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Published: February 9th 2016
The lights of Beirut
A city aglow at night
As we walk into the restaurant and give our name to the hostess for a table, we then move on as we always do….to the softly lit bar and grab a stool where Sami brings us a couple of libations. This place is all too familiar to us, with its fake, yet attractive grape vines hanging from the ceiling and all for that part, all around the room. It is our very favorite restaurant in Toledo, Ohio, Dave’s hometown. When we visit family we always try to spend an evening at “The Beirut.” It is one of those restaurants where you always feel at home. It is a restaurant with fantastic food. A standard that you hold all other Lebanese restaurants to…which may be unfair, but it’s our standard, after all. We’ve eaten our way around the country and many nations of the world over the years, comparing foods….seeing if they will measure up to “Our Beirut.” On occasion we’ve been heard to say, “this hummus, these dolmas, or this kibbe is almost as good as “The Beirut”. We literally taunt these other restaurants to try to compare to what is familiar to us. We are self-proclaimed foodies. We love all
Now...what would you like for dinner?
varieties of ethnic foods and Lebanese is absolutely one of our favorites.
A few years ago a thought began to germinate that we should have Lebanese food in Lebanon some day. Although that should come as absolutely no surprise to those who know us as we require little or no reason to pick up and go somewhere. The last time we visited our favorite Lebanese haunt, we peppered Sami with many questions about his homeland and the best way to see it. He was most gracious with his time and knowledge. Well—that day has arrived. After a couple mmore phone calls and texts to Sammy, our bartender extraordinaire in Toledo-- we had a list of ideas. So we started this trip to the Middle East…. in where else? Lebanon.
Troubles in Beirut as recent as November gave us pause. We studied the U.S. State department web site and saw that a travel warning was in effect. We came to later realize that this is not an uncommon posting on the U.S. State Department website, as they want to ensure the safety of their citizens. Do we go or don’t we go was the conversation
A fine Lebanese pilsner.
for a few days. We read blogs from Travel Bloggers who had been there and decided to go. Often times we find the U.S. state department can place a travel warning sooner than other countries and so we often check how the Australians and British are feeling about countries that we travel to.
Actually, when you stop and think about it, The Middle East has seen a rather tumultuous past and most likely will be in turmoil for the foreseeable future. The upshot of all this is that if you are waiting for this region of the world to settle down, you will never go… so off we went! When we began traveling internationally years ago, we feared that being an American made us a target as many people have strong opinions about America and our politics. With this being an election year and hopeful politicians are filling the airwaves with somewhat stupid and ill-informed remarks, we’re probably not gaining additional respect from those in this region. Whatever…overall, we have found that most people understand that we don’t necessarily share views of the talking heads or those in Washington. Everyone in Lebanon has been wonderful and friendly,
From our hotel to the neighboring hotel. Cool as black lights, man!
just like all the other countries we’ve visited. Go figure.
As we flew in to Beirut, the beauty of the city captured our attention from the air. Built on a rolling hillside, dotted with tan limestone buildings and surrounded by the glistening colors of the Mediterranean Sea, it is rather stunning. Once called “The Paris of the Middle East,” as we have read and we are uncertain of this nickname for Beirut. They do dress rather cosmopolitan but that is as far as the connection goes for us. That is not meant negative as Beirut has its own personality and charm but does not really remind us of Paris.
Our first day of exploring had us headed south to the beach side town of Sidon to take a look at the Sidon Sea Castle. We must admit it was not as impressive as we had expected. The short drive from Beirut to Sidon was enjoyable with plenty of banana trees and orange trees along the highway. We chuckled when we would see several acres of bananas located right behind a car dealership along a busy road. Once you climb to the top of the
Brutus at the Rock of Raouché
Yep....he's on the road again!!
castle, the views of Sidon are scenic and the town of Sidon attractive but still we were underwhelmed with this site. On our way out we stopped as a parade of young school children dressed in their school uniforms passed by.
We were surprised as our car got on the entrance ramp to the highway with the image of a woman sitting, holding a baby. She didn’t seem to be selling anything and didn’t seem concerned by traffic zooming past. An odd place to sit, we thought.
From there we went to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tyre. This town is steeped in Phoenician history and offers an inviting harbor. The World Heritage Site is under restoration and we watched a archeologist at work for a while. The views along the sea are lovely. Fortunately for us, we had read a little before going and did additional research after we returned. We arranged over-priced transportation to Sidon and Tyre but didn’t sign up for an organized tour. This proved to be a mistake on our part. We assumed at the World Heritage Site we could get a guide or perhaps more information if
Most restaurants offered their patrons the chance to smoke from the narguilé (hookah). Men and women alike.
we wanted. That was not the case. So it required a bit of reading after the fact. Nonetheless, it was worth a stop even though on this day we spent too much for our trip to these sites. As with all UNESCO World Heritage sites that we have been to, it is worth the visit, as they never disappoint. We walked and then we sat quietly soaking in the history and sites around us, then talking of what life must have been like when this was built, discussed uses for each room and sat in wonder.
Another stop brought us to the National Museum of Beirut. What it lacks in size is more than made up for in the historical message it displays. Included is a genuinely nice collection of ancient artifacts that tell the story of Lebanese history and the Greek and Egyptian influences on this region. Being from the U.S., we are often amazed at the ages of these antiquities. How can you not be impressed with a beautiful urn that was created some 5000 years ago?
Sadly, we didn’t get to see the Jeitta Grotto, a limestone cave while we were
Archeologist at work
Restoring the UNESCO site at Tyre.
here. We knew the weather would be spotty while we were here and our first day was sunny so we didn’t want to be underground. Of course, the very next day we discovered that they had closed it for a week. Guess it was not meant to be.
We took time to stroll the waterfront in downtown Beirut and observe the marvelous job they have done in rebuilding a city (and nation) torn apart by a 15 plus year civil war that ended in the 1990’s. We observed that it is quite a banking center as every time you turn around, there is another branch of some bank. Clearly some of this money is poured into real estate, as there is active construction everywhere.
One of the great highlights of our time here in Beirut was the chance to visit and dine with Osta, who for many years worked at the Beirut Restaurant in Dave’s hometown and Wille, who is one of Sami’s cousins. Osta is a very warm and engaging man who took us to a fine local restaurant where we were able to converse about a great many
things about this wonderful land and learn even more of the history. He moved back a decade or so ago, and was a most gracious host. Visits like these are the reasons we travel. We appreciate sitting with the locals and hearing about their country. This was particularly special because they lived in the states for 20 years and in Toledo the majority of that time. Our evening passed quickly with conversation concerning life in Lebanon but also talking about Toledo, Florida and of course American politics.
Lebanon is quite small in size, but we discovered that it is full of history and quite unique in that it is a predominantly Christian nation due to the Roman conquests and subsequent crusades from Europe. It has held on to its Christian identity through many centuries despite conquests and wars on its soil. And then of course…..there is the fine cuisine.
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