Where in the world can you enjoy Mediterranean beaches, ski resorts amidst 2000 year-old Cedar forests, the world’s longest stalactite, aromatic cuisine and heartfelt hospitality whilst you marvel at ancient Phoenician and Roman ruins in a country that is half the size of Wales? Answer: all this is four and half hours away when you touch down in Lebanon.
Beirut has long been known as the Paris of the East and the Lebanese, like the Spaniards prize the importance of family, lovingly-prepared food and having as much fun as possible, albeit often in the face of adversity. This Spring I decided to satisfy my deep-seated curiosity for myself and here are the highlights from our memorable experience of a country with famous exports such as booty-shaking Shakira.
Lebanon is a land of contrasts; revived Roman ruins jostle for space next to gleaming Dubai-style skycrapers. The minarets from domed-mosques jut above the skyline next to Greek Orthodox and Catholic church spires. The longstanding Armenian population are well-integrated and contribute to the multi-cultural patchwork of daily life and commerce in Lebanon.
After indulging in the traditional breakfast circus display of chefs blitzing mint into fruit juices and sizzling flatbreads oozing with cheese we strode forth purposefully through beautifully-restored Parisian-style buildings to our first port of call …Catholic mass.
Running slightly behind schedule we arrive huffing and puffing at the back pew of a heaving church. As if by magic a suited chap appears at our side and inquires what part of Greece we’re from. Somewhat baffled we reply “Err it’s Madrid actually…” to which he beams …”I see, welcome to the Greek Orthodox Church of Beirut, perhaps you were aiming for St Elias Catholic Church down the road? Please do join us anyway as their mass will be over by now”. We are then involved in much bread roll eating and handshaking with the High Priest before being treated to a guided tour of the bullet holes in the church’s colourful murals. This unconditional welcome was echoed by almost every single person we came into contact with, from taxi drivers to passers-by we flagged down in the street to illuminate us with their version of local history.
In addition to their boundless charm and hospitality we also found the Lebanese to be full of mischief. Not least the pastry chef at The Phoenicia Hotel who relished waving his freshly-made macaroons in the face of fasting Muslim staff during Ramadan.
Memorable day trips outside the capital included the vertiginous 600 m cable car trip up to the Virgin Mary statue in Harissa from which you can see the 5 km-wide bay and sparkling resort of Jounieh, a favourite hedonistic haven for middle class Lebanese during the Civil War. Also recommended is a boat trip through the underwater caves of the 9 km-long Jeita Grotto flanked by spectacularly-illuminated stalactites and stalagmites. No visit to Lebanon is complete without a trip to the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world: Byblos next to a vibrant fishing port.
Further south I recommend visiting the Chouf Cedar Reserve to hike along some of the many trails through Lebanon´s emblematic 2000 year-old Cedar trees which have symbolised majesty, wisdom and foresight for several centuries.
Other highlights include the laid-back old Ottoman-era town of Deir-al-Qaamar and the opulent Beiteddine Palace with its fine Byzantine mosaics.
Like a phoenix rising up from its scarred image of a war-torn territory, Lebanon leaves an indelible impression on visitors of all ages and its renaissance is testament to the resilience of its resourceful people.
Editor´s Note: A huge thank you to INC members Marlene Makhoul and Rula Norregaard for their invaluable tips and recommendations!