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.

Quaffing Lebanese Wine

The weather remains above 85°F (29°C) every day, but for the Lebanese, beach season is over.

Now is the time for hikes and mountain lunches and other fall activities – such as grape-harvesting. Yet one more surprise when I moved to Lebanon. The country is home to a prospering wine industry.

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Wine production in Lebanon dates back to Phoenician times (3200BC to 883BC), and was an important part of their trading. According to Wikipedia, the Phoenicians “either introduced or encouraged the dissemination of wine knowledge to several regions that today continue to produce wine suitable for international consumption. These include modern-day Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal.”

So the Phoenicians brought wine-production techniques to the Romans, who turned around a brought their love for wine back to the region when they arrived around 64BC. It was under Roman rule that Lebanon’s greatest cultural attraction – the temple at Baalbek, dedicated to Bacchus, god of the grape harvest and wine – was built.

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The Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

In the 1860s, Jesuit priests in Lebanon recommenced wine production, and the industry blossomed during the French occupation (1923-1946). It is said that the French soldiers just couldn’t imagine life without “un coup de rouge” (a glass of red). As with just about everything else in the country, the industry lagged during the civil war, and only five wineries were operating at its end.

Slowly growing through the 1990s, wine production has taken off since the turn of the millennium, expanding from the traditional growing areas of the Bekaa Valley, to Batroun, Mount Lebanon, and even near Jezzine in southern Lebanon. An estimated 7 to 8 million bottles are produced annually, with much of going to the export market (primarily Europe). A drop in the wine glass compared to, say, France’s annual production of 7 to 8 billion bottles, but a respectable figure nonetheless.

The wineries and their leafy rows of grapes make for gorgeous settings to spend a couple of hours or a day, and our family has visited several: Massaya, Chateau Kefraya, Chateau Ksara, Ixsir. We loved our weekend lunches at Ixsir and Massaya Bekaa, while my kids’ favorite parts of the visits were the underground tunnels at Ksara and the train ride through the vineyards of Kefraya. Ksara and Kefraya are Lebanon’s biggest players, accounting for roughly half of the country’s annual production, but there are currently around 40 producers in this postage-stamp country.

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Kefraya’s vineyards

A week ago our family had the opportunity to spend a day with the gracious owner of Cave Kouroum and his family. Located in the village of Kefraya in the Bekaa Valley, this lesser-known winery has been an important player in the industry for decades, first as a grape middleman and eventually producing its own wine. We toured the winery, which has an impressive capacity of 7 million bottles of wine. The wine-maker is taking it slow, however, and the estate currently produces 700,000 bottles annually.  Our group especially enjoyed the estate’s Petit Noir and 7 Cépages.

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Two lovely Lebanese wines: Cave Kouroum on the left, Iris Domaine on the right

This past weekend we worked our way backwards in the production line, from the processing of grapes to their harvesting. This time we headed to the hills near Bhamdoun, where we joined the owners of Iris Domain on their final day of the grape harvest.  Owner Salmad Salibi explained that the recent heat wave (thank you sandstorm) meant that the different varietals of grapes had ripened all at once, so there was an urgency to their harvesting. To that end, paid laborers had started the hard work at 6 a.m., so guests like our family who rolled in at 8:30 or 9 and later had the chance to clip just a few crates worth of grapes before cutting the kids loose to explore the vineyards and fruit groves, while the adults snacked on man’ouche and sipped the winery’s excellent red blend.

You don’t have to be well-connected to enjoy a vineyard visit. The website Beirut.com has a comprehensive listing of wineries in Lebanon with links to their contact information. Several are regularly open to the public, while others accept visitors by appointment.

To try all the wines in one place, head to the upcoming Vinifest, October 7-10 at Beirut’s Hippodrome. This wonderful event brings together winemakers from around the country, offering tastings with bottles (as well as olive oil and snacks) available for purchase.  (Tickets L. 25,000 and can be purchased at the entrance or ahead of time at Antoine.) With around 40 producers showcasing their wines, take my word for it that it’s impossible to try them all. But my husband and I have had fun trying.

My husband and I were caught by The Daily Star photographer Mahmoud Kheir in this image from Vinifest 2012.

My husband and I were caught by The Daily Star photographer Mahmoud Kheir in this image from Vinifest 2012.

Lebanon is no Napa. (Nor is it even close to say, the wine-growing region of Columbia Valley in my home state of Washington.  I have yet to meet a winemaker here in Lebanon that has heard of Washington wines, despite the fact that Washington State is home to more than 850 wineries and produces 180 million bottles of wine per year.  I’m allowed a little hometown pride, aren’t I?)

But enotourism in Lebanon is on the rise. Chateau Khoury has opened a restaurant, while Domaine des Tourelles and Cave Kourom are developing theirs. Chateau Belle-Vue hosts both a restaurant and a hotel. Wineries near Batroun in Northern Lebanon have worked to develop a wine trail.

The Romans may have left Lebanon ages ago, but clearly the devotees of Bacchus remain alive and well.

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Resources for the wine lover in Lebanon:

  • Special reports on Lebanon’s wine industry and developing wine tourism were recently published in Executive magazine.
  • The 2012 Zawaq guide to Lebanese wine has tasting notes for over 100 wines. The bilingual (French/English) book is currently 40% off on Antoine’s website.
  • Michael Karam’s Lebanese Wines (2013) offers tasting notes by the owner of Jezzine’s Karam Winery.

Facebook tends to be the best place to find out about events and visits at most wineries in Lebanon, with more current information than the winery websites.

Where a Wanderer Calls Home

Our family just came back from a spring break vacation in Jordan. Floating in the Dead Sea, wandering the ruins of Petra (remember the temple in Indiana Jones and the Last Cruisade?), and a night in the desert at a Bedouin camp were the highlights of our trip.

visitors bob in the Dead Sea, buoyed by the water’s high salinity

our Bedouin guide, in the Wadi Rum desert

Petra, an ancient Nabatean tomb

Whenever we got asked where we are from, my 11-year-old son would pipe up “Lebanon.”

It is a much easier answer, of course, than “My mom is from Seattle, my dad is from Rome, I was born in New York and my sister in Ecuador.” (Not to mention that although the kids haven’t spent longer than a vacation in either the US or Italy, they are citizens of both.)

But given our mediocre Arabic skills, the Jordanians were never quite convinced by “I’m from Lebanon.”

When my son was a toddler and my husband and I were embarking on this itinerant lifestyle, a colleague gave us some sage advice. “You will always feel that Italy and the US are ‘home,’ but your kids won’t feel that way. For them, wherever you are will be home. So make it home for them. Settle in. Ship the important things from place to place. Don’t always talk about your home country as if it is home for the kids as well. Let your country of residence be home.”

I realized that my son’s response showed just how settled in he feels in Lebanon. At home.

And I thought about the desert Bedouins, making their home in a tent under the stars, moving it as needed to keep their goats or sheep near food and water. Our children are like the Bedouins – with souls prepared to wander and travel, but making each stop home.

Near the end of the trip a Lebanese friend sent me a Facebook message: “I wish you a safe journey home. (Lebanon, I hope you call Lebanon home.)”

It’s clear my son does. And I realized that I do too.

Jordan was an amazing trip. But returning to Lebanon, it felt good to come home.

Beirut is Better than Barcelona

Don’t take my word for it (especially since I’ve yet to visit Barcelona), but take the word of the readers of the upscale travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler, whose votes placed Beirut 20th in the top 25 cities of the world – tying with Seville, and placing ahead of Paris, Venice and Barcelona.

Wow.  As happy as I am living in Beirut, I have to admit I was pretty surprised by the ranking.

My parents are currently visiting, and we are sightseeing every day while the kids are at school. Last week at the gorgeous National Museum in Beirut we saw just one group of foreign tourists (a busload of Koreans) in the two hours we were there.

We had the National Museum practically to ourselves last week.

The National Museum sees more school groups than tourists, and was nearly empty during our visit.

While sightseeing downtown on Monday, there was another obvious foreign tourist that we kept bumping into at each mosque and church we stepped into. Him and the three of us.  Hardly the crowds that swarm Paris or Venice or Barcelona.

Nary a tourist in sight at downtown's Plaza Nejmeh.

Nary a tourist in sight at downtown’s Plaza Nejmeh.

Where are these readers that voted Beirut so highly?

Beirut has a lot to offer, but don’t take my word for it. And maybe you shouldn’t take the word of Conde Nast Traveler readers either. Come and check it out, and you’ll have the place all to yourself to enjoy.