John and Sheila's trip to Beirut and Damascus,
November 1997.


Lebanon route
Our route from Damascus to Beirut and travels around the Lebanon.

Sun 9th. Flew to Damascus by Syrian Arab airlines, arrived about 5:30pm. Taxi to town centre cost $10 (dollars seem to be acceptable currency everywhere). GB£1 = 45 Syrian pounds in the bank, 48 Syrian on the black market. Not worth it.

Stayed at the Sultan Hotel ($30 double room with breakfast) room overlooking the street - should be interesting. Situated just near the Hijaz railway station, where there is a restaurant in an old train. Walked through the main souk (market) just before it closed at 8pm, then went to the Old Damascus restaurant (recommended by the hotel proprietor). Excellent meal of mezze (hummus, etc.) and shish kebabs, with live oriental music from the band, for SYP 600. Plus plenty of entertainment from the fellow diners - a Syrian family whose young son wanted to borrow the bandleader's tambourine all the time and indulgent father wouldn't stop him, a French couple who complained because they couldn't see the band from their table, complained about the food and so on.

Mon 10th. Breakfast of boiled egg, cheese, bread & jam and tea accompanied by football on the telly. Checked out and walked down to the taxi station to find a taxi to Beirut. After a lot of haggling we settled for the taxi driver's original price of SYP 500 each (about $10) in a shared taxi with 3 other passengers for the two and a half hour drive. Well, 2 ½ hours plus the stops for the driver's shopping, lunch, etc, plus getting across the border when he got very impatient because we had to wait for Lebanese visas. The six of us fitted quite comfortably in the big, beaten-up old American taxi, but on the outskirts of Damascus the driver saw another taxi driver friend of his who had broken down and stopped to give him a lift. Not wanting to inconvenience the passengers, the two of them sat in the driver's seat and he proceeded to drive for the next half an hour with the other driver more or less sitting on his lap. It made no difference to his driving which was crazy anyway, and we had a white-knuckle ride across the mountains.

Beirut.  The other passengers dropped off one by one as we struggled through the traffic jams on the outskirts of Beirut and we finally ended up at the central taxi station where the drivers found a local taxi to take us round some hotels. Beirut is more expensive than Damascus - the local taxi cost $8 and the hotel we chose, Lords Hotel more or less on the seafront, was $50 a night including breakfast, after a bit of haggling and an intercession from the taxi driver which brought the price down $10. Walking around later and checking other hotels the cheapest we could find was $45 so there don't seem to be any bargains here.

We walked down Hamra Street, the main shopping street, while Sheila checked out the gold shops, shoe shops, clothes shops, etc. Stopped for a snack at one of the Parisian-style street cafés. There is not much sign of damage at this end of town but when we walked on to the central commercial district we found that everything had been flattened in the war. The Roman ruins in the park looked in better condition than the few buildings that had survived. However, there has been considerable rebuilding going on and several bright new banks and office blocks are emerging from the rubble. Took a photo of the Noufara mosque where Saint George slew the dragon (how did he come to be our patron saint if he was Lebanese?). Walked back along the promenade and stopped for a beer and a lamb sandwich at the Hard Rock Café (21,500 Lebanese Pounds, about $18). Excellent local beer called Almaza draught. Walked further along the prom and stopped for an ice cream at Pepita Patisserie. Gets dark about 5pm so we were in bed exhausted by 9.

Tues 11th. Spent the day walking about and eating.

Beirut Pigeon Rocks
Long lie in then breakfast at Lords Hotel - bread, cheese and olives. Walked further round the promenade to Pigeon rocks. Stopped at the Park Apartments to ask about something and it was so nice we decided to move here tomorrow. $65 a night, self-catering apartment with a view west over Pigeon rocks and the sea.


A very nice lady on reception called Riham rang a friend of hers at 'More' car hire and negotiated a discount for a car and driver - very small car (average-sized driver) for $30 a day.

We walked over to Hamra Street to arrange for the car to pick us up tomorrow to start 'doing' the rest of the Lebanon and then walked down to the centre again to take photos. There was a great hubbub of building activity going on everywhere.

Got a taxi back to Raouche district and sat in a café having hummus and mtabba watching the sun go down over Pigeon rocks. Walked back to Maqdissi street for a drink at the Rose and Crown pub during happy hour (4 beers 9000 LBP) then down to the promenade again for another ice cream (2 cones 5000 LBP - choice of over 70 flavours) at Pepita, the patisserie with valet parking!

Baalbeck

Wed 12th. The car and driver arrived promptly at 8 while we were still having breakfast. Set off, immediately stopped to unload our baggage at the Park Residence, set off again, stopped at the Post Office to get stamps and post postcards, set off again and got stuck in endless traffic jams. Finally got going and drove across the mountains and into the Bekaa Valley. Turned left off the Damascus road and along the valley to Baalbeck. Extremely impressive and extensive Roman ruins with massive columns still standing.


On the way out of town we stopped at the quarry where the Romans and their predecessors got the stone for the temple, to see the largest cut stone in the world. It was big!

Drove back to Zahlé and had a drive round the town then back to the Damascus road, stopping at the café where we stopped 2 days ago in the taxi for pizza-style flat bread and tea.

Beit ed Dine
Turned off the main road for a picturesque drive through the Chouf mountains to Beit ed Dine, which is a marvellous Al Hambra-style Moorish palace. Wandered round it soaking up the atmosphere and taking hundreds of photos, then returned to Beirut.

Went to the supermarket on Rue Maqdissi to buy bread, cheese, salami, wine and beer which we consumed in fair quantities for dinner back at the Residence. The only hitch was that there was no corkscrew in the place so I had to walk across the road to TGI Friday's and ask them to open the wine for me, which they did.

Thurs 13th. Home made breakfast of bread and jam, then off for another day's hectic sightseeing. First to Jeita grotto north of Beirut, which is actually two grottos. The first you walk through, through a vast cavern with amazing rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites all over every surface. The pathway snakes up through mid-air almost to the roof and you end up looking down a bottomless crevice to some lower world. The second grotto is a lake and you glide through it in an electrically powered boat, looking at the same amazing rock formations. Both are equally atmospheric, especially if you can manage to be the only people there. The coach party was just arriving as we left.

Next stop Harissa, where there is a huge modern church and a statue of Our Lady of Lebanon right on the top of a hill overlooking a broad sweep of the coast. Apparently the Pope visited this site in May and they build a wide new road up the mountain in his honour. Next door is an older, Greek style church, with a sign at the door prohibiting mobile phones!

On to Byblos which is a really sweet little place around a small harbour. On arrival we were nabbed by a pleasant lady who was a tour guide and restaurant tout. She showed us the restaurant which is in vaulted rooms inside the city wall. It was a hard choice between eating fish and chips here (which Sheila developed a sudden yearning for) or for a café in the sun by the harbour. The harbour won and we sat in the sun overlooking it and had a leisurely lunch of hummus, etc. Then we strolled up through the nice little souk, which is in and around the old city walls, built by the Crusaders using stones that the Romans left lying around in temples and things. Went up to the Crusader castle which has panoramic views of the town and the Roman ruins in the excavation site below. We decided that the Roman ruins probably looked better from up there than down amongst them so we gave them a miss. Really pleasant, relaxed afternoon. After a bit more of a stroll through the souk we set off back to Beirut.

Back in Beirut it was a quick trip to the supermarket to buy bread and change $50 into Lebanese - the till was programmed in both currencies, using quite a good rate ($1 = 1530 LBP) and they were quite happy to change it, or accept payment in either currency. Sipped wine/beer and ate peanuts on the balcony overlooking the bay, dinner of bread, cheese and salami and another ridiculously early night.

Fri 14th. Another day's hectic sightseeing. Set off north up the coast again and stopped at Dog River to photograph the bridge and the ancient inscriptions carved in the rock face, which we missed yesterday. Then inland and up, up into the mountains to find the Cedar trees. There is only one small clump of Cedars of Lebanon left, but they are pretty impressive and some look extremely ancient - reputed to be thousands of years old.

Back down the mountain to Tripoli on the coast. Stopped at the tourist office where the man turned out all the boxes of brochures to find ones in English. Then on to the old city with its teeming souk - or it would have been if today hadn't been Friday, the Moslem weekend, when most of the shops are shut. In amongst the shops are several fascinating old buildings (14th century mostly) - caravanserais, mosques, schools, baths and souks. Missed the bath house that Sheila wanted to see with the bobbly domes on top because it was wrongly labelled in one of the brochures. Walked up to the citadel with superb views over the town, but no guard rails in front of the sheer drops - rather dizzyifying. Back to Beirut late, tired and dusty - had to walk fast/run to the supermarket to get the baguettes before the shop closed, then standard dinner of wine & peanuts, bread, salami and cheeses.

Tyre souk

Sat 15th. Another bread, jam & cheese breakfast, another day driving around sightseeing. This time we headed south to Tyre, along the road that the Israelis are in the habit of bombing, apparently. Tyre has a pretty little harbour, some impressive Roman ruins and some really seething souks. Stopped for a flat-bread-and-cheese 'pizza' and a huge mug of freshly squeezed orange juice then headed into the depths of the souk, a maze of dark alleyways full of all sorts of shops that spill out into the walkway, with a channel running down the centre of the alleyway where water washes away the debris of packaging, discarded fruit & veg, etc. Everyone was really friendly, wanted us to take their pictures, wanted to practice talking English, wanted to debate whether Liverpool or Newcastle was the best football team, etc. They were even too busy to try to sell us things most of the time.

Sidon sea castle

Then to Sidon, where the main feature is the 'sea castle', a picturesque Crusader castle in the middle of the harbour with a causeway out from the shore. First a cup of tea at the Government Rest House, a pretty, old-style building with a garden by the sea overlooking the castle, operating as a restaurant. Then out to the castle (2000 LBP each admission) and a wander round, in and out of the halls and archways, up and down stairs that may or may not lead somewhere. Then back across the causeway and into the souks which were like those at Tyre but not quite so atmospheric.


Finally a quick stop at Echmoun on the outskirts of Sidon, a Phoenician town with ruins that looked just like Roman ruins, but I'm sure that an expert can tell the difference. Unfortunately the best bits (according to the brochure we got from the Lebanese tourist office in London), some really well-preserved mosaics, seem to have been removed - probably to a museum for safe keeping, we hope.

Back in Beirut and off on our standard shopping trip to the supermarket to buy the baguette for our dinner on the balcony. Disaster, though - the supermarket had run out of baguettes so we bought an assortment of rolls, only to stop at a different bakery on the way back to find they had excellent fresh baguettes at only 125LBP (about 7 pence) each - what a bargain! Sat on the balcony sipping wine and beer and watching the endless entertainment provided by the traffic junction down below. Just when you think you've seen the craziest manoeuvre of all, someone comes along and does something sillier; like queuing side by side to turn across the other carriageway until you completely block your own side, or crossing to the other side of the dual carriageway and going the wrong way because the restaurant you want to get to is over there. But nobody seemed to mind, least of all the policeman who was supposedly controlling the traffic at the junction.

Sun 16th. Packed, had breakfast and prepared to depart. Rihan, who had more or less organised our 'tour of Lebanon', came to the Hotel on her day off to see us off, and ended up very kindly giving us a lift to the taxi station, as well as negotiating $5 off the price of the taxi back to Damascus. It was very quiet because it was Sunday, the Christian weekend, and one of the taxis had two passengers plus us made four, but they normally take five so he wanted us to buy the last seat as well at an extra $10 each - we finally settled for an extra $5 each making a fare of $25 each for the trip. Uneventful drive back to Damascus - fast, but he seemed safe. Stopped at the standard taxi stop on the way down into the Bekaa valley and Sheila had another flat-bread pizza. Left Beirut at about 10:30, finished the border formalities into Syria at 12:00 and arrived at the taxi station in Damascus at 12:30.

Damascus.  Feeling very much that we knew our way around we brushed off the hotel touts, walked down the road to the Sultan hotel and checked into the same room as last time. Enquired about Syrian Airlines and finding the office was literally just round the corner we went and reconfirmed our tickets. Enquired about Whirling Dervish dancers and the hotel man recommended two restaurants so we went to check them out.

Damascus souk
On our way to the second one we stumbled across the spice souk that we remembered from 1981 but had missed at the beginning of the week - it was nice to find it still there. Looked into the Turkish Bath house because Sheila wanted one, but it was men only (some have a women's day but this one doesn't). Carried on walking round the souks and stopped for an ice cream and cake at a café in the main souk. Then Sheila was overcome by the need for a nap so she returned to the hotel while I walked down the Street called Straight and round the gates in the old city walls.

Set off about 8pm (normally nearly our bedtime) for a traditional Arabic night out at the Al-Eez restaurant, just off the souk. Huge meal of mezze, kebabs, etc, followed by sweets, tea and mint tea. Meanwhile there was music from the band followed by the highlight of the night, a Whirling Dervish dancer. He was really good - whirling continuously in a smooth motion, not moving his head in quick jerks like ballet dancers do, yet he showed no sign of dizziness, while the mesmerising middle eastern music played on. Total cost 400SYP each (about $10). Finally left about 11:30 after saying goodbye to the waiter, the head waiter, the owner and the people on the next table. A good night out.

Mon 17th. Started with a well-earned lie-in and a Sultan Hotel breakfast. Then set out on John's walking tour of Damascus. First the P.O. to post postcards, and the Hijaz railway station to photograph the old train that's now a restaurant. Next to the National Museum, with its huge collection of Syrian antiquities including tablets written in the oldest alphabet in the world (as opposed to hieroglyphic writing).

Next the tour of the old town, starting at the Citadel, round the souks, through the Roman arch, down the Street called Straight, in and out of the old gates in the city walls, down little alleyways and back streets and back to the souk. Back to the hotel about 4 o'clock all walked out. In the evening we went for a short walk round the souks and a light dinner of hummus, mtabba and Syrian beer at the Hijaz bar. The Syrian beer, in big suspicious-looking unlabelled bottles, was actually pretty good. Back to the hotel, shower, clean clothes and an early night ready for another day, another country.

Tue 18th. Up at Muezzin-call and off to the airport. The taxi we'd booked turned out to be one of the hotel reception guys doing a bit of moonlighting, or maybe it was all part of the service. Got stung for 200SYP each departure tax and they wouldn't take dollars so we had to mess about changing more money.

Flew to Sanaa, capital of the Yemen, with a stop at Jeddah.

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In 1998 we travelled to Timbuktu. Click here to read all about that and our other travels too.