Playing Tourist in Lebanon: A Weekend Escape to Via Mina Tripoli

Truth be told, it’d been five years since my last trip to Tripoli, a coastal metropolis situated in northern Lebanon.

Though it figures as the second largest city in the country and famously houses Kasr el Helo of A.R. Hallab, these days Tripoli rarely comes to mind as a leisure destination. Punctuated unrest between opposing political camps in some Tripolitan neighborhoods has marred the area’s tourism, and few can find reason to justify the hour-and-half-long drive from Beirut.

But the generous invitation from Via Mina, a newly-reopened boutique hotel transformed from a century-old residence, beckoned us. A bit of Google sleuthing portrayed the bed-and-breakfast as a sanctuary in the heart of old Mina, a stone’s throw from the narrow corridors of the souks, and a couple hundred meters from the corniche. We were already smitten.

Arriving on a late Saturday afternoon, with the brazen sun still peeking through the clouds, we dropped off our bags at the reception and made haste to the seaboard to watch night swiftly overtake day. Fresh bursts of air, the crash of grey-blue waves against the rocky shore, seagulls and pedestrians alike basking in unobstructed views of the Mediterranean…here was our first taste of an unforgettable getaway.



El Mina, Tripoli, North Lebanon


Life is calm in these parts, veering on the mystical. It’s like taking a trip back in time to the previous century, with vendors and souk merchants along every street corner, rock-bottom prices (cab service is 1,000 LBP), and a lulling pace. Here the air is far cleaner than in the capital, and folks still make their livelihoods from catching fish, crafting olive-oil soap, churning salep ice cream, or baking wheat bran pita pockets. It’s as if history were carefully preserved and continues to play out dutifully.



Kaak is a staple in Tripoli

Via Mina is one telling example.

You could easily stroll by without it drawing your notice. A three-level edifice with whitewashed walls, tiffany blue shutters, and a tranquil garden out front adorned with wooden tables and chairs combine to form your first impression. The front door, half ajar, creates a homey feel of welcome.



Entrance to Via Mina

Stepping past the threshold into the foyer, we were greeted by silver-maned Simon. He led us to our second-floor chamber, past a washroom of brilliant mirrors reflecting off each other infinitely; past a spacious den where you can easily curl up with a book while sipping on white tea; up the polished wooden stairs to a room equally decked with polished wooden floors.



The winding stairway dons a European touch at Via Mina


Inside, classic Lebanese treats – Gandour Dabke biscuits and Unica wafer bars – bolster the local motif, and in the bathroom, toiletries are sourced from Tripolitan soap artisans. The room is a happy medium between the humble and luxurious, leaving little to be desired.

In the evening, we tucked into a convivial dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. The menu is decidedly Occidental, with generous platters of steak-frites, caramelized-onion beef burgers, and lemony shrimp pasta. Quinoa even sneaks onto the scene (who’d have thought, in Tripoli of all places!), as do chèvre and pesto-doused bruschetta. The produce is fresh and flavorful, the ingredients premium. Bread rolls are supplied by haut boulangier Prunelle, and the ice cream is unmistakably local, elastic with mastic gum.



Goat cheese salad with fresh fruits and balsamic reduction



The following morning, a sweet breakfast drawing on labneh, chanklish, white cheese, jams, halewe (halvah) and honey awaited us outside on the front lawn. Fresh baked bread was fetched by fellow guests from the souk during an early morning promenade.



A modest Lebanese breakfast


Via Mina makes a point to employ locals, as the Ducasse-bred hotelier Fadi Le Sidon (Sidawi) pointed out to us of the pleasant staff. They are all smiles, full of energy, and aim to please, from the runner boys to the head janitor Elie to the valet Nizar. Attentive but never smothering, they are the right dose of hospitable.

Guests are encouraged to explore the nearby vicinity, and a list of historical sites, churches, and mosques is provided in guestrooms. The city is also renowned for its pottery, handmade soap, traditional Oriental pastries, copper artifacts, and jewelry markets. 



A double helix art structure titled The Tornado fashioned from computer monitors, 
a bicycle, and other rubbish (designed by the late local artist Mario Saba)

What surprised me most is the vibrant nightlife, concentrated in a quartier called Mino which counts a number of pubs and restaurants in its midst. Mino is a mere minute by foot from Via Mina.

For guests electing to stay in and enjoy the tranquility of the hotel, the fast Wi-Fi speed will ensure smooth connectivity (again, who’d have guessed, in Tripoli of all places!).

I’m so grateful we overcame our hesitation to venture beyond complacent Beirut. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day, with the tiring work commute, long strenuous days, and inevitable fatigue. If anything, weekend escapes in our very own Lebanese landscape become all the more indispensable.

Put Tripoli and Via Mina on your to-do list. Start being a tourist in your own country.







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Comments

  1. I loved your concluding line! The country has far too many things to offer, if only we opened our eyes to them :)

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