A 7:30 pick up by a chatty Lebanese girl and transferred at the Tour Centre onto a comfortable coach to begin a tour of 3 significant places in Lebanon – Aanjar, Baalbek and Ksara, all located in the magnificent Bekaa Valley. Hezbollah activity is still rife here, their yellow flags flutter in the villages, and sympathisers try to sell you propaganda t-shirts everywhere you go. Cannabis farming is a popular ‘past time’ here too, and witnessing a surge in popularity. But it was the vineyards and the temple complexes I had come to see (honestly), and I was looking forward to a day out of Beirut.
We had a bus of 19 people, and our tour guide was Nada, a woman you could describe as typically Lebanese. Blonde, loud, incredibly self-confident, proud, dressed in outrageous designer white wellington boots, red jacket and pants and white shirt, with more jewelry draped around her arms and neck than is stocked in Tiffany and co, and she was finished off with a pair of designer sunglasses that, despite her odd dress sense, somehow made her look, well, fucking cool. She was great; very informative and professional, and even the cautious European housewives, clinging on to what remained of their husband’s attention for them, warmed to her infectiously bubbly nature. She spoke several languages (French and English on this particular trip) and she used to be a lawyer. She told us not just about the places we were visiting, but also about Lebanon, the people, the culture….and even that taboo issue of politics. I learned more about Lebanon from half a day with Nada than I had from any guidebook.
Aanjar was the first stop, a lovely place with a predominantly Armenian population. Though it used to be the base for the Syrian army’s intelligence unit, they have since gone back home, and the town is leafy, tranquil and pleasant. We drove through it and to the ancient Umayyad ruins, set in a lovely cool spot sprinkled liberally with the cedar trees for which Lebanon is famous, and the snowy white mountains as backdrop. We trooped around in a pack, and were the only tourists there. I broke away now and again from the herd to take some snaps, but others thought twice about heading for independence, like a wildebeest afraid that if it leaves the migration it’s going to get picked off by predators. I’ll coin a new term then for these travelling lemmings: they have a wildebeest mentality. Mind you, most of them were haggard old Europeans, who would rather not think. Indeed, they hardly listened at all to Nada, who carried on her informative deliveries regardless, like a teacher might to a class of sleeping students. We wandered the ruins for a while, but they were really ruined ruins and I found it difficult to imagine what this place might have been like. Still, it’s regarded as one of the places in Lebanon with the greatest historical significance.
After this, it was back on the bus and on to Baalbek, seen as one of the most important sites in the Middle East, a wonder of the ancient world boasting the world’s highest columns – huge things towering some 23 metres with incredible pedestals on top, intricately carved. We wandered around the Temple of Jupitor, which was where the priests quarters were, where women used to come and offer themselves in a kind of ‘sacred prostitution.’ Priests then, have always had a lot of action, from Lebanese nymphs to angel-faced choirboys. I had a good chuckle about this with a young American woman on the tour who was spending a month in Lebanon with friends and staying in the mountains. We all went for lunch, held in a wonderful valley restaurant with a roaring fireplace at a long wooden table, and the American and I ‘split a sheesha’ over a splendid lunch of typically Lebanese fare. I enjoyed a beer too, and some strong Turkish coffee to finish. The potent mix of smoke, alcohol and strong coffee had my head spinning, but at least someone else was feeling the same. The American girl and I chatted all the way to the winery at Ksara. This is why I’d chosen a tour, something I generally try and avoid. I was getting bored of my own company, and it really served it’s purpose of helping a lone traveller get to know someone. I talked more in the following couple of hours than I’d done in the last 4 weeks, and found it exhausting but very enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. Brits and Yanks have always had that ‘special relationship’ I suppose, and can generally get on swimmingly.
Before we got to Ksara, we stopped at the ‘Largest Stone in the World’, 21.5m by 4m by 4.5m, cut from the quarry. Locals believe that touching the stone can increase a woman’s fertility, in that old chestnut that brings desperate tourists flooding in to get a piece of the fertility action. I stayed as far away from the stone as possible. From here, we headed to Lebanon’s oldest and most famous winery. The wine-tasting at Ksara was preceded by a tour given by a dull-looking girl who spoke in monotone…clearly her last tour of a long day of repeating the same thing. We had a look at the cellars, and part of the nearly 2km of tunnels, then got to taste 4 varieties of the popular and award-winning Lebanese wines – white, rose, red and muscat. Not bad, but not that good either. Certainly not a patch on a good old Chilean cab sav, but then, what do I know about wines?
Finished the tour and got a transfer back to my hotel. Through sheer boredom I started drinking, and headed out to The Rabbit Hole pub on the same street as my hotel (still the Embassy). It was full of young, indie-chic students who were all in league with one another. I got a taxi from here to the main bar hopping street at Gemmayzeh, and went to an Italian restaurant for dinner. I was seated at the bar, as to be seated at a table you need a reservation. This is another Lebanese trend that seems to be straight from a New York city lifestyle. Reservations are not recommended here. They’re demanded. To not have a reservation means you’re not cool enough or rich enough. Like me. And so, I sat at the edge of the bar sticking out like a sore thumb as hordes of the well-heeled, beautiful Lebanese people with lots of friends and polished shoes drifted in smelling of designer perfumes. I finished up and hit a packed little bar and got a rum and coke. It was too busy to sit, too packed to turn, so I stood and drank, not making any friends, nor attempting to. It was amusing enough just to watch a Beirut night unfold. I hit a few more places, then got bored of my own company. I was like an annoying, boring girlfriend I couldn’t get rid of. I walked to Rue Margot with my boring, annoying self and to 37 degrees, which was lively. After another rum and coke I hit Hole in the Wall, but the spirit of Saturday night was absent, and after 2 beers I went back to the hotel via the hotdog stand. I was wobbling a bit. A good day all-in-all. Now I was almost ready for England.