So, continuing with my account of our summer trip to the Levant, it's time to share a bit of the days after the opening of the exhibition I+I=US...
THE CEDAR AND THE CUP OF COFFEE
What's a trip to Lebanon without seeing cedar trees? Of course, the fact that cedar forests suffered extensive deforestation in the past means that you just don't wander into them. You have to visit cedar reserves. Or, in our case, you travel ever higher up past valleys and Druze villages on narrow, twisting and at times hair-rising tiny roads in an overly long bus, until you reach the Maasser el Chouf Biosphere Reserve (معاصر الشوف), on the slopes of Barouk mountain...
And then, once the fun thoughts of your bus plunging off the road and down the mountain have been left behind, you simply enjoy. The old cedars. The growing new ones. The cool air. The strange big round purple flowers. The view of the valleys in the distance. Peace. Nature. So incredibly worth the trip up there!
Strangely, our next stop was also to enjoy nature, but from being high up in the mountains now we were down in a valley, at Moukhtara (مختارة) surrounded by waterfalls, rich green moss, ponds, and even rainbows thanks to the cascades and the sun. It seems pretty obvious to me, but maybe it's not so for everybody: Lebanon may have dry areas, but it also has plenty of water, and the places where there's water are amazing. And if, on top of that, you can enjoy mezze (Lebanese entrées), soaked almonds on ice, and coffee and narguileh (hookah) with some very friendly locals, could you ask for more?
Well, no, you couldn't ask for more. But we sure did get more! We still visited the palace of Beiteddine (قصر بيت الدين), or at least we saw it from outside, because we arrived late. But not too late to enjoy the beautiful architecture of the entrance gate and a fountain next to it...
And we still visited Deir el Qamar (دير القمر), a town whose name translates as Temple of the Moon, where we just wandered and explored the delightful 16th century alleys. We had been to this town before, but this was the first time we had wandered labyrinthine back alleys. It was here too, while enjoying a drink, that we saw news of a terrible suicide attack in a Shiite area of Beirut... a dark reminder of the tensions developing in poor Lebanon due to Syria's unrest, and also a reminder of how people have learned to shrug these terrible experiences off and carry on with their lives. But still, the contrast, from ancient alleys to a TV screen with fire and destruction...
But, like I said, in the Lebanon, life moves on, always. And so we finally arrived to the day's last stop, at the house of one of our friends, in the mountains. And we enjoyed what had become a staple: interesting people, good (and somewhat crazy) conversation, the best food (and all grown in their fields! those fields are magical, the produce the best, sweetest, juiciest, most delicious produce!), and the best coffee, by an olive tree. Pure bliss. I felt really lucky, and almost undeserving.
THE NORTH AND THE NUN
On another day we explored the north. We would have loved to visit Tripoli (I would have killed for their kaak bread sprinkled with sumac!), but things were too unstable up there. But we got pretty close! We stopped north of a town called Batroun by a pretty cove with fish and shellfish so fresh that it kept vibrant, variegated colours (me, the vegan, observed and munched on the vegetarian stuff, but even I could not ignore the beauty of the day's catch). The sun, the sea, the small beach... it was so 70's-Lebanon-jet-set-y!
But the best part came afterwards, further north, north of the town of Anfeh. A monastery. So little visited you find precious little information about it: Our Lady of Natour (دير سيدة الناطور). Guarded by ONE nun, and one soldier. Its beautiful colourful orthodox murals with Arabic writing, its isolation and peace, the views of the salt flats beyond and the Mediterranean, the sunset... This was one strange, mystic place (yeah, hear me, the atheist! but there's something to antiquity and calm and sunsets).
Finally, we stopped by one of our favourite towns, one of the world's oldest ports, Byblos (جبيل). But it was night already. And so we just walked a bit around its cobblestone streets (we were just plain dead tired, you know? such a country full of history!).
THE POSH, THE GAY, THE BOOBS
Lebanon is way, way more than traditional food, and churches, and mosques, and nature... Lebanon is also the land of ultra posh bars at the rooftops of expensive hotels (and with Lebanon's weather, you can really use a rooftop some 330 days of the year) where you can show off your ultra expensive attires and tastes (us, mere mortals, were sort of smuggled in by our way cooler friends).
Lebanon (well, Beirut) is also the place for gays in the Middle East (well, I mean, not including Israel), with gay bars and an ever more visible LGB population that is actually making progress in denouncing backward laws, backward police treatment and backwards attitudes. Bars where, by the way, one can quite ascertain Lebanon's more than fair share of human beauty. Of course, I'm can't out any unwilling subjects, right? Therefore the people-less photo of Bardo, one of the more popular places. But still. Fun!
And since we've gone from partying to gays, why not turn to boobs? For a sweet friend of ours took us to a funny little shrine-cave in the area of Mar Mikhail: the Cave of Our Lady of the Miraculous Boobs (مغارة سيدة البزوز العجائبية). No, the sign in Arabic doesn't say breasts, or bosom, it says boobs (or tatas, or anything of similar impact in your dialect). Pretty neat, I'd say! And, by the way, the cave was walking up a colourful series of steps! I love this side of Beirut, the smaller, twisting streets, the hills, the steps, the corners with surprises and secrets!
And talking about secrets, Beirut is also the place to find Frosty Palace, a small, atmospheric (American 60's style) burger parlour where the trick lies in that the owner prepares only what she herself would like, with only ingredients she herself would eat ("Mushrooms? No, I don't like to eat them, therefore we don't have them"), which results in a delicious menu that she's prepared with all her heart, in a place that she's devoted countless time to make her own. So, yes, stylish burgers in Beirut? Definitely.
And burgers lead to a certain need for exercise (or at least they should?)... Our friend took us to one of Lebanon's oldest, most famous gyms, the Olympic Club! Old photos, tons of old equipment, still serving a rather small community of bodybuilders (though briefly, the gym was soon to close down, permanently).
ODDS AND ENDS?
This has become a very long post. But then again, that was one intense trip. In those few days in the middle of our stay my husband still had an interview with the media (hurray!), and I got to see plenty of beautiful old Lebanese houses. And we even passed by our favourite falafel place in all of Beirut, M/ Sahyoun! Although we had such a busy schedule (and we were already suffering from the "I can't stop feeling full anymore" syndrome) that we never got to grab another one for old times' sake.
OK, almost done! Just two more posts about this trip!