From the top of the statue of Mary in Harissa, you look down from the start of the mountains over Beirut and it is something worth climbing for. The meeting of blues and greens was quite a special moment for someone so used to drab. And as for the city, wedged in between the hills and the sea, you could see the thickness of the air. This is Baz Luhrman’s fair Verona, complete with police helicopters and neon crucifixes. It looked dirty, but great. Photographing it from this height was somehow akin to sitting in a greasy spoon cafeteria and taking close ups of your fried breakfast. I decided not to share this revelation with the nun praying next to me.
This had been the first stop on my first trip in Lebanon. A bunch of international students and mentors, together with some local friends, had decided to hire cars and spend a couple of days visiting some sites. Frankly we couldn’t have chosen a better weekend to acquaint ourselves with the difficulties travelling here can present. The Pope (‘el-baba min roma’) was in town and traffic chaos ensued. Roads were closed and security was locked down. Army checkpoints thoroughly scanned cars for explosives, and it always takes a while to get used to a man holding an M-16 whilst talking to you. Some authority, nobody seemed to know who, had also deigned it necessary to plaster every billboard with Benedict XIV’s face – I feel sorry for the guy, facially he’s seen better days – and Lebanese/Vatican dual flags adorned all the main roads; every house in the Christian areas. Some Chinese factory has made an absolute mint. Apparently, last year when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in town, the same thing took place only with pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and Iranian flags, which I love.
Despite these barriers to driving, Lebanon’s geography ensured that our journeys were never too long. The place is smaller than Wales, meaning anywhere can easily be driven to in a day, with huge ranges of terrain condensed into very small spaces. Beirut also has numerous comparisons with the Vice City of the GTA games. In addition to the ridiculous proportion of sports cars, palm trees, a healthy amount of automatic weapons, and an open air nightclub complete with 80s multicolour underlit dancefloor; you can drive for 5 minutes in one direction and be in the mountains, or 5 in the other and be at a beach resort. A classic local cliche is that you can go skiing in the morning and swimming in the sea in the evening. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has actually done this mind, but it certainly seems possible.
After taking in the view, we paid a visit to the Jeita Groto, which all the locals were adamant was the 8th wonder of the world. My scepticism soon dimished. The damp walkway took us through perhaps a kilometre of stalagmites and stalagtites over too levels, the lower of which was flooded with the purest water and involved a boat trip. Apparently miles more lay beyond what we saw. Only divers had been able to explore further. This was too cool.
Over the other to days we did a quick stop tour, of Byblos (jbail), a town centred around Roman ruins and a quaint Mediterranean harbour, and took in Sidon, which was perhaps a more authentic flavour of the Middle East of Western imagination. Both places will be explored more thoroughly in time.
The last item on our agenda was a confusing ride through the Chouf, a mountainous region that is a heartland for the Druze sect and a cool escape from the urban heat for countless Beirutians. Unfortunately, one of the cars broke down meters from a reserve containing, the Cedars of Lebanon. Much to the chagrin of Clarkson I imagine, they insist on driving automatics here, which must eat through gearboxes on the steep and windy roads. Again, a trek up here at some point later on is a certainty.
A Highlight: Smoking a shisha (narghila over here) amidst fish bones and left over baba ganush.
A Lowlight: I love history but soap museums are never exciting
Beautiful Lebanese Woman Forecast: As consistent and as the weather
Sweeping Orientalist Statement: What a pity it is, that the locals seem unable to restrain themselves from dumping trash into the sea