Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Breakfast in Sidon

Sidon's Qalaa or Sea Castle
What do you do on a Sunday morning in Beirut? Well, in my case this week, I was driven down south to the port city of Sidon for breakfast!

With my friend Jennifer Haddad behind the wheel, we set off around 9.30 a.m. Her colleagues, Rabih Wehbe and Mariam Seif el Dine, drove in front of us. Bahia Allouche, a native of Sidon who volunteered to serve as our tolerant guide, joined us in the seaside city.

The approximately 40-kilometer (25 mile) drive south took only 20 minutes without the weekday traffic madness. The highway all the way south hugs the coastal road and banana groves typical of the region. We passed by Shoueifat, Damour, Tiyeh and Rmeileh before arriving at Lebanon’s third largest city.

Sidon, or Saida in Arabic -- which means fishery -- has been inhabited since 4000 BC and is one of the most important Phoenician cities and perhaps the oldest.

The Baha'eddeen Mosque
The Baha’eddeen Mosque, built by the late prime minister Rafic Hariri and named after his father, greets you at the city entry with its 36-meter-high dome. It is a modern take on Turkish Ottoman mosques and can be seen from all around Sidon.

We headed straight to the seaside promenade, lined with cafés and restaurants, for a traditional Sidon breakfast. This consists of all kinds of hummus (chickpeas) dishes. Among them: fatteh (chickpeas with yogurt, fried bread, fried pine nuts, garlic and oil), hummus balila (chickpeas with lemon juice, garlic and spices), hummus mshawsheh (chickpeas with tahina or sesame paste, lemon juice, garlic and spices). We had our fill of hummus varieties and fresh Arabic bread, olives, tomatoes, salad and pickles… The whole breakfast, followed by tea, came to LL 30,000 ($20).

A traditional Sidon breakfast
While waiting for our delicious meal to be served, I couldn’t help hopping around to take pictures. It was my first visit to the city that takes its name from the first-born of Canaan, the grandson of Noah and is mentioned in the Bible at Genesis 10:15, 19. When I last lived in Beirut during the civil war, it was difficult to get to move from one street to the next, let alone around the country.

I crossed the street to take pictures of the famous Qalaa or Sea Castle (, built by the Crusaders in the early 13th century. The fortress is right next to the port. It also sits opposite Al Qalaa Hotel, one of Sidon’s two hotels, which takes its name from it. The second, Hotel Yacoub, is in the middle of the city, close to the old souks and opposite St. Elias Cathedral.

Sidon was already bustling with pushcart street vendors selling all kinds of goods, and the cafés were bustling with people also out for shopping, breakfast, arguileh or sheesha (hubble bubble) or just wandering around in the beautiful warm weather of November this year.

The alleyways of the old souks
After enjoying our breakfast, the five of us decided to walk it off and explore Sidon. We headed to the old souks, dating from the Mamlouk era, and first passed by the traditional maze of narrow alleyways lined on both sides with tiny shops and kiosks selling fruits, vegetables, spices, meat, chicken and everything imaginable. Luckily, Bahia was able to guide us through the maze of alleyways, until we reached Bab El-Serail. It is a central square where many events in Sidon take place, especially during the Moslem fasting month of Ramadan. Beautiful little streets lead from the Serail back to the seafront and the port. All around the square, the buildings have been restored, as have the streets of the old souks.

Rabih, Jennifer, Mariam and Bahia in Khan El-Franj
The winding alleys took us to Khan El-Franj -- the Caravanserail of the French -- that was built by Emir Fakhreddeen in the 17th century to house French merchants and goods. The imposing walls and arched entrance lead into a large courtyard surrounded by covered galleries.

We walked along the Sidon Corniche, crowded with families strolling along, children riding horses, fishers about to head out to sea and boats preparing to ferry people to the nearby islands.

We also visited the Fish Market where fresh fish is sold by bidding every morning. By then, there wasn’t a lot left, but the fishermen were still proud to show us their catch, especially the flying fish which they explained is dried and offered as a good omen to ladies who miscarry.

Sidon is a city of vast contrasts between the beautifully restored souks and the more popular and run-down area. It feels vibrant and bustling and can boast of so many different specialties, like hummus, fish, falafel, carpentry, soap, perfumes and two Arabic pastries: ghraybeh and sanioura

It was all too soon past 1 p.m. and Jennifer and I still had to go up to the mountains, to my mom Vicky’s village of Ain Anoub and Bshamoun (see Bahibak ya Libnan post, November 22).
Thank you Jennifer, Rabih, Mariam and Bahia for such a lovely day and for your patience while following me around while clicking my camera in all places.

You can join us on our walk around Sidon here.