Bye Bye, Beirut ~~ December 16, 2017

We woke up in Nazareth this morning, in an old mansion, once owned by a prosperous Christian, now converted to a guest house for tourists and pilgrims.

The last few days have been tightly packed and I was trying to finish a textbook chapter, so that was where all my writing efforts went. No time for blogs.

But…. our last days in Beirut were fabulous. We spent a day with a guide exploring, starting with the Jeita Grotto. We traveled, first on foot, then by boat, only a fraction of the almost six miles of eerie and glowing underworld. Natural caverns rivaled the world’s grandest cathedrals in size, majesty and the ability to bring you to your knees in awe of a power so great that you cannot fathom it.

To say there were stalactites and stalagmites in that cavern is to say the Dead Sea has salt. Navigating the towering pillars and hanging daggers would have been like trying to survive in a dragon’s mouth of hazardous teeth without the carefully laid out concrete paths.

Prehistoric people had lived in these caves but they’d left no scars to tell of their presence. To keep today’s people from climbing and breaking the limestone outcroppings, and to preserve the echoing reverence of the place, they ban phones and cameras. You can see some pictures here.

Next stop was Byblos, a seaside resort. Almost the first thing we saw was a dramatic metal Christmas tree in front of which sat a beautiful metal crèche. From nearby speakers, Bing Crosby sang about white Christmases and red-nosed reindeer.

Found this shop in the souk by the ruins. I didn’t go in. Any explanation would have been disappointing.

The town has been settled by people after people, their towns and buildings swallowed by earthquakes, wind, sand.

The careful hands of archeologists have uncovered and mapped foundations laid by ancient Phoenicians, then Romans, then crusaders, and then the ancestors of the current Lebanese, each layering the trappings of their civilization on the graves of civilizations long gone.

Sometimes the remnants of one become the building blocks of another, granite pillars imported from Egypt repurposed as huge supporting pegs to reinforce Crusader buildings.

Anyway, it was really something, as, I hear, was the next day’s expedition to Baalbek which I missed because of a sore tummy (but by hanging out in the room I did finish a chapter that had been giving me fits so I am happy about that.)

Food pretty much took a back seat those days except that we ate too much of it (see “tummy, sore.”). Big buffets at our hotel, the Phoenicia. Touristy lunches. Exhaustion and maybe room service for dinner.

The one standout meal was really a wonderful thing. Tom had contacted a foreign correspondent from the News Hour whose work he admired and who he knew was based in Beirut. Our first attempt to meet was foiled by her producers who sent her to Jerusalem in expectation of violence following Trump’s recognition of it as Israel’s capital. Our second effort was more successful.

We met her and her partner, a producer for ABC, at Liza, a stunning restaurant in an old restored house in the neighborhood of Achrafea near our hotel. It was nostalgic and lovely, a place out of time.

The romantic ambiance may have been wasted on a group of six meeting for the first time but the food was not. Jane and Matt knew the place well and with their guidance we chose a fantastic meal.

Hummus

Moutabal

Fatouche

Manto dumplings

Grilled Haloumi with tomato jam. Superb!!!

Pumpkin kibbe

Fatayer (which I grew up calling “spinach sfihas”)

Eggplant in yogurt with pine nuts

A mixed grill

Lamb with nuts and dried fruit

A fabulous dessert whose name I totally forget. (ed. to add: it’s called OSSMALIYE). Mascarpone cheese, sticky sweet pastry and dried fruit. Really delicious.

The whole dinner was super. Met two lovely people who taught me tons about a professional world I don’t know, got a peek into the life of an expat, enjoyed hours of conversation and were the last to leave the restaurant, satisfied and happy, in a Lebanese Uber.

Fun times. The next day we toured the city of Beirut with our guide from the previous two days, had lunch, and he dropped us at the airport. You can’t fly to Israel from Lebanon so we laundered ourselves through Amman and arrived in Tel Aviv at 10:00 pm.

The trip to Beirut was really special to me. Being in a place your ancestors knew is strange and comforting, seeing people who look like your old family photos makes it more so. But I didn’t have family to look up or even an actual name to trace, and I left feeling a little let down. I had hoped to feel a more powerful connection, ironically one I feel in Israel, and I did not. I loved Beirut and I hope I can spend some serious time there and get to know it better.

For a first date, it was pretty darn good.

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