I was asked by Patricia Vance of GotSaga, an online community of travellers, to write a guest post for the website.
The task was easy. Out of the 15 countries we visited on this trip, five stood out the most.
Read the article to see which ones.
If your knowledge of Arabic sweets is confined to baklava, then you have to make the Middle East your next trip. Arabs excel at sensual pleasures, and a well-crafted dessert is considered high art.
I saw more types of sweets than savoury dishes. It’s an intimidating constellation. Here are a few of my favourites and where to find the best of each.
“In Lebanon, you can ski in the morning and go to the beach in the afternoon.” So goes the old cliché that every travel guide and Lebanese host love repeating.
What a waste that would be. Forget this piece of cram-travel advice, which, as a matter of fact, is strictly theoretical: if you can ski, it means it’s winter. And winter is too cold for the beach. Instead, slowly savour Bcharré, a mountain village that seems to have been plucked right out of the Swiss Alps.
A perfect day trip from Byblos (or even Beirut) is Batroun, a town offering a millennial Phoenician sea seawall, Lebanon’s best lemonade, and a roaring nightlife.
It’s perfect for a day trip because it’s compact: three hours are plenty to digest it. The highlight is the seaside old town with an impressive 18th-century stone church above the fishing marina and a nicely restored residential quarter.
It’s a tiny country: you can drive from north to south in about three hours. We ended up spending one month there, nearly running over our visa.
But that small area is packed with cities, mountains, and vineyards, all of them that compel the traveller to stay longer than anticipated.
Here are our best shots from Lebanon, a country that surprises as much as it endears.
After a certain point, the red-and-white markings of the Lebanese army were nowhere to be seen. Only green and yellow. We were in Hezbollah territory.
All around us were grassy hills flecked with white rocks. Some had traditional stone houses. It all looked very biblical. Our taxi had some engine trouble and the driver got out to check under the hood. I stepped out to take some pictures and the driver discreetly told me to stop.
There’s no time to waste in the hammam. Once you agree to the full package – steam, scrub and massage – you’re asked to strip, right there, at the reception area, where people come in from the street, enjoy a post-bath tea, and pay the cashier.
We arrived in Tripoli and for the first time in two Lebanese weeks, we felt like we were in the Middle East.
The look-at-me designer shops that water down Beirut were nowhere in sight. There were no Pepsi billboards or golden arches, or other homogenizers of Western culture in the old city.
The main city square dominated by an old clock tower was abuzz with messengers, merchants transporting goods and ideas, soldiers on coffee break, all the activity you’d expect to see 200 years ago in a touristic corner that hasn’t fallen to tourism.
It’s a shame that so many tourists come to Byblos on a day trip. This is a town that begs for slow, aimless wandering, both during daytime and at night.
It’s an easy mistake to make, though. The historical part of Byblos, and the only one of interest, really, is barely the size of five city blocks. You’re greeted by a souk selling bland clothing, the usual souvenirs, overpriced cafés, and one interesting bookstore specializing in Lebanese literature.
But it’s not the shopping that stirs you, it’s the perfectly resorted stonework of the houses that glow ochre in the Mediterranean light. You can almost picture Romans, Persians, Ottomans, or any of the many civilizations that traipsed though Lebanon haggling for dates. I say almost because the plastic Christmas trees and snowmen the city scattered on the souk destroy any possibility of creative visualization.
Blame it on the Saudis. That’s what the Lebanese do.
The most striking first impression of Beirut is the number of cranes deployed for new luxury condos. Dubai usually gets the fame for unfettered construction, but we were in Dubai, and it’s nothing like this.
It doesn’t make sense. Lebanon is at peace, but for how long is anyone’s guess.