This past Saturday I made my way over to The Cedars ski resort in the north, where the highly anticipated, annual Ski de Nuit party was taking place that night. Ski de Nuit is the annual night ski event, where a couple slopes are lit up and open until midnight for skiing and snowboarding.
I met up with a couple friends at Dora to catch the bus to Bcharre, where a coworker welcomed us into her home to have delicious homemade molokhia before driving up to The Cedars. Once we had all our equipment rented and our tickets purchased (a pretty good deal too, $15 for the skis and $30 for the event with one drink), me and Alexis headed up to the lift. I’m so lucky Alexis, former competitive skier and talented coach, was with me because without her I would have spent the whole night on my ass and limped away with more than just the two bruises on my knees now. It was weird being on skis again, the last time was over 14 years ago back before I moved to Florida as a kid.
Only when I was on the ski lift did I start having second thoughts, but there was no turning back at that point! After a bit of a rough start, two hilariously epic tumbles, I got back on my feet and made it all the way down the rest of the slope with no mishaps, though it took a while. I don’t know how successful I would have been without Alexis telling me exactly how to fix my awful form the whole time. I probably would have spent the whole time on the ground…
Yes, I skied in a peacoat.
By the time the slopes closed I managed to get another three runs in, with one hot chocolate break, before returning my equipment and joining the party down at the lodge. There was a really cool set up with a stage on the porch and tons of space for people to dance or just hang out on the porch and the snow around it. Though around 700 people attended last year, this year’s number was closer to 500, which I’m thankful for because I think 700 people would have made it way too crowded. The reputation that Lebanese people know how to have fun seems to be spot on, as everyone looked like they were really enjoying themselves and rocking out.
Despite nearly frostbitten toes and walking around the snow barefoot because my feet were so cold and wet in my non-waterproof boots at the end of the night, it was a huge success and I’m glad I went. Next year I will definitely be taking advantage of all the skiing opportunities near me in Boston and get back into practice!
As one of my perks for being an adventurous intern in a foreign country, my University allows me to plan little get-togethers with the other interns in Beirut and covers up to a certain portion of the cost we incur. Which is kind of awesome because it motivates me to do things I normally would not be willing to pay to do even if I think they might be worth it, like going to the museum.
So for the first get-together I organized, I planned a day at two museums in Beirut followed up by a late lunch of the Corniche. Me and Alexis arrived downtown early and decided to check out the weekly farmers market that happens every Saturday in the Downtown Souks from 9am to 2pm. It was pretty small but still interesting and fun, especially since the day was starting to get nice and warm. One of the vendors gave us a taste of mysterious, green fuzz-covered, crunchy fruit, which turned out to be an uncooked almond! He even traded a couple of the almonds at a nearby stand for some salt for us to sprinkle on top, and it was quite tasty and refreshing. Next we stopped by the stand of a man who sells his own honey and when I tasted the cedar honey for the first time I was floored. If it wasn’t $30 for a jar of honey I would have bought it right there and then. So perfect.
A fuzzy almond.
Anyways, we finally met The Crypt Museum, located below the St. George Cathedral in Nejmeh Square Downtown. The Museum is open every day except for Mondays, from 10am to 6pm, and admission is only 5000LL. If you ever go, take a walk through the Cathedral first and go all the way to the front where the altar is. There is a glass panel that allows you to look into the Crypt Museum from above. It’s actually pretty cool because then you enter the Crypt Museum and you can also look up to the beautiful ceiling of the Cathedral. The Crypt Museum itself is timeline fashioned, leading you on a historic journey of the Cathedral from the Hellenistic Period to the present through the actual excavation of the site, showcasing layers of mosaics, frescos, tombs, parts of canals and roads, and remains from five old, destroyed churches preceding the current Cathedral.
The ceiling of the St. George Cathedral.
Ancient mosaic flooring in the Crypt Museum.
Layers of mosaic floors and a tomb.
In a side room was a collection of frescos carefully removed from the walls during the excavation and put on display, along with the actual St. George altar from one of the earliest versions of the church that has been since destroyed by earthquakes and war.
St. George’s altar.
Next we walked around Downtown in search of the famous Roman Baths. We had all previously seen the few old Roman columns standing next to the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque and were greatly relieved when we discovered that these few dinky pillars were not the famed ancient site. I put my Google skills to good use and discovered the exact location of the Roman Baths and the remains of an old crusader castle on the edge of Downtown. The Baths were really cool, we could see the below-floor heating system used to get the rooms and water nice and hot and were entertained by a lone cat wandering through the ruins. The crusader castle was actually on a spot I pass by every time I go Downtown in what looks like an overgrown field, hidden below eye level among grown weeds. There’s a good view of the bay and the city from that spot, so I think it would be a nice spot to have a picnic sometime in the future.
The Roman Baths.
Remains of an old Crusader castle and perfect picnic spot.
Finally we made it over to the National Museum, open from 9am to 5pm every day except Mondays, and found out inside there was a crazy discount for students. So remember your student ID if you go, because the price drops to 5000LL to 1000LL. That’s less than one US dollar for a really well put-together archeological museum that was partially destroyed in the Civil War and rebuilt to nearly its former glory. It was a bit on the smaller side compared to the museums I’ve been to before, but it made up for size in selection and presentation. The first thing you see walking in is Roman sculptures, my single most motivating reason for visiting museums, so the place immediately went up in favor. Then you go upstairs and walk around the perimeter of the balcony, following a timeline progression of artifacts through Beirut’s history from the Bronze Age to the Mamlouk era. It didn’t take long, but that was probably a good thing since it was boiling in there. And here I thought museums were always meant to be cold…
The National Museum.
To finish off our day, we grabbed a cab and headed over to the Corniche, or Raouché, the seaside promenade on the Hamra side of town that has a bunch of cafés, restaurants, vendors, palm trees, and fisherman all along it. We took the advice of our cab driver and ate at the Bay Rock Restaurant, where we had seats on the edge of the balcony, right in the warm sun, overlooking the famous Pigeon Rocks. I had seen pictures of the rocks before and had no idea why they were so famous until I saw them with my own eyes. They were enormous! Fisherman offer rides in their boats to go through the rocks and one offered us a ride for around $7 each, but we were starving and figure that the price would be even lower in the summer when more fishermen and tourists were out. The meal itself was delicious and in traditional Lebanese mezze style, accompanied by the best, most refreshing minted lemonade I’ve had in Beirut so far. We took our time and really enjoyed our meal and each others’ company for nearly two hours before we left to grab ice cream by the ancient Ferris wheel and parting ways.
The view from the Bay Rock Restaurant.
Crazy old Ferris wheel…I will ride it one day with a fear of death.
Whew! I think this is probably the longest post I’ve ever written, but it was a packed day and we got to do a lot of great stuff. This trip-sponsorship program my University turned out to be even better than I expected. To be completely honest, I probably would not have ever gone to the Crypt Museum or the National Museum on my own and it turns out they were both really enjoyable and worth it. I also wouldn’t have had an excuse to just wander around Downtown exploring the nooks and crannies, and I might even have not met another one of the interns working in Beirut, who lives on the other side of town and has a completely different lifestyle than me, if not for this program. I really can’t wait for the next upcoming trips I get to plan to get us all together again and explore a new place in Lebanon!
When I heard of a restaurant in a “Disney castle” a couple weeks ago, I knew I had to try it. I missed my first chance when a few friends said they were going out for dinner there the week before but I was busy so I couldn’t make it. As it turns out, they couldn’t figure out where the mysterious castle was so they never made it. Then, on the bus ride back into Beirut from Baalbek a couple weekends ago, we spotted it on the Airport Street behind the Al Aytam Gas Station. Plans were arranged to go there the following week.
The square and spring.
The castle restaurant is called Assaha Lebanese Traditional Village (01 451 513), and it is not only a restaurant but a mini community with a classy hotel, shops in the courtyard, the restaurant, a museum and a health club. The food was spectacular as well. That night, we dined like kings and queens, ordering what seemed like one of everything on the menu and chowing down. Everything was delicious and fresh, from the giant platter of vegetables they gave us while we were waiting for our meals, to the fresh bakes bread that came right out of the oven to our table. The meat was tender and tasty and the dessert pudding was a perfect blend of sweet and spicy. I don’t remember the name of it, but apparently it is a dessert typically eaten when babies are born. I’d say that’s a good way to be brought into this world. They also serve narguile to your table, though we opted out this time.
Our feast, half-demolished.
Yummy soujuk and meat hummus.
After we finished up our long, leisurely dinner and paid the check (a major plus to eating with a lot of people, everyone’s cost goes way down), we went to explore the castle for a bit. It was pretty late at this point, so the whole place was dim and quiet. Small details that made the place so interesting was the indoor square surrounded by souks, a spring, narrow passageways, and a completely glass elevator. Exploring was fun but we eventually had to leave, though I will definitely remember Assaha for a nice group meal in the future, especially in the summer when the restaurant moves in the square and there are colorful flowers in bloom!
Assaha also has similar locations around the world, such as London, Qatar, and Sudan. You can check them out at http://www.assahavillage.com.
Making our way back to the hostel after the ruins, we were on the hunt for food. Of course, the hostel owner conveniently forgot how to speak English when we reminded him that he promised us breakfast was included, but once he realized we were not going to give us so easily he went off to get us some man’oushe. A simple, delicious, and typical breakfast food in Lebanon, man’oushe is just a round dough with toppings, toasted and folded in half. Each of us enjoyed a man’oushe with the typical toppings of za’tar (a very Middle Eastern spice consisting of thyme with a mix of oregano, sesame seeds, sumac, salt, and olive oil) and cheese. We also got fresh fruit smoothies to go with the meal. My kiwi and pear was quite fulfilling.
After settling our bill we headed out to find the bus that would take us to Hermel, our quest for the rest of the day. Hermel is a small town just a few kilometers north of Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley, about 10 km south of Syria. After a bit of navigating through the city and some helpful directions, we found a single minibus driver willing to take us to Hermel, but not before driving his friends around in circles in the middle of town first and filling up the rest of the bus. Approaching Hermel, we were getting more and more excited once we first spotted the obelisk/pyramid we were hunting for. I had read in my research that it was used in ancient times as a lighthouse of sorts because you could spot it from over 40 kilometers away, but I didn’t realize how true that was until I saw it with my own eyes.
You can see the pyramid wayyyy off in the distance there.
When we finally arrived in Hermel a little over half an hour later, we were the only ones left in the bus and managed to knock out a deal with the driver for him to take us to the sights we wanted to see and then all the way back to Baalbek, round trip for only $15 each. This is where knowing Arabic really comes in useful and thankfully Scott and Olga both had enough skill between them to get us a pretty good deal. In Beirut, it’s easy to get by with just English but it’s definitely more of a challenge once you leave the capital and major cities, motivating me to start learning spoken Arabic to use while I’m here to get around. Like any other place in the world, prices drop and people get friendlier if you can speak to them in their language.
The first thing that came to my mind when we finally reached the pyramid was anger at whoever thought it was okay to deface the sides of such a monument. I bet most of the idiots who wrote the initials of their boyfriend or girlfriend on the sides of the obelisk with spray paint have failed relationships anyways.
Now, back to the pyramid. It has many names, The Pyramid of Hermel, The Needle of Hermel, The Pyramid of God, The House of El, The Pyramid of Amor, or in Arabic, the Qamoua Al Hermel. It is believed to be a tomb for a Syrian prince who loved hunting, which explains the hunting scenes depicted on the sides, though no one knows for sure. From the hill that the pyramid is situated on, you have an amazing view of the Bekaa, Hermel, the Orontis River that runs north to Hermel, and even as far as Syria.
Looking south-east into the Beqaa Valley and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains.
You can see the hunting scene on the east side of the pyramid, two dogs and spears attacking a boar.
Our next stop was the monastary of Mar Maroun (Saint Maroun), a collection of caves carved into the side of the cliff above the Orontis River, or Nahr Al Aasi. There are three levels to the caves, though we could only access the first two by through the pitch-black caves up small staircases and around dark corners. It was pretty fun to climb all around the caves, though I probably shouldn’t have worn a skirt that day… Oh well.
The entrance to the Mar Maroun monastary.
The Orontis River, leading to the town or Hermel.
Climbing around the caves with our minibus driver and his friends.
We tried looking for a castle I had heard about and ended up driving around and bumping into a camera crew that was probably filming a documentary for the second time that day. We found more caves on the other side of the river, though these ones looked lived in, with a mattress, robe, and other random things. Probably an overnight stop for a shepherd bringing his flock through the valley.
Finally happy with what we had seen in Hermel, we boarded the minibus for the journey back to Baalbek ahead of schedule. This gave us enough time to grab a good late lunch and look for another mysterious rock before boarding the last bus back to Beirut. If you thought 800 tons was big (the “Trilithon” forming the base of the Temple of Jupiter), think again. The Stone of the South, or Hadjar El Gouble, lies in a quarry across the street from the beautiful Iranian-style mosque and weighs between 1000 and 2000 tons. No one can even get close to moving this stone, even using all the modern technology we have today, so it was deemed the “Biggest Stone in the World.” And it really was quite large.
With this final item checked off our list, we were ready to find our bus home. We boarded bright yellow minibus, and about 20 minutes into the journey realized that nothing good could come from riding a bright yellow minibus. Or, that the stereotype that Baalbek drivers are absolutely horrible is absolutely true. Either way, setting food in a random intersection (not the Cola or Dora bus stations) was a huge relief. The adventure was over and I already can’t wait for the next one. Thanks to the military conflicts in Baalbek right now, it looks like I’ll have to wait for a while to return. But the next time I do I have a couple more things to find: the Great Umayyad Mosque (Al Oummawi Al Kabir) outside the Arab gates of the Baalbek ruins (no idea where that is) and the Temple of Mercury. In the meanwhile, I’ll be jumping around to the other sites in Lebanon and even some time in Cyprus!
These past couple weeks have been on the slow side, so instead of a couple lazy days I had myself a good old fashioned adventure this past weekend! So after a very long Friday night, I wake up late Saturday morning to head on over to Baalbek, or the Heliopolis (The City of the Sun), in the Bekaa Valley with a couple friends to see the ruins there. Apparently, the Roman ruins in Baalbek are among the best preserved in the entire world. They definitely live up to this reputation too, and are absolutely stunning.
Getting to Baalbek is easy enough. Take a service to the Cola bus station just south of Beirut before the airport, which is pretty much just a big intersection with a bunch of minibuses and drivers yelling out destinations and trying to get you on their bus. Tell any of these men you want to go to Baalbek and he’ll find a bus for you in no time. The journey up took about 3 hours thanks to traffic and an unexpected stop we took a little over halfway through to switch buses. If I remember right, the total was 7000LL, which is a little over $6. Not too bad, considering what we got out of it.
We arrived to Baalbek right as the sun was starting to set and found our hostel, Pension Shouman ($15 per person with breakfast, 08 372 685), to drop our stuff off. The owner, who spoke English quite well, was nice enough to come find us where the bus dropped us off to lead us to the hostel through the small twisting streets. It was a pretty decent place with soft, warm beds, old-fashioned heaters in each room, and a spectacular view from the balcony of the ruins that were mere steps away. After getting settled and discovering the ruins were closed for the day, we instead headed over to the stunning Shia Mosque done in Iranian-style architecture, a true piece of art. Everything about this mosque took my breath away, from the multi-colored tiles decorating the outside, to the diamond-cut and colored mirror mosaic that made up the entire ceiling, to the massive tree it is built around. It’s something you need to see in real life to really take in and it made me yearn to go to Iran if this is just a sample of what comes from there.
That night, the unthinkable happened. Sheesha and over-the-top fruit cocktails delivered right to our room. It was perfect.
When a normal plug just isn’t enough…
Moving on to the ruins, they were so much more than I could have even expected. We woke up bright at early at 8am just so we could be ready by the time the gates opened at 8:30. The first ones in, and we had the entire place to ourselves. We spent the next hour and a half climbing around ruins, jumping on rocks, and soaking in the amazing sights from the top of surprisingly-preserved temples that were used to Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus. The air was fresh and cool and in the hot morning sun it was warm enough to get rid of jackets while exploring. As soon as we entered the call to prayer started and we spent almost our entire time exploring to the sounds of the music coming from the mosque and quiet morning noises. It was just the golden-brown rocks, stray cats wandering around, and snowy peaks in the distance.
The view from our room’s balcony.
The Temple of Bacchus, the best preserved Roman ruin in the world.
Standing in the massive Temple of Bacchus, you can see the five of the six Corinthian pillars from what remains of the Temple of Jupiter in the background.
That huge stone forming the base of the Temple is one of three stones forming the famous “Trilithon.” Each stone weighs over 800 tons with dimensions of 68 x 14 x 14 feet. Nobody knows how these stones were transported here, even modern building technology would have great difficulty moving them. And this is where the alien conspiracy theories begin… (Not kidding, there are alien conspiracy theories about this.)
Inside the Temple of Bacchus.
Our only company.
The sound of distant blasts and a boom brought us back to reality and we finally got hungry enough to start heading out. On the way out we asked a military man hanging around the exit what the noises were and he just told us “wedding.” At 10am? We had our doubts and I guessed the giant wall along one side of the city was hiding a military base, so it might just be some testing or training. Then, in the middle writing this entry, I found an article in the news about how the US has warned American citizens not to go to the Beqaa Valley due to an increased presence of the Lebanese army in Baalbek. This seems to have something to do with the arrests they made last week of seven people suspected to be part of a Sunni Islamic network, with ties to al Qaeda, who were planning on blowing up military bases, such as the one in Baalbek. My doubts about the noises actually coming from a wedding have just gone up a bit…
The snow-capped mountains in the distance, over the Great Court and the Hexagonal Court. You really have to go here to truly appreciate the sight.
Next up, the search for the lost pyramid and the yellow van that keeps us on our toes. And here are a few extra pictures of Baalbek and the ruins.
Old paper city replica in the Palmyra Hotel.
The Temple of Venus, now only four columns remain standing fenced-off in a pile of rubble.
The Propylaea, an imposing entrance.
Another view of the Temple of Bacchus
The infamous leaning column on the other side of the Temple of Bacchus.
Just hanging out on top of the Great Tower.
Any Germans would be scandalized.
Why? Because tonight was the night of 961’s launch of the first edition of the Brewmaster’s Select, the Lebanese Pale Ale. And it had local Lebanese herbs and spices in it. Oh no!
It was actually pretty good, too. The Lebanese spices gave it a nice flavor that did actually make it taste distinctively Lebanese, compared to other beers that just taste like, well, beer.
The launch was held at Tawlet Souk al Tayeb, a really funky and cool space that regularly hosts different Lebanese chefs to create unique and delicious dinners. For the launch they had all kinds of hors d’oeuvres, from the only falafel I’ve had in Lebanon, kibbe, and even custom-made ice cream made using one of the 961 beers. Surprisingly enough, it was actually pretty delicious. Tables were lined with free samples of all 961’s beer except for the new LPA, which was saved for the gift bags for people to try at home. The founder of 961 came up and gave a speech and a toast about how the company got to where they are now near the end. Overall it was a pretty cool event, I’m glad I got the invite through work since it was so close to my apartment.
I’ll definitely be on the hunt to find some 961 in bars or stores near me. There really isn’t enough good beer in Beirut (Almaza sucks and it’s not even Lebanese, it’s owned by Heineken!) except for 961, and the only ones I’ve ever seen are the Lager and Red Ale, despite having six brews in total now. And maybe try to find some more of that beer ice cream too…