Anforini, the little Greece of Lebanon
Anfeh - Only three years ago, it was a laid-back rocky beach shore in the small fishing village of Anfeh in northern Lebanon. Today, the place, turned into a simplified replica of Greek islands with white and turquoise wooden cabins and chalets overlooking crystal-clear water, is commonly referred to as “Anforini” — the little Greece of Lebanon.
Wooden bridges, passages and balconies border the sea to give visitors a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean. Scattered among the white cabins are wind wheels used to pump sea water to extract salt. The production of sea salt has long been a staple of the local economy and is referred to as “white gold.”
Located 65km north of Beirut, Anfeh, which translates as “my nose,” is a Greek Orthodox town that has largely been overlooked by tourists and beachgoers. Its beach area, called Tahet el Rih — “Under the Wind” — is naturally protected from west winds by a rocky peninsula that stretches deep into the sea.
“A decade ago there were a few private chalets on this beach,” said Ghassan Saba, owner of one of the beach cabins, “but three years ago restaurants started popping up attracting visitors from across the country and the whole place eventually changed and was refurbished to become Anforini.”
“We have the cleanest beach on the Lebanese coast. The municipality built a whole new infrastructure and sewage system for Anforini to make sure that nothing goes into the sea and pollutes the water,” Saba said. “The water is regularly tested to ensure that it is suitable for swimming.”
Anforini has a public, free-entrance beach where chairs and umbrellas can be rented for about $10 a day. Pubs and restaurants serving fresh seafood and Lebanese mezze line up along the 1km-long beach.
Dipping in the Mediterranean’s blue waters is not the only attraction in Anfeh. The village was on the World Monuments Watch List in 1998, 2000 and 2002. It is built around the ruins of cities dating to the pre-Phoenician period. It has several old churches and caves from prehistoric time and the Stone Age.
The best-known church is Saydet el-Rih — “The Lady of the Wind” — which is considered the oldest church in the eastern Mediterranean. It was built during the Byzantine era. It is believed that sailors and fishermen from the village built the chapel so the Virgin Mary would protect them as they sailed across the Mediterranean.
Excavations in 2012 by the archaeology department of nearby University of Balamand revealed water reservoirs dug into the rock beneath the church.
“The location was originally a Phoenician site that was used to produce crafts and products that were exported through the adjacent port,” explained Georges Sassine, a local guide. “The actual church was built during the Byzantine era and was later expanded by the Crusaders and decorated with frescoes.”
Remains of Byzantine mosaics are still obvious outside the church, where more wells carved into the rock are found.
Besides the Lady of the Wind Church, Saint Semaan and Saint Catherine churches are the oldest religious edifices in the town, dating to the 12th century.
“During the Crusaders’ time Saint Catherine church also had a military role because it was used as a surveillance tower to monitor enemy ships coming from sea,” Sassine said. “At a later stage, the church was turned into a Greek Orthodox church. A separation wall was built in the interior to divide the church into a praying space for men and another for women.”
Basins dug into the rock near the coast served for wine pressing when Anfeh was known for its wine production. Phoenicians and later the Crusaders produced wine from nearby vineyards.
“Wine production was later prohibited when the Ottomans conquered the area, so instead of pressing grapes and making wine, the local population started pressing olives and producing olive oil,” Sassine said.
On the rocky peninsula that stretches almost 1km into the sea on the southern edge of Anforini once stood a Crusader fort that protected the coast from invaders. “The fort was destroyed by the Mamluks when they defeated the Crusaders because the Mamluks did not have maritime defence experience and were afraid that the Crusaders who had retreated to Cyprus might attempt to retake the fort, so they simply destroyed it,” explained Sassine.
Anfeh is one of the places in Lebanon that beat overseas travel, travel blogger Samar Kai said.
“It’s one of the rare public beaches which when you visit, you just feel like you have travelled to a totally different country,” she said.
“The water underneath the cabins is crystal clear to the point that you can clearly see the rocks at the bottom of the sea but there is so much more to this charming little village than that.”