We had arranged a taxi to take us on a grand tour to see the oldest cedar trees (the symbol of the country) in Lebanon, onto the ancient port city of Byblos (both the Bible and the word for ‘books’ in many languages are derived from the city’s name) and finally on to the northern city of Tripoli.
We motored along the main coastal highway, before hanging a right along steep winding roads, through villages clinging to the hillside and up high to the location on Mount Lebanon of the cedar trees, said to be over 2,000 years old.
I had never made such effort before to see trees, but these were special. One tree had even been carved to depict Christ on the cross. The area was very picturesque too and we were glad to linger over a snack before setting off for Byblos.
The biblical city was wonderful with its stone buildings, imposing sea castle, sandy beach and small harbour.
We stayed for a couple of hours, long enough to see a scintillating sunset that gave the buildings a golden glow and silhouetted kids playing on the beach.
The downside to staying for sunset was that we arrived in Tripoli in pitch darkness. Our hotel in Beirut had phoned ahead to book us a hotel for two nights, but damned if we could find it.
The taxi driver needed to get back to Beirut so we were left to find it ourselves. Happily we did eventually and celebrated with a fish with couscous meal and a Lebanese beer in the hotel courtyard.
We were staying in a very nice attic room, full of colourful rugs and distinctive furniture made of cedar. One of the cosiest and most memorable rooms I have ever stayed in.
Next day was all about exploring Tripoli. It had an amazing souk where I bought soap, a silver chain and some bright silk throws for my significant females back home (I was to be married three months hence and had some brownie points to gain back from my fiancé who was not happy that I had chosen Lebanon for a trip so close to our wedding in Athens – the stigma had still to wear off from the 15 years long conflict).
Tripoli (Lebanon’s second largest city, 83 KM north of the capital) was great, a bustling metropolis, perfect for watching people going about their busy lives. We bumped into a chap who carried a large silver urn on his back and dispensed a sweet yellow liquid into cups. He did this by leaning to the side so the drink entered the cup through a spout. We declined to take a drink on the basis that we were not sure if he knew what washing up liquid was going by how grubby the cups appeared.
That evening we decided to go to a suburb reached along a promontory surrounded by sea on both sides. The area’s claim to notoriety was it had been from here that Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special envoy, and other hostages were said to have been held captive for some of the time spent as hostages.
No sooner had we sat down in the restaurant than all the lights went out. The same thought flashed across both of our minds. A blackout would be a perfect foil for a kidnapping! Happily it was a ten minute power cut, extremely common in those parts so it happened.
Thursday morning was time to head back to Beirut. We took an early minibus the whole route and after being dropped at the Cola Stand, we decided to stop for lunch. Just about to tuck into our fattoush salad, we were stopped short by an alarming sight.
A convoy of trucks and cars whose occupants waved yellow Hezbollah flags and Kalashnikov rifles in the air, shouted slogans and blared their horns. What the blazes?
The waiter saw our puzzled and slightly fearful expressions and came over to explain.
That very day Israel had pulled out of their occupation of Southern Lebanon after 22 years, the convoy being a show of celebration rather than aggression. Thank goodness. Furthermore, the next day had been declared as an impromptu national holiday.
We feared that the public holiday would scupper our plans, but we were fine with taxis and our intended destinations all working. I was not totally looking forward to the day ahead. A trip to the underground caves, lake and rock formations of Jeita Grotto was a wonderful prospect. Not so much the nearby cable car that the guidebook said should be renamed terrorpherique instead of telepherique! For somebody not overly happy with heights, that was not an altogether appealing prospect.
The ride up wasn’t too bad. We swung about in the wind a bit in our tiny two-person capsule, but as long as I avoided looking down I was fine.
We were rewarded for our fortitude with a giant white marble statue of The Madonna (Our Lady of Lebanon) looking divine against the beautiful blue sky on its perch on the outskirts of the town of Harissa.
The ride down was the terrifying bit! We lurched off the hillside and came to an abrupt halt causing us to jerk and swing wildly. My heart was in my mouth (I shrieked actually!), before the pod steadied and we slowly started our descent. I forced myself to look down, once!
Back on terra firma, Hamish remarked that I looked a little on the white side with more than a hint of green. I am sure he was right!
After the adrenaline rush we needed to wind down, this was a holiday after all. We had read about a nearby hotel in Jounieh that allowed you to use their swimming pool for a fee. We had a taxi waiting and agreed that he could depart after dropping us at the hotel.
This did not go quite as planned as he had mistakenly left a zero off his quote for ferrying us around. He now wanted ten times what we thought we had agreed!
We of course baulked at this demand, but ended up paying nearly all of it after the taxi union gathered around us and agreed that his demand was a fair fare for the trip. I have no idea now what the new price was, something like $1.50 becoming $15 and in the end we paid him $12.
We soon forgot about it anyway as the tuna sandwich, coke and refreshing swimming pool bore fruit. This was our penultimate day of the trip and a nice relaxing way to end before our final night in Beirut.