Lebanon in 4 days - a revelation (Part 1)

Old Sep 21st, 2022, 03:58 AM
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Lebanon in 4 days - a revelation (Part 1)

Haven't posted in several years as the pandemic obviously put a dent in everyone's travel plans. But now that travel is getting back to normal, I took on a project that involved spending most of September in London, so I began to look at places to go for a week break where we haven't been and that wasn't too far-flung. Somehow we landed on Lebanon, as a friend of ours travels there for business and knows it well, and another American friend went for an extended family reunion and raved about it.

Naturally I did some research on this forum and was concerned to see very little in the way of recent trip reports. But our friends assured us that it was mostly safe, and hooked us up with a guide who I will discuss later, and a driver who was well-trained in security, as a former Lebanese Army and embassy security guy.

The upshot is that we were amazed by the stunning sights, delicious food and great hospitality. While the country is having a very difficult time due to an economic crisis stemming from the theft, corruption and mismanagement of its leaders, it is truly a crossroads of all the great empires, from Egyptian and Phonecian to Persian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine, and the ruins are some of the most spectacular I have seen anywhere. We felt safe everywhere; the people we encountered seemed very appreciative to have tourists in the country. The lack of consistent electricity was really only an issue at the airport, which was pretty hot and uncomfortable given the high-80s daily temperatures, but the hotels and restaurants all have their own generators and had no problem with air conditioning. And the nice thing for us is that there were very few tourists, so we had all of these incredible sights mostly to ourselves.

Day 1. - We flew London to Beirut on Middle East Airlines, which I was keen to do as it added to my more than 100 different airlines that I've flown. They fly a modern widebody A330 on that route, and the flight and service were fine in economy. After 4 hours we landed and entered the hot and stuffy, but still fairly modern, Rafic Hariri airport in Beirut. We had read that visas could be purchased upon arrival, but they don't seem to be doing that any longer, as we just queued and entered on our US passports with no issues at all, except the lack of aircon or fans in the arrival hall. I had half expected armed soldiers everywhere, but it was like landing at any other airport, albeit one "controlled by Hezbollah", according to our Lebanese-American friend. It was the first of many preconceptions we had about Lebanon that were disabused once we were there.

After claiming our bags and exiting the terminal (far less chaotic than many other airport arrivals areas I've seen), our driver Charbol was there to pick us up and convey us to the Movenpick Hotel, which is between the airport and city center, and right on the spectacular Beirut coastline. The hotel has a 180-degree ocean view that is lovely; sunset over the Mediterranean each night was gorgeous. Mid-September brought rather hot days, around 90 degrees, and it cooled off into maybe the mid-70s at night, and not much humidity. Very pleasant, except for those places that did not have generators for a/c. Our room at the hotel looked out over the ocean and southern coastline, and we had plenty of a/c and no power interruptions for the duration. The hotel was moderately busy; we did not encounter any other Americans or even many Europeans, the clientele seemed mostly Lebanese and others from the Gulf countries and maybe Turkey and a few Russians. The hotel was fairly modern and had all the amenities. You definitely cannot drink the tap water, so there was the hassle with bottle-water toothbrushing like many parts of the world, but the hotel provided everything we needed and excellent food as well. After long days traveling around the country, we opted out of the typical late Lebanese dinner at restaurants in town, and instead had most dinners at the hotel, always starting with the mezze of hummus, moutabel (eggplant dip called baba ganoush elsewhere), stuffed vine leaves, olives, meat pies, etc, followed by a grilled chicken taouk or lamb kofte or some other grilled meat. Generally speaking, we ate more than we should have every day because the food was that good!

Day 2 - Beirut tour

The next morning we met our guide Hala, co-owner of Show Me Lebanon (showmeleb.com), who was recommended to us by our friend. She was extremely knowledgeable about the country and its culture, and passionate about making sure we had a good experience. I should add at this point that we were travelling with my wife's intrepid parents - her father is a former diplomat and obsessive stamp collector who at 85 was thrilled to come back to a place he last visited in the 1980s as a State Dept official working on diplomatic security in the aftermath of not one but two US embassies being blown up by Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad. As a history buff, he was especially keen to see the old Roman ruins on the itinerary, and the fact that he needs a cane to get around did not dissuade him in the slightest; whatever was proposed, he was up for it, but only if it included a visit to one or more post offices so he could grill the staff about how the postal system works in the country (turns out, fairly well despite the fact that stamps are not widely used in country).

So Hala decided we would start with a tour of Beirut and a visit to the post office. Unfortunately it's not easy to walk around Beirut because of the traffic, so we mostly drove to different neighborhoods while she described much of the trouble the city has had in recent years - not only the civil war (largely between Muslim and Christian) from 1975-1990, but also the Israeli invasion, which was not welcomed by most Lebanese, and the effects of 1.5 million Syrian refugees and at least that many Palestinian refugees on a poor country of only five million or so native Lebanese. We would explore a lot of this over the next few days.

Even more recently, the city has been hit hard by two catastrophes in the last few years - the August 2020 port explosion, which levelled several blocks and blew windows out of buildings all over town, killing many; and the endemic political corruption that led to a major bank run in the last year or so, causing the currency to drop from a few thousand Lebanese pounds to the US dollar, to about 35,000 to the USD. So the Lebanese have lost 90% of their purchasing power, and it had nothing to do with covid or the explosion or the war in Syria. Instead, a group of corrupt elected officials enabled companies to borrow bank funds for risky or nonexistent infrastructure projects, paying kickbacks to the leaders all the way, until the whole Ponzi scheme collapsed, taking the savings of every Lebanese person with it, whether they were Christian, Shi'ite, Sunni or Druze. And these thieving politicians keep getting reelected despite this corruption because they artfully play each religious tribe against each other - "vote for me or the Christians/Shi'ite/Sunni will kick us out of the country!" Hala did an excellent job of explaining all of this centuries-old conflict that accounted for the country's troubled history as we drove around town.

We drove by the site of the port explosion, which is still smoldering in places. It had nothing to do with terrorism, it was stocks of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely that caused it, but Hala explained that not a single official has been accountable and no real investigation took place, a sign of the total lack of leadership in the country. In several neighborhoods we encountered roadblocks and barbed wire - no, not terrorists inside, but elected officials who live in swank apartments overlooking the sea and use the military to wall themselves off from the population. All part of the misgovernance of the country.

We also visited and walked around Martyr's Square, which commemorates the many killed in sectarian clashes, the civil war and antigovernment protests over the years. A beautiful mosque built by the assassinated Hariri dominates one of the squares and sits next to the largest Christian church. Much of the old town center was cut off and has been taken over by the government for no apparent reason, so some of the older buildings and churches cannot be visited. Instead, we walked through a newly built but uninhabited section of the "old" town, which was built with Gulf Arab money, but sits mostly empty other than a few luxury boutiques - most Lebanese won't go there because it is soulless and because the oldest part of the city was blocked off by government officials hiding out from their citizens. We also visited the notorious "green line" that divided east and west Beirut during the war days, with bullet holes still visible on many buildings. But it all appeared to be normal city life, with people walking around, doing their business, going to work or eating lunch in a cafe. Frankly, it appeared peaceful and bustling like any other city; not at all what I expected. Hala even noted there is very little crime, it's a safe city for women or anyone to walk around, and no sectarian troubles at all on a daily basis. Her view was that Christians and Druze and Muslims get along fine living around each other, it's the politicians or outside forces (Iran, Israel, France, USA) that cause most of the problems that lead to occasional outbursts of violence.

After lunch and a trip to Hanna Mitri, a wonderful little neighborhood ice cream shop known for its delicious selection of handmade ice creams and sorbets, we did the post office visit and more driving around town and the waterfront area before heading back to the hotel and a lovely dinner overlooking the sea. (continued)


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Old Sep 21st, 2022, 06:44 AM
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Lebanon in 5 days - a revelation (Part 2)

Day 3 - Byblos and the North - The next day we drove an hour of so north of Beirut along the coast, passing through quaint small villages and with the mountains along our right side. Except for the coastline and the inland Bekaa Valley, the majority of Lebanese live in the mountains that separate the Mediterranean from the interior of the country. Byblos, so named by the Greeks as the city of letters/books, and called J'beil by the Lebanese, sits aside the sea and was famous in the ancient world as the port city where much of the legendary Lebanese timber, from the great cedar tree, was exported to Egypt to be used to make boats. It was also needed by the Egyptians because the oil from the tree was an essential ingredient for use in embalming mummies.

The Byblos ruins are notable because almost all of the great eras of antiquity are represented, one on top of the other, from neolithic times until the Ottoman Empire. It was originally a settlement with fresh well water on site, then a great port for exporting timber, and has relics from the Canaanite, Egyptian, Phoenician, Persian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras, stretching from 4000 BC to the Ottoman Empire which ended in 1918. An incredibly important archeological site. One can still see evidence of several of these epochs walking around the grounds. Aside from one or two other tourists, we had the place to ourselves, and a local guide who was adept at explaining the historical significance without getting too deep in the weeds. These people know their history of the ancient world - all of the guides that Hala organized for the individual sites were outstanding. Some had Masters' degrees in archeology, but one woman was a journalism major who was self-taught in history and had all the answers to our questions in hand, And they all spoke perfect English, along with the native Arabic and usually French as well.

I forgot to mention that several hours of day 1 were spent at Beirut's National Museum, which was very useful for gaining an appreciation for the full history of the region. We had a guide who was very interesting, and the collection was well-presented without being overwhelming like the British Museum. Relics, sarcophagi, floor mosaics and sculptures highlighted each of these major periods in history, such as one that clearly showed the early Phoenician alphabet, which was the first phonetic alphabet and improved on hieroglyphics as a form of written language. The Greeks adopted this into their alphabet, hence their name for the town Byblos, city of books.

After the Byblos tour, we drove a bit further north and had lunch at a cute seaside restaurant in the old port town of Batroun, overlooking the water, where grilled shrimp and calamari were added to the usual Lebanese mezze dishes. Then we headed upcountry to visit the museum and home of famous Lebanese poet and artist Khalil Gibran (who emigrated to the US at a young age but is revered here). The museum contains a lot of his artwork and many letters and personal effects and is set in a beautiful stone house hugging the mountains. Speaking of which, the Lebanese are experts at mountain construction, as many of their homes and larger buildings in the mountains seem to cling to the side of ravines and cliffs, making for dramatic views. The mountain roads were mostly in good shape, and you pass through many villages on the way up. Lebanon is one of those places in the world where you can ski in the mountains and be at the beach by the afternoon.

From there we visited one of the national parks that preserve the remaining majestic cedar trees, symbol of the country shown on its national flag. They grow very tall with a wide spread, and some are hundreds and even thousands of years old. But centuries of logging have deforested huge areas of the mountains that used to be home to this revered tree.

Day 4 - Bekaa Valley and Baalbek - Probably the highlight of the trip was the 2-hour drive through the mountains and down into the Bekaa Valley, an ancient and fertile valley which sits between the coastal mountain range (which they refer to as "Mount Lebanon" as though it were a single mountain), and the parallel "anti-Lebanon' range which separates Lebanon from Syria, which also bounds it on the north. As can be clearly seen driving down the eastern side of Mount Lebanon, the Bekaa is long and somewhat narrow, maybe only 25 miles in width and a hundred miles or so long. Straight through the valley from Beirut and over the anti-Lebanon takes you right into Damascus.

The Bekaa has a long and dangerous history, and for many years during the war was inaccessible for western tourists. Many of the towns are largely Shi'ite, and there are many posters of Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, which I believe both American and Israeli governments consider an Iranian-backed terror organization. But clearly it is considered a legitimate political party in Lebanon, and represents a significant proportion of the population (divided roughly a third each of Christian, Shia and Sunni faiths, plus Druze, an ancient offshoot of Islam characterized by black robes with white headscarves). But as we drove through it, all we could see were large agricultural fields for growing corn, potatoes and vegetables, and small villages that looked a bit poorer than on the Beirut side, but otherwise appeared normal. We passed a few posters of Ayatollah Khomeini, demonstrating the role that Iran plays in portraying itself as the spiritual leader of Shia people everywhere. We also saw a fair number of beggars, often young children organized by gangs, and most of these people, we were told, were Syrian refugees. Apparently it is now mostly safe for them to go back to Syria, but many stay to work but also to collect a monthly refugee stipend provided by the UN, a source of some grumbling by Lebanese who must house and feed these refugees and don't receive such benefits from the UN.

We then reached the stunning ruins of Baalbek - possibly the largest and most complete Roman ruins in the world, including a lot of Rome. The temples are enormous, particularly the fully intact Bacchus temple. The entire site is huge, and there was hardly anyone there. Our local guide was again excellent with the entire history of the site, from the gigantic columns hewn from granite to the ceremonial sacrificial altars. Even the father-in-law, with some help, dragged himself up wide staircases to see the huge area of the Jupiter Temple and its six remaining pillars that are 20 meters tall and capped with intricate carved capitals. It simply blows your mind to think how these structures were created and how these pillars were raised in 100 AD with the tools and equipment of that time. The temple is also notable for walls comprised of single carved rocks, some that weigh 700 tons, and no one is sure exactly how they were moved into place.

it is an incredible sight, and the sad thing is that so few people have been able to get there to see it (although that may be one of the reasons it has been preserved so well). But for students of ancient architecture or Roman history, it is a must. On the way back up the mountain toward Beirut, we stopped for a late lunch in Zahle at a nice restaurant next to a stream running down from the mountain, then closer to Beirut we stopped to visit a family whose daughter works in the US with our friend, and who insisted we much visit her family for coffee if we were in Lebanon! Which highlights exactly what we had heard about the Lebanese - they are extremely hospitable people and visiting there is a much richer experience if you know people. We had a coffee and some homemade cake and chatted for an hour with these people we'd never met before, but who treated us like family because we had a remote connection to their daughter. Then we returned to hotel for a relaxing dinner after a long but fascinating day.

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Old Sep 21st, 2022, 07:42 AM
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Lebanon in 5 days - a revelation (Part 3)

Day 5 - Southern Lebanon, Sidon and Tyre - On our final day before departure, we drove south from Beirut toward the city of Tyre, an important Phoenician trading post since ancient times, and a place Jesus was reported to have visited. On the way we stopped in Sidon, another town famous for being conquered by many warriors, including Alexander the Great, in part due to their discovery of a purple dye made from seashells that made the area wealthy. We lunched at a beautiful spot in Sidon across from the old souk and opposite an intact Crusader castle surrounded by water and dating from the tenth century, at the edge of the port. We also passed several Palestinian refugee camps as we headed south toward Israel, but we didn't enter any of them, they are not considered to be safe places by the Lebanese. Apparently the Palestinians living there can come and go relatively freely in the town, but may have difficulty finding legitimate work in Lebanon as they are essentially refugees.

We continued on to Tyre, one of the largest trading centers of Phoenician times. The highlight there was a visit to the Roman hippodrome, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The ruins were nowhere near the scale and condition of Baalbek, but it was interesting to see - a 200-yard stretch of extensive necropolis ruins, where the dead were placed in tombs, and then the 500-yard long hippodrome, built for Roman chariot races, with a large section of spectator seating still intact. Apparently it's one of the best-preserved hippodromes left in the world. It didn't match the splendor of Baalbek, but it was an interesting tour and again we had the place entirely to ourselves, other than a Chinese couple and a Serbian guy taking lots of photographs.

On the way back to Beirut we stopped at a well-known dessert place to sample the cakes, pistachio-filled nougat and other delicacies that the Lebanese love. There is no question that food is an obsession there - Hala raved about all the different types of hummus and whose homemade recipe was better - and that's just for hummus!

Given our tight time schedule, there were several things we were not able to do that are on many people's lists of things to see, such as a winery and the famous Jeito grotto with its big stalactites. I'm not much for caving, but I would have enjoyed the wine-tasting, we just couldn't fit it in. Which reminds me - alcohol is available almost everywhere, wine and spirits. For a majority-Muslim country, this is rare. Of course, Beirut was considered the "Paris of the Mediterranean" back in the 1950s, and while it is hard to see what is left of that since the civil war, the attitude toward alcohol and women's dress does not appear to have changed much. Hala did say that largely-Shia areas are becoming more conservative, and there are some seaside towns where women in bikinis will get disapproving looks from locals, and others where it's no problem at all. So the more conservative Muslim culture is working its way into the country gradually in certain places, while overall one gets the impression of being in a southern European city more than a Middle Eastern one like Cairo or Doha.

There is another slight complication - given that the Lebanese banking system has mostly failed (while we were there a woman robbed her own bank to get her own money out to pay for medical expenses), that means credit cards and ATM cards are not of much use, except for paying for the hotel. Upon arrival at the Movenpick we were charged the full amount in USD on my Visa card. But all of the restaurants, guides, and anything else requires cash. Some will take USD, others only want the local currency, even though it depreciates every few days. So we had to bring about $1500 to cover all of our expenses, which turned out to be more than we needed. But to gas up the car, for example, we needed to change the USD to pounds to pay at the station. But at a rate of 35,000 to the USD, everything except the hotel room was pretty cheap. The four of us, plus our guide and driver, had enormous, delicious lunches each day that were rarely more than $50 equivalent for all six of us. A bottle of good Lebanese wine with dinner each night was about $10 as well.

All in all it was a great trip, and I would highly recommend it as a destination for all but the most pampered tourists. A small bit of adventurousness is required, such as waiting in 45-minute airport security lines in a hot airless building would attest. But if my 85-year-old father-in-law can do it, anyone can. We felt safe pretty much everywhere, and there were no signs of civil unrest around us despite the financial crisis. Although I think it's more a matter of everything is fine until it isn't, and eventually some sort of crisis kicks off the internecine religious conflict again. But it's a highly interconnected society, which bodes well for the future if they can get rid of their horrible politicians. The food, sights and hospitality are fantastic, it's just such as shame the government is so corrupt and useless, and now the population is really suffering the effects of the financial mismanagement. So tourism dollars will definitely help, and it's a wonderful and vastly underappreciated tourist destination. Highly recommended!
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Old Sep 21st, 2022, 12:35 PM
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Old Sep 24th, 2022, 06:40 PM
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Thanks for the trip report! I visited Lebanon in 2009, and am glad to hear that you were able to visit, and that things aren't as bad now as I thought they might be. I visited overland from Syria, and the contrast was very clear.
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Old Oct 24th, 2022, 10:44 AM
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Thank you for your detailed report. We are visiting Lebanon in November and your tips and itinerary are invaluable. Would it be possible to have your driverís contact information?
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Old Oct 25th, 2022, 11:32 PM
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Fantastic read, thank you so much for posting.
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Old Oct 30th, 2022, 10:18 AM
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I really enjoyed reading your TR.
A friend of my youngest son recently spontaneously added Beirut and Byblos to the end of a biz trip, and positively commented as well about the safety issue, people and food.
One day...
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