Picked up at 8 in my private car to go to Beirut, but first I’d be making a stop in what has been described as quite possibly the finest Crusader Castle in the world – Qala’at Al Hosn (crac des chevaliers).
Unlike my cheerful and informative driver of yesterday, todays spoke no English, and made it quite clear that, but his initial ‘welcome welcome’, no conversation would take place. And so we set off on the 2 hour drive to crac des chevalier in silence, stopping for the predictable gas tank fill (why they always seem to do it after they pick you up as though they couldn’t afford it before is beyond me. Perhaps they can only fill up when they are on a tour – a show of success perhaps in getting some tourist money in). He filled the greedy mercedes up to the hilt, but the cost was still a fraction of what I’d spent on the ‘tour’. We stopped briefly for a tea in the middle of a downpour, which the driver nicely bought for me, and we huddled like trekkers braving the elements by the little tea and coffee van and supped the scorching tea, a real joy on such a miserably cold day. It reminded me of cold drives through the English countryside, the muddy greens and browns of the surrounds very reflective of Blighty’s general national mood at the moment. Not even the colourful hope of a flower breaking through to cheer.
We climbed up high through a cascading village to reach this foreboding looking castle. It was 150SRP in, and well worth it. Impeccably preserved, you could quite easily imagine it looking exactly the same over 800 years ago when it was completed in the 12th Century by the Knights Hospitaller who had replaced the First Crusaders. The castle was indeed an impenetrable fortress, and was never breached. Of course, the Christians were retreating in huge numbers after Jerusalem was lost, and the garrison of 2000 was down to 200 as the castle was surrounded by the armies of Islam, and the Crusaders, with no hope of success, somehow negotiated safe passage to Tripoli. The Arabs took over the castle, as can be seen with the carvings of Islamic geometric designs on the structures on the upper levels of the Gothic and Romanesque architecture. I was free to roam everywhere, nothing cordoned off, no unsightly orange tape nor signs forbidding entry. This was the finest castle I’d ever explored. It reminded me of a castle I went to in the north of England on a school trip, where we had to run around a fantastic castle in the barren moors trying to complete a treasure hunt, on a day with very similar weather patterns – moody sky, chilly wind, the sun teasing the castle occasionally with a glimmer of light then snatching it away before anyone could catch it, as you might tease a kitten with the reflection from your watch.
I explored the dark stables, skirted the outer walls, teetering dangerously close to the edge, and penetrated the inner quadrant. Though sparse and having been stripped of decoration, it was an atmospheric place, and as I strode through the historic corridors and up and down cold stone steps, observing the strong stone architecture and the slit windows that made perfect vantage points, I was suddenly reminded of the hit Kevin Costner movie: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and my steps quickened as I raced to save Marian from the clutches of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Then I stopped my silly fantasies, and began to think that a travel companion might not be a bad idea, as it had now been almost a month of travelling alone, and my imagination was running away with me. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the views from the top of the castle were spectacular, emerald green hills dotted with little villages It started pissing it down, so I returned to my 70s detective throwback-looking driver in his black leather jacket, cords and black shoes, sporting a bushy black moustache and slicked back hair speckled with silver. He was a 70s Dr Watson to my Sherlock Holmes character – but the ground of crac des chevaliers wasn’t giving up its clues so easily, so we had to leave.
We drove now to the checkpoint, and the man had clearly done all this before. He barged his way to the front of the queue, shook a lot of hands with other ‘fixers’, and I was stamped out of Syria in less than 10 minutes. Entry to Lebanon was similarly efficient. The man knew everyone. Thanks to him, I sailed through immigration. We were in Lebanon.
I was really looking forward to Lebabon. One of the world’s smallest countries (half the size of Wales) of just over 4 million people (although Palestinian refugees and UN workers boost that number) roughly split into a 50:50 of Muslims and Christians on the Mediterranean, with a chequered past of religious, political and social turmoil. Still, it is said that Lebanon is safe enough at the moment (though still on most countries’ lists of places only to travel to if absolutely essential), and the Lebanese an immensely proud people, proud of the beauty of their land, the fact that you can ‘snowboard in the morning in the mountains and lie on a beach in the afternoon’ , the diversity of its people (18 offical religions apparently ) and the optimism that makes up the national psyche. I’d heard a lot about forward-thinking Beirut, and a lot about the beauty of this city and its surrounds, and I was sure I was going to enjoy time in Beirut and around.
We drove through Tripoli and on to Beirut. The first view as we skirted the Mediterranean was nothing short of impressive. Beirut had a pearly whiteness about it, and the skyscrapers and tower blocks from afar looked like a set of teeth subjected to a dentist’s clean. So different from the sandy drabness of other cities I’d visited recently….my other favourite Mediterranean city, Alexandria, could do with a polish….though that would take away from the antique charm of the place I suppose. Coming into Beirut then, I knew immediately I’d like the place, I could feel its positive vibes, its energy, the same vibes I’ve felt in exciting cities around the world from Havana to Caracas to Tokyo to Madrid.
After the Amman to Damascus fiasco, I expected similar scenes, and again there was a changeover of cars. My fixer went as far as Beirut Port, where a battered old taxi was conveniently waiting. I grew hostile, refusing to get in and threatening to walk off. The tattooed and thoroughly roguish driver showed me his tariff – $13 to town. I expected this to be double the amount it really is. I was in a bad position, with neither dollars nor Liban Pounds, but, conveniently, there was a moneychanger right here,as though set up just for people like me so they could give me a rubbish exchange rate. I exchanged my remaining Syrian pounds, and then, looking around and not fancying my options, I decided just to go with the mini-scam.
I got in the battered car moodily and slammed the door. As we drove, the driver predictably tried to steer me to some of his commission-giving hotels, but I claimed I’d booked the Embassy Hotel, in Hamra. We got to Hamra, but, infuriatingly, he dropped me off at a store called ABC. Embassy. ABC. They do sound the same, but I grew even more pissed off with him, uncharacteristically for me, and ordered him to drive around and find the Embassy Hotel. He asked someone, then stopped at a corner and pointed me in the direction of hotel. “Embassy” he lied. I told him I was going to have a look before I paid him. It wasn’t the Embassy, of course, it was the ‘Tulip’ – a flash 4 star place. I got in the car and told him to find Embassy. He was really pissed off now. “$30!!!” he screamed. “Stop here!” I yelled back, and gave him $20, demanding $7 back. He gave it back in Liban pounds, and only 5,000 at first, half of what I was owed, but I’d already worked it out from the tariff the conversion, so I demanded the rest, and he reluctantly gave me 5,000 more. I got out and found the Embassy Hotel myself. On reflection, I’d been a little too pissed off and agitated. Like anyone, he had to earn money and I feel I was too harsh. My bad. Perhaps the Amman – Damascus route had got me on extra guard after the amount of scams they’d tried to pull there.
I walked up and down the street, clean, with one way traffic, and flanked by modern shops, banks and hotels, and eventually found the Embassy. I checked in. A 3 star place. $70 a night. Expensive, but Beirut isn’t a cheap city by any means. It had a good central location. Hamra is one of the most buzzing districts in Beirut, full of bars, shops, restaurants and clubs. On the main street alone I could see Starbucks, Zara, McDonalds, Rodeos, Armani….I was out of the anti-capitalist anti-Western influence bubble of Syria, and now in the thick of a city with a passion for material things from America and Europe, a place with a desire for a materialistic lifestyle, material girls and material boys in designer clothes and sunglasses, high heels, short skirts, perfect hair…Hamra street looked like one long catwalk. People here are beautiful and sexy, pretentious yet not arrogant….they wear their status with pride, but don’t rub it in your face. Yes, this is a city where ringing ahead to reserve a good table in a restaurant or bar is an indication of success…where the amount of SUVs driven by both men and women far outnumbers the Ladas or any other vehicle, where Filipino and African maids cater to the little ones while mommy tries on that figure-hugging Prada dress. They are a fun-loving, hard-working, hard-playing, hard-drinking, hard-dancing bunch of charmers, and nobody can say they don’t deserve to be. Beirut was once described as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ in the 60s, full of international party people and private yachts, before the 1975 Civil War ended that dream. In 1991, the shattered economy began rebuilding, and the negative energy of grief over the deaths of the tens of thousands was turned to hard work and transforming the city to try to make it once again the glorious city if was. Of course, as recently as 2006 trouble has been very prominent, with the Israel-Hezbollah offensive devastating the southern suburbs of Beirut. Still, the private yachts are back, construction is everywhere, swish seaside condominiums are springing up the length the of the Corniche, alongside 5 star hotels and the obligatory Hard Rock Cafe. And the Beirut of today is a fantastic mix of crazy traffic on clogged streets, world class bars, surgically-enhanced breasts under skimpy bikinis in the beach clubs, internationally-renowned galleries and museums, glitzy shopping malls, assassinations, political demonstrations and possibly the warmest people in the Middle East. Some fear Beirut, others feel free here. It’s certainly more interesting than most cities I’ve been to recently. The amount of construction by the waterfront is amazing. I used to think Singapore was a place with more construction cranes per square kilometre than anywhere on earth. I was wrong. The unprecedented economic boom means that construction is everywhere. Echoes of the old Beirut remain – The Holiday Inn which towers naked on the waterfront, has been long-abandoned and is peppered with bullet holes – reminders of the civil war when it was used by snipers. In front of the Holiday Inn a new hotel has been built – a much grander place appropriately named ‘Phoenix.’ For this is a city which would rather look to the future and forget the past, leave it behind, forgotten about, like the Holiday Inn. Never have I felt such energy and optimism in a place.
I wandered down to the lovely Corniche to feel the Mediterranean breeze on my face. It’s a lovely place, wide, clean, full of old men fishing, young lovers copulating, fitness freaks jogging, cycling and rollerblading. Yes, the atmosphere is right in this place. I strolled around, then loaded up on beer and crisps and toiletries before heading back to the hotel for a power hour. I went out in Monet street after dinner in a nice Italian, and my first stop was the Greedy Goose, an English-style pub. I had 2 bottles of Almazer, and then went out to a cool bar called Hole in the Wall. The music kept me there for 3 beers – it was a cool and unpretentious place – in the middle of a very upmarket pretentious area. I then tried to get into a couple of clubs, only to be knocked back with a ‘sorry, private party’ – a polite way of saying – ‘no weird loners in here please. Fuck off!’ I decided to try my luck elsewhere and got a taxi to the most famous club in Beirut – BO18, set in an underground bunker. It was fairly quiet, and I got talking to a couple of lesbians who frequent the place. They told me I should have gone to Germanges first, then Monot, then Basement. Then BO18. Oh, of course. Apparently, that’s ‘the route.’
Met a friendly gay chap and his 3 beautiful friends too, one of whom, in a bizarre coincidence, had a mother from Slaithwaite, Huddersfield, and spoke with a Yorkshire accent, though she’s never actually been to Slaithwaite. I told her she wasn’t missing much, and Beirut was almost certainly a better night out. Then again, how should I know? I’ve only ever been to Slaithwaite to play against their football team, maybe it’s a really kicking night out down the ‘Slaithwaite Arms.’ The gay guy was being flirtatious, but it was only after 2 hours, after he’d led me through the dancefloor by the hand to meet his friend in what I thought must be the order of things in Beirut, that I told him I really fancied his friend, the Victorias Secret model. “You’re not gay?” he said, absolutely horrified. “No, sorry” I apologized, I don’t know why it came out like an apology. “Oh my God….all this time I thought you were gay!” he trilled. I kind of took it as a complement. There are a lot of good-looking blokes in Beirut. “Go! Go and get my friend. Go get her!” he screamed, pushing me in the direction of his beautiful friend. I was intercepted however, by a Beirut bloke who looked like he’d stepped straight off the cover of Esquire. Thank God, I wasn’t ready to make a fool of myself anyway. I’d only come here for the party.
The roof of the club opened, and we all danced under the stars, Lebanese beauties everywhere. Fuck me, Beirut is a sexy city. I left and went back to my hotel via a cool little hot dog stand, where I had the best hot dog since me and Vero had one after a night out in Caracas. Better than a McGriddle and hash brown, that’s for sure. A great start to Beirut!