2010 – Lebanon still leads in “best country to visit”

26Nov09

Dom Joly for the Sunday Times explains – Beyrouth (Beirut) may be the number-one place to visit in the whole world, but the rest of the country is now our top tip for a cool holiday.

I can remember mist, spooky clouds of swirling mist, lapping around us. We were all perched up high on a huge rock in the middle of a cedar forest. Around us was a picnic — I can definitely see corned beef. A happy memory: a family picnic in the early 1970s, in the mountains of Lebanon. People always assume that if you grew up in Lebanon, as I did, your memories must be monopolised by war. Certainly, I have loads of those.

Whenever I think of Lebanon, however, the projector in my head plays nature films — swimming in ice-cold rivers, clambering over deserted Roman ruins, walking rhodesian ridgebacks through pine forests.

This, in my opinion, is the problem with this year’s fad of recommending that you visit Beyrouth (Beirut). A huge article in The New York Times at the beginning of the year told readers that the number-one place to visit in the whole world was the Lebanese capital.

The Rough Guide made the capital a “must-see” city of 2009, and CNN showed a film on Beyrouth (Beirut), calling it the best party city in the world. I’m not disputing any of this. Beyrouth (Beirut) is a fabulous place to visit — amazing bars, great food, extraordinary history — but, when you really get down to it, it’s pretty much like any other large, buzzing Mediterranean city, just with a bit of war chic.

To me, the real magic of Lebanon starts the moment you leave Beyrouth (Beirut), leave the traffic and noise, and head for the mountains that serve as such a wonderful backdrop. I drove up to Faraya for lunch. The snow had not yet fallen on this sedate ski resort (it normally arrives in December), but the place was still buzzing with hikers and quad-bikers.

I had a splendid lunch in a huge Bedouin-style tent. I always forget just how fabulous Lebanese food is. After a long and lazy meal, I meandered off back down the mountain. I kept stopping along the way — I hadn’t seen the Jisr al-Hajar, a natural stone bridge with an arch of 125ft, since I was a kid.

I drove on, but I was soon out of the car again when I got to Faqra. Just below the road on my left were the ethereal ruins of a Roman temple, half built into the natural rock. I wandered in — there was nobody about. The afternoon sun was melting into the old stones and I sat on the highest point and stared down the lonely valley towards the distant Mediterranean.

The following morning, I was back in my car, heading for the Bekaa Valley, to revisit Baalbek. When I arrived, I parked up outside my favourite hotel in the whole of the Middle East, the Palmyra — which is where all the great and good of Levantine history have laid their heads at one time or another. I had a cup of staggeringly strong coffee in the courtyard over looking the ruins before heading off for some serious temple-trampling.

Baalbek is an astonishingly beautiful place — an architectural homage to all things bacchanalian, plonked right in the middle of a Hezbollah stronghold. Hezbollah, however, are not the Taliban, and the two live side by side in true Lebanese pragmatism.

Whenever I visit Baalbek, I like to sit on the edge of the temple of Baal, my feet dangling over, feeling the cool, ancient stones on my skin and reading the centuries-old graffiti on the pillars surrounding me. I try to imagine what it must have been like to come across this place for the first time as an ancient traveller. I so wish I lived in an age when you could still be an explorer.

I was back in Beyrouth (Beirut) in time for supper. I sat on the terrace of Karam, in the newly rebuilt downtown, and atea bowl of the best fattoush in the world while the world and his harem wandered past. There are few places better for people-watching than Beyrouth (Beirut).

I spent 20 minutes listening to some Starbucks workers converse in that oh-so-Lebanese way of chucking three languages into one sentence: “Yanni, hier, t’as vu ce mec? I told him, ‘Shou baddak, cheri? Wahad soy milk machiatto?’” (“So, yesterday, did you see that bloke? I told him, ‘What do you want, darling? A soy milk machiatto?’”)

I had wanted to do some hiking, and there is a superb organisation that has set up the Lebanon Mountain Trail. This allows you to walk all along the mountainous spine of Lebanon, from north to south, staying in local houses and walking with local guides. Sadly, my schedule didn’t allow enough time, but I managed a day in the forest of Ehden with one of the organisers to get a taste.

We took a 4WD up a rough track out of Ehden towards the entrance of the forest. Once there, we hiked in on one of the multitude of trails. The views were breathtaking and we quickly spotted signs of wild-boar activity, as well as wolf and polecat tracks.

It was the silence that hit me the most — Lebanon is a gloriously noisy place, and it’s so rare to be able to escape from it all. Up here, however, the only sound was the pad-pad of our feet on the thick path of pine needles.

Up and up we climbed, until we reached an almost mystical clearing in the middle of a clump of young cedars. To our left was a rock that looked strangely familiar. I clambered up it and sat on the top. It was the misty rock of my youth.

The last time I’d sat here, I could only have been four or five years old, but I remembered it vividly: the little holes that served as natural cup-holders, the spongy moss, the smell of cedars… I sat in a daze for 15 minutes or so, gazing over the forest to the port of Tripoli, far, far below. As I got up, I remembered the words of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead, it is not even past.”

Dom Joly travelled as a guest of Cox & Kings

TRAVEL BRIEF

Getting there: the only direct flights to Beirut from the UK and Ireland are from Heathrow. BMI (0844 848 4888, flybmi.com) has returns from £384. Or try British Airways (0844 493 0787, ba.com) or MEA (mea.com.lb).

Getting around: driving in Lebanon isn’t for the faint-hearted, and most visitors opt for an escorted tour or tailor-made itinerary with a chauffeured car. If you’re determined to drive, Smart Car Rental (+961 1 752 852). Or try Budget from the UK (0844 544 3439, budget.co.uk).

Packages: Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000, coxandkings.co.uk) has a six-night tour, visiting Beyrouth (Beirut), Baalbek, Anjar and the wineries, from £1,045pp, including BMI flights from Heathrow and transfers. A trip with a private car and driver starts at £1,495pp. Other operators include Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2200, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) and Original Travel (020 7978 7333, originaltravel.co.uk).

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