Why visitors still love Lebanon (despite its crises)


Tyre, Lebanon - ancient Roman cemetery
Tyr - ancient Roman cemetery

Lebanon: a tiny country crushed by crisis after crisis, but new visitors still fall in love with it.

When I traveled to Lebanon in the summer of 2019 (Lebanon is where my paternal family is from), I expected to return within a year. Then Covid happened, and a financial meltdown with the currency slipping ever more on the black market, people unable to get their own money out of the bank; and the unexpected next blow (-up , literally), the explosion of the port silos in August of 2020, that killed at least 218 people and destroyed and damaged many buildings, closing down entire hospitals. My own very pregnant cousin was napping, and woke up to a window frame with shattered glass on top of her. Fortunately she got away with a few cuts, and her son is now 2 years old.

This year, I was unwilling to put off my trip any longer. I was unsure what to expect.

I traveled in September, having booked several accommodations before leaving: a small hotel in Ashrafieh (near my relative’s home), Nest Hotel; one night in an inn in Deir el Qamar in the mountains; and at a family friend’s bed and breakfast, Elainezescape. I used my credit card to reserve but was asked to pay in cash, in US dollars, upon arrival or departure.

When we arrived, we were advised to change our USD (not at the bank....), but not all at once as the black market rate keeps on changing; the government still pegs the dollar at 1,500 LL to the USD, which has been the rate since 1997, but this rate is now purely theoretical. We changed money at 35,000 LL to the dollar the day after we arrived; 10 days later, the rate was 38,000.

Restaurant menus are either virtual via a QR code, or written on a board with washable markers or chalk. Receipts are supposed to show the price in dollars using the official rate: we had a simple lunch that officially cost over $200, whereas in reality, it cost much, much less. Other restaurants show the true price.

Jet lag and the September heat kept us from intensive sightseeing the first few days. In any case, one objective was to reconnect with the friends and family who are still in Lebanon.

Culture and food

Ashrafieh is the neighborhood that hosts the National Museum (as well as others that we had no time to visit, such as the Sursock contemporary Lebanese art museum, and the Gemology Museum). The National Museum was heavily damaged during the 1975-1990 Civil War; the former Director of Antiquities, the Emir Maurice Chehab (a distant relative) hid the Phoenician statuettes and buried them in concrete to save them from Syrian pillage, as the country was controlled by the Syrians for many years. The museum has since been renovated; due to budgetary issues, there is no air conditioning, but don’t let that hold you back from admiring 6,000 years of artifacts.

We drove down to Tyr, not far from the southern border, via Sidon. Tyr is an archeological site with three layers of superimposed civilizations. We visited the ruins of a Roman cemetery. The site is sadly not well maintained, but these ancient stones are still fascinating.

Tyr marina
Tyr marina

While we were in Tyr, we drank coffee overlooking the marina (a far cry from the Côte d’Azur marinas, Tyr has real fishermen, burned a dark coffee hue by the sun), and we promised ourselves we’d return for a fish dinner next year.


Broummana multi-floor food court by night
Broumana food court by night (Photo T. Kirk)

Evenings were spent in timeless Lebanese fashion (except that sadly many can’t afford it any longer): eating and drinking. One evening we sat at a bar in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood, packed with young revelers. Another evening we were driven up to the mountain town of Broumana, to a restaurant court, again: packed. We had dinner and a LOT of tequila at a Mexican restaurant, Pablo Escobar. For Californians, used to our local Mexican eateries, the food was less than stellar; but the tequila made us forget everything!

On the fifth day, we picked up a rental car and drove to Deir el Qamar. We dropped off our bags at the inn (unfortunately not very comfortable, although the manager was charming), and went to visit Beiteddine, the famous palace built by Emir Bechir Chehab (an ancestor), who used to rule over part of Lebanon. It took 25 years to build, and fortunately Emir Bechir spent many years there, before he was exiled by the Ottomans (he died in exile in Turkey). Part of the palace is off limits to the public as it is the Lebanese president’s summer residence. There is still a lot to admire, magnificent reception areas, a small office, a bedroom, and the bathing area.

The next day we visited the Moussa Castle. This is a museum hand-built by Moussa Abdel Karim Al Maamari, fulfilling a lifelong dream. He also created all the exhibits, with wax figurines - a bit crude but the scenes are surprisingly lifelike. Life in the mountain villages as well as in Beiteddine Palace is depicted; there are walls and walls of gun displays (!), jewelry, and much more.

As for food... an omnipresent subject in Lebanon! We had lunch one day at a Deir el Qamar family-style restaurant, Country Gate: we ate shish taouk (lemon-marinated chicken skewers), maqaneq (small sausages), a good tabbouleh, accompanied by Ksara white wine. Total cost: 700000 LBP ($20 at the time, September 11, 2022). Later we ate ice cream at Le Crémier - absolutely wonderful. On the last morning we had an impromptu outdoor breakfast of "manaqeesh" (bread dough baked on a traditional round oven, filled with cheese this time rather than za'atar) with Lebanese coffee.

While we're on the subject of food: one of the many things I crave when in Lebanon is "Knefe bi jebn". This is often served for breakfast: a layer of cheese (resembling mozzarella) between two layers of tapioca, smothered in rose water syrup, and often served in a sesame seed-covered pocket bread. I couldn't even finish half and I was full for the rest of the day!

As for ice cream, the go-to place in Beirut is Hanna Mitri, who had to relocate after the 2020 explosion, as the original shop was destroyed. My personal favorites are rosewater, milk, Oshta (cream), and pistachio; except for the last one, these flavors are hard to find in Europe and the United States.

We drove through the mountains to visit relatives in Midane. GPS worked quite well.


Our last stay was in the hills of Batroun, at ElaineZescape. Elaine, the owner, was raised in Canada, but returned with her parents and decided to stay. She is a licensed cosmetologist and also runs a day spa in a nearby town, Adma. We took over the lower floor, which has its own kitchenette, and a door towards the garden, with a pool and many fruit-bearing trees. From there we drove either to the Batroun waterfront area - fast becoming the "in" place in Lebanon - or to Byblos (locally known as Jbeil), an ancient town with a Crusader castle and ruins from Phoenician, and Greek days, as well as a bustling restaurant area, and many shops. This is also Reynaldo's headquarters; he used to own his own shop in the old souk. Nowadays he sells his paintings and other creations at Gebran's Lebanon and other shops.

Elaine, whose family hails from the northern mountains of Lebanon, took us on a day-long tour by car of the Cedars, the Gibran Museum, as well as a huge monastery (St. Anthony the Great; not St. Anthony of Padua), St. Charbel's home (St. Charbel is a patron saint in Lebanon), and a famous hand-churned ice cream shop, Salem, in Qozma, on the way back. We stopped to have a barbecue and picnic in the Wadi Qaddish valley (Wadi means valley in Arabic) next to a stream. We ate "Znoud el Sitt" (a delicious cream-filled, syrup-covered pastry) in Ehden. (Suffice it to say that we did not starve. We even ate some za'atar manaqish (za'atar bread) as her relatives' home before the ice cream.)

Explanatory note: The northern Lebanese mountains are a heavily Christian area, whereas Tripoli, the second largest city in Lebanon, on the northern coast, is majority Muslim.

Cedars of Lebanon
Cedars of Lebanon

The vistas in northern Lebanon are extraordinary (and sometimes a bit scary). The Cedars grove, well maintained by Friends of Cedar; many trees are catalogued. These cedars used to cover much of Lebanon's mountains, and were known to have been used in Solomon's temple. The cedar is the main symbol for Lebanon, and is featured on the national flag.







If you are new to Lebanon, it's a great idea to start off with Elaine, as she'll take care of you like family, and explain the country to you.

I really wanted to swim in the Mediterranean Sea; as a young adult, I'd often come every day from April till October. Nowadays the sea in the Beirut area is too polluted to swim in; people go to beach clubs with large swimming pools. However the sea is still clean both to the south (Sidon) and to the north of Beirut, so we went for an hour or so to "Nowhere Beach" for a quick dip.

Below are examples of restaurants we ate at, usually sharing a few dishes, with a glass of wine or a small carafe.

Restaurant

Location

Cost September 2022 with tip (1-2 people)

Leila

ABC Ashrafieh mall food court

1100000 LBP = US$31

Central Station (bar)

Gemmayze, Beirut

unknown

Onno (Armenian)

Ashrafieh, Beirut

825000 LBP = US$24

Country Gate

Deir el Qamar

700000 LBP = US$20

Edde's Yard

Jbeil/Byblos

441000 LBP = US$13

Note: You need to always have change! Many stores don't have any. SOmetimes, of you insist, they will drum some up.

Note: The main language spoken is Arabic. It's certainly easier to get around if you are with someone who speaks it (albeit not perfectly, like me). Most signs include names in the Roman alphabet, but not all.

If you didn't have space in your suitcase for sweets - the Beirut airport duty-free area is a cornucopia of food shops, alcohol stores, books, and souvenir items.


Tiny fried fish
Tiny fried fish

Pomegranates at Elaine's
Pomegranates at Elaine's

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