Fascinating, controversial and enchanting corner of the Mediterranean, despite its small size, there are countless things to do in Lebanon. Explore its ancient history in the perfectly kept archaeological sites, experience the life of the capital, Beirut, get a sensory overload in Sidon’s souqs and enjoy the Lebanese exquisite cuisine.
As a marigold sun prepared to set beyond Tyre’s ragged coast filling the skies with warm golden hues, I couldn’t stop capturing the last fleeting moments before the daylight faded into my first night in Lebanon. A series of silhouettes of fishermen at work completed the Mediterranean scene of this storied seafaring village, the origins of which remain lost in the mists of time. I decided to travel to Lebanon to understand why this small country has seduced so many different populations throughout centuries, making it one of the most cross-culturally challenging nations in the Middle East yet a real trove of hidden treasures.
Its strategic position between two worlds had a natural appeal on civilizations like the Phoenicians, whose entrepreneurial initiative reached the coasts of Sicily, Sardinia, Southern Spain, up to Northern Africa. A frantic succession of different populations left a country steeped in biblical tales, mystical legends, and primeval wisdom.
Since I landed in Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut, I had been developing an unhealthy fixation on its fabled relics, and Tyre (Sur for the locals) looked like the perfect start of my journey. That night, fishermen were not the only silhouettes I was gaping at. The untarnished white of the majestic Roman columns lined up along Tyre’s coast, after more than 2000 years, still glowed in the dim light.
The Romans have always had a knack for choosing corners of paradise for their settlements, and this fine strip of land didn’t remain unnoticed for long. Founded by the Phoenicians, the city-state of Tyre, 80 km south of Beirut, is possibly one of the most sought-after peninsulas in the Mediterranean basin. From its founders to the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Arabs, it seems like everybody felt the urge to leave their own imprint on this land blessed by mild temperatures and plentiful water supplies.
In the very heart of modern Tyre stands the ancient city, a cluster of remains from the many civilizations that followed one another. At the entrance, Phoenician graves welcome visitors and psych them for a journey throughout centuries, cultures and rituals. A scrubby sweep of white marbled tombs inlaid with Phoenician and Greek deities and family names, intersected by a pebbly path, unfolded before us as we entered the formerly sacred land. Without clear maintenance devotion, these ancestral remains are perfectly preserved for posterity to admire, observe, learn and somehow be seduced by its unique character that has survived momentous changes.
The local souks are among the best things to do in Lebanon
Not far from the ruins that revealed much of the ancient society, is the place that better than any other can reveal a great deal about present local community: Tyre’s souk, or open market. Fresh produce proudly displayed, a hectic weighing of herbs and spices, ubiquitous butchers’ stalls and the occasional sheesha and rugs shops scattered under the vaulted bricked walls, unveiled the medieval side of Southern Lebanon, aspect I’ve had the chance to further unearth in charming Sidon, once home to the Crusaders and the Mamluks. From its markets to the Crusaders’ ancient posts, exploring the southern region is absolutely one of the best things to do in Lebanon.
Past the market, the azure Med unfolded before our eyes luring us further towards the coast. This is how my friends Salam and Leila and I wound up right on the ragged cove to meet improbably-named Michael, swarthy boat-owner who offered us a ride.
I had just started picturing myself entering uncharted waters the same way legendary sailors had done long ago, when our captain called to us, abruptly bringing me back to reality and exhorting me to look down through the crystal sea at the evidence of a stormy past. Roman columns and other precious remains of lost worlds lay underwater, almost a reminder for today’s visitors of the central role this hub of Southern Lebanon bore. The almost complete lack of tourists, although surprising, made me feel as if I was entering a well-kept secret, granting me with the privileged views of what the ancient city might have looked like when toga-clad Romans rallied to determine where to next.
Tyre, however, is not the only town boasting the majesty of primordial empires in Lebanon. After having lived in Rome for some seven years at the time, I thought I knew a thing or two about Roman ruins, but meandering through the mighty complex of Baalbek made me quickly revise my approach. You don’t even need a rich imagination to recreate the ancient city, as enough of it has been kept as it was back in its heyday.
Stunning ancient ruins, one of the best things to do in Lebanon
From the deep South, it takes three hours of a spectacular drive along the country’s rugged spine to get to Baalbek, a must-see for anyone who decides to travel to Lebanon. Legendary pearl of former Great Syria perched on a large hill in the Bekaa Valley, it is “surrounded by glorious orchards and superb gardens, with flowing streams traversing its land”, according to Ibn Battutah, Islam’s most famous traveller. Every bend of the road opens to new breathtaking views of Jabal Lubnan slopes, which are “among the most fertile mountain ranges in the world; in it are to be found all manner of fruits, and water fountains and thick coverts”, or so wrote Ibn Battutah in the 14th century. Stark headlands and snowy peaks command the view overlooking the most impressive archaeological site in the Middle East.
Once at the entrance, the guardians ushered us in one of the most extraordinary holy places of Ancient Rome. The awe-inspiring columns belonging to the Temple of Jupiter looked even more dramatic against the cloud-strewn skies that eventually released the rain all at once. Staring at the magnificent works of art of old Heliopolis, or The city of the Sun, the buildings of which were shaped and carved by a plethora of nameless sculptors, I couldn’t restrain myself from wondering how many people have been used to erect those gigantic columns surreally poised on an unusually high platform of seven meters. The columns of this huge worship area were probably made in Egypt, but how they had been carried all the way up to here remains a mystery.
As it’s still shrouded in mystery the identity of the very first vestiges of Baalbek, the ones lying underneath the colossal ruins and that don’t seem to fit any known culture. The pink granite buildings offer a hypnotically beautiful view and give the impression of leading visitors towards a lost world. Much of the ruins have been destroyed by repeated earthquakes, but still today the Temple of Bacchus stand aware of its majesty. It’s not just its perfection almost as if still in use, but the sense of its imperial history that resonates all around.
Once back in Tyre, our seemingly fixed daily date, two-storied Jawad restaurant lured us in with its haunting smell of just made kebab and the fragrance of the spices defining local cuisine. A daring combination of falafel, hummus, fattoush salad and avocado cocktail seemed the best way to round off a long but rewarding day.
From its history to its landscape to its society, Lebanon is a country of contrasts. One of the first things visitors will notice is its extremely diverse natural scenery. Within a couple of hours, you will have not only stared at the complex interplay of azure seas and barren mountains, of snowy slopes and soft rolling hills crossed by tranquil rivers, but you will have changed your clothes at least a couple of times to deal with the alternation of the four seasons in one day.
It might be the ambience of a country crossroad of countless cultures and civilizations, but bouncing on and off the different centuries through ubiquitous relics never stops revealing precious gems of a bygone past. Apart from some of the best kept Roman ruins around the Mediterranean area, Lebanon boasts also evidence of a more recent history, with Crusaders’ castles and forts scattered along its shoreline. Almost as a haphazard coincidence, every day I had the occasion to spot the different layers shaping this multifaceted society, inevitable result of its tangled past, where tapering minarets stand aside austere crucified Christs, and stalls selling chadors sit beside sexy lingerie in the local markets, while veiled dowagers shop with ease along young ladies in skin-tight denim.
As Andrea had joined us for the rest of the trip, we decided to explore Sidon‘s souk. The merchandise was as diverse as its community: goats’ brain, perfume, brass pots, incense, bracelets, underwear, spices, shoes, gold. Merchants, comfortably perched on their low stools and wrapped up in their cloud of smoke, didn’t look too devoted to their daily stint. Amid the crowd, customers parted only when ramshackle motorbike riders hastily honked their horn.
Travel to Lebanon for a sensory overload
After hours of sensory overload dawdling about the open market that every day bustles with people from early morning, I was lured beyond an old-fashioned wooden door into a characteristic building. As I stepped over the threshold, I enjoyed for a few dizzying moments the tangy scent that permeates the entrance of the city’s Soap Museum, before plunging into one of the oldest living traditions of this region, wedged between an enchanted past and a controversial present. Ambling about the stalls of the exhibition that explains the different steps for creating natural soap, my brain tried to decipher the balmy fragrances tingling my nose. White musk, sandalwood, patchouli, coconut and “secret mixtures” successfully tantalized my senses into buying a sample of each scent.
With the constant interaction of the different moments of the Mediterranean past, Greek and Roman inland remnants alternate with Crusaders’ strongholds along the coast. The ease with which modern and primordial mingle in Lebanon is utterly beguiling.
Travel to Lebanon to meet the Crusaders
You can’t travel to Lebanon without visiting Sidon (Saida in Arabic), and you can’t say you have seen Sidon if you haven’t visited its Sea Castle. Crusaders’ fort probably built on the ruins of an ancient Phoenician temple, the castle is open to the public, and its gloomy interior gives a good idea of the austerity the monk warriors lived by. Originally set on an island and connected to the mainland by a cobblestone causeway, the heavily fortified stronghold had the purpose of protecting pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land and providing a high level of security to the troops arriving from Europe.
Mild temperatures, the abundance of locally grown produce and an enviable position have been both Sidon’s blessing and its curse. The sea that under Phoenician rule was essential for trading, communication, wealth, an irreplaceable source of food and a dispenser of fortune, is also what made it one of the most disputed cities during the Crusades. Today Sidon is working hard to reach the opulence seldom seen since Phoenician times, and in the region of Southern Lebanon stands out as a lively urban area.
Today like at the beginning of time, Sidon is an active fishing port, and fresh fish is sold every morning in the local souk. The Old City, a labyrinthine tangle of narrow alleys, makes for an invaluable glimpse into bygone societies still alive today thanks to undying traditions permanently embedded in the native community.
Although its small size makes it easy to explore the country’s many attractions, Lebanon is not the usual holiday destination, it requires an open mind and some level of preparation. What attracts visitors is the same reason that attracted me, this endearing blend of memory and tradition, the past and present so tightly intertwined that always manage to weave a spell no matter what you expect.
It might be common to anyone who decides to travel to Lebanon, but I left with a sense of belonging there somehow. It might be the common Mediterranean history it shares with my home country, Italy or our close culinary traditions, but hopping on and off ancient times felt familiar as evoking memories from past lives.
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