Beirut is Back! And so are Baalbek and Batroun and….

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The scent of gardenias perfumed my first days in Beirut in May 2012. Like the gardenias, Beirut is back in bloom.

Are you kidding me? Beirut never went anywhere.

When we arrived to Lebanon in May 2012, tourism crashed. And no, it wasn’t us! Due to instability in the region, the governments of Saudi Arabia and other wealth Gulf states instructed their citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon. That was as much politics as safety concerns, and Beirutis themselves were still out at restaurants, beaches, bars.

Beirut has been here all along. But as of 2017, the tourists are back.

I’ve hosted a number of visitors to Lebanon since moving here. You know, the hard-core kind of traveler, that doesn’t let things like a car bomb stand between them and their grandchildren. Or the adventurers that read beyond the headlines and realized that while fall 2013 was a dodgy time to visit (bombs in Beirut and Tripoli in August, Obama’s threats of military strikes in Syria), most of the rest of the time we’ve been here has been just fine.

I remember wandering downtown Beirut with my parents on their first visit in November 2013. We saw one lone foreigner besides ourselves and the migrant workers cleaning the streets. He wore cargo pants and a large camera slung around his neck—more likely a journalist on assignment than a tourist.

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A street cleaner, a businessman and two cops. Not a lot of other tourists back in 2013.

As recently as September of 2016, when we took my brother-in-law and his partner to Baalbek, we had some of the world’s most impressive Roman ruins virtually to ourselves. The visitors we hosted between 2012 and 2016 were intrepid, unperturbed by the utter lack of other tourists.

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“Where’s Wally?” Can you spot the other tourists? Baalbek in 2016.

I’ve been hosting guests again this year, and we can no longer claim the tourist sites for ourselves. I bump into Westerners with blonde hair and knobby knees. Chinese tourists with map in hand. The tourists are back—not in droves, but they’re here.

Last month I was back in Baalbek with houseguests, and *gasp* there was an actual tour group of international visitors. Minivan and all! As well as an entire busload of Lebanese tourists. On a Friday no less, not even the weekend. We went to Batroun and Byblos, and bumped into more tourists wandering around, taking selfies against the backdrop of the sparkling blue sea. We headed to downtown Beirut, and other tourists asked us to take their picture in the Blue Mosque, then we had to wait for other tourists to clear out before we could get the good shot of Martyrs’ Square with the mosque in the background.

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Martyrs’ Square and the Blue Mosque, downtown Beirut.

We headed to the trendy Mar Mikhael neighborhood at night and… well, the nightlife has always been great. But now, it’s better than ever. (Read this article by Gino Raidy on Vice.com for a great analysis of how Beirut’s nightlife has democratized since 2012, and check out this video on his blog for a glimpse into some of the city’s best nightclubs.) It took a while to recalibrate, but Lebanon’s tourism market has adapted to the lack of wealthy Gulf tourists, who were willing to shell out exorbitant prices for overrated hotels and restaurants. The businesses that remained standing are the best, and new ones have cropped up in the place of those that couldn’t make it—more fairly priced, more creative, simply better. Businesses also worked harder to offer tours and packages to those already in Lebanon (my favorites: Alternative Tour Beirut and Living Lebanon), including the development of community and rural tourism (check out the 60+ stands that will be at the Travel Lebanon section of the Garden Show in the Beirut Hippodrome next week).

If there’s something the people in this region have learned over the centuries, it’s resilience. Well done Lebanon, well done.

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Baalbek, Ksara, Anjar: Lebanon’s Top Tourist Circuit

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Baalbek: once an epicenter of Roman religious life, a temple complex dating back two millennia, boasting the world’s best-preserved Roman temple.

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Ksara: a 159-year-old winery and Lebanon’s largest, producing some 2 million bottles per year.

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Anjar: a sprawling 8th century complex of ruins from the Umayyad caliphate, the first but most short-lived of the Arab dynasties.

Each a remarkable place to visit. None of which I had heard of before living in Lebanon. I was in Beirut two years before visiting Baalbek and Ksara. And it wasn’t until recently that I returned, and visited Anjar as well.

Baalbek/Ksara/Anjar is a standard day trip sold by travel agencies in Beirut, but the long shadow of war stretches across the Antilebanon mountain range that separates Syria from Lebanon, casting a gloom across the businesses of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, tourism most of all.

My family and I arrived to Lebanon in May 2012, and skirmishes near the border made a visit to the famed ruins of Baalbek out of the question. Although war continues to simmer in neighboring Syria, Lebanon has clung to its fragile peace, and by the spring of 2014 we felt it was safe enough to finally visit the World Heritage Site temples.

I recently returned with my parents, who just ended their second visit to Lebanon. Not much had changed since I first saw Baalbek in 2014. Arriving just after 9am, we were the first tourists in town. Someone must have alerted the ticket seller, who pulled into the parking lot just after us and sprinted ahead to open up the ticket window. In turn, he must have given a call to another local, because we’d been inside the complex only a few minutes when a guide materialized to offer his services. It was just us and our guide Khalil. Extraordinary to have these magnificent world class ruins all to ourselves.

Magnificent and heartbreaking. Our guide recounted that three to four hundred tourists used to arrive daily. These days they were averaging ten. We tried to spread our few tourist dollars around: a generous tip to our guide, a couple of souvenir guidebooks from one merchant lurking outside, a few replicas of ancient coins from another merchant. We couldn’t bring ourselves to take a ride on the camel someone had trotted out to the ruins though.

Before leaving Baalbek, I insisted that we stop by the Palmyra Hotel, intrigued by this fantastic two and a half minute video which I had recently seen.

Political leaders Charles de Gaulle and German Kaiser Wilhelm II once stayed at the Palmyra, singers Ella Fitzgerald, Fairouz and Sabah (both Lebanese legends) were guests, and the French poet and painter Jean Cocteau lived in the Palmyra for a month. In continuous business since 1874, it was if time had stopped 75 years before our visit. The bellhop (the same one who appears in the video) has been working for them more than 40 years, and proudly showed us the rooms and the spectacular view from the terrace. For another detailed article about the Palmyra, check out this one from a couple of years ago on the Beirut news site Al Akhbar.

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the view from the rooftop terrace of the Palmyra Hotel, Baalbek

After admiring the view, we headed on to Ksara, the first official winery to build on Lebanon’s 5,000-year old winemaking tradition. The winery was founded by Jesuit priests in 1857 (a few years before the Palmyra opened in nearby Baalbek), and sold into private hands in 1973, after the Vatican encouraged its monasteries to sell off any commercial activities. The ancient Roman tunnels under the winery’s chateau were expanded by men that lived in them during a war, explained our guide. (I wish I could remember which war! The Ksara website mentions that the winery was occupied by soldiers 1982-83, during the Lebanese Civil War, maybe it was then…) There are now just over 2.1km (1.3 mi) of tunnels, housing oak barrels of aged wine and special collection bottles. The tour ends with a generous tasting. I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of wines that I hadn’t had the chance to taste before and liked a lot – I bought a Cabernet Sauvignon to take home.

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wine barrels in the tunnels of Ksara winery

To soak up some of the wine, we made a quick stop for a man’oushe (baked dough with toppings such as cheese, ground lamb, or dried wild thyme), then drove on to Anjar, the ruins of a trading center that is estimated to have flourished roughly 700-750 A.D. It was built by the Umayyads, the second of the four major Islamic caliphates established after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Like Baalbek, it is a World Heritage Site.

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the ruins of Anjar

Although Anjar turned out to be only 10 kilometers (6 miles) from some restaurants and wineries that we had visited in the past, it is only 10 more kilometers to the Lebanon-Syria border, and we hadn’t dared get quite that close in the past. The lack of tourists was even more acute here than Baalbek. While the ticket office was staffed by a friendly Lebanese who had returned to Anjar after years of living in Nashville, he told us that we were the first tourists to arrive to the site in a few days. Sure, the ruins of Anjar pale next to Baalbek, but frankly even the Forum of Rome isn’t as impressive as Baalbek, so that’s a hard neighbor to keep up with. There are still crumbling walls of palaces and a mosque, scraps of mosaics, elegant archways and towering columns. Anjar was a marketplace of an estimated 600 shops, and was an important stop on the Baalbek-Damascus trade route.

My parents told me that the day was a highlight of their month-long stay in Lebanon. “Top tourist circuit”? Not in numbers. But Baalbek or Anjar are extraordinary world treasures. (And Ksara was just plain fun.) This Beirut day trip is, without a doubt, a “top tourist circuit”.

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three happy tourists