A highlight of a recent visit in Lebanon was Saida.
Sidon is the city’s ancient, and possibly better-known, name. Legend has it, Sidon is named after the great grand-son of Noah (chap whose family had to repopulate the earth after a great flood, remember?) However cool that may be, locals today call it Saida, so I’ll stick with that.
If you go to Saida – and why wouldn’t you – do mind the traffic, but otherwise, all you have to think about in this alluring Mediterranean town, is to enjoy yourself. Now, I am sure there are more than two reasons to visit Saida, maybe even more than 20. But here are my two faves: the sea castle, and the souk, featuring a limestone khan, a quirky soap museum and bright, shiny colours everywhere.
Saida’s harbour – and the Lebanese flag bobbing on the cerulean waters of the Med.
Saida Sea Castle
Where else can you find a Crusader castle at sea?
The sea castle is the symbol of Saida, built over an ancient Phoenician structure to strengthen the harbour. Efficient folks, those Crusaders; it took them just a few months to build. Considering the machinery and equipment available back in 1228, that’s pretty impressive. Naturally, it has taken a few hits through the centuries; including a thrashing by the Brits in the mid-1800s.
To get to the fort you cross a stone walkway. There doesn’t seem to be any local guides here, nor is there much written information available, so unless you’re on a guided tour, read up on the history before you go. If you’re more into just aimlessly wandering about, taking in views, snapping pics and relaxing, that’s even easier. The fort has two towers. You can easily climb both, but there are no railings, so watch your step; wonderful views of the city and the ocean from the top. I had the place all to myself for about 10 minutes, plenty of time to imagine being a crusader.
Locals enjoying a day out at the sea fort.
Saida’s lively souk
Khan-el-Franj is a highlight within the souk; it gives an intriguing glimpse of life in Lebanon of old. A khan is like a caravanserai, a sleeping place on the way. Other than a place to rest one’s weary travel legs in the 1600s, it has served many purposes over the centuries: a French consulate, a school, a convent, a museum. Today, you’ll find various handicraft artists and a tourist office located here.
Khan-el-Franj means Inn of the Foreigners (or, literally, of the French) – and is from the Ottoman era. Wandering around the large courtyard, I kinda wish I were, too. Or at least, that I could teleport back to those days, if only for an hour or so, looking out from these covered galleries…
The soap museum
I didn’t realise I had a thing for coloured glass until I visited the soap museum in the souk. Love the way the light strikes and creates rainbows of bright, transparent, beautifully brilliant colours everywhere I turn.
Showing off coloured glass isn’t the primary purpose of the soap museum. So I tear myself away from the hypnotising chromatic spectrum and concentrate on soap – and the making of it.
I had no idea soap making – and soap – could be so engaging and aesthetically satisfying (learning a lot about myself here in Saida), so I’d recommend taking the guided tour. It’s about texture – and sound (you’ll have to find that bit out for yourself).
Soap aside, though… more coloured glass! Weeeeeee!
Back in the vaulted souk…
… you’ll walk through delightful tunnels and alleys, see cool architecture and everything on offer. Or, you could just pull up a chair…
A word on security, the way I see it
I was in Saida a few days after the general election (May 2018). By the souk entrance, political campaign posters were still up, here featuring incumbent PM Saad Hariri, along with Rafiq Hariri, former PM and Saad’s father.
Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in Beirut in 2005. More recently, in June 2013, Saida was the scene of the Sidon Clash. This two-day battle between Sunni militants and the Lebanese army, left more than 50 dead, among them two civilians. For a minute, I’m reminded I’m in one of the world’s volatile spots. But then I remember Oklahoma City in 1995, Oslo in 2011, Paris, London, Manchester, Brussels, bi-monthly mass shootings in the US…
- Saida is about 40 km south of Beirut – and about the same distance north of Tyre; it’s a great stop on the way to check out those fascinating ruins of times gone by.
- Mini busses leave from Beirut every 15 minutes and costs ca. LBP 4000 (€ 2/US$ 3).
- You can also join a guided tour. Many tours include both Saida and Tyre. While you can do both in a day, spending the night in Saida is even better.
- Opening hours/entrance fees:
- Saida Sea Castle 0900 – 1800 / LBP 4000 (€ 2/US$ 3)
- Saida Soap Museum 0830 – 1800 / LBP 5000 (€ 2.8/US$ 3.3)