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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Roman ruins, Crusader castle and a big ol' walk through Beirut

Wow! What a day. Our driver/guide Chamoun met us at 8 am -- actually, I was asleep because we didn't know when he was arriving, so he very kindly waited while we had breakfast. He will be with us all week and is really more of a hiking guide. We know that because of the half-inch thick packet of articles about himself -- in French, English and Arabic -- he had for us in the car. He is an ultra-marathoner and ran about 90 kilometers from the Syrian border recently. We were very impressed with his careful driving, and he apologized for the Beirut traffic bedlam: "Sorry about the traffic; you know in Lebanon everyone makes their own way." He has been to the States a few times, including a visit to an American girlfriend in Tennessee. I got a big laugh when he told us "her father did not like me. He is a redneck person."

BTW, Chamoun's pick up sign for us said "Mr. Chatman and Mrs. Snipes." I laughed even harder than I did yesterday when the one at the airport said "Mr. Chatman and Mr. Smith."

Given the fact Chamoun's last clients were 24 men from Dubai who asked him to pick up eight prostitutes and some of the renowned Bekka Valley hashish, I'd say he's in for an easy 10 days with us.

First stop was Tyre, one of the country's southernmost cities -- only about 12 miles from the Israeli border. Tyre and other parts of southern Lebanon are mentioned in a few Biblical stories, and King Hiram of Tyre supposedly supplied Solomon with cedar wood to build his temple in Jerusalem. We were invited to peek into a 250-year-old house under revovation for some wealthy person -- new construction by Tyre srandards because the city dates back to 3000 BC. The water views from the home's balconies were gorgeous. From there we walked around the harbor full of fishing boats then headed to site one of the city's Roman and Byzantine ruins. A long colonnaded road leads to the southern harbor, used when Egypt controlled Tyre -- which I believe was before both the Phonecians and the Greeks. (Wishing I'd brushed up more on my ancient/world history before this trip -- Mr. John would be in heaven.) The pictures may begin to do it justice, bit quite simply it was awesome and picturesque at every turn. We were particularly intrigued by the ruins of a rectangular arena they think was a pool used for a spectator water sport.

I must say I feel about as tacky touristy as it gets walking around in my hot pink hat, but it was a necessity -- the sun was really beating down, and a black pashmina in my backpack from another trip really saved the day (or at least my neck/shoulders from sunburn).

Ruins site two was equally impressive -- inland, but with a huge necropolis (burial ground) and (according to Lonely Planet) "the largest and best-preserved Roman hippodrome in the world." It once seated 20,000 for chariot races.

We lunched with Chamoun at a very nice resort restaurant. Sadly, the beaches in Tyre are some of the country's best, but tourism is still down given the travel warnings many countries still maintain. Our lunch of hummus, fried kibbeh, chicken kebabs, calamari sauteed with garlic/parsley/lemon and fattoush (salad) was delicious. They even brought "free" dessert (I'm sure the price was factored in there somewhere) of fruit and ground pistachios with cream and cake soaked in something yummy.

On to Sidon, which is actually at least 1,000 years older than Tyre and may even date back as early as 6800 BC. There are interesting stories in the guidebooks about how both Sidon and Tyre were conquered by Alexander the Great. Sidon rose because of its trade of murex -- a mollusk that produced a purple dye. (Is this reminding anyone of "Lydia, a seller of purple cloth"??) We toured the sea castle built by the Crusaders; Sidon changed hands at least five times during the Crusades. We then walked through what seemed a never-ending maze of covered souks, but most of the stalls were closed since it was by then about 5 pm. There was a very well-restored khan (travellers inn) with two stories -- visiting merchants and others slept upstairs and left their horses downstairs. The late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was a Sidon native; his family and other philanthropists have beautifully restored some of these sites, including was a soap factory, our tour of which was actually much more interesting than it might sound!

Then back to the hotel, where I was determined to make it up until at least 9 pm. We went on a two-hour walk that included a few unexpected turns, but it was still fun. Not many street signs to be found (though the ones they do have are, thank God, usually in French too) so navigation is challenging.

TV news coverage is wall to wall on this Israel/Turkey incident, but more on that later -- the political comments are certainly eye-opening.

Thanks for reading along -- feel very lucky and grateful to be here!


Dee Stephens said...

YAY!! Hysterical about the redneck part. We want pictures!
Also, how is it going?

Lyns said...

Aw, Dee, you are my only follower and my only comment. You get #1 status immediately! ;-) We are having so much fun. Am paranoid I'm going to lose my camera because the pics are alredy a-maz-ing!!! Wish I had a USB cord to download/save them somehow.

Neil J. Young said...

i'm here too! can't wait to see the pictures.

Whitney said...

It sounds like you are having a wonderful time. Can't wait to hear about the political comments on the Israeli/Turkey flare up. Have you found the maps that don't acknowledge Israel at all?