Archive for August, 2010

a heat of biblical proportions

August 28, 2010

Jordan has somewhat of a reputation as a worthless sandpit that fortuitously happens to be home to a few of the Middle East’s most amazing attractions. The capital, Amman, is not one of them. To be fair, it’s not exactly held out to be one of the jewels in Jordan’s tourism crown, but it seems that the main way to pass the time is wandering up rubbish-strewn hills in 50 degree heat.*  We spent only two nights in town, long enough for an ATM to eat our card and to watch the mighty Oranje go down to those Toni & Guy-patronising Spaniards. Actually, I should mention that Amman is home to the world’s second tallest flag pole; North Korea takes out the number one spot – make of that what you will. The best time we had was unexpectedly sharing a meal at a crowded local hummus joint with a lovely and vivacious group of local women who took no end of delight in giggling in disbelief at the pictures we showed them of a chubby, cleanshaven Linds on his admission day – “That’s you?!” Invariably, it’s this sort of chance encounter that lodges in the memory as a true highlight. And lodged it has.

 
We did manage to team up with an awkward American and a Japanese pothead to do a day trip out of town. Winding our way through still acacia groves to the baptism site on the Jordan River, we both agreed there was a definite sense of serenity and hallowedness, although Catie still managed to inappropriately blaspheme – woops! – in the heat, which could only be described as having taken on biblical proportions.
 
It was then on to the Dead Sea for a “refreshing” dip which, given the aforementioned heat and shallow depth, was more like bathing in a sweltering oil slick, albeit with the undeniably fun element of irregular buoyancy. The excitement of posing for obligatory “reading the newspaper” photos was clearly too much for me; I promptly splashed seawater in my eyes – I’d been rubbing it on my hairline in a misguided attempt to halt hair loss – which caused temporary blindness and required the wife to tow me to the shore and douse my face with the remainder of our drinking water. 

 
In terms of the region’s tourist magnets, Petra ranks second only to the Pyramids and even a seasoned naysayer like me can’t deny its magnificence – well worth the investment of a multi-day pass. Fearing we may actually perish in the reflected heat of all that stone and sand, we formed a habit of getting down to the site at 7am and calling it quits by midday. Nevertheless, as we retreated each day for felafel and a cool shower, we couldn’t help but stare in disbelief at the busloads of daytrippers from Israel and Egypt arriving in the heat of the day, sans hats, dressed in their finest strapless tops and flimsy footwear. For the sake of the survival of half of Europe, someone really needs to translate the “Slip, Slop, Slap” campaign into French, Spanish and Italian.
 
Suckers for meteorological punishment, we booked on to an overnight 4WD tour of Wadi Rum, which involved us, three Danish lads and a pair of French mademoiselles rattling around the desert in the (mercifully, canopied) tray of a ute. Fairly spectacular, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:

 

* There was a burger at the top, so it was all worth it.

how to have a rather perfect day

August 23, 2010

 

When in Beirut, do as the Beirutis do and get out of town for some beach times. A forty-five minute bus ride will deposit you at the gate of Edde Sands Beach Club. Shuffle down the winding driveway, taking care to dodge the shiny, speeding 4WDs driven by maniacal valets, and arrive at reception trying to look confident – you’re punching well above your weight here. A few minutes later, you’ll be reclining on a sun lounge and calling for the waitstaff to bring you a beer and a club sandwich. If you’re Australian, be prepared to be the only person on the beach not reeking of coconut oil and resembling a rotisserie chicken.

When you’ve had enough of doing very little, shuffle back up the driveway and into the nearby town of Byblos. Survey the tourist tat in the cobblestoned, vine-shaded laneways before making your way to the picturesque harbour for sunset; you might see a frou-frou bride nervously awaiting her entrance to the tiny stone church perched above the water. Inhale and salivate over the smell of other people’s barbeques. If you’re not already skint from paying the extrance fee to the beach club, you can linger for a seafood dinner; if you’re us, you can head back to the highway, flag a bus and snooze all the way back to Beirut.

it was the best of days; it was the worst of days

August 18, 2010


Chasing beer delivery men aside, another highlight of arriving in Lebanon was our return to the land of the grape. We foolishly flirted with a bottle of Syrian plonk, which was tipped down the sink in its entirety mere moments after wrestling the cork out. But unlike their Syrian and Israeli neighbours, Lebanese winemakers have chosen to embrace the “new-fangled” techniques of those “crazy Europeans” and hence, their product has risen above being complete rubbish.

Minor illness and bizarre opening hours thwarted our early attempts to visit some of Lebanon’s lesser wineries so we decided just to shoot for the hottest part of the flame: Chateau Musar. Despite having alluded to our tight-arse backpacker status, so as to avoid disappointment when the inevitable buying part of the visit came around, our tentative email enquiry about a cellar tour elicited a startlingly enthusiastic response and so we decided to move whatever logistical mountains were required to get ourselves up to the small town of Ghazir.

And indeed there was a rather significant mountain to be moved: Lebanese taxi drivers. If there is one group of people against whom we have developed an unabashed prejudice during the course of our travels, it’s taxi drivers. After 15 minutes of explaining that we didn’t want to go to Beiteddine and negotiating an only moderately extortionate price, the whole process had to be repeated once inside the cab as a driver, seemingly a complete stranger to the previous conversation, was assigned to us and attempted to renegotiate the whole deal on the basis that the traffic was bad, it happened to be a day ending in “-y” or because the price of tea in China went up last week. Things didn’t improve when we rounded the corner to make a 10-minute stop so the driver could race inside a faceless building and have a piece of Very Important Paper stamped. I mused that it was probably his parole record. We would have abandoned ship there and then if he hadn’t made off with our guidebook, which I’d recklessly given to him to lean on while he scribbled on the bit of paper, as ransom.

After finally getting on the road and explaining for the umpteenth time that we wanted to visit Jeita Grotto after visiting the winery, it became clear that the driver had no idea where we were going. Cue a ridiculous series of stops to ask a motley parade of local characters for directions – a mechanic at the petrol station; a lady with a pram; a young woman at a juice stall wielding a paring knife and, even more dangerously, an enormous pair of breasts – united only by their complete and inexplicable ignorance of the whereabouts of one of Lebanon’s finest and most proud establishments, housed in a large castle in the centre of a very small town which, trust me, has nothing much else to recommend it. Accusations started flying from the driver that no such place existed until we drove back through the centre of town and spotted a sign directing us 500m up the hill. Our animated pointing at the sign prompted the driver to then park the car under the watchful gaze of said sign, as though this was our intended destination, until we did some more animated pointing up the hill.

Despite being forty minutes late for our appointment, we were very graciously received and immediately transported to a wine wonderland. Atmospheric stone cellars and a very good product aside, the history of the winery is undoubtedly its most impressive aspect. You’d be hard pressed to find much written about Chateau Musar that doesn’t mention the steadfastness of the Hochar family during the civil war. Amazingly, they stood guard over their remarkable cellar – which contains bottles from every vintage since the winery’s inception in 1930, for the owners’ personal tasting or to be sold only on application to the owners themselves – at the winery’s HQ and continued production right through those nightmare years.

Even if what you were drinking didn’t have such a background, it would still stand up as one of the classics of wine making. Everything about the Chateau Musar operation is uncompromisingly old world, which manifests in the wine itself. For the amateur Australia wino, it shocks with its near total difference from the big, juicy fruit that is the cliche and reality of many Australian wines. Their flagship red is a blend of cinsault, carignan and cabernet sauvignon; savoury, gamey and grown-up, it’s great stuff.

We were pulled down off our cloud the moment we stepped outside; our driver immediately engaged in another attempted renegotiation of the fee based, I presume, on the extra time and distance consumed by getting lost. We dug our heels in, which provoked a string of the sort of vitriol that transcends language barriers and fist-shaking of unprecedented magnitude. Faced with the prospects of being punched in the face, abandoned on a Lebanese highway or stuck in the car with this lunatic driver any longer than absolutely necessary, we called off the detour to Jeita and shut up, making for a fairly tense journey back to Beirut. Stuck in traffic not far from our hotel, we seized the moment to thrust forward our payment and escape down a side street to seek refuge in the loving arms of an Armenian sausage sandwich.

After writing this, I now feel the need to go take a cool shower and have a lie-down. My rage has been further fuelled by the discovery, in the course of searching links for this post, of a map on the Chateau Musar website that not only details the cellar’s location but also confirms that we could very easily have taken a bus there. But then we wouldn’t have really earned that sausage sarnie, would we?

beer notes # 34

August 13, 2010


961 Red Ale Lebanon 5.5%

961 Traditional Lager Lebanon 5.2%

Is this is what I have become – the sort of person who stalks beer delivery men?

Thanks to the tragic amounts of research previously mentioned, 961 – a microbrewery named, I think, after the country code for Lebanon – was earmarked as a priority beverage target. I should have known better than to trust their hip yet remarkably uninformative website; after two hours of combing the street in the blazing sun, the target (in the form of the brewery’s eponymous bar) remained at large.

This isn’t the first time we have endured the elements in search of a Dodd folly, so I remained only slightly deterred. Meanwhile, we adopted a local cafe, Bread Republic, as our HQ and it was here that I noticed a stubbie of the elusive brew in the fridge. An unusually competent waitress informed me that while the bar had closed due to its financially premature opening, the brewery was still battling on albeit with supply issues due to a recent relocation of their brewing operations. Encouraged – not that I needed it – by this information, I ordered said stubbie of 961 Traditional Lager and it was a few days later that I chased the beer delivery man down the street as I saw him lugging a carton of Red Ale into a nearby corner store.

In somewhat of an anticlimax, this beer actually caused me to plunge into a sort of existential beer crisis, realising that it had been so long since I’d sampled a decent beer that I was now having trouble identifying one, no longer able to distinguish between “good” and “trying too hard.” I think the Traditional Lager falls into the latter category – funky citrus and yeast, it’s anything but an industrially produced larger, just a pity it’s not much chop. The Red Ale is more successful, a straight amber ale with nice hops and simple structure.