Criss-crossing the Paris of the East: Part 2 – The North

This is part 2 of 3 in my series about my 2018 trip to Lebanon. For other parts click below:

Part 1 – Beirut & Bekaa Valley
Part 3 – The South

Day 3: Going north – Tripoli and Byblos

No rest for the weary, and so early next morning I ventured to the Kola-junction which is the central public transport hub in Beirut, a trip slightly more difficult than normal because of the Beirut marathon taking place at the same time, meaning that all the main streets around my hotel was closed down. Finding a taxi at a backstreet, I still managed to reach the Kola-junction.

My targets for the day was the northern towns of Tripoli (known as Trablus locally) and Byblos (Jbeil locally). Tripoli is the second largest city in the country, and is close to the northern border with Syria. It is one of the cities that has a particularly bad reputation as armed conflict still erupts here from time to time between warring factions supporting different sides in the Syrian civil war. Entire neighborhoods are essentially fighting each other, and they are not places for tourists to enter. All travel to Tripoli is generally advised against by foreign governments because of the danger of being caught up in shoot-outs, and the city is also markedly poorer than Beirut – there being many big slums. Nevertheless the reputation wasn’t enough to scare me entirely away, there’s still peaceful parts of town with sights worth seeing, and my natural curiosity also lead me on. I wanted to see and experience what the city had to offer, and how the lives of the people there forms.

I was of course a little agitated, and anxious, as this was definitely the most “daring” city I had visited yet in all my travels, and it definitely didn’t help that most of the people who boarded the minibus were soldiers in uniform, going to Tripoli to be stationed off. At one point there were 6 soldiers, 2 local civilians and me in the bus. The mood was thus set. The drive to Tripoli is fairly nice, going along the coast all the way north, and it takes about 1,5 hours when the traffic is clear. Upon arrival I first exchanged some euros, and as it would later turn out, I was somehow tricked out of 100 euros here, but I didn’t notice before I was back in Beirut again. After being stuck up on money again, I ventured into the city to explore a bit. The trend from the bus, of me being the only tourist, was repeated in the city – I didn’t see a single other tourist for essentially my whole stay in the city, with one exception which i’ll get back to later. The locals even peeked looks at me like I was some crazy guy for coming to their city. The military presence was even more obvious than in Beirut, and in general the atmosphere had a certain amount of anxiety and suspense to it. Not willing to back out, I found the bazaar and sat down for a cup of tea. As it started to dawn on me that really this city was no different than any others, the mood became lighter. After the tea I walked along the main river of the town, which splits the old part of town from the 2 main clashing neighborhoods.

These neighborhoods stacking up across the river like Brazilian favellas, made up of immense poverty and slum. It was somehow interesting to walk along the river and stare into the neighborhoods on the other side, but still with some sense of feeling like a walking target. Nothing of course ever happened, and I reached the end of the road, and returned, heading up into the hills and the old Tripoli Castle overlooking the warring neighborhoods.

Outside the fortress were multiple armored vehicles and even a tank with groups of soldiers standing guard. It was clear that the officials took no chances with the castle being a very vulnerable target, sticking up isolated on the hill. The castle is still open for tourists, but there weren’t anybody there. Only just as I entered did another foreigner stumble along – the first I had seen all day. It was young Irish guy, probably around my age, and also alone. We quickly engaged in conversation and continued to tour the castle together. As it turned out, he was a guy with a lot of experience traveling to volatile regions, having been to both Pakistan and Afghanistan among others. He said he enjoyed visiting the more dangerous places where normal people don’t come, so once again my anxiety about being in Tripoli was being fed.

As we toured the castle, we eventually reached the tower with a view of the old city, which is located in a valley down from  the castle, and it just stretches as far as the eyes can see in all directions, a big sprawling mass of bazaars and houses. There was a soldier patrolling around, who told us to stop taking photos of the view of the old city. For what reason I know not, but I can guess that they don’t want people to be able to make attack plans? With him out of sight though, we still managed to snap some photos of the impressive sprawling city-scape.

When we finished in the castle, we journeyed down into the old city, finding the main mosque, the Mansouri Great Mosque. Afterwards we parted ways as he wanted to go have lunch while I continued my city tour. He had multiple days in the city, while I was on a fairly tight schedule.

From the old city, I took a taxi out to the modern part of town right along the beach-front. This district is called the “al-Mina” district, and it consists of a sprawl of modern hotels and skyscrapers, a Corniche, amusement parks, sand beaches, and even some islands offshore connected with walking bridges, where there’s animals and more. Al-Mina is quite a contrast to the mess and conflict of the rest of Tripoli. I walked along the Corniche, mixing with all the locals, because even here, in what would definitely be a tourist haven in any other city, I was still the only foreigner to be seen.

After spending a little time here relaxing, I found my way back to the bus station and jumped on a bus to Byblos. While my time in Tripoli (some 4-5 hours total) was peaceful and actually rather nice, I was still relieved to get out of the city, because it can’t be denied that the reputation and atmosphere of the city does cause some levels of anxiety for a rookie traveler.

The trip to Byblos takes a mere 30-40 minutes, but when you arrive from Tripoli, it is like arriving in an entirely different world. Because unlike Tripoli which is deserted of tourists, Byblos is one of the tourists hotspots of the country, and immediately you’re met by hordes of tourists in the streets. The reason why tourists flock to Byblos, is because of its ancient history as a Phoenician town (a history shared by Tripoli by the way!), which means that there’s a multitude of ruins of castles, temples, buildings etc. that are mostly still well preserved. It is located in a nice bay area, with a fantastic view of the Beirut skyline far off in the distance, and the hills behind Byblos, that are settled and thus makes for an impressive sight of habitation all around. And finally, most importantly, Byblos does not have a reputation as a dangerous city. That really helps.

The main sight of Byblos is the Byblos Castle and surrounding excavation sites. The castle is a beautiful legacy of Phoenician architecture, and the castle has been rebuilt to much of its former glory. There’s plenty to see in the castle, and the various towers offers amazing 360 views of the whole area. Around the castle are smaller excavations, and some beautiful nature, and it is definitely worth it to stroll around the castle grounds for a bit, soaking in the ocean view, taking in the Beirut skyline in the horizon, and marveling at the hills behind the city.

The entrance to the whole complex lies at the end of the tourist bazaar, which also offers a good atmosphere when walking around the classical Lebanese buildings, IF it weren’t for the unending hordes of tourists flooding the streets. It can be rather obnoxious, and at times I would’ve preferred the relative calm of Tripoli even.

Thus I quickly departed from the bazaar and headed off to a monument for the Armenian genocide. Ever since visiting Armenia for the first time, I’ve had a special interest in  everything Armenian, and actively try to visit genocide memorials and Armenian churches in the countries I visit. But as it would turn out, this one would be extra special to me. It wasn’t just a regular memorial, but also a museum for the Armenian orphanage, which was  established here by a Danish woman, Maria Jakobsen in the 1920’s. I had first heard about Maria Jakobsen during my first visit to Armenia, as she is highly revered among Armenian people for her great effort in saving thousands of Armenian orphans. Sadly she is unknown in the danish consciousness. It was quite a nice surprise to learn that not only was one of her old orphanages located here, but she herself is also buried there. The place is called “The Birds Nest”. The museum was disappointingly deserted of tourists, even though it isn’t far off from the crowded tourist bazaar, but as the curator did say, this kind of museum is not for everyone, and it does take a certain interest for people to visit.

The museum has a standard, but beautiful, exhibition regarding the Armenian genocide, and the struggle which the Armenian people underwent. Furthermore an exhibition about orphans in particular and the history of the Birds Nest was also on display, and finally a small exhibition honoring the life of Maria Jakobsen herself.

When the museum curator learned that I was a Dane, who had a great interest in Armenia, and had actually visited the country, he invited me into his office for a chat and some more stories, which was very nice and heartwarming. He even offered to join me on my trip back to Beirut. So we took the bus back together, and chatted the entire way, which was quite a while because we got stuck in the Beirut rush hour traffic.

I can only recommend for people who are going to Byblos to not skip out on visiting the Birds Nest. It is a touching exhibition, and a great testament to one of the great crimes of humanity. It must not be forgotten.

Back in Beirut, I went back to al-Hamra, found a place to eat and also enjoyed a shisha while processing all the impressions and memories from the day. Sadly it also became clear to me that I had managed to catch a cold, as my nose and throat was feeling strange, and eventually during the night my nose started running. Just my luck.

Day 4: Slight return north – Jounieh and Harrisa

Not wanting to be beaten by a mere cold, I headed back north, but not very far north. The main goal of the day was to visit the Jeita Grotto, which is a massive cave system, often listed as one of the top sights to not miss out on while in Lebanon. As it turned out however, the Jeita Grotto was closed on this day, so I did indeed miss out. Bad planning. Instead I went straight to the second site of the day, Harrisa. Harissa is located in the hills behind the town of Jounieh which itself is located halfway between Beirut and Byblos, and it has a big statue called “Our Lady of Lebanon”, which is a big statue of a lady, much like the Statue of Liberty. Climbing up into the statue, you get an absolutely epic view of the whole Jounieh bay area, and beyond, since the statue is located high up in the hills. You can see the entirety of Beirut very clearly, the giant urban sprawl along the coast all the way up to Byblos and much more. It is without a doubt one of the best view points in the entirety of the country.

Right next to the statue are a few big churches scattered across the hills. It is very clear that Jounieh is a majority christian town. Another thing Jounieh has, is Super Night Clubs, which are basically strip-clubs. And in general plenty of clubs and sexualized and alcoholized street commercials. It was a little unusual to see these at first.

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Having been hit quite hard by the cold by now, I was not in the mood for more adventures, and anyways had a meeting with a friend in Beirut later in the afternoon, so I ventured back to Beirut.

My meeting with my friend was great, I hadn’t seen her in 3 years since my first visit to Armenia, so the reunion was long awaited. Even my cold couldn’t get in the way it. Brownies is a good cure for being ill, haha! My friend also offered me some anti-cold pills, which she claimed would kill my cold easily, unfortunately it didn’t. That night was just spent in my hotel room resting, and trying to kill my cold through medicine, orange juice and self-pity.

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This is part 2 of 3 in my series about my 2018 trip to Lebanon. For other parts click below:

Part 1 – Beirut & Bekaa Valley
Part 3 – The South

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