Beirut messes with your head.
This is the Middle East and veiled women saunter along the corniche, towering minarets scratch the sky and above the din of traffic, you hear the muezzin call the faithful to prayer. But down on the beach other women wear bikinis, laughing couples crowd the numerous bars and neon lights advertise glitzy nightclubs. Our itinerary had mention of a pub crawl! Little wonder our hotel was full of men from Saudi. ‘They come here every weekend,’ the porter told us, with a wink. ‘They come here to have fun.’
And that is Beirut, a cosmopolitan, multicultural city of fun, today just as it was in the Sixties when it was one of the favourite Mediterranean hang outs of movie stars, Cold War spies and Euro-wealth. Of course, it has been through a vicious civil war since then, during which much of the city was destroyed. But although relics of that conflict can still be seen, most of the city has now been rebuilt and is today as lively and glamourous as it was back then. A Party town, more like Ibiza than neighbouring Amman. The Middle East yes, but not as you know it.
Having checked out the city, visiting its excellent museum, its old town and sampling its nightlife, the following morning we headed north up the coast. With continuous dwellings lining the highway, it was hard to tell where Beirut finished and the next town began. On our left shimmered the glistening waters of the Med, to our right past the apartment blocks, garages and shops, the land rose through green hills, terraced with citrus fruit and walnuts, to distant mountains high above. It was easy to see how Lebanon really could offer skiing in the morning and a beach in the afternoon.
Our first stop was at the quite extraordinary Jeita Grotto. To be honest I was rather unenthusiastic about stopping here, expecting an underwhelming cave overrun with tourists. In fact, it was a good reminder that travel can continue to amaze even the most experienced traveller and the site left me speechless. As one of the largest caves systems in the world the vast vaulted chamber, at times 75 metres high and accessible for more than a mile underground, with towering multi coloured stalagmites and stalactites, was without doubt one of the most spectacular natural creations I have ever seen. It was like finding yourself on the set of Lord of the Rings.
From here we continued on to Byblos. If Jericho claims to be the oldest town on the planet, and Damascus the oldest capital, then Byblos (or Jbeil as it is locally known) lays claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world. With evidence of a settlement dating back to Palaeolithic times, Byblos rose to prominence as a great port city during the Phoenician period. Today it is a beautiful laidback town, filled with narrow streets and bougainvillea-soaked alleyways, and a picturesque harbour around which countless seafood restaurants reside, and in its midst float pretty yachts and fishing boats… a kind of Middle Eastern Saint Tropez. There is a church and castle dating back to the first crusades, Roman colonnades and Ottoman fortifications. In Lebanon one is constantly reflecting on history.
The next day we drove up through the stunning Qadisha valley, a traditionally Christian stronghold, punctuated with churches and shrines to the Virgin Mary. Until recently Lebanon was a predominantly Christian country, but with the influx of refugees, first from Palestine and more recently from Syria, the balance has shifted; this was one of the main reasons for the civil war. But in a show of remarkable foresight, it is now written into the constitution that the president has to be Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the house Shia Muslim and, perhaps ironically, the head of the central bank Greek Orthodox. This way no one religious group can seize the upper hand and the country remains stable with all sides having their say; the only downside is that this can cause inertia in decision making, particularly where the economy is concerned, which has given rise to some issues in the recent past. Here we visited the spectacular Qozhaya monastery, village of Besharre, home to Khalil Gibran – author of The Prophet – and county’s oldest cedar grove, before driving over a high pass and heading down into the Bekaa Valley.
Stretching all the way from the Syrian frontier to the borders of Israel, the Bekaa Valley is the region’s most fertile area, home to much of its agriculture. Besides abundance of fruit, cereals and root crops that are produced here, the Bekaa Valley is also home to the country’s burgeoning wine industry. With viniculture introduced by the Romans, only to be banned by the Ottomans and now mostly a Shia region, wine making is making a comeback, with wines such as Chateau Musar and Chateau Izsir leading the way. We stopped at two wineries to learn about production in the area, and sample some of their produce.
But there is little doubt about Lebanon’s greatest archaeological attraction, and that is the Roman ruins at Baalbek. This vast site, primarily formed out of two huge temples – one to Jupiter and the other to Bacchus (little wonder given the regions history with wine) – is one of the great sites of antiquity left in the Middle East. What was also wonderful was that there were so few other tourists present and we wandered through the huge halls, beneath the towering columns and along the colonnades, without another soul. Quite a treat these days. That night we stayed in the old Palmyra Hotel, a place that echoes with the past, and hasn’t seen much change since the likes of De Gaulle, Picasso and Kamal Mustafa Ataturk stayed there many years ago. We were the hotel’s only guests.
Besides ancient sites, Lebanon is also home to some of the most impressive landscapes in the Middle East and there is no better way to experience them that taking a good hike. Indeed, part of my brief from the office in London was to check out some walking routes for a new walking tour and so we headed from the Bekaa Valley up into the hills.
The Mount Lebanon massif raises to a height of just over 3,000 metres and stretches pretty much the entire length of the country, and there are countless trails to be explored. We headed to the pretty village of Masser El Shouf, deep within the Shouf Cedar Reserve, and after an enlightening briefing about eco-tourism at the village’s reception centre, we picked up a local guide and headed off, walking along a well-worn trail, passed the many cedar trees for which the region is famed. It was the famous Lebanese cedar forests and the exports that came from them that made the port cities of Tyre, Sidon and Byblos back in biblical times; indeed, it is even said that the temple of Solomon was built with Lebanese cedar. At one time there were 35 million cedar pines covering the country’s hills, but during the civil war many were destroyed, reducing that number to some seven million today, four million of which are in the Shouf reserve. We walked for five hours along high ridges, through forests and along craggy outcrops. The views down towards the coast were sublime. At the walk’s end was a small taverna at which we had a delicious traditional lunch. It’s not just the scenery that’s the best in the region; Lebanese cuisine is sensational.
With stops at the 19th century palace of Beit Ed Dine, the old Phoenician ports of Tyre and Sidon, we headed back to Beirut. That evening, as it was my birthday, we went to an ultra-trendy sky bar for dinner and drinks. Looking around us was modern Beirut in all its shimmering neon glory. But looking down, beside the road, Roman ruins from another world could still be seen. A city, built on a city, built on a city.
Since its creation 100 years ago Lebanon has seen its fair share of trouble. But now largely at peace, with itself and its many varied cultures (if not always its politicians!), it offers not only world class sites (where else can you visit seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in seven days?), great cuisine, interesting accommodation and a host of fun experiences, perhaps more importantly it offers the modern, curious traveller a fascinating insight into understanding both the political and cultural make up of this most important part of the world.