It was a long time ago when I last left the country, for obvious C-word reasons. Two years ago in fact: September 2019, when I finally visited Lebanon, somewhere that had been on my list for many years.
It was to write an article for British Airways High Life magazine and, later, Fodor’s travel guide, on the lesser-known destination of Baalbek and the ruined Phoenician city of Heliopolis. The article focused on an amazing old hotel close to the ancient city which once attracted the likes of Einstein, Cocteau and Franz Ferdinand (Archduke), until a calamitous series of tragedies struck Lebanon in the form of war, bad government and, most recently, Covid, which dwindled the hotel's guest numbers to almost zero.
It was one of my most memorable travel experiences simply because the epic UNESCO site of ruined Roman temples is on par with classical counterpart sites in Rome or Athens, but with a fraction of visitor numbers due to Baalbek's proximity with the Syrian border. Undeservedly so though – I felt safe at all times, and wish that more people will visit this beleaguered city and country as soon as things properly open up again.
My other connection to the country is a longtime Lebanese friend named Nicolas Angelina, who I met almost 20 years ago when I started out reviewing restaurants for In London magazine, and he was handling the publicity for Noura restaurant on Piccadilly’s Jermyn Street which I was fortunate enough to be assigned to cover.
Not only was the Lebanese cuisine and atmosphere there memorable but I hit it off with this affable character who showed me around and we remained in touch ever since as I later started writing food and wine articles for luxury titles and it turned out Nico was heavily involved in the underrated Lebanese wine industry, and still is to this day. His wine brands partnered with and sponsored some seriously high-end events at the Ritz Hotel and Sir Ian McKellen’s patronage at Park Theatre in Finsbury, where I was lucky enough to meet the man myself for my unashamed favourite celeb selfie ever.
Back to the present day, Nico has kept me au fait on how Lebanon’s wine industry is now making great waves on the international scene, with four of the country’s vineyards making the recently announced World's 50 Best Vineyards in 2021: Châteaus Oumsiyat, Cana and Héritage, and Karam Wines winning best in the whole of Asia.
This is seriously impressive stuff from a nation to have risen above so much of the calamities it has faced in recent years, not least its current unprecedented financial crisis. It’s a wider story I hope to be covering as soon as I can get back out of the country, and it will be extremely fitting if Lebanon becomes the first overseas nation I visit two years on from it being my last.
*Nico was also heavily involved with the Lebanon Pavilion at Olympia’s Specialty & Fine Food Fair earlier this month, promoting the country’s gastronomy to a wider audience, which I was disappointed to miss. If anyone should be shortlisted for the next national ambassador for Lebanon it’s surely this man.
Flickr gallery of my visit to Baalbek, Lebanon.
My full article on Baalbek for Fodor's www.fodors.com/news/hotels/royalty-artists-and-intelligentsia-stayed-in-this-hotel-overlooking-forgotten-roman-ruins-after-150-years-its-in-danger-of-closing