Lebanon was never seriously a destination on my travel list but when I found myself planning a trip to Jordan, I did what I have done countless times before. I pulled up a map of the region to see what other countries I could fit into my itinerary. There it was. Just a stone’s throw away. Could I? Should I? I looked at neighboring Syria and all of the warning bells and whistles started to go off in my head. Then I remembered a coworker’s warm sentiments of his homeland. He’d described the country’s sexiness: the people, the Mediterranean food, the beaches and if any of the men looked anything like him…It was settled. I was going to Lebanon.
After mentioning my plans to the ladies that would be traveling to Jordan with me, to my surprise, several of them expressed their interest in accompanying me. A few weeks later, we boarded our plane in Amman and flew one hour to Beirut. Upon arrival, we located the counter where we could obtain the tourist visa we would need as US citizens. To our surprise, we were waved away with a playful grin by the bearded agent. Well alright then. Breezing through customs and immigration, we load into our taxis.
For the next 30 minutes, we weave through evening traffic headed for our hotel in the heart of the neighborhood Hamra. Driving down Rue Hamra the street was alive with activity. Olive skinned locals ducked in and out of restaurants, pubs and bars, and designer clothing stores and every inch of the street is packed with a perfect mix of people rushing amid others with nowhere in particular to be. Arriving at our hotel, we settle in for the night.
Welcome to Beirut.
Excited to see the capital city in the light of day, we begin the next day with a traditional breakfast at the hotel -fresh hummus, hard-boiled eggs, meat and cheese slices, olives, and sweet cakes. Anywhere that serves chocolate cake for breakfast is more than alright with me. The temperature outside is a nice 70 F( 21 C), so most of us are wearing light sweaters or long sleeved tops. Pants are recommended so that our legs are covered when visiting religious places and more conservative areas of the city, but overall, Lebanon is very casual compared to other middle eastern countries. Some of the group elect to stay behind in search of a hammam for a little pampering. The rest of us pile into our taxis and head out for a day of sightseeing.
Our transport dropped us downtown at the door of the Blue Mosque (Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque). From there, we follow a walking city tour app on my phone. Much anticipated on the tour are the souks. However, what most of us are expecting is not what we find. I’ve gotten lost in the souks of Istanbul and even had to find my way through the countless rows of textiles, spices, and fare in Marrakech, so imagine my surprise when we round the corner to find an elaborate open-air complex of glass storefronts, chicly clad mannequins, and a food court! The Lebanese women carry designer handbags with pomeranian heads sticking out from them in one hand and venti lattes from Starbucks in the other. Street vendors and sidewalk entertainers fill in the gaps between the meandering foot traffic. Whenever we tell a curious passerby where we were from, an elated, “USA!” always follows. The energy was infectious. Welcoming. We were quickly learning Beirut was full of surprises. Continuing down to the waterfront, we elected to have lunch on the boardwalk in front of the yachts docked in the marina of the yacht club. Eventually, we made our way to the renowned Corniche just in time for sunset.
For 53,000LBP ( 35USD ), the group took a tour outside of the city the following day. Starting at the Umayyad Ruins, then onward to the impressive and massive ruins of Baalbek, we finally settled for lunch at the recommendation of our driver. Bellies full of traditional Mediterranean fare, we continued on to Ksara for wine tasting before making our way back to the hotel. The next day took us in the opposite direction to the beautiful Jeita Grotto. After visiting a few sights in the area, we stopped at one of the oldest towns in the world, Byblos, before heading back to Beirut.
Unfortunately, we were out of time. One by one, the ladies boarded their flights home.
This country with its amazing vibrancy had shown us the importance of not letting others tell you what the world is really like. Assume nothing.