Beirut never sleeps
My time in Beirut was marked by the best local experience I could possibly ask for. Lebanese people are some of the most hospitable and cheerful I have ever meet, a characterizing aspect of the Lebanese culture in general. Most of them speak Arabic, French, and English, making communication and interaction with locals easy and exciting. Nothing was more enjoyable than joining a group of Lebanese people at a “Tabboule” and “Fattouch” meal or a delicious “Kunefe”. What’s even more enjoyable is taking a nice walk at the corniche around sunset to finally get to Raouche, the famous and stunning set of rocks known as the Pigeon’s Rock. During my two-week stay in Beirut, one of the most eye-opening experiences was talking with locals from all backgrounds and all cultures, the best way to get a sense of Lebanon’s religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity that has no equal in the region. Hamra street is the beating heart of the city center of Beirut. It basically never sleeps, much like a real heart. There, I could find the finest cafes, the best restaurants offering the most delicious “Batata Herra” (spicy potatoes), and world-class clothing shops for shopping lovers. The whole street was to me like a mini Champs-Élysées, with all its lights, big luminous signs and fancy-looking passersby - no wonder why the city is called “Paris of the Middle East”.
The ride to Sidon was truly enjoyable. After only one hour on the road, I found myself in this beautiful and refreshing port city, ready to get out of the Beirut mood and dive into the Sidon atmosphere. My Sidon journey started with a simple cup of coffee that I loved sipping by the sea shore. It almost felt like nothing in this world mattered anymore. All I could feel and taste was the delicious local coffee, the smell of the sea, and the gentle fresh breezes that kept nicely coming with the waves. A fascinating fact about Sidon is that it has been inhabited since at least 4,000 BC! That’s a really old city! Locals of Sidon say the city was an extremely rich and flourishing Phoenician hub that enjoyed great power and fame. Visiting its “Eshmoun Temple”, a unique assemblage of ancient ruins dedicated to the Phoenician God of healing, was a beautiful experience that you cannot but take photos of. The old souks of Sidon, the soap museum as well as the peaceful quiet trails and parks of Bramiyeh made my visit even more delightful! Sidon is a mesmerizing place, where the city and the sea gently hug each other, making your time in Sidon full of love, hospitality, and captivating old stories.
Tyre enchants you
Another Phoenician city with another Phoenician history? Yes, but with much more to tell, and certainly a lot more to see and experience! After less than 2 hours of driving from Beirut, you can find Lebanon’s finest and cleanest beaches to swim, sunbathe, or just read a book by the sea, all in this amazing city called Tyre, also referred to as Sour. If you’re lucky, you can even spot sea turtles ready to mingle with you and make your stay in Tyre more than memorable. Visiting the two main archeological sites, Al-Mina and Al-Bass which date back to the third millennium BC is one of the best thing to do in the city. They are real historical wonders that will take your breath away, and the guides there are among the most helpful and welcoming I have ever met. They can spend the day telling you all about Tyre and wouldn’t even charge you for it! Walking around the old town is so enjoyable; it features a traditional souk and a Christian quarter that adds an intercultural charm to the city and reminds you of the incredible diversity that characterizes Lebanon. Tyre is the legendary birthplace of Didon, the Phoenician leader and first Queen of Carthage. But it also is home to Lebanon’s finest examples of Roman architecture, ancient scenic sites, and stunning beaches.
Afqa, a real dream world
This is the place where you will literally forget that you’re in the Middle East. Green landscapes, high altitude, foggy weather, waterfalls, and caves, not the typical landmarks one would expect to find in a Middle Eastern country. No more than 40 miles away from Beirut, Afqa in the North-East of the capital is another place that took my breath away and would certainly make your trip in Lebanon special. This exotic and surreal place is distinguished for its colossal grotto, and its giant cave that bursts with a gushing waterfall that feeds into Nahr Ibrahim, also known as Adonis River. Climbing to the cave is such an exciting and adrenaline-pumping experience. It gives you a perfect view of an iconic little bridge on which you get to see the waterfalls and the blue lagoon-like natural pool where you can swim. Afqa is a place where you can clear your mind, embrace nature, and write a love poem, making it a perfect destination for those seeking an escape from the busy city life and a moment to dive into a dream world in the heart of the Middle East.
Baalbek is a time machine
If you thought Sidon is an ancient city, wait until you hear about Baalbek which was inhabited as early as 9,000 BC! Once you reach this town in the North-West of Beirut in the Beqaa valley, you will spot the big marvellous Roman temples right away. They will be calling you to start walking towards this unique old treasure that has no equal in the country or the region. The magnificent Temple of Bacchus is undoubtedly the most stunning among all ruins in the archeological site of Baalbek. It is a living proof of the greatness of this city, much like its splendid “Stone of the South”, the largest worked monolith on Earth, weighing more than 1200 tons. The best thing to do is to go inside the temple and carefully look at the symbolic motifs and writings that hold mystery and antiquity. An interesting fact about Baalbek is that it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 334 BC and was then renamed Heliopolis, “the city of the sun”, which you would understand why if you walk around its walls and gates. People in Baalbek are beyond generous. They would guide you through the city and even invite you for a yummy Lebanese meal. Inside the archeological site, the museum of Baalbek offers a clear and captivating summary of the history of the city, with more ruins and rocks preserved indoors.
Who said you need a time machine to travel back to the past, when you can just go to the amazing city of Baalbek which will transport you through thousands of years history?
Photos: Ala Oueslati