While we were in Egypt we spent 3 days on a Nile cruise. Our tour group included a lovely Brazilian couple who got engaged right after our cruise, an American travel-blogger from Atlanta, a French couple, and 3 young men (late 20’s) from Lebanon. The three young men: Ali, Zaki, and Hassan invited us to visit Lebanon over drinks one night.
Recalling embassy and port bombings, we were a bit wary. To be fair, I was conflating Benghazi, Libya and Beirut, Lebanon. (Doh; typical American.) Also, Lebanon is in the midst of a huge economic crisis with incredible deflation and people’s bank savings frozen and probably never to be seen again. Finally, we would be going the week prior to the election which was expected to include some violence and rioting. However, given our desire for cultural experiences and home cooked meals, we decided we couldn’t pass up the chance. I always say that getting invited into someone’s home for dinner is the ultimate cultural win, but getting invited to someone’s country and home is even better. We carved 3 days out of our schedule to squeeze in Lebanon and it was awesome.
Instead of renting a car, Ali picked us up at the airport. He’s finished med school and is applying for residency programs in the states, but he was such a good chauffeur, host, and tour guide that medicine might be a waste of his skills. He borrowed his mom’s car so we’d have more space. On our way to our Airbnb in Zahle, he took us to Seasweet for Knefe which is at least a pound of sweet molten cheese on a soft bun.
Hours later we were able to move again and he drove us to a nearby hike in Falougha. It was a beautiful three hours of hiking but best was the conversations with Ali, Rabih, Aya, and Zaki about the upcoming election, Lebanon’s unique power sharing government (President must be Maronite Christian, Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite), the economic crash, the flight of young educated Lebanese to other countries and more.
That night we got to see one of their apartments and they took us to Al Shams for dinner which was amazing food and where all the locals go to celebrate special occasions. I can see why Drew Binsky (some blogger) rated Lebanese cuisine number 2 after visiting 190+ countries. Al Shams reminded me of Andres Carne De Res in Columbia as it had hundreds of tables and multiple eating areas. We ate, drank and talked for hours.
The next day our chauffeur, Ali, drove us to Baalbek. Baalbek has been inhabited for at least 9000 years. It was named Baalbek in around 1000 BC when the Pheonicians built a temple to Baal there. Later, Baalbek was occupied by Alexander, then Rome, Muslims, Byzantium and then the Ottomans. During the Roman times around 30 BC, they quarried and moved the largest manmade stone blocks of the pre-modern world. The largest was 1240 tons. No one knows how these massive blocks were moved and placed. The Romans went on to build a massive temple complex with the largest known Roman Temple (the temple of Jupiter) and one of the most intact Roman temples in the world (Bacchus). Having been to Ephesus, Jerash, and other famous ruins, I was most impressed with Baalbek.
The next day, Ali was busy and had his cousin Abbas drive us around. Abbas was delightful and his English was decent. He drove us to the Jeita Caves which are stunning, Byblos – another ancient town, Harissa for a sunset, and into Beirut.
The next morning we ate fabulous Pastirma and Shawarma before Ali took us for a tour of the port area and then to the airport.
We had such an amazing time in Lebanon. The food and sites were incredible. But what really made it special was our conversations and the relationships. It’s made us rethink some of our travel strategies. How do you meet people and be invited into their lives? As a family of four, it’s often cheaper and/or easier to rent a car then join a tour, but that keeps us from meeting other tourists, bus drivers, etc. At the start of our trip we planned to do many homestays and volunteer projects. Covid made that much harder. Going forward we are trying to find ways to encourage moments of friendship and sharing in our travels as these are some our favorite moments.