I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that, whilst I am extremely fond of Abu Dhabi, sometimes I itch to get out of ‘the bubble’ for a breath of reality elsewhere. I was experiencing this “itchy feet” sensation at the beginning of the year and was desperate to get another stamp in my passport. When I celebrated my last birthday (if you can call sobbing into a bottle of cheap wine at the thought of ageing and the reality of being a full grown adult, celebrating), I had set myself a number of goals to achieve in the next 365 days: one of these was to visit two new countries. After much deliberating, I finally pointed at Lebanon on my world map and declared that this was where I would travel to next. I spent 6 days in Beirut in May, during the Holy Month of Ramadan, with one of my best gal pals, Aerron. I’m lucky enough to have travelled to some pretty spectacular places in my lifetime, yet Beirut stuck out to me as somewhere truly special, with a whole host of reasons to lure me back in the future.
Aerron and I were lucky enough to visit a local Lebanese family and spend an evening in their home during our stay; cooking, eating, drinking and laughing with a number of members from this eclectic family. They were keen to share their story with us, and we were more than happy to be guided through their family tree and history. Led by the quintessential matriarch, Joy, and her larger than life husband who was simply introduced to us as Baba, the family all live within a 1km radius of one another. Their eldest son is the Priest at the St George Maronite church in Beirut, which backs on to Beirut’s largest mosque. Another reason Beirut has my heart: the openness and acceptance of faith and culture. The family has lived in the same block for 40 years, having to move house once following the destruction of their apartment building during the civil war. Warm, open, honest, humble, welcoming. Just a few words that I can think of to describe not only our host family, but the Lebanese people as a whole. Renowned for their hospitality and zest for life, we met so many wonderful characters during our short stay and the people alone would be enough reason for me to return.
For history buffs like me, there really aren’t many destinations better than Lebanon, with visits to Byblos, Baalbek, and Harissa absolute musts. Byblos is arguably the oldest continuously occupied city on earth, with inhabitants dating back to 7700 to 8000 BC. Game of Thrones fans, you’ll be in heaven as you wander the crumbled ruins of the city, soaking up the sheer history that the buildings encompass. After spending the morning exploring the ruins, we stumbled upon the ‘touristy’ part of Byblos, where tiny cobbled streets were lined with vendors selling a plethora of trinkets and chimes, and a number of bars offered respite from the sun. After a few (too many) refreshing beers to quench our thirst, we were perfect targets for the souk vendors and ended up spending a silly amount on gifts and treats for ourselves. Probably the most breathtaking historical site that we visited was the Jeita Grottos. As a self diagnosed claustrophobe, I was a little nervous about this part of the trip. As we ventured further into the mountain grottos, however, I slowly forgot that I was walking further away from the exit and into an unknown danger, and became so mesmerized by the limestone stalactites and stalagmites (Mr Jones, my year 10 geography teacher would be proud that I remembered which was which) that hung and emerged from every surface of the grottos. In the lower grottos, you must travel by boat into a smaller enclosing, which again got my heart going a little faster than normal. The crystal clear water, winding routes and haunting splendor of the marble-looking rocks made it all worthwhile though.
I’ll admit I was a little bit cocky about my knowledge of Lebanese cuisine before my trip; Lebanese Flower and Zaatar W Zeit are in my top 5 regularly used Zomato restaurants. There is, however, so much more to the cuisine than hummus, tabouleh, and mixed grill than I had ever anticipated. Unsurprisingly, I experienced the best ever manakeesh, stuffed vine leaves, and nammoura (that’s cake to me and you) whilst exploring local eateries. We had done our research and highlighted a number of top rated restaurants on Trip Advisor, as well as contacting some acquaintances in Beirut to ask for advice on hidden gems.
One local eatery we found, Cafe Em Nazih, quickly became a firm favourite, with us heading back there numerous times in our short visit. Casual was key here, with no waiters but a self service policy instead, and the most affordable and delicious food we experienced. It was rare to see other tourists there, as locals flocked for a quick shisha and beer or to enjoy a leisurely meal with family and friends. One of my travelling rules is that you should always follow the locals; they know where the best spots are.
I must also give a shout out to Radio Beirut Bar: whilst we didn’t eat there, we did head there post-dinner one evening to watch the latest Game of Thrones episode, which they were showing on their big screen. Beers and GoT in a biker bar in Beirut? Yes please.
“El vino did flow”David Brent
Personally, I’d never really realised that Lebanon produced such beautiful wine before our trip. In fact, it turns out that Lebanon is actually among the oldest sites of wine production in the world. Ignorance was certainly bliss in this case, because if I’d have known what I was missing out on I’d have been gutted. Upon doing our research, we found that Chateau Ksara was one of the must-visits when visiting Beirut, and was in fact included in many of the day trip tours available for tourists. We visited the Chateau during one of these long sightseeing days, and it is cleverly placed as the last stop of the day, so the free tasters felt like a reward for the amount of walking and climbing we had endured. All visitors can take part in the free wine tasting, where you can try one of each wine (red, wine, rose). Be assured- these are not ‘taster’ sized glasses but full sized glasses of wine. After exploring the cellars and then enjoying the tasting, led by one of the Chateau’s friendly staff, we were feeling a little flash on heading to the gift shop. They had definitely thrown us a convincing sales pitch! As the wine is produced on site, it is priced so fairly- I think we paid about AED 35 per bottle. And it’s good stuff!
During our stay, we stayed at Le Bristol Hotel, Beirut. The hotel was a little bit out of the way from the main bar street, but otherwise was a great little boutique hotel to stay at. The rooftop pool and bar became a regular haunt for us during the week, and a fair few evenings were spent enjoying the sunset Happy Hour. The staff were incredible: friendly, professional, and accommodating. One Happy Hour, there was nobody else at the rooftop bar and so the barman spent the evening chatting to us: telling us about the civil war, his experience in the Lebanese army and how it was being a Beirut citizen nowadays. There was a bit of renovation work happening which meant some mornings we awoke to the sound of building works, but it didn’t bother us too much as we’d simply head to the pool and catch even more morning sun! The hotel was fantastic but unfortunately not very busy, and we were often the only ones enjoying a morning coffee in the courtyard or raising a glass at the rooftop bar. It meant we never had to fight for a sunbed by the pool but it’s a shame there wasn’t a little more atmosphere.
Overall, we had a fantastic time in Beirut and learned so much that we never really knew about a country that sits so close to our home of the UAE. I will definitely be going back and hope to see more of the beautiful country, including skiing in the north mountains!