Monthly Archives: April 2012

Anotha Day, Anotha Castle

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On Sunday it was time for a trip to the south to visit the infamous Beaufort Castle I had heard so much about. My first time going south of Beirut certainly was an interesting one.

Beaufort Castle is a Crusader castle that has been around since the 12th century and has proved to be a strategic tool, overlooking both the south of Lebanon and the north of Israel/Palestine, to armies and conquerors since it was built. It was destroyed in 1982 in the Battle of Beaufort, when the IDF overthrew the PLO, the current occupiers, in one of the first battles of the 1982 Lebanon War. The Israeli army did not leave the site until 2000 and you can still see remnants of their occupation in the nearby bunkers they built.

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Though in ruins, you can see efforts being made to restore parts of the castle. We heard rumors from some fellow visitors that the government might be making plans to convert the castle to a museum, which I think is a horrible idea. Beaufort is so out of the way that you would have to know where it is and at least know a little about its history before making the trek out there. A museum would completely reduce the impact of seeing the crumbled old walls and imagining how so many people fought and died there for a cause.

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The views from the castle are also spectacular. The area immediately surrounding it is so undeveloped and from the very top you can see radio towers and villages in the neighboring Palestine (which the other people there pointed out to me, otherwise I would not have been able to tell what the hell I was looking at). Climbing around the castle to the very tops of the old walls was fun (actually, climbing anything is fun), with an element of danger thrown in when you look over the edge and see only sharp rocks and a sheer drop for the next couple hundred feet below you.

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I would have loved to visit at sunset, but our day’s schedule just didn’t allow for it (and some people had exams to study for, that sucks). I had to settle for the midday sun beating down mercilessly in a cloudless sky and a nice breeze.

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Jeita Grotto, Take 2

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This past weekend I finally got the chance to return to Jeita and see the lower cave, which was closed when I went back in January because the water levels were too high for the boat ride. I went with my fellow interns, two of them had never been at all before, and we had to pay full price of 18,150LL since both caves were open. We explored the upper cave, which was just as stunning as the first time and I managed to get a couple decent shots in on the sly, despite the no photography rule.

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We took the train down to the lower cavern and hurried to get the best seats (facing away from the boat conductor so we could take pictures where he couldn’t see us) and got ready for the ride. You could tell the lover cave opened really recently, the  water level was still pretty high so we had to duck our heads under the ceiling to actually get into the main part of the cave after the boat took off.

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The lower cave, though awesome in its own right, was definitely less impressive than the upper one. Probably because of a combination of the ridiculously short 5-minute boat ride and the not-quite as impressive rock formations as in the upper cave, it just didn’t stun the same way. Honestly, I would have been just as happy seeing only the upper cave if I knew what the lower one was like, so I would suggest to anyone else to not let the time of year affect when they visit Jeita.

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Speaking of the time of year, it’s strange how in the colder winder it was really hot and humid in the cave. So humid, that when I left my jeans were kind of wet. In the summer the caves are actually really cool inside and not nearly as humid. There were also more mistreated animals in tiny cages in a makeshift zoo.  Boo. Minus points for Jeita.

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Destination: Byblos

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Finally, finally, I made it up to Byblos. For a city so nearby it took surprisingly long to do it. And as part of another school-subsidized trip it was very satisfying.

The bus trip up was excruciatingly long. We met up at Charles Helou and only paid4000LL each way (I think), but what should’ve taken no more than an hour took nearly 2 hours thanks to Saturday morning traffic, but once we arrived it was an easy 10 minute walk to get to the ruins. Byblos, or Jbeil, is another Phoenician city in Lebanon and believed to be the oldest continually-inhabited city in the world. That’s quite a feat right there.

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Anyway, the ruins were less than I expected. I suppose after going to Baalbek I’m just spoiled to seeing amazing Roman ruins, but they were still interesting and fun to climb around in. The position of the site right on the sea was really nice and the castle itself had amazing views from the top and a cool museum inside. Despite being denied discounted student entry at Baalbek because I wasn’t a Baalbek resident, we got in for the student price of 2000LL at Byblos, which was definitely a nice perk.

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Afterwards, we wandered down through the super-touristy old souks on the hunt for some food. Alexis had tipped us off to an old fishing club (Chez Pepe’s Byblos Fishing Club) and restaurant frequented by the rich and famous back in Byblos’ heyday. It was really comfortable and relaxing, right on the water with some nice, themed décor.

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At Pepe’s we ordered some delicious mezze and shrimp cocktail, along with a yummy new food I have never heard of before and forgot the name of, some goat cheese with thyme and tomatoes and other spices. Combined with some mint lemonade it was a perfect lunch and end of the day in Byblos, we were all so tired and just wanted to go home. Through the souks again on the way to the bus stop I picked up a couple cheap scarves I’ve been looking for the whole time I’ve been here and began an addiction to pashminas. It really is impossible to only buy one…

After getting home and thinking about it, I don’t think I got a real taste of Byblos. My excursion was pretty much restricted to the touristy sights in the city and we left soon after we saw the sights because we were all way too tired to continue any longer, especially after that meal. I’ll definitely have to make a trip back to the city at some point, especially hearing about their supposedly excellent sandy beach and chill rooftop clubs.

And I think it’s worth mentioning the abundance of snails and the mini TV the minibus driver had in place of a rearview mirror on the drive back to Beirut. Just sayin’.

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Observations on Racism and How Well People Hide It, or Don’t

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Just a note on something I observed while in Cyprus, if this offends you, too bad.

There’s a huge difference between the people in Lebanon and in Cyprus. While Cypriots seemed to be much friendlier, happier, and open to us, as foreigners, than the typical Beiruti, it was almost a surprise how blatantly racist they could be in just a typical conversation with strangers. They were prideful of their country and loved it more than anything to the point of ignorance and dislike of anything different. Now I’m not Lebanese and I’ve only been here for a few months (and will be here for a couple more), so I can’t make any comment on how Lebanese people as a whole think about their country and the rest of the world privately, but I have never heard someone express racism openly here. The comments from a man we asked for directions during lunch in Limassol, after he verified our ethnicities of course, caught us all off-guard when he told us about the superiority of Christian Cypriots versus “those Arabs” in Lebanon. A couple more off-hand comments thrown out by other strangers old proved to reinforce this impression. I wonder if it has always been like this or if this mindset is something fairly new, resulting from the conflict between the Greeks and the Turks.

Cyprus is an interesting case of east meets west. Thanks to being a British colony and being one of the favorite vacation destinations of the British, young and old, it is very advanced and Western on the surface. But take some time to talk to the people, figure out how things work, and notice the little inconveniences and hassles that make up people’s everyday lives and you can see influences from neighbors in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Head to the northern side of the island and you’ll feel like you’re in Turkey.

The prevalence of racism, and the parties involved, is something I tend to notice in most places I get to know. I think it happens everywhere, whether people like to admit it or not, and comes in many forms, some more harmful than others. It’s something we can all do without, though it’s likely the day that racism in any form ceases to exist will never come to pass. Same for religion-based superiority. But that’s another story altogether…

Fairy Castles and All That Jazz

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Day four in this magical land was a buzz of energy and a rush to beat the clock. The goal was to drive all the way to the capital of the country, some 2+ hours away, cross the border to the Turkish side of Cyprus, find the fairy castle St. Hilarion, cross back into the Greek side of Cyprus, drop Scott off at his mysterious accommodations, and make it back to Larnaca in time for a 9pm flight. It doesn’t sound like too much, but when you’re the one in that position it sure feels like trying to get a lot done with not a lot of time.

So after all is said and done with a couple road bumps along the way, we did it, and with time to spare at the airport for me to beg some ibuprofen off a kind old English gentleman sitting next to me in the airport terminal to kill the random fever I had acquired within the past couple hours. (Though I try to avoid taking any sort of medication unless absolutely necessary, I ate ibuprofen like candy for the next few days to avoid any possibility of having to go to the doctor while in Lebanon. I’ve heard some not so great things…).

Anyways, once we crossed the Metehan/Agios Demetios (the main crossing in Nicosea for vehicles and pedestrians) border into the Turkish side and exchanged some cash (at which point I had four different currencies at use in my wallet), the exit for St. Hilarion castle came up surprisingly quickly on the highway.

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After about 20 minutes, we started the descent up the long, winding mountain road. A few hairpin turns and a couple military bases later, where you’ll be in a lot a trouble and out of a camera if they catch you taking photos, we made it to the castle. The small entrance fee was completely worth exploring this hidden, massive, magical castle. Supposedly where Walt Disney found inspiration for Snow White’s castle and a few other creations, St. HIlarion Castle was originally a monastery where Saint Hilarion himself resided before eventually being taken over by Byzantines and others after them to protect the mountain pass and the sea.

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Though you can’t really see much from the outside, the ruins themselves are extensive and we spent the entire afternoon climbing staircase after staircase, exploring rooms tucked away and crumbling arches, and getting lost in the views of the mountain range hugging the coast of the Cypriot coast with the town of Kirenia, or Girne, tucked in-between. The fogginess of the day just added to the mystery surrounded the castle and though there were quite a few other visitors there, it was easy to avoid them in the hushed tower of Prince James or the overlooks where guard kept an eye on the mountain pass and coastline. It was really gorgeous and the pictures don’t do it justice, if only because they don’t capture the mysterious and quiet atmosphere that surrounds you when you’re standing among crumbing brick walls riddled with exotic flowers and weeds.

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Eventually, a light drizzle signaled to us that we had to leave this magical land behind and return to reality. It was time to enjoy our last couple hours in Cyprus, get lost a few times in Nicosea (of course, a ritual by now), and make a few more wrong turns on the drive back to Larnaca International Airport. Check-in was thankfully easy and before  I knew it I was back in my bed and trying to mentally prepare myself for another week on the grind, wishing I could spend every day just exploring the unknown and relaxing in exotic locales.

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Stupidly Pretty

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Our host in Paphos was perfect. She was super sweet and went out of her way to make sure we were comfortable and well taken care of. Right as we arrived to her apartment she started making us dinner, a simple yet delicious pasta with meat sauce. Though she preferred sleeping in Saturday morning, she made sure we had directions and suggestions for the day.

We started off at the Tomb of the Kings, conveniently located less than a minute down the road from her apartment. I didn’t have much in terms of expectations for this site, but it turned out to be quite impressive. The Tomb of the Kings is a huge necropolis built around the 3rd century AD for the rich and famous in Paphos, not actually kings. They just called it the Tomb of the Kings because these rich people didn’t want to be buried in peasant tombs so they modeled them after kingly tombs. Or something like that. Like all other public touristic sites in the Republic of Cyprus, the Tomb of the Kings is very clearly marked on the road and only 1.70 euro.

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There are more underground tombs on the site than I expected and though I was surprised at first to read that Lonely Planet gave a generous three hours to explore, I soon understood why. It’s a huge ground, you don’t even see all of it when you first enter, and you can keep wandering around and exploring all the tombs for a while. My favorite was one that had this huge, wood-carved door locking away some mysterious tomb. The most famous tomb, with some fancy Doric columns, was not as interesting to me, though that may have something to do with the evil-looking pigeons that  were hissing at me when I was inside alone and the flocks of old, English tourists that soon scared them away.

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While we could have probably stayed there a bit longer, we were all anxious to get moving to the highlight of the day, Ancient Kourion. We had to get back on the B6 highway toward Limassol and the journey took longer than we remembered, but we finally arrived.

The ampitheater, the main draw of this site, was also the least impressive to me. I was more drawn to the beautiful old mosaics and the crumbling roman pillars overlooking the coast (plus the new cat we made friends with). I’ve never been to Ireland, but I felt as if this view must a little similar to the rolling green hills and cliffs on the ocean, and I think I have an idea now why people think it’s such a beautiful country and are drawn to it. From the ruins of Ancient Kourion you can see the most spectacular views and be awed by how stupidly pretty it all is. It seems quite impossible that this was real life. You can also see some of the cliffs where they tossed sacrilegious touchers of the temple of Apollo into the sea.

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After drawing ourselves out of our stupor, we finally made it back to the car and headed back to Paphos after a quick pit-stop at some random Cypriot town. We spent the night discussing everything from electricity to architecture to conspiracy theories with some of our host’s friends and it was a pretty interesting was to spend our last night in Paphos and wrap up my first official couchsurfing experience. Unfortunaly, I ended up leaving my sandals behind. Such a bummer, I really loved those sandals and all my other ones look like crap. I guess now I have no other choice to go shopping…

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Cyprus: The Land of Circles

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This past weekend was a whirlwind. Starting Thursday night, with the shortest flight I’ve ever taken. Seriously, 10 minutes in the air before the pilot announces our descent into Larnaca, Cyprus! The first of my international journeys from home base in Lebanon definitely set a precedent for the rest of them, because Cyprus was amazing! The small island is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever seen. Really, life there might be a bit slow at times but the sky and sea definitely make up for it. As a former British colony, a crazy history of civil strife, and the “birthplace of Aphrodite,” Cyprus has a lot to offer all around.

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To the left, to the left

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The view from the Larnaca hotel in the morning.

We started off Friday with picking up our rental from the airport – a rental car is the way to go in Cyprus. There isn’t sufficient public transportation to get to all the cool things on the island, most of which are outside the major cities that buses go to. Now the roads in Cyprus are very well kept and clearly signed, but that didn’t stop us from going in so many circles and getting lost about three times just trying to find the highway from the airport to Paphos (just follow signs for A5, it will turn into A1 about halfway to Limassol). And this was only the beginning for our many failures in following directions. I blame the roundabouts. Also, driving on the left side of the road for the first time ever was actually pretty fun, if harrowing at times when it comes to turning…

So the first stop on our Cyprus adventure was Limassol, or Lemosos in Greek. About halfway in-between Larnaca (where we arrived to Cyprus) and Paphos (where we will be staying the next two nights), Limassol is the second biggest city in the country and the only place we ever encountered traffic on the entire island. Though the city looked like it could be fun, with our limited time we were only able to spend a couple hours walking around the lovely Old Town, browsing tourist shops and grabbing some good lunch. We passed on the Limassol Medieval Castle and Museum. It was only 1.70 euro but didn’t look that interesting.

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Limassol Midieval Castle and Museum

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A shop alley in the tourist part of Old Town. 

Moving on, we continued up the highway toward Paphos with stops at the Kolossi Castle, the Cyprus Wine Museum, and a failed attempt at visiting Ancient Kourion before finishing up with an epic sunset at Petra tou Romiou. To get to most of these places, make sure to take the B6 highway rather than A6 between Limassol and Paphos. The A6 will get you there a little faster because it’s the commercial highway, but the B6 is a coastal highway, winding and climbing among mountains and valleys, and has some of the most breathtaking views of the sea and countless orange groves along the way. It’s also passes right along the stops we made with very clear signs for every attraction, making it the easier option too.

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Kolossi Castle

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Raise the roof!

Fun fact: along part of this highway you will actually be in the UK. As part of the deal when Cyprus gained independence, they had to forfeit some of their land for British bases, which means even law enforcement is British. And if you are born in the single town within these borders, you get dual residence.

Anyways, though small and modest, I would definitely recommend the Kolossi Castle to anyone passing through. The entrance fee was only 1.70 euro and they sell delicious fresh orange juice right outside, though save it for when you leave so you don’t have to chug it before going in like I did. The views from the top of the castle justify the entrance fee alone, not even counting the interesting history behind the Crusador castle, including stories of Richard the Lionhearted the Knights Templar. A few minutes down the road in Erimi is the Cyprus Wine Museum, where we were immediately accosted by cats wanting attention before we made it halfway to the door. They were clean, well-kept, and friendly, the opposite of the typical Lebanese cat you’ll find wandering the streets. It took a few minutes to drag ourselves away from them, more and more just kept on showing up! But we finally got inside and for 5 euro got a full private tour of the history of wine on Cyprus with a tasting that included a red wine, white wine, and a dessert wine, the famous Commandaria, the oldest wine still in the making in the world. A taste of the Cyprus-made liquor, or “fire water” as they jokingly (but not really) call it, was also included in the tasting. It was a little too early in the day for that one though, especially since I would be driving for the rest of the day until we reached Paphos.

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The Cyprus Wine Museum

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The gray one in front followed us all the way through the tour.

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Yum

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The famous Commandaria, in cool bottles.

We had hoped to get a chance to explore Kourion right after the Wine Museum but got there just as it was closing at 5pm. It was still going to be on winter opening hours for another few weeks. Instead we took some time to follow a random road down to the Kourion beach, covered in large gray pepples with a beautiful backdrop of white cliff faces, before heading back up to the B6 highway to Petra tou Romiou.

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Kourion Beach

Petra tou Romiou is the purported location of Aphrodite’s birth, the rock against which a wave crashed and she burst up. Legend has it that if you swim around the rock you will be granted eternal beauty, but the water was really cold so there was no way that was happening… People are actually technically not allowed to climb the rock either, but the top had the most spectacular view and I just love to climb things so I went up anyways. I’ll let the pictures do the talking for me.

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On the right, Petro tou Romiou.

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Conquering the rock!

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Petra tou Romiou

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Sunset on a cliff, overlooking Petra tou Romiou.

After sunset, we embarked on the final leg of our journey for Friday, ending in the lovely city of Paphos to meet our couchsurfing host.