Lebanon – the lesser known beauty

Lebanon is a tiny country in Western Asia which will surely satiate your wanderlust for unique destinations. This Mediterranean beauty will captivate you with its rich ancient history, serene beaches, landscapes, pleasant climate, tantalizing food, nightlife and more. Being ruled by the Romans, the Arab Muslims, the Druze, the Crusades, the Ottomans and by the French, Lebanon enjoys religious and ethnic diversity and is the most liberal country in the Middle East.

Unfortunately its history of long held civil war, trouble with Israel and more recent Syrian civil war has made it less popular with tourists and even unknown to many. That’s what made me write this post. I visited this little spectacle with my husband and daughter in June last year. And all I carried back along are beautiful memories and experiences. It’s as safe a country as any other tourist destination and I found it child friendly too, except for a few areas which are anyway guarded by military and entry restricted for outsiders.

I flew to Beirut via Dubai with 18 months old Seher to join my husband who had already been working there for sometime, so he was also our tour guide. A week road trip is the best way to explore Lebanon. If you have more days to spare you can club it with its neighboring countries Cyprus, Jordan, Israel (kindly note going to and from Lebanon to Israel is not permitted).

BYBLOS

Lebanon
Castle rooftop

The first place on our itinerary was the coastal town of Byblos, also known locally as Jbeil. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. A UNESCO world heritage site, this part of the country has a European feel to it. Narrow lanes, a castle, Greek and Roman ruins all speak of the city’s old world charm.

The castle houses a museum showcasing the findings of the excavations on the area with thousands of years of habitation. The best part is the rooftop of the castle from where the panoramic view of the ancient port below, the ruins, white stony beach in the backdrop of the Mediterranean deep blue sea brought an instant smile on my face. A walk through the ruins in the excavated site absorbed me in the history of those times. Being a Greek-Roman history lover my happiness knew no bounds when I saw a real Roman theater facing the sea in front of me. The location is worth taking pictures.

Leaving the ruins behind we walked back down the cliff to the old souk. It has small and big shops on both sides of the narrow streets selling clothes, shoes, hats, jewellery, show pieces and other touristy stuff. Although I didn’t buy anything but it was a delight walking through the old cute streets.

Byblos has an array of outdoor cafes, open air bars, pubs and some of the best fish restaurants. I was dying to try the local Lebanese cuisine. We chose a restaurant with a sea view and outdoor seating for lunch. Chilled beer and shisha with the cool breeze from the sea felt very refreshing after the long walk in bright sunny day.

JOUNEIH

Lebanon
Virgin Mary, Jouneih

After a heartfelt meal we headed South to Jouneih, around half an hour drive from Byblos. The Bay of Jouneih is the gateway to the significant pilgrimage site The shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa. Also, it is the start of a breathtaking cable car ride to the shrine which is on top of a hill. The ride enables you to see the entire bay and Mount Lebanon covered with cedar trees below.

This ten minute cable car ride lead us to another very interesting thing the funicular which took us further up the hill to the final stop of the church. Funicular is a railway transport system used in the ancient days on mountain slopes. It is similar to a cable car except that it is permanently attached to the cables and runs on a fixed track.

What awaited was a magnificent 800 feet tall statue of Virgin Mary with arms spread out giving out blessings to the country. My excitement knew no bounds and I went running up the stairs. The view from that height under the feet of Mother Mary is something one must not miss in a trip to Lebanon. And when I turned and looked up I felt the hands of the white peaceful figure of Mother Mary over my head. I wanted to stay there like that but the crowd coming in didn’t let me. We walked to the church and spent some time at the lovely gallery watching Seher run around. We got back down to Jouneih by the ropeway.

JEITA GROTTO

Jeita Grotto, Lebanon
Sculpture, Jeita Grotto

Next day we drove from Beirut towards North to Jeita Grotto or Cave around 30 minutes drive. Here again we had the pleasure of witnessing a panoramic view of the Lebanese mountains as we took the cable car ride to reach the caves which are located on a height in a valley. There we were welcomed by a cute toy train which took us to the Upper Grotto. What I saw on the site was something beyond imagination and something one would get to see only on Discovery channel.

Jeita Grotto is a system of two separate but interconnected caves made up of world’s largest stalactite which have formed over millions of years by the dissolution of limestone. There are walkways made for tourists to go around and observe these amazing crystallized structures. After this we moved to the lower cave which is located 60m below the upper gallery. It has an underwater river and a lake. We witnessed this hauntingly beautiful nature’s marvel by a boat ride. This wonderful experience felt like a dream and once out of the caves it took me some time to sink in what I just saw.

Besides the caves, Jeita Grotto site also accommodates a mini zoo, souvenir shops, beautiful garden and an enormous artistic sculpture.

BEIRUT

Beirut is the capital of Lebanon, the largest city and offers a lot of things to do. It is also called ‘Paris of the East‘ and you will soon know why. We started our exploration of this city with picturesque Pigeon Rocks in Raouche. These are two huge natural rock formations standing in blue green sea. The view prompted me of our Bollywood songs shot in exotic locations. There’s also boat ride available to take you around these rocks.

Lebanon
Zaitunay Bay, Beirut

Another tourist attraction of Beirut is Zaitunay Bay. It is an urban beach stretching along Beirut Marina with a Yacht Club and a strip of outdoor and indoor restaurants and retail outlets. We picked ‘Ahwet‘ and ordered Shish tawouk, Kale & Halloumi salad, Fatteh hommus & eggplant, Knefe with Ashtabula & chocolate ice cream in dessert and Arak in drink. Arak is their traditional alcoholic beverage made of grapes and aniseed. It is mixed with chilled water and/or ice which gives it a milky white colour. It has a refreshing flavor of fennel. A must try in Lebanon!

Feeling completely content with the delicious meal in the delicious weather (the first agenda in my ‘things-to-do’ list checked!) we went out strolling along the upscale bay with swanky yachts docked in the background.

Lebanese Cuisine
Arak

Towards the evening we headed to an important and one of the main streets of the city – Hamra Street for shopping. It’s a busy and colourful street full of shops, cafes and restaurants.

I felt so blissful after a day packed with amazing food and shopping that next day we arrived at Zaitunay Bay for lunch…again!. We had items from the list of Hot and Cold mezza and ended the meal with Namura with Ashta ice cream. And once again, got my senses bowled over!!!

Our next destination was Corniche, a seaside esplanade lined with palm trees and benches with a view of the Mediterranean. On the other side across the broad road are tall high-end buildings overlooking the Corniche. It reminded me of Marine Drive in Mumbai, India. And there was an air of festivity all over. The day happened to be Eid-ul-Fitr. Locals were out with their music players, shisha, food and drinks on the benches, in their parked cars, the beach and everywhere. There was an arabic song playing in most of the speakers which instantly got me grooving ‘Ya lili ya lile. It is now popular the world over.

After spending some time around we checked in to Barbar for dinner. We had the appetizing Shawarma, Falafel, Grilled chicken and Taboule which left us craving for more (sorry can’t help bringing up all the scrumptious Lebanese cuisine I had :P). Barbar is a local chain of restaurants offering affordable and delectable Lebanese and Mediterranean street food.

Lebanon
National Museum of Beirut

The next day began with a date with Lebanon’s rich history at the National Museum of Beirut. The archaeological museum houses collections from Prehistoric times to those during the reign of the Greeks, the Romans and the Arabs in the country. The most fascinating thing of all were the stone sarcophagi and hundreds of years old mummies! I had never seen this before. The beautifully restored artefacts actually took me to the Phoenician era.

Lebanon
Mohd. Al-Amin

Next on our visit list was Mohammad Al-Amin mosque located in the lovely Downtown area. This magnificent structure, also called Blue mosque, has got striking turquoise blue domes making it noticeable from miles around. It’s a new building but designed on the lines of Ottoman architecture.

From here we walked to Beirut souks in Downtown. With Seher in stroller we enjoyed a leisure walk around the posh streets lined with luxury brands, restaurants and cafés.

In the evening we went to Mar Mikhael to taste Beirut’s night life, the last thing before we bid adieu to this Mediterranean beauty. The place is colorful with lounges, pubs and clubs all lined in a street. But we couldn’t stay longer as it was too loud and crowded for Seher. We had a quick dinner and got back to our hotel. And that is all of my Lebanon travelogue.

Each travel experience brings enlightenment. And it can be life altering too.

So where are you planning your next travel?

Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.

– Dalai Lama

*All the images are owned by the author.

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