Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easter in Lebanon

CORRECTION (April 27): The war damage depicted in some of these photos is actually from the Civil War that ran from 1975-1982. Any damage caused by the Hezbollah conflict has been repaired since then by Hezbollah. Sorry for any confusion and thank you Libby for helping me get my facts straight!

Living in a Muslim country, I was surprised to find chocolate eggs and Easter baskets in Abu Dhabi (no peeps, thank goodness), but even so, Easter Sunday isn't considered a public holiday and since the work week is Sunday - Thursday, Easter was just another work day here. Luckily, we were invited to spend the weekend in Lebanon with our friends Eli (Lebanese) and his wife, Libby (American) so Brian took a couple of days of vacation and we headed to Beirut. Lebanon has an almost equal split between Christian and Muslim so at least half of the population was celebrating Easter! :)

It was interesting to travel to Beirut after all we've heard from the American media. I took a peek at Trip Advisor, which is a travel review website I use frequently to see reviews on restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions and saw a travel advisory warning from the US State Department. We went anyway as we've started to observe that the US State Department is incredibly cautious and we would be with local residents who've lived in Lebanon for over 15 years and managed through their war in 2006. As expected, we didn't have any problems whatsoever, but did see a number of military personnel on the streets and at a few road check points as we travelled. I'm not sure I'd go camping in the remote mountains of Lebanon, but I felt perfectly safe in Beirut and at the major tourist attractions.

Lebanon is a relatively small country in Western Asia on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It is bordered by Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south. And it is beautiful! Lots of mountains and right on the Mediterranean. This shot is the view from our hotel and it's not like we were staying in some posh 5 start resort either - it's just the kind of view you can easily find in Lebanon.

The people of Lebanon are very business savvy, generous, friendly, loud, full of life and fun, and some of the best dressed folks in this part of the world. Fashion, hair and makeup are a high priority (so as you can imagine, I felt frumpy and under dressed the entire trip! ;) Guests are treated like royalty here and as our friend Eli put it, "when we have a guest, we don't want them to touch their wallet while they are here." Let's just say we felt very welcomed and very pampered our whole trip.

We arrived on Friday afternoon and Eli and Libby met us at the airport and took us on a tour of Beirut. As I mentioned, the population is almost equally divided between Christian and Muslim so you see the clear influences of both. Mosques and churches sit side by side in some areas of Beirut and in fact, at the evening call to prayer, we heard the Muezzin from the Mosque and the bells from the Catholic church next door at the same time.  LOL! Trying to outdo each other for sure. Beirut, and in fact, all of Lebanon is also very open, so we saw liquor stores and billboards, lingerie shops and all matters of dress (at least in the Christian areas of the city). It was quite a change from what we've gotten used to in Abu Dhabi. This is one of my favorite billboards - who knew Playboy also sold an energy drink? :) And yes, that's snow! This was taken in the ski resort area near the Cedars, which I'll post more about over the next few days.
The other thing to notice about Beirut is war damage. Growing up in Wisconsin we couldn't begin to appreciate the destruction of the 2006 Lebanon War between Hezbollah and Israel. Much of Beirut was destroyed and has been repaired and built back up since then. Here are a few pics of some of the buildings that haven't yet been repaired.

Much of Beirut has been repaired, however, so many areas are really nice with high end shopping, lots of cafes and restaurants, hotels, ... Lebanon's biggest industry is tourism, and it's easy to see why when you consider the moderate climate, the mountains and the Mediterranean. As one gentleman told me, "you can be skiing in the morning and an hour later be swimming in the sea." Here are some photos from one of the nicest areas in Beirut and a popular tourist area. (Notice the military officer in the 3rd pic.)
Another beautiful part of the city are the huge old Victorian houses you see tucked between old war torn buildings or glittering new high rises. Here's one of the beauties we stopped to admire. It reminds me a bit of the old Victorians in the US, but these tend to be narrower and higher. Really lovely houses.
After our tour, we checked into our hotel and then had a late dinner of cheeses, cold cuts and wonderful Lebanese wine at Eli & Libby's. We sat out on their balcony with that gorgeous view of the city and the Mediterranean and actually got a little cool. Lebanon has a moderate climate with four seasons so it's spring now and starting to get warmer during the day, but still cool at night (I had to borrow a coat!) I didn't even bring a coat to UAE because I knew I'd never need it - guess I should have planned ahead for when we travel. :) Before heading off to bed, we made plans to meet up the next morning at 9am to start our tour of Northern Lebanon.

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