20th September 2019
Wild Frontiers' Michael discovered that history in the town of Baalbek is not limited to the stunning Roman ruins which made it famous...
Baalbek’s Palmyra Hotel is a time warp with a history almost as rich as the Roman site of Baalbek itself. The hotel was originally established by a Greek businessman in 1874. He recognised the appeal of the stunning ruins, which sit just across the road, long before the site was first excavated in 1884. Since then, the Palmyra Hotel has seen two world wars and a brutal fifteen-year-long civil war. Amazingly though, it has never closed its doors for a single day.
During that time the Palmyra Hotel has had mixed fortunes. It was once the place to stay, with guests ranging from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and the Shah of Iran to Charles de Gaulle and Ella Fitzgerald.
The hotel employed 60 people, and hosted lavish dinner parties attracting hundreds of guests. But times have changed and it is now run by just eight members of staff. One of those, Ahmed, has seen it all, having worked there since 1954.
"When I was 16 years old I was asked to help out for a couple of hours by a family friend, as the hotel was short-staffed. I stood on a box and did the washing up in the kitchen. I obviously did a good job, as they asked me to come back the next day, and the day after that, and then the following day, and here I am still here over 60 years later!"
Since then Ahmed has helped guests like Jacques Chirac and Nina Simone enjoy their stays, and his hospitality skills have been tightly honed by years of experience. "At one time, one of the Palmyra's managers wanted me to attend a hotel hospitality school in Switzerland. It so happened that the owner of the school stayed here at the Palmyra for a month. At the end of his stay he said to my manager, there is no point in sending Ahmed to my school, I should send some of my students here to learn from him!"
Ahmed is proud that the hotel has never closed its doors, but is also acutely aware of how times have changed. "When the Prime Minister of Lebanon used to stay here, he came with just one bodyguard. That is hard to imagine now there are tanks on every corner [in fact, there is one stationed in front of the hotel]."
It doesn't take Einstein (another of the hotel's illustrious guests), to work out why the hotel has had a tough time recently. Baalbek, and the wider Bekka Valley, is the heart of Hezbollah-controlled territory, and as such there have been regular skirmishes with Israel. Since 2011, the Syrian civil war has compounded its troubles, the border being just 15 miles away.
Until early 2019, Baalbek and most of the Bekka Valley were on the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) blacklist. However, times are changing, the FCO has green-lighted the area, and tourism to Lebanon is currently on the up, perhaps ushering in a new era for this most resilient of hotels.
Ahmed is just part of the hotel’s charm. The last major refurbishment was in the 1960s, and whilst it may be slightly shabby around the edges, the hotel oozes character with fraying rugs, period furnishings and images of some of the famous guests who have stayed there over the years adorning the walls. Imagine a real-life Grand Budapest Hotel and you won’t be far off.
I stayed in the room that once hosted Charles de Gaulle and in the morning enjoyed a superb breakfast on the balcony, overlooking the ruins of Baalbek. The Palmyra Hotel has it all - location, history and character.
For guests wanting a little more comfort the Palmyra has an annex, just 100 yards up the road, outsourced to the hotel group L’Hote Libanais which, again, is furnished with period pieces, albeit offering a little more luxury.
A visit to Baalbek is all about history. The ruins are some of the best-preserved Roman remains in the world, and the scale - from the somehow still-standing towering columns of the Temple of Jupiter to the vast Temple of Bacchus, is mind-blowing. Whilst immersing yourself in the tale of this enduring site, there’s nowhere better to stay than in the grand old institution that is the Palmyra Hotel.
Update 24 September 2019: It is with great sadness that we heard Ahmed passed away in September 2019. The team at Wild Frontiers send their condolences to his family and everyone at the Palmyra Hotel, where he was like family. He will be remembered for his unsurpassed levels of hospitality and his warm welcomes at the Palmyra Hotel.