Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Where has the summer got to? – Beirut, that’s where!

What could be the attraction of heading to the “Paris of the East” where the sunshine is virtually guaranteed with 30/35 degrees in the day falling to balmy mid twenties at night? Did I forget to mention the coastline, architecture, food, wine and history too? And it’s also not in the Euro Zone, which helps.
Being there a few weeks ago during Ramadan, gives the place a double life. Sleepy and hot during the day but bustling and crowded once the sun has set, with restaurants busy until the very early morning, not to mention the bars & clubs or cafes with ever present shisha pipes; giving Beirut a musk of delicate apple wood tobacco smoke mixed with dust. We wandered along the very fashionable promenade of the Corniche and did not see any other westerners and received quite a lot of interested looks from other strollers.
We found a lovely bar & restaurant right on the water, the bar was on floating pontoons in the sea. A perfect place for sundowners; local mint lemonade and a glass of Lebanese rosé wine settled us in for a while. The restaurant upstairs was bursting with loud, well dressed but above all very hungry people, which gave the whole place an incredibly vibrant feel. Taking the relaxed holiday choice (also known as the easy option) we decided the local crowd must be onto something and joined them for the most incredible Ramadan buffet or Iftar. A father and son team quickly got our measure and looked after us with such lovely care and attention I was worried we’d look rude by not eating everything offered. I was full after the first plate, also known as the starter. We were treated to a traditional rose water drink, into which you stir assorted nuts and raisins. This I thought was hilarious, totally ignorant of local customs and in the hands of our hosts I accepted it and ploughed on. Main course and pudding were attempted over a long time period, washed down with coffees proffered by a nattily dressed chap with a very elaborate coffee pot. How much better could one’s first evening of holiday be?
Next day was our big adventure day out of town, heading to the World Heritage site of Baalbek (imagine asking for a glass of Mendoza’s finest, with a cold..) and the fertile Bekaa Valley. We had the option of a $100 cab ride (which went down as low as $70 quite quickly) or a local shared mini-bus for $8, so we took the more colourful option. We drove uphill from sea level for 90 minutes before getting over the peak and heading down the other side towards the Bekaa. It looked very different, almost like another country, green and sparsely inhabited but more importantly fresher & cooler. There was an amazing temple complex where we spent the morning pottering about in the shade of the ruins feeling like Indiana Jones, before “discovering” a huge, pretty-much-still-standing temple to Bacchus, the God of Wine.

This reminded me we were overdue to head off for lunch and to taste some wine. We got a lift to Hamra, the centre of the wine area and feasted on paninis & fantastic fruit juices; strawberry, avocado and all sorts of berries before heading to taste some grape based drinks. They were very proud of their Chardonnay, as it took top honours in the recent world wine awards and their cabernets were decent too, if a little over alcoholic for my liking. The locals tasting with us were very emphatic & loud in their praise of their sweet Muscat blend and also the sunset-pink dry rosé, the latter I heartily agreed with. A hop skip and three local buses later we found ourselves haggling to get back to our side of town, which we did without too much trouble. Such friendly & interested people made it seem like a very foreign place to spend time, but with the tri-lingual locals (Arabic, French & English) always there to help with a cheerful hello, we were made to feel at home very quickly, as we relaxed into the rest of our stay.

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