Our voyage out of Beirut (and given the traffic, any trip out of Beirut qualifies as a voyage) took place on a Sunday morning. The Lebanese take Sunday as a day of rest much more seriously than most Canadians do, so this added a bit to the adventure. We caught a minibus headed south which eventually dropped us off at a motorway off-ramp. We’d been standing around wondering what to do for about five minutes when a taxi pulled up and asked us where we were going. “Beittedine?” he said. “6000 for two.” Sounded good to us, so off we went. (I’m using my own spelling here for the town of Beittedine… A hybrid of the English and Arabic ones that gets across how it’s actually pronounced.)
The view from our highway off-ramp, complete with the Mediterranian Sea and a Banana farm (?!)
Incidentally, This trip added to my questions about what consitutes a “service taxi” (a taxi that functions like an ad-hoc bus, picking up and dropping off people along a somewhat fixed route) and a regular taxi. We were certainly paying a service taxi fare, but the driver didn’t seem at all distressed that our bags took up so much room that no other passengers could fit on board. The questions went un-answered, but it got us up the gorgeous valley and to the former seat of the Ottomans in Lebanon, Beittedine Palace.
The Second Court at Beittedine Palace. We commented while there that, while it’s both newer and smaller, the local Ottoman governor’s palace in Beittedine was actually much prettier than the Sultan’s Topkapi Palace in Istanbul
The interior of the lavishly decorated Hammam at Beitteidine. Interesting fact: The Italian Architects snuck a bit of their Christianity into the Ottoman palace by including a group of mini-windows in the shape of a maltese cross in the hammam ceiling. This was only really visible when viewed in a small mirror (or, in our case, a pair of sunglasses.)
The palace was wonderful in all sorts of ways, and we were very happy to have made it there. The architecture was beautiful, the weather was bliss (about 23 degrees, sunny with a light breeze) and the collection of Byzantine mosaics was very impressive. Perhaps the best thing of all was the interior of the palace (or at least the portions we saw… The final of three courts sits unused, but ready to continue functioning as the summer residence of the Lebanese President once they finally figure out who that’s going to be… 7 months and counting.)
One of the dozens of beautiful Byzantine mosaics at Beittedine. These came from a site on the coast of Lebanon. Discovered during the civil war, the Druze leader who was in control of the area at the time had them shipped to Beittedine for safe keeping, eventually proclaiming them to comprise “a museum for the people.”
We arrived at the palace just as a large group of French students was starting their guided tour. We got to tag along (at a much reduced price) and it’s very lucky that we did. My penny pinching would probably have led to us forgoing a tour under normal circumstances, but the company of a guide is the only way to see the very best bits of the palace (as the guides, rather conveniently, also act as key-men.)
The grounds at Beittedine. These were just so pleasant and beautiful that we spent over an hour just sitting around after our visit to the palace, during which time we saw two couples having their wedding photos shot (it’s that kind of place.)
The rest of the afternoon was almost as typically Lebanese as the night before had been. In Beittedine we joined a group of perhaps a dozen 20-30 year olds up from Beirut for a weekend barbeque at a friend’s house. They all spoke at least a bit of English or French, so we had lots of fun chatting with them, and the food was delicious (it included probably the best tabbouleh I’ve ever had!) We also got to try out a few other local favourites, including Lebanese beer, a couple of flavours of Narglieh (water pipe filled with flavoured tobacco) and even home-made arak (a traditional arabic drink rather like ouzo or anise flavoured grapa.)
Our lunch companions (mmm…. lunch)
Following a bit of a complicated taxi trip to the town of Ain-Zhalta (pronounced AY-een Zuh-HALT-ah) we met up with one of the many families out for their Sunday picnics on the edge of the Chouf Cedar Reserve. This featured many of the same elements of the time with our previous hosts, but added the crazy intoxicated uncle, the young men partying nearby who dragged us off for a bit to learn arab dancing, and the small girl named Sarah (everyone in Syria and Lebanon LOVED the fact that Sarah was named Sarah, as it’s also an Arabic name. Everyone knew at least one Sarah, but she was the first one we’d actually met.)
The view from our campsite at Ain Zhalta. Sadly we’d misjudged and were actually too far north in the Chouf cedar reserve to see any old-growth cedars during our hike the next day. But we did see plenty of newer ones on our walk up the mountain
That evening, after everyone else had gone home, we set up our tent and concluded this fabulous day with a nice (if very windy) night out in the tent with a pine forest around us and the Chouf mountains rising behind us in the background.
The road leading from the Cedar Reserve down into Ain Zhalta
Reminder: Stick to the path. This is the remains of a large mortar shell that we saw at the side of the trail during our hike in the Cedar Reserve
With the very best day of our time in Lebanon behind us, I think I can dispense with the narrative style again and just stick with some highlights.
The first of which was a lowlight. Following our climb up into the Chouf, we came back to our campsite to find that my pack had been opened and some of the contents laid out on the ground nearby. At first it seemed like nothing was missing, but I soon realized that our headlamp was missing (we later found it taken apart, but otherwise unharmed nearby.) Shortly thereafter we also realized that our mobile phones were gone (these never reappeared.) Thankfully we’d had all of our cash and documents with us, and the thieves apparently weren’t interested in anything that couldn’t be concealed easily and sold quickly. On the whole it was a sad lesson that cautioned us against being too trusting, but didn’t cost much given that they were old phones and will easily be replaced when we sign up for new plans back in NZ.
One of the many lovely old French Mandate buildings in Zahle. It wasn’t entirely unlike a Himalayan hill station from the days of the Raj
Visiting a tiny slice of France. The town of Zahle is an absolutely delightful place. Even the business district is pretty pleasant, but once you get up the small valley away from the highway it turns into a virtual paradise. There are a few lovely hotels in former big colonial houses, lots of designer (and faux-designer) clothing shops lining the main street, patisseries everywhere, grandiose residences perched high above on the cliffs, a lovely clear river running through the centre of town and a place that makes the best barbeque chicken sandwiches in the world. We spent two nights in Zahle and could have happily stayed longer.
This man makes a mean barbeque chicken sandwich. With TONS of garlic sauce.
The museum at Baalbek. Like the National Museum in Beirut it was spacious and simply but elegantly presented
Progressing towards total ruination. We’d already seen a lot of old stones, but when you’ve got somewhere like Baalbek nearby you just can’t pass it up. Fortunately, like Afamya before it, Baalbek was different again from all the ruins we’d seen before. It was a much smaller site, but also much better preserved and, if this is possible, probably even more impressive.
The interior of Baalbek’s Temple of Bacchus. This beautifully decorated edifice was known in classical times as “the small temple” (see Temple of Jupiter, below.) Ironic, given that it’s bigger than the Parthenon in Athens.
Detail of the decoration in the Temple of Bacchus
Also interesting was the fact that Baalbek sits in the heart of the Bekka valley which is itself the heart of support for Hezbollah. There were gold and green Hezbollah flags flying from every light standard on the main street, and even Hezbollah t-shirts for sale in the shops. And despite what this might suggest about the attitudes of the locals towards westerners, everyone was still very friendly and welcoming.
These, part of what remains of Baalbek’s temple of Jupiter, are the largest columns ever built in the classical world. They’re 2.2m in diameter, and at one point the locals believed they’d been built by giants. If you’re still having trouble grasping the scale, that tiny blue bit near one of the column bases is me.
Some more of the Temple of Jupiter: One of the many life sized lions heads that served as rain spouts
Wine tasting. This might seem like a fool’s errand, but Lebanon actually produces some great wine, and we got to visit a couple of the wineries. The first was Chateau Ksara, the largest and oldest in the country. As one might expect it’s presentation was pretty slick. A fancy video expaining a bit about the history of the place, a tour of some of their 2.2km of cellars (they’re partly natural and partly the remains of tunnels excavated in Roman and Byzantine times) and then a degustation (this is a French influenced country after all) in a tasting bar that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Napa.
The caves/cellars at Ksara. The Jesuits who bought the land and started the winery here didn’t even know they existed until nine years after they’d begun production
I liked Domaine Wardy a lot better. We (and even our taxi driver) had a hard time finding the place, and when we arrived it took a bit of effort for them to deal with us. In the end the winemaker herself gave us a tour of the place (including their Arak distillery… Even at it’s undiluted 75% strength it still tastes pretty good!) and then led our tasting. It was a lot of fun chatting; us tellign her what we thought of the wine in English, her explaining exactly how it was made in French, everyone enjoying themselves. At the end of it all the arak-maker, who was finishing up for the day, even gave us a ride back to our hotel! Oh… And the wine was wonderful too. We ended up with 3 bottles from each winery. It couldn’t be helped! Even their top-of-the-line, numbered-bottles type stuff was under $15!
The six bottles. What were we thinking?! It’s not going to be any fun lugging these around in a backpack for four months. Oh well. We’ll just have to drink them I guess
Our final morning in Lebanon started with a couple of k’nefi bi djeban (sesame buns filled with huge amounts of sweet, soft cheese and drenched in orange blossom syrup… Best. Breakfast. Ever.) and then a service taxi ride to the town of Chtoura… Last major settlement before the Syrian border. With surprisingly little negotiation, and only just enough time to get our departure and arrival cards filled out for the coming border crossing, we were on board an old Chevrolet Caprice with a Lebanese family for company, speeding down the road on our way to Damascus for our final few days in Syria.
Breakfast in Lebanon. If eat one of these things whilst walking and wearing a pack you’ll burn off 1.5% of the calories. Score!
Tags: Baalbek, Beitdine, Chouf, Lebanon, Llew Bardecki, Travel, Zahle