Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Lebanon - The Paris of the Middle East


When Kunal and I first decided to go to Lebanon, we heard a few times things like – its war torn – Gaddafi land, why the middle east … Ah well, to put things in perspective, Lebanon has been peaceful with more than a decade now. It’s a free nation- and although on a daily basis they deal with Syrian refugees – as a tourist in Beirut you will barely see anything – Beirut is like the Paris of the 90’s ! I would also not compare the two, but its like the not so glamorous cousin of Dubai. You will not see many people in Hijabs – which is the mindset one has when you say the Middle East – that’s because its majority population believes in Christianity.

Lebanon is one of the smallest countries in the middle east. So you can easily see a lot of it in just one week. Before the trip, I was worried if we would be able to see the country in just one week. But needless to say, I had nothing to worry about. We saw everything at a very leisurely pace and left us enough time an afternoon nap and a evening of drinking and dancing. Our journey started in the capital Beirut. As it is so small and short distances, we chose to base ourselves in Beirut for our trip except for 2 nights in the mountains in Faraya . We took day trips from here. Beirut is famous for its nightlife and restaurants. And Kunal and I spent our evenings hanging out and enjoying the atmosphere. We highly recommend to stay in The Four Seasons - In Zaitunay Bay - which is really close to Downtown Beirut and also shopping malls. Also in the evening - right opposite the hotel is the Corniche with all its little shops and Restaurants that come to life. You can also see some really expensive Yachts parked in all their beauty in the Bay.

We began our exploration in downtown Beirut , the historical and geographical core. This was also the frontline of the Lebanese civil war and suffering and of most devastation of all Beirut. It underwent a thorough resroration plan in the 90’s.


Then we headed to the national museum of Beirut, its impressive.


 Magnificently displayed collection of archaeological artifacts offers a great over view of Lebannon’s history. And the civilization that impacted this cultural crossroads. 





On the way there we stumbled upon an impressive art exhibition housed in one of Beirut's most iconic war torn buildings, Beit Beirut. The crumbling bullet market on Beit Beirut Building is a somber reminder of what happened here. And healing Lebanon aims to promote peace through art work. 
Stroll along the Corniche.
In the evening we went on a long sunset walk along the Corniche. The sea front promenade that fringes the entire North Western part of Beirut. The 4.8kms promenade is a great place for people watching as families , joggers and bikers often convene here in the evenings. There are also lots of beaches, bars here that overlook the beautiful Mediterranean Sea and the Bay Rock - La Raouche



Beyond downtown Beirut, there are plenty of lively vibrant neighborhoods in Beirut that a worth a visit. We started in Mar Mikhael , a neighborhood in Beirut which is popular with the younger crowd . Mar Mikhael is an enchanting area to enjoy a coffee, or lunch or to stroll along its authentic traditional houses with Mediterranean facets . We enjoyed our Lunch at Tavolina - I would highly recommend this Deli style Pizzeria ! 

At night , the many bars and restaurants, ranging from trendy and expensive to laid back and affordable are swamped with locals. Then our guide led us through Achrafieh, a district that shows us a different history of Beirut. It used to be a farm land owned by several powerful Beirut families. The street is home to the Surrsock House. A Museum that holds regularly Modern Art Shows and Sassine Square, one of the oldest in the city. New Buildings have sprung up in the area despite efforts of groups trying to preserve its history. Enjoy a breezy lunch at the Museum Cafe for some delicious tartines and quiches. 



In the evening, we found ourselves in Beirut Souks. Known as the  Champs Elysees of Beirut. Because of all the Historical Cafes and Theatres, it was once the intellectual center of Beirut. While that has lessened, the district still has a cosmopolitian vibe and is definitely the place to hang out for people interested in culture. The atmosphere is a liberal haven in the middle of a country torn by political difference. Today it is full of coffee shops and pubs that welcome people of all sorts and still stands as a testament to Beirut's rich cultural history. We enjoyed an evening of Jazz at Sax, Downtown - very difficult to get reservations - so make sure to hit them up while planning your trip ! 


Jeita Grotto.
At just 18 kms from Beirut Jeita Grotto and Mount Harissa make for an excellent day trip from the city. Jeitta Grotto is surprisingly impressive network of interconnected karst limestone caves spanning on overall length of nearly 9kms. Its named one of the top 14 finalist of the new 7 wonders of nature competition. Though inhabited in PreHistoric times, the lower cave was not rediscovered until 1836 by S W Thompson. It can only be visited by boat since it channels an undergrounds river that provides fresh drinking water to more than a million Lebanese. The Upper Galleries house the world’s largest know Stalactite. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside the caves. ( File Photo for ref )

Take a Cable Car to mount Harissa. From Jeitta Grotto it is just a short ride to Mount Harissa. A Important Lebanese Pilgrimage site, our Lady of Lebanon. Its one of the most important shrines in the world honouring the virgin Mary and the shrine is highlighted by a huge 15 tonne Bronze statue of the immaculate conception. The view from the top of the statue is impressive and definitely worth the visit. You can get here from the coastal city of Jouneih by road or by a 9 mins journey by a gondola life known as to Teleferique.



Enjoy a sea side Luncheon at Chez Sami which is at Jouneih serving Mediterranean Fare. They also have the terrace which is open in the summer months only.

Baalbeck is the most spectacular archaeological site in Lebanon and definitely a must see in my opinion. The journey from Beirut to Baalbeck takes two hours each way. Baalbeck Roman Ruins is a site of great ancient temples built by the Phoenicians , Romans and other civilizations that have conquered the region. With its colossal structures, Baalbeck is one of the finest examples of imperial roman architecture that I have seen. Almost rivaling those in Rome and Athens. Some of the most impressive temples here are the ones of Bacchus, the Greek God of Wine and Jupiter. The Roman God of light, of the sky and weather. 






Get Lost in the souks of Sidon

Along the coast, two historical cities - Tyre and Sidon are beautiful ! Sidon or Sida is Lebanons 3rd largest city and is most famous for its Sea Castle.  In July 2013 – Sidon was the scene of a 2 day battle between Sunni Militants and the Lebanese army which left over 50 people dead. Although Sidon is for calm and safe to visit, be sure to keep up with the news if u decide to visit.
This coastal town was once a rich and flourishing Phoenician city with tight trade links to ancient Egypt. Today its best known for its fresh fruits, pastries and sweets which can be sampled at their awesome Souk . You cannot leave Lebanon without Tasting Abou Rami's falafels from Sidon !!! They make 100's every minute and the man behind the counter is like a robot dishing out sandwiches after sandwiches ! 



Just across the road from the souk is Sidon Castle which was built by the crusaders in the 13th century as a fortress of the holy land – another must see when in Lebanon. 

 
Further South, just 26 kms from the closed Palestenian Border is Tyre, Arrabic name Sur. Another ancient Phoenician city and home to one of the nations major ports. We had a nice stroll on the sea front and meandered our way through the careful residential area before finding ourselves at a historical site.




The city has a number of ancient sites, including its Roman Hippodrome, which was added to UNESCOS list of World Heritage sites in 1979. Its beaches are also some of the most popular places to go for both tourist and locals alike in summer.



Back in Beirut for a full on Lebanese experience - albeit very expensive , try 3Anbar . It also has life performances through the night and a go to with locals. If you want to shake a leg or two , wait till after mid - night and u will see a crowd like no other arrive in their Porsche and Lamborghini.


Try Laila's in Zaitunay Bay for some good Sheesha - also Em Shreiff  ( has 2 branches ) - all of which will require reservations in peak dinner time. BO18; set in what looks like an old bomb shelter, and the highlight of the night is the incredible retractable roof which gives a night-time view of the stars and city lights. They have a banging Thursday night ...



Set Your celebrations for Burgundy - i booked this one a month in advance - this 3 Michellin Star - although not Vegeterian friendly ... you will enjoy the small menu !



Cedars of God; the largest of Lebanon nature reserves, Blanketed with oak forests on its northeastern slopes and juniper and oak forests on its southeastern slopes, these Cedar forests account for a quarter of the remaining cedars in Lebanon , and some tress are estimated to be 2,000 years old. From the summit of the rugged mountains, visitors will have a panoramic view of the countryside, eastward to the Beqaa Valley and Qaraoun Lake, and westward toward the Mediterranean. We were so lucky because we reached the Cedar and it began to snow ! If you are going to the Cedar Forest in the summer  - u must hike ! 


Mzaar Kfardebian also known as Faraya Mzaar is a ski area in Lebanon and the largest ski resort in the Middle East. It is located one hour away from Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Ski season usually stretches from early December to early April. The peaks of the Mzaar-Kfardebian mountain range vary between heights of 1,913 and 2,465 metres (6,276 and 8,087 ft). The Peak, offer challenges for the experienced skier or snowboarder. Three other peaks are well suited for beginners, and even more are adapted to skier of intermediate level. A large variety of other activities and excursions are also available. Along with traditional alpine skiing, people can practice ski-doo ( ski mobile ), night skiing and snow boarding.



We stayed at the Intercontinental Mzaar – which is the perfect ski resort for people travelling with young kids. It has a bowling alley, indoor heated pool and spa, a move theatre and a shopping mall all within the hotel itself. 
We didn't meet Gaddafi because he isn't from Lebanon just FYI. But we did meet the friendly people of Lebanon who would go out of their way to find you Pomegranate Molasses which is the key ingredient to make the Fatoosh. You will also probably look for a falafel maker only to find that Amazon will deliver it to you at the same price that you will buy it at the Souk for. Lebanon was such a small surprise package. We loved how it was laid back and yet so much to do ! Perfect for a couple who is trying to enjoy a vacation away from their baby ;) 




Wednesday, July 18, 2018

7 days in Malta


When Kunal and I promised ourselves to each other – we always knew we are going to keep up with our love for travelling - baby on board or not ! So the first chance we got post baby, when she was finally fully on formula and now eating solids like she was always meant to enjoy the good foods of the world, we took off to Malta !
Why Malta, everyone always asks me – We wanted a perfect beach holiday but some place where there would not only be a bunch of good restaurants and beaches but also a thriving  night life – I was almost on the brink of forgetting what it was to be awake till 4am and in high heels ,slightly intoxicated.
Getting there from Mumbai – It’s a long flight … Mumbai – Dubai-Malta ( with a one hour halt in Larnanca, Cyprus on the latter flight ) It sure did feel super long because it was also the longest I had been away from my Baby ! All I could think was of when I will get to the hotel room, connect to the Wi-fi and video chat with her.  Yes, Separation anxiety exists even in the most carefree souls like mine. Tip to First time Mothers who are travelling without the baby – Avoid video calling. Its hard on your baby to see her mom on the screen and not picking her up… but its even harder on you to see her stretch her arms trying to reach for the screen and you not be able to pick her up and squeeze her. Post video call and a few tears later… We were in the moment ! Alone – yes, without our baby, for the first time, Kunal and I felt Alone, We are a UNIT !!

But it took a quick shower, a little nap and a walk around the block onto the promenade where the Blue Azure waters of Sleima Harbour took our breath away.


Where to Stay ? – St Julians is the heart of the city with most clubs and bars , but it can get really crowded from June – Sept. Sleima is the shopping district and also the harbor from where the ferry to Gozo and Comino start. Either way, this island nation is small and everything is only a few mins cab ride away. We stayed at the Palace Hotel, Sleima … the rooftop swimming pool and bar have the most stunning views of the waters on one side and the city and harbor on the other.

How to get Around ? Taxify is the Uber of Malta ! Cheap and easily available. It is also recommendable to get a small car to go around, but the roads are small and parking can be difficult and google maps is tricky around the city center and Valetta.


We started with the most fantastic meal at Barracuda in St Julians – we were booked for the chef’s tasting menu, and boy were we impressed ! We thoroughly enjoyed the first of the celebrations for Kunal’s birthday week !


The next day we walked around Valletta, Malta’s historic capital city. Its incredible beauty, history and culture make it one of the best city break destinations in all of Europe.  Throughout history, Malta’s desirable location in the Mediterranean, below Italy and north of Libya, has drawn many nations to stake their claim on this tiny island: First came the Phoenicians, followed by the Romans, Normans, Habsburgs and finally the British from whence it received its independence in 1964 and went on to become a republic in 1974, and finally entered into the European Union in 2004. All of whose influence can be found in some part of the city … each leaving their own mark. 



One of Valletta’s best attractions is simply its gorgeous landscapes. Walk around the Upper Barracca Gardens and enjoy panoramic views of the city’s charming Grand Harbor. The public park, which sits atop Valletta’s historic fortifications, is an ideal spot for a picnic or a romantic stroll. If you’re looking to extend your scenic walk, the Lower Barracca Gardens are equally stunning.

Whilst Valletta’s natural scenery, the sun-drenched coastline and the sparkling Mediterranean, provide a scenic backdrop, the city’s man-made structures are also worth mentioning. You don’t have to be an architecture enthusiast to enjoy the striking beauty of 16th-century Baroque St. John's Co-Cathedral; the 18th-century Rococo palace—home to the National Museum of Fine Arts; and the many grand, Renaissance-era buildings that line its cobblestone streets. All this can be best enjoyed on foot, or you can zip around the city center like us on the Segway Tour which takes you to the city center and all the way down to the harbor.

Foodies feel right at home in Malta, where the cuisine is a brilliant mix of Italian favourites, North African flavours and age-old recipes unique to Malta’s rich heritage. If you’re dining out in the city, head to one of the many Trattoria on Melita Street. These cosy eateries have attracted many a famous celebrity. We also ate at the Blue Elephant in the Hilton, it is surely a miss, although it came highly recommended to us by several folks.

The following evening we found ourselves in Mdina – the silent city. About 30 mins inside the mainland - Honey-coloured walls offer some much-needed shelter from the pervading wind or sun depending on the weather you find yourselves in Malta..It’s such a small city that you won’t get lost for more than a minute, so you can wander down whichever pretty streets take your fancy.



You can also get higher up on the walls in Bastion Square – the main (very attractive) square in the city full of gorgeous Baroque buildings. You’ll also notice that the street signs are all on ceramic plaques, which is rather nice.

We reached Mdina as the streetlamps lit up. We’d read that you have to see it at dusk or night to appreciate its eerie silence. We didn’t wait until it was late enough when we got there to appreciate the street lighting at night, but we definitely got the emptiness. We were the only people there, apart from one other couple we passed. We dined at the fancy 
De Mondion – such places are meant for celebrations – like bringing in Kunal’s birthday !!!


Consistently rated amongst the top restaurants in Malta for the soul nourishing cuisine, refinement and excellence, the de Mondion promises discreet yet impeccably attentive service allowing patrons the time and privacy to savour the cuisine, the company and surrounded by the frequent colourful firework displays for the nearby village festas. The wine was superb and well recommended by the sommelier.
That evening, when we reached Sleima and were about to decide where to head next, GianPula found us. Like all epic plans that are never a part of the plan, this fell right into place. We saw a bunch of people walking towards what clearly looked like a party bus. Everyone showing their hands with the tag of some event, young boys high fying and girls retouching their make up and saying they were only going to have the best night of their summer…. Kunal and I did feel maybe we were a bit too old for this, but then again we decided – if it wasn’t for us – we will take the taxi back home ! And that’s how GianPula happened.

An original Maltese hunting lodge converted into  a popular clubbing village on the island, Gianpula is made of a collection of a huge disco complex with several gardens, nice music, adults customers, an amazing rooftop pool, - located on the road connecting Mdina to Zebbug, in the middle of the countryside is not easy to find. But once you are inside the entire vibe is different. We went to The Rooftop – which serves South American Tapas, Drinks, and Sheesha !!! What more can a girl ask for ? Oops, In my casé what more can the birthday boy wish for ?? By the end of that night, we felt we ticked the whole "be up till 4am, drinking and dancing till the high heels hurt !!!"

 So the next day was just the perfect plan , to feel in our 30's again – we planned to take a Yatch out at sea. We visited the beautiful island of Comino. From Sleima harbor you can rent these beauties out for the entire day like we did or you can also rent them by the hour.


The ride to Comino Island is incredibly picturesque. Have your camera ready for shots of the beautiful caves and sea cliffs along the route there. It’s a quick trip from anywhere in Malta and the journey is Instagram-worthy from beginning to end. As soon as you arrive at Comino Island, you will see how crazy popular this place is. There are always tons of people arriving at once. Normally, anything so touristy puts me off a bit, but this place is worth it.

You can’t blame tourists for crowding in to see this gorgeous spot! The Blue Lagoon is shallow. It’s basically a giant swimming pool. The water is calm, shallow, and crystal clear. It’s a good place to snorkel or just enjoy the cool water. There are tons of water sports that can be enjoyed – we sat on the bumpy bed/ speed boat and bhoy o bhoy did we feel 16 again.

The best part of being parked in the blue lagoon – you have a speed boat that goes around to come take your orders for food, drinks, ice cream and any other essentials – we called for a warm pizza and some wine – and was the perfect meal post our dip in the sea. This is the luxe life – and the moment where I forgot I am Mom !

That evening we dined at Caviar and Bull. One would ask what are two vegetarians doing in a sea food and meat speciality restaurant ? But will you believe me when I say this : If their Lobster is their specialty , their Goat Cheese Filo Pastry Puffs may as well be at par ! It was little pieces of heaven melting in the mouth. We had the degustation menu – accompanied by some amazing cocktail.
 We were seated on the balcony over looking St Georges Bay. What a fine evening looking at the sun set and the wind ruffling our hair…. We were one of the last few to leave… but we left savoring our chocolate cake and memories of that Maltese Evening

For our last evening we went to St Julian and walked around Paceville … Paceville is the bustling city center of St Julian. … Can also be called a street full of Hugo’s terrace bar, Hugo’s Sheesha, Hugo’s Bar … all things Hugo.

We got to enjoy a Fifa Match in Hugo’s terrace with a few drinks followed by Sheesha in one of the lounges on that street. The lounges all look and feel almost the same- its like one big party street. Although the crowd is younger – more for people on the Bachelor / Bachelorette parties = big rowdy crowd.

Malta also has some really big Casinos… The Westin Dragonara is one of them. Kunal made a few, I lost a few … we squared it off well ;)

Malta does not have too much sight seeing, but a big part of the Maltese culture are the The Maltese village festa - They are the distilled essence of all that is Mediterranean in one event. These feasts combine colourful lights, band music, noisy and bright fireworks displays, and a crowd of hundreds spilling out of bars onto the noisy streets into one orgy of celebration.

It’s an experience of food, drink, music and fanfare. Food stalls line the streets serving everything from hot dogs to traditional fare. Try some mqaret - deep fried date cakes. These are sinfully delicious and a bag full will set you back less than 2 Euros. Another artisanal treat is nougat. You’ll find many selling this favourite treat known as qubbajt in Maltese. Sellers normally have dark wooden stalls with antique weighing scales to serve the sugary treat.

Band marches are an integral part of the celebration. The local band performs festa favourites, many of which will be composed by local maestros. As they march through the streets and towards the church, the crowds often follow behind.The ceremonial highlight of any festa is the carrying of the statue. Festa devotees bid for the privilege of hoisting the statue out of the church and onto a prominent place in the village square. This is usually accompanied by a roaring crowd cheering them on. Go for a quick walk around the town – and make sure its one of the big village festas – because smaller the town – smaller the festa. You don’t want to look like a big city tourist in a small village !


Like I felt on my trip to Cyprus, I saw very few locals living in Malta –Apparently, people do still live in the city. But like many places we wandered in Malta, there were no signs of local life. It’s almost a museum in itself. Like we experienced in Valletta, there seemed to be gaggles of tourists or absolutely no one about and no in between. My two cents on Malta -  Malta may be smaller than some of the better-known European capitals, but it’s no less noteworthy. Go for the perfect combination of city + beach + restaurants + night life + casino … the perfect one week getaway… If you’re looking for a less obvious city break destination, visit Malta’s hidden gem before the spotlight finally shines on it and visitors start to flood in .

Contact : https://www.vibrantholidays.com/  The helpful people at Vibrant Holidays helped booked our entire holiday and made it a memorable one. 

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