Things you think of upon hearing the word ‘Lebanon’:
War. Middle East. Bomb blasts. Ruins. War. Again. Hezbollah. Refugee Camps. Sorta close to Syria. Not really stable.
What you don’t think of:
Perfectly blue sea. Amazing food. Luxury shopping. Beauty OPs (my-oh-my). Great clubs. Wonderful landscapes. Welcoming (language-savvy!!!!) people.
I’ve never experienced a place that combined post-war site and French riviera feel with a dash of oriental flair so effortlessly, and it’s been truly amazing. Quite contrasting to Istanbul, we (two blonde girls) weren’t looked at weirdly, no uncomfortable stares, noone cares what you wear and everything seems definitely more western, tolerant and less conservative than in Istanbul (let alone the rest of Turkey).
Generally, I’d say it’s always wise to let yourself be led by gut feel in Beirut – Corniche (think Cote d’Azur -like seaside promenade) and the luxury shopping area are as safe as can be, but there’s certainly areas where it’s wiser to be a bit more alert. However, we were wandering through the city’s residential, partly poorer districts and were perfectly fine – noone staring, noone shouting, no weird ‘we should better get out of here’ feeling. Another thing that made me incredibly happy was the sight of countless runners on the aforementioned Corniche. Girls dressed in sports tops and noone could care less. Runner’s heaven, seriously.
One day, we made our way to Byblos which is apparently the world’s longest continuously inhabited place on earth – with its history dating back about 5000 years. Today, it’s a lovely, sleepy fishermen’s village with adorable souks, great food (again!) and some nice spots for a swim. On the way back our minibus-driver let us out way too early because he apparently couldn’t really be bothered to drive into the city and while attempting to walk we had a young guy literally reverse for about 50 meters and take the other road to bring us back to town. One of the few that barely spoke English, but wouldn’t charge anything for the few kilometer drive (that would have been quite the walk) and let us out with an ‘I love you!’ – I sincerely think we kinda made his day, he certainly made ours by getting us safely back to the city. Being blonde is quite funny at times.
Not only because of the great staff (family-owned since 3 generations, every day another breakfast – Lebanese variations, French, father and son always around and up for a talk about life, religion, politics and who knows what) but also because of the neighborhood out hotel was amazing: Right across the street was Falafel Sahyoun, a more than 100-year old falafel place with truly heavenly food. You cannot believe how much I miss decent hummus and falafel here in Istanbul, it’s ridiculous.
What I realized after leaving was quite striking for me: We came pretty close to Syrian Homs (115km), the Syrian border (65km) and Tripoli (30km) and except for meeting a few people in Beirut that couldn’t speak French/English but were telling us that they’re from Syria we were barely able to notice. However, the day after we left, there were car blasts in Tripoli about a week after 2 people killed in Beirut. As a Lebanese guy my age said: ‘We wouldn’t know what to do if Lebanon were suddenly at peace. It’s never been that way.’
It’s just been 4 days but I would love to see more of the country. Go hiking in the Wadi Khadisha along the Syrian border (yeah, that’s not happening anytime soon), see the south, visit Tyre and Sidon where there’s still Palestinian refugee camps at the moment, see the ruins of Baalbek (Syrian border, again). Maybe, when – some day – there won’t be shootings and bomb blasts every so often.
Aaaand I do have a great book recommendation: A lost summer: Postcards from Lebanon.