Well, here we are back in Blighty, but there is still much to say about our last couple of days. Hopefully with a better internet connection it will be quicker to blog and I may even be able to get some pictures in.
On Sunday night we went to a very posh, indeed pretentious, restaurant, ‘Le Pecheur’ on the seafront in Beirut. The location was great as we could sit outside, almost over the sea so that cooling zephyrs played pleasantly around us. The food was also very good with a range of mezze including humous, moutabal (a fried aubergine dip which I love), stuffed vine leaves and fattoush. I nearly came a cropper as I was eyeing up a likely looking coleslaw. Luckily Christine tried some first and discovered to her disgust that the shredded red cabbage was in fact lobster! A near miss, as if I’d had some there would have been two of us in hospital!
The fish that arrived shortly afterwards was huge and very tasty and there was melon and a variety of creamy desserts to follow. However the drinks were very expensive – over $20 for 2 beers and a glass of wine. The place was almost deserted and at those prices I was not surprised!
Next morning we started off quite early heading into the hills and the Bekaa Valley beyond. The Bekaa is really a plain at about 900 metres that runs between two mountain ranges. It is the most fertile area of Lebanon and is full of farms growing a wide range of fruit and veg. Our first stop was Anjar, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This was a Roman town in all but name having been built in the C8th along Roman lines by the Umayyad caliphate, the first and most short-lived of the Arab dynasties. Anjar is located at the intersection of 2 great trade routes linking Damascus and Homs to Baalbek and Sidon. The remains are quite remarkable and the site is well signposted so it is easy to work out what was what. Strangely we had the whole place pretty much to ourselves. It was beautiful and we wandered around imagining ourselves as traders arriving in this impressive settlement after a long journey with our camels and making full use of all the facilities it had to offer.
Today this is at the heart of the Armenian community and the small shop just outside the site sold superbly made Armenian silver jewellery. Christine was really taken with a bracelet and some earrings so we succumbed. They are beautifully made.
From Anjar we drove to Baalbek, a place I’ve wanted to visit for about 20 years. It did not disappoint. On the way we passed large collections of tents in the gaps between the fields. We asked our guide, Haytham whether these were Syrian refugees. His reply surprised us. They were Syrian, but he doubted they were really refugees. Syrian workers come in each year to pick fruit and veg. Now there were a lot more, but he suspected that they were only here because by claiming to be refugees they got $150 a week from the U.N.. He was scornful saying that many had mobile phones and cars and certainly we saw some satellite dishes! He did admit that some might legitimately be fleeing from the fighting, but he was clearly angered by so many being in Lebanon and wanted them to be sent home. Does the Daily Mail publish a Lebanon edition I wonder or are these legitimate concerns? It was yet another interesting viewpoint to take on board.
Our first port of call in Baalbek was the quarry from which the local stone was excavated. One enormous partly shaped block remains in place and one wonders how such blocks were got out and transported to the temple sites. It is vast, but apparently they used rollers and also the winter weather which meant they could slide the blocks on ice.
The temple complex beats anything I have seen for its completeness. The temple to Bacchus is not unlike the Acropolis only bigger and better preserved. O.K. it is not so old – around C2nd A.D. but it is impressive. Words cannot do the site justice, so I won’t try. All I can say is go there! Again there were very few people walking around – perhaps 20 or 30 besides ourselves. This is a major UNESCO World Heritage site and is well looked after. Indeed work was being done on some of the largest columns around the Temple of Jupiter which were covered in scaffolding. The Temple of Venus can be seen, but is still not open to the public as work is continuing to be done to make it accessible to visitors. It was very hot and we took advantage of any shade we could find. Haytham did an excellent job explaining the site to us and then we were left to wander. I circumnavigated the Temple of Venus and met up with the others in the Palmyra Hotel which is quite remarkable in its own way.
This hotel dates from 1874 and so do some of the staff I should think. It has the outward air of a French colonial building, although inside it speaks more of a German hunting lodge with heavy oak furniture and beams in the dining room. Beyond the foyer is a reception room lined with cartoons by Cocteau These must be worth a fortune! They have clearly been just ripped from his sketch book and framed. Opposite them are photographs of the famous who have stayed here – De Gaulle, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Bardot, Moreau etc. A vintage waiter appeared at a shuffle and we all got giggles as someone said ‘two soups’ rather loudly. Luckily he only just spoke French and had no English. We ordered some drinks with difficulty and he shuffled away bent over his silver tray. Later Christine asked to use the toilet and was presented with a candle and directed towards a dark corridor. There appeared to be no other source of light in the facilities – quite romantic in a way – although the possibility of a gust of wind blowing the candle out must be high on the list.
From the decayed elegance of the Palmyra we ventured to a winery. The Bekaa is known for its wines which apparently have an international reputation. Our tasting made you wonder what that reputation was for exactly. We tasted four and I felt that the only drinkable one was the red. Still that may say more about my palate than the wine! We were taken into the caves and shown the barrels, but to be honest it is hard to get excited by the sight of barrels in a cave, even if the young lady showing you around is very attractive. She wore heavy rimmed glasses and I half expected her to whip them off, unpin her hair and turn into a screen goddess – too much Hollywood!
We climbed back into the bus and the bus climber back over the mountains and down onto the coastal plain. A final dinner in the Mozart awaited us. This was a chance to thank Andrew for organising such a wonderful visit. Christine had found a garish fridge magnet with which we presented him along with a more sensible appreciation of all he had done. We had already thanked Haytham and Billal our guide and driver. Five of our number were off to Syria the following day and we had to be up in time to leave the hotel by 5.15, so we were glad to get to bed reasonably early.
Leaving Beirut was not as easy as entering. We went through four security checks before bordering the plane. Furthermore I discovered that HMGUK now requires all those travelling from such dangerous states as Lebanon to put their cameras in the hold luggage. I was prepared for my ipad to go in but not my camera. I had to stuff it under some clothes at the baggage check in and hope for the best. Dear reader, if you are going somewhere that HMG regards as dodgy do check carefully what must go in the hold and what you can carry with you. Christine had nothing to read on the plane as E readers have to go in the hold as well. Barbara was treated very well by the Middle Eastern Airlines staff and had a reasonably comfortable journey with her leg raised on some luggage and cushions.
Nevertheless it was a good flight and we walked through passport control in seconds – well done Border Force! Our luggage however took nearly an hour to arrive – ah well, swings and roundabouts!
Lebanon is an amazing country – fascinating, safe and friendly. I strongly recommend a visit.