Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A “Signature” store

We went exploring downtown Beirut and the fancy new Beirut Souks mall. There are dozens of high rise buildings coming up in the area, pieds-a-terre perhaps for overseas Lebanese who visit for part of the year and for well to do Gulf people who come for fun and whatever they can’t find in their own countries (greenery, mountains and alcohol come to mind).

The “Souks” are built on the pre-war site of a proper souk (market), which carried vegetables and that sort of thing and was frequented by regular folks of all classes. Now it is more than 200 small, upscale stores, designer names of Europe and the US, fashion from across the globe. A 13th century Mamluk shrine has been preserved and sits oddly to one side in a plaza area, as have ruins of Byzantine shops, and remnants of a medieval city wall (one wonders how much was not preserved and lies underneath the new construction). Another section is in the works that will house 14 cinemas and a department store. Wow.

A grocery store there, the Signature Store of a Kuwaiti-owned chain with multiple branches in Beirut, is filled with an eye-popping array of imported goods that include fresh frog legs and lobster swimming (well, alive) in tanks. There is a nail bar in the store (perhaps the lobster claw damaged your manicure?) and an eat-in sushi bar complete with conveyer belt. The produce section carries Italian salad mix, colorful hot peppers from Holland (Holland?), Belgian salsify, Thai longan, and Chilean blueberries, to name a few. Care for Ball Park franks (at $10), Breyer’s ice cream ($12), perhaps one of eight varieties or artisanal salt, Dutch sauerkraut, gourmet popcorn ($6), eggnog flavor hot chocolate mix? Or the frozen Maine lobster in case you didn’t want the fresh, for $20 for a pound, or perhaps you prefer the Scottish for $16.

Other items don’t surprise because we see them widely here, e.g. Brazilian beef, Danish butter, an array of French cheeses.

This is Beirut.

The store is less than 20 minutes’ walk, so we may be back.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Touring with a US friend or two

To familiar places, but with new discoveries and new eyes. Tom driving brilliantly the obstacle-course that is the Lebanese roadway, our friend Greg navigating with aid of the map that is a gnarled tangle of byways in a country where direction signs are rare, and me leaping out of the car to ask directions in tortured, broken Arabic. We had a great trip!

First stop, heading north, the Dog River, which carries inscriptions from every invading army from Nebuchadnezzar to the French. We find a whole section of relics over the highway that we have never seen before.

Then Batroun, and Tripoli, the marvelous Crusader (etc.) castle there, the great souk. And we manage to find the Sultan Restaurant which I had loved when I worked in Tripoli, but whose name I had forgotten, in Al Mina along the Corniche. There Greg had his first mezze meal (see photo above), swoon swoon, and also his first encounter with the incredibly kind and honest Lebanese people--after leaving his passport and money on the table in the restaurant (it was jet lag!), restaurant staff ran after us and managed to find us four blocks away and return everything intact. OMG

The next day, the big trek east over the mountains to the Bekaa. T managed to find the mysterious “autostrade” that links Hermel in the east to, well, nothing to speak of, on the western side of the pass. Tiny towns with rutted, one way streets. But having faith, we found it. A few chunks along the edge of the highway seemed to have slipped into oblivion waaaaaay, waaaay below since we had last taken the road, apparently not having weathered the winter too well. Otherwise it really is a very good road, with amazing views.

After Hermel we turned south for Baalbek. Stopped at a grocery store to buy some snacks to tide us over until another evening mezze. The shop keeper’s family was just sitting down to their lunch. The wife invited us to stay. We declined. She asked again. We declined. She went to get her husband, who asked us again. Tom decided that he had declined such genuine, spontaneous hospitality too many times, and we sat down to a lovely meal of fresh tabbouli and chicken with greens. Husband Samir spoke some English, and fluent German (which unfortunately did us no good), having lived and worked in Germany as an engineer at a Mercedes plant. We got by with broken English, much more broken Arabic, the odd word in French understood by daughter Jinan, and lots of smiling. Here we are in their house above the store. At one point I said to Samir, “I hope you can come and visit us in America some day.” His immediate reaction: a gentle, knowing smile, with kind eyes, and: “I am a Shiite from Baalbek. Do you think I can go to America?” Oh, right. Oops. The sweetest, kindest most loving happy family, prosperous, generous…but Shia, and from Hezbollah country.

We leave the Zaidans with profuse thanks, photos, and promises to meet again, and carry on southward. We spend the night at Baalbek (photo below, left), home to some incredible Roman ruins that loom over the town: the Temple of Jupiter, remains of the largest Roman temple in the world, and the Bacchus Temple, one of the best preserved. At midnight we are awakened by fireworks just outside the temples: it is Easter Sunday and the Christians are celebrating.

The next day we visit the 8th century Umayyad ruins at Anjar, have another great mezze, this one with an Armenian flare (great sausage, they tell me) and spend the night in Zahle in an Ottoman era hotel, with a stroll along the River Birdawni.

Onward further down the Bekaa Valley, stopping to take a winery tour and then a walk in a wetland preserve, before ascending the mountains (stunning view!) to cross to the Mediterranean side. Just below the ridge is the Barouk cedar reserve, the largest in the country. We walk the reserve and marvel at the 2 – 3,000 year old trees (!!). Here is Tom with a 2,000 year old one. He insists he has seen “JC” carved in the trunk.

We stay the night in Masser al Shouf in a convent that has been lovingly restored as a very comfortable guesthouse. Here are Tom and Greg relaxing on the terrace outside our rooms.

After a day in Beirut to catch our breath and do laundry, we head out again, to the south this time. First stop: Saida and it's souk and the Audi Foundation’s great museum on soap making. Then we make a major detour to the south eastern area of the country to see Beaufort Castle, which we have heard is once again open to visitors. The medieval fortress 300 meters above the surrounding countryside was used by various armies over time, in recent history by the PLO and then by the Israelis and friends as a detention camp. These forces, despite requests, destroyed much of the ancient site as they retreated in 2000. Hezbollah then ran it as a museum showcasing the horrible conditions of the prisoners before the Red Cross was allowed to inspect in 1995. Since we have been here the entire area has been off limits. Now the road is open but the museum is history. We were able to tour the grounds and take in the stupendous, 360 view into Israel (you can tell by the neat rows of houses) and out all the way to the sea. Here is Greg with some of the view.

On to Sur (Tyre) on the sea for the night, and its great Roman ruins. Here are the ruins by the sea. And me, below, a speck on the stands at the Hippodrome. Another great mezze dinner by the sea, and we share the restaurant with a wedding party—fun! I note with muted alarm that we are definitely getting fat. I don’t care, for now. Instead (photo way below), enjoy a lovely fresh juice in downtown Sur.

On the way back to Beirut we stop at Echemon, ruins of a Phoenician temple and center of healing, dating from .1st – 6th century BC. Here is the oldest known Phoenician throne in the Mediterranean area, and Greg trying it out for size. Unfortunately the place is in areal state of disrepair. Most of the relics have been sported off to museums across the globe. Here is a patch of Byzantine mosaic hiding in the grass…

And the juice stand that belongs above but I can't get blogspot to move it!!

A billboard along the way has a woman proclaiming: PLASTIC SURGERY MADE ME FABULOUS. LIVE LIFE YOUR WAY (an ad for whiskey)

We collect visitor #2 and head north to the Qadisha Valley, actually a side valley called Qannoubine. The entire area, steep, picturesque cliffs above the Qadisha River, is dotted with caves that housed monks and refugees fleeing persecution over the ages. It is called the Sacred Valley. We had a great hike, the greenery and waterfalls amazing our friends and shaking their preconception of the Middle East landscape. Here is a so-called “pothole” in the area, with a waterfall through it. It is 250 meters (820 feet) deep! The waterfall is 100 meters (328 feet). Hecka pothole.

And we visit the National Museum in Beirut. It is a little hard not to ho-hum at the various items from 4000 BC. We see so many things plucked from the sites we have visited around the country. I love watching the video showing how many of the treasures were preserved in concrete during the long civil war. The museum sits directly on the Green Line. Here is a testament to some of the relics that did not fare so well.

Above are Greg and Tom on the Corniche near our apartment. And at ACS.

Our friends went off to Jordan after Lebanon, and had a memorable trip to Petra, Wadi Rum, the Dana Nature Reserve, and Jerash before heading back to the States. They say they miss the three M’s: Moores, mezze and Mediterranean :-)