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Trip Tips: See and live history in Lebanon

Source: Reuters - Thu, 21 Aug 2014 23:00 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Lebanon bears scars of civil war, has great beauty as well

* Hezbollah souvenirs among the offerings, beware ordnance

* French-style beauty, "do-do" shots and pizza for breakfast

By Oliver Holmes

BEIRUT, Aug 22 (Reuters) - Some travellers want to see history, others want to live it. In Lebanon, a slice of land between the Mediterranean and war-ravaged Syria, you can do a lot of both.

At the Roman ruins of Baalbek, some of the best preserved in the world, you can walk past the 70-foot (21-metre) high pillars alone - there have been no big crowds since the 2006 conflict with Israel.

Afterwards you can buy souvenirs - a bright yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the flag of Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group fighting in Syria, is always a popular choice.

Political turmoil has plagued the country since the start of the 15-year civil war in 1975, meaning that Lebanon's cedar wood forests, ski slopes, seaside nightclubs and world famous cuisine are often overlooked.

Here are tips on getting the most out of a trip from Reuters, whose 2,600 journalists in all parts of the world offer visitors the best local insights.

SUNSETS AND SUPER YACHTS

In Beirut, the civil-war-era gunmen who used to patrol the seaside corniche are long gone, replaced by hairy-chested men playing bat and ball or women in full makeup jogging down the strip, some dragging their chihuahuas.

Saint-George Yacht Club & Marina, on one side of the corniche and in the heart of Beirut, opened in the 1930s.

Little remains of the main building after a bomb in 2005 ripped out its interior and killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But the Lebanese are resilient and the club has stayed open. (http://stgeorges-yachtclub.com)

Guests relax at the large outdoor pool, ogling motor-yachts in the marina as they sip Lebanon's light al Maza beer.

After the pool, a walk half way down the 5-km (3-mile) corniche leads to cafes serving mint lemonade and pita bread dipped in aubergine mutabal. Men fish on the rocks as the pink sun sinks over the sea. If you're lucky, green turtles can be spotted.

At night, heading to east Beirut takes you across the Green Line, a civil-war era front line that acquired its name from the foliage that grew there, separating mainly Muslim militia in west Beirut from Christian fighters in the east.

Now, it's demarcated by Beirut's luxurious Le Grey hotel (www.legrey-hotel.com) and a Virgin Megastore, shiny symbols of the city's rapid development in recent years.

In Gemmezye, a district in east Beirut, there's a mile-long stretch of bars, restaurants and nightclubs that stay open no matter what happens in the country.

It's here that Beirut has managed to preserve some of its French-style beautiful old buildings, although bullets and shrapnel pockmark many.

In any bar, ask for a "do-do" shot: Vodka, lemon juice, Tabasco and a pimento olive. The vodka slaps you in the face but a bite of the olive neutralises the taste.

FEAST ON THIS

For a breakfast on the go, stop by a ubiquitous manuche shop to get a bread wrap with zaatar herbs and cheese. It's essentially a pizza for breakfast, but visitors never complain.

If you're hungry for the full Lebanese spread of mezze dishes, book a table on the roof of Abdel Wahab, a restaurant in the ritzy Ashrafieh district where you're just as likely to hear French as Arabic, a generation after the end of colonial rule.

Order soft artichoke hearts, grilled meats, light parsley-based tabbouleh salad and, of course, hummus.

Beirut's most overlooked food option is Armenian, cooked by members of the approximately 100,000-strong Armenian-Lebanese community whose ancestors fled attacks by Ottoman soldiers in 1915.

Opulence can be found at Mayrig (www.mayrigbeirut.com) in Gemmezye, but for the best taste of Lebanese-Armenian cuisine head to Bourj Hammoud, a rundown but buzzing neighbourhood in east Beirut full of kitsch shops.

What Cafe Ono lacks in location and upkeep - it's under a highway and during one visit by this reporter part of the roof collapsed - it makes up in home-cooked food.

The spicy walnut Muhammara dip and kebab cooked in cherry sauce are must-haves. The whole sparrows baked in pomegranate jus and fried lambs brains are not obligatory but they are equally delicious.

SWIMMING WITH JONAH

Beirut's sticky summer heat can be easily escaped by heading to the beaches to the south. Lazy-B has pools and bars (www.lazyb.me) but its well tended grounds are reflected in the hefty entrance fee. It's located in the seaside town of Jiyeh, where the prophet Jonah was said to have landed when he was spat out of a whale.

Drive west from Jiyeh and you'll enter the Chouf mountains where you can hike through forests of cedar trees - Lebanon's national symbol. Don't stray off the tracks though: unexploded ordnance has been spotted.

Further south, towards the frontier with Israel, Sour public beach is worth the extra drive. It's more authentic than Lazy-B and the long sandy shores are great for walks.

A drive inland takes you to the surreal mountaintop Hezbollah museum, a slick and bizarre display of guerrilla tactics and weaponry by the movement, designated "terrorist" by the United States.

But enough of Lebanon's intrigue, is it safe?

There have been a number of bomb attacks in the capital this year and occasional street fights with militants. The chance of bring hurt in one of these incidents is statistically small.

But, at the end of the day, the decision has to come down to your own calculations of personal risk. (Editing by Michael Roddy and Andrew Heavens)

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