By Bushra Alvi
When my husband was invited to attend a weekend symposium in Beirut, there was no way I was going to stay behind. For too long Beirut had been on my list of must-visit places and, while the trip would be short, I decided to tag along. The Emirates flight we took was full and cramped - especially for my six foot tall husband - but the prospect of going to Beirut was so appealing that every discomfort was worth it.
I shared my list of sites to see in Beirut with my husband as we enjoyed the Moujadara salad, chicken machbous and Moroccan style lamb tangine served by the airline. I only prayed the weather would clear since we learned before boarding our flight that it was raining non-stop in Beirut.
One look at the people in the airport and you know you are in Beirut, the fashion capital of the Arab world. The Beirutis’ sense of chic is evident in the way they dress and carry themselves. Stylish from head to toe, Beirutis are very conscious of their appearance and are always fashionably dressed, be it at the airport, a hotel, or a shopping center.
Beirut’s Rafic Hariri Airport, though not flashy like Dubai’s International Airport, was efficient and we were soon out of the terminal and on the fifteen kilometer drive to the hotel along with other delegates attending the symposium. We were awed by the scenery around us as we drove through the city along the sea towards the edge of Beirut. Beirut is such a charming city, so picturesque, so natural, such a delight!
It was raining constantly during our trip, from the moment we arrived until the moment we left. Rather than be a damper on our spirits, the rain added a magical quality to everything. Briefly, the sun peeked out once for about half an hour or so, and the city sparkled like a jewel.
Our hotel, Le Royal, a five star luxury hotel, was situated on Leisure Hill Complex, Dbayeh, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The shaded waters of the sea blended with color as if a careless child had spilled bottles upon bottles of turquoise, emerald, jade, and all other shades of blue-green poster colors across them. When the sun shone, it looked like thousands of diamonds had been sprinkled by a generous hand and their wicked sparkling was taunting as the mighty sun chose to hide yet again behind those menacing clouds!
The first night we were taken for dinner to Restaurant Mounir in Broummana, an absolutely enchanting place in the middle of a forest of pine and oak, a private vineyard, gardens, and waterfalls. Our seats gave us a spellbinding view of the city and its twinkling lights far below us. The elaborate Lebanese cuisine served was as magnificent as the view and we certainly couldn't decide which treasure was better and deserved more of our attention! We couldn’t help but linger longer than necessary, absolutely captivated with the surroundings (and of course, the food).
The next morning we set off for Jeita Grotto, the amazing caverns of stalactites and stalagmites in the limestone caves of the Mount Lebanon range near the Nahr El Kalb (Dog River), merely five kilometers north of our hotel. A short ropeway trip transported us to the entrance of the caves. Photography being prohibited, we deposited our cameras in lockers provided at the entrance. Here, hundreds of years of action of limestone in water have resulted in fascinating structures with architecture akin to an enormous cathedral sculpted by the hands of nature. The walls were amazing with their unusual, curtain-like formations, some tinged in hues of light pink. It was eerie even as it was mesmerizing and gripping - indeed a magical wonderland! These caves truly deserve a place in the New Seven Wonders of the World.
While some of our group members walked the distance between upper and lower caves, others enjoyed a joy ride aboard the colorful red and green toy train. The lower cave was cool at sixteen degrees Celsius while the upper one was warm at twenty-two degrees. We spent some time simply walking around and taking in the natural beauty of the place, feasting our eyes on rock formations, soothing our senses with the greenery around us, and inhaling the intoxicating scent of pines. Climbing high on a ledge, I broke a small branch off a pine tree along with a few unripe pinecones to take back as a ‘natural’ souvenir. After living in Dubai, trees seem to hold a special appeal, starved as we are here of vegetation.
For lunch we were taken to a seafood restaurant, Dar L'Azrak, on Old Roman Way, Byblos. This restaurant literally tips off a cliff and affords stunning views. We enjoyed another sumptuous Lebanese fare accompanied by the thrashing of the Mediterranean Sea just outside our window. The natural beauty all around is just so absorbing, every piece of rock so incredible!
Late afternoon and evening was taken up by the symposium that my husband had been invited to attend. A gala dinner followed in Diwan Shahryar, the oriental restaurant of the hotel, which again featured an elaborate spread of Lebanese food with mezza and grilled specialties. There was a live band and popular Arabic songs by Jihad Mahfouz, whose lively rendition had the audience clapping and singing alongside. Plenty of dancing followed while the fragrance of 'shisha' pervaded the restaurant. The Lebanese sure have a zest for life and know how to live it up.
The highlight of the evening was a beautiful belly dancer who enthralled the audience with her gyrations and nimble footsteps as she danced her way from table to table enticing men to join her on the floor. I asked my husband if I should beckon her to take him to the dance floor too, but he felt shy. Had I not been with him he may have been adventurous and taken a shot at it! (One thing I must say about Lebanese women though, they ooze oodles and oodles of ooomph!)
Next morning we went up to Faraya. There was a thick blanket of snow all around and, with snow laden trees, it looked like a scene straight from a Christmas card. When we reached our destination, it started snowing afresh. My husband and I were as excited as kids since we had never seen snowfall before, though the snow became a bit annoying later as it picked up speed and lashed across our faces, forcing us to close our eyes. Visibility was poor and snow scootering, though thrilling, had an element of danger as we battled with the falling snow. At places the route was very narrow and I literally had my heart in my mouth and a prayer on my lips - I was quite relieved when we were back on the bus.
The village of Faraya is synonymous with skiing in Lebanon. The actual slopes are in nearby Ouyoun Al-Siman in the Kfardebian area of Mount Lebanon. During the winter months from December to April, Faraya is most sought after by skiers from the Gulf and elsewhere who flock here in droves. Skiing is offered on pistes with varying levels of difficulty. It is easy to see why Lebanon has been nicknamed the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”
Another elaborate spread was organized for us at the Intercontinental Mzaar Lebanon Mountain Resort and Spa at Mzaar Kfardebian, Faraya Village. By then we had had an overdose of Lebanese food and did not quite do the meal justice. However, I did manage to tuck in a fairly generous helping of sheesh taouk and tabbouleh and ended my meal with baked baklawa cheesecake served with vanilla custard sauce and chopped pistachios.
There was no time for any more sightseeing as we had a flight to catch later that evening. I truly regretted not being able to see my father's college –American University of Beirut - about which I had heard so much. Well, that will give me an incentive to visit Beirut again since there is so much more to explore in this charming city.
All said and done, for a very short weekend trip, it was certainly worth it!
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