Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lebanon: Around Beirut - Some interesting attractions

Chapter Two - Around Beirut - Some interesting attractions

Beit Meri is a hill resort at a height of about 800 meters. The views of Beirut are pretty good, but houses built at the sides of the streets often obstruct these. I got out of the taxi at the central roundabout and went looking for the churches, ruins and mosaics. Nobody could really help, so I just asked for the al-Bustan Hotel, which was supposed to be along the route. It was a pleasant enough walk. I came across some churches, some old, some not. None of them was extremely exciting, but I loved the short talk I had with the father at St.-Elie's Church. Having found the Hotel al-Bustan, I decided to enquire there about where I could find the ruins. Surely they should be able to explain that to me in good English in such a posh place. And they were. The receptionist was really friendly... on the phone... because the surly security guard wouldn't allow a 'dirty' looking type like me on the premises; this was only for the well-heeled, that was very obvious ! No worries, I got the directions I needed. The Lonely Planet guide was quite confusing with its directions, to say the least : "The ruins are found at the end of the road leading to the right from the town's main roundabout junction, about 1 km in the direction of the Hotel al-Bustan." I can tell you, to find the ruins you should walk from the roundabout to the al-Bustan all right, but after that, continue to the left, then straight, until you see an old church. Walk up to it by going down the zig-zag road. With the church on your left hand-side, continue uphill until you see the ruins, also on your left. They're definitely not at the end of a road.

The ruins are still occupied by the Syrian army. I greeted the sentry, and asked to speak with an officer. This seemed to be no problem. The officer was woken up from his afternoon nap and I was introduced to him. Like most Syrians, he was a friendly guy. I explained to him that I wanted to see the ruins and the mosaics, and that I'd like to take photographs if possible. I promised not to shoot (with my lens !) anything military. He saw no objections, and allowed me wander around rather freely.

The sad thing is, that there are no more beautiful mosaics to be seen, and the ruins are rather poor too. Only one more or less complete mosaic remains. Of some other, there are only a couple of fragments. Later, I'd be told by a family from Beit Meri that some rich people have bribed the poor Syrian soldiers to be allowed to take away the mosaics. Dunno if that's really true, but they swore they saw one of the mosaics at Beiteddine Palace, and the fact stands that there's none of this fine artwork to be found at the site.

I walked back to the roundabout. On my way I witnessed a wedding at the church near the ruins. Very classy indeed. I realised the people in question were not poor at all ! In fact, I saw only well-off people in Beit Meri. At several of the rather fine houses I also saw the Sri Lankan maids which are seen all over the country, but primarily in the Catholic parts. They come from their homeland to work in Lebanon for really low wages. Modern exploitation, if you ask me, but the people themselves seem to be rather happy. Or is this only on the surface ? I don't know. Who knows what happens indoors ? One thing is for sure : the girls are clearly not supposed to talk to anyone. They are really talkative in Sri Lanka, but they're not here. Weird... Or not ?...

To be honest, I don't think Beit Meri is really worth the time you have to put into it. Surely the views are nice, but they're great anywhere in Lebanon, so there's really no need to go to BM for them. And like I said before, the views are often obstructed. The locals weren't particularly friendly either, the supermarket at the roundabout being the exception.

I took a taxi to Jeita. I wanted to go by Broummana and Bikfaya, which is not the way you'd go when you'd get a service taxi from Beirut. The taxi was very expensive at - I believe - $35, but there's was no bargaining down with any of the drivers. The fare did, however, include waiting time at the caves and the return trip to Beirut.

Jeita's famous for its caves, so that's where I went. There's a large parking lot, and a nice visitors centre. I paid the LL 16,500 entrance fee, which gives you access to the rope way to the Upper Grotto, the train, the Sound & Light show, and of course to the Upper and Lower Grottoes themselves, the latter of which has to be visited by boat.

The ticket is worth every single piastre. Everything is very efficient and modern at Jeita. A short rope way ride brought me to the Upper Grotto. These caves were the biggest, the most wonderful, spectacular, beautiful, mind blowing, etc, etc I had ever seen. I'm really lacking superlatives to describe the place. You must have seen it yourself to believe how beautiful these caves are ! There are well thought out walkways, constructed without visually polluting the cave. The placing and colours of the lights are extremely well done, and especially the looking down in the misty, coloured depths, many metres below, made a big impression on me. These caves were huge, and the most beautifully formed stalagmites and stalactites were everywhere. What sounded to me as rather tragic music played softly throughout the room. The atmosphere was eerie and warm at the same time. Very special indeed ! There is no commentary by anyone and perhaps that's how it should be. Who needs all that crap about how a certain stalagmite looks like an elephant or some stalactite looks like Michael Jackson ? It was quiet and I enjoyed the views.
Unfortunately for me, but probably good for the preservation of the great atmosphere and minerals, photography was not allowed and all cameras and bags had to be left at the entrance. No need to be worried about them being nicked, there are neat lockers available. It was with pain in the heart that I left the cave. It's always hard to say good-bye to sheer beauty... Upon emerging in the daylight again, I could attend the Sound and Light show which is being staged at regular intervals, but as it was quite late (the caves are open every day until 6 pm) there were unfortunately no more English versions.

Near the 'theatre' is the train station. A small 'train' takes you from there to the Lower Grotto. I decided to walk down. The Lower Grotto can only be visited by boat as the chambers are full of water. A boat leaves when it's full. Again these are enormous, beautiful caves, although they can't really compete with the Upper levels. Again, no photography is allowed.

The next day I left the Cedarland Hotel and rented a taxi for the whole day (from Daoud Taxi, 03/623183). Although on the telephone the agreed price was US$50, when the driver came to pick me up at 9 am, the price seemed to have gone up to $75. Bargaining was nigh on impossible, and I only could shave five bucks off. Later I'd discover that $70-80 is the normal price for renting a taxi for the whole day in Lebanon. Initial quotes will often be $100 or even more, but you'll virtually always be able to bargain that down. Hiring a taxi for the day is admittedly very expensive, especially if you're a backpacker, but if you plan on getting to more out of the way places (which require taking a taxi anyway), and your time is limited, it can turn out even cheaper than if you would have taken several separate cabs, not even taking into account the lost time. Besides, to be honest, I think Lebanon is not really a backpacker's country, unless you're prepared to walk a lot, and have plenty of time. And even then it won't be real cheap. Backpackers are indeed still very much a novelty in Lebanon. Nobody on the plane I arrived on, carried one and I met not one other backpacker during the whole trip. If I arrived in the (bit) more expensive places to stay, I almost always got the question : "Are you from the United Nations ?", no doubt because of my trimmed hair and khaki backpack. Signs of the people not being used to travellers on the cheap. I knew Lebanon wouldn't be cheap, and I had brought sufficient funds to enjoy my stay. For me, a backpack is not the equivalent of shoestring travelling, but a convenient way of carrying my stuff and allowing me a great deal of personal freedom.

Anyway, I went to Nahr al-Kalb to see the riverside inscriptions, left there by passing armies (Pharaonic, Roman, Napoleonic, First & Second World War,...). These are pretty interesting, although many are badly weathered. And you can't really call them 'riverside' inscriptions, as most of them require quite some climbing to reach them; they're on the rock wall which looks out over the highway.

Inscription no. 1, which is really on the (right) river bank, across the bridge, is very overgrown and it's practically impossible to see it. The weeds are man high. Behind the obelisk is a tunnel which has been cut out of the living rock, and which was used during the recent civil war.

At the site, there's a super friendly guy with a small van, selling drinks and sweets. He told me he's there every day between 8 am and 11 (!) pm. He's very knowledgeable about the place, and a truly nice person. He showed me around, offered to take pictures of me, and was an all round nice bloke to chat with. If you're there, visit him. If you don't, he'll probably come up to you.

On the hill opposite the rock with the inscriptions is a very large statue of Jesus on top of a building. This is Deir Luwaizeh. It's a real focal point but don't bother to check it out from up-close.

Harissa Virgin Of LebanonBetter continue to nearby Harissa, which has a similar statue, one of the Virgin of Lebanon. The Madonna stands with her arms outstretched on top of a high 'Babylonic' tower, which people ascend only to burst out in tears at the top, at the feet of the statue. The place is crowded with believers, especially on Sundays, but the atmosphere is very peaceful. The views all around are stunning, with Jounieh lying in the distance below. 'Below' is really the word if you happen to take the Téléphérique, which ascends the Harissa mountain at an incredibly steep angle. Not for the vertigo sufferers ! Like I did, they can better go up by car. The road winds up the hill but is never really dangerous. The roads and hairpins are more than wide enough now, and at all drops there are stone blocks and railings for protection.
There are several nice churches and even a huge, modern cathedral at Harissa. The latter seems to be only open for special occasions.

After that, François (my driver) and I went to Faraya. I wanted to see the Natural Bridge. François, who spoke no English or French, didn't understand where I wanted to go. He stopped several times to ask passing locals if they spoke a foreign language. Finally we found one who did. He pointed us to the bridge. When I was finally standing near it (and it's impressive !), the guy who had shown us the way, was standing next to me. He had followed us in his car. He and his family were heading for a picnic and he invited me to come along. I had some other visits in mind that afternoon, but I didn't want to miss the chance to go on a picnic with these nice folks, so I gratefully accepted. And I'm glad I did ! We drove to some apple orchards in the vicinity. In the middle of those, the barbecue was unpacked and the bottles were opened. It was fun. The whole family was there, I think about fifteen people. Everybody was very friendly and welcoming, and all the food and drinks were shared. Most of my hosts spoke either English or French, so I had many interesting conversations with them. It was very peaceful there in that orchard; only once the peace was disturbed : when Israeli fighter planes broke through the sound barrier above the mountains. I was told this was a regular occurrence. The Israelis seem to do that to intimidate. At the picnicWell, it didn't intimidate me... I spent several more happy hours with Najat, Joseph, Naji and all the others.

It was already late afternoon when I went for the ruins at nearby Faqra. They were quite impressive, but the light for photography was bad; it's better to go in the morning or early afternoon. The entrance ticket cost LL 1000 per person.

There's a neighbouring site to the north, which has no entrance fee. There are the remains of a tower-like monument. It's not spectacular and has a lot of ugly graffiti on it. François and me had climbed the monument and had just got back in the cab, when the trunk of our car was shot at with a rather heavy calibre gun. Only one shot, but it did penetrate the whole trunk. Was it an accident or some sick mind taking aim ? I'll never know, but it happened.

I asked François to take me to the Tamerland Hotel in Faraya, where I intended to spend the night. Upon arrival it looked as if the hotel was out of business; it only happened to be out of season. It was evening and the whole family was outside. They were 'friendly', but I swear not genuinely. Rooms were $40 (single), which was way too much for what I got. They even wanted me to pay extra for a TV. I refused, so I got no TV. Couldn't care less actually... The bed had been slept in before without changing the covers and had a super-thin mattress making it rock-hard. For the price asked, this shouldn't be the case.

The family didn't look clean and neither was their food. They have a restaurant which specialises in fresh fish, but I felt more like meat. I ordered a steak. It smelt really rotten. Awful, really !
I decided to go to bed. The nights are pretty chilly in the mountains. The room oozed cold, especially the floor.

The next morning, early, I woke up, refused breakfast - the steak's smell still very vivid ! - and went for a stroll into town. A rather boring town, as a matter of fact, but excitement's not what you come here for. I tried to locate the Christian cemetery which allegedly was worth a peek. Hardly anyone spoke French and nobody could speak English. The ones who I could talk to, didn't understand what I was on about, so I completed my walk and then returned to the hotel. It was about 9 am by then.

Outside were one of the elder sons and the baby boy, Charbel, named after the main Maronite saint. I explained I needed a taxi to get me to Byblos. The son told me there were no service taxis, and that a taxi was indeed the way to go. But ! They had their own taxi service, which - he said - was much cheaper than the other taxis. Yeah, right. I asked how much it'd cost me, but he refused to tell me that. Instead he told me the price for the ride plus the cost for the supper (what's in a name, right ? ) and drinks I had the night before. That was 50 bucks. Although I enquired several times, I never managed to find out what the price for only a ride or the steak was. In the end I agreed, mainly because that guy made me nervous. His father would drive me and would arrive very soon. At 10.15 he still wasn't there. I asked what was up, but I was told he'd be there in five minutes. I sat on the terrace. Charbel was one of the worst brought up children I've ever seen in a developed surrounding. The boy looked dirty, had several rashes, a blue cheek and eye because of a nasty fall due to his wild nature, had no manners, not even for his age and was always crying out loud for attention. The elder son - not the smartest chap I've ever met - decided to entertain little Charbel by handing him a cage with a canary inside. The pipsqueak really freaked out now, and used the cage and canary as a football. Judging from his brother's indifferent reactions, this was common practice. I felt so pity for the little bird. It was so afraid. These people shouldn't have pet animals; they don't even know how to raise a child properly...

Having enquired several more times in the meantime, I really got fed up with the situation at almost noon. Still no taxi. I said I was going to walk to Byblos (I intended to hitch). That had effect. Within twenty minutes the lady of the house arrived and drove me to Byblos.

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