At the beginning of July last year, Richard and I went on a 'mini-cruise' from Limassol to some Greek islands, to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. During the trip, the ship bumped the side of a dock and we lost a day's visits and excursions while waiting for a safety check. In compensation, we were given a voucher for 50% off any two- or three-day mini-cruise this year, other than in July and August. Not much use to the majority of people, who had to fly to Cyprus in order to join the cruise, but ideal for us! However we probably wouldn't have got around to claiming it if we hadn't learned that two sets of our friends had booked one going to Lebanon and Syria for the end of May. So we decided to go too. Knowing that our house sale in Birmingham was complete made an extra reason to celebrate! Tim decided he would rather stay home and house/cat-sit.
We left Friday mid-afternoon, and boarded the Louis Lines ship 'Serenade' around 5pm. We and our friends had asked to eat our evening meal at the early (7pm) sitting; none of us like eating late anyway, and there were three children under 10 with us. The food was excellent, as last time, as was the dining room and the service. Plenty of choice in the menu, including vegetarian options, and we could all have four-course meals (appetiser, soup, main course, dessert). The children, who weren't keen on food from the menu, were able to have chicken nuggets and chips instead. The ship sailed overnight.
On the Saturday, our friends had all agreed to visit a mutual friend who lives in Lebanon, but Richard and I decided to have a day to ourselves as we were both pretty tired and gradually unwinding from the stress of our UK house sale. So we spent a fair amount of day on the deck, relaxing and reading, and looking at the city. If you click the picture below to see the bigger version, you'll see a modern mosque with four minarets nestling amongst the high-rise blocks.
In the morning we used a port taxi to go into Beirut, where Richard showed me some of the places he had stayed on his previous visits for work, and we browsed some of the shops. It's a busy, crowded city, which reminded me somewhat of Athens (in Greece).
There are three languages spoken in Lebanon: Arabic, French and English, and we saw signs in all three. I was surprised to see quite a few bookshops, considering how few there are in Cyprus. It seems that the Lebanese read considerably more than Cypriots. Of course most books were in Arabic. I was excited for a moment when I saw this sign:
But, sadly, despite the English notice all the books on sale were in Arabic.
The shops were a complete mixture of Eastern and Western, old and new. We saw up-to-date shops with computers and other technology, mobile phones, DVD players and so on. We also saw quite a few shops with Arabic crafts, and amazingly ornate chandeliers such as this one:
After we had exhausted several streets of shops we decided to walk to the sea, but it turned out to be much further than Richard had thought, so we went back, as we had arranged to meet our taxi driver at 12.30. Only official port taxis would be able to return us to the ship, so we couldn't just hail one of the many that roamed the streets looking for custom. On the way back we saw this incredible ancient tree with ariel roots:
As for where we had agreed to meet the taxi driver... it was that ultimate modern American institution, which I have never before been inside, despite one in Larnaka:
Since we had quarter of an hour spare, we went into Starbucks and ordered some caramel frappucinos. Cold and delicious, and exactly what we needed. We were rather shocked at the price, which was almost $10 for two (American dollars are taken as easily as Lebanese pounds). As much as the taxi which drove us for 20 minutes. Still, we were on holiday!
On Sunday morning we arrived in Syria. We booked the official excursion since all our friends were going too, although we might not have done so if we had realised we would have to spend five hours in a coach! Not a very comfortable one, either. There was a tour guide who spoke to us for about an hour in each direction, telling us every possible fact and figure about Syria, or so it seemed. I fell asleep both times and got neck-ache as a result.
First we visited an Orthodox monastery dedicated to St George, of all people. We thought he was a legendary British saint, but our guide told us that St George vanquished a dragon in order to save a lady, and that the lady represented the Church. It was a pleasant place, although not particularly different from Cypriot monasteries.
After that we drove to a huge castle, where the guide showed us everything in great detail. We were there for an hour-and-a-half, and although it was quite a nice castle, as castles go, it wasn't terribly thrilling.
Unfortunately I developed quite a bad headache, probably due to being in the sun too much, and also the altitude (we think the guide said it was 1700 metres above sea-level, and I've had that kind of headache before at high altitude). It didn't help that we didn't get to stop for lunch until 2pm! However our packed lunch-boxes were extremely good, kept cold in the back of the coach in cool-boxes, and as we ate them in a restaurant we were able to order coffee.
On the way back we stopped for an hour at what was advertised as a 'bazaar' but was really a street of rather tired-looking shops, mostly selling rubbish for tourists. Richard had hoped it would be a real Arabic souk such as he has visited in Damascus. After the 'bazaar' we were taken to visit the duty free shop in the port, and were back to the ship for our 7pm dinner.
We got back to Larnaka this morning about 10pm, and were relieved to find that the temperatures had dropped a little, 'only' 28C, which is a great improvement on 35.
Tonight, Richard is off to Egypt for a week.