Friday, December 23, 2011

Jordan Challenge 21: Visit Lebanon

A funny thing about travel, at least for me, is that the more places you go, the more places you discover that you want to go.  Travel tends to beget more travel, both because it opens up the desire to see still more places, and because it creates an ever-growing list of places to re-visit.  Lebanon is now squarely in the latter category: in fact I'd say that Beirut is now officially on my Top Five List of Favorite Cities.  (In case anyone is wondering, the others are: Stonetown, Zanzibar; Burlington, Vermont (and yes, I am counting it as a city -- it's my list); Edinburgh, Scotland; and Tacoma, Washington).

 I was thinking about my criteria when I was telling my friend Elizabeth that Beirut is a top-fiver, and it seemed so obvious.  I think a truly cool city has to have most or all of the following:
  • It must be on or very near a beautiful body of water that is accessible to the locals and tourists, like the way Beirut sits on the Mediterranean Sea and offers a lovely Corniche for walking along the waterfront;

    Here I am standing in front of some famous offshore cliffs called Pigeon Rocks on the seaward side of the Corniche.
  • It must have lots of pretty buildings, like the mosques and churches throughout the city of Beirut;

    That thing being constructed in front of the beautiful Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque is a giant artificial Christmas tree being put up by the city.  Despite the city's violent past, there are many signs of tolerant religious coexistence here like this one.
  • It must have at least one (preferably more) charming, pedestrian-friendly areas lined with local cafes and shops and few or no chain stores and restaurants like Beirut's lovely and fun Rue Gourard in the Gemmayzeh District;

    Our first night in town Elizabeth, Grace and I went to the very memorable though-slightly-dodgy-from-the-outside restaurant, Le Chef.  It was fabulous and we stuffed ourselves silly.
    After we could eat no more we went walking outside and found that Beirut is a very pretty city at night.
  • It should be a college town, thus benefiting from the young population, forums for the exchange of ideas and culture and (most importantly) used book stores attendant therein.  In this regard, the Hamra  area around the large and extremely prestigious American University of Beirut (AUB) fits the bill wonderfully well.
  • It should have an interesting mix of cultures and populations, and ideally, should be a place where two or more cultures actually appear to meet.  The first impression I had of Beirut was that this is where the Middle East meets Europe, and a lot of the best of both appear evident in the everyday life of the city.

    The five of us downing croissants and big bowls of cafe au lait worthy of a Paris breakfast.
  • It should have an interesting history, and Beirut is just about impossible to beat on that score;
  • Way too much here for a blog caption, but it's true that Beirut has not yet fully recovered from the violence in its past, including the 2006 bombing it suffered when Israel attacked the city as a means of striking at Hezbollah.

  • and finally it should be surrounded by other beautiful, fun and/or fascinating places to see.  Like archaeological sites waiting to be explored further down the coast, astonishing caves full of stalactites and stalagmites and mountains and cedar forests, perhaps?

Sadly, we were not allowed to take any pictures at all inside the Jeita Grotto, a series of two very large caves (you can take a boat ride, as we did through the bottom one) with the most amazing collection of stalactites and stalagmites imaginable.

After Jeita we journeyed onward to Byblos, a lovely port city with a colorful history and partially excavated ruins... of the highlights was drinks and dinner at Pepe's (recommended by my friend Gary), where we could watch the sun set and read about all the famous people, from Marlon Brando to Eva Gardner, who had found the place before we had.
As anyone can clearly see, the case has made itself.  Beirut is a winner.  Though we had a sneaking suspicion that this was the case, my Fulbright partner-in-crime, Elizabeth, and our fellow Fulbright friends Tess and Christina felt it was our duty to confirm.  We were lucky enough to meet up with still another Fulbright friend, Grace, who already knew all about Beirut's awesomeness, and was, in fact, back on a return trip.  Between the five of us, we managed to make a pretty good dent in the city's sights, eateries, wine bars and day-trip attractions.  But the one thing we all concluded is that Beirut surely deserves a (more like several) return visits. If you're in this part of the world, this is one place you do not want to miss.


  1. Love the pictures! looks like you guys had an amazing time :) Let me know if you'd like another travel companion next time! Would love the chance to jetset with you guys.

  2. The cool thing about being famous is traveling. I have always wanted to travel across seas, like to Canada and stuff. Cheap Flights to Beirut