Beyond the hills and down by the sea lies an ancient city that still holds the very fire of the Phoenician Phoenix within the walls of its citadel. One glance at the old paths, archways and tinted windows is enough to get my mind ringing with old melodies and my vision feasting on impeccably preserved sites.
The old city of Byblos or Jbeil (locally pronounced ʒbejl) falls roughly 40 kilometers north of Beirut, midway between it and Tripoli, in the north. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city with debris and ruins dating back to the Neolithic age. It overlooks the Mediterranean Sea with an ancient seaport that still stands the test of time. Other sights of great interest are: the ancient Phoenician temples, the Byblos Castle, the Medieval city wall, the Byblos Wax Museum, St. John the Baptist Church and a fossil museum.
Driving to Byblos is more of ritual for me: a personal experience that I crave every once in a while; it is a journey from my own hometown Bikfaya (around 940m above sea level) to an ancient realm that soothes my ache for authenticity as well as my curiosity for all things Phoenician.
Once you reach Byblos’ outskirts, you are welcomed by a large park that sits right between the entrance and the exit, opposite the old quarters and souks where you can roam, read and your let children play (given you have any) among the ancient Greek-Roman columns. You can access Byblos’ old souks from any of the numerous entrances that you can spot along the sidewalk, where you will find shops selling a vast selection of items: clothes, shoes, gadgets, toys, local olive-oil-based soap, sunglasses and artisanal jewelry. These are hung and displayed all over the ancient walls and under the archways (the traditional Lebanese way).
The main attraction there is the flourishing nightlife: odd, I know, given its history as the first Phoenician city and the birthplace of the Phoenician alphabet, not to mention its importance as a well-preserved historical site. Local pubs and restaurants retain a certain charm and appeal, which have kept locals and foreigners coming back to sip drinks in the faint lantern-light watching. My story with Jbeil started a few years ago when I discovered a few restaurants that added a twist to the already fresh and healthy Lebanese food. One is the renowned Locanda a la Granda with its strawberry-flavored Labneh (or Lebanese sour cream … you really have to taste that!), Fattoush and nargile that looks more like a sci-fi gadget than an actual hubble-bubble. Feniqia is another location that I have fallen for over the years, thanks to its original dishes and not to mention the welcoming staff and warm ambiance.
Numerous native and international chains have opened in the old souks and along the entrance, adding to the city’s commercial appeal. Such are Mon Maki a Moi or Kami Sushi, for sushi lovers, Kanater Annaya for Lebanese food lovers, Roadster (the 220 burger there is a must-taste!), Dip n Dip for chocolate lovers and so on.
In addition to that, this summer is packed with festivals with world-renowned artists such as John Legend, The Script, Gregory Porter, Mireille Mathieu, Lebanon’s own international starlet Hiba Tawaji (from The Voice France) and many more. The stage has especially been built on the beach with the waves rolling a couple of meters beneath the seats, in the picturesque location opposite the citadel and the surrounding hills.
Summer is coming and Jbeil will morph into the beautiful muse it is under its blue skies. I will surely not miss out on my favorite artists performing there, neither will I be able to resist heading for those old quarters, seeking inspiration along empty tranquil pathways and tiny cabellas, or among the crowd.