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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunset at Pigeon's Rocks

We are in Beirut! Arrived about 3:40 local time on Sunday. And we had a perfect beginning to the trip. Several weeks ago, my former colleague Lamia introduced me via e-mail to her cousin Nibal, a lady in her early 50s who is married to Tony, a retired professor in his 70s. We met them at a spot near the waterfront Corniche after we showered and freshened up at our hotel.

They took us to a landmark called Pigeon's Rocks and ordered us beer and a selection of mezze while we watched the sun go down over the Mediterranean. We ate a lot of the most typical dishes -- hummus, baba ghanoush, lebbaneh (strained yogurt flavored with mint), mixed olives, stuffed grape leaves, crunchy fried potatoes with olive oil and coriander, sauteed dandelion greens topped with crispy fried onion slivers. Nibal said, "Try these pickled vegetables. We pickle everything here." Everything was so yummy, and she kept saying that spread was absolutely nothing compared to the variety of mezze we'll have in other restaurants. The sunset was beautiful, and they were both so friendly and personable. In fact, Nibal wants to have us over to their home for dinner before we leave! Tony taught agriculture and did a stint at Auburn. What are the chances I would have an Alabama connection in Beirut?!

It was a pretty uneventful flight getting here -- other than both of our planes were apparently operated by Day Care Air. (We flew Dulles to Paris and on to Beirut.) I don't know that I've ever been surrounded by more howling toddlers on international flights. It was pretty awful, even with earplugs and headphones. The Middle Easterners on our flight from Beirut provided some good people watching, especially a rather large couple who boarded in front of us covered in head to toe black with designer labels everywhere -- Tods shoes, Burberry shirt, Fendi purse, Dior shopping bag. The introductory video in the plane included ads from several plastic surgeons -- apparently medical tourism is a growing industry. (And so is tourism in general. I saved the in flight magazine that said 2009 was a record year for tourism in Lebanon, with most visitors from elsewhere in the Middle East -- and 2010 is supposedly on track to set a new record.)

Our hotel is in Achrafiyeh, which was a Christian neighborhood in East Beirut during the war. My colleague Steve said he remembers standing on the roof watching different factions exchanging gunfire from various sides of the city when he was a bureau chief here for UPI. Naturally I promised to find him a hotel ash tray or another logoed souvenir. Originally we were booked in a hotel very near where we met Nibal and Tony last night, but I read some awful reviews on Trip Advisor (calling it "the worst hotel in the Middle East," complete with scary/rusty bathroom pics) and asked if the tour company was sure it was OK, so they switched us. I kind of wish I hadn't said anything, as it was a neat location...but I think we'll be fine here too, and this neighborhood is closer to a lot of the good bars and restaurants.

The city so far reminds me a lot of Rio, especially when I saw from the plane what I think are the Palestinian refugee camps. You can still see a lot of what looks like damage from the war, but there are also newer buildings -- like the beautiful new landmark mosque in the downtown area redeveloped by assasinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Nibal walked us by Hariri's family home last night; it's just a few doors down from their apartment building (which Tony has lived in since the 60s -- and a side note: they say Lebanon was spared from the financial meltdown by the prudence of its financial minister, who received some sort of international award for his foresight. They said there is no sign of a real estate collapse in Beirut and pointed out a brand-new building where are units are selling for $2 million). Hariri's son is still in politics and uses it as the family home for some occasions, so the road is blockaded and full of armed guards. It was a beautiful old mansion, and Nibal said the neighborhood had several of them, but you can't see them from the street. So, she peeked around the corner and talked in Arabic to another guard, and he let us step in to admire the front of another beautiful Ottoman-style home, with marble steps and carved lions and arched windows. "Do you see all this marble?" Nibal said. "We love marble in Lebanon because it stays cool!" The home is hidden from the street by a 70s wraparound structure build to protect it from destruction during the war. No photos, but it was certainly one of those moments we would never have had on our own. And I am looking forward to many more of them!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Coming Soon: Lebanon!

So....I have meant to pick up this blogging thing again for quite a while. But I think the impetus has finally been that I am so excited for my upcoming trip to Lebanon, I feel I must share!

Surely you, like most people, must be wondering:

"Why are you going to Lebanon?"
"Wait, is that as in Beirut, Lebanon?"
"Isn't that some kind of war zone?"

The short answer is that my friend Frank wanted to go to Lebanon because his grandparents were Lebanese. Naturally I am a sucker for a grand adventure and wanted to be his trusty traveling companion!

It's funny how a place that wasn't even on your travel radar a year ago can become a fascination -- almost an obsession. Turns out Lebanon has enjoyed a recent period of peace and prosperity that has put it back on the world's lists of increasingly popular destinations. As the New York Times wrote on May 2: "A record number of travelers showed up to discover Lebanon and its capital in 2009. If the peace holds, look for an even bigger number of travelers this year."
And among them -- little ol' me!

Lebanon has an amazing variety of sights that are right up my alley: eating and drinking in the cosmopolitan city of Beirut, relaxing on Mediterranean beaches, exploring ancient ruins, hiking among the famous cedars, wandering for bargains in the souks, climbing through castles built by the crusaders, comparing styles of architecture from the Ottoman Empire and the the recently reconstructed city center.

I am especially excited about the ancient Roman ruins -- like the Temple of Jupiter in Baalbek, the largest Roman temple ever constructed, with 6 of its original 54 columns still standing.

For much of the civil war in the '70s and '80s, the Baalbek ruins were off limits to tourists as a training ground for Hezbollah militants. But they have long been a popular site -- and I am almost as excited to visit the nearby Palmyra Hotel, a colonial relic whose past patrons included French General Charles de Gaulle when his armies were camped nearby during WWI.

National Geographic noted the Temple of Bacchus "is considered to be the best preserved Roman temple in the Middle East."

Lebanon also has a Mediterranean climate, with many of the major cities on the coast -- including Beirut, which has a long seafront called the Corniche, with landmarks like Pigeon's Rocks (Raouche).

I can't wait to visit Byblos, a town north of Beirut, which the NYT called "Lebanon's prewar jewel of the Mediterranean," saying that if Beirut is the "Paris of the Middle East," then Byblos is its Cannes.

I must say a bit of buzz kill came when I watched the episode of "No Reservations" that Anthony Bourdain happened to be taping in July 2006 when Lebanon and Israel went to war. It seems that conflict was pretty devastating because (hmm, perhaps like now) Lebanon was enjoying a real resurgence -- with people like Bourdain finally feeeling it was safe enough to return and publicize Lebanon's place among the world's finest cuisines. Unfortunately, Bourdain's timing could not have been worse, and he and his crew ended up stranded in Beirut for days after Israel bombed and closed the country's only airport. They were ultimately rescued by U.S. Marines on the USS Nashville.

Watching that episode and reading the U.S. State Department's travel warnings on Lebanon would certainly make any prudent traveler pause. But you have to consider -- why would two million people live in Beirut if it were so dangerous to be there? As a friend of mine who visited Lebanon last year explained, "It's like gang warfare in any major city in the U.S. -- there are some places where you just don't go." And as Bourdain wrote, "I can only describe it as being like South Beach or Los Angeles. In addition to some of the best Middle Eastern food -- the already wonderful Lebanese classics -- there was every variety of Asian fusion, European and American food that you would expect of any modern sophisticated major Western city... By all accounts [Beirut] had returned to its one-time status as the 'Paris of the Orient.'"

I can't wait to see it for myself.