Fun, frightening, fascinating. Lebanon is all of these things, usually at the same moment. In the midst of your shower in your luxurious Beirut hotel room, the lights go out and suddenly you are bathing in utter darkness. Power outages are a twice-a-day occurrence in the city, and the first time it happens it's a bit of a shock. But then you get used to it, as all Lebanese must do. You just wait for the generator to kick in, or grope your way to the nearest source of light.
Take a drive into the gorgeous Chouf Mountains and you might think you are in California — until you hit a military checkpoint. Leave this green domain of the Druze and drive to Sunni territory on the southern coast: another checkpoint. Head north into Christian lands and you are stopped again.
Your car slows down, a soldier bearing a machine gun leans in to examine your face, gives a nod and away you go — maybe to a chic seafood restaurant in the seaside town of Byblos, or perhaps to a winery in the Bekaa Valley.
In the middle of these unofficial territories is downtown Beirut, an area that stuns with its gorgeously rehabbed buildings and high-end designer stores, which are often just one block away from a bullet-riddled ruin.
Walk another block and you stumble upon an overgrown plot of land littered with Roman ruins.
The Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and French have all conquered Lebanon at some point in history. And no wonder: the place, if you can forget the long civil war (1975-1990), the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, the 2006 war with Israel and continuing regional and national tensions, is still paradise. Mount Lebanon looms majestically over Beirut, the coastal waters are the most beguiling shade of blue, the weather is great even in winter and olives, pomegranates, grapes and dates grow abundantly.
The food in Lebanon is also fantastic; it is a country worth visiting just to eat. And the Lebanese way of dining — with family or friends over mezzes (small plates) and lively conversation — is relaxed and convivial.
Everything I ate and drank during my stay was excellent. I am still dreaming of the traditional Lebanese breakfasts of warm pita with sesame and z'aatar (thyme); outrageously creamy labneh, a sort of yogurt-cream cheese hybrid; fresh-squeezed juices; and local honey. I am also dreaming of a savory Armenian dish made with lamb and cherries and of the many (too many!) desserts that I consumed. My favorite was one made by a friend — an ice cream parfait of rosewater ice cream topped with puffs of Lebanese cotton candy, pistachios and a drizzle of honey.
I support Anthony Bourdain's theory that people in the Middle East consume sweets in place of alcohol. The dessert buffet at one restaurant (at the gorgeous Mir Amin Palace Hotel) was so vast and enticing, I felt as though as I were 10 years old again. And, like a 10-year-old, I had to sample as many as I could. Although I did eventually have to give up for fear of a blood-sugar meltdown, I never tired of the various combinations of pistachios, almonds, rose, orange blossom and honey. For those who do drink, the wines of Lebanon are a pleasant surprise. I stuck to the whites of the Bekaa Valley and never had a glass that was not delicious.
Like Lebanon's gastronomy, the country's architecture continues to inspire long after one returns home. A trip to the Beiteddine Palace overlooking the Chouf Range wore out the battery in my camera, although as we approached the palace, which was built in the early 19th-century by Emir Bechir El Chehabi II, I thought that I might not need it at all. The complex's exterior is rather severe and, as there were few other visitors, it had a slightly desolate air about it.
But then we went inside. Who knew that such beauty hid behind the plain walls? Marble mosaics, wood carved into swirling calligraphy, gold-leafed arches — it's all there, the Middle Eastern palace of everyone's fantasies, and yet the place receives few visitors.
After leaving Beiteddine and winding our way down the Chouf (passing an impromptu demonstration by Lebanon's Kurdish community — and another military checkpoint), we spent some time wandering around the restored souk (market) of Saïda. Nothing about the side streets leading to the hidden souk even hints at the architectural glory inside. The souk is a labyrinth of sand-blasted stone and vaulted arches and home to mosques, a lovely soap museum, a hidden Greek Orthodox chapel and many shops selling everything from handmade soap to pastries to home furnishings.
All of us, even my local friends, loaded up on terrific-smelling soaps, and I bought a decorative platter that I am still smitten over:
Back in Beirut, we indulged in yet another decadent meal at Indigo at the hotel Le Gray, which has a jaw-dropping view of the city and Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque. Another outstanding — and panoramic — view is found from the rooftop of the Four Seasons, where the city's elite party in warm weather.
Such posh surroundings almost make one forget the country's precarious political situation — almost. You still have to pass though a security check to get into Le Gray, which is just across from Martyrs Square, and on my way to the airport the driver sped strategically through Hezbollah territory. Yet as we whizzed past a billboard promoting the leadership of Hassan Nasrallah, I found myself thinking mostly of sunny skies and rosewater ice cream.
Fun, frightening, fascinating: Lebanon is one crazy mosaic.