Getting into Lebanon
I’ve booked a group tour to Lebanon, after swearing never to do a group tour again. This is because Shane from Central Asia was here a few weeks ago and he says it’s hard going for women on their own. Lebanon is only just beginning to open up to tourism again after civil war, Israeli incursion and involvement in the war in neighbouring Syria. The FCO still deem part of the country to be out of bounds to sensible visitors. It’s territory number 200, so I feel there should be some sort of cautious celebration.
It’s not an auspicious beginning however - there’s no one to meet the five of us who have convened in the arrivals hall at the airport and after an hour of phone calling we give up and commission a cab.
Beirut, the Capital of Lebanon
Beirut, the capital of Lebanon likes to call itself the Paris of the East. It has a mellow seaside vibe, palm trees, a corniche and new yellow stone buildings springing up around patches of excavated ruins. There’s still huge amounts of war damage and constant reconstruction, especially around the Financial District and Martyrs Square. Here, three different types of Orthodox Church, as well as Church of England, Maronite and Moslem places of worship are built in close proximity. During the war, the protagonists shot at each other across Damascus Street until the cease fire was agreed and they all hugged and kissed instead. Ten percent of the then three million population of Lebanon died.
Our hotel is in a lively quarter of Beirut, crammed with pavement cafes and shish smokers. Our breakfast food is a mixture of Arab and European cuisine, but barely adequately cooked. They hope to detract from the paucity of the offering with a bizarre centrepiece - a chocolate fountain. Lebanon is the most western influenced Arab country I’ve been to. The ‘New Souk’ is a huge glossy mall, with high arched ceilings and restaurants charging exorbitant prices, while the adjacent streets are lined with shops bearing brand names that I recognise all too well.
The Road to Tyre and Sidon
The seaside towns of tiny Lebanon are spaced a useful forty kilometres apart, along the narrow coastal plain. The highway is cut into the arid mountains that run almost into the sea. First, a stop to view the impressive formations that are the Raouche (pigeon) Rocks. Think Durdle Door or Praia da Rocha. The rocks are is claimed to be the remains of a sea monster the Greek hero Perseus killed to save Andromeda. He turned Medusa’s head on the monster and so it became stone.
Banana and orange trees line the route, framed by the turquoise Mediterranean. Pierre, our guide, says it will be nothing but hotels in ten years’ time. We also pass numerous huge, barbed wire surrounded camps for Palestinian refugees. Their living conditions are very poor - they’re only allowed tin roofs, so as not to impede coastal development when they finally leave and their dwellings are demolished.
Sidon - or Saida
Sidon is thought to be the oldest of the Phoenician towns . First visit here is the Temple to Eshmoun - the Phoenician version of Aesclepius. Here there are layered ruins, including a Babylonian pyramid, sited in a fragrant wadi just outside Sidon, which is known here as Saida. Next, a crusader castle (Sidon was the centre of many crusader struggles) with a picturesque setting on an islet. The souk in Sidon is refurbished, but seemingly authentic and quaint – brick arches topped with towers - facades with brightly painted shutters. The must-see here is a soap museum, beige bars all stacked like giant fudge slabs.
Pierre is an excitable little Armenian who refers to toilet breaks as technical stops. He has moved swiftly to dismiss the airport debacle as being ‘Nothing to do with me’. But he still hasn’t tracked down one of our party of eleven and two others had to be enticed out of bed before we set off half an hour late this morning. He’s then lost all but one of us in the Sidonian souk - we have to phone him. I’ve decided disorganisation must be a prerequisite for being a tour guide. Lunch here is a falafel sandwich in a corner café, as ’We have too much more to see today’. So we don’t have time to Tyre of Sidon before hurtling further down the coast to its partner Phoenician town.
Tyre - The Walled City
Tyre is known in Lebanon as Sour or Walled City and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, Though in medieval times the population was tiny. It was one of the earliest Phoenician towns and also the legendary birthplace of Europa, her brothers Cadmus and Phoenix, not to mention Carthage's founder Dido. From here we can see the Israeli border and the peak that is Cana, where Jesus’ first miracle took place. We are also regularly buzzed by Israeli fighter planes.
Tyre has UNESCO world heritage designated ruins, a huge Roman necropolis built over the ancient Phoenician streets and houses. There’s a stunningly beautiful arch and a partially preserved hippodrome, where they filmed Ben Hur. The thorns amongst the stone paving are even more vicious than the ones in the African bush. They’ve gone right through my flip flops.
Both Tyre and Sidon are famous for being the original source of the Phoenician purple dye, extracted from murex (sea snail) shells. The other famous product of this country is the cedar tree. The wood is used for building boats and the resin is apparently excellent for mummification. Very handy with all these sarcophagi to fill. A final rush to the last set of remains in town – more temples and a Roman arena right by the water, glowing serenely in the light of the setting sun.
It’s getting late. Time to re-Tyre. Apologies for all the bad jokes - they are enTyrely gratuitous.
The Jetta Caves of Lebanon
Our next excursion takes us north of Beirut and a little inland to Jetta Caves. Our missing tour member has appeared – with an injured foot he’s been resting. That makes four of us from the UK, five Americans, one Russian Latvian and an Australian. I’ve already visited numerous caves, but these deserve their good reputation. There’s a lake, enjoyed in flat bottom boats, some gorgeous lacy caverns, some of the largest stalactites in the world and, thankfully, an absence of coloured illumination. But photography in the caverns is forbidden, so I’ve no proof. There’s also a toy train and a cable car, serving the upper caves.
Byblos - the Ultimate Tourist Destination in Lebanon
Further up the coast is the pretty port of Byblos. It’s the ultimate tourist destination with fish restaurants along the quay (nice views, tourist quality food) and an upmarket reconstructed souk, complete with high–end bars. ‘Today’s offer, buy any two drinks and pay for them both’. English (or rather American) signage is replacing French and is more common than Arabic.. Here, we’re ferried around on a golf cart. That’s quite an assortment of transport in one day. The sloe gin cocktails are very good. Six of us are drinking, but the party is short-lived. Everyone retires to bed at 7.30.
The crusader castle at Byblos is built on top of the Roman ruins, thoughtfully providing amazing views across a row of columns and myriad excavated walls spreading to the sea. This is where the first alphabet originated,. It was developed from Egyptian hieroglyphs, according to the Lebanese, though competing theories attribute its roots to Canaan/ Israel/Palestine or to the Canaanites/Israelis in Egypt.
I’ve adopted my usual practice of avoiding lengthy guide explanations in broken English. So, I’m up the top of the tower looking down onto the rest of the group listening obediently. Pierre was once a history teacher. I’ve anticipated that he will bring my fellow travellers up to enjoy the incredible views once he has finished his monologue. Perversely, he chooses not to and I spend the next hour pursuing the group around the site. It’s huge and every time I set off after the row of bobbing heads in the distance, they have disappeared by the time I arrive at that spot. It’s very frustrating. And hot work. It’s pushing 30 degrees today.
Qadisha and The Cedars of Lebanon
Now, inland, winding through soaring mountains and misty grey olive orchards, a mass of ancient gnarled trunks, and along the top of the Qadisha Valley, home of some of the last remaining cedar groves in the country near the hilltop town of Bsharri.. A wander under the branches is obligatory. Then, a stop at an atmospheric museum dedicated to Khalil Gibran, who was born here. It’s carved out of the rock face and mainly decorated with his art. His writing is much better than his painting.
The major roads are mostly in good condition and often full dual carriageways, but there’s still an obstacle course of parked vehicles to navigate in towns. Pierre always opts for participation, as opposed to patience, in these situations. Most of his interventions consist of superfluous arm-waving, but he has also so far encouraged a struggling female driver to reverse into a bollard and gesticulated alongside a truck taking out an overhead electric cable. Despite the relative affluence most of the cars on the road are from the last century. The model of choice is a 1980s boxy Mercedes.
Lunch is in a friendly Lebanese mezze restaurant in the centre of the largest cedar grove, right at the head of the valley. This falls away dramatically. Its small ledges provide superb settings for red roofed Maronite and Greek Orthodox monasteries.
The summits of the surrounding peaks are sheer, bare of vegetation and dusted with the first snow, icing sugar on gingerbread. We dip over into the Beqaa Valley and the temperature plummets. The furry parka I brought with me from a newly wintry England doesn’t look so stupid now.
Beqaa Valley, Lebanon
Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern country without a desert, but most of the agriculture is located in its portion of the Fertile Crescent, the 129 km long Beqaa Valley. The valley is, astonishingly, part of the Great Rift system, which stretches from southern Turkey to Mozambique. A huge chunk of the area, including the famous Temple of Baalbek, is coloured orange ‘essential travel only’ on the FCO advisory site and Baalbek is perilously close to the red no-go zone abutting Syria, a small kink in the line some official has drawn on the map.
It’s very different to the coast. The buildings are less western in design, Arabic script predominates and yellow Hezbollah flags fly. (We can buy matching T-shirts with guns on if we wish.) There are plenty of army road blocks and the Palestinian refugee camps are replaced by Syrian ones, with similarly squalid living conditions. It’s pitch black as we make our first foray into forbidden territory. It doesn’t help that the driver is clutching his rosary in his left hand as he steers.
Baalbek Temple - the Jewel of Lebanon
In Greek and Roman times Baalbek was also known as Heliopolis (Sun City) and it is truly astonishing. It’s on a par with Karnak and Abu Simbel - an incredible complex of three Roman temples. The local gods Baal and Ashtart were pragmatically (and confusingly) conflated first with Greek and then Roman gods .The Temple of Jupiter (Heliopolitan Zeus or Baal)) is huge and magnificent. . It was constructed (on the foundations of another temple) during the mid -first century.
The Temple of Bacchus, with its amazing carving and complete facades of ornate pillars, virtually escaped demolition over the years, as it was later utilised as a church and a fortress. It’s open to debate whether or not the third temple was actually dedicated to Venus. (or Ashtart) Notwithstanding, Pierre clearly enjoys telling us all about the prostitutes who were imported and the orgies that took place inside. I’m glad I’ve left Lebanon to the end of my ancient Roman occupied countries to visit. It’s going to be hard for other sites to measure up now.
Tourist lunch at Anjar, an Armenian area, in enormous tented restaurant, Al Shams. There are at-the-table tricks performed by a magician,. This is a veritable banquet - the amount of food provided is frankly ridiculous. An assortment of flat breads, salads, hummus, baba ganoush, labneh, kibbeh, fries, melt in the mouth chicken livers, shrimps in creamy sauce, olives, pickles and mixed grilled kebabs. There’s no room to fit all the dishes onto the table and we can only manage to eat half of it. Everyone protests that they are totally full. Then the waiters ask us to move to another table, where desserts are laid out: crystallised sweets and platters of fruit. And of course everyone manages to find room for more. We are assured that the leftovers will be delivered to a Syrian refugee camp.
Our last visit is to the eighth century Umayyad ruins near Anjar. Baalbek is a hard act to follow, but it’s a peaceful late afternoon stroll. And it might burn off a few of today’s unwarranted calories. The toilet block is teeming with cats.
Back at the airport, at the end of another delightful journey. My passport is checked five times and I’m body searched three times. My bags are scanned twice and examined four times. Each check is perfunctory at best. One of the cubicle ladies is too busy skyping her husband to be bothered with patting me down. And no-one has mentioned my laptop – even though there are large posters at the gate warning that these are forbidden on flights from Lebanon to London. That’s all right. I’ve decided to carry on my small (ish) suitcase, as well as my backpack, liquids, the lot. Do as the locals do.
Read more information about Lebanon here