The long and difficult history of Lebanon has led to a sizeable Lebanese community in my home town of Sydney. In fact I went to school with a bunch of Lebanese boys, so it's great to finally have the chance to explore the country for myself. There has been much written and spoken over the years about the interminable conflicts in the Middle East, and I'm pleased to say I can now gather a little perspective on the life of these friendly people. I've booked over a week at the Hostel Beirut, and am intent on making the most of my visit to this small but strategically important country. Beirut has always had a magical appeal for travellers, and it's a thrill and an honour to be here for the first time.
The journal left off after a week in the beautiful city of Budapest, and it's time to explore some new horizons. The flight from Budapest had a stopover in Athens, and landing in Beirut at the ungodly hour of 2:00am marks yet another country visited during the course of my world travels! It's always a thrill arriving in a new country with my taxi ride a breeze as
the roads were clear late at night, and I was relieved to see the hostel door open as arranged online. I walked upstairs and blundered around for a while looking for a sign that was meant to be out for me, but couldn't find it. Oh well, I found an empty dorm room upstairs, and just crashed on one of the beds till the morning. I checked in downstairs with the staff first thing in the morning, and they directed me to the assigned room for my stay. I was soon out and about for a preliminary explore, and pleased to discover the hostel is close to Armenia street which takes you in to the centre of the city. I walked both directions for ages, managed to get lost, but also managed to exchange some money and find the centre without any dramas. Beirut is a bustling Arabic city as you would expect, but it's full of hidden treasures tucked away.
There are restaurants and bars and beautiful neighbourhoods to enjoy, and I had a good feeling at the completion of my first day exploring. The hostel is an NGO dedicating funds raised to provide educational programs for young
refugees from Syria, so as you can imagine there's an eclectic and diverse group of people here. It's one of those places where there doesn't seem to be much turnover of guests, and most of the people I've been hanging out with over the last week have been here far longer than me. You get the feel of being in a family home rather than a hostel, and one guy in particular whips up amazing meals of an evening for $10. I headed out again the next morning with a view to checking the port along the coast, and stumbled across a gorgeous neighbourhood that looks every bit as elegant as Paris. Beirut is full of surprises as long as you're willing to explore! I met the taxi guide who works for the hostel that evening, and we made tentative plans for tours of the country while I'm here, and then relaxed for the rest of the evening.
I was woken next morning by the hostel staff who said the guide was on the phone. He had found two European guys keen for a day tour of the south and told me to get ready in fifteen minutes, or
I will kick your arse! Spreading the cost of a tour three ways had me up, showered, and ready to go in less than fifteen minutes! It was great to meet the lads, and get out of the capital for the first time. We visited lovely towns, churches, mosques and enjoyed beautiful views of the valleys that are so typical of Lebanon. The traffic and pollution is a problem in Beirut, but once you get outside the capital the country has a very different feel. However a few things that can always be relied upon in Lebanon are the superb food and hospitality of the local people.
The next morning I woke to another free day in Beirut, and on this occasion I walked along the coast to the Pigeon's Rocks tourist attraction. They are a cool set of rocks with a walking trail along the cliff face, and I'm told the rocks were recently lit up in the colours of the French flag in honour of a visit by the French president. In Beirut there are street signs in French and older people talk to foreigners in French, it's all part of the interesting tapestry of life in
Lebanon. The following day we embarked on a tour north to Tripoli to take in the famous souks and the fort. My guide kept my head spinning as we passed through Christian areas, to Shia areas, and to Sunni areas. He argues that as long as Lebanon is split along religious lines the civil war is not really over, but at least the fighting has ceased and the Lebanese people are committed to living in peace. Tripoli suffered from serious sectarian violence in 2015 between the Sunni and Alawi areas of the city, however a strong army presence ensures the fighting is a thing of the past. The fort is awesome and has spectacular views of the city, and walking through the souks is an experience to remember. We stopped off in the tourist resort town of Byblos on the drive back south to Beirut. It features gorgeous stone buildings, restaurants, hotels, bars, and lovely beaches. It was fascinating to see another side to Lebanon, and Byblos was teeming with tourists enjoying the attractions.
The next day we headed up to the mountains for a tour of the Bekaa valley and the city of Baalbek. My guide showed me
ski resorts that operate through the winter, and there's still some snow near the top of the mountains, despite the temperature rising to 35 degrees in Beirut over the last few days. The views of the Bekaa Valley are stunning as the car winds through the mountains, and finally comes down on the other side before arriving in Baalbek. Although the city is less than thirty kilometres from the Syrian border a strong army presence ensures the safety of the local people, as well as tourists who come in large numbers to see the world famous Baalbek roman ruins. The Jupiter Temple within the ruins is the largest temple built during the Roman Empire, and is a magnificent and imposing sight. After enjoying a visit to the ruins, we visited a famous shrine, and then a Roman quarry. My guide and his wife then invited me to their family home to enjoy a long traditional Lebanese lunch, in the presence of an extended family who showered me with hospitality. We then relaxed over sheesha pipes and talked about the good things in life with the mountains of the Syrian border clearly visible less than ten kilometres away. There has been
so much suffering throughout this region in recent years, however the Lebanese people remain committed to living proud and fulfilling lives. Lebanon is famed for some of the world's best food and hospitality that can't be matched, basically all of you should be here now!
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As I continue my travels, until next time it's signing off for now
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