The problem with all these recent breaks is that I’ve had next to no time alone in a hotel and am now two countries behind. Lebanon has been almost wiped out by Croatia and Sicily! Oh, the humanity!
Do you need a moment to get some Kleenex and collect yourself? It’s okay, I understand and appreciate your sympathy. When you’ve composed yourself, enjoy this megalong post, which I fear does not at all capture the amazing wild weirdness of our main Lebanese adventure.
W&A’s visit didn’t just involve side trips. Duncan managed to get two days off in a row which allowed us to go on a whirlwind road trip featuring stops along the coast north of Beirut, winding up the mountains and along the Qadisha valley to a quick stop at the Cedars of God, an overnight in Bsharri, before heading over the mountain pass (or so we planned) to the spectacular ruins of Baalbek.
Things got going without a hitch, more or less, on a Sunday morning as we drove erratically in order to keep up with local drivers toodled up the road to the Jeita Grotto – massive cave with awesome stalagmites. You take a cable car up to the entrance to the upper grotto, and a wee boat ride through the lower. All of it is awesome, but no photos are allowed inside. It was initially uncrowded, though we did run into a boy scout troop and, as we left the upper grotto, a large group of yell-y, rowdy teens who shouted at us as we passed by: HELLO! NICE! LEBANON! NICE! Seriously, more than one said this. Maybe it’s a phrase they were recently taught?
The driving got rather more interesting after we left the Grotto. Seems the carpet fire was still smoldering and – we would eventually see – they were putting a crane in place to assist in demolition, or whatever. Backing everything up. I thought driving in China was freaky? Hah! Try navigating an unofficial Lebanese highway detour, along with hundreds of other frustrated drivers! Highlights included the security guys from the chicken restaurant who seemed to have spontaneously decided to direct traffic, and the small station wagon FULL of tires that came careening by us and weaving through the traffic that was inching back towards the highway. LET ME THROUGH I GOTTA GET THESE TIRES TO THEIR DESTINATION!!
I suspect that my ability to properly explain how INSANE it was is poor. Let me just add that it was probably good for my continued marital status that W&A were in the car, causing me to contain my panicked urges to provide Helpful Advice and Commentary from the back seat as Duncan drove. That’s right W&A, that was me containing it!
Things cleared up considerably as we continued north past Byblos and to Batroun, where the promise of famous fresh lemonade was appealing. Except the entire town, save one chain restaurant, appeared to be closed for Sunday.
We had already decided to skip Tripoli in favour of not cramming too much in, alongside vague reports of unrest that came from the security guy at Dunc’s work (this worked out well for us ill-informed travellers. Yeeeeesssssh). So from Batroun, we headed inland up the mountains and around the stunning Qadisha valley. Breathtaking views, crazy monastaries over in yonder cliff face, and yet more wild driving as W wound his way around narrow two-lane roads in various states of repair. We stopped along the way a couple of times, for photos, to get snacks, and somehow – thanks to a very enthusiastic shopkeeper – ended up with enormous bags of Za’atar.
We made it to the gorgeous, cool (snow!) Cedars of God an hour before closing time, just as mystical fog began to sweep in from the mountains. It was magical, even if we kind of had to blitz it. We then settled into our large, empty hotel/hostel perched on the side of the hills of Bcharri. A great place to bunker down for the night and, as it turned out, plan a new route to Baalbek.
None of us had even considered the remote possibility of the road across the mountains not being open. But it wasn’t, the hotel assured us. Tons of snow this year it seems. After some grumbling and map study over dinner, the menfolk determined another possible mountain pass… which we discovered was also closed thanks to some terribly nice dudes in the restaurant. They actually called someone to confirm for us, then helped us plan another route through what they assured us would be gorgeous scenery.
Resolved to leave early the next day so we’d have adequate time to enjoy Baalbek, we carried on with our evening. Which included board games, chips from home courtesy of W&A, and discovering that the ~12 year old boy helping at the hotel was a recent arrival from Syria. Putting things into perspective: check.
We struck out Monday morning for the long trip to Baalbek, through some amazing scenery, over some crazy semi-paved roads (our heads only hit the backseat roof once), past army checkpoints (they never seemed to care about us), before eventually going down the hills and around Beirut, getting vaguely lost but always miraculously ending up back on the highway, and, at last, being on the road to Baalbek. Which is, for a while, also the highway to Syria.
Remember waaay up in this post how I went on and on about how crazy the drive around the carpet fire was? Hah! Hah! The Beirut-Syria highway was another two lane road, technically, but the traffic was flowing in at least three if not four lanes. You don’t understand? NEITHER DID I. Duncan did, more or less, quickly learning that when passing the convoy of transport trucks on a narrow highway with plenty of oncoming traffic, it’s best to be directly behind another car doing the same thing if only for the reassurance that you won’t be the first car in the pile up.
It’s okay though, Mom, we obviously arrived alive and ready to visit some gobsmacking ruins. It was well worth the crazy trip. Baalbek is a massive, very intact site. As promised by the intertubes, there are also plenty of people who want to sell you a Hezbollah tshirt. We also met a VERY excited middle-aged Minnesotan woman (with her driver and guide) who just couldn’t believe that she ran into some North Americans and just had to have pictures with us and just really couldn’t believe it. She told us this was her FIRST TRIP ANYWHERE. Because, you know. If you haven’t travelled EVER Lebanon is the obvious choice. She was headed to Egypt for a few days, too. Naturally. I wonder, in retrospect, if she was shitting us and was actually a journalist in disguise? Power to ya, lady.
The road back to Beirut was just about as terrifying as the way to Baalbek. We saw a few cars overflowing with men, luggage strapped to the roof, and Syrian plates. We managed to squeeze in a winery visit and tasting which was welcome respite.
The contrasts, my God, the contrasts and contradictions.
Seemingly against the odds on those roads, we made it back to Beirut unscathed, and texted the guy doing security-related stuff to let him know we were safely back. His text reply was how we first actually learned about the violence in Tripoli. Wheeeeeee!
After taking in this close call, we got cleaned up and had a fabulous dinner down at the marina. As you do, I guess. At least when you’re privileged visitors whose flights out have been long-since booked.
Do I need to sum up this marathon post by saying that this trip was absolutely the highlight of my time in Lebanon or is it obvious yet? Sure, it was a bit bamboozling (the best word I have for describing my general take on Lebanon) and we were somewhat lucky with how it all turned out. Regardless, I’m so grateful we had visiting friends who sparked this adventure, ensuring that we saw some truly amazing parts of the country.