Minibuses, ruins and carpet fires – oh my!

One of the many benefits of W&A’s visit was that they had done way more advance research than we tend to while on the road. And they had English-language guide books! This helped us make two awesome day trips, to Saida and Byblos. Bad luck if you’re not W’s effbook friend and can’t look at his awesome photos and commentary which sum the trips up quite nicely.

Saida

Saida (Sidon) is south of Beirut by about 40km. To get there, you go to Cola Junction “bus station” in Beirut, which is basically a small parking lot next to the highway where a bunch of minibuses converge and leave for various destinations. You show up, find the bus headed for your destination (it’s impossible to *not* find it, since plenty of people will shove you in the right direction), wait for it to fill up, and away you go. It seems like it shouldn’t work at all, or like there should be a major rip off involved, and yet it was relatively painless (getting the cab to the station was probably the most difficult part). Our bus was full pretty much immediately and our driver was pretty serious about getting there in a hurry.

The city feels like a world away from Beirut – older cars, older buildings (without the new build contrasts), smaller streets. At least in the main part where we were. There’s a cool sea castle and awesome old souq that’s vaguely reminiscent of Fez but without the emphasis on bamboozling tourists. We wandered, were shown a few things (and helpfully told when to not go down what looked like an alley but was actually someone’s yard), managed to find a museum and some strawberries to snack on, all before eating possibly the best falafel I’ve ever had in my life.

Byblos

A few days later, while Duncan was at work, W&A and I ventured north of Beirut to Byblos. The principle of getting there was the same, though this time we got a “servis” taxi (cheaper, shared, though we weren’t exactly sure of the right fare so maybe we got ripped off?) to an “international bus station” which was basically the space under an underpass by a highway on-ramp. Quite convenient if you think about it.

Compared to the trip to Saida the bus was a luxury coach. Okay, maybe there was more staring at the start but it was also empty enough that we had way more room – my knee didn’t fall asleep, for example. Which worked out especially well, since partway there traffic slowed to the kind of painful start-and-stop you expect on a long weekend headed out of Toronto on a rainy day when maybe there’s been an accident. Was it a Friday thing? The way traffic normally is, and the trip to Saida was a fluke? An accident?

After what felt like an eternity, I saw some smoke. Then some more smoke. Then HOLYCRAPWHATISUPWITHALLTHATSMOKE????? Black, billowing smoke. I couldn’t see the source, at first. Eventually I could just make out a partially collapsed building that was puking flames right by the side of the road.

After reminding W&A that I didn’t have my passport on me and to please not leave me alone (joking! only joking!), I deployed my classic airplane technique of observing the reactions of those around me. Which were negligible, other than some photo-taking. I asked the young women sitting in front of me if they knew what was going on and after a phone call they reported that it was a carpet factory burning down. This was confirmed on the bus ride back, as the building continued to smolder and burn, and on the front page of the English-language daily the following morning.

Anyway, once we had passed that drama the traffic cleared and we made it to Byblos, which felt rather more pleasant and moneyed than Saida. There is a souq which is  all nicely done up and somewhat more tourist-oriented. There’s also a lovely seaside resto where you pick out your fish before dining al fresco.

Oh, and also a huge area with many, many layers of ruins lying around, partially-explained, in a somewhat-overgrown field. Here some Phoenician stuff, there some Roman, a castle, and an Ottoman house over yonder. Layers over layers, that have been shifted and reconstructed over to the side as excavations continued to the next layer down. You know, nbd, the usual, just with almost no other tourists and amazing views over the sea.

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