Most people 'do' Lebanon in day-trips from Beirut, but a tour of buzzing Mediterranean towns and rugged valleys reveals other sides to this ancient country. Enjoy it while peace lasts...
An old cliché about Lebanon boasts that you can ski in the morning, then swim in the Mediterranean after lunch. Big deal, I thought, after I’d sped through villages strung with yellow Hezbollah flags and portraits of Shiite martyrs, then half an hour later swirled fine cabernet sauvignons in the cellars of an imperious château.
Another adage has it that the sensible way to ‘do’ Lebanon is on day trips from Beirut. After all, the country is barely half the size of Wales, with nowhere more than a couple of hours from the magnetic capital. Byblos, Tripoli, Baalbek, Deir al-Qamar… you can tick them all off without missing a sundown promenade along Beirut’s fabled seafront Corniche.
Well, hang all that, I said while planning what I was determined would be a journey through the country, rather than a city break with add-ons. I would try to get closer to the core of Lebanon by staying in some farther-flung places, even if my tour operator was “unsure about the standards of accommodation”. Once I’d had my fill of Beirut, I’d take a chance on a village inn high in the Qadisha Valley, and another overnight stay in the Bekaa Valley. So much the simpler if these places were only a short drive from one another.
Why now? Because Lebanon is having a moment. A peaceful moment, in which the country is able, for the first time in ages, to offer its visitors the freedom to roam round some of the most astounding ancient ruins in the Middle East, walk or drive through magnificent mountainscapes, and savour heavenly food in the company of open-hearted people. And to hell with all the recently bloody history, the shelling and the hostage-taking.
“Welcome to Lebanon, sir! My name is Jihad,” greeted my grim-faced driver at Beirut Airport, immediately making those images a little harder to dispel.
He certainly fought a holy war with the Hummers and blacked-out Jeeps – to whom traffic laws do not seem to apply – on the highway to my hotel in the Hamra district, close to the city’s most intriguing ruins. Some are Roman, others Ottoman, but the ruins that seem to attract most attention are the bullet-riddled buildings gaping with mortar holes on streets either side of the Green Line that, for 15 years, divided Christian East Beirut from the Muslim West.
However, most of the downtown area devastated by the civil war has been bulldozed, rebuilt and transformed into a city of the future: palm trees and floodlit fountains landscaped on reclaimed waterfront; mansions from the French Mandate era painstakingly re-constructed; no overhead cables. A colossal, spanking-new mosque, the Mohammed Al-Amin, has been built next to the Maronite St George’s Cathedral on the Place des Martyrs, with mammon getting a look in courtesy of a Virgin Megastore.
By night I found the bars and clubs of Gemmayzeh district pulsing with sexily dressed young party animals chatting in the uniquely Lebanese melange of French, Arabic and English; one snippet of greeting I overheard was: “Hi ya habibi, ça va?”
Swanky new hotels such as Le Gray and the Four Seasons are preparing to host a new age of international glitterati. “CNN has called Beirut the best party city in the world, so maybe we are returning to glamour days like in the 1960s,” enthused my guide, Pauline Daher, as we drove north to Byblos. There, signed photographs of Brigitte Bardot, David Niven and John F Kennedy jostle for wall space among the celebs who once graced Pepe’s Fishing Club. However, the restaurant was not only playboy-free but almost empty as I lunched on grilled snapper, enjoying views over the horseshoe harbour, Crusader castle and red roofs.
Next stop was Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli, half an hour up the coastal highway but seemingly both an age and a continent away. Diving into the souk of the Old Town I experienced my first real culture shock of this trip. Under lattice mats filtering the sun, alleys were lined with goat carcasses, hanging like curtains. Black chadors gossiped in clusters amid the metalworkers. Scents wafted from wood-stoked bread ovens leading me deep into the labyrinth where I meandered though gold bazaars and past the carved wood doorways of medieval madrassas (Islamic theological schools). As an outsider I felt tolerated but barely noticed. This is what I imagined Marrakesh might have been like before the first tourist arrived.
I would willingly have spend a whole day in the Old Town. However, as Pauline pointed out, “it is too tightly packed to offer perspective”. So instead we climbed to the Qala’at Sanjil (Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles), high above on a site that has been the stronghold of Phoenicians, Romans, Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottomans. We picked out landmarks from all of these, though Tripoli today is predominantly Sunni Muslim. The brown urban sprawl is studded with shining domes, minarets and the bearded faces of election candidates painted storeys-high on to the sides of tower blocks. From his giant hoarding, KFC’s Colonel Sanders blended in rather well.
The drive inland from Tripoli was bewitchingly beautiful, and another complete contrast. Terraces planted with olive trees and glossy persimmons folded ever closer round the road before it corkscrewed into a harrowing canyon. Villages topped by churches with red steeples tumbled down impossible gradients like builders’ rubble.
This is the Qadisha gorge, the ‘holy valley’ where sixth-century Byzantine hermits and monks sought refuge in caves, and is still the heartland of Lebanon’s Maronite Christians. From my base at Bcharré I walked ancient donkey tracks and along a precipitous ledge to the tiny chapel of The Virgin of the Mountains (as opposed to she of the Megastore) and to the much larger Deir Mar Antonios Qozhaya hermitage whose ornate facade, hewn out of a soft brown cliff face, reminded me of the rock-cut tombs on Turkey’s Lycian coast.
“Venez avec moi,” invited Frère Ghanineh, a young Arab Christian monk in a flowing black habit, unquestioningly addressing me in French. He showed me evidence of a scholarly history in the form of the monastery’s 16th-century printing press – the first in the Middle East. Then we crept into the dank, dripping ‘Cave of the Mad’ where, in the same era, the insane were chained overnight to an altar in the expectation that they would be cured by morning, thanks to the intercessions of Anthony, the local patron saint.
Climbing out of the Qadisha gorge the scenery became more tortuous still, crumpling into barren, buttery yellow and reddish brown strata, folded like cake mix. Then we snaked over a 2,800m pass and the Bekaa Valley unfurled below us – a blanket of gold and green shimmering in sunshine, with the shadowy Anti-Lebanon range bordering Syria as a backdrop. We streamed though rich expanses of maize and lush patches of runner beans, tomatoes and avocados worked by bands of nomadic Bedouin labourers living in ragged roadside tents.
The Bekaa Valley’s fabled fecundity goes some way towards explaining why Baalbek, the ‘Sun City’ of ancient times, grew to become perhaps the most impressive Roman site in the Middle East. I found I could only partly agree with William Dalrymple who, in his magisterial From the Holy Mountain saw this jaw-droppingly immense complex of ruined monuments and temples dedicated to Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus as ‘unembarrassed lumps of high classical kitsch… a wonderfully flash piece of Roman showmanship’.
Certainly the atmosphere was intensified by our having the place virtually to ourselves, along with a handful of off-duty Polish soldiers from the UN Interim Force. I found myself effortlessly transported through the ages as I strode across echoing expanses of ancient paving. I could only marvel that so much survives of the surrounding temples: towering columns, facades, friezes, ceilings and doorways exuberantly carved with gods’ faces, eagles, vines and sheaves of corn.
Outside the main gate to the ruins, however, are stark reminders that modern Baalbek is mainly Shiite and the stronghold of Iranian-backed Hezbollah – the ‘Party of God’. It is believed that Western hostages including Terry Waite and John McCarthy were held here. I sat, sipping a Turkish coffee so thick and strong it was almost weapons-grade, under the gaze of the turbaned mullahs and martyrs whose portraits are omnipresent. Suddenly, loudspeakers crackled with the soaring cries of the muezzin: “Allahu akbar!” God is great!
Still, there is no feeling of menace now that all sides in this country of unfathomably complex demographics, have – for the moment at least – agreed to rub along without killing each other. For instance, nobody seemed to mind me photographing the gateway to a Palestinian refugee camp bedecked with Hezbollah flags before we drove out of town and straight into a sea of vineyards.
Wine has been grown in the Bekaa Valley for over 2,000 years, though the modern estates were planted by French Jesuit priests in the 19th century. At Chateau Ksara, one of the most renowned, I toured the cobwebby cellars where vintages were maturing in oak barrels just as they do in the vineyards of Bordeaux. But, still half-sensing an ayatollah’s censorious gaze, the context felt odd.
I spent the night at the old-fashioned Grand Hotel Kadri, dating from Ottoman times, in nearby Zahlé, a city of surprisingly buzzy bars and riverside restaurants, whose population is mainly Christian. Greek (as opposed to Maronite) Christian. But Greek Catholic, not Orthodox. Roman Catholic? Sort of, they are ‘in communion with the Pope’, but follow their own traditions. Work that one out if you like, or just accept that every time you think you are getting your head around Lebanon, further confusions raise theirs.
Such as the Druze, a Shiite offshoot – another mysterious but powerful religious/ethnic sect. Their patch of Lebanon is the southern Chouf Mountains into which we climbed on the road out of the Bekaa Valley back towards the Med. Druze men wrapped in white turbans and women in black skirts were flitting around the cobbled piazza in the shade of a clock-towered mosque at Deir al-Qamar. The huddled hillside town reminded me of Tuscany, which was less surprising when I learned that the 17th-century Druze hero Fakhreddine returned from his five-year exile in Florence, bringing architects and craftsmen with him.
Before the short drive back to Beirut I took an evening stroll through the surrounding pillowed hills, reflecting on how the further I travelled through Lebanon, the more this tiny country seemed to expand. And that, while in Beirut religions and cultures are all thrown uneasily together, on a journey through the country I had seen them percolate into their distinctive forms.
Who knows what is round the corner for this land blessed with beauty but cursed by strife. But if you have the opportunity to visit while the peaceful moment lasts, just take it.
The author travelled with Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000, www.coxandkings.co.uk)