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Trip Report Lebanon, Beirut A Gem In The Middle East

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For many years I have had the desire to visit Lebanon although with the uncertainties and wars in the Middle East over time that desire had waned like the setting sun. A few years ago while traveling in Turkey, I met a family from Lebanon while touring the Grand Palace in Istanbul and a seed was planted for me to think again about visiting Lebanon.

With uncertain and flexible travel plans for vacation, I once again began to desire the land that in the past was known as “Paris Of The East”. As I stand on a train platform in Brussels, Belgium with practically numb hands from a cold winter wind, I am looking forward to in a few hours boarding a Middle East Airline flight for the warmth of Beirut.

On a flight that is less than half full, about three hours and forty five minutes after leaving Brussels I peak out my window and through almost smoggy skies I begin to see the outline of the paradise I waited so long to visit.

An easy Immigration and Customs clearing process and I exit into the arrivals area of Beirut International Airport.

Paying what I consider an absorbent amount for Wi-Fi access, US$12 (75min) I begin to put together my plan for the next three days and two nights in Lebanon. With a rental car from Europcar for US$77 along with helpful information, a map and a little word of caution from the Europcar employee, I set out for the Mayflower Hotel in the Hamra area of Beirut.

My Lebanon adventure begins.

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    From Brussels To Beirut

    From the boarding area in Brussels I can tell that my flight to Beirut will not be full. For me this is a good thing for two reasons. One, I will probably get to stretch out in coach and more importantly I will have a window seat.

    Although it has snowed overnight in Brussels the skies are clearing at the airport and with no de-icing required it does not take long before Middle East Airline Flight 216 is airborne for Beirut.

    This is my first time flying a Middle East airline and I am quickly impressed by the attentiveness of what seems to be by American standards an over-staffed crew. The flight attendants are very business like and seem more that eager to help passengers find their proper seats even on a half full airplane.

    Our flight time to Beirut is just under four hours and we are served (for free) a hot meal in coach which seems to be lacking on most flights in the United States. However, in reading their on board magazine there maybe somewhat of an explanation for this.

    MEA has recently been granted a 12 year extension of it's rights to be the exclusive airline to and from Lebanon. This can be seen as somewhat of a competitive edge which may in turn allow MEA to provide a better product for its passengers. A win-win situation.

    About three hours and forty minutes into the flight we begin our approach into Beirut under smoggy skies that clear as we descend lower.

    From my seat I begin to see “Paris Of The East” although the landscape reminds me somewhat of Manhattan, New York when arriving into La Guardia airport.

    Our route takes us along the downtown shores of Beirut where I get a birds eye-view of Pigeons Rock before Flight 216 touches down ahead of schedule.


    Video:http://youtu.be/qrZ5YIoLUOM

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    To Hamra, West Beirut


    Leaving the Beirut airport I quickly enter the “First Time Uncomfortable Zone” of driving in a foreign country. Although I have a generic map, it is now dark and it is not an easy feeling as I merge onto a dimly lit highway with huge trucks belching diesel fumes. It would help if I read Arabic but I continue on as if I know where I am going.

    Soon I see two tunnels that eases my comfort level. I was told earlier about these by the rental car employee and now I have a sense that I am on the right track. I take the one on the right and exit onto a congested one way street. A quick stop at a gas station and an English speaking local confirms that I am almost where I should be.

    Heading down a busy Hamra Street, I make a few turns here and there, head this direction and then the next, compete for road space with a few motorcycles and pedestrians, ask a few more questions and then eventually arrive at my destination.

    Unknown to me at the time I made my reservation, I am staying at a hotel that has a part of Lebanon's sad civil war history.

    The Mayflower is said to be one of the only hotels that remained open during the conflict. I am happy to see there is no evidence of the war left behind. I am not sure why but I am upgraded to a Junior Suite and will have room to entertain a delegation for the next three days.

    Although it is later in the evening, checked it at the Mayflower, I hit the streets to find an old Middle East friend. Fortunately, I think she will not be hard to find as I have no doubt she is very popular in a city like Beirut.

    At an ATM just off Hamra street I withdraw some Lebanese pounds and continue my search by sitting outside at Kaakaya Restaurant. A Lebanese salad is ordered followed by what I consider a Lebanese feast. Humus, seasoned pickles, grilled meat, slices of warm pita bread topped with mint leaves and read onions along with French fries.

    In talking with Kaakaya's manager he has offered to help me find my friend and suggest I should enjoy our time together with a hint of mint and lime.

    My food arrives and shortly thereafter my Middle East friend. Hours later I leave Kaakaya content with a full stomach and a big relaxing smile on my face thanks to the delicious food at Kaakaya and from being able to spend quality time with my friend, Shisha.

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    To Byblos And Beyond

    I leave the comfort and safety of The Mayflower Hotel for what some may consider a dangerous or crazy idea. I am about to go driving in Beirut and through the Lebanese countryside where I am told drivers take road signs as mere suggestions.

    This explains why during my journey into the city some “One Way Signed Streets” had two way traffic and some traffic signals did not work as far as some drivers were concerned.

    Down Hamra Street I am in the mid-morning traffic rush although it is probably like this most hours on any given day. A few turns here and there and I exit West Beirut to join a highway along the coast that will eventually take me to Tripoli.

    Another interesting aspect of Lebanese driving is how a three lane highway becomes four or five lanes by drivers choice topped off with a few honks as the process is accomplished. All fun to watch as I cruise along enjoying the scenery and the sounds of a local radio station.

    A stop along the way at Wooden Bakery and I discover a first for me. A pastry named after my country of birth. Surprisingly, I don't have the appetite to eat my homeland. However, I am amused to see it in the form of a fancy chocolate presentation in Lebanon.

    A few hours after leaving the Mayflower I am at my first stop, Byblos. Located along the shores of Lebanon this city is recognized as one of the world's oldest inhabited cities. Archeological records have been found here dating back some 8,000 years ago.

    After paying a small entrance fee and walking the grounds I can see why here would have been a prime location for our early ancestors. Today with an ocean breeze blowing the temperature is near perfect and the scenery spectacular. I imagine not much has changed here in that regard since about eight millenniums ago.

    Early residences along with the remains of a Roman theater from the third century are just some of the findings that have been excavated here.

    I am not sure about the beginning of its existence but nearby is also an old souk (market place). Although it is now modernized with the latest souvenirs and high fashion items available for sale.

    I wonder to myself what a pair of Nike's would have cost 8,000 years ago.

    Even with a language barrier there is no wondering the meaning of the sounds I am hearing as I watch two gentlemen play one of the world's oldest board game.

    With a last chance to hit an opponent's checker and coming up with an lucky roll of the dice I think I know the meaning of “Aaatt..”


    Video:http://youtu.be/gNxd73mo7P0

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    Al Mina

    Leaving Byblos I am soon making slow “S turns” along the highway pass good size red and white striped barriers. I find this interesting and I get the video tape rolling (ok, that is so old school). What seems to be to be an old military check point turns out to be an active one and I quickly put away my recording device.

    Although it maybe different here I had an interesting experience doing almost the same thing at a border crossing into Israel a few years ago. I have learned my lesson.

    As it turns out, I along with about every other car along the route are freely allowed to pass. Beyond the check point the landscape begins to change into mountainous terrain. On my right, I now get a glimpse of towering snow capped mountains.

    Soon I see an exit for The Cedars but continue on for about another 20km to the seaside community of Al Mina just outside of Tripoli. With the time being later in the day than planned and early warnings of rebel issues in some areas of Tripoli I remain for only a brief time at Al Mina.

    From the seaside docks I enjoy views of the area that made the drive for me definitely worthwhile.


    Video:http://youtu.be/QUZRIkswa3U

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    My husband took our daughter to Beirut last summer and they both loved it. They were there only 3 days, but enjoyed the cafes and some sightseeing.
    My husbands client acted as the guide for them and took them to a night club ( for my 21 yo daughter mostly!) great restaurants and on a boat ride.
    They thought everyone was very nice there and would both go back any time.

    It sounds like your trip was a great - thanks for the report - I enjoy trip reports from all over the world!

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    Lebanon, The Cedars

    Leaving the main highway between Tripoli and Beirut, early on I can see that I am going to be in for a treat as I make my way to see one of the symbols of Lebanon. Past another military check point I begin another climb of sorts towards a mountain pass area. Hills and mountains of various size and shape are on my left with the higher ones topped with snow.

    In an open area I come across an interesting sign, one I would definitely not expect to see in Lebanon.

    “Mi-ssi-crooked letter, crooked letter, i-humpback, humpback-i”. I guess there is more than one place in the world where Mississippi is popular.

    My journey this afternoon takes me through some of the most fascinating mountain side communities that I have ever seen. In an area that looks like a mini Grand Canyon buildings seem to hang in an unreal way from the cliffs and gorgeous hillsides.

    From the edges of a portion of these striking cliffs an occasional waterfall can been seen tumbling to floor of the canyon below. Navigating the narrow mountainous roads through these communities is just as spectacular and stunning as the views.

    With the sun fading in the west, the sides of the hills begin to glow shades of orange not only from building lights now being turned on but from the sun doing its magic artwork. It all seems a bit surreal.

    Although I know better, snow is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the Middle East. However, as my elevation continues to increase the mountains here are covered with winter's soft white touch. In one area I am enclosed between walls of it as I approach The Cedars.

    Cresting a small hill, a symbolic representation of Lebanon comes into view. Although much of daylight has gone, the amazing view is only slightly diminished.

    My drive back to Beirut is under the cover of darkness and yet the mountains around me still sparkle with beauty. Even a roadside reminder of the season just past adds a nice touch to the scenery.


    Video:http://youtu.be/iOTxE-Pns-E

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    A Taste of Beirut Nightlife

    One of the things Beirut is known for besides its excellent food, it is the nightlife that can be found here. With one night left in Beirut, I drive over to the Gemmazyeh area to investigate for myself. Along one of the main streets I discover parking is difficult unless you know where you are going and chose one of the many valet services. Since I am not sure where I am going I cruise the block and eventually find a parking spot one block away from Gourgad Street.

    My first stop along the popular nightlife street is not at a nightclub but at Cosmi.Comsaj a small fast food sort of business. For me, Cosmi.Comsaj turns out to be a nice find as a Chicken Shawarma with Jebneh Sahen Chips is delightfully excellent.

    It is Wednesday night and in checking out the more busy music venues none of them grabs my attention except one that requires a reservation to get into. Maybe if I was willing to depart with a few hundred Lebanese pounds I may have managed to make my way in but I move on.

    Down a side street I stop to take a picture of a funny sign at another nightclub and the door swings open as I am doing so. For a split second I feel uneasy as a bouncer is steering at me but then he beckons me over and invites me in with an apology that there is only room at the bar.

    I have just entered Jukebox a small unpretentious bar with a DJ spinning some tunes I am familiar with. As I make my way to the bar I am given a few “high-fives” and smiling welcomes from a few of the patrons. Not long after I am chatting it up with a few of them who make me feel right at home.

    Later in the evening to my surprise one of the locals takes this one step further as she gets up on the bar requests that the DJ stop the music.

    With drinks raised in the air a toast is made to America and the American in the room. Now if that does not make a guy feel special and at home, I don't know what will unless you under 18 years old because no Justin Biebers are welcomed here.

    From the window to the wall a taste of Beirut nightlife at Jukebox was a ton of memorable fun.

    Video:http://youtu.be/_FASteSUjAs

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    One Last Drive

    With a flight scheduled to leave Beirut at 6:15pm, I leave the Mayflower Hotel around 2:30pm for one last drive around the city before heading to the airport. I am surprised that at 2:30 in the afternoon traffic is already bump to bump on the streets of Hamra. I am afraid that I will have to cut my last minute sightseeing short.

    After about a half hour of watching sets of red lights go on and off in front of me, my ears become filled with the sounds of beating drums. I soon discover part of the reason for the traffic congestion. I am not sure the purpose of the small marching band along the side of the street but I get a small candy bar out of the deal.

    Near the city center I get a glimpse of Khatem Al Anbiyaa Mosque then maneuver down more streets with government buildings that are blocked with concrete barriers to prevent parking. Near the mosque I am able to park for a few minutes to take in its beauty. I saw it lit up a few nights ago and it is even more spectacular then.

    Along the shores of Lebanon near the downtown area many gather with long poles to do some unique fishing in the crashing waves that pound the rugged coast line. Looks like a nice way to spend a few hours in the afternoon. However, I think near Pigeon Rock the locals there have an even better idea as they take in the views while enjoying spending time with my Middle East friend, Shisha.

    Driving along the coast and taking in view of one of the cities most popular beaches, I get a chance to feel like a local driver as a car tries to pull out in front of me. I tell him to stay put with a few honks.


    Video:http://youtu.be/pTpx6o1DGiA

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