Whilst growing up, Lebanon was synonymous with the civil war which divided Beirut into East & West sections, Druze militia, Hezbollah and kidnappings. The Human League famously sang, “who will have won, when the soldiers have gone, in the Lebanon?” Well I won’t debate the answer to that one, but peace was restored in 1990.
In May 2000 Hamish and I paid a visit to the country roughly half the size of Wales and just a stone’s throw from the EU in the shape of Cyprus.
We flew into Beirut on Friday evening where we based ourselves for four days to take in the city and nearby places of interest. Just after we checked in to our hotel we heard the sound of gunfire, not what we wanted to hear in the so recently divided city. Our fears proved unfounded thankfully.
The Lebanese basketball champions had just won the Middle East championships and what we had heard was in fact celebratory firecrackers! We were safe to go out for a beer and falafel after all.
Our first morning was spent exploring the city. We strolled to the seafront corniche where families promenaded on the Sabbath mid-morning sunshine.
The Mediterranean was a deep blue millpond and we lingered to watch the brave boys who dived from huge rocks a few metres from the shore. The distinctive boulders/diving platforms are known as Pigeon Rocks, no idea why.
Today was a day of prayer, leisure and rest for the Lebanese so we took it easy ourselves and made plans for the rest of our stay.
Next day we took a bus to the coastal cities of Tyre (aka Sour) & Sidon.
If I am honest I do not remember a whole lot about the cities apart from the sea castle at Sidon, which occupied us for half an hour or so.
Our guidebook mentioned a Roman ruin worth seeing not far from Sidon. We therefore took a bus that dropped us off at the entrance road, about a thirty-minute walk from the ruins.
What we had not reckoned with was the army checkpoint that we had to pass through. At that time Lebanon had a Syrian force within its borders helping to keep the peace. They accepted our ATM cards as ID together with our explanation as to where we were headed.
It turned out that we were in fact headed for a field with a few rocks in it! The guidebook had either been a tad over enthusiastic about the site or the historic area had been raided post publication for building materials.
Disappointed at our reward for all that hot and energy sapping effort, we were very glad for the restaurant situated by the checkpoint. Hummus, flatbread and coke, thank you very much.
Bus timetables did not exist in Lebanon. What you had however were regular streams of small minibuses ploughing up and down the main highway that cut a coast hugging path from South to North pretty much the length of the country. The rule was to wave vigorously as they approached and if they had spare seats they would stop and accept your custom.
Several absolutely packed buses passed us, until after 45 minutes one stopped. It had one spare seat, but happily a mother sat her young son on her lap to allow us to cram inside.
Rather than return to Beirut we had decided to visit Moussa Castle, a place that was in fact a house built in castle style. The bus was bound for Beirut and would not be leaving the highway until it turned off for the capital. We therefore had our eyes trained on the road for a sign indicating the castle turn off was nigh.
Our guidebook gave us the Arabic for ‘next stop please’, which we shouted when we saw a sign showing the turn off was a kilometre away. We clearly got the pronouniation close enough as we were indeed dropped at the right place. Just a small matter of a three kilometre walk largely uphill to contend with then!
Frustratingly we could see the castle for ages, but the road zig-zagged several times before we eventually arrived, hot, sweaty and thirsty. So was the walk worth it? Debatable. There were some nice mosaics and the building was indeed very castle-like, but knowing it was built in the 1960s detracted from any wow factor.
We agreed that walking back was not a desirable option, especially as we would then need to flag down a bus to take us to the Cola Stand in central Beirut, the stopping and starting point of all public transport in the capital. We therefore waited for a taxi to bring more visitors so we could jump in the vacated vehicle.
One eventually did arrive but he had been paid to wait for his guests. Happily there was only two of them and it was their last stop of the day before returning to Beirut. We would have to wait for a hour whilst they visited the castle, but this was way preferential to the alternative.
We had big plans for the next day, to travel along the Bekaa Valley to visit historic Baalbek and Anjar. We made arrangements with the same taxi driver to pick us up from our hotel next day and take us on our tour. The price negotiated included taking us back right to our hotel from Moussa, thus saving us another thirty minute walk from the Cola Stand drop off.
We arranged to be picked up eight. First up the Roman city of Baalbek, close to the Syrian border and in an area known as a Hezbollah stronghold.
The site was fantastic and definitely the finest example of a Roman city that I had seen up to that point. The Temple of Bacchus and the statues of lions were particularly impressive.
Our taxi driver was happy for us to spend a good two and a half hours exploring the site as he drank grainy coffee and smoked a shisha pipe in a local cafe.
We declined the offer of a smoke and set off back along the valley towards Beirut for our second site of the day at Anjar. The ruins date from the 8th Century and were built by the Umayyad dynasty.
The Bekaa Valley region is world famous for the quality of its red wine, so we stopped off at a shop close to the site and bought a cheap bottle each. To this day, it remains as one of the top three bottles I have ever had the pleasure of drinking.
On the way back we stopped off at Beiteddine Palace, situated in the Chouf district, but didn’t linger long.
We soon therefore found ourselves back in Beirut, our driver obliging us with a stop at an unusual monument in the city, a pile of tanks and guns encased in concrete. A permanent reminder of the civil conflict, as were the bullet riddled buildings that stood nearby.
We gave our driver a deserved tip for his full day of taxiing, the huge grin of gratitude on his face being a joy to see.
Next morning we arrived early to consume our breakfast of hard boiled egg, flat bread, apricot jam and thick black coffee, identical for the fourth day running. We were however about to be heading off for a two night excursion and some breakfast variety………….