Marc and I took an unexpected and last-minute trip to Beirut, capital of Lebanon. Between the 15-year civil war that ended only in 1990, conflicts with neighbouring countries and threat of ISIS, Lebanon is definitely not the first place that people think of as a travel destination. A quick Google search doesn’t put your mind at ease either. I almost didn’t go when I imagined what it would be like. Can you even go outside? What if I get kidnapped? Do I have to like, wear a veil to hide my face?
Looking back, I feel so silly. Lebanon was nothing like I had imagined.
Sure, Beirut still bears visible scars from past conflicts, but the city I saw was peaceful, open and accepting. There are dangerous areas in Lebanon of course, and you will see a heavy army presence, malls with cops and metal detectors and army check points on the roads. But I felt safe the entire time because we had families taking care of us.
They say that Beirut is a city where East meets West, now I understand why. Everything is so mixed but it all seems to go together somehow.
The polar opposites of the things I saw were interesting to say the least. The city has beautiful ancient ruins and varying architecture influenced by past conquerors, but right around the corner you’re dazzled by shiny skyscrapers overlooking the beach, towering over designer stores with the likes of Louis Vuitton and Hermès. There are run-down buildings one minute and luxury car dealerships another, sometimes in a seemingly average neighbourhood. I stopped trying to fit Beirut in a predetermined box when I saw APCs (what I call mini-tanks) being transported right after shopping in a mall that reminded me of downtown Toronto.
I wouldn’t have dared to drive in Beirut. The driving conditions reminded me of China: Organized chaos – Seven lanes of cars driving on a four-laned road, motorcycles zig-zagging in between and red lights not always respected. I tried not to stare when peering out the window: Got a car too small for a large family? No problem, just jam four people in the front row! I wish I got a picture of this to show you…
Lebanese people are extremely friendly, refreshingly opinionated, full of character and completely indomitable, except by their wives! Every time I see a situation where the men get owned by their wives, I imagine the women singing Beyoncé’s anthem behind their husband’s back:“Who run the world? Girls, Girls!” I giggle a little on the inside. Then I take some notes for later. Thanks ladies. 😉
Seriously though, the people are so resilient having had to rebuild the city time after time. When talking with a family friend, I was shown the scars that were left covering her body from a car bomb. The intriguing part was that she confidently said that she cannot see herself living anywhere else. They are fearless and know how to live.
The nightlife is incredible and a huge part of the Lebanese culture. My first time out, we partied amidst the ruins of Byblos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It was also there that I experienced my first power outage. We were enjoying some apple-flavoured shisha, listening to hip-hop music in the background and surrounded by people chatting and eating. Suddenly everything went dark and we were sitting in complete silence. For a tiny split second I thought we were under attack or something, until the generator kicked in for the party to continue. This happened quite a few times throughout the night. I was told that back in the day some people didn’t even let bombings ruin the party, it just got moved else where.
The food was so incredible that I don’t remember the last time I really pigged out like that! (Ok, maybe not that long ago in Rome, but this was on another level!)
I love the Lebanese cuisine because it’s so healthy with yummy fresh greens and veggies. A traditional meal usually starts with a “Mezze”, which can contain tabbouleh, fattoush, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, kibbeh and other deliciousness (the raw liver pictured above was surprising really good). I tried the traditional Middle Eastern alcoholic spirit called Arak, it’s so potent that water and ice cubes are always added. Although nicknamed ‘milk of the lions’, it tastes more like licorice.
All the Mezze dishes were set up on the table like a royal feast! I thought that was the whole meal, until I was informed that they were the appetizers. Why didn’t anyone warn me to pace myself?! It didn’t matter. Even though I was stuffed, I just had to try the main dishes including grilled meat, Lebanese sausages and kafta; followed by a ton of healthy fresh fruits. We ate like kings! By the time they brought out the Turkish coffee, I was unable to move from my chair.
What a beautiful and underrated country; it’s a shame that Lebanon is always getting dragged into sensitive situations. If you wish to visit, I would highly recommend getting a local guide or do some serious research to stay safe. Now, I can better imagine what Lebanon looked like back in the day, before all the wars, when it bore the title of “Paris of the Middle East”.
Have you been to Lebanon? What did you think? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Thanks for reading et à la prochaine!