I want to live so densely. Lush. And slow. In the next few years. That a year becomes ten years. And the past becomes only a page. In the book of my life.
The debate between Gary and I began only a couple of days into our trip: Could Lebanon make the cut into our top five favorite countries, or would it wind up just in the top ten? Writing now, on our flight home, the debate has changed to whether Lebanon is top five, or maybe, just maybe, in the hallowed top three. Either way, we absolutely loved our ten days spent exploring only a small fraction of the country, and hope to have the opportunity to return one day.
We arrived in Beirut as the sun was considering setting, exiting the terminal just in time to enjoy the perfect late spring weather. Weaving through Beirut’s narrow, congested streets, there were a few times when rounding a corner took my breath away. Everything reminded me terribly of my time studying abroad in Paris ten years ago, taking me back to where I first fell in love with travel and met the people I still consider my best friends. I was totally unprepared to be overcome with such a rush of nostalgia in a place so seemingly removed from that phase of life, and I knew already I would like this new city.
After checking in to our Airbnb we walked around the Mar Mikhael neighborhood, filled with young people much hipper than us, crowding into tons of fun bars and restaurants. The bustling night life and slightly shabby, graffiti-covered buildings reminded me a bit of Berlin, making Beirut a really cool fusion of two of my favorite places. That night one of Gary’s family friends, Reem, a chef and an angel of a human, treated us to dinner at one of her restaurants. We felt like VIP’s as course after course of her delicious home-style Lebanese and Syrian dishes were brought to the table. After eating to the point of feeling sick, we had a glass of arak to help us digest, before waddling home to die for the night.
Traffic the next morning trying to get out of Beirut was intense- the stripes painted on the road really were more of a suggestion, allowing a three lane highway to transform into six haphazard, makeshift lanes. Gary did a very nice job of not crashing our rental car, and a couple hours later we were out of the mayhem, heading east. After slowly snaking our way up a single mountain lane, our first stop was the Monastery of Saint Charbel, Lebanon’s most famous saint. We arrived in time to hear the monks chanting in their hooded black robes, lined against the walls of an old stone chapel. The whole experience transported me to another era and gave me shivers. Thanks to Reem’s recommendation we had lunch at the monk’s farmer’s market, surrounded by beautifully dressed and perfectly coiffed women, as well as what looked like some really ill individuals hoping for a miracle. Afterwards we were able to do a little shopping for our next few days of camping, treating ourselves to jam, strawberries and yogurt for breakfast, a bottle of limoncello, and a jar of what wound up being the best olives I’ve ever eaten.
After so much time spent playing in what was basically a beautiful sandpit, the Lebanese mountains felt a bit like reaching nirvana. We drove through lush, rolling hills, the greenery broken up by a sprinkling of tangerine terra-cotta roofs and the occasional grey limestone outcrop, cliff-faces streaked with the same water-color shade of orange as the roofs. Everywhere you looked, something was blooming- yellow-flowering pine-like trees towering over fields of sweet little daisies, delicate indigo bluebells, pale purple creeping morning glories, perfect red poppies and bushes heavy with the weight of roses. At one point we were stuck behind an idling semi-truck, eventually realizing it was because the driver was leaning out his window to pick cherries off the trees, an easy roadside snack.
That afternoon we stopped at Batara Gorge to see what is allegedly the world’s oldest waterfall, because science, I guess. After making a few new friends and crossing the world’s sketchiest bridge (okay, okay, I bailed after the first few steps), we drove a little farther, eventually turning down a dirt road to our campsite in Tannourine al Tahta. We set up our tent in a clearing surrounded by oak trees, a happily gurgling stream flowing just behind us. After dinner on a makeshift log bench, we grabbed a bottle of wine and headed up the path to a comfy rock for the sunset, what would become our nightly routine. I’ve said before that if I had to eat only one cuisine the rest of my life it would be Lebanese, and this trip confirmed it. We ate really, really well, thanks to how at a simple gas station convenience store we could buy delicious goat cheese, freshly made pita, and the best hummus or baba ganoush I’ve ever eaten, as well as a bottle of good quality wine, all for less than ten dollars.
The next few days we climbed at the local crag, where we enjoyed playing around on actual solid rock, especially after the cliffs basically made of Nature Valley bars we had become accustomed to in Oman. The grassy area beneath the crag made a great hang out spot, and we felt very welcomed by the local climbers, and also met a handful of other tourists like us. We happened to be visiting during a historic election (an historic? Can’t do it), the first time voting had happened in ten years. While a few people warned us how unpredictable Lebanon could be, everyone we met was so adorable, I found it hard to imagine any of them smashing windows or burning tires. In the end elections went off without a hitch, with each party winning something, and therefore everyone joyful and in a celebratory mood for the rest of our trip.
After four nights camping, I was ready for a shower. Waking up early, we took a bit of a detour, first heading north to visit an old-growth cedar forest. Used by ancient Egyptians to build boats, they were also mentioned in the Old Testament over a hundred times. On our way back towards the coast we picked up a couple hitchhikers, an older couple. Through broken English they were able to tell us how they had fled from Syria two years earlier, resettling in Lebanon and eventually finding work in a hotel. When they found out we were camping they insisted we sleep at their house and that they cook us a proper meal. While we turned them down as politely as we could, that kind of hospitality to mere strangers, from people who had lost everything, still brings tears to my eyes.
After delivering them home, we continued to Batroun, stopping first at the Nooreiah Convent along the coast. The low rumbling thunder and light rain made the ocean views accompanied by the faint smell of gardenias all the more beautiful. Undeterred by the spitting sky, we wandered around the old port and cobblestoned streets of the old souk, eventually winding our way back to the sea, where we tidepooled next to an ancient wall built by the Phoenicians. Once the rain let up we checked into our AirBnb, then headed down for lunch at a waterfront cafe, the day now sunny and cloudless. After a late lunch and a stroll, we watched the sunset from our balcony before finally taking a glorious shower.
While it was a nice to sleep in a real bed, I missed the frogs singing me to sleep, and the coyotes yipping in the night, and the little birds sweetly waking me up in the morning, and was glad to have two more nights up in the hills. On our way back we took another detour at the recommendation of our host and headed to the Qadisha Valley. A short drive up the mountains brought us to a spectacular gorge, with crowded homes vying for space on the edges of the dramatic cliffs. Swerving down the steep switchbacks to the bottom, we were rewarded each turn with even more spectacular views. Once we reached the valley floor a few dramatic waterfalls were flowing from the top thanks to the previous day’s rain, which also apparently scared away other visitors, as we were lucky enough to have the whole place to ourselves. We spent the next couple hours hiking through a serene pine forest, an easy looped trail taking us past various 13th century hermitages, before driving back up and returning to our campsite.
And just like that, after one more day climbing and camping, it was time to face Beirut traffic yet again. After returning our rental car we gave ourselves the afternoon to walk around the honey and sunshine colored Parisian shopping area, casually breezing past Roman ruins and glamorous shoppers, ending the day with one last perfect traditional Lebanese dinner. Really, the reason I loved this trip so much was because in between climbing or sight-seeing, there was plenty of time to just enjoy being outside. At the beach we took time to watch the tide change, burying our toes in the sand and letting the wind play with our hair. In the mountains I sat with caterpillars while they slowly crept along, and marveled at ants tirelessly working, identifying more with the butterflies overhead lazily wandering from flower to flower. One morning I followed a grasshopper down to a stream where we both completed our morning routines, him proudly cleaning his antennas while I washed my face in the cold, refreshing water next to him. I smelled every flower I could, and treated myself nightly to wine and chocolate while watching the sunset. At the end of each day while laying quietly side by side in our tent, we watched the bats flap to and fro, waiting for the frogs to begin their nightly symphony. Perhaps that’s what I’ll remember the most, the croaking frogs in the fading light, singing me to sleep.