Day 9: Latakia - Beirut
Beirut Travel Blog› entry 17 of 54 › view all entries
Change of plans. Although... weâd changed our plans earlier, but today was the day these plans came to execution.
When we had been planning our trip several months ago we had contemplated travelling to Lebanon as well. Lebanon is home to the old Roman city of Baalbek, just across the Syrian border. Derkâs parents had visited this place a long time ago, and found it a stunning highlight of their trip.
However, we were unsure of how much time we would need for Syria and Jordan, and whether or not we would have time left to go to Baalbek.
And besides that, nine months earlier Israel had declared war on Lebanon, so it wasnât exactly the most stable country to visit either...
So we had decided to do our itinerary to Syria and Jordan and if weâd have any time left at the end of the trip we could visit Baalbek from Damascus.
When we were in Hama we saw that Hotel Cairo is offering tours to Baalbek as a daytrip. So that at least told us something about the safety in Lebanon and the distance from Hama or Damascus to Baalbek.
Because we ended up travelling with Omar for three days and in these three days we had seen all the sights that we had actually planned for five days, we were ahead of schedule. And furthermore, our original idea was to go to Tartus after Latakia, and then to Homs to see Krak Des Chevaliers. Well, weâd seen Krak already, and if you look at the map, you see that a loop via Beirut back to Damascus is far more efficient than via Homs!
And so we took the decision to go to Lebanon for a few days. It would be a waste to just visit Baalbek and nothing else in the country, hence we added a couple of days in Beirut to our visit.
But because of the Israeli war this did mean we had to work out a few things. First of all was to find out whether or not the border was actually open, and whether it would be possible for us to get a visa. Fortunately that was a yes to both, the staff at our hotel in Aleppo had been very helpful in verifying for us that we would indeed be able to get a visa at the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Next issue was travel insurance. What exactly does our insurance stipulate on travelling to war zones? Remarkably little, we found out, although every insurance has a clause about terrorism these days, there is not much mentioned about countries that may or may not be at war with their neighbours. It did mention something about travelling to countries with a negative travel advice given out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but even so it did not say we werenât insured.
Best to double check with the ministery then. On the ministeryâs website it was stated that all non-urgent travel to Lebanon was âdiscouragedâ. Discouraged? How do we interpret discouraged? Letâs see what they say about Iraq then, different message here, basically it says âdo! not! go! there!â. Right, Afghanistan? âif you really must go register with the embassy upon arrival, leave itinerary with the consulate. Government will not save you if you get into troubleâ
OK, different story then, right? That is a different message than ânon-urgent travel is discouragedâ which means just as much as nothing.
We had met an Australian girl in Aleppo, who had just come from Beirut and she confirmed that the city was perfectly safe to visit, local people told us it was safe to visit, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not say it is ridiculously dangerous - So why wouldnât we believe them?
Of course we did follow the advice of the ministeryâs website to let people at home know where we were going, how long for, and what to do in case they would not hear from us in a few days.
I just couldn't get myself to phone my mum and tell her what we were about to do. I just couldn't. I didn't want her to be unnecessarily worried, so I phoned my sister instead. The conversation went something like this:
"we've decided to go to Beirut next"
"Oh wow! Cool!"
"Yeah, well, but the thing is, there is a sort of war going on there"
"Well, y'know, the whole thing with Israel some 9 months ago. It is all relatively quiet now. We checked the Internet, spoke to people, it all seems ok really"
"But, well, you know, just in case something does happen. In case you see the news this weekend that the fighting erupts again, then, uhm, please call the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or something. Also, uhm, if you don't hear from me by MondayâŠ"
This was one of the toughest calls I ever had to make when travelling.
There is a special taxi service between Latakia and Beirut. These taxis are basically cars you share with others, departing whenever they are full. As we would find out, it can take a very long time for four seats to fill up. Hours, in fact. Seems Beirut isnât such a popular destination after all.
Eventually we did find some fellow travellers though, Gilbert and Rhanda, a Lebanese couple who had just spent a few daysâ holiday in Latakia.
Our transportation was fully in style: a 25 year old, bright yellow Dodge Coronet.
Crossing the border was almost as easy as a European border crossing. We didnât even have to pay for a Lebanese visa because we would only be staying three days.
Our travelling companions were exceptionally pleasant company. Like with Syrians hospitality comes as natural for the Lebanese. It was not before long that we were invited to a Sunday lunch barbecue at their summer home in the mountains near Beirut.
The trip went very swiftly thanks to the pleasant company. Gilbert and Rhanda told us many things about their life in Lebanon and the recent war with Israel. They were quite indifferent about it, after all, they had been used to some after 17 years of civil war.
Just before we entered Beirut we passed a bridge which had been bombed by the Israeliâs. âThis is where we had a little present from Israelâ Gilbert said with a wry smile, as if it is the most normal thing in the world for a country to destroy the complete infrastructure of its neighbours.
In no way does Beirut resemble anything we had seen in Syria. Modern high rise buildings, department stores, McDonaldâs, KFC, Burger King... all is present here. And everywhere, but literally everywhere, commercial signs in English. Commercial signs either selling cars, loans, credit cards or cosmetic surgery. Or loans to fund cars and cosmetic surgery.
The streets looked as if they could as well have been an American city, albeit that about 80% of the cars driving the Beirut streets are old Mercedeses.
As last nightâs hotel in Latakia had not been particularly comfy (read: very dirty and noisy and by far the worst weâd had in Syria) and the budget hotels in Beirut werenât exactly recommended in our guide books, we decided to treat ourselves to something a little more posh and we checked ourselves into the 4-star Chevalier hotel, in one of the more luxury residential areas of Beirut.
After we had freshened ourselves up a little we went for a little stroll through the city. First destination was the newly rebuilt city centre. During the civil war this is where the fighting had been the worst, with the result that almost the entire centre had been destroyed.
Whatever was left of the centre was torn down and new buildings were erected. Because the whole centre was brand new, but built in a classic, Parisian looking, style, it gave us a bit of a Disneyland feeling. The brand new clean buildings and almost sterile streets just looked like a fake movie set or something. Quite a change from what weâd seen in Syria.
On our way to the centre we had passed many ruins which are still remaining from the civil war. With some buildings it is not possible to trace the original owners, or there is simply not enough money to tear them down and build new ones instead. It makes the streets look really weird. Brand new modern banks are erected in between shells of bombed offices.
The weirdest of all must have been the old Holiday Inn Hotel. During the war this was the highest building in the city, and thus a thankful spot for snipers and the likes. This in turn resulted in an increased attraction to bullets and rockets and this building saw more fighting in the 17 years of war than any other location in the city. And the shell of the hotel is still standing, a towering structure, riddled with bullet holes, a reminder of the countryâs turbulent history. And smack in front of it a brand new InterContinental hotel has been built. Imagine staying in this hotel and the view from your room is the towering shell of the previous hotel, shot to pieces. Somehow that would not make me very comfortable.
On our way we noticed there were soldiers posted at virtually every street corner.
In the centre itself the parking spots in front of several government buildings had been closed off, probably to prevent car bombs. An empty lot had been transformed into a tent camp housing supporters of Hezbollah, surrounded by more soldiers, UN cars and press.
Once we arrived at the main square in the centre, the Place dâĂtoile, it looked business as usual. The terraces were full, and everybody was eating or drinking like it was any other city in the world. Later we heard that before the war with Israel it would have been so busy that it would not have been possible to find a table on a day like today, so the war did have its effect on the people.
We had a nice little lunch, before moving on. The Place dâĂtoile might share its name with the most famous roundabout in Paris, the tower in the middle resembles the Big Ben rather than the Arc de Triomph. Right next to the Place dâĂtoile they are currently building a mosque *and* a church, right next to eachother, both in the same style, as if to emphasis the solidarity.
As the sun was slowly setting we walked along the long boulevard: La Corniche. For most people living in Beirut this is their favourite pastime, every afternoon around sunset this place is packed with people. And justly so, as it is a wonderful walk with the Mediterranean sea on the right, palm trees on the left and the sun setting in front of you.
This 5-kilometre walk ended at the so-called Pigeon Rocks.
We settled down on a terrace of the Bay Rock CafĂ©, to sip a beer and try out Sheesha for the first time. Sheesha, also known as Hookah or Nargileh, is a fashionable water pipe, used to smoke fruit flavoured tobacco. Basically everywhere you looked you saw people sitting down smoking sheeshas at sidewalk cafĂ©s or simply in front of their houses.
Derk took melon flavour and I had strawberry. Initially I wanted to try a local flavour, when I order food I always go for the stuff I can't pronounce, so on the tobacco menu too I pointed at the one word which wasn't translated into English.
The strawberry was delicious by the way. We thoroughly enjoyed puffing away, while drinking our beer and watching the sun set. This was the life.
Slightly dizzy we left the place around half past 8, to find a taxi to take us to a restaurant.
For dinner we opted for the Gemmayzeh quarter, which is currently the most trendy neighbourhood of Beirut. The quarter lies right on the former Green Line, the borderline between the Christian and Islamic part of the city during the war.
Back in the sixties Beirut was pretty much jet set city of the Middle East and from all over the world the rich and famous came to the so-called Paris of the Middle East.
When the 'Zionistic Imperialism' started and Israel annexed large parts of Jordan, Syria and Egypt in 1967, Lebanon saw a massive influx of Palestinian refugees. These Palestinians in their turn started a guerilla war from Lebanon (and to a lesser extent from Syria and Jordan). The ruthless retaliations from Israel made that any understanding the Lebanese may have had for the Palestine issue quickly disappeared. In 1973 there was a war between Israel and Syria, which was largely fought on Lebanese soil, while the government at the time was powerless to do anything about it. The Lebanese revolted, which resulted in a civil war which lasted for 17 years.
The main reason why the war lasted so long was because there were so many parties involved, that it was almost impossible to come to a compromise.
After a peace treaty was signed in 1992 and the Israeli army (partially) and the Syrian army (hardly) retreated from Lebanese soil, the country was entirely in ruins. Rebuilding started really quickly, largely thanks to immense financial impulses from countries like Qatar and Kuwat (and hardly anything from the West). Beirut was determined to become that jet set city of the 60s as quickly as possible.
The Green Line, the borderline between the Christians and Muslims has not been turned into a war monument, as you might expect, no, it has become the hippest and busiest nightlife of Beirut.
A return of the jet set city of the 60s this ain't - the recent war with Israel has assured Europeans stay mostly away from this country - but tourism from the Middle East is booming.
And rich Lebanese love to spend money as well. From the restaurant where we had dinner we could see the big Mercedeses, BMWs and Porsches arriving, and being handed over to valet parking. The latter is definitely the ultimate culmination of posh here. Pretty much each and every restaurant, hotel, night club or store has valet parking. Even if the car is being parked just three metres away along the side of the road, you will hand it over to the valet, or you simply don't belong.
And we arrived by taxi.
Ah well, it was nice to hear the likes of Keane and Coldplay being played in a restaurant for once, instead of the Arabian music we'd heard all week. But the food itself was a very disappointing affair.