Guest blogger Heather Cowper spent a week in June driving around Lebanon with a friend to see the sights. Heather has her own wonderful travel blog, Heatheronhertravels.com, but the Bristol, England, native was kind enough to share her thoughts on some of the country's best historical attractions with Travelogged.
If you're a lover of all things historic, old and beautiful, then Lebanon has plenty to offer despite the political troubles the country has experienced in the past. There are relatively few European and US travelers in the country and so when you visit many interesting sites, you'll find them uncrowded compared to similar places closer to Europe.
I visited Lebanon in June 2009, and spent a week with a friend touring the country by car. As Lebanon covers only 10,000 sq. km or 4,000 sq. miles, it's quick to get around and most of the interesting sites are within an hour or two of the capital Beirut. Here are some of the interesting historic sites we visited.
Byblos: Just an hour's drive north up the coast from Beirut, Byblos is a picturesque town with a fishing port and Crusader castle overlooking the Roman and Phoenician remains that were excavated by a French archaeologist in the 1860s. Our guide explained that the area of the archaeological remains was previously covered by old houses, just like the charming souk we had just walked through, and I'm sure the residents weren't too pleased to be moved off to make way for the archaeologists.
You can see a small Roman amphitheater (pictured right) looking out to sea, which was moved from another part of the site to reveal even earlier remains beneath, as well as some enormous stone sarcophagi of the Kings of Byblos. After looking round the castle which is a mixture of ancient stones and patching up done in the last centuries, you can have a pleasant lunch overlooking the port. I'd bypass the fading charms of Pepe's Byblos Fishing Club, which is recommended by most guidebooks, in favor of some of the other restaurants overlooking the port such as Bab El Mina which provide better value.
Sidon: An hour's drive in the opposite direction south along the coast from Beirut will bring you to Sidon, the closest you'll find in Lebanon to a sleepy seaside town with a public beach (although probably not the place for a bikini-clad swim, in this conservative area). There's a small ruined castle (pictured at top) on a short causeway, where you can walk through the gate and climb one of the towers to watch the boats taking visitors out to a small island.
There isn't a huge amount to see in the castle but a wander around the semi-covered lanes of the old souk is very rewarding. This is the place to find an authentic little cafe serving mezze or graze off the fresh pasties and cakes that you'll find on sale in the kiosks and pavement stands (pictured left). There's a soap museum, housed in an old baths or Hammam, which I'd have loved to visit, but sadly was closed on Friday when we were there.
Beiteddine: In the same direction as Sidon, and possibly part of the same day trip, you'll find the Palace of Beiteddine in the Chouf mountains. The palace was built for the 18th century governor, Emir Bashir, and his family and has a fabulous position overlooking the valley. There are a series of three consecutive courtyards and the central one has some beautifully decorated reception rooms and a decorative marble hammam. In order to see them you need to find one of the guides who can unlock the doors in return for a tip at the end of the short tour. The palace is well known of the beautiful Byzantine mosaics (pictured right) on show in one of the large chambers off the third courtyard which were excavated and brought here from the coast near Sidon.
Baalbek: Baalbek in the heart of the Bekaa valley is one of the most outstanding Roman sites in the Middle East, and amazing because we found we practically had the place to ourselves. It was known as Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, and it was a built over the centuries as a symbol of the power and glory of Rome. The Temple of Bacchus is the most intact, giving a good idea of the huge scale of the complex, although there was an even larger Temple of Jupiter, of which only a few of the former hundreds of enormous columns remain. In the ancient access tunnels that run underneath the site, you'll find statues and other artifacts from the site in a small museum.
The Monasteries of the Qadisha Valley: The Qadisha valley is designated as a world heritage site by Unesco and the steeply sided valley has been a haven of refuge over the centuries for the Maronite Christians. The valley makes a beautiful day's hiking with several grottos, tombs and monasteries cut into the rocky cliff sides. We only had time to visit the beautiful Monastery of St. Anthony of Qozhaya (pictured right), which has a guest house where we spent the night. There is a beautiful church cut into the rock face as well as a small museum, printing press and grotto chapel, which has a reputation as the site of miraculous cures.
It's worth mentioning that many of the historic sites such as Baalbek, Beiteddine and Byblos have international music festivals in the summer months of July and August. I'd probably recommend you visit Lebanon when the weather is more temperate in April—June or September—October. But if you are there in the summer, the atmosphere at these festivals in such beautiful settings is unbeatable.
The historic sites of Lebanon are not the only thing worth taking in while you're there — there's also the buzzing nightlife of Beirut, the glitzy beach clubs, the souks, the wonderful mountain hikes in the national parks and the outstanding wines of the Bekaa valley. It's a mosaic of different cultures and religions and an excellent place to start your experience of the Middle East.
To read more about Heather's trips (including her most recent jaunt to Croatia), visit her blog Heatheronhertravels.com.