Friday, August 23, 2013

Byblos, Harissa & Jeita Grotto

Just spent a fantastic day through this beautiful country. Within an hour drive north of Beirut, along the coast line, are the Jeita Grotto, Harissa and Byblos.

I took one of those tour companies for this one, because I realized that it would actually be cheaper than going on my own. The funny thing is that when they told me they'd pick me up at 7:45, I took it as 7:45 Egyptian time, expecting them around 8:10. The driver arrived at 7:41! I wasn't even ready.

The Jeita Grotto is one of the most amazing natural wonders I've ever seen. It's these two caves in the mountains, that have these incredible stalagmite and stalactites formations. Unfortunately we were forbidden to take photos, but the memory will stick. The lower cave is a lake which also sources the dog river in the valley. The lower cave is explored by a short boat ride and it is just fabulous! There are rock formations sticking out of everywhere, requiring you to duck and watch your head and hands. It's cold, humid, and the water is crystal clear with a view of the formations from below. It feels like you're on the set of some sci-fi movie, or Harry potter or Lord of the Rings, or something. It's breathtaking!

From there we saw the statue of Mary in Harissa, reached by a very intimidating sky ride up the mountain. That was more exciting that the statue itself. It offered beautiful views of the coastline and all the red-roofed Lebanese houses.

Finally, we drove further up the coast to visit the ruins in Byblos. Some of the ruins found on this site date as far back as 10,000 BC!! I admit that by the time we reached Byblos, I was a little too hot and tired to explore, so instead, I roamed through the souq. Not a single person hassled me to buy something. No one bothered me at all. Crazy!

We wrapped the tour with a really nice seafood lunch at white beach, a beautiful pebble beach on the turquoise Mediterranean Sea. Overall, it was a fabulous day. I love visiting a place, having few expectations, and then feeling totally in awe of all the beauty!

Lebanon is such a beautiful country!

Sadly, after spending the rest of my afternoon in a cafe, I learned about the bombing in tripoli. Everything seemed totally normal that day, and no one mentioned anything while on the tour. And everything did continue normally afterwards as well. It's just so perplexing. Such a rich, historic, and beautiful land. And attacks are part of the norm.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Wandering through the streets of Gemmayzeh

Beirut is a small city, and all of it can be walked in about 2-3 days. Each narrow street winds through the neighborhoods, both up and down hill. They're lined with these adorable, old, stone buildings that are like European-villa-meets-Arabian-arches like.

With some neighborhoods trendier than others, I feel lucky to be staying in Gemmayzeh, a Brooklyn-esque part of town, filled with cool restaurants, bars and shops. A less exciting part of town is the Saifi village, which was first built to be an art village of super cool shops, but most have closed down. All that are left are few, seriously overpriced shops. Right next to Gemmayzeh is Achrafiye, the more soho-esque part, with the higher end boutiques and restaurants.

Most of the pictures I've snapped so far are actually of fabulously designed spaces. Everything here is eye-catching. From the clever shisha designs, to the restaurant and cafe decor, to the boutique clothing and jewelry shops. But there's a catch: Beirut is expensive. Food and taxis are cheap, but just about everything else isn't. If it looks like it may be expensive, yes, yes it is.

One of my favorite things to acquire when I travel, is art. And I stumbled upon this gallery displaying amazing graffiti art in Arabic calligraphy, all in beautiful patterns and colors. Most of the pieces I liked started in the $800 range, and I only looked at the small ones that I could travel with. Very disappointing, because it's been hours later and I'm still thinking about the art. Sad face.

The currency is in both Lebanese Lira and US $. You can withdraw both and pay in both. So the first thing I did today was withdraw some Benjamins. God, it felt good to hold some crisp American green again! But I've switched back to my American brain, where $3 for a 5 minute taxi is cheap. But the equivalent 21 Egyptian pound ride will take me all the way across Cairo. And I keep having to remind myself that honey makes Egyptian pounds, so spending dollars is like eating brownies. Best indulged in moderation. Have to cool it on the dollar spree.

It's going to be one of those trips where it's best that once I'm finished site seeing, I sit and lounge in cafes or at a pool. Shopping is going to do way too much damage.

I'm so impressed with this culture. The Lebanese are known to be the fashionable Arabs, with heavy influences from France and the US present everywhere, attributing to that characteristic. The girls are gorgeous and they wear whatever they want! Short shorts and skirts, tank tops, you name it. Guys are a mix though. Some are well groomed; they just look like arab europeans. Some, not so much. Not a single person has harassed us, and once again, people assume I'm a local.

It's exactly what I was hoping Cairo culture could have evolved into. In Cairo, the best hairdressers and the best restaurants are Lebanese. Anything better representing Arab culture in Egypt is not Egyptian, sadly, it's Lebanese. And being here, I see why. I'm at the source, and there's such an obvious difference between the two cities. People here can relax and be real. People here behave differently. Quality is not just a standard, it's a strife.

Im also impressed by the fact that everywhere I go, I hear mixes of Arabic, French and English. Anyone can travel here.

I feel so inspired and motivated. I see that the Middle East and Arab culture is so beautiful again, and it can retain its identity while incorporating western influences. Why can't Cairo be this cool??


On first impression, there were 2 things that struck me. The first was the beautiful full moon, glowing so bright and close to the city, that I kept rubbing my eyes in disbelief. The second is how freakin hot it is here! Wow, I forgot what summer humidity felt like! It's about as hot temperature wise as Cairo, yet as humid as NYC. I am dying!

I checked into the uber cool Saifi gardens for the night, and wish they had room for me for the rest of the trip. It's run like a very cool hipster cafe, with a cafe downstairs, and a rooftop bar. While it is located on a highway, the noise is pretty loud. But the rooms are cute and the breakfast was excellent.

After having my airbnb host cancel on me at the last minute, I wandered through the streets around my hotel to find a plan b. got a decent option. Then I melted as I walked uphill to the ABC shopping mall to find a lonely planet book for Beirut. Couldn't find one anywhere in Cairo. The mall has everything I would except from a mid-east meets west shopping mall.

Now, the start of my journey as I melt away in Beirut...