25.08.2011 - 28.08.2011
I remember that I was nodding as my grandmother asked the question above although I did not know what Yalelli meant. Apparently, in Turkish, the elderly refer to Arab music as ¨Yalelli¨which actually is a modified version of ¨Ya Leyl¨(meaning Oh, the night! in Arabic) because the lyrics of Arabic songs too often include these words. That's how my 4-day family vacation started to Lebanon in August 2011.
Unfortunately, this blog will not include much information regarding the nightlife in Beirut due to the age-restraint of the fellow passengers I was with. Same thing with Lebanese beaches. But, I believe we visited most of the tourist attractions. Before going through the list of attractions, I want to go over a few impressions.
Firstly, there are a lot of contradictions. Depending on the street, there might be luxurious magazines or building with bullet holes. Despite the limited time spent there, I felt it was the same with the people. Considering that I grew up in Turkey, we have the stereotype of Arabs being very conservative. (As I said, it is an uninformed stereotype) Yet, in Beirut, considerable number of women were dressed quite liberally (just as if you were walking down on Newbury street in Boston on a hot day, minus the flip flops, but with high heels). There were also a number of posters of the Hizbollah leaders on the streets, and the number of these posters and flags significantly increased as we got closer to the Bekaa valley to visit Baalbek.
Another issue is with taxi drivers. Gotta negotiate. There is no taximeter and quite honestly, there are not even that many traffic lights. We paid $10 each time we had a cab ride and I believe that is low for a tourist, but might be overpriced for a local.
Another interesting thing was that the taxi drivers constantly had the need to point out that it was an Armenian neighborhood or a Druze town or was a district with more conservative Muslims. Consequently, I had the impression that the extent of the social/political/religious split was beyond my comprehension.
Lastly, smoking is allowed everywhere and cigarettes are ridiculously cheap. As a smoker, yay for the cheap cigs, but again the stench of cigarettes was everywhere. We stayed at the Radisson, the people were very friendly but the hotel did not reach up to my expectations.
Now the sites:
1) Pigeon Rocks - This is one of the rare natural attractions in Beirut and therefore, everywhere it is written that this site is a must. I thought it was overrated. - No offense to Lebanese people.
2) Corniche - A sidewalk overlooking to the Mediterranean. It can be nice, depending on what you want.
3) American University of Beirut - It is obviously not a tourist attraction, but it is a beautiful school. To whomever who has ever been to Istanbul, it was interesting that AUB felt like an Arab sibling of American Robert College or Bosporus University in Istanbul. They are all American schools situated on a hill, overlooking the sea, just architecturally different.
4) Downtown - Place De L'Etoile- Souq (the marketplace) - This is the luxurious neighborhood, with all the brands and more. The jewelry shops inside the souq were breathtaking (but way beyond my price range). One night we dined at Al Balad restaurant, which had great mezes.
5) Gemmayzeh - If I was traveling with friends rather than family, I would have barhopped in this district of Beirut. A street with bars on both sides. Not the classiest neighborhood, but would be fun for a night out.
6) Jeita Grotto - Grotto means cave. There are two karstic limestone caves located on the Valley of Nahr al-Kalb (Dog River). It was gorgeous. Technically, you cannot take photos within the caves, you can leave your things at the entrance in the locker room. In one of the caves, you walk around and in the other one, you get on a little boat. Since I got friendly with the guy responsible for the boat, he allowed me to take photos with my camera without showing others and obviously without flash.
7) Byblos - We stopped by Byblos. Nice little ancient harbour district. There are few ruins around. We sat in a cafe and enjoyed ourselves. There are little shops, if you want to buy souvenirs.
8) Harissa - A village up in the mountain. Our lady of Lebanon is there, it is a Christian pilgrimage site. There is a huge 13 ton bronze statue of Virgin Mary and there are stairs that allow the visitors to go to the top of the statue. The panorama is amazing.
9) Baalbek ruins - Gorgeous. Gorgeousss. I have been to Pergamon and Ephesus in Turkey, to Rome, Italy but these ruins are just amazing and should be advertised across the world. If you go to the shops nearby, they try to sell you little sculptures, saying that they excavated them with a certain deal with the government. With my usual cynicism I thought it is fluff, but again, I don't know. Also, we have been told that Hizbollah chose to send missiles into Israel from the town right by Baalbek with the strategy that Israel cannot hit back, because they cannot risk damaging the ruins. However, at one point Israel hit back anyways.
10) Ksara Winery - Just stopped by the winery to pick up wines, did not do the whole tour.
11) Beiteddine Palace - It is a palace built in late 18th/early 19th century by an emir and later, used by the Ottomans. Firstly, it is not that big. When a person says palace, I start imagining something with grandeur. I can understand that it might be something interesting for a Westerner, but coming from Istanbul, it was not impressive at all. It is famous for its mosaics.
We also went to ABC Mall and Beirut Mall. Nothing too special, just regular malls. The Souq in downtown is the one to visit, but as I said, the places are pretty pricy. Obviously, eat a lot of hummus&kebab while drinking arak. I also tried date juice (don't recall the Liban name), which was too syrup like for my taste. We passed by the Buddha Bar, which is very famous and I wish I could have partied there. Also, there is a monument of Rafik Hariri overlooking his site of assassination. Probably, you will pass by it, just tell your taxi driver to point it out to you.
I would have liked to visit Muhammad al-Amin mosque, al-Omari Mosque and the national archeology museum, but did not have the time to. Also if you visit Beirut, one can easily arrange a trip to Damascus, Syria or Jordan. As for my grandmothers' yalelli request, one night we did visit a non-touristy restaurant with a singer a little north of Beirut, on the top of floor of a 6-7 story building. Unfortunately, I don't recall the name of the place. Still, glad to have that memory.