Advantages Rich historical and archaeological as well as cultural country
Disadvantages Not many for tourists, but slightly expensive
|Value for Money|
|Ease of getting around|
The Lebanon may not seem an ideal holiday destination to many, but to some, the idea is rather tempting. Most people are in a sense still frightened, because of the war that tore the country for over 15 years, from 1975 (although some say earlier) until 1990. Who can blame them?The truth is, Lebanon has been rebuilding itself (too much in a way) since 1990, and although there have been episodes of car bombings and explosions in the past 15 years; they have not been much more numerous than many bombings that have shocked London in the past same 15 years.
At first sight, a country the size of Lebanon might seem insignificant, but size is certainly not an issue here.
Whenever I say that I am Lebanese, I almost always get the same reaction from people: "Ah, the pearl of the middle east", "Ah! It used to be such a beautiful country…" "My father went there when he was young and says that…"
I have never known the pearl, and only really discovered my country of origin after having departed from it in 1990 and upon my several returns from 1994 onwards. Last year alone, I was there three times.During the war, most archaeological, historical and cultural sites were occupied by one army or another, or one of the countless militias that sprouted in Lebanon like poisonous mushrooms. It is a miracle that they were not completely destroyed, and indeed, for the most part, suffered very little throughout the war.
*********************************"Le Levant" as Lebanon is often referred to in French, shares it southern borders with Israel and its North and Eastern borders with Syria. The whole of the west border is caressed by the Mediterranean Sea.The country is divided into 4 physiographic regions:
Most Lebanese fancy themselves as the ancestors of the Phoenicians, whose culture, sadly, is still not very well accounted for. Only bits and pieces have remained and the constant looting of archaeological findings and artefacts, especially in Southern Lebanon, has been a constant stab in the heart of scholars eager to learn more about this fascinating ancient civilisation. Education is the key, but poverty can be a worse killer than ignorance.We know that the Phoenicians were excellent seafarers who travelled extensively and sold their merchandise to the most prominent other civilisations of the time (and far beyond, if some recent findings are to be believed). They are also known to have invented the first alphabet, but again, this is a topic for a separate review and I cannot pretend my knowledge to be so extensive as to allow me to do that. One day perhaps?
I have raised this point as you may meet many Lebanese who will tell you that they do not consider themselves as Arabs. They are Phoenicians. Indeed, their blood is most certainly forever marked by these ancestors of theirs, as is mine probably, but I also know that I personally carry Mongolian, Arab and Indian blood through some previous ancestors. What does that make of me?If I was not Lebanese, I would not dare say that, but I find it offensive and right down stupid to deny half of your ancestors in favour of the other half. Because most people are completely ignorant of the long and frankly enlightening history of the Arab people, they only associate it to recent historical events and to Islam as an ending point. Islam = Muslims = Fanaticals = Terrorism. Non, pas moi! (No, not I!).
Sometimes, the longer road is easier to take, as it gives you more time for reflection, and reflection is the essence of enlightenment. Enlightenment, one would hope, encompasses understanding, tolerance and acceptance of all that lives. No civilisation, no people is better than any other. Why the shame?Lebanese Muslims tend to have no problems, on the other hand, with wholeheartedly accepting their Arab ancestors.
************************************Now is high time I changed the subject and got back on the road this review is meant to lead us to.
When you get to Beirut Airport, all seems normal. The airport was "modernised" a few years ago and although not very big, it is clean, with well-kept toilets, and boasts many duty-free stores.The Lebanese are usually very friendly to foreigners, although officials may try to impress you by asking you unnecessary questions upon your entrance and / or exit from the airport, to seem very rigorous in what they do. I never get this, because I know the exact look I must give them to avoid it. Hehehe!!
As you leave passport control to pick up your luggage, there is a small chance you will be "gently attacked" by a hoard of luggage carriers eager to carry your luggage for you. You can pay them as much as you like, I like to be generous (although my father says I exaggerate) and I always give them $5. To me, £3 is not much, to them, it is a great help.Lebanon is most definitely an easier place to visit if you have acquaintances there, as there are a few "ways" you have to learn and locals will know how to show you so many hidden corners of this land. But fear not, for even if you don't, you can grab a taxi outside the airport and most people speak a few words of English or French.
I have never stayed in a hotel in Beirut, as my parent still live there, but I have checked on Expedia and prices seem to range from £50 a night to over £200. Most big hotels are to be found there, Holiday Inn, Meridian, Sheraton etc… and depending on the time of year, prices may vary.I know there are smaller hotels, but I frankly don't know the prices. I believe a Lonely Planet guide book about Lebanon now exists and this may be a good reference.
*******************************The wonderful thing about Lebanon is its small size, which means you can travel the breadth and width of the country in relatively few hours. Most roads are new and easy to travel, but mountain roads will make you dizzy with their twists and turns.
Do not even think of driving there and I strongly advise you to wear a blind fold, take some valium or smoke a joint before getting into any car. If you believe in God, make a prayer, light a candle to any saint you wish, and prepare yourself for the ride.Lebanese drive like there is no tomorrow. They respect nothing and no one, they curse at each other 234 per minute as a rule and the traffic policeman posted in the middle of a junction to "regulate" traffic is usually a sure sign that a traffic jam is inevitable. Unless he happens to be having a conversation with one of the car passengers or a shopkeeper nearby, which is always preferable, as drivers have their own rules and know how to go by them, so long as a law officer does not interfere, and then all is well.
Traffic lights have been planted more as a decoration than any sort of useful traffic regulators and my sister and friends, who always stop at red lights, are constantly harassed by other drivers behind them and hailed as … never mind that!!Take a taxi. They are relatively cheap. Buses exist but for the most, don't go everywhere and you need an oxygen mask and a strong stomach to get on them.
Crossing a road is also a hazardous attempt to make. Most Lebanese seem to do it without a care as though life was not that important or they are simply "blasé" by the whole thing. I get the jitters after each road crossing and find myself cursing the entire spectrum of deities, their offspring, my people, the world and anything or anyone else that happens to be in sight.This is part of the charm of Beirut some people tell me… I suppose it is a matter of opinion…
*****************************But now for the good things.
If you love beaches, beaches you will find a-plenty. From the north all the way down to the south, a long beach extends and yawns with arms outstretched, beckoning you to jump in.In Beirut proper, most, if not all beaches are privatised. Hotels and resorts are built almost literally ON the beach. There are the "poor people" ones and the "rich people" ones. There is usually an entrance fee that goes from £1 to £5, depending on the place and the season. But if the hotel you book is near a beach, then it will most certainly have its own private stretch.
However, if you drive northwards, there are still "natural" beaches that are free to use.
There are some in the south as well, but I avoid them as most bathers are men, and women who do bathe, do so with their clothes on. The south is predominantly Muslim and any sight of bare female flesh might trigger an onset of hysteria from the locals. Perhaps not, but why take a risk?
Beaches in Lebanon are mostly brown sand beaches, some are pebble beaches though.All private beaches have café, drinks and restaurant facilities. The food is good; the food in Lebanon is hardly ever bad, if it is Lebanese food. Sadly, McDonalds, Kentuckys and all the rest have invaded the country, but I am told, they have some "special" local menus, apart from the usual crap. (Sorry, can't help it!).
******************************Beaches are nice, and the weather in Lebanon is a blessing, this means you can take a dip from May until October and sometimes even November!
I can confirm that there is such a thing as "Four Seasons" and Lebanon is a living proof of that.Winter is rather mild (when I call my mother and it's -10 degrees in London and stalactites are almost hanging from my eyelashes, she always complains that they are really freezing over there, 12 degrees, can you imagine this?).
Spring is a blessing and blooms flower everywhere, spreading a scent that reminds you how precious life is (unless you happen to live next to a rubbish dump or the refuse collectors are on strike or "forgot" to remove the litter from your street).Summer melts even your determination away and everyone's speech takes on a lazy drawl, to match the general posture of the population at that time, which is one of utter lethargic flabbiness.
Autumn is mild, charming and cradles agreeable breezes. It is the end of something, which entails the rebirth of many other things. I am not sure why, but it is a season when I feel loaded with hope.*********************************
Much more interesting than the beaches however, are the historical and archaeological sites. I will have to go through them without too much detail, but if any reader wishes to know more, I would be happy to prepare separate reviews on the sites that most seize your interest.**********************************
Every summer, there is an International festival held inside the ruins of Baalbeck, with artists from around the world (Placido Domingo is just one of the many who have honoured the festival with their presence.) If you do go there during the summer, this is not to be missed. Baalbeck is 85km away from Beirut.
Byblos, with its picturesque little port, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is of Phoenician origin and historians date it back to at least 7000 years ago, possibly much more, but as history goes, records are missing or are not very clear on this subject.
There is a large and beautiful Roman theatre, by the sea, amongst the other Roman ruins and Byblos' little market is a pleasure to visit, with its many cafés and restaurants. Byblos (Jbeil) is 37kms north of Beirut.
The founding of the city of Tyre dates back to the beginning of the 3rd century BC. Tyre was very famous, amongst other things, for its production of purple dye. It was a commercial city as well. Its vast ruins are remains from Greaco-Roman, Byzantive, Arab and Crusader times. Tyre is the South of the country, a few kilometres north of Sidon.Beit El Dine (House of Faith), 50 km south of Beirut, is a glorious palace that was built in the 19th century by the Emir Bachir II, its construction took 30 years to complete, but the result is superb. Its graceful arcades and colourful mosaics, gardens, fountains and hammams are only part of its charm. During the summer, a Music Festival is also organised there and is in a way the rival of the Baalbeck one. The special lighting that is put in place for the festival alone makes it worth visiting.
There are many other historical sites to be found in Lebanon, and I have only mentioned the most "important" ones above, but the list does go on rather extensively.****************************
Other places to visit in Lebanon include The Cedars. The cedar is the emblem of the country and millennia ago, Egypt was but one of the many civilisations who transported the wood from this fragrant and majestic tree to adorn their temples and other edifices as well as constructing their tombs.The Cedars of Bcharreh (121kms north of Beirut), are home to the most senior cedars in Lebanon, some older than 3000 years. The sheer size of their trunks and their branches that stretch out in a motionless dance are humbling. You feel as though they were trying to whisper splinters of history in your ears while attempting to cover up scars. Beautiful forests where you can stroll in peace, even when there are many tourists; there is an overwhelming aura of serenity about the site that blows winds of wisdom in your face. (You lose it quickly upon departure though I am afraid).
On the way to Bcharreh, is the Museum of Gibran Khalil Gibran (Author of "The Prophet). It is actually a place where he lived and where his coffin is to be found. The room in which he lived and composed many of his writings is simple but serene, surrounded by nature.The Shouf Cedars Natural Reserve is the Middle East's largest reserve of its kind and makes up 5% of the entire territory of the country. It is south of Beirut. You can see tiny sprouts of newborn cedars as well as trees as old as 2000 years there.
There are more cedars forests to be found in Lebanon, but these two are the most important sites.******************************
I do not wish to bore you and I feel that I have already mentioned a lot. The truth is there are so many places to visit in Lebanon that I feel guilty about the many ones I am inevitably going to leave out.But before I depart, allow me to introduce to you Beirut City Centre, "Le Centre Ville". This area was completely demolished and rebuilt during the 1990s. It is today a beautiful and very well looked after part of town. One long main road with countless side streets full of delightful cafés and restaurants, as well as all kinds of other shops (clothes, souvenirs, furniture..).
You will be able to sample the delicious Lebanese cuisine and the Narguileh, but then again you can do this anywhere in Lebanon, and frankly, while the atmosphere in the city centre is special, everything is over priced and tends to be very crowded. But it is beautiful anyhow.*******************************
Nightclubs, bars and discos are to be found around the city centre and in the north towards Jounieh, Kaslik, and in downtown Beirut. There is a lot of choice and not much difference with any of the European bars and discos I know of.There are many markets throughout the country, namely in Tripoli, Sidon, Zahleh, Beirut itself and well… I am sure you do not want the whole list.
********************************As I have said too many times now, the list of places worth visiting in Lebanon is far too vast to list entirely, but one thing you must do if you go there, is visit lost little locations and villages all around. This is where you will find the best and probably cheapest restaurants and the friendliest, most genuine people.
They may not have shiny and glittery outsides or insides, or dressed up waiters and well designed menu cards, but they will have fresh ingredients, literally picked up from the garden 5 minutes after your order is placed ( "I am going to slaughter the lamb, back in a few minutes…" just joking…although not always actually!!). These are usually family run businesses and the owners tend to be very friendly and generous, and frankly this is where I have eaten the most delicious Lebanese specialities, without the fuss, but with the taste! (Apart from my Mother's cooking of course).
They are also much cheaper than some restaurants that I feel simply rip you off.
********************************My country of origin is a country I have discovered again as though it were not the place I was born in. Too many painful memories have impeded me from feeling what most Lebanese feel for their land (although I know many have suffered so much more than I), a profound and deep-rooted love that makes them cry at the mere mention of the name "Loubnan" (Lebanon).
My fellow countrymen may find me unworthy and treacherous in what I say, but it is a genuine sentiment, which I cannot help and do not wish to conceal. Whilst I find my country a tremendously interesting area of the world to visit and I most certainly advise anyone thinking of going there to do so, there are too many things with which I am not at ease.The Lebanese high society gets on my nerves to a point of absolute desperation. Most of them (and by no means all) are shallow to an alarming degree, despite what appears to be an all-embracing and far-reaching in-depth knowledge of many areas of culture. However it is as though their "knowledge" piles up on top of their spirits without a drain for filtering through; a necessity without which, assimilation of culture is improbable and often impossible. They carry their "knowledge" like a flag instead of learning from it, and tend to be more interested in the latest trends and fashions than any meaningful thought-provoking event. This is what alienates me from my own place of origin and I am sad to say that I feel like a total freak when I am there (I have never followed fashion in my life and quite frankly, clothes are what I wear because of the commotion I may cause if I dared to walk out the door in my "natural state", and because it is cold in England! I do like nice clothes but my life does not revolve around what I am going to wear or what cream I shall use and what restaurant I want to be seen in, theirs often does!).
Most of my Lebanese friends feel the same as I do, and this is a situation that is making many youths leave the country.On the other hand, "simple" people are always friendlier and easier to get on with, they do not usually carry their ego in a lorry (but sometimes in a car) and whilst you will find it hard to strike a conversation about any scientific topic with them (music, arts and literature are a science as well!) you can talk about human values and the way the coffee was brewed or the tabbouleh was prepared and that is fine, it is also worth learning and the warmth emanating from them glows into your own light.
****************************Oh! I forgot to mention that you can practice many sports in Lebanon, skiing, climbing, surfing, trekking….
No really… I am sure I have left out so many things, music, arts, more about the people there (no Lola, enough!), but I may write more reviews about specific topics.Do allow me to reiterate once more the fact that Lebanon is a rich and beautiful country, most certainly worth visiting and there are some very interesting people to meet there, but I have warned you of some risks. : )
I am deeply moved by the songs that the famous Fairuz sings with her melancholic yet pristine voice, some of them make me cry, especially those about childhood, but my country is a wound in my heart that yet has not found the proper way to healing, and perhaps I should try to understand more and I am trying to, but there is no point in idealising a country where injustice is still ripe and where, along with the wonders, there are hidden histories that the well off are only too eager to dismiss, whilst the less well off are screaming with a silent scream "Please hear my voice… somebody…"Do visit Lebanon if you have a chance….
: )© Lola Awada 2005
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