Friday, 2 September 2011

Up the road from Baalbek


So, long time readers of BiB might well recall that I have a bit of a thing about Lebanon’s antiquities. Well, we all know about Baalbek, but I recently discovered something that, I’d imagine, all too few of us will have seen… all thanks to my parents’ wanderlust.

Just up the down the road from Baalbek lies a little village by the name of Niha. There’s absolutely nothing remarkable about the town, unless you happen to have a decent guidebook, or an out-of-date copy of The Lonely Planet. Suffice it to say, there’s something quite stunning about the village.

Niha: Point A
Drive through a labyrinthine set of back streets, aided occasionally by a brown tourist information sign, and you’ll come across two temples. Greek in origin if an inscription at the site is to be believed.

This is what you’ll be treated to:









A site few of us will have come across, I’m betting.

However, there’s more to come. A little bit of off-roading, aiming higher into the valley, through some apple orchards and vineyards and you’ll see something stunning. This is what awaits you in the hills above the town:








My only recommendations, drive something a little more robust than our rented Seat Ibiza, and don’t, as I did, go climbing in your sandals.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The hunt continues


A while ago I wrote a piece about my efforts to find the best margarita in Hamra. At the time Colon ranked first by a distance, followed by Dany’s.

However, it’s time I posted a brief update.

Over the last couple of weeks I have retested the offerings at both Dany’s and Bricks (all in the name of social research, I assure you) and have to alter my findings.

Dany’s – At Dany’s there is a certain bartender by the name of Jean. Beyond being an all-round good guy, Jean also mixes a mean margarita. Pretty much spot-on. Provided that Jean is on the bar, Dany’s margarita’s are almost a match for those of Colon.

Bricks – A margarita appears to be a very personal experience. As with Dany’s a certain talented individual can make all the difference. Appalled at my description of the Bricks margarita in my previous post the manager, Jose, took up the challenge. The result? A unique take on the traditional margarita, made with a touch of lemon and a refreshingly different approach to the old classic. Definitely worth a try. Again, ask for Jose.

And now an out-of-Hamra (shock horror) margarita joins the mix:

Carlito’s (Antelias) - Now, I must admit to a certain bias here as my brother-in-law was the bartender in question.

However, Carlito’s (part-owned by the guy who managed Monet’s Pacifico back in the day when it did the best mixed drinks in town – as an aside, a few of the bartenders at Kayan are graduates of the Pacifico school overseen by this guy) margarita was quite exceptional. Simply blended, a mix of sweet and sour, not too much salt, it was a great example of what an extraordinarily simple mixed drink can be if done well.

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As Carlito’s isn’t a Hamra bar, the league table stands as follows:

Colon – Nadim still rules the roost
Dany’s – Provided Jean’s on the bar (Carlito’s would slot in at joint second place)
Bricks – Try out Jose’s alternative blend
Ferdinand / Neighbours – This blog is not responsible for any injuries that occur while sampling margaritas at either establishment

The verdict so far – If you’re looking for a margarita in Hamra, speak to Nadim, an easy-going guy and a talented mixer.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Brit goes to Maameltein


So, on Wednesday night I had my first Maameltein experience.

A good friend of mine is getting married today, so on Wednesday night a group of around 10 guys all met in a Hamra bar before heading up the highway to the red light district of Lebanon.

Now, I’d heard a lot about Maameltein, usually in hushed tones or as the subject of a ribald joke and was looking forward to seeing what all the fuss was about.

At this point I’d like to point out that I’m not a strip club kind of guy. However, I’ve been to a few as a result of stag parties in the UK and the rare drunken decision while out with the boys. But, aside from a light-hearted introduction to the Lebanese club scene at Hamra’s Tiko Tiko (two rounds of 20 USD Almaza, a platter of watermelon – bizarre – and a Russian woman doing the robot dance around a stripper pole), I hadn’t ventured through the doors of a “super nightclub” before.

Boy, was I about to be disappointed.

Now I’ve always been of the opinion that, in the vast majority of cases, strip clubs are profoundly depressing places. The women gyrate away in varying states of undress as older men, as likely as not smoking cigars, salivate freely. The dimly-lit, smoky bar creates an atmosphere that altogether clashes with the pulsating, optimistic beats of the latest chart toppers. The glazed eyes of the women hint that far from being aroused by their companion, they’re actually composing tomorrow’s shopping list as they grind up against the pole or have their thigh stroked.

Maameltein was no different…

We walked through the door and the average age of the clientele dropped by around 20 years. Sitting at tables surrounded by couches were older men, the obligatory cigar and Johnny Walker in hand, while a table of younger, mainly Eastern European, women sat sipping on soft drinks in the center of the room. From time to time one of the women would be beckoned into the presence of a patron whereupon she’d sit down and allow herself to be pawed.

The scene of the crime

We’d been told there was no show on that night but, given the drive from Hamra, we decided to have a drink before deciding on what to do. Several drinks later an impromptu performance started up, with several (clothed, or at least covered) girls heading over to the poles and beginning to dance.

Now, I’m a red-blooded male, but there’s something about a pole dance that really doesn’t do it for me. What was interesting however was the immense strength demonstrated by these tiny women as they reached the top of a 2.5 meter pole, flipped upside and then hung horizontally while moving in vague time with the music. Looking around the table and deciding that the majority of guys in our group would struggle to get over ten pull-ups, it was something of an eye-opener.

However, perhaps the oddest moment of the evening was watching a girl high-kicking away to this. Strange … and not very sexy…

By this stage most of us were getting twitchy. The drinks were weak, the show uninspiring, our fellow club-goers geriatric, the whole environment seedy beyond compare. After offering to pay for the groom-to-be to sit with a girl for half-an-hour and seeing him frantically shake his head we decided to make a move.

We decamped to White where the girls of the group had been ripping it up for around three hours … Needless to say, the “What Happens in Maameltein” rule lasted all of about 30 seconds as our unofficial omerta dissolved in the face of our relief at the end of this almost Tarrentino-esque experience. By far the better part of the night was spent at White … minus the eye-watering bar bill.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Rules of the road


The prospect of driving in Lebanon evokes a keen sense of panic among visitors to the country. It’s loud, chaotic and generally an intimidating experience for the first few days. However, when you get used to it, it’s actually a straightforward exercise, case in point: the roundabout (rondpoint) I drive through every day was initially christened by my father as the “Roundabout of Death”. My wife tells me it’s a form of organised chaos … I fail to see the organization part…

However, there are some cardinal principals to remember and rules to follow:

1. Indicator lights are for the weak. Do not expect your fellow drivers to use them. If they do, it’s done to lull you into a false sense of security whereupon they’ll promptly turn in the opposite direction to which they’re indicting.

2. While driving at night, lights are optional. Consider yourself lucky if the service coming up behind you has a single operational light.

3. Lane markers operate on along similar principles to those in the rest of the world, however instead of driving between the two lines, in Lebanon you should aim to drive along the lines.

4. Learn to change a tire / wheel.

5. Speed bumps are myriad in all residential areas. The optimal distance between speed bumps is about five meters.

6. The local residents will ignore rule 5 in order to practice their off-road talents.

7. Cars with red plates are not cruising for hookers, they’re trying to pick passengers … preferably stupid foreigners.

8. It is considered the ultimate courtesy to roll down your window and play your music as loud as possible, especially in a residential area after 10 PM.

9. Holes in the road breed overnight. You might well be familiar with the potholes on any given road however, come morning there will, without fail, be another. Refer to rule number 4.

10. Learn to drive in the dark (because of this), training with a blindfold might help. 

11. Forget all rules of personal courtesy, it’s a jungle out there. It’s cut-up, or be cut-up. Abide by common decency and you’ll never make it to your destination.

12. Grow a set of eyes in the back of your head. That way you’ll have time to brace for the hit.

13. Scooter / mobilette riders are the Devil. Their favorite game is to ride along on your blind spot and then overtake on the wrong side while cursing at you. Remember, you are bigger than they are.

14. When in a confrontation with another car, judge the value of each vehicle. The person with the more expensive motor has more to lose.

15. Beiruti traffic police are the most ineffectual people I have ever met. Where there’s a long queue of cars, there will be a policeman at the end of it.

*This rant was brought about through losing two tires in the last two months after losing only one in the previous 7 years of driving here.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Roma


The wife and I recently took a short break to the wonderful city of Rome.

Now, I’m not a travel writer by trade, so I’ll skip the recommended itinerary and avoid a list of things to see. The only suggestion I’ll make is to pick up the Lonely Planet, everything else will take care of itself.

However, I will offer some cultural observations, none to serious.

From now on I shall judge every city by the glamour of their municipal workers. Walking along the street one day we came across what could only be described as the most attractive garbage collectors I’ve ever seen in my life - Sukleen in Gucci.

Across from our hotel we saw something that caused me no end of amusement. Condom machines attached to the outside (streetside) wall of pharmacies… Inspired.

Never get caught short again..

Water fountains – Rome was always traditionally blessed with an abundant water supply, which resulted in fountains being built all over the city. People drink from these all the time and one of the most entertaining aspects of people watching is to sit next to a fountain and see who or what turns up…

Let's face it, it's better than the toilet bowl

I thoroughly recommend Rome. It’s a wonderful city. We did a whole host cultural activities beyond dog spotting, checking out municipal workers and laughing over condom machines like twelve-year-olds. Hopefully this shot of the light cast by the oculus in the Pantheon will suffice: 

Yes, I can occasionally take a proper photo