Want A Memorable OE? - Try Lebanon

Published: Wed 2 Nov 2005 05:07 PM
Want A Memorable OE? - Try Lebanon
By Chris Ritchie
"Why take the children to Lebanon?" I was asked before our recent family holiday in the miniature-sized republic which only ever seems to get news coverage when there is some turn for the worse in Middle Eastern politics.
For those planning an Overseas Experience to Europe or to Africa, I’ll give you five reasons to consider Lebanon as your next stop-over.
Reason 1: The Location
Lebanon is a hop, skip and jump away from both the European Union and Africa, with Union member Cyprus just half an hour’s flight away to the north-west and Cairo in Egypt, at the top of Africa, not that much further away by air to the south. Distances from New Zealand to either Europe or Africa are so far and so expensive. It makes sense for those with a bit of spare time to use the opportunity afforded to being in that part of the world to stop-over somewhere with special attractions, which Lebanon offers in abundance.
Reason 2: Can Be Done On Low Budget
The country has two distinct economies, one suited to the low-budget traveller but which is available to all searching it out and the other a high-priced alternative parallel universe of first class accommodation, eating and entertainment which is aimed at diverting oil-rich Arab tourists to Lebanon and away from Europe and America. Touring ancient ruins from Greek and Roman times in Lebanon might be considerably cheaper than in some of the European Union states that have similarly-dated attractions.
Reason 3: Making History Interesting
My 12- and 10-year olds didn’t show any adverse reactions to their stay in Lebanon which, in large part, was an ancient history lesson with a cast including Phonecians, Persians, ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and Crusaders.
They were as impressed as their parents with Baalbeck, a morning’s drive out of Beirut into the fertile Bekaa Valley, once known as Heliopolis (City of the Sun) during the time of Alexander the Great and where the remains of the Roman temples of Jupiter, Venus, Bacchus and Mercury grab your attention because it just doesn’t seem credible that such large, intricate and beautiful works of engineering could have been staged so long ago - 2,000 years before DVDs.
If studying history at high school was as boring for you as it was for me, but you want your kids to absorb at least something about their intellectual heritage and how one set of ideas leads to another set over time, Lebanon’s ancient monuments are extraordinarily plentiful, unbelievably accessible and have the special ability to make history visually interesting and appealing.
A single excavation site will typically encompass ruins of strategically located pre-historic dwellings mixed in with early urban structures left to us by the Phoencians perhaps from 4,000 years ago with an over-coat of Persian, early Greek and Roman fortifications and places of worship, perhaps sealed with a Crusader castle.
People affiliated to different branches of the early Christian church, which took different theological paths than in Western Europe, can be found still deliberating, in Arabic, on obscure theological divergences that once obsessed Christians in the West, although not in the last 1,000 years. People affiliated to the Druze and Alawite denominations similarly practice their faith along with fifteen other officially recognized sects in a nation in which none of the religion-ethnic communities is anything other than just another minority among the many.
Reason 4: The Climate
With four very distinct seasons, the most climatically mild and pleasant times for New Zealanders to visit is probably autumn (October and November) and spring (April and May), with air temperatures in the coastal cities comfortably warmer than mid summer in Wellington, but not menacingly hot like at other popular international stop-overs, Singapore, Bangkok or Dubai.
If it is snow-boarding and skiing that you crave in tidy mountain villages, then there are plentiful places to choose from in a line down the Mount Lebanon range running parallel to the country’s Mediterranean coastline, and never more than about 40 kilometres from the Mediterranean shoreline
The skiing season is of course that of the Northern Hemisphere and best in December and January but what makes Lebanon different as a place for a mountain holiday is its ancient monastries and churches which seem to defy gravity as they perch on steep mountain sides that offer stunning views - either back over the Mediterranean if you look west, and over charming villages down deep valleys if you look north, east or south which offer a looking glass into times past, oftentimes ancient.
In the popular ski resort town of Faraya in October, the eating houses were humming very late into the evenings and the food was nothing like the offerings of the kebab shops in Auckland or Christchurch, but instead rich in taste and variety.
Reason 5: The Buzz
The place is humming, full of activity, energy and buzz. With the exception of banks, that have very restricted trading hours which is before lunch during the working week, the rest of Lebanon seems to be open all hours, most days. All the movement, the talking, laughing and car horn tooting is infections - the place is an antidote to any threat of boredom or introversion.
Hiring a rental car, and giving it a whirl around Beirut, is a guaranteed adventure not to be missed, except for those with heart conditions. Even risk-takers, however, are best advised to take out insurance.
A serious drawback for Kiwis, now used to living in smoke-free public places, is the smog emitted from cigarette, cigar and the "hubbly-bubbly" water-pipe contraptions that many people suck smoke into their lungs through. The solution, at restaurants, is to always pick one with outside tables where food can be taken in the fresh air.
Places worth visiting in Lebanon include its capital, Beirut, ancient Roman temples at Sfireh and at Baalbeck, Crusader castles that dot the coastline and strategic hill-tops. Just 85 kilometres north of Beirut, the second largest city of Tripoli is home to a number of beautiful mosques from the Mamluke and Ottoman periods; Well known ski resort towns include The Cedars and Faraya, while at the Nahr El-Kalb (Dog River) inscriptions have been left by passing foreign armies, starting with an Egyptian pharoa, who passed through about a thousand years before Christ.
NOTE: Lebanon is in a politically volatile region, bordered by Syria and Israel. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ has an updated travel advisory section on all countries on its Website:
See also Mr Ritchie's earlier article - Regional Power Shifts Rattle Lebanon
Chris Ritchie is a former AP Dow Jones reporter

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