The immigration officer asked me where I had flown in from. “Lebanon”, I replied. “It’s pretty dangerous over there”, he remarked. “Actually not” said I, “they were some of the nicest people I ever met”. He muttered something as he put a special mark on my embarkation card: a “random” mark according to him that got me VIP in the special search-them-extra-good room. Lebanon has an image problem. Once considered a “the place to be” in the Mediterranean, it lost most of its following during the Lebanese hostage crisis that ended in 1992. Subsequent civil wars haven’t helped. The images on television did their job. It’s hard to think about Lebanon without thinking of bombs and machine guns. I’m not saying that you’re NOT going to see machine guns if you go there, but they aren’t going to be aimed at you. I’ll also admit, If you’ve never been out of the country, Lebanon might be a little intense for your first trip. It’s in a hotbed of conflict, sandwiched between Israel and Syria. However, Lebanon is an oasis in the middle of the craziness of the Middle East and has amazing travel adventures to offer. It’s safer than it’s ever been and if you’re looking for a unique experience, you’ll find it in this tiny little country packed full of surprises. Did I tell you how nice the people are? Don’t worry, I will.
Beirut will undoubtedly surprise you as soon as you spot it from the plane window. It almost feels like New York with much shorter buildings. It seems to go on forever and it’s full of traffic, great restaurants, nice hotels and great walkways along the water. Unlike the Big Apple, it’s a mix of old and new. You could be sitting in a brand new high rise, looking at 2,000 year old ruins below your balcony. It’s an amalgamate of people with different religions in which everyone is surprisingly tolerant of each other’s beliefs. Next to the giant letters downtown that spell BEIRUT, there’s Roman “pagan” ruins, a huge Christian church and a mosque…all within spitting distance of each other. The Lebanese have learned to adapt, get along and get the most out of their tiny bit of Mediterranean real estate.
Less than an hour north of Beirut is the city of Byblos. Byblos is so beautiful and charming, you may not want to go anywhere else. The city is one of the oldest inhabited in the world and has ruins that date back to over 7,000 years.It’s also the place from where the Bible gets it’s name. A beautiful harbor dotted with restaurants and shops lines the coast. A crusader castle crowns the center and rises out of the midst of the old town’s cobblestone streets. You might think that it’s difficult to find a bar in such a place, but the opposite is true. Lively music, cold drinks and a laid back vibe right in the middle of the ancient streets make Byblos something special. Feniquia is the restaurant that stands out as the true Lebanese dining experience where each dish is surprisingly served in ways you wouldn’t expect and to date is my favorite food experience in the Middle East. To be honest, I had to drag myself out of Byblos, because it’s a place I didn’t want to leave. I reached a self-compromise to come back my last night. As luck wold have it, Byblos was hosting a wine festival in it’s picturesque marina. Who knew that Lebanon had so many great wines produced in the country?
My next stop was Baalbek, an absolute must-see of Lebanon. These ancient Roman ruins are about 2 hours drive from Beirut near the Syrian border. I thought that I might hear bombs dropping or people running madly through the streets, but instead I found myself in a quiet town surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the world famous ancient temples dwarfing everything else in sight. I’ve seen lots of Roman ruins, but these are something special. The temples are mind-blowing, the museum uses original structures to house it’s treasures and these amazing buildings seem almost too good to be true. The Bacchus temple is one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world and it’s collection of stone lions, entrance gate and carved figures will astound you. This site is world class.
I was a little nervous about staying in this town so close to Syria and considered by many to be the headquarters of Hezbollah. As I looked for a restaurant and WiFi, two men sitting at a table invited me to join them. Hours later, after meeting a dozen of their friends, drinking Lebanese beer and talking about life, I realized that they had paid my tab and bought my dinner. They I insisted that I stop by an informal get together at one of their homes thrown in my honor. We drank Arak, listened to Fleetwood Mac, and they gave me the grand tour of what a super cool Lebanese house looked like. It was an amazing evening with some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.
On the way back to Beirut, I stopped in the UNESCO site of Anjar, a small set of interesting 8th century ruins in a strange Armenian-only village enclave. After a short visit, I headed towards Jeita Grotto. I had been told by two Russian travelers that it was one of the most spectacular things they had ever seen in the world and my curiosity was piqued. The grotto is two parts: the upper and lower chambers. One has to take a gondola to get to the upper half entrance and no cameras are allowed inside. The caverns are impressive enough and although the path is only about 10 minutes long, even jaded spelunkers might let out a spontaneous “ahhh” or two. However, the piece d’ resistance is the lower chamber. You take a cheesy trackless train down the hill, lock up your camera in a locker again and walk into an underground chamber to board the boat that will take you through the cavern. The boat ride is stunningly beautiful. It’s 5-7 minutes of wow, wow, wow. Even Walt Disney couldn’t make a ride this good. The caverns are beautiful, serene and going by boat is something that must be experienced.
If you haven’t had your fill of gondolas, nearby Jounieh has an amazing tram ride that will transport you from shore to the world famous pilgrimage site, Our Lady of Lebanon. You can reach the giant statue of Mary which sits atop the mountain at Harissa next to it’s ultra-modern church in a short ride that gives you the best possible view of Beirut and the coast. People from all over the world climb the steps leading to the statue, light the candles and pray to Mary. Even if you’re not a believer, the views are amazing, especially in the evening as the town lights up. The traffic to the top of the hill is nothing short of horrendous, so plan accordingly. Jounieh is considered to be one of the liveliest towns in Lebanon with it’s beach bars and seafood restaurants. It has it’s seedy side as well and is not nearly as easy to navigate by foot, nor as sexy as nearby Byblos, but is still worth a visit if you’re not pressed for time.
Sidon and Tyre are south of Beirut on the coast and can both be visited on a day trip. Tyre has two fantastic ruins, one picturesque site on the coast dotted with ancient columns (Al Mina) and a more elaborate complex that features a huge hippodrome, an ancient acropolis (Al-Bass) and several other well preserved buildings and arches. The hippodrome is an impressive UNESCO site and gives you an idea of the size of the events that the Romans put on. Tyre also has a beautiful ocean boulevard that might make you feel like you’re in Florida for a moment with it’s palm trees and little restaurants. It’s also the home of countless loggerhead turtles. Smoke a lemon mint flavored nargile and sip on some fresh fruit smoothie on the second floor of one the beach restaurants and you can make out the border of Israel as you watch the sunset. Sidon is a bit more traditional with it’s old souk and crusader castle on the water. There’s a soap making museum, a Phoenician temple, the Khan el Franj, and various other ruins from the different civilizations who made this city their home in the last few millennium.
I’ve rarely encountered the hospitality I found in this great country. People I just met insisted on treating me to dinner and none of them would let me pay for anything! They all said “you are my guest” as if it was a national slogan or something. If I was walking and looked confused, people would stop their cars and ask me if I needed help. One man stopped to help me get on the right road to the Jeita Grotto and then drove hours out of his way to get me there. We became friends on the way and the next day he drove me on an epic tour to the southern part of the country. We went to the coolest restaurants and he made sure that I saw everything wonderful that his country had to offer.Who does that? Not anyone I’ve met in America. Not at least lately. Was I just lucky that everyone I met went out of their way to show me hospitality and make sure that I had a great time? I don’t think so. I think the people in this country are just that way. Lebanon gets my prize for being awesome! and no……I’m not afraid to say it even if I do get searched twice.