I’m currently living in Beirut for a few more weeks and am using the capital as a basis for further trips all around this fascinating country.
Last week, before the bad weather and storm hit, I decided to travel south along the coast to the biblical town of Sidon, called Saida in the Lebanon. Sidon has been inhabited since about 5,000 years and therefore is full of history. The first thing that comes into view when approaching from Beirut is a fine example of a crusader castle, built in 1228 standing on a small island and connected to the mainland by a short causeway.
On this visit however, my interest concentrated on the Old City of Sidon, dating from the Mamluk era with one of the most amazing souks in the Middle East. The Old City is enclosed by a high saffron colored wall and the inside is criss- crossed by a maze of alleyways all of which are, unusually, vaulted.
Enter through one of the gates and you find yourself in a labyrinth of cobble-stone covered aisles, all bathed in a mystical twilight because of the stone ceiling overhead. Steep stairs lead up to upper floors, side aisles are branching off everywhere and many of the shops, stalls and workshops are set deep within the walls resembling caves. It’s like no other souk I have ever seen before.
I had come in search of a curiosity: The Olive Soap Museum. It’s not often that you find a museum dedicated to the making of soap, so I definitely could not bypass this one.
Finding it was no small feat, but with the help of my driver and some shop keepers we arrived at the entrance. In fact I should only have followed my nose because the unmistakable scent of sweet soap was wafting out well into the alley.
It’s an ancient building which once contained a hamam until it was converted into a factory producing a particularly good soap from olive oil, bay leaf and a few other secret ingredients which were used nowhere else.
In the past century, a wealthy family from Beirut converted the factory into a museum where you can follow the entire process of soap making and also admire some exhibits which were found during excavations.
The building is divided into several levels and you climb from one to the other, looking into show cases embedded in the walls, showing instruments and many forms into which the soap is pressed. Everywhere are huge towers of soap bars which are piled up in a special way so the soap can dry. And of course, the entire place smells so good.
On the lower level you will find one of the most beautiful gift shops I have seen in a long time, selling baskets full of soaps and creams as well as hand embroidered towels and linens. And next door is a Café where you can rest and have a coffee and cake and plot how best to find your way out of the maze and back to your car.
Inka is German and used to be an international attorney with offices in London and Spain. Retired two years ago because I wanted to be a traveler and writer and now live between Didim, Turkey, and Miami with plenty of travel in between. Next destinations: Istanbul, New York and Petra, Jordan.