Lebanon – Tourism is Returning – the Middle Eastern Gem!
Donnerstag, November 19th, 2009
Award-Winning International Travel & Features Writer
Slowly but surely Lebanon is establishing itself once again as the Mecca and playground of the Middle East. Today, visitors can enjoy spectacular sightseeing dating from the time of the Crusaders and Romans, the world renowned Lebanese cuisine and the charm and courtesy of its people. I am not going to dwell on the more recent problems that have certainly taken its toll on the population as a whole. Suffice to say that during my visit I came away firmly convinced that the majority of Lebanese want to lead a peaceful, happy and fruitful life with the hope that their children will be able to grow up in a tranquil atmosphere amidst the natural beauty of this very special country !
Lebanon enjoys an advantageous position on the eastern Mediterranean coast at the meeting point of three continents and as the gateway between east and west it has been a traditional meeting place of great civilisations and cultures. There are so many places to see and so much history to absorb, so many archaeological treasures, such amazingly beautiful landscapes with sheer cliffs, caves, craggy mountains and steep valleys, that it is difficult to know where to start. The capital city of Beirut, with a population of over one million people, is once again a thriving city conveying a dynamism and energy that is immediately apparent. It was only in comparatively modern times that its central position became significantly important and the port facilities were improved, that it became a prominent commercial and cultural centre.
Today the centre of the metropolis has been meticulously reconstructed with many new residential apartments, office blocks and hotels having been built alongside beautiful old buildings that have been painstakingly restored to their former glory. The restoration also included many historical mosques and churches, whilst ancient souqs have also been reconstructed in the traditional way. Before major areas were once again encased in concrete, a team of international archaeologists reconstructed an area showing Roman ruins, which has become a major tourist attraction, especially when it is illuminated at night. There is a carefully planned modern infrastructure of roads, main services, public leisure areas, gardens and tree planting. Reclaimed land from the sea has also enabled developers to build marinas, a seaside promenade and a public park.
Accommodations and food
Before embarking on a variety of interesting excursions it is essential to decide on the right hotel during your time in Beirut. Let me state that most of the prestigious hotel chains have luxurious hotels in the Lebanese metropolis. However, I want to tell you about a boutique hotel as featured in the Relais & Chateaux booklet of fine hotels. Located in one of the capital’s oldest and most interesting districts is the Hotel Albergo, which offers exceptional hospitality and comfort within its all suites accommodation. Everyone of the 33 suites are individually designed and furnished, each with its own character and charm. However, the management are fully aware of what is expected in the twenty-first century and all units have satellite and TV facilities, stereo hi-fi, fax machine, international phone line, minibar, air conditioning and central heating. There is also a business centre and 24 hours room service. The hotel has two very fine restaurants, one on the rooftop offering interesting Lebanese and international cuisine in a comfortable and relaxed setting reminiscent of a dining room in a rather grand house of a bygone era. The views of the city are quite magnificent and when the weather is warm and sunny one can dine al fresco on the large open terrace adjoining the small outdoor swimming pool.
The second restaurant which has a superb Italian kitchen is the “Al Dente.” This most elegant restaurant has two outstandingly attractive dining rooms, offering exquisite dishes with careful attention to detail so that even the most demanding diners will be delighted.
To enable you to arrange tours of this historical country contact the Ministry of Tourism and request them to arrange for a qualified guide and driver.
For your first excursion take the short journey to visit the Jeita Grotto with its breathtakingly natural beauty that has been admired by many thousands of visitors from all over the world. Fashioned by millions of years of erosion it is a spectacle that almost defies description. Its elegant natural stone sculptures are seen to their best advantage because of the ingenious lighting system installed, that appear to reveal eerie and fascinating shapes as well as amazing designs and sounds formed by the stalactites and stalagmites. Jeita consists of an upper grotto which can be explored by foot and a lower one with an underground lake that can be seen by boat.
On the way back to your hotel have a tour through the streets of the capital – a city of contrasts! Many times destroyed it is still a city of many facets with a charming mix of east and west. Old villas are reflected in the modern glass fronted buildings giving visitors a view of both the past and the present, whilst luxurious shops abound and yet close by can be seen street vendors selling their wares under the hot sun. The famous Corniche is well worth seeing attracting joggers, skaters, scooter riders whilst local families proudly promenading with their children.
Beirut is acknowledged as a cultural center with its many universities (including the famous American University), schools and its world renowned National Museum, which gives visitors an insight into its great archaeological past. There is also a variety of musical, artistic and dramatic activities with one of the most prestigious annual festivals being the “The Al Bustan Festival of Music and Arts” which generally runs from the last week in February until the end of March.
After a full day you will surely want to enjoy a typical Lebanese meal. As you will have ample opportunity to sample the hotel’s cuisine, I would like to suggest visiting one of the finest restaurants in town, the ” Al Mijana ” which is a few minutes walk away in the same street as the hotel Albergo. Here within its oriental ambience you will enjoy a lavish meal starting with the world famous Lebanese mezze, which is a spread of innumerable small dishes, carefully arranged and finely seasoned – a pleasure to the eye as well as to the palate, including such items as humus (a purée of chick peas and sesame paste), tabbouleh (a salad of tomatoes with parsley and crushed wheat), warak arish (stuffed vine leaves to you and me), labneh (strained yoghurt seasoned with olive oil and garlic) samboussek (hot cheese pastries) and kibbeh (ground meat with crushed wheat, finely flavoured with herbs and spices). For your main course you can choose from grilled seafood, lamb kebab, chicken brochette, kofta (ground meat with parsley) kebbi b’labnieh (meat balls in a yoghurt sauce), sayyadieh (slices of fish in an onion sauce accompanied by rice) and much much more. The meal is generally accompanied by arak – Lebanon’s national drink. Alternatively you can choose one of the many excellent local wines from the Bekaa valley.
As I stated from the outset there is so much to see in Lebanon so do try and arrange visits to some of the following destinations.
Just after a leisurely two hours drive you will reach the ancient city of Byblos with a history that goes back over 7000 years. Today it reveals an archaeological site showing one impressive ruin after another thus tracing so many different civilisations that have occupied Byblos over thousands of centuries. It also gave its name to the Greek word for a book ” biblos ” on account of its papyrus fields (papyrus was used for making writing paper in ancient times). It is also the birthplace of the alphabet with the oldest known inscriptions of the Phoenician linear alphabet.
Facing the sea, the site includes a number of Phoenician and Canaanite temples, ancient city walls, the foundations of several stone-age houses and a number of Roman remains. Probably the most imposing ruin is the Crusader castle, built in the thirteenth century, which is bordered by a row of colonnades at the foot of which are some Phoenician sarcophagus (decorated stone coffins as used in ancient times for a dead body). Byblos is also known for its picturesque medieval port, where you can see quaint fishing boats gently rocking on the waves. Whilst in the port, stop and have a delicious lunch at the family owned Bab El Mina restaurant, which has been built into the rocks and also has a wonderful terrace overlooking the sea. There is always fresh fish on the menu and an excellent variety of grilled meat washed down with some fine wine!
Within the citadel area of Byblos in Jebil is a parade of attractively renovated old buildings, many of which are now used as shops selling anything from picture postcards and books to pottery and locally designed jewellery. There is also an exhibition room opened by the charming Abi Saad and his three brothers displaying some of their fine and extremely beautiful fossils that they have painstakingly collected. Their studio can best be described as an aquarium without life or water but with a variety of perfectly formed species of marine life in stone, such as swordfish, stingray, shrimp, skate, squid, octopus and even shark! In fact, the largest fossil on display is a shark which is almost 3 metres long. However, Abi Saad’s first love is to go off at daybreak to Hgula in the mountains above Jebil to search for fish fossils that have died many millions of years ago and he only sells fossils when he has collected a few examples of the same piece.
For the real fragrance of the Orient travel to the north of Lebanon to Tripoli, the second largest city in the country, where the old traditional buildings and souqs have been so carefully preserved for future generations to admire. When entering the souqs you will be enthralled by the strong aroma of some of the oriental perfumes intermingled with the fragrance of the many varied spices. Here amongst the maze of tiny passageways are spice stalls, craft and jewellery shops, potters, tailors, material vendors and soap makers. Visit Badr. Hassoun & Sons, where you can see the soap being prepared with different flowers, fruits and essence as in days gone.
The oriental atmosphere continues when visiting a few of the restored mosques, some of which date back to the time of the Mamluks, who occupied the country in the 13th century. Be sure to see the Grand Mosque with its huge courtyard surrounded by arcades, the Burtasya Mosque with its finely carved minaret and the Taynal Mosque with its portal decorated in striped marble. Tripoli is dominated by the majestic castle, originally built during the Crusader period. After then being destroyed by the Mamluks it was subsequently rebuilt over the centuries by different rulers of the time and today is recognised as one of the most impressive castles in the Middle East.
You can still enjoy an authentic Turkish Bath in this city with some of the baths (Hamams) dating back many centuries with their domes and pierced glass covered openings, bringing light into the interior.
Before leaving Tripoli, be sure to go Rafaat Hallab & Sons, who have proudly been satisfying their customers since 1881 with their delicious home made oriental pastries. What is more the present members of the family are not resting on their laurels but are forever finding ways to improve and offer more delicacies to their loyal customers, both at home and abroad. Having the best of pistachios, pine kernels and other important ingredients ensures that they can offer the very finest of oriental sweets. Also available are rose and flower water, flower jam, dried fruits and concentrated grenadine.
To trace the turbulent history of Lebanon visit Tyre which is approximately 88 kilometres south of Beirut. It is purported to be the first commercial metropolis of the world, when ships laden with goods such as glass, purple dye and cedar wood plied the Mediterranean bringing prosperity to its people. It was governed and then destroyed by so many rulers including King Hiram in the 10th century, when the city experienced its most prosperous period. This caused jealousy amongst other great conquerors of the time including Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, who besieged Tyre for 13 years, after which it was the turn of Alexander the Great, who took only seven months to destroy and burn the city. On what was originally the island (the city was initially made up of two parts – the coastal city and some small islands) is a Roman city with streets paved in mosaics and bordered by columned porticoes, whilst a short distance away are the remains of what was an imposing cathedral built by the Crusaders. Within the ruins there is a Roman road dominated by a triumphal arch taking you into an immense Roman hippodrome nearly 500 metres long. Here extends an enormous necropolis with many impressive sarcophagi, amazingly decorated.
You must also take time to visit the mountains to admire the spectacular views and to visit local Lebanese villages, known for their unspoilt natural beauty, where you can also discover some of the region’s traditions and customs. From early January to late March many of the mountains are snow covered offering ideal skiing conditions with sunny skies on most days. There are at least six ski centres all fully equipped. The most popular is Ouyoun El Simane, known as Faraya Mzaar, which was established in 1957. The peak of the Mzaar ski slope, is at an altitude of 2465 metres and is the highest point reached by the ski lifts. On a clear day the Beqaa valley, Mount Hermon, the Cedars and the coast can all be seen.
What about a wine trail? The Lebanese are justly proud of the very fine wines they produce with many vintners having won gold medals at international tastings including those having taken place in France. In the heart of the Beqaa valley lies the Ksara Estate so named because at the time of the Crusaders it was the site of a fortress. In 1857 the Jesuit Fathers acquired the property when it was already a thriving vineyard and the Jesuits continued the tradition of fine wine making, selling and, I assume, tasting! Today Ksara produces wines which achieve a rare balance of fruitiness, delicacy and robustness.
If Lebanon has a literary hero, then it must surely be Gibran Kahlil Gibran (1883 – 1931) who was not only an acclaimed writer but a poet, philosopher and artist as well. Millions of Arabic speaking people consider him to be the genius of his age and his fame rapidly spread with his poetry having been translated into many different languages. His drawings and paintings have been exhibited in a number of the great cities of the world and were compared most favourably with the works of the great British artist and poet William Blake by none other than the French sculpture Auguste Rodin. For the last 20 years of his life Gibran lived in America from where he began to write in English. His book The Prophet, generally acclaimed as his masterpiece, has become one of the most read books of the generation. First published in 1922 it has been translated into more than 20 languages and has sold over 9 million copies in the United States alone. The book was first conceived on Mount Lebanon and Gibran did not let his publisher have sight of the manuscript for four years because he wanted to make certain that every word was the best he could write!
One of his last requests was to be able to spend his final days in his home village of Bsharreh and to be buried in the tiny monastery of Mar Sarkis. The first part of his wish was not to be but his tomb now lies in the monastery which is today also the Gibran museum. Here are displayed many of his paintings (including a number of self portraits and those of his family), drawings and manuscripts which convey the mood swings of this mystical and introverted genius.
If you only visit one historical place in Lebanon it must surely be Baalbek. This is not only one of the country’s greatest Roman treasures it is also one of the wonders of the ancient world. Not only will you see the largest and most noble of all the Roman temples ever built but also some of the best preserved.
Baalbek is situated in the eastern part of Lebanon about 85 kilometres from Beirut, where the Beqaa plain lies enclosed by two mountain ranges setting off the monumental proportions of the temples which proclaimed the power and wealth of Imperial Rome. The Bacchus temple is generally accepted as the undoubted masterpiece and has been extremely well preserved because of the Arab fortifications built around the temple. It is linked to the temple of Jupiter with access by an imposing staircase and a colossal door decorated with nymphs and mythological deities. A short distance away stands another true jewel of Roman architecture, the temple of Venus and in another section is the 8th century Umayyad mosque.
For a wonderful setting for lunch try the restaurant of the Palmyra Hotel, an ancient building, meticulously renovated and offering excellent food in a setting that can best be described as a ” baronial hall ” with views from the windows directly overlooking the temples of Baalbek.
One of Lebanon’s most dramatically beautiful spots is the resort region simply known as “The Cedars” which is 1800 metres above sea level. It is indeed unfortunate that due to centuries of plundering the number of cedars have seriously diminished with only a few isolated reserves remaining today. The most beautiful cedar trees are those from Bsharreh, many of which are estimated to be nearly 2,000 years old having reached a height of some 35 metres with trunks in the region of 14 metres around. There is no more beautiful site than to see these trees with their branches positioned outward with layers of snow as if in prayer! Bsharreh is also another excellent skiing venue with a fabulous view of the Qadisha valley from its highest slopes.
How to get to Lebanon?
I would suggest arranging your flights with the Lebanese National Carrier – MEA – Middle East Airlines. It has a modern fleet of aircraft and ambitious plans for the future, offering leisure and business travellers an excellent service with regular weekly flights to Beirut International Airport from many of Europe’s most important cities including London, Paris and Frankfurt.
I hope that after reading my report you will have come to the conclusion that I consider Lebanon to be a very special country and if I have succeeded in making you decide “to take the plunge” to see it for yourself, then I feel that my work has not been in vain and that my genuine enthusiasm has got through to you!