Lebanon – Day 8

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. DSC_1101Our 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.DSC_1332 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.


Lebanon 7

The leaving of Byblos was a gradual affair thankfully, as many of us were sorry to quit this rather charming place. We brought our cases down to the lobby, had breakfast and then set off to the old town. At the entrance to the crusader castle Haytham insisted on explaining it all to us, when all I wanted to do was get inside and look around on my own! Eventually we were allowed in and we had about an hour to investigate the castle, which has a very fine donjon, and the whole archaeological site around it. I sprinted ahead and climbed half way up. Haytham caught up with me and gave a very thorough explanation of the site down below – interesting, but…… From the top of the keep the views were stunning (see photo sharing) and it was possible to imagine the small city in its Phoenician and Roman phases.

From the donjon I dropped down to the archaeological site and made straight for the amphitheatre which was repositioned facing the sea by the C20th archaeologist Marice Dunand. Railway lines cross the site which presumably were used to move the stones around as he uncovered each layer of civilisation down to th Neolithic. The amphitheatre was small bu beautiful. Behind it were the remains of Roman columns which once lined the road down to the port. A little further on ere were Phoenician remains, including 3 temples 2 of which had originally been on top of one another but had been separated and moved by Dunand so each could be viewed. We were later to see some of the exquisite finds from these temples in the Hational Museum in Beirut. Rather unusually a typical Lebanese house of the C18th has also been preserved on the site facing the sea. I ran around like a child in a sweet factory, quite aware I couldn’t really do the place justice, but hoping that with the guidebook and my pictures I could try to piece a bit more of it together once back home.

Leaving  Byblos at about 10.30 we got into Beirut and the Anglican Church in plenty of time for their 11.15 family service. This was a lovely event with a very mixed congregation from the various nationalities visiting or working in Beirut. The sings were a bit ‘mid-Atlantic pap’ for my liking, bu we did get ‘Amazing Grace’ sung to ‘The House of the Rising Sun’. Afterwards we joined everyone for coffee and Christine and I met a young Rwandan who was thrilled that we had visited his country. He was clearly very bright as he was studying chemical engineering in Beirut on a scholarship.

Our next stop was the National Museum which is a case study on how a museum should be. Some amazing finds, superbly displayed. Many of the large tombs, reliefs and mosaics had had to be encased in concrete during the civil war to protect them. The green line between East and West Beirut ran down the street where the museum was situated so it was badly damaged. The restoration has been fantastic and it was well worth spending an hour and half wandering around. Unfortunately one of our party slipped on the steps and may have broken her ankle. She is in hospital as I write.

It was good to arrive back at the Mozart Hotel. This time we are o the second floor, which is much easier than the eighth……particularly if you are like me and don’t like lifts! We dumped our bags and walked up the road to the Hamra Cafe where we drank cool drafts of mint lemonade and ate a very good Fatouch salad with haloumi. Our guide seems to forget about lunch and we were starving.

Tonight we are having a meal out and a walk through the city centre.

Lebanon 6

We woke early and went down the steps at the side of the hotel for an early morning swim. Christine is still finding it diffcult to move quickly on steps or slopes as her confidence has understandably been knocked, but we eventually made it. I wade in and it was beautifully warm but the beach shelved quite steeply and the waves were quite rough for the Med. I splashed about but the undertow was vicious and so I stayed very close to shore. Christine sat and wetted her feet. If was very pleasant for a few minutes just to have the beach to ourselves and enjoy the water.

Back in the hotel a copious breakfast was offered. The food here is certainly plentiful, but the coffee was horrible. We left about 9.15 and drove to the University of Balamand to meet a professor who was an expert in Christian / Islamic relations. He was a little late so we wandered around an C11th monastery just below the University. It was beautiful with a central courtyard with a large jasmine which filled the place with scent. There was also a lovely Greek Orthodox chapel with an array of icons which we struggled to identify, although there was no mistaking St George. He seems to be everywhere.

After about 20 minutes the professor arrived and we were ushered in to a very modern meeting room with views over the campus. He gave us some background on the work he is trying to do to improve relations between the two groups which he refers to as encounters rather than dialogue. He pointed out the problem of reaching the ‘grass roots’ , of getting the work beyond the academic. He agreed that insecurity (financial, social, etc) makes people make irrational decisions. They do not always react logically or in their own best interests – Brexit being a case in point. Politicians and others want to exploit divisions rather than look for common ground. I shall write up notes later.

Leaving the University we came back down onto the coastal plain. Haytham, our guide,  said he had a surprise for us. Tripoli was too unsafe to go into until about 2 months ago, (it was under ISIS control) but he felt that we could now. He wanted to take us to a fantastic Sunni mosque built in 1365. Of course HMG advises visitors not to go to Tripoli, but hey, what do they know!

Actually it is very unsafe –  not because of the terrorists burst because of the traffic. It is manic! Somehow our wonderful drive delivered us safely to the mosque, which is quite stunning. We met the Imam who was delightful and even bought some lucky members of the group cups of coffee from a street vendor at the mosque gate. The peace and beauty inside the building was in marked contrast to the pandemonium in the street which us filled with cars and repair workshops. Somehow we all made it back on to the coach and the driver negotiated a perilous route back through the traffic.

Now we were travelling up the Qadisha Valley or the Valley of the Saints. It is a very steep sided valley cut deep into the limestone and lined with caves which gave been lived in by monks and hermits for years. Some of these have become monasteries and the whole valley is now a UNESCO world heritage site. We climbed the valley sides eventually stopping for lunch at a pizza place next to an ice cream parlour. We made use of both, sharing a cheese and salad pizza and then a delicious but very tasty ice cream sundae.

The afternoon began with a visit to the death place of Kahlil  Gibran who wrote ‘The Prophet’. He is buried in an old cave dwelling on the side of the hill. I cannot say I was impressed. Most of the museum was a collection of his paintings and drawings. He could certainly draw, but I wasn’t so sure about his painting. Most of the works were of naked women with a occasional naked men. In some scenes they seemed to be getting to know each other rather well in poorly executed rural settings. He could certainly paint a good breast. I swear one pair of nipples seemed to follow me round the room. The last chamber was underground and there in a cave off this chamber was his coffin. It was all a bit macabre. I’m afraid it left me all a bit cold, but obviously not as cold as he was. Still many of the group seemed to enjoy the visit and I must say that I thought ‘The Prophet ‘ had some good stuff in it.

We continued to climb and the mountains were now really showing themselves. It was very beautiful, Through a small settlement and we came to a small wood of Cedar trees. The road outside the area was lined with tacky stalls selling every conceivable gimcrack made of cedar! Once inside (a small donation gives you entry) it was an oasis of calm. The cedars are majestic and of course very old, some saying back 2,000 years. Their wood gas been used since the time of the Phoenicians for ships and buildings. Solomon’s temple and the great buildings of Jerusalem were built using caedar from Lebanon.Dead wood is sold to the companies making the tat and the money us used for conservation. New areas are being planted but it is a slow old business.

Our last visit involved a vertiginous drive down the northern side of the Qadisha Valley to a Maronite monastery which began as a series off rock caves where monks and anchorites lived. The monastery of St Antoine was built in the C17th and is now a much visited place, in spite of the very narrow road to it which clings to the mountain side. We wandered around the museum which has the first printing press to print in Arabic in it. Early texts are also there, many of them printed in St Antoine. There is also an eclectic mix of linen chests, vestments and cooking pots. We went into the church while a service was taking place and listened to the beautiful sound of the monks singing. As we sat entranced a woman wearing a very flashy outfit came in with her iPhone on filming her progress. She came down the aisle to the front filmed the monks and then sat filming the rest of the service! She seemed totally unaware that this was a religious event and that others might be offended by her actions!

We al so visited a cave where the insane were chained to the rock walls in an attempt to cure them. Freud eat your heart out…prayer and chains are all you need! A long journey home, but a sumptuous meal awaited us. Indeed there really was too much to eat, but we did try. Mother Agnes and Sister Carmel joined us. They are remarkable nuns who gave been doing much to help Syrean refugees and to try to get out the true story of what is happening in Syrean. They assert that the Syean confluct is about outside control if the region and nit about internal rebellion (although that was how it began). They were very persuasive.

Tomorriw we head back to Beirut.

Lebanon – Day 5

Just a minute, I hear you cry, where is day 4. A good question! Day 4 is languishing in my memory somewhere refusing to come to mind in any sensible order. It was a long day, I do know that, the result being there was no time to write it up. So it will have to wait. Let us proceed with Day 5.

Up early again and packed as we had to hit the road at 8.30 bound for Byblos. We headed out through the Beirut suburbs, crawling through heavy traffic and up vertiginous hills until we reached the LSESD, the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development. Here we were made to feel most welcome and the purpose of this organisation set up by the Baptists was explained to us. It is a wonderful charity which works with children with learning differences and with refugees in Syria and Lebanon. It also seeks to improve relations between Muslms and Christians. It gives unconditional love, so it helps all regardless of their beliefs. It does not evangelise bug has found increasing numbers coming to the Christian Faith of their own volition. Its work is remarkable, enabling churches to support refugees and the disadvantaged in their communities. We were very impressed. I have made notes and there is a website, so if you are interested then do look them up.

We left there at about 11.00 and set off for Jeita which has some of the most spectacular limestone caverns I have ever seen. Unfortunately photography was not allowed and cameras had to left in lockers on the way in. We boarded a cable car which took us ups the valley to the cave entrance. There we walked in and the sight took our breath away. Stalagmites and stalactites, columns, curtain folds wherever you looked. All of it was beautifully lit. The lighting was quite subtle and just brought out the beauty of the formations. Then we took a toy road train down to the lower cavern and boarded an electric boat and floated through another spectacular cavern for about 10 minutes. Wonderful! Unlike the haloumi  sandwich which followed at the cafe opposite the cave. Indeed theat sandwich stayed with me for much of the afternoon.

Our next visit was to Harissa to a modern basilica and a towering sculpture of Our Lady, looking out over the coastal plain below. I trust the Virgin has a good head for heights as she is ranged in various forms on various peaks along the coast. Unfortunately a thick fog covered the plain, so there was nothing much to be seen from the Virgin’s viewpoint. Furthermore the basilica was shut. Some of our party managed a quick look in side, but the rest of us circumnavigated the building pulling frantically at doors to no avail. I know that Catholics are our brothers and sisters in Christ, but my thoughts towards them were not Christian at all. So we were left with the tacky gift shops and a grotto.

Never mind Byblos was worth waiting for. We have a hotel in the beach close to the old town. Our balcony looks straight out to the Med. In the late afternoon we wandered into the old town which is very pretty. We visited the crusader church of St John Mark and another ancient chapel. We wandered through the souk – very much a tourist area with trendy shops and then visited the little port. Boats clanked at their moorings, as  the very blue sea leaped the shoreline and the sun set over the bay. It was idyllic.mthe harbour had been fortified and there is the remains of a keep at the end of the old harbour arm.

After a shower and change we had a talk from Professor Huw Strachan on the recent history of Turkey and the Levant and then went to a restaurant in the old town for dinner. The mezze were particularly good, and the fish served was enormous. No idea what it was but it was whole and seemed to eye me with disdain as I dismembered it.

Tomorrow we visit the cedars, but I think an early morning swim is called for!



Lebanon – getting ready

The answer to my question back in February is – Lebanon. This was a rather unexpected trip, but very welcome none the less. We head off to this very small, but by all accounts, fascinating country on Monday 11th. We are travelling with a group from ‘Christians Aware’ and are covering a lot of ground in the 8 days we will be away.


As you can see, Lebanon borders Syria and Israel and is only 4,036 sq miles (about half the size of Wales). It has population of just over 6 million (about twice the size of Wales) and a Mediterranean climate (which is not at all like Wales). As you will be aware it has had a very troubled and complex past – its last major conflict being in 2006 when Israel set about trying to destroy Hezbollah. Today Lebanon is experiencing the results of the Syrian conflict in the form of 1.6 million refugees which are spread around 1,600 locations in the country.

The country has 4 main regions which run parallel to the coast:

a) a long and narrow coastal plain

b) Mount Lebanon mountain range

c) The Bekaa valley

d) The Anti-Lebanon mountain range

There are 18 officially recognised religious sects including Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, Maronite Christians, Druze and Alawite. Hopefully we shall be learning a little about some of these. We shall find out how Christians and Muslims are working together in different communities.

So if you would like to follow our travels then please do. I hope to be able to keep this blog going as we travel around.