Sunday, February 21, 2010

Beirut Trip

We took a short weekend trip to Lebanon. Truly a delightful place. The short 2 1/2 hour flight was not enough to drain our energy, so we arrived full of vim and vigour. The airport experience was surprisingly pleasant, with no fee for the visa (as we had read there would be online) and very efficiently laid out. We headed straight for the car rental section and got a little Renault for $40 a day. Had I known how crazy they drive and how tiny the back roads are, I might have had more trepidation about bringing it back in one piece!

So we headed into Beirut with a vague idea of the area our hotel was (Manara) and that it was beyond a trendy area called Hamra. So we took the Center Ville (city center) roads and looked for signs pointing to Hamra. It turns out that all of the street signs are in Arabic and French, not English. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that it was a special day, as military had blocked off major roads and were redirecting traffic! So we just sort of pointed ourselves in the general direction of the sea and hoped for the best. Amazingly, we found ourselves driving almost directly to the hotel we had in mind and found it with no trouble.

The Bella Riva Hotel was more than adequate and we were surprised to see the price keep dropping as we discussed what we wanted (the opposite of the usual experience) and ended up paying about $104 a night, not bad for the very nice area we were in. Checked ourselves in and set out to find some lunch as it was only noon.

Heading down to the road that curves along the coast and the beginning of the lovely corniche, we kept an eye out for a Lebanese restaurant of the type that we like (relaxed family atmosphere, not too posh, plenty of people smoking shisha). The first one we found was 5 minutes away, the Manara Palace Cafe. Since we found it so soon, we figured such places would be everywhere, but amazingly this was not the case, at least where we were looking. We ended up coming back there 3 or 4 times.

Then we walked all along the corniche up to where it dissipated into the new downtown area that looked remarkably like some of the new neighborhoods downtown Portland (riverside). As mentioned earlier, it was some sort of celebratory day, and sure enough, as we walked along we were treated to the young-uns driving down the road yelling out the windows, waving Lebanese flags and generally making a lot of noise. The military was out in force, rolling by in huge deafening tanks, and the corniche was absolutely packed with people out having a good time. Some were out in the water and rocks, some sitting down and smoking their own shisha pipes, many were jogging or riding bicycles.

After walking back home via the Hamra district (think 23rd street in Portland), we made it back to our hotel with sore legs, but a very pleasant experience. Ate dinner at the Manara Palace, where I tried a lebanese dish I have avoided in the past: kibbeh nicewas. This is ground meat (lamb or otherwise), pounded or ground into a paste, mixed with spices and nuts, then shaped into finger size chunks (kind of like nigiri) and served raw. Generally I stay away from raw meat (except sushi) as I just don't feel the need to roll the gastrointestinal dice, but I figured if there was ever a time to try it, it would be in Lebanon itself. Of course, it was delicious and not at all like what you might think, resembling a pate in texture. The shish tawouk was not very good unfortunately (I really need to start making it myself so I can make it the way I like) but the kebab/kofta was surprisingly good, as were the other side dishes.

We made plans for the next day: drive north to the Jeita Grotto and then on north to Byblos for the afternoon, eat lunch and dinner there, then drive home in the evening to Beirut. We missed the turn off to Jeita unfortunately, but were able to turn back and wade through the traffic back to the correct location. We were very disappointed to find the Grotto closed for the entire month of February for "the annual vacation." Apparently this is not published very well as several other cars drove up while were there, as stunned as we were. Oh well...we took some pictures and bought some nuts and dried fruit from some local entrepreneurs and decided to drive north to Tripoli, about an hour further than Byblos.

Tripoli was kind of interesting...we didn't see much, but got nice and lost in the downtown area. The impression was of a much more conservative community and it felt similar in some ways to Kuwait. After getting unlost, we found another nice lebanese restaurant by the ocean, which we pretty much had to ourselves. Our waitress Miriam seemed quite stunned that we were here by ourselves and didn't know anyone. She took a liking to Rowan and we really enjoyed the entire staff (the restaurant was called Sirene I think). Oh, and it had the best shish tawouk we had the entire time.

Driving south to Byblos, we got there around 1pm and found a lovely little souk area that has been done up nice and is filled with little merchant stalls and fancy restaurants. I had been told by a co-worker that he had eaten at a restaurant he counted among the best in the world in Byblos. We hoped to find it for dinner...

First however, we went into the Crusader's castle, a crazy hodgepodge of stones taken from the many settlements of the past. Byblos has been an operational port for some 6000 years and there have been so many settlements there that it's an archeologist's dream. There's the crusader castle, the Roman ruins, the mausoleum, a greek amphitheater, and ancient Phoenician tombs. All of this in a tiny little area that we could tromp about on as much as we wanted. Needless to say, we spent several hours there.

After this we searched all through the restaurants for the one that looked like what was described to me as fusion-lebanese food. The Locanda a la Granda turned out to be it, and, it deserves it's place in my friend's list of one of the best restaurants in the world. We tried the suggested dishes in the NYTIMES review that was printed on the place mats (pasta coated in cream, Roquefort and nuts) and were very pleased. The locally brewed "dark" beer turned out to be unimpressive (to me), but the amazing honeycombed rum cake (baba au rhum) was amazing (and I don't usually like deserts without chocolate).

Needless to say, I gained 5 pounds during the trip.

Our last day was spent driving around Beirut. We headed to the downtown area which is a series of concentric circles expanding out from a clock tower. The area was blocked off to traffic, so we had to drive around for some time finding a parking spot. There are tons of little restaurants and we decided to try something a bit different and ate at the chinese place...not a good choice unfortunately...oh well, you win some you lose some. The area was lovely though, and there was a cool looking mosque (similar style to Hagia Sofia) and some old Roman ruins that are being actively worked on.

We wanted to find a local grocery store to buy some local wine and beer (I had found some in a restaurant I wanted to buy cheap and try out, 961). So we drove back north to get to the mall we had seen from the freeway. First, we had to get back on the freeway, but this in itself was quite a challenge as we attempted to navigate the back streets to find one that would let us get on the freeway. Then we had to figure out how to get off and over to the other side...all his took a good couple of hours through the crazy traffic. Seriously, this is the worst traffic I've ever driven in. They have traffic lights and lanes, but these are generally ignored. Except when they aren't...but this seems to be random. You just try to do what everyone else is doing and not get your rental car dinged up!

Anyway, we found the mall and found the grocery store. They had some local wine, but sadly the only 961 beer they had was a lager, not the amber or red that I was hoping for. We got it, but it was very disappointing and we never found it. Ah well...gotta leave something for next time we visit.

It took the rest of the day to make it home and of course we ate at the Manara Cafe again for dinner. Did I mention the fabulous shisha? Their double apple was excellent, better than most in Kuwait. I tried the turkish/persian dry tobacco and was not very impressed. I prefer saloum which is plain tobacco soaked in molasses to it.

Next morning we headed back to the airport and were home in Kuwait by 2pm. We absolutely loved the european feel of Beirut and want to go back someday if possible to do some of the things we didn't get to do. This was one of the first times I've come back home to Kuwait and wished I had more time to stay where I was. Must be getting time to move on!