Jet set in Beirut

It has now been almost a year since my round-the-world trip. It is definitely time for a new trip – on a much smaller scale – to explore some historic sites I am interested. The Middle Eastern countries contain some of these ancient sites. They did spur my imagination as a child, when I was reading books or hearing stories about exotic places. When planning the round-the-world trip, I couldn’t really fit the Middle East into my general direction. Well, looking back now, I can’t really think of any valid reason why I didn’t adjust the route back then. Maybe I wanted something interesting to be left when I return.

Corniche BeirutNevertheless I am super stoked to visit Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. All these countries are high on my agenda of places to see. Having a job and therefore being on a timed vacation also means that I need to change my way of travel. There will be very limited time to overstay in one single place, trying to blend in to the local life. Instead, I did plan as much as possible in advance – knowing that I have to leave out some of the cultural aspects and destinations in the countries visited.

Downtown BeirutBeirut is my gateway city, where I did arrive by plane from Europe. Lebanon was once dubbed the “Switzerland of the Middle East”. While planning the trip and browsing through old magazine articles from the 1950’s and 1960’s, I could see that this description definitely did hit the mark.

Wealthy people from various countries flocked to Beirut, the capital city, where they were partying, shopping – or simply relaxing in one of the many restaurants downtown. It was stylish and fashionable back then, to travel to such exotic places – mostly out of reach by ordinary tourists. And back then, Miss Universe was a former Miss Lebanon.

Feeling like being part of the sixties “jet set” (hey, I arrived by jet!), I walked down the Corniche, looking at many buildings featuring 60s architectural style. Somehow, quite a few of them have been standing still in time. The obvious reason for this has been in the news for a long time: Several wars and political tensions have left pockets of gun holes in these old structures. Apart from the obvious, I learned however, that owners of the buildings were only allowed to raise the rent of their flats once the tenants would change. Add this to the external circumstances of war and it creates a climate where investing and maintaining property doesn’t seem like the best of business ideas.

Lebanon is a fairly small place and I therefore used Beirut as a base from where I did explore parts of the country on day trips. Staff at my guest house was very helpful in pointing out public bus terminals needed to get around for these excursions. Everything went very smooth and I really started to love the people in Beirut who – in general – are genuinely friendly. Ever since the time of the Phoenicians, Lebanese people were traders.

As middlemen between the West and the East, they needed to stay on good terms with both. Friendliness seems to be the national psyche. Sure, there is always the occasional taxi driver who tries to overcharge tourists. But that’s so common around the entire planet that it’s hardly worth mentioning here.

Coming back to Beirut from the daily excursions, I spent most of the evenings walking along Bliss street, Hamra street and Jeanne d’Arc street (!). There are numerous cafes and restaurants with plenty of options for tasting local food.

Centre-Ville Beirut (Downtown)Although the American fast food has also made a landing here, Kebabs are the most prominent variant of quick eats. One of my favorite dish was Dolma, which consists of grape leaves rolled around ground meat and rice. Another great food experience was Fatet Batinjan which essentially consists of bread, yoghurt, aubergines – and sometimes nuts. Add to this an audio soundtrack of Western music, plus French, English and Arabic voices nearby and you’ll get the feeling of sitting in a restaurant in the Lebanon.

This multi-language environment today still reflects somehow the former “Swiss” label. Also, the country has snow-covered mountains as much as 3’000 meters in altitude, which actually reflects the country’s name in Arabic: Lubnan – meaning “snow covered mountains”. Skiing in Lebanon is absolutely feasible and there is a good infrastructure for this.

So, who knows – maybe the Lebanon becomes a fashionable travel destination again? For skiing tourists.