Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tripoli and the mountains

Tripoli is a world apart compared to glitzy Beirut and picturesque Byblos. This reminds much more of the rest of the Middle East – chaotic, noisy, smiling and old. There is a bustling and labyrinthine old souk that is well worth visiting. An old crusader castle is watching over it all from it’s high position on a rock (the castle is partly still in use, now by the Lebanese army).

On the main square there is a lovely café in the classic Middle Eastern style – old gentlemen drinking tea, smoking water-pipes and playing backgammon.
We stayed at the very pleasant hotel El Koura, centrally located, clean and comfortable and very affordable (50USD for a double room with bathroom and breakfast). It is a family run little place in an old house, and Pierre the manager is very kind and helpful. Having granny sitting in the sofa all day in the lobby just adds to the charm.

We arrived to Tripoli yesterday. This morning we continued up the mountains to Ehden, Bcharre and the Cedars. We found Ehden vastly overrated. Bcharre was better but not very special. The gorges in the area are dramatic though. The Cedars has a little tiny forest with Cedar trees, and some nice views of the mountains. That’s about it.
Unfortunately, the road over the mountains to Baalbeck is still closed due to snow, so we have to take the long detour South via Beirut. Therefore we decided to stop for the night in Byblos since we liked it so much. It is a very quaint place.
Last time we slept at the newly opened Canary de Byblos hotel. It is nice and comfortable but the location is dull, on the other side of the motorway.
This time we found another place, Hotel Alhiram just by the water and close to the harbour. They have a lovely terrace (where I am sitting now enjoying their free wifi) with waves crashing in on the beach just below.

When walking in to the harbour for dinner we passed through a gate in the old city walls. On the other side we heard faint singing. Soon we found an ancient church filled to the brims by singing people – it is Ash Wednesday. We stood inside for a while enjoying the atmosphere. It was beautiful and special to here the Arabic psalms echo under the high stone vaults.

Then we had a very romantic alfresco dinner at Pepe’s fishing club. Locanda and Bab al Mina might have better food but Pepe’s was good enough and nothing beats their terrace. Femke found us a table under a tree with splendid views of the harbour with its Mamlouk defence tower. We finished the evening with desserts and a game of carcassone :-)

Monday, March 29, 2010

What a wonderful day!

What a wonderful day!
Well, driving out of Beirut wasn’t exactly wonderful, with cars stopping, turning, overtaking and doing any kind of imaginable manoeuvres, anytime, anywhere and without warning.

But we made it through thanks to Femke’s excellent navigation and soon we found ourselves at Chateau Musar – a famous Lebanese vineyard. Gaston Hochar (third generation of the owner family and named after his Grand father who founded Musar 1930) welcomed us and was kind enough to give us a thorough tour of the premises. And a splendid tasting.

First out was a surprising 2008 Musar Cuvee (called Musar Jeune in Europe), a white wine that reminded me of a well-balanced Oude Geuze (Belgian beer). Femke got a bit scared there but order was restored with the next glass, a beautiful white Chateau Musar 2001. It’s a mix of local grapes Obaideh and Merwa and a good one. Golden colour, roasted nose with some fruit and a very full and long taste.

Next, Gaston’s helper poured some samples from the latest harvest’s vats, 2009 Cinsault, 2009 Carignan and 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. All these wines we tried amongst the oak barrels in the vaulted cellar. But this was just the warm-up.
Monsieur Hochar led us further down, past storing vats and the bottling plant and into the holiest, to the cellar where the wines are bottle conditioned for up to six years before being sold. Here we had the pleasure to taste why Chateau Musar is a name known around the world.

What a complex, ever-changing nose! First there is leather. Roasted notes. And a touch of fruit in the background. Then it opens up and the berries steps forward, with more fruit but still backed up by the wonderful roasted aromas in the background. We are talking about the red Chateau Musar 1999. And so far only about how it smells! Well I wont bore you more with the wine-talk, lets just say it is a marvellous wine.

As a little surprise to end the tasting we were served the Chateau Musar from 1991.  Mmm. What a wine experience.

In the afternoon we drove to Byblos, an ancient port now dominated by a crusader fortress in ruins. The port itself is a ridiculously charming little thing with a ruined tower at the entrance to the harbour basin and a pearl necklace of terraces to enjoy it from. We had delicious Calamares and muttabal at Bab el Mina, and something called Batata Harra, fried potatoes mixed with herbs, spinach, olive oil and green chili.

While Femke regrouped at legendary Pepe’s fishing club next doors I roamed the harbour with my camera. Later in the afternoon I spotted a paraglider soaring close by. How I missed my own glider!

Behind the harbour there is an old souk (market) that has been restored in a surprisingly nice way. We ended up in a courtyard, sipping rosé and listening to the prayer call. After dark we sat down for dinner at Locanta, a stylish restaurant with designer-water pipes and mezzes de luxe. Lightning fast service and innovative and very tasty food shows that the recommendation from New York Times in January is well deserved.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Finally in Beirut!

A short greeting from Lebanon - we are fine and our flights here went well. Arrived to the hotel this morning at 4-5. Slept to 10, then we spent the day together with Femke's old friend Olivier (who lives here and works as a teacher) and his Lebanese friend Nadine.

They took us on a tour of the city including Nasralla's hoods down south. Very interesting, but I was under no circumstances allowed to take photos there :-(.

Late lunch at a seaside restaurant, then a nap for Femke while I am enjoying an Almaza (local beer) at Cafe de Prague.
I have never seen so many fancy and expensive cars as here. Ferrari, Daimler, Jaguar and piles of German cars in the upper end of the market. All side by side with incredibly battered 70's Mercedes and Volvo's.

In some areas there are still visible trails of the civil war that ended 1990, with lots of bullet holes in the facades. Other parts looks more like Southern Europe than the Middle East. In fact most of the city is very clean and stylish do be down here - first when we drove down to the Southern neighborhoods of Beirut (where Hezbolla and Amal have their stronghold) did it look the way we are used to from other Middle Eastern cities.

Tomorrow we are picking up our rental car and driving North along the coast. First to Chateau Musar, a famous vineyard, for a visit and tasting. Then to Byblos where we will stay over the night.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Meetings and friends

Rise and shine! This morning I had lots more energy, so started early fixing the last things with Hypoxia, then sent it to the print shop. Always nice :-)
Met my old friend Krister for breakfast in Gamla Stan and then had a lunch meeting at Gondolen. If you haven't been there you should try it, their lunches are not much more expensive than others in Stockholm and service, food and views are all very good. I had some lovely wild boar.

In the afternoon I met up with former Kosovo colleagues Anders and Pettsson for beer and Raggmunk at Soldaten Svejk, my home away from home in Stockholm. We continued to Akkurat to check out their Belgian beers (as I am writing about Belgian beer bars we had to do thorough research) and here Micke, another old friend, met up. Ingrid and Pettsson had never tried geuze, so of course we ordered a beautiful oude geuze from Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen.

Somehow Micke and I ended up at Man in the Moon in the end, which was good for although the place as such is not very special they had a surprisingly healthy beer list, and also lots of vintage beer to reasonable prices. In other words an excellent opportunity to taste a 10 year old Chimay Bleue. Very interesting, with round sweet notes, almost a bit like sherry.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sun, ice and work

I woke up somewhat tired today (how can jazz make you tired?) but the sun was shining from a clear winter sky so I had to get up and out. Like half of Stockholm, I took a long walk out to Djurgården. There is still ice on most of the waters in the city and people use it as a handy boulevard. Although I didn't dear to venture out after hearing about people breaking through due to the warming sun.
Instead I walked into Skansen and said hello to the animals.

But I couldn't stay out all day - there was still a few pages of Hypoxia that I needed to write and layout. So I ended up working until midnight. Everything for the art!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Yearly meeting and Jazz party

Today the Swedish Paragliding Association had its yearly meeting just outside Stockholm. Since I am the editor of their magazine Hypoxia, I spent my whole day listening to the proceedings. Although it is more interesting than you would think, and most people are really fun.

Afterwards I was invited for a salmon sandwich and a drink at Magnus and Jenny, two nice Stockholm pilots. Then we all joined Björn's fabulous party, complete with a four man jazz band! Now that's what I call a great party.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Belgian beer tasting in Stockholm

Tonight I arranged a Belgian beer tasting in stunning Stockholm. This time, it was not only stunningly beautiful, but also stunningly cold. Cue glowing, warming Belgian beer :-)
All in all we were 15 happy tasters, some friends, some paraglider pilots, some new faces. We started softly with a Maredsous 6 (blond), then continued with a wild shot, a La Trappe dubbel, La Trappe being from the Netherlands and the only Trappist beer not from Belgium.
As a tripel we retreated to the most classic in the genre, the Westmalle tripel (also a Trappist, from Northern Belgium).

After that we started to navigate the more unchartered waters of Belgian beer, although  no less beautiful. A Lindemans Cuvee Renée surprised the uninitiated being a Geuze and hence very sour (but also refreshing). The Vlaamse bourgougne/Oud Bruin-style Liefmans Goudenbrand was a new acquaintance for me, and a very pleasant one.
To round it off, we enjoyed the hoppiness of Houblon Chouffe, a beer from the charming little brewery in the Ardennes.

After lots of sniffing, tasting and comparing, we realized that the bottles were empty and the time was 23.45. So we did the only right thing - closed the tasting and walked over to Pressklubben, where we tried some more Belgians :-)

Monday, March 08, 2010

Five days in Istanbul

Just spent five lovely days in Istanbul together with Femke and my Mother. I was here for work but it is great to get their input as well - we all perceive a city slightly differently. Here are some pics!