The Middle East (Part 4/8) - The Lebanon - Pint-Sized Gem

Updated: Mar 31, 2019


Pigeon Rocks, Raouche, Beirut

Safety doubts

The Lebanon (why do we use 'The'? I'll drop it if you don't mind) is what is known as a political powder-keg. A beautiful country that finds itself very much in a tough neighborhood. Before the trip, I wasn't at all sure I would be going there, and despite getting a multiple-entry visa for Syria (travelling overland towards Jordan or Israel entails leaving and then coming back into Syria, as it is the only country with open border crossings with Lebanon) I had one eye on the political and security situations there in the weeks before entering. The brief but fairly brutal war with Israel in July/August 2006 was fresh in the memory, and the situation in 2008 was tetchy if peaceful for the time being, though Hezbollah had been coming out with some fairly provocative statements. However, I had met several travellers on the way through Turkey and Syria - in particular, one Polish guy who had assuaged any worries about it being a 'dangerous' place. He had encountered no problems and was happy to report he'd had a wonderful week there. I still had at the back of my mind the fact that before we left, 14 people were killed when a bomb exploded in Hezbollah stronghold Tripoli on August 13th. Nine of those killed were soldiers travelling on a bus. What you should consider before visiting a country like Lebanon is, what constitutes 'safe', and if that is enough for you to take the minor risk of going there. The most important question you have to ask yourself is not 'is it safe?', but 'will I feel safe?'. Objectively, in purely statistical terms, I would think that a visit to Lebanon is probably no more risky than a visit to a country like Turkey or India which experiences occasional bombings and an unstable security situation in certain parts of the country. I do not know of any foreign tourists who came to harm either this May or during the 2006 war (though a couple of returning expats did get caught up in each event). Like most of the Levant, the greatest danger that you're likely to be exposed to in Lebanon are the somewhat eccentric driving standards. Subjectively, however, it's a different kettle of fish. Are you comfortable around guns, soldiers, tanks, etc? Because you'll be seeing a lot of them. The Lebanese army is out in serious force around the country in order to help preserve stability, and almost every major junction or important building will have soldiers toting M16s or AK47s stationed nearby, if not a few tanks or armoured personnel carriers.

Downtown Beirut by night

Beirut

I entered Lebanon overland. At Damascus bus station I hopped into a service taxi with two Syrian guys. It is really only a short hop from Damascus to Beirut - about 100km - and with the border crossing delay, it takes about 3 hours, through scenic mountainous countryside. At the payment booth where I stumped up 25000 Lebanese lira (about $15) for a Lebanese visa. Paperwork done, we hopped back into the taxi and down the mountain pass into Lebanon and to Beirut. The views down to Beirut were spectacular from the road. From above, it is an incredibly densely-packed city, rolling down the hillside endlessly to the sea - the downtown a mass of high-rise buildings, clustered along the glistening coastline. Once you arrive, you find that it's quite a noisy, traffic-choked city, and that the taxi drivers are even more unscrupulous and dogged than other places in the Middle East. They have the annoying habit of dawdling alongside you as you walk the pavements, honking at you to get in. On leaving the service taxi, one such driver attempted this with us, but to no avail - we hopped on a micro bus to the downtown area for a dollar each and then made our way through the district of Hamra to one of the few cheap lodgings in town. Still swealteringly hot, this march through the city was extremely hard work, and at one stage I collapsed on the pavement in a state of exhaustion. The hostel was at the bottom of a steep hill near the corniche. Seedy, a little bit scruffy and noisy - it was next to several night clubs (and, I later discovered, in the heart of Beirut's red-light district), it wasn't the most salubrious place we stayed in, but it was welcoming and characterful anyhow.

Beirut suburbs: scarred, scruffy and noisy

Cultural diversity Beirut is one of the most religiously diverse cities of the Middle East, with Christians and Muslims both having a significant presence. There are nine major religious sects in Beirut (Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, Druze, Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic and Protestant). You may think that this would give it a certain religious gravitas, but it doesn't have very much in common with other important cities of the Middle East; it is a firmly western-facing city, and its heart is young and dynamic. It still remembers the days it was known as "The Paris of the East', and it wants to recapture those days. It's a forward-looking place, full of young people intent on partying hard and no doubt out to make fast money. I have rarely seen a city with so many big and expensive cars - BMW's, Mercedes, Land Cruisers, Hummers - all full of well-to-do Beirutis and their well-dressed wives. It is said that there are only a handful of important families in Lebanon, and that they control the majority of businesses within the country - which is quite easy to believe in a sliver of land like this, half the size of Wales. The amount of foreign cash that floods into the country - including from many rich Gulf states, as well as Iran and the States, depending on which political faction you believe, should not be under-estimated. When you are walking the streets of Beirut, you feel as if you are in some lost part of Europe which has been evacuated and repopulated with a diverse mixture of Middle eastern cultures, most of whom are fluent in French and English as well as Arabic. This creates a strange kind of argot, a street language, in which people switch from Arabic to English and French, often in the space of one sentence. The differences between Beirut and Damascus are astounding; they might have been part of the same Syrian land before 1945, but they feel like they are a million miles away from each other now. Of course, Beirut was on the front line of a warzone for 15 years on and off, and is only just beginning to recover from those days when The Lebanon was a byword for utter destruction and devastation. Another positive difference is the way women can act and are treated - not as complete second-class citizens as in Syria, and not covered from head to toe in black (very often) if Muslim. Women and girls seem to have a great deal more freedom in Lebanon.

Lebanese girls working in parents' sweet shop

Who will have won when the soldiers have gone?

Wandering around the downtown district, you get a feel that the rebuilding process (which is more or less complete) has maybe not achieved quite what it could have done. Like many city centres that have been rebuilt from scratch, Beirut suffers from the feeling of no atmosphere, and buildings which feel a bit too perfect in their imitation of what they used to be to feel authentic. And who will have won when the soldiers have gone? Well, to answer the Human League's pertinent 1984 question, the architects, builders and land development corporations. The foreign investors and advertisers who came here, the rich business men. They won. And good luck to them. But in all honesty, I cannot say I loved Beirut. It's hard to love. You can only admire the resilience of the people, their determination and character - their will to keep going and their optimism. Rarely have I seen a people so hell-bent on having a good time. The city comes to life at night, and keeps on partying well past dawn. It's got one of the best clubbing scenes in the Middle East, and certainly the most thriving gay scene (which probably isn't saying that much). But it's not a city for walking around and enjoying. The distances are too great, the traffic too noisy, the wide roads too difficult to cross and the still bombed-out areas still too numerous to get around comfortably. It's also an expensive city - doing it on the cheap ain't easy. It's a place with towering hotels and posh restaurants catering to an altogether more wealthy type of guest than I was. It also lacks any real tourist 'sights' as such. Obviously this is because most of them were shelled for a decade and a half. However, there is one natural sight in Beirut which should not be missed - the Pigeon Rocks, just off the Corniche at the southern end of town. These huge, impressive limestone features have been carved out by the sea and bare more than a passing resemblance to Marsden Rock, off the Sunderland coastline. But obviously better. The two huge rock formations, which stand like gigantic sentinels, are a popular destination for locals and visitors alike.

The Corniche, Beirut: one of the few sights in an underwhelming city

The Lebanese coast I explored the Lebanese coastline from Beirut - south to Side (pronounced 'Cider') and Tyre (pronounced 'Tire'). You don't have to go far; if you drive for two hours you'll reach the Israeli border. Nothing is far in Lebanon, which makes it pretty easy to just base yourself in Beirut and see everything on day trips. A week would be ample time to see the important bits. Of these two pretty coastal villages, it's hard to choose a favourite - Side boasts an unusual castle and fortress which extends into the sea and a lively souq (market); Tyre is famous for its spectacular Roman ruins (all of which were pretty much non-Lebanese tourist-free). Both towns - especially Tyre, which was only 25km from the Israeli border, bore the scars of war, with bullet-pocked and heavily-damaged buildings; the feeling that I had entered Hezbollah territory was intensified by the fact that there was a much heavier army presence on the roads, with check-points every few kilometres. Another feature of this area were ubiquitous pictures of war heroes or suicide bomb 'martyrs'; Yasser Arrafat adorned many people's houses here also. The feeling that a country was drawn into a conflict not of their making - or even within their borders - was palpable. The hatred that Israel generates within the Middle East is felt just by approaching its borders. The people I met though gave me no reason to feel anything untoward might happen to me. I went to a local barber shop for the best shave I've ever had in Tyre - a cut-throat one with a blade that I've no doubt would have done so in an instant if the barber in question didn't possess such dexterity. I didn't need another shave for a fortnight, so close was it.

Close shave: a traditional barber shop, Tyre

Byblos

Exploring Lebanon, you cannot help but notice how extraordinarily varied it is for such a small country - and how easily navigable it is. You can drive through the whole country, north to south, in less than four hours, and in that time, you can pass through Orthodox Christian villages, Muslim areas, Hezbollah-controlled valleys, Druze (Muslim off-shoot) communities, ski resorts, beach resorts, Roman ruins, and arrive in the buzzing metropolis of Beirut. To the north of Beirut, there is Byblos. This picture-perfect coastal village is the highlight of Lebanon's coastline. At the bottom of a steep road, it is built around a pretty harbour, but rising just above that are some astonishing Roman ruins, which command stunning views of the surrounding countryside and coast. I arrived there just as the sun was setting, and got some fantastic shots of the ruins in reddish light. The ruins were, as usual in this part of the world, pretty much devoid of tourists, barely cared for and a little unkempt - but wonderfully atmospheric. You forget sometimes how historically important many of these sites are - this is one of the oldest settlements in the world, dating from Canaanite times, 3 millenia before Christ. The word 'bible' is thought to derive from Byblos, an early Greek name for paper, which was exported to the Aegean from here. Byzantine monks are said to have established their first scriptorium, Byblos, in modern Lebanon. Byblos town itself is a smallish seaside town with winding cobbled streets, street side cafes, souks and a castle chock full of archaeological importance. I spent a few hours strolling around, enjoying this quaint town. I went past the tiny marina admiring the fishing boats and watched the local fisherman swing their poles from every available rock formation nearby.

Sunset at the Roman ruins, Byblos

Triploli, Bcharre and The Cedars

Further north, near the Syrian border, you get to Tripoli. I spent a couple of nights here, and enjoyed the feeling of being one of the only foreigners in town. I did attract a few stares - not many people seemed to anticipate visitors - but generally received a warm welcome. I purchased soap from the market - like Aleppo, Tripoli is famous for it - and enjoyed some of it's array of delicious sweet pastries and sweets. One famous pastry shop had been opened since the 19th century and its sweets were mouth-watering. Ramadan was still dragging on, and like in other Muslim towns and cities, the centre became a hive of activity at night when families would descend on restaurants and feast. Only the constant and heavy presence of armed policemen and military vehicles reminded me of the potential danger-zone I was in. From Tripoli, I made my way by bus east and into the mountains. The Lebanese mountains are high - the highest peaks exceed 3000 metres - and the bus trip was spectacular. It took two hours to climb about a thousand metres up to the Qadisha Valley and the picturesque resort of Bcharre. There is a saying in the Lebanon that in spring time it is possible to go skiing in the morning and then go to the beach for a swim in the afternoon - and this country packs so much into its modest borders that this is probably true on a good spring day.The scenery up in the mountains was wild, and the Qadisha Valley, which Bcharre is at the end of, is a real gem - a huge rift valley which opens out below the town for miles and miles.

Bcharre - stunning rift valley in Lebanon's mountainous interior

The views were absolutely magnificent. Bcharre is in a Christian part of Lebanon, so a big chapel dominates the skyline - perched on a promontory, you can see it from almost any angle in the town, and it has a commanding view down the valley. I plonked my bags in a place called the Tiger Hostel - $10 a night for a bed in a very agreeable family-run place - and headed up the hill towards a place called The Cedars. Long ago, the mountains in Lebanon were covered with cedar trees - and indeed, this is the national symbol, appearing on the Lebanese flag, synonymous with the Lebanese like the maple leaf is to the Canadians. Now, there is only the most trifling cluster of trees high above Bcharre - more of a wood than a forest - but home to some of the most beautiful and ancient trees on earth. The whole area was deforested centuries ago, mainly by the Romans, so the slopes here are quite barren. Good for skiing and pretty good for hiking if you like to admire the views. I had hitched a lift with a group of Polish guys who had driven from Poland down to Lebanon through Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Syria - quite a voyage - and in only about seven days. They were planning to sell their not inexpensive Land-rover at the end of the trip. And I thought our journey had been long and complicated! The Poles were extremely friendly and were obviously having the time of their lives. Just up from the Cedars was system of caves which had some outstanding stalagmites and stalactites to admire. The views from this height down the valley as the sun was setting were awesome. We explored the Qadisha Valley the next day, which involved a long and protracted descent down to the valley bottom from the town, through truly stunning - and quite verdant - scenery. There were so many colours, and the green haze of the valley stretching into the distance with shimmering mountain peaks was hard to resist. The valley floor had two monasteries to explore - both carved precipitously into the cliff - and we spent the afternoon exploring those before thumbing a lift from a French couple who turned out to be journalists. They had wisely hired a car and were making their way around the country that way rather than by public transport - making life a great deal easier. Sometimes, backpacking in the traditional way becomes tiresome and difficult, and because of the lack of decent reliable buses throughout the Middle East - especially Jordan and Lebanon - this trip was extremely tiring.

The Cedars - national symbol of Lebanon

Baalbek

A word on Lebanese cuisine - delicious. Much like Syrian in fact, but even better. I refer you to my previous blog. I didn't dine as well as in Syria, prices being slightly higher in Lebanon, but the quality and freshness of the ingredients was fantastic. The national beer - Almazza - was a fair bit better than Syrian, and Lebanese wine is quite well known. I had a couple of bottles of perfectly acceptable and reasonably priced dry red one night and it went down a treat with hummus and vine leaves. My last stop in Lebanon was Baalbek - the site of perhaps the most famous and arguably most beautiful Roman ruins in the Middle East, along with Palmyra. The car trip over the mountain range to get there that we took with the French and an English guy called Ali to save petrol money was wild and beautiful; hardly any people or cars we saw for two hours or more, just the occasional farmer with a herd of goats or sheep. After a quick espresso coffee stop, we were down into the Bekaa Valley - Hezbollah heartland - and making our way to Baalbek. The trademark Hezbollah headgear was suddenly everywhere - and again we had entered an area where women were scarce, and usually covered up from head to foot in black. As soon as we got out of the car in Baalbek, a guy came over to us and tried to sell us a Hezbollah t-shirt! Our friends had elected to stay in the Agatha Christie - era Palmyra hotel, a crumbling 19th century place which defined the term 'faded grandeur'. We stayed somewhere far more modest. The main, or really the only, reason to go to Baalbek is to see the Roman ruins there - which is what we did. We went to the ruins and, almost unsurprisingly by now, they were magnificent. Again, some world-class sights which are largely unknown by the world because of the present political situation - but which were on the itinerary of any self-respecting traveller of the Middle East in Christie's time. We went close to sunset, and got some great shots with long shadows cast by the huge columns and blocks. Having such places to yourself as a traveller - as I've mentioned already - is one of the great advantages of a trip to the Middle East. It's the payback you get for being in a potential warzone I suppose.

Baalbek ruins: more off-the-beaten-track archaeological wonder

Hotel Palmyra: faded grandeur

Later that evening, we went up to Hotel Palmyra. There probably isn't another hotel in the Middle East that evokes the past as much as the Hotel Palmyra. Shabby and somewhat faded as it is, the whole place oozes character. The large rooms with their old-fashoned furniture and Jean Cocteau drawings, grand salon opening onto a balcony with a perfect view of the ruins and cool terrace garden have great charm. The doorways are hung with huge kilims, the foyer is lined with photos of the great and the good who have stayed there, you may even come down to breakfast in the morning to find a woman baking fresh bread on a stone for you. There really isn't anywhere like it - except perhaps the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, a similarly faded ghost from a bygone world. I found Ali hunched over a book in the dimly-lit bar, completely alone. There wasn't even a barman around. In fact, the whole hotel appeared deserted. For this reason, no doubt, Ali seemed rather pleased to see me. The French couple had driven off to Zelve, down the valley, earlier that evening. We had a pleasant evening playing cards and drinking Almazza to the sound of a ticking grandfather clock. I went around the hotel to explore, and walking down the empty, cool, dusty corridors felt rather spooky - as if the spirit of Cocteau was still present. The Moroccans say that belligerent spirits called Djins inhabit buildings which have been left too long alone, and it felt, standing in those corridors, that they might just be right. Or maybe I had had one too many Almazzas. The Lebanese part of the trip was over - I was on the bus the next day back to Damascus and thence to Amman in Jordan. It was a gamble worth taking visiting Lebanon. There can't be many places like it in the world, and if you're willing to ignore those people that claim it's dangerous, you can have the time of your life there. Understandably, the majority of people would feel way too far out of their comfort zone to go there, and it will take years, if not decades, to regain its former crown as the Switzerland of the Middle East (why are places always the Switzerland of somewhere?) - until then, intrepid travellers - enjoy.

Last orders please - bar at Hotel Palmyra, Baalbek



Although most people in 2018 wouldn't consider Lebanon as a place worth considering for a visit, it is actually reasonably safe - as long as you follow travel advice and avoid certain areas, namely those bordering Syria, with heavy Hezbollah presence or Sunni Islamist strongholds. Here is an article with some accurate and pretty up-to-date travel advice.



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This blog is the fourth part of a series of eight in the Middle East. To see the previous/next parts, on Damascus/Palmyra/Apamya in Syria and Jordan respectively, please go here:

Part 3/8: Syria - Palmyra, Damascus, Hama, Apamea

Part 5/8: Jordan


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