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!