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Lebanon

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Travel Guide Middle East Lebanon

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Introduction

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The 215 kilometres of Mediterranean coastline and the small tract of Biblical land behind it are what the wandering Israelites referred to as "the land of milk and honey". Today we know it as Lebanon, a nation that has been fought, that has fought and that will probably continue to fight. Somewhat trampled over by the stronger forces of Israel and Syria, it has only been over the past decade that Lebanon has managed to procure its head from the grime of warfare and reveal its pretty face to the world.

Travellers (who must understandably remain cautious) are in for a treat. Lebanon appeals to your sense of sight (most notably at the Mount Lebanon ranges in the east), your sense of taste (the best country to enjoy Middle Eastern food, we think) and even your sensuality, with beautiful maidens belly dancing to the sounds of traditional Arabic music. Beirut and Tripoli show-off the modern aspects of Lebanon, but it is the reminders of Lebanon's rich history that are the real drawcards.

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Brief History

Evidence of the earliest known settlements in Lebanon was found in Byblos, which is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and date back to earlier than 5000 BC. Lebanon was the homeland of the Phoenicians, a seafaring people that spread across the Mediterranean. After two centuries of Persian rule, Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great attacked and burned Tyre, the most prominent Phoenician city. Throughout the subsequent centuries leading up to recent times, the country became part of numerous succeeding empires, among them Persian, Armenian, Assyrian, Hellenistic, Roman, Eastern Roman, Arab, Seljuk, Mamluk, Crusader, Ottoman and Syrians.

Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years, until 1918 when the area became a part of the French Mandate of Syria following World War I. On 1 September 1920, France formed the State of Greater Lebanon as one of several ethnic enclaves within Syria. Lebanon was a largely Christian (mainly Maronite) enclave but also included areas containing many Muslims (including Druze). On 1 September 1926, France formed the Lebanese Republic. Lebanon gained independence in 1943, while France was occupied by Germany.

In May 1948, Lebanon supported neighbouring Arab countries against Israel. While some irregular forces crossed the border and carried out minor skirmishes against Israel, it was without the support of the Lebanese government, and Lebanese troops did not officially invade. During the war, some 100,000 Palestinians fled to Lebanon, and Israel did not permit their return at the end of hostilities. Because of the tense sectarian balance that exists in Lebanon, the Palestinians and their descendants are denied citizenship and suffer from institutional discrimination. Palestinians are forbidden to work in 20 professions. Today, more than 400,000 refugees remain in limbo, about half in camps.

In 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon. The Lebanese Civil War lasted fifteen years, devastating the country's economy, and resulting in massive loss of human life and property. It is estimated that 150,000 people were killed and another 200,000 wounded. The war ended in 1990 with the signing of the Taif Agreement and parts of Lebanon were left in ruins. On 14 February 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a car bomb explosion near the Saint George Bay in Beirut. Leaders of the March 14 Alliance, a pro-Western coalition, accused Syria of the attack, because of its extensive military and intelligence presence in Lebanon, and the public rift between Hariri and Damascus over the Syrian-backed constitutional amendment extending President Lahoud's term in office. Others, namely the March 8 Alliance and Syrian officials, claimed that the assassination may have been executed by the Israeli Mossad in an attempt to destabilize the country.

After several conflicts and (short) wars in 2006 and 2007, on the 9th of May 2008, Hezbollah and Amal forces, sparked by a government declaration that Hezbollah's communications network was illegal, seized western Beirut in Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war. Moreover, the violence threatened to escalate into another civil war,and the Lebanese government decried it as an attempted coup. At least 62 people died in the resulting clashes between pro-government and opposition militias. On 21 May 2008, after five days of negotiation under Arab League mediation in Qatar, all major parties signed the Doha Agreement, which ended the fighting.
Things have been relatively quiet and safe enough for travellers since then.

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Geography

Lebanon is a very small country but has some surprising range of different landscapes. Generally speaking, it is a mountainous country, without practically any single stretch of flat land except some coastal strips. The highest mountains rise up to about 3,000 metres, which mean that Lebanon is qualified to do some serious skiing in winter. This is especially true for the mountains in the north, for example at The Cedars. As the name says, this area and a few other places like the Chouf Cedar Reserve further south, are home to a unique sort of the tree, the cedar. The area where this tree grows unfortunately has become smaller and smaller but nowadays some parts where the tree grows are protected. Lebanon shares international borders with Syria and Israel.

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Regions

Lebanon is organised into 6 governorates

  • Beirut Governorate
  • Mount Lebanon Governorate has Baabda as its capital
  • North Governorate has Tripoli as its capital
  • Beqaa Governorate has Zahleh as its capital
  • Nabatiye Governorate has Nabatiye as its capital
  • South Governorate has Sidon as its capital

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Cities

Beirut

It was called the Paris of the east for a long time, until the civil war started in 1975 when 27 Palestinian civilians where killed by an attack on a bus. After the civil war which ended early during the 90's of the last century, Beirut struggled back to become one of the most pleasant places to live in the Middle East, settled along the Mediterranean coastline. More about Beirut

  • Tripoli - relatively unknown city, but unsafe these days
  • Baabda
  • Bsharri (also spelled Becharre, Bcharre or Bsharre)
  • Byblos - city with plenty of remains, castles and museums
  • Jezzine - main summer resort and tourist destination of South Lebanon
  • Jounieh - known for its seaside resorts and nightclubs
  • Nabatiye
  • Sidon - plenty of medieval remains
  • Tyre - has a number of ancient sites, including its Roman Hippodrome which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Zahleh - capital of Bekaa Valley

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Sights and Activities

Baalbek

Baalbek is to Lebanon what Palmyra is to Syria, being one of the most important and impressive ancient sites, dating back to the Roman ages. The site, which is on the Unesco World Heritage List is just a few hours by minibus from Beirut, in the north of the Bekaa Valley and if you really have little time, you can visit it as a daytrip. But this is hardly enough to experience the massive site. You need at least a full day to truly get to know Baalbek, so staying in the modern town with the same name is advisable. Getting there from Bsharri and the Chedars is more expensive and in winter the road is even closed.

Cedar Reserve

Near the town of Bsharri is the Cedar Reserve, one of the few remaing forests with cedars, the national symbol of the country which is also used in the national flag. The town and reserve are easily reached from the coastal city of Tripoli and can be done as a daytrip, although staying in the town itself with beautiful views and a nice relaxing atmosphere is much better. Visiting the reserve in winter is even better when the snowcapped mountains and trees are even more stunning. The Cedar Reserve is located in the ancient Qadisha Valley and are placed on the UNESCO list.

Ancient cities

Lebanon has several of the longest inhabited towns and cities in the world, including Byblos and Sidon. Both can be visited as an easy daytrip from the capital Beirut. Byblos is an ancient phoenician city and on the UNESCO World Heritage list. and is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Sidon is about an hour south of the capital and with its old souq and seaside fortress is equally good to visit.

Wineries

You won't believe it till you try it, but Lebanon has very good wines and the area around Zahlé in the Bekaa Valley is particularly good to visit if you like to do som winery tours. Several of those are just outside the town and can be reached on foot if you don't mind some walking. You will taste several good white and red wines and tours are both in English and French.

Beirut

A visit to Lebanon without visiting the capital is a shame, as the Paris of the East as it used to be called is still a very fine city, albeit not very safe since recently. The new centre, the boulevard and the Green Line with several demolished buildings still to find there are great and the nightlife is suprisingly active as well. Read more in the Beirut article.

Other Sights and Activities

  • Batroun - an old city on the Mediterranean shore, with a city center offering many restaurants, cafes, bars, and nightclubs.
  • Ehden - mountainous town with beautiful scenery and some sights. It's home to Ehden Nature Reserve.
  • Barouk - Famous for its cedar forest.
  • Jeita - Known for its Grotto
  • Kadisha Valley - You can visit the home of the (now deceased) Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran.
  • Beiteddine - Famous for its palace.
  • Deir el Qamar - Traditional village in Chouf district.
  • Baskinta - Village at the foot of Mount Sannine.
  • Qornet El-Sawda - Highest peak in the country.
  • Mzaar Kfardebiane - Known for its skiing slopes.
  • Qaraoun - Known for its lake located in the Beqaa Valley.
  • Kefraya - Known for its vineyards.
  • Brummana - A traditional town often considered a summer resort with pleasant weather, spectacular views of Beirut and a good nightlife.

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Weather

Although being a small country, it has lots of different sorts of weather, mainly due to its geographical situation. The mountains for example have lots of snow in winter and are a pleasant getaway from the heat along the coast and in lower areas in summer. There, temperatures can rise to 40 °C although usually it is a bit less hot. The coastal areas can be surprisingly humid, which make the summer months of June-September not the best time to visit Lebanon. The Bekaa Valley is also hot in summer, but the air contains less moisture so the heat is more bearable. In winter though, the valley enjoys some snow as well and temperatures can drop below zero.

Large areas of Lebanon also have relatively large amounts of rain compared to its neighbouring countries. This is especially true for the coastal areas and the western slopes of the mountains, influenced by rising air coming from the sea. This is the case mainly during the winter months from November until early April.

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Getting There

By Plane

All international flights arrive at the Beirut Hariri International Airport (BEY). There are direct flights to a wide range of cities in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. The main carriers are local Middle Eastern airlines, Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and British Airways. KLM and Air France have direct flights to Amsterdam and Paris respectively. Also, Gulf Air and Emirates have good connections with Lebanon and through connections to Australia.

By Train

Currently, there are no train connections with other countries in the region or beyond.

By Car

Borders with Syria are open to people with their own cars. Have your papers and insurance and all other personal documentation in order. Roads and border crossings are quite good and fairly fast, though you will probably spend an hour so arranging a visa and checking things.
There are four places in Lebanon where you can cross the border with Syria. Masnaa (for Damascus), Abboudiye (for Aleppo), Al-Qaa (Bekaa Valley) and Aarida (Tripoli to Lattakia) which are open all year. Visas can be obtained at these Lebanese/Syrian border crossings.

By Bus

Although Lebanon shares borders with both Israel as Syria, only with the latter country there are good connections by bus or minibus/taxi. The main corridors of entering or leaving Lebanon are Beirut east to Damascus, via Zahle, and Tripoli north to Latakia. Most times, minibuses or shared taxis fill up pretty quickly and travel times in both cases is just 2-3 hours. Other destinations in Syria from Tripoli are Homs, Hama and further on to Aleppo.
You can book buses to Istanbul (36 hours) and Cairo (24 hours) but in Damascus you have to switch buses anyway.

By Boat

There are no regular passenger services, other than cruiseships which bascially go to and from Beirut during the summer season. Destinations are mainly Cyprus and Greece.

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Getting Around

By Plane

As Lebanon is a small country, there are no domestic flights available.

By Train

There are no trains running at the moment in Lebanon.

By Car

You can rent cars at the international airports in Beirut and several bigger cities like Tripoli. You need an international driving permit and green card. But to be honest, renting a car with a Lebanese driver that is used to the chaotic traffic and skills of locals is a much better option. That said, a combination of public transport like buses and taxis and doing some walking is much better and cheaper.

By Bus

Lebanon has an extensive public transport system by bus, minibus and (shared) taxis, covering most of the country, both along the coast as across the mountains to the Bekaa Valley. Between the bigger cities, taking a bus is the best mode of transport, but between smaller towns or routes with less traffic, you might want to go for the microbuses or a taxi. This is especially true for the road across the Lebanon Range from Bsharri to Baalbek. Taxis are shared and are fast and relatively comfortable.

By Boat

Although having a long coastline, at the moment there are no options for leaving or getting to the country by ferry, cruise ships or other boats. Also there are no significant options of moving from one port to another as public transport along the coastal route from Tripoli to Beirut and further south is frequent and fast.

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Red Tape

Note: due to hostilities relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict, entry will be refused to citizens of the state Israel and travellers with any evidence of visiting Israel: Israeli entry stamps, exit stamps from Jordanian or Egyptian land borders to Israel, any products with Hebrew labeling, etc.

Most nationals need a visa to enter Lebanon. Although you can arrange this at your own country when having a Lebanese consulate, it is also possible for many western nationals and Arabian Gulf citizens to get one when arriving in the country, both at the Beirut Airport as the land border crossings from Syria. Note that you will not be allowed to enter the country if your passport has an Israeli stamp in it, or you have any other proof of visiting Lebanon's southern neighbour.

Visas can be obtained at Lebanese embassies and consulates in other countries, or upon arrival at Beirut airport and other points of entry for some nationalities. A free one month valid visa, renewable till 3 months, is granted to the citizens of these countries who are coming for tourism: Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Barbados,Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Bhutan, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Macau, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Moldova, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Palau, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Romania, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Samoa, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkey, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkmenistan, United Kingdom, USA, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.

Three-month visas are free for nationals from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Jordan. Other nationals can obtain a 15-day visa for LBP25,000 (USD17), or a three-month visa for LBP50,000 (USD35). These visas are single-entry; nationals of many countries can also obtain multiple-entry visas (USD75 valid for six months). The 48 hour free of charge transit visas (valid for three calendar days) are still issued, but only if you enter by land and leave via the airport or vice-versa.

All other nationalities need to apply for a visa beforehand at one of the nearest Lebanese embassies/consulates.

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Money

See also Money Matters

Major Foreign currency are widely accepted everywhere in the country even at small shops. Make sure you have small denominations for small purchases. The exchange rate is almost unified between banks, exchange shops and street shops. The hotels exchange rate is usually 10 to 15% less than what you get outside.

The Lebanese pound is unofficially pegged to the US dollar. The Central Bank maintains a dynamic and aggressive policies to keep the currency exchange rate stable. Currency exchange rate against the US dollar was around 1500 Lebanese pounds to one dollar (Sepetmber 2009)

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Study

Lebanon has some of the finest universities in the Middle East, many of which were established by foreign missionaries in the late 19th century. Most noted are the American University of Beirut and Saint Joseph University. Before the start of the Lebanese civil war, Lebanese universities attracted a large number of students from the region. The number of regional students is picking up again since the mid 90's, given the relative stability of the country, high education standards, the multi-cultural and diversified student body and the beauty of the country. It should be noted that tuition fees are more to the moderate to high sides, but are still far less than what a student would pay for similar education standards in private universities in the west.

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Language

Arabic is the official language of Lebanon. A 'salaam alaykum' when greeting someone will be very appreciated and can make a big difference in friendliness. Almost all Lebanese speak Standard Arabic, while many people also speak French and/or English. While French is the first foreign language of most people, English is also widely spoken. Street and place signs are in both Arabic (first) and French (second), because of Lebanon's period as a French mandated territory after the First World War. Generally, signs and outdoors are written in at least two languages, Standard Arabic and French and/or English.

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Eat

Lebanon fosters exquisite cuisine ranging from a mezza of vegetarian dishes such as tabouleh, fattoush, and waraq ainab to delicious dips like hommos and moutabal.

Must haves include Lebanese barbeque such as shish tawouq (barbequed chicken) - usually consumed with garlic, lahm mashwiye (barbequed meat), and kafta (barbequed seasoned minced meat).

A full meal at a local restaurant can cost as little as 15 us dollars (22500 LL) depending on where you go, though more expensive options can also be found.

Lebanese "fast food" is also available as sandwiches offered in roadside shops, such as shawarma sandwiches (known in other countries as doner - or gyros in Greece). Shawarma is rolled in Lebanese thin bread. Various barbequed meat sandwiches are also available, and even things such as lamb or chicken spleen, brains, lamb bone marrow or lamb testicles can be served as sandwiches.

Breakfast usually consists of manaeesh which looks like a folded pizza, most common toppings being zaatar (a mixture of thyme, olive oil, sesame seeds), jebneh (cheese), or minced meat (this version is more properly referred to as lahm bi ajin).

Another traditional breakfast food is knefeh, a special kind of breaded cheese that is served with a dense syrup in a sesame seed bread. It is also served as dessert.

Lebanon is also very famous for its Arabic sweets which can be found at leading restaurants. The city of Tripoli, however, is considered to be "the" city for Lebanese sweets, and is sometimes even referred to as the "Sweet Capital" of Lebanon.

International food chains are widely spread across the country. Italian, French, Chinese, Japanese cuisines, as well as cafe chains (such as Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, etc.), are particularly popular across the country, with a higher concentration in Beirut and the urban sprawl north of the capital.

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Sleep

Lebanon is full of hotels, with a range in price and quality, from $10/night to many hundreds of dollars per night, and the quality ranges just as much. Many international chains, such as Intercontinental, Holiday Inn, and Crowne Plaza, can be found here, as well as local boutique and "mom-and-pop" style hotels, as well as low quality budget hotels.

The best way to save money if you are staying for a long visit is furnished apartments or all-suite hotels, as they come with cleaning and other services.

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Drink

Lebanon's wines have an international reputation. Grapes have been grown since antiquity, and the vineyards, largely in the Bekaa Valley, produce the base wine for distillation into the national spirit Arak, which, like Ouzo, is flavoured with aniseed and becomes cloudy when diluted with water. Arak is the traditional accompniment to Meze.

But the grapes have also historically been used to make wine. This used to be predominantly white and sweet, but the soldiers and administrators that came to administer the French mandate after World War One created a demand for red wine, and large acreages were planted especially with the Cinsault grape. Over the last 20 years these have been supplemented with the most popular international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

Wineries often offer wine tasting and are very welcoming. The highly individual, old fashioned, Chateau Musar, is based at Ghazir, 15 miles north of Beirut, and trucks in the grapes from Bekaa. In Bekaa itself, wineries include the large Kefraya, Ksara, the oldest winery of all, Massaya, a fashionable new producer in Tanail, and Nakad in Jdeita, which like Musar has stuck with an idiosyncratic old fashioned approach. Kefraya, in the West Bekaa region, also has a nice restaurant attached and the region itself is beautiful to pass through.

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Health

See also Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Lebanon. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Lebanon) where that disease is widely prevalent.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Lebanon. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid. Vaccination against hepatitis B and rabies are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

With the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers early 2006, problems have risen again after attacks from Israel. At first, these attacks and fights between Israel and terrorists in Lebanon were at the border area, but later on problems spreaded out towards Beirut and even further north. Although at the end of 2006, things were quiet again, it is still not safe to travel on your own in certain parts of Lebanon.

Travel to areas close to border with Syria (including Baalbeck and the Beka'a Valley north of Zahle) is strongly discouraged due to the spillover of the civil war in Syria. Travel is also discouraged to the city of Tripoli, to the southern suburbs of Beirut and to the Palestinian refugee camps of Bourj el-Barajneh and Ain el-Helweh due to inter-communal violence. Governments have also issued travel warnings for these areas of Lebanon due to the spillover of the civil war in Syria.

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Keep Connected

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

MTC Touch Mobile phone operator offers a GSM card for $15 including a $10 credit (The START plan). Internet access starts at $10 for up to 100 MByte in a month. Alfa is another mobile phone operator which offers several prepaid plans ranging from $10 to $68. Like MTC Touch, internet access starts at $10 for a 500 MByte bundle per month.

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Quick Facts

Lebanon flag

Map of Lebanon

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Capital
Beirut
Population
3,728,000
Government
Republic
Religions
Islam (Shi'a, Sunni, Druze, Isma'ilite, Alawite, Nusayri), Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant)
Languages
Arabic, French, English, Armenian
Calling Code
+961
Nationality
Lebanese
Local name
Lubnān

Contributors

as well as Peter (11%), iztabsh (4%), Lavafalls (<1%), Hien (<1%), Sander (<1%)

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Lebanon Travel Helpers

  • Utrecht

    Before the israeli lebanese war I travelled most of the country in 2005. From Tripoli to Beirut, to Sidon, the Bekaa valley (zahle wine region) and to Bcharre and the Cedars.

    Ask Utrecht a question about Lebanon
  • busby_girl

    Am half lebanese and my father lives there. Go there every year about 3 times for a total of about 3months! anything i dont know i can ask my friends who live there!

    Ask busby_girl a question about Lebanon
  • Norzi

    I have been to Lebanon three times and it's probably my favourite country in the world. I've spent the most time in Beirut but have also been to Byblos, Saida, Jounieh, Baalbek, Faraya for skiing and the Chouf mountains.Can probably help most with Beirut though.

    Ask Norzi a question about Lebanon
  • Triki12

    Hey all,
    I lived in Lebanon for 13 months from 05-06. I toured the whole region, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Israel....

    Ask Triki12 a question about Lebanon
  • ossama

    most of anything you would like to know. Maybe even show you around if not too busy. :-)

    Ask ossama a question about Lebanon

Accommodation in Lebanon

This is version 33. Last edited at 9:27 on Jun 8, 15 by Utrecht. 23 articles link to this page.

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