Published: July 8th 2006September 4th 2005
Place De Etolie, Beirut
Army troops and westernised girls enjoy a Sunday night
The bus ride to Beirut was pretty straight forward, a problem at the Syrian departures for me because I didn't have a exit card. I wasn't given one when I left Turkey. I was fined 1 Syrian pound. There was a English/Syrian guy sitting behind me who said he got fined 75 Syrian pounds once for the same thing, lucky me!
The road to Beirut was a long winding one, going downhill into Lebanon's capital city. They dropped me off at a random stop on the outskirts of the city. I was officially lost, I got a minibus to the Charles Helou bus station (pronounced Karlvel Hello, why?). The bus station was a right mess, no help from anyone and no way out except along the road I just come along on the minibus. I went up the hill to the "town". Being a Sunday everything was closed and there was hardly anyone about to ask directions. After 30 minutes walking about mindlessly and checking my Lonely Planet guidebook map of Beirut, it was not helping much. I finally found my hotel Al-Shabba! The man running it was pretty useful and told me some good places to go whilst in
Roman city, Baalbek
Pretty much unheard of on the tourist trail, yet.
town. Sounds good.
After a much required shower and change of clothes. I went exploring, not many people about but I headed towards Beirut's Martyrs Square. Just off the the square there was a tent with Islamic hymns coming out of it. As it was the only thing open I decided to check it out. It was the resting place of former Lebanese president Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated earlier this year. Why do I always gatecrash these things? I was in the first 100 people to see the Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba lying in state in 2000. Who's next?!
Next door was a Virgin megastore, and it was open. Ahh Western goodies and fabulous aircon. After cooling down I got a taxi to the Hamra district. Everything is closed here, apart from McDonald's and Starbucks. I walked to the Place de Etolie, which is the city centre what was completely destroyed during the civil war here. Lots of people back home were telling me Beirut would resemble a bomb site, not any more! There are a tiny amount of scarred buildings about, but the res have been restored to it's pre civil war splendour. It could easily
Roman city, Baalbek
This is the small temple, god knows what the big one looked like. Impressive.
have been Paris, Milan or Barcelona. It's so cosmopolitan. I sit down at a patio bar off the square and have a beer. The price could have been in one of those city's I mentioned, but it was good, I was sitting in front of a mosque during the call to prayer and my gods were happy!
I hanged around the area for a few hours, all of a sudden the place became really busy, loads of people just walking around enjoying the September evening. I went back to my hotel to go to sleep. In my room was a weird Armenian guy who was very bizarre, during my whole stay in Beirut, every time I went into the hotel he was sitting on his bed watching TV all the time. It's a good life, but I did that that for 8 years! I would rather see the world thank you very much.
The next day I was heading for Baalbek, in northern Lebanon and home to the big roman temples. I asked the hotel manager how to get there. He told me to get a minibus to the cola roundabout bus station, on the other side of town. London (12 million people) has one bus station, Victoria. Beirut (1 million people) has 3. Why? There only seems to be one road out of Beirut as well. I eventually get to the Cola roundabout and just stood in the middle of the crowd and said "Baalbek" and immediately surrounded by bus drivers. The lucky driver walked me towards my bus and it wasn't long before we were on our way. After winding up the hills out of Beirut we broke down, a replacement minibus was about 30 seconds behind and got us moving again. A hour or so later we were in Baalbek, it was a first for a Middle Eastern bus station as it was in the centre of town.
To be honest I had never heard of Baalbek until I read the Lebanon section of my Lonely Planet book. These were superb, the best roman ruins I have ever seen. a top site and I had it pretty much to myself.
I am in very strong Hezbollah territory here, but its now safe and the Hezbollah actually like tourists(!) There are pictures of their chief Hassan Nasrallah everywhere. One guy wanted to sell me a Hezbollah T-Shirt, I said "No thanks, green and yellow just ain't my colour.."
Back into town for a bit and some much needed food. Then a minibus back to the capital. The driver was a nutcase, he decided to go along the Lebanese backroads, overtaking around blind corners, all while on the phone. All Middle Eastern drivers do this, but this guy was good. Who needs Alton Towers, just turn up at a bus station here and HOLD ON!
Back in Beirut, I went on the net for a while and bought myself a new journal as my other is now full. And then for a treat, a Burger King, nice it was too. That was my first bit of western fast food since Berlin. Later still I went to the Place De Etolie again. I arrived there about 10 and it was filling up with the locals. What a place!
Lebanon is nothing like you would expect it to be like after growing up with western news and viewpoints. It's really smart. Clean, fresh and the people are nice too. I want to come back here in a few years time. To see it all complete, it's almost there.