Beirut, Lebanon and more: Nature, history and glamour
I am an adventurous traveler but I'm also a realist. Yes, the political situation is volatile and the Lebanese are the first to say: "Anything can happen in Lebanon". But, you know what? They say it with a big grin and a shrug of their shoulder. They are the most positive and optimistic people I have met in a long time and they stick to the slogan: Beirut is a party town. Not a warzone. And, boy, do they know how to party. Once upon a time, Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East and it's well on its way to regain that reputation. The magic words are Gemmayzeh and Ashrafiyeh or, more precisely Gouraud Street and Monot Street where countless pubs, clubs, restaurants and nightclubs open their doors daily and all of them are hopping from around 10pm until the sun comes up again.
You wouldnít believe the remarks and warnings I had to listen to from my well meaning but rather insufficiently informed friends when I announced that I planned to go and live for three months in Beirut. From black humor like: "hope you have remembered me in your will" to a more anxious: "do you have to wear a headscarf or burka." I have heard just about everything with the exception of anything positive. Therefore I think it's time to put the record straight.
Americans are Welcomed and so is the DollarLet's see what an American traveler, who speaks no Arabic, can expect. Contrary to an often uttered opinion, Americans are welcome in the Lebanon. The most important university is the American University of Beirut which is also a landmark and the American Hospital is top notch. Lebanon's official currency is the LL = Lebanese Pound, but $ Dollar run parallel and are accepted everywhere. Make sure you have small bills for tips and taxis but also have a certain amount in local currency ready. No Arabic? No problem. Road signs are bi-lingual and English is widely spoken. Every shop keeper and taxi driver has at least a smattering, so communication is no problem. If, on top, you learn a few words in Arabic, you will be liked even better. Lebanese women are very chic and although you will see some headscarves, most dress European style and so can every female traveler. Be careful though if you wish to visit a mosque. Several have signs which say that access is only allowed to Muslims.
Getting Around BeirutItís quite easy to get around Beirut on foot. Otherwise, either use a taxi-taxi or a service taxi. They look the same and have red number plates, but the service taxis are communal taxis which vaguely head in the direction you want to go. You just shout your destination, followed by the word "service" and the driver will stop..or not. The fare is LL 2000 or approx. $1.50. Normal taxis take you everywhere else and the general fare is LL 10.000, except to the airport which costs LL 20.000. Make sure you agree the price in advance, there are no meters and the drivers do try to take advantage of the unsuspecting tourist. The innate optimism manifests itself in the unstoppable construction work that's going on around the city, more and more erasing the last traces of the bombed out and destroyed buildings that resulted from the civil war and several violent disturbances after that. Modern top notch apartment buildings, 5 star hotels like the brand new Four Seasons which has become a landmark along the famous Corniche go up everywhere, not to mention the fabulous Beirut souks where I can't think of an international designer or jeweler who isnít represented.
Seeing and Doing in BeirutAt 7 or even 6am, Beirutis head for the Corniche and jog or walk along the waterfront, then enjoy a typical Lebanese breakfast and go to work or enjoy a day off in the old fashioned but extremely "in" Sporting Club in Manara next to another famous landmark: Pigeon Rock. They love to return at dusk and watch the sun go down behind the rock formation which has often been compared to Capri. Cultural and sports events take place all year long, most recently the Beirut Marathon which helped several charities. I love to visit the Mouawad Museum, a private collection of art and craft from the Middle East as well as Roman and Hellenistic statues in beautifully landscaped gardens, the National Museum and to have, yet another coffee in the very French Place de líEtoile or to mingle with the locals of a Sunday afternoon at the Roman Bath Park which combines an ancient site with modern recreational facilities. Your best overview and starting point is Hamra Street. It's also a good place to stay, for instance in the Crowne Plaza Hotel which has a great gym right next door. When you walk up towards the seafront, you reach the Corniche and when you walk down you come right into the middle of downtown Beirut. Mosques and churches are to be found all around Beirut too.
Exploring Lebanon Beyond BeirutLebanon is of course an ancient land where civilizations have passed through as long ago as 4000 years. Phoenicians, Persians, Romans, Greeks, Crusaders, Ottomans and the French, they all have left their traces. Head for instance south east to the overwhelming Zeus temple complex of Baalbeck which, every year, is the natural stage for an international music festival. Or north to Byblos, an ancient port town with beaches, a castle and a picturesque souk. On your way donít miss to take the telefrique at Harissa up to Our Lady of Harissa who stands high up on the mountain spreading her hands over the city below, with a modern Marmonite cathedral made of glass and cement right next to her. Or south to my personal favorite Saida (Sidon). Together with Byblos and Tyre, Sidon was the third most important Phoenician city state and has prospered on and off during the many conquers that followed. A crusader castle built in the 13th century stands on a small island, but more impressive is the medina, a labyrinth of ancient vaulted alleyways containing living quarters, shops, churches, mosques and the unique Olive Soap museum as well as an Ottoman palace, the Palais Debbane. All of these are only the man made wonders of Lebanon. Mother Nature has been bountiful too. First mention must be made to the Jeita Grotto, a dream world of stalactites and stalagmites which stretches forever on two levels. The lower level is only accessible by boat and you just glide along in awe. The green and fertile Bekaa valley features in its southern part the man made Quaratoun lake and dam, formed by the Litani River which is a nature reserve and popular destination for hikers. The mountains of Lebanon and the biblical cedar trees wait to be explored or invite to skiing in the winter. Add to this a Mediterranean climate, great beaches, great food and a friendly people and you are in for a holiday destination which is vastly underestimated and full of attractions and activities for all tastes. To get to the attractions outside of Beirut you can either hire a car and river or join an organized tour. A full 8 hour day for car and driver costs approximately 120 US Dollars, 1/2 day which is enough for Sidon or Jeita Grotto costs $60. Add a small tip at your discretion. It's best to ask your hotel to arrange for a car and driver or to get you on an organized tour.
More Articles by Inka Piegsa-Quischotte
Born in Germany, Inka Piegsa-Quischotte has lived and worked as an international attorney in Spain, Switzerland and the UK for many years. Two years ago she turned novelist and travel writer and now lives between Miami and Istanbul as basis for her many journeys either West or East. Her articles have been published in GoNomad, The Expeditioner, Literary Traveler, Travel with a Challenge, Europe up Close, Neos Kosmos newspaper, Lighthouse Digest and In The Know Traveler among others. She contributes regularly to Europe a la carte and is the Beirut expert for NileGuide. Her personal travel blog is called GlamourGrannyTravels.com