Yes, I was a bit anxious. Not more than on previous trips to sketchy areas though. After all, Lebanon is bordered by Syria to the north and east and Israel to the south.
The ongoing civil war, the Hezbollah reign, dreadful events like the garbage crisis and proper terror threats were a haunting setting for my long-planned adventure to the middle eastern country of Lebanon. And what an adventure it was..
I’m convinced, that we are led to believe worse of Lebanon as a country, than it actually is. Bad news just sells better. When a family friend and fellow adventurer, Firas, agreed on letting me stay with him during my time in Lebanon, I was beyond thrilled. I knew I would get to see a taste of the real country, and not the war-torn happenings in the region. Also, I knew I’d be in good hands, as he knows where it is safe to go in the country and where my adventurous, young and sometimes non-vigilant me should not be going, just for the sake of adventure.
I knew I’d live to tell the tale of a country so rich in diversity and awesomeness, that I’m more than ever convinced, that travel enriches all aspects of life and broadens the horizon.
I flew Pegasus Air to Istanbul, had an utterly long layover at the second largest airport on the asian side of Istanbul and after another 2 hours flying I landed in Beirut at 1.30 am in the morning. I expected immigration to be tough, as I heard stories from other traveler, being questioned hard for having lots of stamps in their passports.
And my passport is proper spy-stuff at the moment. I got a visa from the Lebanese embassy in Vienna and it got placed between my Russian, Chinese and Iranian visa. Go figure. What could possibly hint more I’m a spy than that. I expected hell.
But to my surprise, immigration was a breeze. The officer was screening my passport solely for an Israelian visa. (If they find one, you most likely go to jail, just fyi.)
Anyway, Firas picked me up and off we drove through dark Beirut. We drove to Bejje, a village about 40 minute drive north of Beirut. Around 4 am I crushed into bed totally beat.
When you arrive in a new place late at night, there is no way you capture the scenery properly, and since we drove around long winding streets up a mountain, I felt there’s got to be a fantastic view in the morning. Oh boy, immediately after waking up I headed to the terrace to take a look. And what a view it was!
We planned to drive around Northern Lebanon today and after a late morning start we were soon off to Batroun. A small village with a strange port. It wasn’t easy to drive through the narrow paths in Batroun with a giant Hummer H3, but we eventually made it to the Church of St. Stephan.
It was a nice area to stroll around, see a view old houses and churches, but as soon as you arrived at the port it wasn’t as charming anymore. The port was odd. It has concrete everywhere and lost its charming old looks.
Moving on northwards, we took a scenic road up a hill right next to the ocean. We were just a few kilometres before Tripolis, the largest city in North Lebanon. The views were off the charts. High above the sea level you could see the turquoise waters in the Bay and behind that, you could see snow-capped mountain ranges. An absolute killer view. Wow!
Then we drove down the Valley of Kings to visit the Monastery of Qozhaya. It possesses the first printing press of the Middle East. Quite a cool sight.
Lebanon consist mainly of lush green hills and mountains, and at the sea side it has amazing ports and bay areas. You can get an amazing view wherever you go in this country.
After a gorgeous lunch stop close to Syria, probably the closest I will get to Syria in the next few years, we drove by the Cedars National Park. Cedar Trees are a very important symbol for Lebanon. In ancient times the timber was used for shipbuilding and the Ottoman Empire used it for railway construction. A cedar tree is also pictured on the national flag of Lebanon.
We drove back for a few hours through hundreds of winding streets, which is tiring for drivers and actually anyone sitting in the car. Eventually we made it back to Bejje. We drove quite close to the Beqaa Valley, which I wish we would have visited. But nowadays, there is simply no way to guarantee anyone’s safety there, hence a no-brainer. The main site in the Beqaa Valley is, without a doubt, Baalbek. You can find some of the best preserved roman ruins there, including some of the largest temples of the empire. But there has been a lot of fighting between ISIS, Al-Nusra, Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army in the Arsal area, just a few kilometres shy of Baalbek. It might be possible to visit and there are still very few travelers visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Baalbek, but you only go there, if you have a serious death wish. However, I want to go there in the future, without putting my life at risk.
The following day, Firas had a bit of work to do, giving me the possibility to check out one of the oldest towns in the world. Byblos, also called Jbeil, has been inhabited since neolithic times, for about 7000 years, and was the first city of Phoenicia. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and beyond beautiful. The Old souk area is filled with small cafés and some shops. I wandered around for hours, embracing the charming ancient atmosphere and cold beers.
Inside the Old Souk, towards the sea side, you find ruins of many successive civilizations. The entry to the whole archaeological area is about 5 US Dollars. The centre of the ruins is the crusader citadel. When you climb up the staircase inside, be careful and make sure to not fall over. There are literally no safety regulations.
The views from above are amazing and give you a good overview on the whole area, as well as the shore in the back with amazing beaches. Make sure to wander around the whole area as it’s a fairytale scenery, putting you back a few centuries ago.
My favourite area in Byblos was definitely the Port. There are a few cafés and restaurants to sit, relax and watch the sunset. Generally, the whole area has a charming vibe around it, which you don’t want to leave. The only little downside was, that beers cost around 6 Euro, which is insane. I didn’t expect that. Nonetheless, I was amazed by Byblos, I didn’t really care about beers anymore and continued to stroll around forever.
My visit was coming to an end and I have loved every second of it. I was not sure what to expect, because, as I said earlier, the current situation in Lebanon is fragile, and you never know what might or might not happens. But Firas has shown me a really great time in a country, that has been war-torn for a long time now, but that does not stop the Lebanese people to have a great time. They think of life as a gift and that it is best enjoyed with friends, good food, beautiful scenery, a few drinks and a smile. I loved it.
Even in Beirut, there are so many amazing places to go out and enjoy life, you probably couldn’t visit them all, when you stay a year. I definitely want to come back and check out more of them. However, in Beirut the fragility is more visible, due to the military presence, plus there are certain areas you are not supposed to go, like South Beirut, which is Hezbollah territory.
My trip to Lebanon was all I hoped it would be and I got to see a real piece of Lebanon and the lebanese way of life. That was mainly due to the amazing hospitality of Firas (You’re a superstar, Thanks!) and all the other friendly people we’ve met on the way.
I wish I would have stayed longer, but I was moving on to another country, where trouble was already waiting for me, to remind me, that travelling to all countries in the world is not only beautiful and enriching, but challenging as hell.
To be continued.