Home to 2000 year old trees, Middle Eastern food, Muslims, Christians and Hezbollah Lebanon would turn out to wow us in many ways. Unlike a few years ago when we were in Jordan looking at relatively expensive flights to Lebanon this occasion looked more likely. Rome to Beirut one-way was around $300 for the both of us and getting back to the States from there didn’t seem like a big deal. I nervously pulled the trigger on the Middle East Airlines website hoping that Andrea would be able to lie without coloring up and sweating if she was asked about ever visiting Israel! As the days became closer I too had a dose of being concerned.
I was carrying a travel drive containing a months worth of images that had been taken in Israel, the TwoGoGlobal website had blogs about our visit and both of our Facebook pages must have had posts from back then. Would Lebanese airport security care? Searching the internet it seemed like the big issue would be passport stamps – as long as we didn’t have Israeli stamps nor Jordanian stamps that would indicate crossing between the two countries we should be good. But what if they just asked if we had visited or planned on visiting; Andrea can’t lie to save her life! What if they were suspicious of us, would they delve deeper? So a couple of days out I zipped up all the Israel images and buried the file deep within the drive, deleted Facebook posts and did nothing with our website – assuming they couldn’t tie that back to us! I highly doubted any of this was necessary but didn’t want to get turned away at the airport, or even worse, detained.
Boarding the flight in Rome all went smoothly, the three hour flight uneventful, the walk through the Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport extremely sweaty. We had read many posts on the security lines and how long it takes to be processed so were expecting to be able to mentally prepare ourselves before reaching an immigration agent – what we didn’t expect was to turn the final corner and have no other foreigners in front of us. I knew my heart was racing, finding out later that Andrea’s was too! The guy waving us over dressed in army fatigues was young and extremely stern. Andrea’s passport is almost full of stamps and this showed as he sifted back and forth through the pages searching for anything incriminating; nothing. Then my almost new passport; also nothing. No questions about their number one enemy and we were through. The guy definitely had attitude and would have nailed us if he could – quite possibly biased but we would get to better understand why they are such anti-Israel over the course of our 5 night visit.
Due to Lebanon’s size it was a no brainer to base ourselves in Beirut for the entire time, heading off on day trips to the surrounding sights. Although we were there during the week the time difference meant that Andrea wouldn’t be starting work until 3pm, pretty much leaving plenty of time to explore. Unusually we had no prior plans other than discovering the sights and sounds of the capital city, Beirut – a few travel blogs mentioned the countries must-sees so we just made things up as we went along. Most western government websites advise on the parts of the country that are dangerous, in fact most advise against traveling at all! – we ended up ignoring all of that bullshit scaremongering and set off to discover!
To most people the name Beirut is synonymous with civil war and Israel conflicts, both fairly recent, the latter still occurring today – for these reasons we had little idea of what to expect; crumbling buildings, safety issues, poor highways, etc.. An abundance of military personnel and checkpoints ensured there would be no problems with safety! Yes there were buildings that were remnants of the various conflicts but it turns out that Beirut is full of modern buildings, the friendliest people encompassing multiple religions, and the best university in the Middle East. For good reason it’s also known as “the Paris of the Middle East” thanks to its French influences and vibrant cultural life.
We chose the Hamra area in the northwest area of the city, home to the American University of Beirut. Typically student areas are vibrant and full of cafes, bars and restaurants – this was no different. We loved it! The status of this university bought in the affluent from all over, young students pulling into local parking lots in Mercedes, BMW’s and Range Rovers. Beirut seemed to have more than its fair share of fancy cars.
Our first day exploring the relatively small city of around a million laid the perfect foundation for the rest of the adventure. Although everywhere modern is pushing out historic and destroyed the government clearly feel a need to replace the bullet hole ridden decaying infrastructure left over from the 1975-1990 civil war – just how far will they go. There are a lot of concerns that Beirut is losing its character and reminders of a violent past. One such building that it seems like they are leaving standing is the old Holiday Inn; used during the Battle of the Hotels, and heavily damaged from rocket and artillery fire.
From our accommodation, the Three 0’Nine hotel, even the furthest city sights in the hip Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze neighborhoods were within an hour walk. Two days gave us ample time to explore; a day in the Hamra and downtown districts and a second day in the above mentioned neighborhoods. Close to us were Pigeon Rocks, the iconic Beirut sea stacks sitting 50 metres from shore and a popular sunset spot for tourists and locals alike. Then from there it was a nice walk along the sea front known as the Corniche taking us to Saint George marina and its million Dollar yachts – with plenty of restaurants lining the water this would definitely be a place to people watch and enjoy the setting sun.
Moving on from the marina it was an easy walk through the new Beirut souk complete with designer store after designer store. This shopping area was clearly for the affluent, a sharp cry from what the cities souk probably looked like prior to being destroyed in the civil war. Close to the souk were the Lebanese parliament buildings and a heavy military present; vehicle checkpoints and military personnel on every road that lead to the centerpiece of Nejmeh Square. We couldn’t help but notice the countless storefronts sitting empty, some showing previous signs of life, some vacant for a while – we had heard that it’s so expensive to be located here business owners just moved on out.
Leading out in different directions from Nejmeh Square were old excavated Roman baths, a statue known as ‘Place of Martyrs’ honoring the Lebanese sentenced to hanging by the Ottomans during WWI, and a couple of religious buildings sitting side by side. These buildings, the Saint George Greek Orthodox cathedral and right next door the Mohammad Al-Amin mosque show that different religions can live together. Or maybe they just tolerate each other!
Moving away from the downtown area heading east came the trendy young neighborhoods of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze, both showing a yet to be modernized side of the city. With more rustic buildings, some bullet ridden and some upgraded, the area felt more lived in. Visiting during the day most of the bars were closed, an indication of a vibrant life after dark.
Although a little more gritty and gray than Hamra or downtown the residents have added colour in the form of graffiti and stair painting. The wide staircases that connect with the Jeitawa neighborhood are constantly under threat of development – their saving grace is that as long as the residents whose houses sit directly on them don’t sell then they will remain a historic feature. We were unable to find the most colourfully painted ones, possibly due to the fact that the google photos were old and the paint had drastically faded, or we were plain looking in the wrong places!
For us staying in the Hamra area was the perfect choice, close to some of the cities best Lebanese restaurants, countless cafes and bars showing live premiership football, and a 15 minutes walk to the Corniche. If the heat made walking feel like hard work then Uber taxis were super cheap and always arrived within a couple of minutes. We met an Uber driver on a short city ride who we then decided to use for a couple of day trips to Qadisha Valley and Baalbek.
Seven thousand year old Byblos, locally known as Jbeil, sits on the Mediterranean Sea and is reputably the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Being the budget travelers we often are, instead of taking one of the well advertised tours to this ancient city and some local grottos we chose a $10 roundtrip bus ride. Using Connexion buses the trip was a short 40 minutes from Beiruts Charles Helou bus station. The station is close to Gemmayzeh and around 50 minutes walk from the Three 0’Nine hotel in Hamra.
Don’t be fooled when getting off the bus on the main Beirut-Tripoli road; there is an old town a short 5 minute walk away! Wandering aimlessly around the old historical town seemed like the thing to do, our couple hour visit easily encompassing the pretty harbour, the small souk with its artifact and artisan shops, old city walls and the beautifully decorated medieval church of St. John-Marc.
Judging by the amount of restaurants and outdoor seating the old town must come alive at night and over weekends. On an October Tuesday morning you could pretty much have the place to yourself! We experienced our first of many man’oushe (plural: manakeesh) here – a typical Lebanese dish with a base similar to pizza coming with a variety of toppings. The herbal za’atar topping was easily our favorite! Little did we know at this point that this dish gets far better depending on how it’s cooked.
Cedars of God and the Qadisha Valley
Utilizing our non-English speaking Uber driver we headed out for our first day trip to discover Lebanon beyond Beirut. It’s amazing how getting by with only Google translate is totally possible – however we would often just nod or laugh if the Arabic to English translation made no sense to us at all. As we never actually understood his name we’ll call him Charles!
At the centre of the Lebanese flag sits a cedar tree, a long living majestic tree that once upon a time covered the higher elevation hillsides of Mount Lebanon. Growing at around 1500 metres there are only a few pockets of the trees remaining, one of them being in the Qadisha Valley – it is said that God himself planted the trees hence the name of this small forest.
As usual we manage to get in our quota of za’atar covered manakeesh, the perfect food before beginning our easy walk through the small forest of Lebanese cedars. The backdrop of the Mount Lebanon range with its 3,088 metre highpoint of Qurnat as Sawda’ makes this a popular area for hiking in summer and skiing in winter.
A short drive from Cedars of God is the town of Bsharri, birth place of the famous poet, painter and sculptor Khalil Gibran (we had never heard of him nor his 1923 masterpiece, The Prophet, before this visit), and jumping off point to Qadisha Valley and early Christian monastic settlements. On the drive in we could see monasteries constructed precariously into rock faces but never had time to visit them.
Also on our drive in we had seen the valley from a distance, hoping now to stop and see from some of the impressive viewpoints, maybe even take a short hike – this didn’t pan out as clouds came tumbling down from the higher mountains obscuring everything. This, the monasteries and seeing the area in winter gives us plenty of reasons to head back to Lebanon!
After seeing images of the grandeur and state of preservation of the Baalbek ruins our second day trip from Beirut had to be the ancient Phoenician site. Known also as Heliopolis during the Roman Empire. Located in the Beqaa Valley around 45 minutes drive from the Syrian border, these colossal ruins are some of the most well preserved we’ve seen – the Temple of Bacchus; larger than the Parthenon in Athens, the Temple of Jupiter; its 30 metre high pillars and massive foundation blocks, made us marvel at how a structure of this size could possibly be constructed without the use of CAT’s!
Before entering the ruins our driver introduced us to an entirely new level of taste; manakeesh prepared in a traditional clay oven – this could easily replace even the best pizza! Seeing the local Lebanese restaurant staff cook these things up was an experience, arms going in and out of an oven as they pressed the flat dough onto the inner walls. Minutes later they were pulling out the thin bases, spreading on the za’atar spice and leaving us to do the rest!
We excitedly moved on to the ruins, the sheer scale prompting questions of how the heck humans a couple thousand years ago could build to this level. Obviously down to thousands of slaves but still mind blowing nonetheless. This location was on the edge of the Roman empire and built with the largest stones ever quarried; “Three Stones” cut from limestone, measuring over 19 m (62 ft) long, 4.3 m (14 ft) high, and 3.6 m (12 ft) broad, weighing approximately 800 tonnes each (a fourth, still larger stone called the Stone of the Pregnant Woman lies unused in a nearby quarry and weighs around 1000 tonnes).
The only negative we had was arriving with an Uber driver and little cash – a guide would have made our experience so much batter. Using Rick Steves free audio tours whilst in Rome had spoilt us! Totally unlike the Rome attractions with their many thousands of daily visitors we were almost in solitude, barely a handful of other people exploring this ancient site, a perfectly good reason to head to countries with government warnings!
For the final couple of stops before leaving Baalbek we were introduced to Lebanese ice cream; a multitude of flavors dunked in pistachio nuts, followed by the shrine of Sayyida Khawla, the daughter of Imam Hussein and great granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad. Separated from Andrea our driver and I headed in the mens entrance leaving Andrea to be searched, dressed in a black hijab and entering where the women pray. This area with its obvious Hezbollah presence had an aura of intimidation, especially when we found ourselves in what felt like a museum for the group – pictures of its leaders, fighters and slogans covering the walls and various displays scattered about its floor.
This was one of those places where we wanted to know more; the Hezbollah history, its causes, and involvement in Lebanese politics. We had so much to learn about history, events, and religion, yet we move on from place to place promising to ourselves to read up and never take the time to do it!
So are we glad we visited Lebanon? Absolutely! Will we return? Definitely. And do we advise others to go? No way, take note of the various government warnings and stay away – leave it for travelers like us to enjoy who hate mass tourism!
Taxi from Beirut Rafic Hariri international airport to Hamra, Cost: $33
Uber from Hamra to Beirut Rafic Hariri international airport, Cost: $20
Uber from Hamra to Charles Helou bus station, Cost: $5.50
Bus (Connexion) from Beirut Charles Helou bus station to Byblos (bound for Tripoli), Time: 40 mins, Cost: $3.30 pp
Bus (local) from Byblos to Beirut Charles Helou bus station, Time: 80 mins, Cost: $2 pp
Lebanese food: T-Marbouta, Abu Naim, Barbars – for kebabs (Hamra)
Burgers: Bedivere Eatery & Tavern (Hamra)
Carrier: Touch, Data: 6GB, Cost: $33 (passport required)
September 29th – October 4th 2019
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