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.