We have visited two wineries, one more or less by chance (it was on the way to the ancient ruins, honest) and the second with a group from Tom's school, in a—wisely—chartered bus. Both are in the Bekaa Valley, which gets 240 days of sunshine a year and has been the scene of wine growing for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Ksara Winery is the oldest and largest in Lebanon, with grapes planted in the early 18th century and real caves that cover two kilometers/over a mile. The Jesuits took over in 1857 and ran the place until 1972. It is a heavily visited place, well organized and with a bit of a Disneyland atmosphere. Handfuls of small children race about, playing on the furniture (e.g. tables made of wine barrels). On entering, people are grouped by language, an unenviable task on busy days, performed by the trilingual tour guide. If several groups arrive at once, English might be sent off for wine tasting while Arabic watches the video, hastily set to Arabic, and French gets a tour of the caves. Groups then switch and tour guide keeps track of it all. The video is very professionally done and covers the history of the place and how the wine is produced. The caves, which date from Roman times (!), were expanded during World War I, and are the perfect temperature for aging wine.
The second winery we visited was Massaya, a newer and smaller winery known more for its arak (the strong stuff, like raki or ouzo). A busload of American Community School staff made its way over the mountains to the place, well off the main road. We knew that in addition to wine sampling, a huge feast awaited us. The setting was lovely—shaded tables and benches with comfortable cushions adjacent to the rows of vines, and even a pond with koi-- rustic elegance. There was a slight breeze and it was fabulously quiet, at least away from the eating area. Living in the city as we do, this was a real blessing. As you enter, you pass a woman in simple clothing sitting close to the ground baking flat breads with thyme, or cheese or meat—the appetizers. Trays of tomatoes, olives and the tastiest tiny cucumbers ever complemented the warm breads. The wine began to flow. In time, the feast began. Buffet style, there must have been 30 dishes. Not the standard “mezze” fare we have seen in several other restaurants but much more elaborate--gourmet farm. Apparently this takes place every Sunday.
Another chapter in the heavenly elixir department is rose water. I had seen the bottles of rose water sold in import markets in the States and wondered what it was used for. I thought it was a man-made creation—like we buy synthetic vanilla extract, which tastes more strongly of vanilla than the real thing (and is, of course, a whole lot cheaper). Well, guess what. The rose water/syrup that comes in bottles is actually the real thing. Roses smell different here. They look exactly the same (to us, anyway) but they have this candy sweet smell that is, well, good enough to eat. There are several brands of syrup in the grocery store—I buy the one without the red food coloring. I mix 5 parts water to one part rose syrup, and serve over ice. We have taken to keeping a pitcher of it in the fridge.
- A small shop that I pass by on my way to Arabic class has a cart that sticks out into the sidewalk so far that one must practically detour into the street. That part is not so unusual. But what amazes me is that the cart is laden with packaged drinks—small bottles of juice and cans of beer—and snacks that the store sells. Stacked on the cart outside on the sidewalk, day after day, and nothing is taken.
- Further along the street I sometimes see water pouring down from the second or third floor of an apartment building—washing machine effluent? It pours into a lovely garden, watering the trees. Balcony drains reach the sidewalk or, commonly, large plastic bottle placed on the sidewalk
- There is a broad range of Moslem lady fashion in Beirut. It runs from total Western—not only no headscarf but skin tight t-shirts—to black headscarf and robe. The latter is very uncommon and I suspect these ladies are visitors from another country. What is more usual are various intermediate stages. Today I saw a 20-something lady with bell bottoms and spangled cowboy boots, modest dark flowing headscarf and baggy, long sleeve shirt above. There are many brightly colored headscarves, worn with long skirts or with tight, flared jeans and high heels. If you wear a head scarf you will also have a long-sleeve top, which could be long (mid-thigh or even coat-like, mid-calf) and baggy, or short and skin-tight. If the latter, as in fashion in general here, sparkles and frills are big. One wonders how one finds one’s niche. We noticed that the very sweet couple who run the coffee stand nearby have an adult daughter who does not wear a head covering, though Mom does.
- Well to do Beirutis who left the city heat for summer homes up in the hills have returned, making streets and shops busier at night. Tom had to wait for the hot from the convection oven bread he likes, in a line behind a flock of Filipino maids and other customers who had placed orders in advance.
As we get ready to go to bed we happen to glance up and see three, count ‘em three, big fat mosquitoes on the ceiling. This is the last week of October—enough already! A battle ensues. The ceiling is 9 feet up. Tom’s preferred weapon of choice is the towel. I prefer The Economist. About 10 minutes later Tom has gotten two of them and we give up. It is late. Unfortunately the third one is quite successful in avenging her departed family members--by morning we have been ravaged. Fortunately the weather is starting to get cooler, so hopefully this is the last of these guys.