While there is no denying Beirut’s many charms, there is more – so much more – to Lebanon than simply this city. To judge a country on its capital is the equivalent of saying that you’re intimately acquainted with the US because you’ve had a Big Mac.
Heading north, fill your days visiting the Jeita Grotto (a vast complex of caves with awe-inspiring stalactites and stalagmites) and Byblos.
This ancient fishing harbor, now a picturesque village, is where Marlon Brando and Brigitte Bardot used to holiday in the sixties. Check out the 12th century Crusader castle, saunter around the souk, soak up the sun on what is arguably one of Lebanon’s best beaches or simply enjoy a long lunch at Pepe’s Fishing Club. Located on the waterfront this is where the glamorous 1960s crowd gathered for drinks and dinner and photographs of its famous visitors still adorn the walls.
Continue cruising up the coast to Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, famed for its soaps and syrupy sweets. Once you’ve had your fill of pistachio stuffed pastries and worked off some of the calories with a walk around the cobbled alleyways of the labyrinth-like souks, journey east to Baalbek.
Here, history buffs will be in their element owing to the ‘Sun City’s’ celebrated Roman ruins. The lavish Temple of Bacchus, dedicated to the God of wine, is the best preserved Roman temple in existence. As wonderful as the ruins are, don’t ignore the town of Baalbek. It’s still a Hezbollah (‘Party of God’) stronghold – something the fluttering yellow and green flags bear testimony to – and an excursion here a decade ago would have been considered dangerous (the radical Islamists were believed to have been behind the kidnapping of Terry Waite). Today, however, despite the presence of souvenir stands to sell Hezbollah baseball caps and t-shirts, the town is home to a mixed Muslim/Christian population as well as the Palmyra Hotel – the Middle East’s most atmospheric accommodation used by the German army in WW1 and the British army in WW11.
Few travelers make it south (the area hardest hit by the Civil War and also the scene of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah) which is a shame as the region is home to some of the country’s most captivating sights. Don’t be deterred by the British Foreign Office’s bleak warnings: the south is safe so long as you exercise some caution and don’t stray off the beaten track – the area is still littered with landmines – on your own.
Directly below Beirut lies Beiteddine with its magnificent Ottoman-era palace containing a beautiful collection of Byzantine mosaics. Next stop is the port city of Sidon (also referred to as Saida) – the South’s equivalent of Byblos and the perfect spot to shop till you drop in the timeless souks or hit the sand at a swanky beach club. Finally, make the trip to Tyre (Sour). Not many people do, partly because the city remains full of Unfill troops following the war with Israel, but it’s worth it for its wealth of Roman and Byzantine ruins, the world’s largest Roman hippodrome and warm and welcoming people.
“Why don’t more English come?” was a question I was asked not only in Tyre but throughout Lebanon, by friendly locals fiercely proud of their homeland. Why indeed? The country can be challenging and often surreal but it’s also exotic, mysterious and if you’re prepared to go out of your way, well worth the effort.
NEED TO KNOW:
The Flight: Middle East Airlines (www.mea.com.lb) fly from London Heathrow to Beirut. Flight time is 4.5 hours
Time difference: +2 hours
Currency: Lebanese lira (LBP) but US dollars are accepted in Beirut
When to go: The best time to visit is now before Gulf residents start spilling into town in the high summer
Find out more: www.lebanon-tourism.gov.lb
Book: A good guidebook is Lonely Planet’s Syria & Lebanon (£14.99)