Lebanon in Two Weeks

 

 

My two brothers and I recently visited Lebanon for two weeks. Our trip was fantastic and I wholeheartedly recommend Lebanon to those in search of fun, sun, culture and great food. Having travelled extensively, I confidently proclaim that the Lebanese people are the nicest, most welcoming people I have ever had the good fortune of meeting. Traces of human existence in Lebanon date as far back as the 6th century B.C. and many sites, such as Byblos, have seen six empires – Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab, Ottoman, and French come and go. Lebanon is a rich country that has sadly seen far too many years of sectarian and regional war.

 

Martyr Square in Beirut in 1982 during Lebanese Civil War

 

The civil war (Pity the Nation by Fisk, Radio Interview with Fisk), which lasted 15 years and ended in 1991, Syrian domination and the recent Israel conflict in 2006 has left the country in a difficult position. Nevertheless the country seems to be rebuilding and on some sort of path to recovery – though income inequality remains a major hurdle to a true democracy. I hope that one day, a democratic and peaceful Middle East will emerge from the rubble of conflict. An economic cooperation zone and network of high speed trains between Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt would could turn the region into an amazing place, let’s hope, for the sake of the lebanese people that this comes to pass one day.

A large part of the economy is driven by the banking sector, thanks to its very low tax rates and proximity to oil rich countries. The country is tiny, you can drive from end to end in about 4 hours and the food is delicious. The country is made up of many different religions, beliefs and backgrounds, from Muslim to Christian from Arab to Phoenician. It is a country that defies most standards and still has a way to go, but it is a remarkable place that expresses so many of the challenges human societies still face.

The remainder of this post is more of a travel log. For those interested in our itinerary and costs, read on. All prices have been adjusted per person based on triple room occupancy.

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We landed in Beirut and quickly made our way to the underwhelming, yet lonely planet certified, New Talel Hotel for 15$/night. Despite its name, it is not new and you can quickly tell that it is run by a bunch of guys in their mid twenties. We explored Beirut’s nightlife, from Gemmayzeh street to the student Hamra district. Though reputed for it’s nightlife, we were a bit unimpressed, but again, that is coming from a bunch of Montrealers. Beirut is an interesting city and the food was amazing – lots of walking, coffee and narghila. The museum at the American University in Beirut is well worth a visit, but the most popular activities in Beirut are certainly driving fast, eating, smoking, drinking and lounging by the pool.

The Lebanese are amazingly welcoming people, constantly asking where we are from and going out their way to help us. They did not try to aggressively sell us their wares and generally offered reasonable prices right off the bat. It is a nice change from many other countries where they treat tourists like ATMs. The food is amazing, did I mention that?

In the Hamra district, we definitely recommend Li Beirut bar for their happy hour 6-9 PM and Prague bar was also bumping. On Gemmayzeh street, all the bars were fairly similar, small and busy. The women in Lebanon are beautiful, though there are rumours they might be getting a little help.

After Beirut, we made our way to the Jeitta Grotto, an impressive cave network that is well worth the visit. From there we moved up to Byblos, a charming seaside town that was once a hotspot for celebrities and big whigs. There is a decent public beach nearby and some shops in the town that sell great fossilized fish and sea creatures. The highlight is the ancient city, which was home to over six civilizations and started in 7th century BP. We stayed at a camping hotel about 2 km out of town, about 15$/person.

From Byblos, we headed to Tripoli, a seaside Muslim city that is famed for the 2007 violence between government forces and Palestinian refugees that spilled onto the streets. We found the city quite safe, the souks were really authentic and there are no shortage of madrassas and mosques to visit. The highlight might be the citadel which sits atop the city and is well worth the 2$ entry fee. Be absolutely sure to eat falafel from the stand just down the street from the great mosque, we waited an hour for him to open, but it was worth every delicious bite. We stayed at the charming small hotel El Coura for about 20$/person.

From Tripoli we made a night excursion with some newly minted Lebanese friends to Batroun, a seaside village that is full of bars and lounges, clearly an escape from the conservative Tripoli. Great sheisha and food in the café we visited.

From Tripoli, we made our way via taxi to Syria for a day trip, we would have normally spent more time in Syria, but the repression of the democratic movement was in full swing. The border was not pleasant, be sure to have lots of US dollars on you, but we did somewhat surprisingly make it through. Crac de Chevaliers is the largest crusader castle in the world, huge, intact and isolated – it was well worth the expensive visit, but should ideally be done during a wider Syrian visit. We swung by the ancient St. George Monastery on our way back to Lebanon. The Syrians were notably less friendly than the Lebanese and we were very happy when we walked back across the border, it almost felt like going home.

Back in Tripoli, we promptly paid our falafel friend another visit, 0.75$ falafel is truly a godsend. We also popped by the famed sweet shop Hallab, which was delicious and had wi-fi, something remarkably hard to find in Lebanon.

From Tripoli, we took a bus to Bartoun, were we got a taxi to go to the city of Doum. Doum is a beautiful mountain city made quite rich by its arms dealing and manufacturing industry. The taxi then continued to the beautiful region of Tanourine, leaving us at the last city. We mulled around the pretty city, I fell in a sewer, leaving my leg filthy, bloody and my brothers laughing. From there we negotiated a 20$ taxi to Bacharé.

Bacharé is beautiful and is home to the Maronite Christians of Lebanon, who form the core of the Phalangist party a.k.a. kabeob political party. They are renowned for their militias, the inspiration the founding father drew from Nazi like discipline, and the massacre of Sabra and Shatila. That being said, the city is clean, affordable and the people are very welcoming. The region really is stunning, we spent a day walking through the holy Qadisha valley, visiting churches, alters and hermitages. Very worth the trek. We stayed at the Tiger hostel for 10$/night.

From Bacharé we grabbed a 50$ taxi to Baalbeck via the mountain road, which is a magnificent drive. The ruins of Baalbeck date back to the 2nd century AD and are simply amazing, the sheer size of the structure and the intact temples really do take your breath away. These are the largest Roman temples in the world and were built so large in an attempt to impress the locals and temper the popularity of the rising Christianity. If you can, try to visit the site near sunset, and there is a great hotel with balconies looking onto the site for only 10$/night.

From Baalbeck we took a bus to Zahlé where we visited  the Ksara winery, nearby Anjaar ruins. The Anjaar ruins are a little underwhelming after Baalbeck, but they do give you an idea of what a Umayyad city might have looked like. The Ksara wine visit is well worth your time, especially considering it is free and you get to see ancient roman cave systems that are now used as stock rooms to age the wine. We stayed at the very authentic Akra hotel, (20$/person) – definitely recommended.

From Zahlé, we hitched a ride with a mini-bus to an intersection, from where we hired a taxi to take us to the 19th century castle of Beiteddine, very nice. From there, the taxi continued to Dar el Amar, a lovely town with some cafés and a wax museum, not much to report for this spot, but worth a quick stop.

From Dar el Amar we headed to the southern city of Tyr via a free ride with some nice beer drinking fellows, followed by a bus ride. This city has some ancient roman ruinds and a nice public beach where we lounged away the day. In theory you could scuba dive in some of ruins and thermal vents, but the sea was too choppy when we were there. We stayed at a newly renovated hotel bar on the waterfront for about 26$/night.

After Tyr, we headed north to Sidon where we hired an amazing guide to visit the water castle and then strolled through the souks. Just in front of the water castle, we had, by far, the largest falafel wrap I have ever eaten – well worth the 1.25$. The soap museum is very much worth your time, but a few hours in Sidon is all you really need.

We then headed back to the big lights of Beirut, this time we stayed at a religious hostel called Le foyer de la Sagesse, a great find for 25$/night. We meandered the streets and visited the amazing archeology museum, definitely worth it. We completed our Lebanon trip with a bang: we started the night at the Abdel Wahab restaurant, definitely the best Lebanese food I have ever eaten, and then headed on over to the massive nightclub, Beiruf where we partied like Arab princes until our 6 AM flight, leaving the country with memories that will last a lifetime.

Lebanon is highly recommended, feel free to email me at jbrun@jonathanbrun.com with questions.

Published on June 25, 2011