The long weekend in... Libya

| May 3, 2007

Laura Smith travelled with a group of journalists on Cox & Kings’ Libyan Long Weekend.

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Day One – London to Tripoli
Having grown up in Australia, I never cease to be amazed at where a short flight from the UK can get you. Just three hours after leaving London, we touch down in Tripoli, and we’re plunged into a different country – a different continent, even – with a different culture, language, currency and cuisine.

Ours seems to be the only flight arriving, and the airport is quiet. Security guards stand chatting and laughing over a cigarette. To my relief, there are no lingering locals waiting to take our bags or offer us a trolley in return for cash. We’re met by our guide, Mohammed, and driver Osama, and after one of the most relaxed and hassle-free airport experiences I’ve had anywhere, let alone in the Middle East, we arrive at the Corinthia, Libya’s finest hotel. Our rooms are huge, and have wonderful views of the Mediterranean.

Day Two – Sabratha and Janzur
After tearing myself away from the largest and most comprehensive buffet spread I have ever seen, it is time to set off for Sabratha, around 45 minutes’ drive away.

Sabratha is relatively small, and we wander around the city at a relaxed pace, taking in the remains and imagining how impressive it would have looked in its day. The restored theatre is particularly spectacular. Mohammed explains that performances are still carried out here occasionally. This must be one of the greatest places to see a play in the world, with the gentle sound of the sea providing a backdrop to the action.
There is a small museum on the edge of the city, which contains the beautiful mosaics that tiled the floor of the Basilica. The detail is incredible, and Mohammed explains how we can tell what era a mosaic dates to by its level of detail. In the Byzantine era, time was precious. Mosaics were simple, with large chunks of stone arranged in simple patterns. The Roman era was more secure, with lesser threat of invasion, and Sabratha’s inhabitants were able to spend years creating mosaics of far more intricate design. The same goes for the coins. Roman coins were large and heavy, with intricate patterns printed on from rubber stamps. Byzantine coins were far smaller, barely marked with a knife to show their worth.

Next on the itinerary is Janzur. We pull up at a small house on the roadside, where our driver gets out and greets the doorkeeper warmly. Mohammed explains that 50 years ago the owner of this house dug up an ancient tomb in his garden. The house was soon taken over by historians, and several more tombs were excavated. “Keep quiet next time” is Mohammed’s insightful lesson to the resident, who inevitably lost his house.

But thank goodness he didn’t. The tombs are beautiful - intricately painted and still filled with original ‘tomb furniture’. We sit inside one of the tiny tombs, as Mohammed explains the stories behind the beautiful artwork.

After a long day’s sightseeing, we’re ravenous, so we ask Mohammed for a recommendation for dinner. There’s no need to be accompanied on an evening out in Libya. It is fairly late when we head out, and yet I feel completely safe. Travelling as a Western woman in a Muslim country, you come to expect some curious looks at the very least, perhaps the odd comment. In Tripoli, there are very few Muslim women around in the evening – their male counterparts seem to occupy the cafes and restaurants in small groups - yet nobody blinks an eyelid at my late-night appearance in Western attire and uncovered hair.

The restaurant we visit is located above a café, close to Tripoli’s clock tower. We take our shoes off on entry and settle on typical carpeted floor. A pair of Libyan musicians play in the corner, despite us being their first diners of the evening. No menus here: we are presented on arrival with fresh bread and humous, and then with Libyan soup - a thick Lentil based soup, with chunks of delicious beef, and vegetables. Plates are quickly cleared and "meat or fish" offered as main course options, just before hugely generous portions of good home cooking are brought out, steaming hot.

Day Three - Tripoli
Today we have a full guided tour of Tripoli. We start in the Jamahiriya museum, housed in the Red Castle where the entrance to the city once stood. Here is a sizeable collection of original and replica statues, mosaic and frescoes that have been collected from the city and surrounding areas.

Colonel Gaddaffi’s 1960s VW Beetle has also made it into this museum. Somewhat out of place, but interesting nonetheless.

On the other side of the museum stands Marcus Aurelius Arch. This is the only standing Roman building in Tripoli, and was only discovered when Alexander the Great ordered a large road to be built running through the Red Castle and along the coastline.
Tripoli’s Medina, or old town, is crowded with locals, shopping in the souq and drinking in cafes. People are certainly very relaxed here or, as Mohammed puts it, “lazy”. The souq itself is similar to those I had encountered in Egypt and Morocco – bustling and full of conflicting sounds and smells. But the lack of hassle is a complete surprise. Here, visitors actually feel comfortable approaching a stall and browsing, perhaps even showing interest in one or two things, before moving on. In Marrakesh you only have to come within 10 yards of a stall before getting completely harangued by the owner.

Green Square links the medina with the new city, built by the Italians. Distinctly Mediterranean, the square is surrounded by palm trees and Libyan flags. The streets that lead from the square, including the revered 3rd September Street, named after the date of revolution in 1969, are lined with expensive-looking shops. A burger bar has recently opened here, though there are no western chains to be found. Yet.

Day Four - Leptis Magna
An early start this morning, and the sun is already high in the sky. The Roman city of Leptis Magna, just over an hour’s drive from our hotel, is the reason most visitors come to

The sheer scale of Leptis Magna is enough to take your breath away. In its day, the city stretched three kilometres along the Mediterranean coast, and comprised of arches, baths, houses, shopping streets, churches and basilicas. At its entrance stands the imposing Arch of Septimus Severus, named after Leptis Magna's most famous son and Emperor of the Roman Empire from 193 - 211. Septimus Severus was the first Emperor to be born in Africa, and he later died in York whilst overseeing reconstruction of Hadrian's Wall. Over 20 metres high, the arch has lifestyle scenes intricately carved in to the rock. I could spend hours poring over the arch alone, but Mohammed ushers us forward. There is a lot more to see.

I am struck immediately by the scarcity of visitors at the site. The visitor car park has just a few vehicles parked up, and the small outdoor cafes are deserted. Two small groups of Libyan school children arrive and both set off in different directions at the Arch. The size of Leptis means that it is easy for visitors to take different routes and not bump into one another again.

Mohammed’s passion for Leptis Magna is infectious. His eyes wide with enthusiasm, he tells us fascinating stories of bloodshed and betrayal, but also helps us imagine daily life in the city. He occasionally asks us to imagine there was an extra wall here, or a second floor there, to build a picture of how things were. I struggle, my spatial imagination letting me down, but Mohammed whirs on, re-building the empire in his mind’s eye. It’s as though he has lived through every moment of the city’s history.

Even now, only a third of Leptis has been excavated, and we’re all left wondering what lies beneath our feet as we wander around. For me, the Roman baths are a real highlight. We learn how individually heated rooms took Leptis Magna’s residents from warm, to hot, to steamy, to boiling, to cool again – all with under-floor heating. Today, women across the world pay a fortune for this kind of experience.

I am in complete disbelief that 2,000 years ago, people lived in cities with 8-foot tall marble pillars and 20-foot arches, frequented the circus and the theatre, took hot baths and exfoliated their skin. How is it that people lived so well two millennia ago, whilst just over a hundred years ago Londoners were living in fairly squalid conditions in the Victorian era. Of course, the African slaves living in Leptis would have had a different tale to tell I’m sure.

Undoubtedly the most breathtaking sight is that of Leptis Magna’s amphitheatre. Located around a kilometre up the coast from the city centre - to avoid escaped lions entering the community, we’re told - the amphitheatre is an awesome construction, expertly built from golden stone against a backdrop of blue sky and the glittering Mediterranean Sea. Arriving at 3.30pm, we are the only visitors to the structure which once held 16,000 spectators.

Unlike the Colosseum, here you can walk up and down the many rows of seats, wander freely around the main stage, and even disappear into the bowels of the building, following the winding underground passages that gladiators and animals would have used. Our group has a lot of fun fighting imaginary lions and making loud calls to hear our voices echo impressively around the massive structure.

We watch the sun set as we travel back to Tripoli in the minibus. We have a farewell dinner in the Corinthia hotel’s Moroccan restaurant, Fes. Tonight’s delicacies include spicy Moroccan soup, delicious pigeon pastillas, traditional tagines with couscous, and cocktails. Non-alcoholic, of course. The following day it’s back to London with a head full of memories.

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2 thoughts on "The long weekend in… Libya"

  1. Roger Pearse says:

    I wish I’d know that this one was running — I would have gone on it. I went on the Libyan Long Weekend holiday last year, in March, and would recommend it to anyone.

    Libya is a destination that would make a lot of people nervous. But even the most repressive regimes covet the tourist dollar, so long as they go on organised excursions, and Cox and Kings look after you well.

    Tripoli airport is a little tatty, but it is quiet and there are no problems there.

    The Corinthia hotel is marvellous, overlooking the Mediterranean, and I highly recommend it. The food is good, and when I ordered chips on room service (a severe test, believe me), instead of grey lukewarm objects I received them foil-wrapped crisp and hot. The hotel is new, and has already had some refurbishment. I’d be happy to stay there for weeks!

    Libya itself is not a developed country. When we went to Leptis there was hardly anyone else there. But the site itself was unbelievably magnificent. But we didn’t really get enough time there; it just physically takes too long to walk around the site. I wished that we had started earlier in the day, and so had more time. Sabratha was also very interesting, and can be covered in a day quite well.

    In short I highly recommend this long weekend. It isn’t arduous, but every moment is full of interest. The hotel is so nice that you will enjoy the trip, even if you aren’t as massively keen on ancient cities as I am.

  2. Roger Pearse says:

    I enjoyed my trip in February 2006 so much that I went again in September 2007 (i.e. last weekend). I thought that I would add a few more comments.

    This time we had Mohammed Tabbal as the guide. He was very enthusiastic, spoke very good English, and was very well informed and helpful indeed.

    Now I went there in Ramadan, quite by accident. This is a time to avoid Moslem countries, since everyone is fasting during daylight, so it was only accident that I booked a tour at that time. But we had no problems, although I must say that the french fries in the Corinthia this time *were* soggy things! Generally though standards were kept up. There was certainly no problem for us in obtaining food and (essential) water. On the other hand it was so hot that I didn’t feel very hungry.

    Sunglasses were essential at this time of year; I managed without, but wished that I had them. So is a sun-hat, and so is factor 50 sunblock.

    One problem that affects Tripoli a lot in hot weather — and it was around 38 degrees celsius this time — is power cuts. There are several so-called ‘first class’ hotels in Tripoli, but they suffer like everyone else. However these do not affect the Corinthia, and we had no trouble. Cox and Kings’ policy of using the best accomodation is a positive blessing in Libya.

    There were only seven of us this time, so we went around in an air-conditioned minibus. Mohammed made sure that all of us were carrying water everywhere in the sweltering heat, even though he was fasting himself. (Indeed we rather thought he must be super-human to drink no water in the conditions we had!) This meant that he bought water and made sure that a supply was with us at all times in the bus. He also made sure that we knew where the ‘facilities’ were at every stop.

    The restaurant used at Leptis Magna was particularly excellent, the food good, and the facilities at it were first class.

    Leptis Magna is huge, so inevitably some things get left out. Naturally I wanted to see some of these, such as the port; I was delighted to discover that there was flexibility for me to go off and do so.

    It helped that mobile links have improved; my O2 contract phone worked this time (it did not last time). On the other hand buying a T-Mobile or Vodaphone pay-as-you-go sim is probably a waste of time; I brought the latter and it did not work. What I would suggest is asking Mohammed to see if you can get a local sim (Libyana or something like that).

    There is not a lot to spend money on, except the bills for meals and phone calls at the Corinthia. Most of us seemed to spend about 150-200 libyan dinars (about £75-110) somehow. But these bills can be settled by credit card.

    There are slow internet terminals at the Corinthia, although I avoided these; hey, I’m on holiday. There are also sun-loungers outside, if you can find how to get to them (through the spa, past the swimming pool, and out of a door which is plainly meant to be kept shut but never is).

    The tour was much the same. Libya has modernised further since 2006, and English tour groups are recognised as generally well-behaved and unlikely to cause problems. There are fewer restrictions, and getting around is much easier.

    Most of our group reckoned that they wouldn’t mind doing the same tour again. That probably says it all. But then again on this tour you do miss Cyrenaica and the eastern cities. Mohammed recommended the “Classic Libya” tour for this, which he also guides, and perhaps I will try that.