Two of my best friends in London are twins, a boy and a girl, originally from Beirut. My engineering crew had been talking about a trip to Lebanon for a while. But as always, talks hardly ever turn into plans with people as busy as them. With one of them enjoying home in Sao Paulo before moving to Hong Kong, the other one taking Ramadan “seriously” with his family in Saudi Arabia and someone else partying in Mykonos all summer, there was now way we would find the time for a lovely get-together in the Middle East.
Hesitant at first that it was rude to invite myself and to intrude on the twins’ summer plans, I eventually just booked my ticket and annoyed M. & R. anyway. And boy, I am glad I did.
Having only been to the Middle East once before, I was extremely curious about this paradoxical country trapped between the worlds of Range Rovers and refugees. I know many Lebanese people from my studies in London. But clearly these kids are far from the reality of a country that has been through so much.
In a strange way, I was drawn towards experiencing the fragility of this region first hand, its political struggle and its pain. I was excited to visit a country, which probably is as far as you could possibly get at the moment from the comfort zone and European safety that I’ve known all my life. My mom was against this trip. My dad told me to enjoy myself and to try stay away from the Syrian borders. (Oops…)
I had no idea what to expect, I hadn’t made any plans and I was open for anything. Having travelled with the twins before, I knew I was in good hands. Eyes open, camera ready. Looking back on my ten days in Lebanon, I can positively say that I have seen more of this extraordinary country than many Lebanese Londoners have.
Warning: I have a feeling that my Lebanon posts will be overwhelmingly long and potentially boring for you. But I didn’t write a travel diary and I took a ridiculous amount of photos, so maggiesmangos is where I will be processing thoughts, experiences and pictures. More for myself than anyone else. So feel free to skip anything you’re not interested in.
My arrival in Beirut was hectic. In fact, the whole weekend before was already chaotic. My siblings, my dad and me went to see Mumford & Sons in the Netherlands, we spent the weekend with my sick grandma in Germany, our car was broken into, the window was smashed and after a BBQ with the entire family and several visits to the police (not so easy on a Sunday) we were on our way back home. Heading south, back to Austria. My dad kicked me out at Frankfurt Airport, where my flight took off early in the morning. Frankfurt – Istanbul – Beirut.
After amazing on-board entertainment, good food – I love Turkish Airlines – and an chatty Lebanese guy next to me on the plane, my high spirits were crushed as soon as I entered Passport Control. They wouldn’t let me into the country. Apparently my Visa Entry Card was incomplete and neither R. nor M. picked up their UK phone. Absolutely everyone ignored me and no one wanted to help. Those who know me also know that I was immediately pissed off – so much for being a blonde girl in a Muslim country. (Turns out I was wrong and they’re just rude to everyone.)
I eventually found M.’s Lebanese phone number. Well… this didn’t get me anywhere apart from some phone calls in Arabic – which I assumed to be the housekeeper, which turned out to be an old lady living in South Lebanon after the officer called again – I don’t know who was left more perplexed, the poor woman or me. But I was still kept behind Passport Control. Officially I had nowhere to stay in Lebanon and it took an 85$ phone bill to resolve the issue.
Once I arrived in the lovely home of the twins and settled in, we took the car for a cruise around Roumieh neighbourhood and some of Beirut’s surrounding mountains. It wasn’t long until I saw the first Syrian refugees, right after we had passed the family’s country club. It’s exactly this kind of contrast I mentioned earlier that got me excited about the interesting adventures to come!
Day 1 – Beit ed-Dine Palace
Only Day 1 and we were off to do some hardcore sightseeing. Hardly surprising when you have M. as your host… We took the car to Beit ed-Dine to visit the beautiful Arab-Italian mixed Beiteddine Palace. It was completely renovated after the Lebanese Civil War and now hosts huge summer music festivals. Unfortunately, the grandstand and stages were being set up just the day we visited so views of the facades were restricted.
Our sightseeing was followed by a traditional Lebanese lunch with an abundance of mezze at the lovely Mir Amin Palace. The place was been turned into a luxurious hotel and offers breathtaking views over the Chouf valleys.
Gestärkt und ausgeruht, we headed over to the nearby town of Dair al-Qamar. Again, the old buildings reminded me a lot of the architecture you see in Italian or Croatian villages, but then you’d find beautiful Arabic details and window frames.
The steep and winding cobblestoned alleyways, collapsing old stone walls, beautiful churches and mosques hidden around the corner – the place has a calm, almost romantic atmosphere. I was captivated by this blend of Mediterranean and Arabic architecture, the mixture of religions, the coexistence of different peoples and the contrast between modern and traditional.
And this fascination didn’t leave me.
Left with these first impressions of a country I learnt to love so many things about, we headed back to Beirut for drinks with friends and late night Lebanese junk food.