Rising from the revolution: Life in Benghazi
Currently, few visitors to Benghazi arrive on leisure trips.
The murder of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three colleagues profoundly shook confidence in “Free Libya.” The United States advises against all travel to the city while hearings continue over the American response to last September's attack.
The backlash against Islamist militias, however, has seen their presence and influence much reduced.
Although the prevalence of private weapons remains problematic, these days, the city feels remarkably relaxed.
As I traveled around town recently, it was impossible not to be affected by the honesty and hopefulness of Benghazi’s locals. They know everything can only go up from here.
“Welcome to Benghazi -- cradle of the revolution,” announces a sign on the tarmac at Benina airport.
Despite the sign’s upbeat message, the airport’s facilities are more akin to a hard-up flying school than an international gateway, giving the impression that the keys to the worn-out terminal might normally reside under a brick round the back of the main hanger.
And so it is with the rest of post-revolution Benghazi -- all broken streets, tired buildings and flyblown wasteland.
In the center of town, behind the clamor of Arabic signage, shadowy lettering of Italian colonial institutions endures.
An abandoned twin-domed cathedral lies half-shrouded in scaffolding, while more Ottoman facades show decades' worth of decay.
With the heady atmosphere of revolutionary fervor behind it, the city looks forward to a better future, knowing that things can only improve.
Five-star accommodation endures
During the 2011 revolution the international press inhabited the concrete fortress of the five-star hotel Tibesti.
Located about a kilometer south-east of the city center, overlooking Benghazi Lake on Sharia Gamal Abdel Nasser, the white concrete and glass hotel has 270 rooms over 14 floors, a swimming pool and three restaurants.
It's open, costs $152 per night including breakfast and has a functional Internet connection -- an attraction during the fighting, but these days this isn’t a unique selling point.
The Tibesti’s dated business-style rooms are no longer in such demand.
Next to the same lagoon on Sharia Al Jezayir is the Ouzu, another similarly priced hotel undergoing refurbishment and another sign that the city is prepping for future travelers.
Try-before-you-buy gun sales
Early morning sees activity peak among stalls at the Al Funduq market off Shari Al Aquriyyah, about a kilometer north-east of the old city center.
Fruit and vegetables, livestock and poultry are serviced by a fleet of wheelbarrow men who transport purchases for a few dinars.
Occasionally the sounds of the market are punctuated by the staccato of automatic gunfire.
There’s no need to take cover though -- it’s the “try before you buy” transactions by freelance weapons traders on the fringes of the market.
Directly across the main road is the garment section of Souk Al Jareed, where tailors line up at their sewing machines, ready to measure the insides of legs.
The long covered bazaar stretches towards the center of the old city, with vendors selling wares ranging from electronics to ceramics to jewelry.
The forlorn shell of the old Italian town hall looks across Maydan Al Hurriya towards a parade of Misratan gold merchants and money changers, the latter occasionally filling car trunks with bundles of notes.
Libya is definitely still a cash economy.
Alcohol banned but available
Alcohol was banned as one of the first edicts issued by the Free Officers of Gaddafi’s 1969 coup.
That said, smuggled booze and potentially lethal home brewed bokha (a bad batch recently claimed 51 lives) is available on the black market.
Macchiato and Turkish coffee vie with black and green tea as the preferred drink at the cities' cafés.
Downtown, Café Tikka on Sharia Omar Al Muktar is the best example of Benghazi’s morning café society.
Inside the shop, black and white images on the walls recall scenes of well-kept city streets, ordered traffic and finely dressed people.
The shelves are lined with telling keepsakes: heavy caliber cannon shells, an automatic pistol and pennants for Al Ahly, Benghazi’s much followed soccer team.
Behind a high counter two bearded baristas, sons of the father whose picture sits alongside that of King Idris and anti-colonialist freedom fighter Omar Muktar, turn out concentrated shots of top quality coffee and freshly brewed sweet tea to an exclusively male clientele until late in the afternoon.
Food is cheap
On the street, ubiquitous shawarma stands serve up roasted chicken or beef wrapped in a bread roll, sometimes sprinkled with eye-wateringly hot harissa.
Quick, tasty and cheap, shawarmas are great introduction to the local food, which is just as well, for although several Turkish restaurants exist, eating out well Libyan style is nigh impossible.
The only recommendation-worthy venue is the downtown Restaurant Bodraa on Sharia Rafiq Al Mahdui near Souk Hoot, founded 64 years ago.
Its meat or fish tajines, filfil (various stuffed peppers), abrak (stuffed vine leaves), osban (rice and liver sausages) and salads are all excellent meals from $8.
No car? No problem
Petrol is cheap in Libya, cheaper than water, and less than $5 will fill up an average car.
As a result the city’s roads are choked, the narrow line between parking lots and traffic jams blurred.
Exploring old Benghazi’s compact center on foot makes a lot more sense.
Walking north-east from Maydan El Catedraeya and its landmark derelict cathedral leads onto Sharia Al Corniche.
First constructed during the colonial period, this wide pavement is the venue for a Libyan-Italian fusion of the passeggiata -- little walks in the evenings.
Keeping the sea to the left, a little further along lies Court Square, also referred to as Maydan Al Hurriya, Benghazi’s other Freedom Square.
During the 2011 revolution, it was here, in front of the courthouse, that tents were set up, crowds gathered, speeches given, poems recited and prayers said amidst hoardings pasted with pictures of those killed.
Continuing on the way to the Italian lighthouse, the best macchiato in town can be found at Café Benghazi.
Another menu favorite: soothing sahlab (thin millet porridge) sprinkled with cinnamon, which tastes much better than it sounds.
If you are going
Taxis from Benghazi’s Benina airport to most downtown locations cost around 15 dinars ($12).
Visas are required for most visitors and all holders of Western passports. Visa criteria are subject to change.
Reputable local tour operators include Temehu whose website is a mine of practical information and historical background on the city.