lebanese eat pizza for breakfast. They call it flatbread, but it’s basically pizza. I like mine 50/50 (Mona taught this to me.) You get half za’atar,  half cheese and then you fold the whole thing over and eat it. It’s very good.

This is my second time visiting Baalbeck.    It’s as impressive the second time as it is the first.   Unfortunately, the columns of the Temple of Jupiter are currently covered in scaffolding.   They are going through a restoration process. Our guide was someone that our driver knew.   He was ok.  There was nothing bad about him (he was better than guide I had on my first visit to Baalbeck), but he was more into telling jokes than digging deep into the history of the site.   He was the complete opposite of the guide we had in Petra.

Photo Credits: Josh Ferris, Spencer McGee, Samer Badr

We had a lunch of sfiha baalbeck at a restaurant called Lakis Farms.   This place serves ayran on tap! Sfiha is one of my favorite Lebanese foods.   They are these delicious little meat pies served fresh from the oven.   It’s like an open-faced pizza roll, but 1,000,000 times better than that.   The best I’ve ever had were in the town of Baalbeck and I would happily return to eat them there again.

The rest of the day was a departure from our itinerary. We had expected to do wine tasting in 3 vineyards near Zahle. They were: Château Nakad, Château Ksara, & Domaine Wardy.  On Friday, we found out that Domaine Wardy was closed on Sundays, but Samer’s aunt Mimi insisted on helping us.   She knew Mr. Khalil Wardy and made a call. The winery was happy to accommodate our schedule.

We arrived at about 2:30 and were pleasantly surprised to find a giant tent set up, 2 Wardy siblings, and a bottle of every wine they make!  That is 12 bottles and we tried everyone one of them.

I particularly liked: Beqaa Valley Red (2017), Beqaa Valley Rosé (2018), Sauvignon Blanc (2018), and the Arak Wardy. I found the Obeidi (2016) to be one of the most peculiar wines that I’ve ever tasted. I brought a bottle back, just so that I could try it at home one more time. I need to figure out what food to enjoy it with in the future. The obeidi grape is the local grape that is used to make arak.

 

In addition to wine, the Wardy’s are making vodka and arak.   Did we sample those?  Yes, yes we did.   We left the Wardy family around 6:30.   We stopped by the Berdawni River in Zahlé for ice cream. It’s a beautiful walk along a river.  I am not sure about everyone else, but I was drunk from the wine and soundly slept all the way home after ice cream.

Next – Lebanon – Day 4: Cedars of God

Lebanon – Day 2: Beirut

Samer went to the airport to pick up Melissa. Spencer, Holly(s), and I took a taxi into Beirut.   We were all meeting for a tour with Alternative Tour Beirut.  Our guide’s name was Aya Jamorabon Rafeh.   This a wonderful walking tour through Beirut, that juxtaposes class access to the city, organic vs. unplanned urban development, and the evolution of the ever-changing Beirut.  Aya is a very good guide that I would eagerly recommend to anyone.

I thought she did a wonderful job presenting the complexities of the civil war and was very fair.  I’ve been reading about the war for 8 years now, and I still find it completely mind-boggling.   The only time, that I thought she was less than neutral was a brief moment when she told of the assassination of Rafik Hariri.  He was Lebanon’s internationally popular billionaire prime minister who was murdered by a car bomb in 2005.   Many loved him.   Many loathed him. Sam’s dad worked for him and loathed the corruption in the government, others considered it the price to jumpstart Lebanon after the war.  Our guide clearly had a soft spot for him.

Who killed Rafik Hariri? Was it the Syrians, Israel, Hezbollah, Hamas, and/or someone else?  We may never know.   There is a strong likelihood that it is not black and white.   Maybe rogue members of Hezbollah carried out the assassination with the support of the Syrian intelligence community.  At this point, that idea is mere speculation. The one definite consequence was the creation of a Hariri political dynasty now being led by his less politically sophisticated son.

Photo Credit: Josh Ferris

After the tour, Samer and Joe insisted upon showing us “nice” Beirut.  We stopped into a church, walked past the Parliament and Grand Serail (the office of the Prime Minister), snapped photos at the clock tower, and escaped the heat at an expensive hotel bar.   Nice Beirut means the prices are 10x higher than normal Beirut.  We were all pretty tired, so we returned to Broummana to relax.

We had dinner on Chafica’s balcony and then explored the neighborhood a little bit. Ee ended up at a ridiculously over the top bar called Cicada. My cocktail was served to me in a smoke-filled chamber. Also, on the walk home, we spotted the infamous traffic police in short shorts. When asked about this insane policy, the mayor famously said,

“We want to show that we have the same way of life as the West. You wear shorts and we wear shorts. We have democracy. Our women are free.”

This man will be sorely disappointed if he ever sees what female Philadelphia traffic police are expected to wear.

Next – Lebanon – Day 3: Beqaa Valley

Jordan – Day 7: Good-bye / Lebanon – Day 1: Hello!

We did not have a lot of time in Amman, so we packed our bags and visited Souk Jara right when it opened.  This is a great outdoor market filled with art, trinkets, and food.   I tried my weight in jam and za’atar while we visited.   I bought this really good black seed paste made from habbatul-barakah.  It reminds me of sweet tahini.   I’ll be having it on toast in the near future. We did try to buy some coffee at the market, but the guy with an espresso machine seemed to have never used it.  We waited for about 5 minutes and told him that we’d pass.

We made our way down the hill and to the ancient Roman Theatre.  We were running short on time, so we did not stay long.   The Romans loved their theaters and this one was massive.   It’s bigger than the theater in Jerash, though not as well preserved.   The theater was built when the city was stilled called Philadelphia (why change it?!?!).  We took a taxi back to the Airbnb and loaded up the van one last time.

Google maps are not quite as accurate abroad as it is in the USA.   Sam was driving and we found ourselves going the wrong way down a one-way street.   We got to the airport, blew some leftover dinar in duty-free and settled into the lounge.  The Royal Jordanian lounge is not particularly amazing, but we weren’t there for long before we boarded our direct flight to Beirut.

When we landed in Lebanon and the guys in passport control were more than annoying. First, they asked us the address where we were staying.   Guess what?  That’s a trick question because Lebanon doesn’t really have street addresses.  I told them “Madame Chafica Badr’s house near the Liban Post in Broummana.”   That answer sufficed, but Holly B. was at a different guy.  Samer circled back to help her, and then the passport guy had the audacity to hand Holly B.’s passport to Samer!   This is not a good look Lebanon.

Our driver was waiting for us and took us to Samer’s house in the Broummana.  Broummana is a summer resort town east of downtown Beirut and up on Mount Lebanon.   The climate is cool, so people come up during the summer to beat the heat.   Samer and his family have been doing that every summer for as long as he can remember.

Of course, Samer’s mom showered all of with a feast on the first night.   We ate, drank wine, visited family, and all went to bed fairly early.   Week 2 of vacation was just begining.

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Next – Lebanon – Day 2: Beirut

Jordan – Day 6: Jerash & Amman

We woke up on the Dead Sea and drove to the ancient Roman city of Jerash.  Jerash had not originally, been on our itinerary, but we decided to sacrifice time in Amman to see it.   I am very glad we did.

I really enjoyed the guide we hired from the site office.   He had been leading tours in Jerash since the 70s. He was old and nimble, he almost floated through the ruins.  He carried a stick to point at things and there was soothing percussive nature to the way it tapped the cobblestone as he moved.   He was a delight.

The ruins of Jerash are the best-preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy.  The forum and theater are incredibly impressive.  The acoustics of the theater are fantastic.  You can be speaking outside the center of the theater, step into the center, and instantly hear your voice fill the space. It’s wildly impressive. The forum and the cardo are lined with columns which give the entire site an impressive and imperial look.   The structures of Baalbeck are more grandiose, but as a whole site, Jerash is phenomenal.

 

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Photo Credits: Samer Badr, Spencer Mcgee, Josh Ferris

We were famished and did not think an hour drive back to Amman was a great idea while we were hungry and tired.   We walked across the street and found an air-conditioned fast food joint called Cheesy Grill.  It was comically bad.   The first sandwich we ordered was unavailable, so they made these chicken, American cheese, sweet mayo monstrosities.   Megan’s verbal review was “this is disgusting.” We named these sandwiches cheesy blasters after the 30 Rock joke, filled up on fries, some Syrian sweets from the neighboring shop and got back to the car.

Our Airbnb was on Khirfan Street and was very nice.  It was right in the center of a pretty hip neighborhood.  After we settled and showered, we treated ourselves to a drink at Books at Cafe.   This bar/cafe is the first overtly queer-friendly place I saw in Jordan.  It was nice to walk into a place with “Equality Matters” slogans littered about. We shared a Jordanian Rose wine, that would have been better if it had been served chilled.

We ended the night with a traditional Jordanian meal at Sufra. The quality of food on this day of the trip really ran the gamut.   This food was delicious.  We sat in an outdoor courtyard in the back of an old house.   There was a fountain at the center and it was lined with lots of plants.   It was a fantastic scene.   I do not remember everything that we ordered, but Hayan and Samer figured it out for us.   This was the first time we had the famous Jordanian meal of mansaf.    Mansaf is meat, rice, and yogurt sauce.   It’s not bad, but nothing I’d seek out in the future.

At the end of the meal, our group split up.  We said good-bye to Megan and Hayan, and we went back to go to bed.   I fell asleep instantly, but Holly F., Samer, and Spencer enjoyed the balcony overlooking Amman.

Next – Jordan – Day 7: Good-bye / Lebanon – Day 1: Hello!