Souks and a sea castle

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January 26th 2019
Published: January 26th 2019
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A two hour taxi drive takes us from North Lebanon to South Lebanon. It's a small country but each area is different. Beirut is a cosmopolitan city; Byblos is predominantly Christian; Sidon is 80% Sunni Muslim.

Sidon has large Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps on its outskirts; some were established in the ‘50s but refugees still arrive today. Our hotel is run by Palestinians and our map tells us that the border to Lebanon's south is with Palestine not Israel. Yasser Arafat's poster is everywhere.

Our hotel is old, all stone arches, high ceilings and wonky doorways. The walls are made of huge stone blocks, the windows are shuttered. We are the only guests; we have breakfast in our dusty, exclusive dining room on the roof. Our room and the roof terrace overlook the port and another Crusader castle, this one set on a rock just off shore.

The back staircase from the hotel leads into Sidon’s souk, and it is a proper old souk. From bras to trainers, from handbags to carpets, everything is available in these small twisted alleys. There is no chance of knowing quite where we are and no reason to care.

In the souk are many mosques and a few hammams. These were community bathhouses and we are invited into one that is being restored. The workmen proudly show off their work – marble floors; domed ceilings pierced with circular coloured glass lights; a tinkling water fountain.

People live above the souk. There are dozens of staircases that disappear up to reach houses built around courtyards above the souk’s alleys. Looking up, we see heads peering out two floors up. One of the finer houses is now open as a museum. Upstairs it is all fine marble inlay, French furniture and filigree metalwork lamps. From the souk, it is just a non-descript staircase and a door. The back entrance to our hotel is a similarly non-descript staircase, it is a little worrying that we might climb the wrong staircase into the wrong house!

The souk feels little changed by time. These shops have opened their heavy wooden shutters every morning for hundreds of years; the mullah has called believers to prayer five times a day for even longer; the coffee seller still does his rounds, ringing a bell and delivering hot espresso to all. But donkeys no longer deliver the goods, instead three-wheeled electric carts silently whizz supplies around the alleys.

We have eaten very well here. The markets are full of fresh fruit and veg and this is evident in the Lebanese cuisine. Mezze is a little like tapas, lots of small dishes to dip into. Triangular spinach pies, mini lamb pasties, aubergine with pomegranate, fried cauliflower, spicy herby fried potatoes, and, of course, homemade hummus.

All the Lebanese have been very welcoming to us. We are greeted, with smiles, in Arabic, French or English wherever we wander. There is a noticeable army presence here. The few soldiers we meet are very chatty, asking where we are from and happy to talk about their country. But we take care not to take photographs of anything military!

We have also not gone near any UK government “no go zones”. This is pretty easy as they just cover refugee camps and areas along the borders. With the Israeli border closed and the Syrian border unsafe, Lebanon has no land border that is both open and safe. Nearly everything must come in by sea.

There are tensions here, undoubtedly, but the Lebanese have found ways of dealing with them. The constitution splits their government into religious grouping and top jobs have to be split amongst all the groups. Complicated power-sharing but it seems to work.

It has been a very interesting week here and we've had perfect weather. Tomorrow we fly back to Cairo and get back our original plan to head south to Luxor.

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