Arabic and Mediterranean cultures co-exist in Lebanon, a small but astonishingly fertile and varied country sandwiched between Syria and Israel. Its location at the crossroads of competing faiths and ideologies has been the cause of much strife – but has also left an incredibly rich cultural and archeological legacy. Lebanon celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence in 2013 – and no city knows how to celebrate better than Beirut.
The temple site of Baalbek, ancient Heliopolis, is one of the best preserved – and most tourist-free – Roman sites in the world. On its doorstep is the fertile Bekaa Valley, home to one of the many pleasant surprises Lebanon offers – world-class wineries alongside the wonderful (and healthy) Lebanese cuisine. The coastal Phoenician cities of Byblos and Tyre are short excursions – at one and three hours’ drive respectively – from Beirut, the frenetic, ever-changing capital.
The traces of the civil war that devastated Beirut in the Seventies and Eighties are becoming harder to find as more and more upscale developments dot the skyline. Perhaps the real legacy is the city’s indomitable appetite for life and fun. That’s best experienced by an early evening walk along the Corniche, a late night visit to the central converted cinema, Music Hall, or one of the many bars around the Gemmayzeh and Hamra areas. High-end shoppers can treat themselves in the recently commissioned Beirut Souks, while downtown Saif Village is best for more traditional souvenirs.
The symbol of Lebanon is the cedar tree, and the remains of its once-great forests are now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Lebanese also love their skiing – the resorts on the tree-lined slopes of The Cedars and Mzaar offer a unique downhill – and après ski – experience. The villages, wineries and restaurants of the fertile Bekaa Valley offer a different kind of hedonism.