Our surprise visit to the Lebanon

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Middle East » Lebanon » Beirut
January 23rd 2019
Published: January 23rd 2019
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We’re not supposed to be in Beirut, not even in the Lebanon, but here we are in a taxi, whizzing through Beirut’s dodgy southern suburbs into the safe downtown.

We were due to travel to Sudan, organised by a UK tour company in partnership with the foremost travel company in Khartoum. Everything was arranged including visas on arrival in Sudan and we had the necessary documents to show this. Or rather, we thought we did until Epypt Air in Cairo refused to let us board the plane to Khartoum. No visa, no check in, no fly.

A quick bit if replanning and here we are, unprepared and disorganised and heading for Beirut. To our west, we catch glimpses of the Med; to the east, glimpses of the snow covered Chouf mountains. Seaside and skiing in a country the size of a couple of English counties, really?

After checking in to our Hotel, we need to find a bookshop. We need a guidebook. Our knowledge of the Lebanon is not good and we’ve done zero research. After all, we're not supposed to be here.

The bookshop has the Bradt guide and, guidebook in hand, we turn to our next need - coffee. It turns out the Lebanese do make excellent coffee and there are pavement coffee shops everywhere. Indeed, it is soon apparent that Lebanese food and drink are excellent.

Refreshed by coffee and cake, we head for the Corniche, the sea side pedestrian walkway that runs for miles along the sea’s edge. Being Saturday, it is thronged with locals, walking, cycling, jogging and fishing. A few swim or strip off to sun-bathe on the rocks, but only men. In the Lebanon, ladies do not do such things it seems.

We can only walk west as the eastern end of the front is closed off by police and army. The Arab Summit is in town for two days and they have exclusive use of the new marina area. We had noticed armed soldiers at nearly every road junction, we now know why. On Monday, the soldiers disappear – it’s good to realise they are not a normal part of life.

The Lebanon is linked in our memories to war. The civil war was back in 1975-90 and the conflict against Israel still splutters on but chiefly in the very south. There are many reminders of conflict – bullet holes in walls and statues; abandoned buildings with half their balconies missing; and the burnt out shell of the Holiday Inn hotel, a blank eyed tombstone. But the biggest reminder is how many new buildings there are. Downtown practically every building is under 25 years old and there is still a lot of construction going on.

Once the Arab Summit is over we can walk everywhere and Beirut is an easy place to wander around. There are mosques and churches of all denominations; there are artistic areas and amusing graffiti; there is shiny new architecture and crumbling old. It’s safe and it’s sunny. In the marina a dozen super-yachts are moored up, the super-rich know how nice the Lebanon is during Europe's winter.

After a few days we head north to Byblos, by taxi. It’s not cheap, Lebanon is not cheap, but the bus alternative is just too challenging. And a taxi means we can stop off to ride the telepherique to the top of the coastal hills and get a panoramic view of the coastal bays.

Old Byblos is set around a small fishing harbour. Fish restaurants line the quay, men repair their nets and tinker with engines.

Behind the port is a UNESCO archaeological park, its centre piece is an impressive crusader castle. The great vaulted ceilings and 4 metres thick walls remind us of crusader castles we visited in Syria, built by the same crusading armies. From the castle roof we can see the whole site. They say there are seven layers of civilisations here, set one below the other. Phoenician walls and tombs; bronze age houses; Roman columns and pavements; Neolithic ruins. The crusader castle is the new bit!

The old town is much restored around an old souk. Tourism is clearly a big business but mid-week in January everywhere is quiet. We dine on fresh fish, drink local wine and try Lebanese flatbread with local herbs and cheeses. The sun shines, the sea sparkles, we’ve forgiven EgyptAir.

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