After the immigration ordeal, it was time to make my way to the hotel. Based on recommendations on FlyerTalk, I’d sorted a taxi with the hotel, and two hours later he was still waiting for me in the arrivals area. Or, at least I thought he was. He walked me outside, and introduced me to my real driver, who was waiting for me. The taxi was 37,000 LBP or approximately $24 one way, and it was a reasonably quick drive to the hotel.
I’d booked in at the Four Points Verdun in Beirut, who informed me I’d been upgraded to a junior suite upon arrival. Room was modern and comfortable, one of the nicer Four Points I’ve stayed in, with very friendly and helpful staff. It was also 2-for-1 happy hour in the hotel bar/lounge when I arrived, so couldn’t resist sampling the local craft beer. I got seriously addicted to these nuts!
As I believe I mentioned earlier, Lebanon is one of the first places I’ve ever been that doesn’t allow foreign mobiles to data roam on its networks, so I had no clue until I got to my hotel that my tour company had canceled my tour to Baalbeck in the morning. Their reason? “There have been problems with ISIS in the area.” Uh, gee, great. Thanks to the wonderful ladies at the front desk I got a map of other possible options and she started calling around to see what might be bookable:
After enjoying my 2-for-1 beers I checked in, and unfortunately all the tour companies claimed to be full the next day, so the only option was to hire a driver. She quickly sorted out a six hour hire the next day at a reasonable rate and pointed me in the direction of Ward El Cham, which she said was a great local restaurant near the hotel. It was maybe a five minute walk away, and when I arrived it was packed with locals smoking shisha and had a super lively atmosphere. I declined the shisha in favour of an Almaza which came with a bread basket and some tasty little munchies to start:
Decided to start with grilled halloumi as an appetizer
…and finished off with some delicious kebabs that the waiter recommended.
I don’t remember the name of the desert he recommended, but I asked for something traditional. It was a sort of semi-soft cheese wrapped in crepes and filled with honey, ground pistachios, etc. Quite tasty!
Got back to the hotel, and they’d brought up plates of fruit, nuts, and a bottle of wine. I have no idea if it was intentional or not, but the Jason Winery was a new one to me! If this was intentional I’m seriously impressed!
After a long day of travel, I managed to crash for over eight solid hours. Unfortunately, I woke up seriously jetlagged and disoriented. The combo of “enough” sleep and being seven time zones “off”…no, wait. My body had no idea what time zone it should be in by this point – anyways – I basically woke up sluggish because I was just plain exhausted. I decided to check…just in case…if there was Starbucks in Lebanon…
Ta-da…a 10 minute walk from the Four Points, and I was very happy. You can see from the photo just how exhausted I was at this point, lol. Just a coffee, and then it was back to the Four Points for a quick breakfast. Normally, I don’t do hotel breakfast, but at the Four Points the Platinum benefit is 250 points (worth $5 in my book) or free breakfast for two nights. Figuring I’d get at least $2.50 in value out of it, I took the breakfast. However, I decided to Starbucks in addition in order to have predictable levels of caffeination. Not a bad call. A good amount of hummus, pain au chocolate, and hair boiled eggs later, I was ready for the day!
My driver showed up right on time at 8am, and it was time to negotiate. Yes, the agreed upon price was for six hours, but he was happy to work more time if I decided I needed it by the hour. Excellent. So, question number one: is Baalbeck really unsafe? He said normally he would be happy to drive it, but yes, two days ago there was some insurgent activity in the area and he wouldn’t recommend it. However, “I work for you today Sir, so wherever you want to go we will go.” Hmmm…maybe I should do Baalbeck after all…
I decided at this point to throw out a teaser. “So, I hear the highway to Damascus is also more or less safe.” “Oh yes Sir, that highway is just fine, Damascus is no problem. The Syrians all drive than road to fly out of Beirut airport.” Hmmm, this is interesting. We decided that while we planned out the day our next stop would be the ancient city of Byblos….with a bit of a long detour for some driving through the countryside to enjoy a bit of more rural Lebanon. We drove down a very busy highway, had a very fascinating coffee, ticked a box, and then were off to Byblos. Moving on…
Byblos was first settled somewhere between 8000 and 7000 BC (yes, approximately 10,000 years ago) and is said to have been the first city in ancient Phonecia. It is one of a few cities in the Middle East suggested as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, having been inhabited continuously for over 7,000 years. That’s a long time!
Guide helped me paid the entrance fee, and then left me to wander alone. There were good signs, and no touts offering to play guide, so I was on my own. First site was the crusader fort from the 12th Century AD:
After the fort, I wandered around the rest of the archaeological site taking in the different parts. They were all posted with a good description in several languages.
View towards the city:
More of the archaeological site:
Selfie in front of the Fort:
Ruins of an ampitheatre:
After a bit over an hour visiting Byblos, and having a an espresso at a cafe which had wifi, it was time to make plans from there. The driver strongly suggested on the way back towards Beirut we stop in Jounieh to ride the cable car to the top of the mountain to get a view down over the city. Who am I to argue with a funicular! Managed to get my own car for the ride to the top (once again my driver waited at the bottom) and up I went…having no idea what was at the top!
From the cable car:
View towards the coast from the top after a 10-15 minute ride:
At the top there were several cafes and restaurants, as well as the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Lebanon:
The actual church:
A rather disturbing note carved into the concrete near the church:
After wandering around at the top for a bit, I decided to grab a slightly early lunch. There was a sit-down restaurant at the top with nobody at it, but it advertised local food, so decided to give it a go. An almaza beer with some nuts to start: (sensing a theme here?)
More hummus! Yum! I forget what the meat on top was, but as a combo it was really rather tasty. I also had a bit more grilled Halloumi cheese which somehow didn’t make it into the picture, but was quite tasty.
Then, it was time to catch the cable car back down to meet my driver. I’m next in line!
Away we go!
View on the descent:
Met my driver at the bottom, and he asked what I wanted to see next. I bought him a coffee, and we had a bit of a discussion about our next stop. We agreed it was starting to get late, so we should start making our way back towards Beirut. On the way, he suggested we stop at the Jeita Grotto so I could see some underground caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites. Wait, another cable car to get there?!
Walked through the first cave, which was super interesting, but reminded me a lot of Luray Caverns here in Virginia. To get to the second cave, you rode a little train down the hill. On my train were about 100 women with headscarves, and maybe a dozen men. Finally, one of the bolder women started chatting me up. Turns out they were a tour group from all over Iraq, and they were here on vacation because it’s the only place they could go without a visa.
“Do you mind if I take a picture with you?” “Yes me too!” “Yes me too!” I’m pretty certain I’m going to be listed as the boyfriend / fiancé, / future husband on a lot of denied applications for U.S. visas in the not too distant future.
The one who had initially chatted me up got even bolder. “Do you mind if I accompany you on the walk of the next cave?” Sure, why not, I mean there’s nothing weird about this at all. So, into the cave we went, walking around and taking it in. I half expected her to grab my hand and demand immediate marriage, but no such luck. 🙂 Turns out, a short way into the cave, there was a boat ride. Through the caves. So here I am, me and a dozen Iraqi women (no men) in a boat, doing what can only be described as a romantic cruise through some underground caves. This was getting slightly weird. But, it all ended completely innocently, and at the exit she wished me safe travels…and it was time to walk back to my driver.
But on the way, a strange zoo-like exhibit:
Looking back towards the caves:
Got back to Beirut a bit after 7pm, which meant I owed several extra hours. No problem. This was getting expensive, but based on everything he’d shown me in our 11 hours together it was totally worth it.
Time for Happy Hour again at the Four Points and more of those addictive nuts:
Since I was getting a bit sick of hummus by this point after all my time in Israel and now Lebanon, it was time for something different. The woman at the hotel recommended a restaurant called Scoozi, which she described as an “Italian Sushi Bar.” Are you kidding me? I’ve heard of fusion, and then there’s downright crazy. I had to try it.
When I got there, it was sushi happy hour, and lots of locals were eating their fill from the conveyor belt of sushi. I decided to explore the menu in all its weirdness:
See? It really is Italian-Japanese Fusion. Picture of folks enjoying the sushi conveyor belt:
I decided to go with a Lebanese wine to start, which came with more delicious and tempting nuts:
Since this place was all about fusion, I had to explore that aspect. Some tasty yakitori to start:
Followed up by lasagna, naturally!
I honestly don’t remember what this was now – some sort of a bread pudding with ice cream is most likely:
Back to the hotel where the Four Points had generously left another bottle of Château le Jason in my room. Did a bit of blogging and laid down. I wanted to get up semi-early to be able to explore Beirut a bit before my mid-afternoon flight to Kuwait the next day!