PSA: Don't read this while hungry. By John Gregory-Smith October 16, 2018
I’ve traveled a lot around the Middle East and North Africa in my career, including to Jordan, Israel, and Morocco, and few countries have a hold on me like Lebanon. I fell in love with it eight years ago while researching my first cookbook, Mighty Spice, and recently, for my fifth, I spent a month driving up the craggy Mediterranean coast from Beirut through its cedar-lined mountains, eating along the way.
More great empires and cultures have left their mark on Lebanon than on any of its neighbors, from the Phoenicians and Romans to the Christians, Ottomans, Armenians, and French. Those influences are layered into the landscape—with ancient temples crumbling near Crusades-era castles, Greek Orthodox churches, and mosques—and, not surprisingly, the food. Nowhere else will you find Arab staples like hummus and freekeh pilaf along-side European pastas and dumplings—even croissants. New influences keep arriving, too: An influx of Syrian refugees in Tripoli has made Aleppo sour cherry kebab a city staple.
Lebanon is smaller than Connecticut, and nothing is more than a two-hour drive from Beirut, its sophisticated capital. But with so many sites to see and so many types of labneh to try, you should really turn day trips outside the city into overnights. Self-driving is pretty easy here—Avis, Hertz, and Alamo all have counters at Beirut’s airport, and the highways and city roads are well maintained. But many street names are only in Arabic, so a good multilingual GPS is a must—or hire a local driver who knows the roads. London-based Wild Frontiers can hook you up.
The spread at Beit Douma including tabbouleh, fatteh kofta, hummus, potato kibbe and eggplant salad
Make Beirut Your Hub
Beirut’s modern seaside glamour comes from its thrumming beach clubs and rooftop bars, while centuries-old souks keep it timeless. I love to stroll this city of narrow alleys revealing bougainvillea-filled courtyards, hidden cafés packed with hipsters speaking Arabic and French till 1 a.m., and grand neighborhoods like Mar Mikhael, where 19th-century mansions crouch by modern high-rises built after Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. (Damage from the 1980s-era conflict is visible around town.)
One of my favorite lunch spots is in Mar Mikhael, where the main road hits the beach: Tawlet, a café where each day one of the staff’s many female chefs prepares a menu from her village. I especially love Georgina Bayeh’s kibbe, a mix of ground lamb and bulgur, from her northwestern hometown near Zgharta. After lunch, wander down to Kalei Coffee Co. to chill in their shaded courtyard with a big slice of chocolate-and-halvah pie, the local sweet made from tahini.
On many evenings, I’d wind up around the Bourj Hammoud neighborhood, in Beirut’s northeast, which has been Armenian since the 1915 genocide drove that community here. At Mayrig, an upscale Armenian restaurant in the central Gemmayze area, I get the hummus with spicy beef soujouk, served piping hot from the pan, then the mante, or lamb dumplings. And the street markets sell spicy pastrami, fruit juices, and pistachio ice cream until late. Stay at the Phoenicia Hotel, with its colonnaded swimming pool; it’s near the Saint-George Yacht Club & Marina, where you can sip a spritz and watch the boats.
Then Head Inland to Baalbek
The country’s most stunning ruin is the Roman Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek, a city in the Beqaa Valley, 55 miles northeast of Beirut. The route there takes you along the Beirut-Damascus International Highway that once connected Beirut to the Syrian capital. Well before the border, though, you’ll turn north into the valley, where vineyards like Domaine des Tourelles turn out decent merlots and syrahs (you can visit most by appointment). The second-century temple was once the centerpiece of a Roman city, and it’s especially beautiful in the late-afternoon light from your balcony at the 144-year-old Palmyra Hotel, a slightly faded grande dame that headquartered British troops during WWII. For dinner, tuck into local dishes like eggplant fatteh, made with fried eggplant, tahini, and fried bread. Baalbek is famous for sfiha, open-faced lamb pastries; the hotel can arrange trips to Zakariya Bakery to see them made fresh.
From There You Can Explore the North
The mountain village of Douma, two hours northwest of Baalbek, has a magnificent Greek Orthodox church; it’s cooler than on the coast and slower than in the cities. I come here for Beit Douma, an eclectic countryside home turned hotel with six rooms and a big kitchen run by chef Jamal. She’s an expert in local dishes, like maakaroun bil toum, pillowy dumplings served in zesty garlic, lemon, and olive oil. Wake up to the scent of freshly cooked manouche, breakfast pizza slathered in za’atar, wafting through your window.
Or Just Drive up the Coast
Fifty miles north of Beirut, Tripoli is Lebanon’s second largest city, with Phoenician roots and spectacular street food. I like to leave Beirut in the morning to hit El Mina, the old port city with a sweeping harbor and stone medina, before lunch. Pick up a tasty lahm bi ajin, made of freshly baked pita topped with seasoned lamb, from Al Bacha Cafe. My favorite shop for local cheeses, including stringy majdouli and salty akkawi, is at the end of that road. Walk the labyrinthine streets to Akra, a cavernous restaurant in the souk that sells all kinds of hummus, including my favorite, with fatteh, covered in a luscious layer of labneh.
You could take the coastal road back down to Beirut. But I recommend swinging inland to the Kadisha Valley and Mar Antonios Kozhaya, a 17th-century Maronite Christian monastery hanging over a valley of fruit trees and a rushing river. It’s only 45 minutes southeast of Tripoli, but feels like nothing you’ve seen anywhere else in the country. Which, in Lebanon, is exactly the point.
source: Condé Nast Traveller