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Personal Journey: Lebanon — Go for the history, stay for the food

Beirut is once again a vacation-worthy, multicultural city with a thriving restaurant scene.

If you're one of the many Americans who cannot place Lebanon on a map, or who thinks of it only as a forlorn and wartorn mountainous country at the east end of the Mediterranean Sea,  I have news for you: It's well worth visiting for what you can see and feast on.

I found Lebanon lively, safe, warm, inviting, and offering great experiences on my most recent trip. A tough judge, my 15-year-old son, Franz, who accompanied me there for his first visit last year, seconded my view.

I was a bit apprehensive about how an active American adolescent would react to two weeks in a country where I spent part of my childhood and to which I have returned  many times. My concerns quickly evaporated as we spent our first few days just walking around  downtown Beirut, which has almost fully recovered from the devastation of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. The city is now filled with fancy outdoor restaurants and cafes in pedestrian zones right next to Phoenician, Roman, and Greek archeological sites.

Walking in the city, one is struck by mosques and churches side by side, a testament to Lebanon's tradition of tolerance.  Also striking is how Ottoman and French Colonial buildings have been renovated.

Close by Beirut are beguiling historic sites. We found it easy to visit the Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Crusades-era ruins in Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre, and to swim in the Mediterranean. We also visited Baalbeck, which has larger and better-preserved Roman ruins than anywhere else in the world.  Perhaps Lebanon's most famous attraction is its cedar trees, represented on its flag, and magnificent in nature. Driving almost 2,000  meters up winding mountainous roads to see these majestic trees was well worth the journey.

What most captivated my teenage son? He found the snow-topped mountains exciting, the archeological sites fascinating, and the people warm and engaging, but he became passionate about Lebanese food. Travel and Leisure magazine agrees; in  summer  2016, it  named Beirut the "best international city for food."

The food scene is diverse and eclectic. Kamal Mouzawak is a social innovator who in 2004 started Souk el Tayeb, Lebanon's first farmers' market. His goal was to preserve local regional delicacies, help small farmers,  and bring Lebanon's 18 various religious sects together over food. He has since expanded to include an award-winning restaurant, Tawlet, ranked by Monocle magazine as the eighth-best restaurant in the world. The menu created by a weekly changing group of mostly female chefs is mouth-watering and delectable.  The lunch buffet, which features regional dishes, was extensive and  typical of home-cooked meals. Besides the usual appetizers of tabbouleh,   hummus,  and baba ganoush, my son loved the mulukhiyah — a stew of leafy greens. I loved the kafta bel laban — lamb patties in  yogurt sauce.

Lebanese appreciate fresh, good food and on weekends spend hours in the countryside at riverside restaurants. We went to Chalalat al Zarka a restaurant on the Damour River about 45 minutes south of Beirut, near the Druze village of Baakline. These restaurants are famous for expansive "mezzes" featuring dozens of small dishes and are known for kibbe nayeh  — or Lebanese steak tartar — consisting of raw lamb or beef pureed with bulgur wheat, onions, and spices. The mezze was so plentiful we could not even eat the main course of various grilled meats.  Families at these riverside restaurants spend hours smoking hookahs and drinking copious amounts of  Lebanon's national drink, arak, an anise-based liquor similar to ouzo or pastis.

Needless to say, our trip nourished our appetites, satisfied our historical and archeological curiosities, and, most surprisingly, with all the hiking in the mountains and swimming in the sea, did not expand our waistlines.

Marwan Kreidie of  Philadelphia is executive director of the Philadelphia Arab-American Development Corp. and teaches politics at West Chester University.