During our time in Beirut, we were repeatedly told by every local we met about the many places in Lebanon that we absolutely must, without fail, visit while we were there. The list was long: Tyre and Saida in the south, Byblos and Tripoli in the north and the mountains, Baalbek and the Bekaa valley to the east.
We particularly wanted to see Baalbek, home to Roman ruins famous for their combination of sheer size and delicate detail, but the UK government’s travel advice placed the site firmly in the large orange region labelled “avoid all but essential travel”.
Well, we’d been told many times it was “essential” that we go but we were still feeling a bit cautious (read jelly-legged). Getting there would require driving through zones that had recently been host to large-scale demonstrations and where kidnappings were a regular occurrence up until about a year ago, as well as taking us to within a stone’s throw of Syria.
So we decided to put ourselves in the hands of a local tour operator. A guide would at least prevent us from getting completely lost and the tour would also roll in wine-tasting at a Bekaa Valley winery and the Umayyad ruins at Anjar.
On our tour day, we arrived bright and early at the company’s office. Our tour guide, Goldie, arrived shortly after. She was an older woman, slightly flustered, with pale watering eyes and a smiling face. Clearly a gentle spirit, she certainly wasn’t going to be fighting off any armed kidnappers for us.
Goldie pointed us to a small hatchback and we piled in along with a young Italian girl, the only other person on the tour with us. As soon as the last door closed Goldie began chatting to us about Beirut and Lebanon in general, giving us a brief run down of its history and government. Her depth of knowledge was impressive and she fielded all our questions with ease but it soon became clear that, while a guide was proving to be fun, it certainly wasn’t preventing us from getting lost.
“Sorry,” she said, as she wavered dangerously at an exit on the motorway out of the city. “I usually have a driver who drives and I just talk.”
In the end she chose the wrong exit but it meant we got to see Armand Fernandez’s ‘Monument to Peace’ twice as she looped around. A hulking, 5000-ton block of concrete embedded with tanks and other war machinery, the monument is bizarrely planted right outside the Ministry of Defence. Some might say the location makes a statement but it also prevents people from photographing it as taking pictures of military locations or personnel seems to be strictly forbidden in Lebanon. Personally I thought it was pretty ugly but I’d certainly rather the tanks were fossilised in concrete rather than roaming the streets.
“We’re on the road to Damascus,” Goldie said. “If we keep going we could be in Damascus in two hours!”
I made a mental note to remind her to turn around before then.
Pretty soon we were winding up a narrow road into the mountains and banks of snow rose up around the road. A week earlier we’d driven into the mountains with Stacker’s cousin in a 4×4 ‘snow taxi’ to go snowmobiling in Faraya. The 4×4 had made easy work of the partially cleared, wet roads but Stacker and I were beginning to wonder whether Goldie’s little car would be able to manage.
Goldie pointed out an unremarkable cube-shaped stone structure to our left and told us it was a Mamluk freezer. Swerving to avoid a pothole and narrowly avoiding an oncoming car, she continued to explain how they would make giant blocks of ice in the freezer and then cart them down the mountain where they would be crushed and made into granita-style sorbets.
We crested a rise and suddenly we got our first glimpse of the Bekaa Valley. Nestled between the Lebanon Mountains, through which we were driving, and the Anti-Lebanon mountains marching in the distance lay an amazingly lush green valley – Lebanon’s bread basket and wine goblet.
We descended the winding road into the valley and soon banners and posters started to appear on all sides, attached to trees and lampposts next to the road. It was the beginning of a trend we would see for the rest of the day and it seemed that every possible Muslim affiliation was represented. We recognised Hezbollah’s yellow flags and Ali Khamenei’s face on some posters but Goldie had to fill us in on the emblems we didn’t recognise, like the red wind turbine encircled in white against a black field that represents the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. In many places Syrian and Palestinian flags were planted in solidarity. As we passed through Maronite or Greek Catholic areas, the array of banners would dissipate in favour of crosses or Virgin Marys, only to reappear a mile down the road.
We couldn’t have asked for a clearer demonstration of Lebanon’s unique demographics. The idea that so many factions were flaunting themselves and yet co-existing – separately, yes, but side-by-side – struck us as pretty remarkable.
Eventually we arrived in the town of Baalbek and we caught a brief glimpse of some Romanesque columns before Goldie took a turn into a dusty parking area. She led us over to a nearby shack, where a young man greeted us and offered us each a cup of coffee, then directed our gazes over a large grassy depression in the ground. “An ancient quarry,” she explained.
Inside the pit, a colossal slab of rock protruded from the earth at a quirky angle. “That,” the young man said proudly, “is the largest stone ever cut by man.”
He handed us a leaflet explaining the story of Abdul Nabi Al-Afi, a man who believed the quarry was an important part of Lebanon’s archaeological history and was saddened by the fact that that the quarry was being used as rubbish dump by the town’s residents. To save it, he began using guerrilla tactics like opening rubbish bags to find out who they belonged to and returning them to their owner along with a chastising. Eventually local authorities took over the trash duties but to this day Al-Afi and his family keep a watchful eye over what they call “the biggest stone in the world.”
A quick Wikipedia search shows that their claims may not be strictly true but, regardless, the sheer scale of the 1,000 ton stone posed the obvious question: how on earth were they planning to move this thing? As I watched Stacker run over to the rock to and become dwarfed by it, I wondered did they perhaps bite off more than they could chew?
Goldie told us that it was possibly intended to be part of Baalbek’s Jupiter Temple podium and assured us that, while this particular stone was never used, at some point in history three of its 800 ton megalith compadres did make it into a platform in the temple complex – a feat so extraodinary that some zealots have claimed it as proof that god really exists (and likes to spend His time moving stones around for us).
At this point our interest was more than piqued and it was high time for us to clap eyes on the Baalbek temple complex, the final resting places of these enormous stones.
Counting ourselves lucky that we didn’t have to drag a megalith with us, we walked up the dusty track to the entrance. As with tourist attractions around the world, it was a gauntlet of vendors selling souvenirs, beads and all the usual tat, although they also had a slightly less orthodox offering in the form of bright yellow “Hezbollah are the Victors” t-shirts. We scuttled past.
Since we’re usually too impatient for the guided tours and portable playback devices popular in most tourist spots, it was a novel experience for us to have a guide with us and Goldie swiftly proved to be indispensable. Before we even made it to the ticket booth, she popped open an unmarked door and ushered us through. In front of us was the row of columns we’d seen from the road earlier. “They’re still working on refurbishing these,” she said. “This is the best view you can get of them.”
At the ticket booth Goldie used the fact the Stacker had an Arabic last name to get him a ticket at the reduced price for people of Lebanese origin. Sadly, I paid full price for my ticket, despite the fact I have a Lebanese mother. Goldie took one look at my Casper-like skin and told me she wasn’t even going to try. I was placated later when she put the money we’d saved towards a plate of fatayer, little meat pastry pockets that are the local speciality.
The formalities over, we headed inside, along with a throng of local schoolkids. Goldie guided us through skillfully, making the site come alive with her explanations of the history, architecture and possible functions of all the different parts of the complex. She pointed out the inscriptions and intricate carvings on almost every facade and even an ancient architect’s blueprint, carved directly into the stone. She explained the different phases of the site’s life – from Phoenician town to Greek acropolis, Roman Sanctuary, Arab fortress and, eventually, tourist attraction.
Strewn throughout the site were fallen blocks, which we were free to walk among or even on top of. As we paused to look at them more closely, we saw they were carved with flowers, eggs and delicate lace-like detail. The fact that many of the blocks would once have been perched high in the walls of the temple, where the level of detail would have been hard even to discern by the observers of the day, deserves thinking about. I can’t decide if it was motivated by aesthetics, or opulence, or both.
It seemed like nothing was roped off and history was quite literally at our fingertips. Stacker amused himself by putting his head inside the mouth of a rock lion and I posed as a statue inside a small alcove. Apparently, the site is home to an annual music festival, at which Goldie recalled seeing jazz trumpeters perform while dancing acrobatically over the ruins. They’re just stones I suppose, even if they do bear ancient carvings…
Soon we found ourselves at the foot of the remains of the famous Jupiter Temple. Its columns towered above us, making it easy to forget about the equally-impressive, 300-tonne stones making up the podium beneath our feet. Why the Romans built this superlative-defying temple – larger than any other yet found – in the remote village of Baalbek, hundreds of miles away from Rome was a question that didn’t occur to us at that moment. I was too busy trying to figure out how I was going to capture the whole thing through my tiny camera lens.
From the vantage point of the Jupiter platform, we could see the smaller but, for some reason, much better preserved Bacchus temple. Next to Jupiter, it looks positively untouched.
After hearing Goldie’s descriptions of the ransacking armies, crude repurposings and earthquakes that have ravaged this site, we consider it a miracle that there’s anything left to see at all. Apparently six of Jupiter’s original columns were pilfered for a different Roman project in Constantinople. Goldie pointed out the remains of a fallen column, the base of which had three holes bored into it. The holes, she told us, once contained metal rods, which would have been used to ‘plug’ sections of the column together. All the accessible rods had been plundered over time and, in some cases, holes had been drilled into the columns to salvage the metal rods inside.
Luckily, however, the temple to Bacchus, god of wine and all things ecstasy-inducing, somehow escaped the ravages of time and, if we’d been impressed by the carvings before, we were about to be blown away. Grapes and snakes, vines and poppies, wine and water and eagles and cherubs adorned every available surface so that there was hardly a patch of un-carved stone to be seen.
The beautiful, ornate homage to Bacchus clearly points to the fact that the region has a strong history of wine-making and, indeed, it’s said that the Phoenicians shipped wine to the surrounding Mediterranean territories via the ancient port towns of Byblos, Tyre and Saida.
Modern wine-making in the region, however, only dates as far back as the late 1800s when, ironically, most budding vintners imported their vines from France and its then-colonies in the region, such as Algeria. The Bekaa estates are now home to swathes of familiar ‘old world’ varieties like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, most of which are likely descended from those the Phoenicians vinified in the distant past.
One producer, Chateau Museau, does make a famous white from two native grapes, Obeideh and Merwah, but also resorts to imported varieties for its red wines. Sadly I couldn’t find an example of the Malbec promised in this post’s title, but I still couldn’t resist the rhyme..
Anyway, it was high time that we paid our respects to Bacchus in a more hands-on way and so Goldie drove us the forty minutes or so from Baalbek to Chateau Ksara, the oldest of today’s Bekaa wineries.
Chateau Ksara is situated just outside of Zahlé, the largest city in the Bakaa region, but its vineyards are spread throughout the valley in order to take advantage of the variations in soil and climate – or ‘terroir’ – available. The so-called chateau sits atop a 2km grotto system, the natural temperature and humidity of which is perfect for the storing and ageing of wine. That fact may seem unremarkable, except that the caves weren’t actually discovered until at least twenty years after Jesuit monks first decided to plant grapes on the estate.
Our tour of the winery included a brief tour of the musty caves, which are assumed to have been cut, or at least enlarged, by the Romans and still bear visible evidence of their creation. The guide revelled in telling us the story of how young boys attempting to trap a fox that had been terrorising chickens stumbled upon the caves and how the monks realised their good fortune in having found a natural cellar. We all nodded politely and pretended to be amazed, despite the fact Goldie had filled us in on the whole story during the drive over.
Eventually the time came for our tasting, running the spectrum through reds, whites, rosés, a delicious late-harvest desert wine and even an arak, a spirit made from grapes and aniseed, which they named Ksarak.
The vines may have been imported from elsewhere but the wines were 100% Lebanese. Their bold reds would easily stand up to the powerful flavours of mediterranean cuisine and their light young red, the Cuvée de Printemps, was reminiscent of Beaujolais Nouveau and would be perfect for an evening of sipping with some mezze. The whites transported us to the sea and Lebanon’s delicious seafood. The Ksarak was just begging for an accompanying shisha. The Sunset Rosé was a summer evening of games or arguing politics with friends.
The best surprise was in the gift shop where, instead of being relieved of a hefty wad of cash as is often the case, we found all the wines to be of ridiculously good value.
Loaded down with a few bottles, we piled back into the car for the drive to Anjar. Being slightly buzzed from the generous tasting portions, we laughed as Goldie got engrossed in a story and lost her way on the road. After bouncing around on a dirt track through some fields, we emerged onto the road in the middle of a full-scale demonstration. Four tanks were lined up on the street to our left, pointed at the crowd in the road to our right. A string of army personnel with machine guns and semi-automatic rifles and special police in blue uniforms lined the streets, keeping an eye on the protesters.
The protesters were singing and climbing on cars, waving banners and the Syrian flag. We weren’t sure if they were pro- or anti- regime, all we knew was that we were turning left and getting the hell out. Suddenly we felt sobered up and, as the miles to the Syrian border ticked down, we felt a little guilty for having been enjoying ourselves so much within such close proximity to civil war and misery, and confused that it was even possible to do so.
As we entered the town of Anjar, we saw Syrian taxis with piles of belongings strapped to their roofs, presumably transporting refugees escaping the conflict.
The traffic calmed down by the time we got to the gates of the Umayyad ruins, where a cluster of men were sitting around talking and drinking tea. One of them got up to find someone to sell us a ticket.
Soon we found ourselves alone inside a tourist attraction that would be intolerably busy were it situated in any other town. Sadly, it will likely always be a footnote to Baalbek and the troubles in Syria have only sealed its fate as a forgotten destination – for now.
Once on the trading route between the mediterranean ports and Damascus, Anjar was a bustling commercial centre, but on that day there wasn’t a sound to be heard except our voices and the occasional birdsong. Taking in the stunning backdrop of snowcapped mountains in the distance, I felt a sense of peace – until, that is, Goldie ruined it by pointing out where the Syrian army would park its tanks in the days when Anjar was a base for its incursions into Lebanon.
As we finally headed back towards Beirut, I tried not to ponder why a region that is home to such marvels is also home to such strife. Instead I thought about how thankful I was we’d breached the orange travel zone – it had proven after all to be ‘essential travel’. Not going would have been crazy. About as crazy as staying awake for the drive home – if the roads had been icy before, one can only imagine what they were like now as dusk crept up the valley…