I like to take holidays in the sort of places that make my American friends nervous. This time we chose to take a one week tour of Libya. We generally prefer DIY trips but I really wouldn't have a clue how to organise a trip around Libya and the sheer simplicity of letting someone else sort out the visas and transportation won out this time. There's not much tourist infrastructure so doing it yourself is really tricky. However, the good news is that as citizens of one of the few countries that Colonel Gaddafi isn't in a mood with at the moment, we found the country almost empty of tourists which was nice for us but a shame for the locals
~Tourism in Libya~
I found this on a Libyan government tourist website. It's a definition of tourism:
"Introducing the civilisation and historical process of the Libyan Arab People and depicting the material and moral accomplishments and transformations of the Great Al-Fateh Revolution with respect to the potentials of the Great Jamahirya, such as tourist sites, natural, cultural and industrial resources and the civilisational achievements therein and providing its honourable image/picture at international level"
As slogans go, you'd have to say that it's not exactly snappy.
So enough of the revolutionary ideology and a quick introduction to why Libya really is a pretty cool place to take a holiday!
~A is for Africa and Arab~
Libya used to see itself as an 'Arabic' country in the sense of the emotional links to the Arabian Gulf. Then Gaddafi fell out with the Middle East (he's prone to falling in and out of love with countries like a teenaged girl with popstars) and decided to take his ball away and play with the Africans instead. All over the country you'll see 'inspirational' posters and murals extolling the joys and progress of a strong, united Africa. Yeah, like that's going to happen! Nice idea. I believe the Colonel started strutting around in animal skins at one point, trying to get down with his African brothers.
The reality is that there's no place in Africa that I've ever been that feels less like Africa. And no place in the Middle East that feels less like the Middle East. Close your eyes in Tripoli and this spotlessly clean city could be almost anywhere. Go to the coastal areas where the great Roman and Greek ruins are, and you could be anywhere on the Mediterranean coast.
~B is for Blue and Byzantium~
The colour of my holiday was blue – in a thousand different shades from turquoise to navy blue with everything between. The sea and sky almost seem to have been designed to make your photos look more impressive. I'm really not sure you could take a bad picture in such a photogenic country.
The reason we (and most tourists) went to Libya was for the ancient ruins. I can't claim I knew much before I got there, or that I'll remember all that much in a few months time but the history of the area is dipped in all the major historic movements between roughly 2300 and 1400 years ago. The Phoenicians were there for a while but didn't leave too much of a mark, then the Greeks rolled in, followed by the Romans. The Byzantines (or early Christians) built some fabulous churches, sometimes basing them in what had previously been Roman or Greek temples. And in turn, the Muslims came along after and converted the churches to mosques. Such is life and civilisation!
~C is for Cyrene~
It's hard to choose a favourite from amongst the multiple historic sites we visited but for me I think Cyrene was the best. Founded by the Greeks in 630 BC, it's a stunning place. We had an outstanding guide who succeeded in making the place come alive, walking us round the ruins of the old city, telling us about how people lived, why things were placed where they were, and how everything fitted together. As we marvelled at the size of the place he pointed to a field in the distance where a small theatre was cut into the hillside. "There's another city over there, even bigger than this one but we've hardly scratched the surface of what's there" he told us. A flock of goats calmly wandered around chewing the grass and neglecting to be impressed by 2000 years of history beneath their hooves.
~D is for Deserts, Desserts and Delays~
A large part of Libya is desert and it's an enormous country, much of it made of little more than sand and rock. If ancient history isn't your thing, there are plenty of desert experiences to be had. Food wise, desserts are hard to come by and most meals don't include anything sweet at the end of the feast. And finally delays – we spent 8 hours at Tripoli airport thanks to Buraq Air. No explanations, no apologies, and no idea what was happening. After 3 hours and two cancellations they put us on a plane. Then they took us off again. Eventually they put us on another plane. What a total and utter waste of a day of my precious holiday.
~E is for Eggplant and Earthquakes~
Baba ghanoush – surely the dish that aubergine (egg plant) was created for and one of the finest of culinary experiences. Meals typically start with a plate full of dips and some soft freshly baked flat bread. Amongst the dips there's usually yoghurt, hummus, tahini, and the fearsome bright red chilli paste. But the king of the dips is the baba ghanoush but watch out for the garlic, it can be very strong.
Earthquakes played an important role in the aesthetics of Libya's ancient heritage sites. You might well think 'how nice of those ancients to build so close to the sea' like Benidorm hoteliers until you spot that actually there's a whopping great theatre right next to the sea and surely they'd never have been able to hear the actors. Fact is that a massive earthquake in the 3rd or 4th Century put large parts of the ancient cities under the sea. As a diver, the urge to instantly sell my home and all my belongings and go and set up a dive centre on the Libyan coast was enormous.
~F is for Food~
I've had holidays in North African and Middle Eastern countries that left me bored silly with the food and frantically seeking anything that wasn't carrot and potato (Morocco) or stale bread and rice (Iran). Surprisingly as a non-meat eating fishitarian, I didn't struggle in Libya. We had two gluten-intolerant ladies in the group and they survived too (though admittedly with the help of a lot of cereal bars and rice cakes they'd brought with them). Variety was good, prices ranged from ridiculously cheap in road side Turkish cafes to stupidly optimistic in 4-star hotels, but I didn't go hungry.