Baba, Corsini, Gianni e tutti gli altri in quel di Beirut…
Sempre a proposito del viaggio in Libano 50 anni dopo la mia maturità…
© Foto originale del Secondo pilota
Ho ritrovato le note scritte dal “secondo pilota” durante il viaggio e le vacanze in quel di Beirut & Co e le varie scene di «ritrovata generale» con Baba e Gianpiero ma anche tanti altre e altri che abbiamo incontrato o se volete «ritrovato»…
Buona lettura e spero di rifare un viaggio del genere quanto prima, Gianpiero e Baba si stanno già strappando i capelli…
DIEGO’S TRIP BACK TO THE LEBANON AFTER AN ABSENCE OF 50 YEARS
Saturday 5 October 2019
We left Toulouse airport on Saturday in the late afternoon and arrived in Beirut on Sunday in the middle of the night, after changing planes in Rome. The flights were uneventful and the few hours in Fiumcino airport passed quickly with plenty of people to watch and shops to peruse. Arriving in Beirut and after queuing to pass immigration, we picked up our luggage and exited to find Diego’s friend, Jean Pierre Corsini, waiting to drive us to his beautiful home, hotel and restaurant in the mountains above Beirut. J.P. doesn’t venture down to Beirut unless absolutely necessary and had taken one of his employees with him in case he couldn’t find the way back home! As it turned out he did the right thing and we were relieved not to have spent more hours than necessary trying to reach Bikfaya. Arriving in the early hours we found everyone asleep but J.P. immediately opened up the bar and I eventually staggered to bed at 5h leaving the two school pals to talk over old times.
We arrived downstairs for a very late breakfast which carried on into lunch and then back to bed for a short nap before driving back down to Beirut to meet up with other old school pals – Jean Pierre and his wife Marcelle, his cousin Umberto and wife Marta over from the States, a good friend and priest from school, Don Caputa, Claudio Cordone whom we had already met in Brussels some years ago, Baba, the only Muslim Lebanese, everyone else being Catholic, Liliana whose daughter Marianne had come down to Chalabre once, Berta, Luigi, Diego and myself. We spent the evening on the terrace of a beautiful restaurant besides the sea with plenty of food, drinks and stories from the past.
Monday 7 October
A nice lie-in this morning before joining J.P. and Marcelle for breakfast Lebanese style – a flat bread roll with a kind of thick yoghurt (labnée) fresh mint and toasted thyme. Sounds very weird and not to everyone’s taste but it went down very well. Today was the birthday of Sara, the youngest daughter of J.P. and we were invited, together with her husband and two children, elder sister Cynthia and her daughter to a restaurant just down the road where they served up dish after dish of Lebanese mezze. We were stuffed very quickly but couldn’t say “no” as everything was so delicious. And then there was birthday cake and fresh fruit – all washed down with arak, a drink very like ouzo from Greece. We waddled back up the road to the hotel and collapsed! Needless to say we didn’t eat again that day!
Apart from eating and drinking we managed to find the time to walk the dog. Sparta is a pit bull terrier, a sweetie but extremely strong so it’s more a case of the dog walking us, especially as he’s never been trained. It was especially funny to see Diego trying to give instructions and Sparta completely ignoring him and everyone else!
Tuesday 8 October
This morning J.P. offered to drive us to visit a couple of monasteries in the neighborhood. I did mention that he only leaves home if absolutely necessary, so although we found the first monastery it was unfortunately closed and the second one we never found! It was a good round trip of the local area though with a quick look at the birthplace of J.P. who although is Italian was born in the Lebanon and speaks perfect Arabic. The norm here is English, French and Arabic and then you can add Italian, Spanish, Greek, Armenian…… puts us to shame!! Another testing “walk” with Sparta and another day has gone by.
Wednesday 9 October
Cynthia and Sara left very early this morning for the airport and a trip to London. Cynthia’s son, James, has started college there. The other children of the two sisters are at school here but like most Lebanese of a certain standing have a maid to look after the kids – could have done with that myself sometimes!
After breakfast (something sweet and not especially to my taste) Diego and I set off for Beirut by taxi (not trusting J.P. any more!) to try and find various places that he remembers from 50 years ago. Don’t forget that there was a war here back in the 70s and Beirut was practically razed to the ground. Well, we found Diego’s family’s old apartment building and the restaurant “Quo Vadis” opposite the entrance. The apartment building was probably damaged during the war and is now being reconstructed on the same site, but the restaurant has been bricked up and left untouched since those times.
We then went towards the Hamra, a well-known street at the time for cinemas and good restaurants, but which is now more like the rue du Midi in Brussels. Around the corner we found the hotel Bristol, just as it was before and opposite should have been the Salesian school but in its place a brand new block of luxury apartments. Unfortunately no more school!
By this time we were feeling hot and bothered by the endless traffic and consequent pollution. Just time for a drink at the hotel Bristol and back to the clean, cool air of Bikfaya. Another lovely lunch with J.P., Marcella and Cynthia’s daughter, Elizabeth – another training session with Sparta and a relaxing evening outside.
Thursday 10 October
Up early to walk the dog. This time he pulled like mad just as on the first day – definitely not making a lot of progress! After breakfast we went with J.P. to the local supermarket and greengrocers for supplies – I always find it interesting to shop in another country despite the fact that you come across many brands exactly the same. However, the wonderful thing about this particular supermarket is that someone packs your purchases for you, takes them out to the car and puts them in the boot – all you have to do is choose your goods and pay, the heavy work is done for you! Great!
After dropping the shopping we set off again with Marcelle and J.P. to the local hospital which was built by the French when the Lebanon was still a French Protectorate and opened by General de Gaulle at the time. It covers a large area of a pine forest with church, short and long term wards, emergency department, polyclinic, dialysis and cardiac centres etc. etc. and is set among beautifully kept gardens – altogether very impressive.
Back at the hotel we were greeted by two of the ex-school pals, Liliana and Baba and his wife, who had come over from Beirut to spend the afternoon with Diego and J.P. We settled down to a late lunch with kebbeh, pasta with oil, garlic and chili peppers and pasta with truffles, all washed down with arak. I must admit that I stuck to the rosé this time!
It must be months, if not years, since I have laughed so much! The stories from school are one thing as I’ve heard them many times before, but J.P. and Diego know how to keep the jokes coming and the women aren’t bad either!
Another assault course with Sparta before a relaxing evening, just the four of us, with more laughter and tears from uncontrollable giggles – this holiday is doing us good, despite the pounds we must be piling on from the delicious and plentiful food!
Friday 11 October
Today was a day out, just relaxing, walking the dog, a little shopping for lamb chops, talking with J.P. and Marcelle and of course, eating and drinking. We’ve got through copious amounts of arak by now and tons of homous and salads with pistachio nuts by the handful! My clothes are starting to get tight – just hope they fit when we leave!
In the evening a friend of theirs, Claude, dropped by for a drink and a chat and stayed until 2 am – this reminds me of many years ago in Brussels!
Saturday 12 October
10 am and our driver, Habib, is outside waiting to take us into Beirut. Today we have arranged to meet up with Michael and Mireille Young who live in Beirut but regularly come to Paris where we’ve met up with them in the past. Michael is another ex-Salesian school pupil but was in the American section and is now working as a journalist. Habib finally dropped us off having gone in circles for a while as he’s from Bikfaya and Beirut is a very BIG place.
The first thing Michael proposed was that we visit the National Museum of the Lebanon. It wasn’t quite what we had in mind but it turned out to be extremely interesting, showing the different phases of civilization in the Middle East, and wasn’t too enormous so we didn’t have to stay too long! There is a famous exhibit, the Tomb of Tyre, where tens of sarcophagus were found in a frescoed vault and a few mummies from the Middle Ages. The best thing by far were the exhibits of gold and precious stones forming very beautiful and elegant jewellry, some made before the Roman period.
Next stop – you guessed – lunch! This time we were taken to a garden where the hot food was prepared outside and the cold appetizers and desserts inside a small room. All this, of course, Diego’s worst nightmare come true!
Anyway we survived the ordeal, washing it down with more arak. (I sent a couple of photos from the restaurant).
After this a trip down memory lane for Diego, visiting rue Hamra and all the various cinemas where he and his school mates used to hang out. Unfortunately, most of these places have been shut down since the war and the rue Hamra, which was once the main thoroughfare in Beirut looks a little worse for wear now. Michael was kind enough to take us downtown to the area where you find the Parliament, Place des Martyrs, the ruins of the Roman baths, the Soursok Museum which is set in the Soursok family mansion, the new souk, and eventually back to their apartment to relax whilst waiting for Habib to pick us up and take us back to Bikfaya. A tiring but enriching day out.
Sunday 13 and Monday 14 October
Two days of little interest as we stayed in Bikfaya and lazed around. Apart from a trip to a stationers for postcards and the post office for stamps, we did very little else.
Tuesday 15 October
Today we were picked up again at 10am by our trusty driver, Habib, to take us to Byblos, probably the oldest town in the world with signs of habitation since many thousands of years before Christ. On the way he suggested a detour to Harissa where you find Notre Dame du Liban which is a holy centre for Christians, the whole site dominated by a statue of Notre Dame du Liban facing out to sea with open hands. You can climb up to the top of her from the outside where there are stunning views of Beirut and the coast towards Tripoli. It was worth turning off our planned route.
The only worrying thing about our trip today was the immense cloud of smoke coming from the dozens of wildcat fires in certain areas around Beirut – luckily not where we are staying, which is, however, right in the middle of pine forest.
Arriving in Byblos we were hit straight away by the difference in temperature from Bikfaya where it is cool and perfect for sleeping well at night. Here it was very heavy and sticky so the first port of call was for a drink of minted lemonade.
A walk through the souk shows Byblos to be very touristic and in fact we came across many Italians, Americans, Chinese, etc. The souk, however is exactly as it was all those years ago, except one you can find every kind of tat to buy, just like elsewhere. We started to walk down to the sea but the humidity proved too much and it was past midday so we opted to find a restaurant instead! The old town is still enclosed by the medieval walls and inside you find the church of St. John-Mark built by the crusaders and a mosque from the 17th century. The crusader’s castle stands just outside the medieval walls and on the other side of town there are many archeological ruins, mainly Roman but we didn’t get that far this time.
The restaurant that we found had a rather nifty dish shaped like a large mushroom which is heated before coming to the table and on which you can heat the Lebanese bread before adding labneh, oil with sesame seeds or olives.
The heaviness of the weather got the better of us in the end so we called Habib to come and pick us up and he took us home via the coast road to Beirut.
Wednesday 16 October
Today was a real treat for Diego and his school pals. Baba came to pick us up and together with J.P. we drove along the coast, back towards Byblos, to the Don Bosco technical school in Fidar where Don Caputa, Gianni to his friends, was waiting for us. We eventually arrived after being sidetracked to another technical school and getting generally lost. The priests were waiting for us and proceeded to give us a tour of the school, which is, by the way, set on the side of a mountain above Byblos with a wonderful view of the coast – trust the Catholics to find the best location!
13h sharp and we were taken to the priest’s refectory where lunch was served by one of the brothers – salad, pasta, peas with pancetta, grilled cauliflower and mango all from their kitchen garden. We were toasted with a 35 year old walnut liqueur, good red wine and a 25 year old cognac to end the meal, arak being optional! These priests certainly know how to live!
After lunch we followed Don Gianni and Don Vittorio further up into the mountains to their other school in Houssoun, where Diego was a boarder for a short time. This place certainly brought back plenty of memories from the past, especially as Baba, J.P. and Diego had often played football there, so a few shots were attempted at goal for old times sake.
Don Vittorio showed us his collection of precious archeological finds – just as good as anything we had seen in the National Museum in Beirut and at 82 years old he was as sharp as ever and could explain the various histories behind the earthenware pots, coins, glass phials, etc. in the collection.
By this time we were all pretty tired so Baba drove us back home after wishing the priests all the best and thanking them for their hospitality – they enjoyed a bit of a hug and kiss as well!
Thursday 17 October
After a quick breakfast we walked Sparta but he is almost impossible to control as he’s never been trained (unlike Snoopy!) and after meeting another dog, cats and various pedestrians with whom he wanted to play by jumping up at them, we decided to leave him to someone else, younger and stronger – only hope such a person can be found, otherwise he’s doomed to a lonely life.
Off to the shops again, first stop the butchers. Fantastic service over here! The ladies drive up to the shop, give their order to the butcher who runs out of the shop to take it, he then prepares the meat, packs it, brings it out to the car and gets paid, all without the client moving from her car!
Greengrocers next where J.P. chooses his fruit and vegetables and a girl packs it all and then brings it out to the car. There’s not a lot of lost energy around here, but it’s very American in that everyone drives from shop to shop and all is packed and stored for you – no need to waste calories!
This time we were joined for lunch by the head chef and his wife, who is Australian, and their 3 month old baby boy, J.P., Marcelle, their daughter Cynthia and grand daughter Elizabeth. The spread on the table was a picture and stupid me forgot to take a photo!
Claude, the Corsini’s good friend of many years, arrived in the evening with oysters which were washed down with Moët et Chandon champagne but I’m afraid that I crawled off to bed, missing this treat, as we were to get up very early to go to Tripoli for the clothes market.
Friday 18 October
Out of bed at 6h30 to get ready to drive to Tripoli, to find that there had been riots in several parts of Beirut and the country. The motorways are closed and there has been a lot of damage to property. People are fed up of rising prices, taxes, etc. and have decided to demonstrate against the government – but why now?! Hopefully we can get to the airport tomorrow morning if they don’t close it!! Keep posted for more news!
Friday, Saturday and Sunday 18, 19 and 20 October
We’ve spent the last three days watching the television and the “mini-révolution” taking place here in the Lebanon with plenty of solidarity demonstrations from Lebanese living around the world, including Brussels. No way of getting to the airport as all roads were blocked so we of course couldn’t get there for our flight on Saturday morning but in the end it was cancelled altogether. In the meantime we’ve been trying to contact the airlines, the booking agent – anyone goddam – but no luck. British Airways kept me on the line for 30 mins without answering, Beirut cut the phone altogether and online was the same.
So we wait ….
I am very impressed by the solidarity shown here. There are many religions in this country – different kinds of Islam (Sunnite, Shiite, Druze ….) Christianity (Maronite, Catholic, Protestant …….) and everyone is together on trying to bring down their own very corrupt government.
The demonstrations have, on the whole, been very peaceful – lots of flag waving, music and dancing. There were of course various incidents of violence, with the police coming off worse, and broken windows, burning tyres, etc.
But we are really getting fed up now as for three days we haven’t been able to move, only eat, drink and hang around – not my cup of tea as you know!
There’s a British Airways flight on Tuesday so we hope to be leaving then. Had a lovely time but really want to get home now!!!