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Lebanon – a different side

Former D 49 sports writer for the NFH is in Lebanon. This article is the first of a two-part travel series by Ashley. She brings those of us who haven’t been there a vision of a beautiful and inviting Lebanon.Many Americans and Europeans picture the Middle East as a desolate, rugged terrain plagued by famine, disease and a lack of morality. They often presume that terrorists and criminals are lurking behind every corner, waiting to unleash nuclear war on the western world.Their presumptions are mostly justified by the media coverage on the war in Iraq and the political turmoil plaguing Lebanon, Israel, Syria and other neighboring countries.However, I am going to spotlight the forgotten beauty and charming uniqueness that has been tarnished by decades of war and hate in Lebanon.I have been blessed with the opportunity to visit the country of Lebanon, a place I call home during the months of June and July. The Lebanon I know is a place with remarkable history, tourism, culture, food, night life and most importantly, heartwarming people.Lebanon is a tiny country – 4,000 square miles – located north of Israel and east of Syria. Three chains of heavily wooded mountains, scattered with ancient ruins and historical landmarks, overlook the Mediterranean Sea.Beirut is the capital city. My family lives in Zouk Mikael, just north of Beirut in the Keserwan District of Mount Lebanon. The town is famous for its pedestrian markets, sidewalk cafÈs and arcades. The main languages in Lebanon are Lebanese (spoken), Arabic (written), French, English and Armenian.Lebanon has been called the “Paris” and “Switzerland” of the Middle East, all for a good reason. It is one of the oldest places in the world, where the Christians believe Jesus turned water into wine, where the Phoenician people created the alphabet, where ancient civilizations built their homes.It is one of the few countries where mountains and ocean within miles of each other.The climate is tropical in the summer, which explains the vibrant plant life, striking flowers and palm trees.Lebanon is a beautifully exotic and generally warm place, where sunny beaches, stunning landscapes and Arabian sunsets meet buzzing cities that are filled with museums, art galleries, antique shops, high-fashion stores, outstanding restaurants and famous spas and salons.ReligionReligion is integrated into government and everyday life. Twenty percent of the country is Christian and the rest of the people practice Islam. Religious beliefs and tradition is the foundation for the way of life in the Middle East, which is both a blessing and a curse.Cathedrals, mosques and religious statues are as common in Lebanon as a 7-11 is in Colorado. I haven’t seen one car that doesn’t have a rosary hung from the rear view mirror. Our Lady of Lebanon, a statue of the Virgin Mary, in Harissa and a statue of Jesus in Zouk Mousbeh, much like the one found in Brazil, are two of the main tourist spots. My favorite cathedral is St. Paul’s Basilica in Harissa, next to the statue of Our Lady of Lebanon. Both sights overlook the breathtaking bay of Jounieh.St. Paul’s Basilica is 60 years old and is a cross between a Lebanese cedar and a Phoenician ship. It’s huge, comfortable seating up to 3,500 people. Next to it is the lady of Lourdes church, which was previously referred to as a crypt. It is now a place for confession and spiritual direction. Also on the grounds is a small forgiveness chapel, inaugurated in 1997. Its architecture is quite lovely. The chapel, much like the other churches, has lovely architecture.TourismThe beaches here are perfect for a day in the sun – one of my favorite spots to relax. There are many beaches and resorts, from Oceana, La Voile Bleue, Palapas, Green Beach, Blue Beach, The Manar and Edde Sands. The hot climate and warm waters are perfect for fishing, jet skiing, diving or just lounging in the pool area of the resort.I have visited the coastal city of Byblos, one of the oldest cities and ports in the world and one of the most popular tourist areas in northern Lebanon. The town hosts historic churches, great restaurants, large pedestrian shops and boasts a vibrant night life. I enjoy Byblos because of its historical significance the greatly preserved stone buildings and churches. It’s like traveling back in time and witnessing the magnificence of ancient Lebanon.The shops are filled with antiques, art, trinkets and souvenirs, and the kind shopkeepers are more interesting than the goods they sell. The town is a historical wonder and a one-of-a-kind experience.Jieta grotto is a chain of caverns and geological wonders known to man since Paleolithic times. The rushing river of Nahr El-Kalb (dog river) has created cathedral-like vaults beneath Mount Lebanon. The caverns have two levels. The lower galleries, discovered in 1836 can be visited by boat. The upper galleries, opened in January 1969, can be seen on foot. During the summer, you can visit both the upper and lower galleries. The lower section is often closed in the winter when the water level is high, but the extensive upper galleries are open all year. The tour takes a little over two hours because of the vast size of the caves. Explorers revealed the great underground system of the galleries, and today they know the dept is approaching 9 kilometers. The upper galleries require a climb to 650 meters above the entrance of the underground river. Altogether, only 2,130 meters of this gallery have been explored.There are dozens of other tourist spots in Lebanon, most of which I will be covering in next month’s column. I will bring you visions of Baalbek, also known as the “city of the sun,” a big ancient city of Roman ruins; Qana, the city where Christians believe Jesus turned water into wine; and the Beqaa valley.My trip has been amazing so far, and there is much more to come.

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