1st April 2011
Pigeon Rock is a natural chalk island of rock arches, standing opposite on the famous promenade the Corniche, one can understand why it is a popular place to pause before ambling on, greeting friends and to be seen! Leaning over the railing to admire the rock and stare down into the clear blue and calm water, it was a perfect place to start my tour. Welcome to Lebanon. WF’s first trip to this tiny (only 250km long) and beautiful country and I am the lucky one to be leading this Beirut to Damascus trip which starts on Sunday.
From the rock my driver Ahmed and guide Pierre, we drove down the coast to Sidon, where on my right hand side it seemed like towns merged into each other as there is so much construction of apartments going on up in the hills overlooking the sea. Opposite side of the road seemed to be endless plantations of bananas. Sidon is charming, the first thing that hits you is the smell of the sea, a string of small fisherman span the sea front mending their nets before heading out in the evening. Having visited the small crusader castle, chateau de la mer and the 17th century Khan Al-Franj, we head for the souk which being Friday the sadly closed but walking around the labyrinth of tiny lanes, and ducking under stone archways, I cant wait to see it again on Monday with my group when it's bustling.
Lebanon being so small it really takes no time at all to reach places and less than hour later we had reached the beautiful palace of Beitedine. Once you turn off the coastal hill and head for the hills you are in a different world. Green, so green; steep sided hills that are ear poppingly high as you make your way up the road with sharp switch backs and steep drops which bizarrely I didn’t notice as was too busy taking it all in. Pine trees, eucalyptus, olive, cypress the odd cedar and what nobody told me was the abundance of wild flowers, carpets of them. Beitedine is a lovely old palace, now used by the President as his summer resident – lucky chap and famous for its music festival in the summer. Domingo, the Dame from New Zealand Kiri, Elton John, Shakira and Mika to name a few. As well as being able to see some of the rooms lined in cedar panels and ornately painted, Beitedine also has a fabulous museum of Byzantine mosaics in the stable complex. Rescued from the coast near Sidon where they were unearthed, they relocated them to here.
The afternoon was spent in Beirut itself, after a fine lunch for of falafel sandwiches, before heading to the museum which was situated right on the green line and as you can imagine was a wreck by the end of the war. There is a short film showing you how they found the museum and the restoration which is worth watching as you can appreciate the work and dedication that has gone into repairing it. From there we headed into Down Town, passing the odd building left over from the war, a solemn reminder to the 15 years of war. From the days of snipers hiding out in grand old Parisenne style buildings which were shells of their former glory this area has been restored and walking around or hanging out at one of the street cafes and restaurants is very relaxing especially as most of this area is closed to cars.
Now heading off to meet an old friend who moved back here in 2005.