Thursday, July 31, 2003

ancient Heliopolis

OK, so we've been north, south, and beyond the eastern border. Now it was time to visit the eastern part of Lebanon – the Bekaa (البقاع) valley! And, more specifically, the impressive and magnificent complex of Baalbeck (بعلبك‎‎), also known as Heliopolis. Of course, who could need a special reason to visit this site that has been inhabited for some nine thousand years and that has some of the most impressive Roman ruins you cold see? But it just so happens that the Baalbeck International Festival was taking place. And we got tickets to go see Chicago, the musical. In the ruins themselves! We weren't going to miss the opportunity of enjoying an arts festival in such a setting, right?

I didn't dare drive through the mountains with our almost-ready-for-the-junkyard car, so we took the bus. Which made the ride much longer than expected. But we did arrive with ample time - if a bit tired - to check in our hotel, admire the views of the ruins from the window (like, wow)...

...and finally head to explore he ruins themselves. Oh, but before that, the hotel? It was the Palmyra Hotel, which at some point hosted Cocteau, Ella Fitzgerald, Charles de Gaulle... And has been open since 1874! There are even some drawings by Cocteau in the hotel!

But back to the ruins. First, the Temple of Venus, also known as the Circular Temple. It is pretty - the pic doesn't do it justice, and it's hard to perceive its semi-circular shape. It must have been one beautiful temple at some point, too, but regrettably now it's in the rather ruinous state you see.

Now, next should be the temple of Jupiter, but I'm saving that one for another post – too many pictures to post! So I'll talk instead of the other jewel of the ruins, the Temple of Bacchus, from around the second century. Plus, it's the best preserved ruins in the complex - and probably one of the best-preserved temples of its kind in the world. Tall, graceful rows of columns decorated its outer side...

Crowned by beautiful capitals and entablatures...

With absolutely gorgeous reliefs and details...

Simply, a gate to another time and world. Basically, the only thing missing was the roof. That's impressive!

After our exploration, we headed for the performance, at the Temple of Jupiter. We had seen the musical in Mexico City already, but seeing it here was out of this world. Plus, the performances weren't half-bad at all! But after the show, once in our hotel, there was another "performance" to be seen from our window... the ruins lit at night. Wow.

What a magical place. Hey, what a magical hotel! But I still owe you a – photo heavy – post on the most iconic ruins in Lebanon, the Temple of Jupiter.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

anniversaire à Beyrouth

Life – mine, at least – seems to have a liking for unusual twists and turns. Or, if that sounds somewhat arrogant, then I've sure found a way to have a healthy dose of interestingess injected on a regular basis into my life!

Just two years ago I met my beau in Mexico City. A year later, we were celebrating our first anniversary (yay!) there. And a year after that? Celebrating in Beirut, Lebanon! On our very first date I told – warned? – him "Look, my lifestyle will take us abroad, some day, somewhere. And I can't really predict or assure when, where to, and for how long. You game?" 

And two years later, here we are. A very risky proposition, I'll be the first to admit, ok? I mean, barely a year and a half after meeting we move together to the Middle East? But, like I said, two years on, here we are, so hurray! 

We're still a bit short on furniture and stuff, but we have our Maus Haus table, cushions to sit on the floor, 24 red roses, two silver cups (my beau's gift!), a bottle of wine, and the experience of having visited Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, Tripoli and Damascus! 

So, cheers to a second anniversary, cheers to many more adventures to come, cheers for my beau taking a risk and giving a chance to me and my rather unpredictable and uncertain life!

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

the south – Tyre

So, in our explorations of this area we've been to the north (Tripoli), the central coast north (Byblos) and south (Sidon), and east beyond the border (Damascus). Now it was time to visit the far south... Tyre (صور)! 

This ancient place (are there any non-ancient ones in Lebanon, I ask?) is just 80km south of Beirut, and just 40km north of... Israel! We had no idea how close we were going to be to this, our forbidden fruit! For, you see, Israel law considers Lebanon an enemy state. So, even though it would be an easy 3-4 hour ride from Beirut to the border, the only way for us to visit Israel is to fly to Cyprus and from there to Israel, or travel overland to Jordan and then cross from there. Both very annoying options when all it would take is a leisurely drive south. Plus, any sign of an entry to Israel on our passports would forbid us from returning to Lebanon. Which, right now, is home for us. So, verboten. 

The funniest thing is, though, that when getting close to Tripoli I was tuning in different radio stations for music. I found one I liked. And at some point there was a voice on the radio talking about who knows what, and I just thought "huh, funny, sounds familiar, I guess it must be some local Arabic dialect from around here...". As we approached a military check-point it dawned on me – that was no local Arabic station! that was an Israeli one and that was Israeli Hebrew we were hearing! Managed to turn the radio off just in time before we stopped by the checkpoint! Whew!

After that digression, let's get back to Tyre. It's so old, Alexander the Great laid siege to it. Now, if we're to believe Herodotus, the city is just shy of 5 millennia old. It's gone, like the rest of Lebanon, through so many different rules they read like a high-school list of civilizations to memorize. The place is hot as hell in summer (well, most of Lebanon's coast, but here it felt particularly so). And it's basically empty. This millennial jewel of ruins, colonnades and tombs is practically tourist-free, and it's also pretty unattended. Yay for the former, boohoo for the latter.

Anyhow, we were there to explore and, despite it feeling like our shoes would melt beneath us, explore we did this historical site known as Al Mina (the port, in Arabic). We walked along its gorgeous colonnaded street with the Mediterranean as background...

We came across this fantastic tomb with a medusa on a side. Shame that there are no signs, no leaflets, nothing to tell you what is what. But still, that tomb and its medusa head? Amazing.

But that is just one set of ruins. There is another set (nor far, but fiendishly hard to find by car) called El Bass. And that's where you find the necropolis, with mosaics, more tombs...

And a triumphal arch with colonnade too!

At that point all four of us (the beau and two friends that came along) were ready to faint from the heat, so we headed for some fantastic Lebanese fare at a restaurant by the sea, and drove back home, happy to have had a glimpse at yet another one of Lebanon's corners and treasures.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Mexique à travers cinquante objets

What do you think about Mexico, if you've never been to? What can you picture about a country with 106 million people with diverse backgrounds, dispersed over some 2 million square kilometres spanning mountain, coast, jungle, desert? a country whose history includes dozens of native peoples, a Spanish colonization, and influences from France and the US, among others?

Of course, such a complex question can have no single, simple answer, and what my beau attempted at the First Week of Mexican Culture at Beirut's UNESCO Palace was a playful promenade through Mexican imagery spanning "50 objects to understand Mexico" as heterogeneous as... 

The Virgin of Guadalupe; a sombrero; a grey wig; a tequila bottle; lipstick; football shorts; a Corona beer bottle; a handkerchief; the PRI logo; a microphone; a bitten apple; a woman's shoe; a dollar; a phone bill; a wooden stick; a rifle; boxer shorts with the US flag motif; an indigenous craft; a photo of the pyramids of Mexico; a prickly pear; a chili pepper; a tortilla; weed; a hallucinogenic mushroom (well, not a real one!); a Spanish reliquary; a tyre; a newspaper; a plane ticket... 

All in all, 50 objects telling fragments of what Mexico is, of what we imagine Mexico to be, of what we regret has become of Mexico, of what we hope Mexico can be. Performed in Spanish and French. The 50th and final object? An invitation to visit Mexico, and choose that 50th object ourselves.  

Pretty cool for an alternative approach to Mexico, during the very first Mexican cultural week celebrated in Beirut. Proud of the beau.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Paradise beach, Byblos

Well, it seems there's more to Byblos (and Lebanon's historic seaside towns in general) that ancient history and ruins... like beaches! and beach clubs! This last one, though, came a bit as a surprise - it seems the coastline is jam-packed with fancy, ritzy beach clubs where people pay a steep entry fee to enjoy cocktails, swim in pools (yes, people go to the beach clubs to swim in pools), and show off their brand swim-, foot- and eye-wear. 

And then there are the small stretches of beach between clubs that common folk can use. No bartenders. No bouncers keeping the unglamorous at bay. No changing rooms. Just sand, and the sea. Us, coming from Mexico City and privy to its brutal social class divisions, were only so happy to head to the open beach and forgo the high-end clubs (we'll probably do those, as a cultural experience, some time in the future, I guess).

Plus - and this is the fun part - one of those stretches in Byblos is known as a gay beach called Paradise! Of course, most "respectable" gentlemen would never set foot there, lest their family and friends suspect them of having "shameful" inclinations (yes, relations "contradicting" the "laws of nature" are illegal in Lebanon, and socially it's not accepted very well either). So, a fee-free beach, free of snobs, whose visit constitutes a kind of defiance for social mores, and in close proximity to ancient ruins? Yay!

You'll forgive me for such faraway shots, but I am aware that being outed is still a very sensitive issue in this country. So for the sake of beach-goers' privacy, I'm afraid these are the only photos I can post. But hey, you can picture it way better yourselves! Swimming in the Mediterranean, by the old port of Byblos, in Lebanon's seemingly endless summer, surrounded by what you could call conventionally super-sexy people, with Roman and Ottoman ruins in the distance... 

Won't be our last visit here, for sure!