Lebanon: Infinite Variety and Delight
[Editor’s note: This article was written before the 2006 invasion of Lebanon by Iraeli forces. We welcome updates to this story.]
By Elienne M.W. Lawson
The last time I visited Lebanon was two years ago in the winter. The buildings in downtown Beirut still showed the scars of the civil war, and the cold mountain weather made the ski resorts buzzing hot-spots (or cold-spots) for winter sports and showcasing the latest winter fashions.
Since then, much has changed in the typical quick-paced Beirut style, where cars zip in and out of the city center without regard for traffic lights, lanes, or right of way. Now, the last traces of the civil war, at least in downtown Beirut, are fading away. The August weather was hot and humid (although a welcome relief from the scorching temperatures in Europe).
But one thing had not changed from two years ago, and indeed had not changed from thirty years ago: the persistent American belief that Lebanon is a war zone, a destitute, dangerous country without interest.
I would like to bear witness to the contrary. I have visited Lebanon twice, been all around the country, announced my American nationality in areas hostile to the American government…and emerged unscathed by anything more than a case of the flu.
Variety and Delight
Lebanon is a country of infinite variety and delight. One can have Arabian nights in Baalbeck, Mediterranean siestas in Byblos, or hedonistic display in Beirut.
Lebanon is a lesson in tolerance; it is a country where Muslims and Christians live peacefully side by side, where the most covered of Muslim women co-exist naturally with the least dressed of young Lebanese girls. I think I fall somewhere in between these two categories and so easily weave my way around the country.
Any trip from America to Lebanon begins in Beirut. There are no direct flights to Beirut, so you have to change in Europe, usually Paris or London. Finding seats in August can be a impossibility, since many Lebanese ex-patriots and French travelers make Lebanon their vacation destination every year.
Find Out More
Middle Eastern Airlines, Lebanon’s carrier, is a veritable tourist information source, so take advantage of their hospitality to find out more about your tourist options. My own French steward took it upon himself to educate me about the small coastal town of Byblos, and it turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.
Upon arriving at the airport in Beirut, don’t forget to purchase your visa before trying to go through passport control. (Visas are sold in the same hall, but on the opposite side from passport control.) The lines are long, and the last thing you need after so much travel time is queue after queue.
After passport control, there are many porters who can help you with your luggage for a few dollars. Remember that most people here speak French, English, and Arabic, and that the official currencies are both the US dollar and the Lebanese lire. There is no need to exchange your money as the two currencies are used interchangeably.
Do Yourself a Favor
Once you set up camp, do yourself a giant favor. Go to the nearest pharmacy and ask for at least one box of Ercéfuryl 200 mg. These tiny antiseptic pills (take two the first time, one every following six hours until you are out or your are leaving Lebanon) save your stomach from the trauma of “tourist disease.”
I learned this painful lesson a few weeks ago. My two-week trip was cut into one mobile week when I spent the first week with the worst intestinal distress I have ever experienced. Due to food bacteria differences, hardly anyone is immune until they build up a so-called “Lebanese stomach”, and I recommend that you simply begin taking the remedy when you arrive.
It is also worth noting not to drink any water unless it is bottled, to try to avoid ice in drinks (which can be difficult… in summer you will need to request this when you order a beverage), to peel your fruit (again, remember this when the luscious fruits are brought out for dessert), and to avoid salads in the first few days of your trip.
The local food is delicious, so don’t avoid eating it in favor of packaged western food found in supermarkets. If you do get sick, Immodium is readily available over the counter.
The joy of Beirut is in luxury. If you are partial to staying in luscious hotels, eating sumptuous meals, and cavorting in beach-side resorts that look fresh from a music video on MTV, then Beirut (Beyrouth in French) is your city.
The Phoenicia hotel is perhaps the center of snob appeal for tourists (their brunches are delicious) and is a great place to see wealthy gulf tourists flaunt themselves. There are several sea-side resorts right in Beirut. A favorite for the French-Lebanese crowd is La Plage, which is next to a wonderful shop for tourists called “L’artisanale de Liban” right along the Beirut boardwalk.
You needn’t be concerned for your safety in Beirut; there is hardly any petty theft let alone violence. The presence of the Lebanese army, startling for Americans on their first visit, serves to discourage any stepping out of line.
Dining and Strolling
The downtown area is wonderful for dining and strolling late at night and clubbing is a favorite past-time of the young Lebanese crowd. It is not uncommon for Lebanese men and women up into their fifties to club in Beirut, so the older tourists need not feel discouraged if they want to get their groove on.
For me, Lebanon and Beirut, like so many countries and their capital cities, are two entirely different places. If you plan on visiting many places outside of Beirut, I recommend renting a car. I am blessed to have close friends in Lebanon, notoriously generous people and wonderful companions in travel. Most of the wonderful archaeological sites in Lebanon – Byblos, Baalbeck, and Tyre to name a few – are easily accessible from the major highways.
Byblos is a quaint and scenic Mediterranean town that was once a capital of international jet setting life (for this scene, go to the Byblos Fishing Club, right on the port) and also one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. A major port for the ancient Phoenician empire, Byblos has both Phoenician and Greco-Roman ruins.
The markets, known as souks, of Byblos are not to be missed. La Memoire du Temps sells world class fossils; many of the pieces in the Smithsonian and other major museums originated in this tiny shop, owned by a very friendly English-speaking archaeologist. His family owns various other shops throughout Byblos, and they will give you high-quality pieces at good prices.
Have lunch in the old port, and then head south to the Tam Tam Beach. Any of the private beach clubs south of Byblos offer a good time and pleasant atmosphere, with clean water. In my opinion, the beaches north of Beirut are less rocky and therefore more user friendly, but both offer beautiful seaside escapes.
Jounieh, the largest city between Byblos and Beirut, has a wild nightlife, and you may have more luck finding a place to stay in Jounieh than Byblos. To save you some trouble, follow this translation: a nightclub is a club, an oriental night club is a club with belly dancing, and a super night club is like a strip joint. Enjoy!
From Beirut, the drive east takes you through the mountains, closer to the Syrian border in the Bekka valley. Famous for its dairy products, the region is host to Lebanon’s agricultural wonderland, and the food is a major draw.
The remains of the ancient city Baalbeck, the vistas of Lebanese mountains, and the Bedouin population and their accompanying crafts, are the best reasons for visiting this area.
Your best bet is to go in the summer, when you will pass through lively mountain towns that serve as resorts for gulf tourists. In the winter, the roads are often icy and perilous, and beyond braving the mountains to get to the ski resorts, I wouldn’t suggest you meander around narrow mountain roads in knee deep snow and ice.
Every year in August Baalbeck hosts a music festival that brings in some of the world’s greatest talents to perform against the awesome backdrop of ancient ruins. This year, the French National Opera Theatre performed Carmen in the moonlight. All around me, Lebanese people were transformed by the magic in air into ancient worshippers and the singers on the stage took on a larger-than-life glow from the giant moon.
Baalbeck was one of the ancient wonders of the pagan world. Its name, Baalbeck in Arabic or Heliopolis in Greek, means city of the sun, and it was first erected to honor Baal, the sun god.
God of Wine
After the Romans conquered the area, Baalbeck became a major pilgrimage for its mighty temple to Bacchus, god of wine. The ruins of the temple to Bacchus are the most well-preserved in the world, and the collection of ruins, dating from Phoenician to Ottoman times, are overwhelming.
Up the road from Baalbeck, the famous Palmyra Hotel stands as a monument to a bygone era. The sweet and ancient men who run the hotel are happy to show you the dark and mysterious hallways and regal bedrooms that offer more modern ghosts than the ruins nearby.
For French art lovers, the collection of drawings by Jean Cocteau housed inside is both a surprise and a delight. In the mornings, a pleasant village woman prepares pita bread by hand in the courtyard and my feeble attempts to learn her trade were enjoyed as a day’s entertainment by my Lebanese hosts.
Enjoy apple tobacco on a traditional shishaw pipe as you rest in the courtyards from the noon day sun, which will remind you of your presence in the city of the sun and make you fantasize about cooler Arabian nights in Beduoin camps.
Moving south, Tyre is along the coast, not far from Israel. The “disputed regions” between Israel and Lebanon are further east, and despite sharing my lunch with members of the UN and Red Cross, I didn’t feel close to an area of unrest at all.
I saw people living in poverty and support for the infamous Hezbollah (which is a religious based political party based in the south of Lebanon that doesn’t get much support up north), but I was never greeted with anything but graciousness and hospitality.
A trip to Lebanon without visiting Tyre would be unthinkable. The trade of purple dye made from the murex shell grown off the coast of Tyre once dominated the area’s economy. The dye from this modest mollusk was used for imperial Roman garments and the reason that even today the color purple is associated with royalty.
Today, you won’t find much of ancient Tyre in the harbor itself. You will however, enjoy the trip for Tyre’s souks, its shipbuilders laboring under the spines of boats, and its groups of foreigner-curious men enjoying a good smoke of the shishaw pipe outdoors in their underwear.
About twenty minutes by foot and a case of severe dehydration in the afternoon sun, you will arrive at Al-Bass archaeological site, which is known best for its necropolis and the gigantic 2nd century AD hippodrome.
The necropolis remained largely intact until the civil war, when many of the tombs were looted, and if you peek into holes in the sarcophagi, you can see the shattered bones of its skeletal inhabitants.
If after all of this archaeology you would prefer a reminder of more modern religions, the city of Qana (Cana in the Bible) is a reasonable drive east from Tyre. There is a cave in Qana that is said to be where Jesus and the disciples took refuge from the heat for lessons, and the city of Qana is said to be where Jesus turned water into wine.
The cave itself and surrounding tourist area is very well kept up, remarkably so for Lebanon, and worth a visit. The vistas are beautiful and there is a tangible sense of spirituality in the air. If you want an image of “god’s country” or Jesus preaching on the hills, you won’t be disappointed.
Christian and Muslim Harmony
Qana is very small and poor town on a hill, and it is a perfect example of Christian and Muslim harmony in Lebanon. The Muslims usually wear cover (a head scarf), the Christians don’t, and there are separate living areas for the different groups that co-exist peacefully. Both peoples are pleasant and give accurate and polite directions to the other areas of town after inviting you in for some strong Lebanese coffee.
The city was united by tragedy in 1996 when an Israeli missile hit an orphanage in the center of the town, and a monument to the children and museum of peace has been erected on the site.
Visiting Qana will give you a sense of the struggles further east and further south, on both sides of the border, and although caution should be exercised in this area of Lebanon, you can experience true history happening here on Earth right now without having to enter into an active war zone.
Lebanon is a country of great extremes in religion, culture, terrain, and history. It has every type of vacation one could want: from a luxurious city break to idyllic beaches, from rugged mountain villages to peaceful countryside.
You will find your Arabian nights here, as I did. I belly-danced in front of a crowd of Saudis, Lebanese, and Kuwaitis and was cheered in a palace hall full of the gentle smell shishaw smoke and jasmine leis.
I stood in the temple of Bacchus and watched the moon rise over the ancient columns. I watched the sunset over the distant hills of Syria and dreamt of voyages to unknown lands out of the port of Byblos.
I cheered in the stadium of a hippodrome and pranced in the fashion parade of downtown Beirut. I wore a head scarf and long sleeves, and I wore a revealing bikini.
Two years ago, when I came to Lebanon to ski with friends, I didn’t realize how diverse the country turned in the warmth of the summer. I didn’t realize either how fast the marks of the civil war faded as time speeds up in this slow land. Or how hard it would be to leave my journey and return to America.
Elienne Lawson is a writer and teacher. Her love of international travel began at age seven, when she was chosen as a youth ambassador to the former Soviet Union. Since that time, she has traveled to eighteen countries on five continents and counting.