Lebanon is a vibrant and exhilarating country. We adore Lebanon. The people are extremely good looking (we attribute this to the intermixing of races as Lebanon is the melting pot of the Middle East). Whatever the allure of Lebanon, we are seriously hooked. Wonderful people, incredible food, beautiful sights…we have made a pact that when we decide to embark on our intensive Arabic studies, it will be in Lebanon. Why not choose one of the most liberal Middle Eastern countries to call home for a year?
For a quick 4 day Columbus weekend getaway, we decided to visit Lebanon, a country Becky has been talking about for ages. From Germany, it was a quick flight to Beirut, where we arrived at 2 am. Of course, our carefully arranged taxi to our youth hostel was a no-show…it was in the wee hours of the morning! So we braved the aggressive taxi touts and bargained our fare to the hostel. We crashed for a few hours and woke up early to explore as much as possible with our limited time. Our spontaneous itinerary included the following highlights: Sidon (Saida), Tyre (Sour), Baalbek, Tripoli, Byblos, Jeitta Grotto and the Palace of Beiteddine. This is a lot to pack in just a few days but Robby is not one for slacking on vacation!
We started off catching a taxi towards the “cola” stand where we were told we could catch a local bus to the south of Lebanon. Note of caution that our fellow hostellers told us was to make sure we asked for SER-VEES taxis or else we’d get stuck paying full fare. As it was, the ‘service’ taxis were a great bargain, driving us at breakneck speed throughout Beirut for about $1. At the Cola stand, everyone was super helpful finding us a local bus/van that was heading towards Sidon, our first destination. Local buses were definitely the way to go! Everyone we met was really friendly and helpful and it is a practical way of getting around the country. Our combined fare to Sidon was approximately 50 cents! Sidon (also known as Saida) is a small port city. We hopped off the bus and wandered around the city, getting lost in the souqs and enjoying the mouth-watering smells drifting throughout the old city. First stop was the sea castle, Qasr al-Bahr, which is connected to the mainland by an Arab fortified stone bridge. From the roof of one of the towers, we had a great view of Sidon. Afterwards, we head towards the old city and stumbled upon the Khan al-Franj (inn of the foreigners) which was immaculately clean. After exploring Sidon to our heart’s content, we headed towards Tyre, a city just north of the UN security zone boundary. In Tyre, we had lunch at a small restaurant in the harbor (AMAZING…we both agreed we would fly back to Lebanon in a heartbeat just for the food alone…every meal we ate there was absolutely top-notch and a joy to the taste-buds). What amazed us was the fact that we were the only diners at the restaurant! Food of this caliber would have diners waiting in line back in Germany! After lunch, we walked over to Al-Mina excavations which is a beautiful site of columns, mosaics and baths overlooking the sea. The security guards enjoyed Becky gabbing away in her pidgin-Arabic and were really helpful in getting us a free ride over to Al-Bass (another archaeological area in Tyre displaying marble columns, sarcophagi and the remains of a Roman Hippodrome).
After sightseeing, Becky was on a quest to buy a fashionable “Abayya” and headscarves to wear on our future tour to Iran. The Abayya store was more than happy to accommodate but had difficulty finding a gown long enough to cover Becky from head to toe. They finally scrounged several outfits big enough to drape loosely over her frame and we were off catch a local bus back to Beirut so we could stroll with the locals on the Corniche (a popular promenade by the waterfront selling fresh corn, tea, and even water-pipes!) After walking several rounds along the Corniche, we explored nightlife in Beirut and quickly found out where all the beautiful people were hanging out at: Place d’Etoile. We were amazed at how fashionable the Lebanese women are (truly a shock after getting accustomed to the conservative dress in Egypt, Syrian and Jordan) and Becky was drooling over the “oh-so-easy on the eyes” Lebanese men. An exotic combination of East and West, we both agreed that the Lebanese are extremely good looking people!
The next morning was an early rise to visit Baalbek, Lebanon’s premier archaeological attraction. We were both local bus converts and found it easy to hop on a bus going towards Baalbek from the Cola stand. Approximately 2 ½ hours later, we were in Baalbek, marveling at the beautiful acropolis’s sheer magnitude. Even more shocking was the fact that Robby and I had the site to ourselves…we split up and began posing next to massive columns, looking miniscule in comparison. Robby’s six-foot frame was the diameter of one of the columns! We happily crawled around the hexagonal court, great court, temple of Jupiter, Arab Fortification and Mosque, Temple of Bacchus (amazing ceiling slabs), and Arab Tower and Museum. The security guards eyeballed us suspiciously until Becky broke out in a super huge grin and asked them to pose for a picture with Robby. Then they happily acquiesced and demanded Becky pose for photos with them, hugging her tightly like she was a long lost relative! We left Baalbek and grabbed street fare at a small shawarma stand. One bite of the succulent shawarma and we were talking nonsense about flying the shawarma stand and owner to Germany so he could become our personal chef. The food was absolutely amazing and despite stuffing ourselves, we were still craving for more!!! After Baalbek, we flagged down a mini-van heading towards Beirut and took a quick snooze on the ride back. One of our fellow passengers was eager to practice his English and woke us up to talk. We found out that he was extremely educated (earned a computer science degree) yet he was unable to find a decent paying job. He was a true pleasure to talk to and give us tons of advice on what to do and see in his country (Jeitta Grotto, Kadisha Valley and the famous Cedars). We left him at the Cola stand and negotiated with a taxi to take us directly to Beiteddine (an Ottoman style palace). Beiteddine is situated in a nice location: surrounded by lush gardens and atop a terraced hill. The mosaics were incredible as well as the intricate architecture. We marveled at the beautiful hammams and relaxed in the gardens before making the journey back to Beirut. That evening we wandered back down to the Corniche (when in Rome…) and grabbed a few hours of sleep before our early morning bus ride to Tripoli.
The bus was a super bargain (86km for only $1) and we slept soundly until the driver woke us up pointing out the fact that we were the only two remaining passengers on the bus! He dropped us at the Saahat at-Tall, a large square with clock tower, and we quickly got our bearings. We made our way into the old city and were able to find the Grand Mosque. The entrance to the mosque is really impressive, as is the adjoining Al-Qartawiyya Madrassa (school) with a façade of black/white stripes and “honeycomb” pattern atop the portal. We next wandered through the souqs where we befriended two boys who insisted on making us chew the mint leaves they were trying to sell. We took their photos with the digital camera and they got a big kick at seeing their own images on the display screen. We then headed towards the St. Gilles Citadel, an imposing presence overlooking all of Tripoli. After exploring St. Gilles, we made our way to Burj as-Sebua, also known as the Lion’s Tower. This sight was OK from the outside but since it was closed when we got there, it was a wasted trip. We decided to hop on a bus towards Byblos, touted as one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited towns. Apparently, Byblos was the inspiration for the word “bible”, as a collection of sheets was called a “biblion” or book. We started off at the Crusader castle and admired the fantastic views of the sea. The roman theatre overlooking the sea was surprisingly small and Robby looked like a giant standing on the stage. We grabbed lunch in Byblos before deciding to head towards the Jeitta Grotto, which came highly recommended as the stalactites and stalagmites were supposedly breath taking. After having seen the Postojna Cave in Slovenia, we were unimpressed with Jeitta Grotto (beautiful in its own right but pales in comparison to Postojna). While flagging down a taxi, we met some fellow Germans (from Stuttgart, nonetheless!) who offered to take us back to Beirut only after we joined them to the town of Jounieh’s Basilica of Our Lady of Lebanon. The cable car ride up the mountain was spectacular and the Basilica did not disappoint. After admiring the view, we headed back to Beirut where we bade our newfound friends goodbye before heading back to our hostel. We sadly packed to leave Lebanon early the next morning and vowed this would not be our last trip to this magnificent country!
Lebanon is truly a delight to visit and we really enjoyed exploring as much as we could with our limited time. The people treated us graciously and were extremely hospitable and the food….well we could talk about the food forever!