Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Byblos—history, haute cuisine and a harbour to remember

This is exciting. No Crowds first post from Lebanon from intrepid travelers, Gary and Lorraine. I can't wait to follow.

So here is a quiz: where can you sit with a world-class view of the Mediterranean, drink local wines made in the French style, in a setting that reminds you of a French farmhouse, while looking at the ruins of a wonderfully preserved Roman-era castle...all for about $70 for a lunch for two? The answer, of course, is Byblos.

All the way down at the end of the Mediterranean, past Cyprus, the Greek Isles and the Turkish coast, sits a beautiful, but star-crossed country. Over its 4000 years of history, Lebanon has been invaded and/or occupied by Crusaders, Ottomans, Mamluks, Syrians, Israelis and of course the French (for 25 years, no less). In some cases, they were worse off for it, but amazingly, their culture has been enriched, deepened and made more tolerant in most instances. Today, the country gets stronger every day, building on 20 years of relative peace following the end of their civil war. Minarets stand next to baptisteries, crosses and crescents on neighboring religious buildings. Frankly, it’s inspiring.

Going south from Beirut is not recommended, but if you head north up the coast, after 40 km of a drive that will remind you of the best and the worst of the Cote d’Azur, you arrive at Byblos (also called Jbail). The birthplace of the modern alphabet and arguably the longest-standing continuously occupied city in the world, Byblos is thriving. Perhaps it’s hankering to return to the days when Perry Como and any number of European starlets plied its country lanes. Despite a recent piece in the New York Times, however, the town remains a quiet haven of incredible antiquities, accompanied by what appear to be some of the finest restaurants we have found in the Middle East.

Our meal at Locanda (09 944 333), nestled on a bluff overlooking the sea between the old souk and the castle ruins, was simple but incredibly elegant. First up was the necessary bottle of a dry, crisp rosé, this one from Chateau Musar (one of the three main Lebanese wineries). Our first courses were fattoush (chopped salad with wonderful little deep-fried raviolis mixed in) and Shrimp Osmalieh (fine sized prawns wrapped in vermicelli and sizzled in hot oil just enough to cook them through). For mains, we had a thin-crusted pizza rocca (fresh rocket and mozzarella and just a touch of tomato sauce), and something called “fish and aubergine”, which was an amazing experience. Basically, this is what fish and chips have always wanted to be, but will never become. The white flaky fish (I suspect snapper, locally called Sultan Ibrahim) was expertly battered and deep fried, so well that you would swear it never touched the oil. The chef used two sauces, first a lemon cream concoction that added a hint of sweetness, then a dark, piquant balsamic reduction (far more cultured than malt vinegar, frankly!). A pickled baby eggplant accompanied, marinated with flavours of Eastern spices I couldn’t begin to identify. To finish, the espresso was of course excellent, and we topped off the meal with a dram of Armagnac which said “hors age” on the bottle--I took that to mean that nobody could tell how old it was, but it was pretty old. Awesome, although that single choice was the most expensive item on our menu.

I can’t begin to do justice to the Byblos ruins. For a few dollars we were allowed into the compound, and had the chance to closely examine sarcophagi, Doric and ionic column capitals, the well preserved ruins of the ramparts and buildings, and a complete amphitheatre—no ropes, no rules, just us, a half dozen others, and a massive castle originally built by the Phoenicians. All this with a million dollar view of the sea just behind (and a couple of million dollar yachts cruising by, of course).

I would not want to conclude without mentioning the Jeita grotto. Not in Byblos proper, but rather about 20 minutes off the main road between Beirut and Byblos, the grotto is a natural limestone cavern with the dimensions of a small football stadium—you just can’t imagine the size and beauty. Dramatically lit with a walkway carefully constructed through the middle, the grotto is a collection of the most beautiful natural designs you can imagine. Stalactites are not just icicle shaped, but many resemble an undulating curtain extending several meters from the ceiling far above, or heavy curtains covering the walls. Others are finely detailed tubes with many sections inside, with an almost biological feel to them. We were told that the cave is the result of 12,000 years of drip, drip, drip (gives you an idea of what that leaky tap could create if it never got fixed). There is a lower level to the cave, which we didn’t have time to visit, where the tour is conducted on a boat down an underground river that ultimately supplies a significant part of the drinking water for the city of Beirut. The grotto is on the long list for the Seven New Wonders of the World, and voting is under way. It will get my vote.

If you go...you should check your country’s diplomatic website for warnings and precautions. Lebanon is still not a destination for the faint of heart, and the UK Foreign Office and US State Department still have current traveller warnings, despite the recent calm. On our trip, we found little or no evidence of unrest—no checkpoints, little evidence of soldiers outside of the national capital area (parliament), and a flurry of rebuilding and investment everywhere.

Photo of Gary + 5 Pillars taken by Lorraine.

Friday, January 15, 2010

48 Hours in Alpine Arcadia

Salzburg. I will never tire of this town.

I was there recently thanks to the Hotel Auersperg who had not been able to honour a reservation we made last year because of a delay in renovation work. After my doing the mad scene from Medea on Trip Advisor about it, this customer-savvy establishment quickly offered us a two night stay on-the-house to make amends. We thought, let’s go mid week in January 2010. We’ll have the city all to ourselves and flights will be cheap.

We were right on both counts. Our British Airways flights from London were a reasonable £108 return and despite all their problems, I’d still rather fly BA than the discounters. Plus, I’ve never seen Salzburg so deserted or so beautiful. We arrived in the middle of a snow storm which would have brought London to a chaotic standstill but only served to make Salzburg more cozy and picturesque. On our first night, we walked in snow through the illuminated and deserted piazzas of the old town centre. It was archly romantic.

What to Do

Only in town for 48 hours, we decided to dip quickly into the three areas for which Salzburg is renowned: nature, history and culture. To commune with nature, we took a long snowy walk up the Kapuzinerberg mountain and enjoyed the spectacular views of Salzburg. To satisfy our interest in history we spent a morning in the Salzburg Museum. Newly renovated and brilliantly curated, this museum does a superb job of explaining Salzburg’s rich past. An evening of opera performed by students at the Mozarteum University was our culture highlight. Tickets were a snip at EUR 14 and it was incredibly fun to see such a young and talented cast deliver a sexy and energetic interpretation of Monteverdi’s baroque masterpiece, L’Incoronazione di Poppea.

Where to Eat and Drink

As for dining, we still think the informal Hertzl restaurant in the Goldener Hirsch Hotel is hard to beat and our new favourite when you have a hankering for good beer, large portions, small prices and a fun atmosphere is the Alter Fuchs (Old Fox) on the Linzer Gasse.


We love to shop in Salzburg for traditional clothing, textiles and ceramics and January is the perfect time to do it. We bought beautifully made loden jackets and coats at Hanna Trachten on the Linzer Gasse, all reduced by 50 percent.

Where to Stay

And what about the Auersperg Hotel? Are we friends again? We most certainly are. This is a WONDERFUL hotel in every aspect. Quiet, well located with excellent service and comfortable rooms. The breakfast is superior. Not to mention that when things go wrong, this family-owned operation make things right. As I said in my new Trip Advisor report (still 'pending' ) - when in Salzburg, I see no need to ever stay anywhere else.

Addendum – Getting Home

Because of snow in London, out return BA flight was cancelled but we were able to race directly from Salzburg main train station to Munich Airport on an efficient and inexpensive train where, after several more BA cancellations, we were rebooked on Lufthansa and made it home – which is why, for all their problems, I still prefer to fly BA.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

No Crowds 2010 Travel Resolutions

More Wonder

Webster defines ‘wonder’ as a cause of astonishment or admiration. For 2010, we’ll be trying to recapture that sense of wonder about the world that got us interested in travel in the first place. We’ll be focussing more on the things that have helped make our trips surprising, mysterious and outside our normal experience and less on how to avoid the 1001 hassles of travel – we’re fed up with that topic. Aren’t you?

More Conversation

Last year was not a high production year for No Crowds. We found lots of excuses not to write. This year we’ll do better. And we hope that No Crowds will receive more insights from contributors such as Gary, Lorraine and Sandy who enjoy sharing their experiences with like-minded travellers.

And that’s it – more wonder and more conversation. Those are our travel goals for 2010. What are yours?