I have a Lebanese friend named Lara. Our friendship began outside the school gates in London over a decade ago. Lara wasn’t like any of the other class mothers- she hosted class dinners, graduation events, invited us to the Nutcracker, circuses, concerts, even EuroDisney. She was our fairy godmother, most definitely mine. My marriage was ending and Lara took me under her wing. I spent hours sitting on her sofa, sipping fennel tea, and talking about life and listening to what this new wonder woman had to say.
Lara is now an old friend. Not only does she have a huge heart, but she’s smart, curious, highly organised, resourceful, creative, uber-stylish and loves to have fun. These qualities, I discovered two months ago, earn her a new moniker – Madame Tour Guide Extraordinaire.
In May Lara took several adventuring friends and me to visit Lebanon, a 6 day trip that took her four months to plan.
To my generation, Lebanon conjures up images of bombs, beaches, tanks, night clubs, stray bullets and beautiful people. My financial manager urged me to update my life insurance plan days before I flew. “Just in case” he said. I remembered that when my ex-husband went to Beirut in the early nineties, he slept in his running shoes.
The closest we came to stray bullets was seeing a now defunct Holiday Inn riddled with bullet holes from the Civil War (1975-1991).
Rather than being afraid, I was dazzled. Modern buildings by star architects Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Herzog de Meuron dot the Beirut horizon. Meanwhile we stayed at the traditional and charming Hotel Albergo, originally a 1920’s Lebanese house.
Fragrant fig and orange trees wafted over me as I relaxed by the hotel’s rooftop pool with views of the city, sea and distant mountains.
We swam in the sea one day, visited an ancient cedar forest bordered by snowcapped mountains the next.
Where else can you dance …
see ancient Roman ruins …
hike (contact: George Zgheib Guide email@example.com)
hug a cedar
eat to your heart’s content
What I was most impressed by was how welcome we felt. The Arabic word for welcome when translated literally means “You’ve come to stay with my family.”
Lara’s colourful friend Aline invited the fourteen of us over for lunch.
She’d been cooking for three days.
And for those who read my last blog about being obsessed by stylish interiors, imagine how crazed I was at Aline’s seaside villa:
As fellow groupie Charles told Lara,
As to the people, what can I say, except that, from now on, I will try to be more Lebanese? The warmth of the welcome from everyone was astonishing – all your enchanting family and friends of course. But also from the guides, the drivers, the ice cream makers, the dancers, the shopkeepers, the jewellers, the furniture builders, the restaurateurs, the hoteliers…
What not to miss:
The National Museum of Beirut is a must, ideally on day one. Opened in 1942, the museum is packed with ancient treasures, including mummies, sarcophaguses and gorgeous gold jewellery that reminds me of Pippa Small’s designs. Lebanon has been occupied by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans and French, among others- so lots to see here.
This casual farmer’s kitchen El Tawlet is an ideal Beirut lunch spot. El Tawlet was started by the entrepreneurial Kamal Mouzawak, who also created downtown Beirut’s first farmer’s market- Souk al Tayeb– held every Saturday. Women from different mountain villages cook their local dishes at El Tawlet every day, thus helping support their respective villages. In Lebanon: Let Food Be Your Guide in Condé Nast Traveler recommends El Tawlet among others. Do not read when hungry.
For a big night out, Em Sherif – with its mirrored tables and delicious cuisine is the place to go…
We shopped til we dropped in Beirut for everything from coffee tables at Nada Debs
to converted dentist chairs at Bokja
to kaftans at Artisans du Liban et d’Orient..
to bags at Sarah’s Bag. The bags are handmade by underprivileged Lebanese women.
Orient 499 is also worth a visit. The bullet-ridden Holiday Inn is across the street with very friendly armed guards.
There were too many shops and too little time. Lara’s suggestions for our next trip: jewellers Noor Fares, Nayla Arida, Nada Lecavelier, Nada Zeineh, Saifi Village, and fashion designer Maison Rabih Kayrouz.
There is lots to see beyond the buzz of Beirut and nothing is more than a two-hour drive. We drove to the southern coast to admire the ruins in the antique Phoenician city of Tyre.
And sleep at the serene Dar Alma guesthouse – heaven…
We visited pretty Byblos, the oldest continuously occupied city in the world and where the word Bible comes. There, we heard simultaneously the call to prayer and church bells….
A week was hardly long enough to get a taste for this fascinating, complicated country. I recommend Lebanon to anyone who appreciates creative, chic shops, excellent food, welcoming, sophisticated locals, nightlife, history-a-plenty, and glorious nature.
For our return visit, Lara suggests: Sursock Museum, Mim Mineral Museum, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut Art Center. And the magnificent Roman temples in Baalbek.
ps- for those who crave more of Lebanon, follow @livelovebeirut on Instagram.