Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Good, bad, and slightly dangerous?

I have just spent a long weekend in Lebanon, and it was not long enough. It is an intriguing country full of contradictions. Beirut is an amazing, vibrant city. There are masses of construction going on, but around the corner you will find a building covered in bullet holes or shell marks. The beautiful Al-Amin Mosque (right, from St Georges Orthodox Cathedral) commissioned by former PM Hariri stands only a few kilometres from the former Holiday Inn still baring its ugly war damage from 2006. Furthermore, it stands next to the Cathedral of St Georges Beyruth, Christian & Muslim together. All the Lebanese I met from taxi-drivers to Hezbollah followers seemed genuinely nice people. I know some of you query the latter group. I do not agree with their politics, but I had the opportunity to go to an Hezbollah exhibition in Baalbek. There, the men were friendly, wanted to inform about their perspective, but did not try to force anything on me - oh apart from a nasty tourist hat and flag as gifts. People apart, the contradictions continued with the beautiful countryside ruined by the litter along the sides of the roads. I felt safe whilst there, but was nervous by the checkpoints along the roads manned by soldiers with guns, and some tanks in places. Although, no-one was stopped it was a little worrying. Furthermore, you can see vast wealth and great poverty as you drive around pass summer resorts for the rich Beirutis or pass the Syrian Bedu tents of the migrant workers.

I had a very full weekend, which started off with a walk around Hamra district full of shops and bars, pretty much like any other city of the world. That evening a Lebanese friend C took me to an exclusive rooftop club, where there are tables which cost 3000US$ a night, needless to say we sat at the bar. It was my first time on a guest-list to get in anywhere. As the club has been booked up for the summer we were the guests of the youngest female judge in Beirut who used her influence to get us on the list. The next morning I went to the centre of town, Solidere, for a wander around and was amazed at the number of mosques and churches side-by-side. I tried some of the famous Lebanese food, in the form of a huge slice of cheesecake. YUMM. In the afternoon, I joined C & her friends as we went south of Beirut to a beach resort, Bamboo Bay. All very decadent as we had our own hut, complete with jacuzzi, near the pool and overlooking the sea. The birthday cake, which was topped with fresh Lebanese fruit, was to die for.

The next day I joined a tour to the Bekaa Valley. The first stop was Chateau Ksara for a tour of their caves and then a wine tasting - at 10am!!! Now I like a glass of wine but it was a bit early and so had to pass up the red as being too heavy. I did try the chardonnay & rose first. From there we drove through the valley to Baalbek. WOW!!!! I have seen a lot of ruins over the years but these are impressive! (Left, the entrance) There are not enough superlatives to describe it - you'll just have to go. I am a bit concerned about my mum who was in Lebanon in the early 60s and wrote this in an email last week "I went but don't really remember it apart from a couple of pillars". Oh dear, maybe I should take her back.

From Baalbek it was off to Zahle, for a riverside lunch. Riverside was not the term I would have used as it was more like a very narrow canal/concrete chanel a metre wide with fast flowing water. The sound of the water was nice though. Now, Lebanese food is famous, but I thought being on a tour it would be a mediocre affair. How wrong I was! The mezze to start had the usual hummus, mixed salads, bread, etc., but the quality and freshness was outstanding and I could barely eat another mouthful. Being an almost veggie, I passed on the barbecued meat, but was told it was delicious. Desert was Lebanese fruit and was so nice I forced myself to eat a great quantity of watermelon & melon. Rolling back on the bus it was off to the last stop and Aanjar, an ancient Umayyad site. It was also impressive, but it would have been more so if I'd seen it before Baalbek. It was a bit like going to Brussels after visiting Paris.

Sunday morning, I woke very sad to be leaving, and wished I had more time to explore both Beirut and Lebanon more. I have put them on my To-go-back-to list, very near the top, after all there is so much more to see and do. Hugs & thanks to C for inviting to her country.