Archive for the ‘lebanon’ Category

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.

what $40 buys (or doesn’t buy) you in beirut

July 31, 2010
We arrived in Beirut geared up for a good time, having devoted a tragic amount of online research to ferreting out the best restaurants and bars on offer in the city once known as “the Paris of the East.” Giddy with excitement, we even splurged – wait for it – on a US$40 room. But it soon became clear we were little fish in a big pond, no longer in the truly developing world where even budget travellers are situated disproportionately at the top of the capitalist food chain. As it turns out, in Beirut $40 buys you nothing more than a windowless box with a seatless toilet and such proximity to a drum ‘n’ bass club that we could feel the vibrations through our pillows until 9:30 the next morning. I now feel like I have some insight into what it would be like to be a Guantanamo Bay inmate.
There’s a lot of money being thrown around in Beirut – the Lebanese are apparently notorious for living beyond their means. Ferraris and Land Rovers squeal around corners driven by preened trophy wives with pink spangly Blackberrys glued to their ears. A Filipino nanny seems to be the latest fashion accessory – restaurants advertise half-price meals for yours if you bring her along to mind the little darlings while you lunch – and you can buy Cohibas and Bombay Sapphire at the petrol station. For the first few days, I think we were actually labouring under a certain degree of culture shock. It’s easy to reject the trappings of consumerism when a) there’s nothing on offer that you want to buy, and b) you’re really just pretending that you don’t have much money, knowing that “you could call your dad and he’d stop it all” and you can waltz into the best establishments in town with impunity, solely by virtue of being foreign. It’s not so easy when turbo capitalism is in your face 24/7 and you’re just one of the crowd. For the first time in ages, we felt poor and shabby and it dealt a bit of a blow to our morale. That, and a night glued to the seatless toilet, care of whatever I ate that didn’t agree with me.
Thankfully, it didn’t take us long to find a hotel that included toilet seats in the room rate and to learn to laugh at ourselves again. Reliably informed by Taste of Beirut, we set out for the Souk el Tayeb farmer’s market and had our spirits immediately lifted by homemade arak enthusiasts and the wares of Georgina the Tabbouleh Queen. Actually, if ever there was a case for the benefits of comfort eating, we made it as our mood was buoyed with each bite of everything we’d been missing (roast beef and caramelised beetroot sandwiches; sushi; 70% cocoa Lindt) and everything we quickly grew to love (Armenian spicy sausage; fattouch; anything with zaatar), all washed down with many glasses of crisp, chilled rose. Actually, that might have been what buoyed our mood. It certainly wasn’t my haircut, which I had been so looking forward to and was so disappointed by. Somewhat akin to the haircut I had when I was two years old, I now bear a remarkable resemblance to Julie Bishop.
Still, the way Beirut has risen like a phoenix from the ashes is undeniably impressive. The city’s nightlife is second-to-none – reservations essential at the rooftop clubs that have revellers dancing on the tabletops ’til dawn, sandwiched between the mountains and the Mediterranean – although we could barely afford to sip a few glasses of cheap plonk in the dive-iest of Gemmayzeh’s bars; the renovated downtown area is superbly glamorous although the ghost-like shell of the nearby Holiday Inn, its walls riddled with bullet holes, belies its recent history. Wealthy Lebanese diaspora are returning in droves and we frequently heard American and Australian accents pop up in this comfortably trilingual city.
Thankfully, after a day of dodging Aston Martins and covering up religiously while everyone else on the beach slathers coconut oil on their bronzed, buff bodies, strolling along the Corniche at sunset is free.