Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lebanon: Byblos and its surroundings

Chapter Three - Byblos and its surroundings

Whilst looking for Hotel Ahiram, one of the only two hotels in town, I noticed what a nice city this was : lovely houses and churches, cosy narrow streets, a delightful seafront and everything very clean. I loved it on first sight, and I didn't regret it one bit having to say good-bye to the Faraya landlady.

A (single) room in Hotel Ahiram was $45 plus $2.5 tax, but including breakfast. It's a friendly place. Granted, the rooms are a bit small, but they're immaculately clean and look really good. There's TV, A/C and a nice bathroom. I loved the place, just as much as I liked the town it was in. This town is famous for being the longest continuously inhabited in the world. A town with a past that goes back such a long way, just has to have its share of ruins. And it has.

It was only a short walk to them. I took a small detour through the old, but very renovated, souqs. They're a feast on the eye, but the merchandising is touristy.

The Frankish Castle of ByblosI paid the LL 6000 entrance fee to the friendly ticket office clerk and first headed to the rather imposing Frankish Castle. The castle is not very interesting but is worth a little exploring, and the views from the top over the rest of the site are great.

From the castle I walked to the Obelisk Temple, the Temple of Resheph, past the King's Well and many dwellings and settlements, to the adorable little Roman amphitheatre, and finally the Roman Colonnade and Necropolis. The visit took two or two and a half hours. There were only a few other people.

I walked to the waterfront. On my right when I exited the small street leading there, was the Fishing Club, a posh - or at least it was very posh - restaurant/bar where the crème de la crème of the international celebrity scene came to dine in the years before the war. It looks out over the small harbour where small fishing boats gently bob. Across the water are the scarce remnants of the old Phoenician port. If you want, you can make a short boat ride, but the local fishermen will ask as much as $10 !

I headed back into town, to the Church of St John the Baptist. But first, I wanted to see the Wax museum, which is almost opposite. It costs LL 5000 to enter. The cashier's a friendly bloke; he's also very informative. I found it a fun place to spend some time. It's not very big, but the scenes are well-presented. It depicts the history of Lebanon, from the Stone Age until the Second World War. Apparently the more recent history is too touchy or too difficult to add... Never mind, it's still nice as at is, and sometimes it's easier to learn a country's history through something which is at least more visual than the broken pots and beheaded statues one always sees in the more serious museums. I love those too, of course; they're an important part of the culture and history of a country. The sculptor apparently found that he had to add some figures which have not so much to do with Lebanon's history, for instance a mermaid. Perhaps he just wanted to show his creative talents, or just a pair of bare titties, I don't know. For those who want to see the exhibition again at home, there's a good guidebook available with pictures of all the scenes. It costs LL 3000.

The Church of St John the Baptist was locked. It was beautiful on the outside, but still I wanted to see the interior. A man was standing in the churchyard. I enquired about the opening hours. He was a nice bloke, but couldn't really help me. According to him, it was only possible to visit the church - which he said had one of the most beautiful interiors in the country - during mass. Next to the church is a big building. It belongs to an administrative section of the Maronite Church of Lebanon. I walked in and asked the first person I saw about the opening times of the church. Seemingly I had picked the right person. He asked me if I was alone. I was. Promptly he handed me the key to the church. "Return it when you've finished", he said. Was that nice or what ? I looked around inside for a fair while. I was not at all impressed by the looks of the interior, but nevertheless it was worth the visit; it had something serene, calming...

I returned the key and went for a bite. When I passed a joint called Safety Food, a guy tried to 'lure' me inside. I was easily convinced, especially when I found at that the place is run by three or four Egyptians... I like the people and their country very much ! As most Egyptians, they were friendly and very talkative. They had excellent, filling burgers, which cost LL 3000 each. Soft drinks are LL 1000. After my meal I wanted to make a telephone call. I soon found a very reliable and cheap private telephone office in a small alley to the right of the Kentucky Fried Chicken : only $1 per minute for a call to Europe. Most places in Lebanon charge $2 or even $3.

I returned to Hotel Ahiram, took a nice bath, grabbed a Pepsi and sat down on the terrace of my room, overlooking the sea and beach and waited for the sunset. The sunsets in Lebanon are almost always fantastic !

The next day I arranged a taxi for the day. Another $70, I know, but IMHO it was worth it. My chauffeur was Elie Daou, a really nice fellow and a good driver (03/464716) . He speaks a bit French and English. We headed for the Afqa Grotto. En route, we passed Elie's snack bar, Snack Daou (although in front of foreigners he likes to call it Restaurant Daou). Making delicious bread A friendly woman, who turned out to be his cousin, was outside and rolling out dough of which she made a big, triangular bread, which she stuffed with a salsa-like filling and baked on a hot plate. Of course we stopped and I had some of the breads. They were delicious. Delicious but expensive at $1.5 each. The restaurant's located at the Route de St. Charbel, opposite Hotel Marval. The best thing about the restaurant is not the food, but the two rooms (spacey, clean and with en-suite bathroom). Such a room can be had for $25-30 (even $20 if you bargain or tell him you know me... hehe).

The road towards the Afqa Grotto goes through some nice mountain scenery, which I found rather reminiscent of Greece. Before I even realised, we were in front of the rock which contains the grotto, on the new bridge. The rock made a pretty sight, but I wasn't incredibly impressed. My attention was drawn by Elie, who got out of the car like lightning and seemed to be jumping up and down for some unnecessary reason. Weird. I got out to, and saw he was killing a small snake, a viper. "There are many of those around here", he said. Cool...

We decided to descend from the road to the small Roman bridge, where we were greeted by an old lady who asked if I wanted to eat or drink something. Elie advised me not to have any food there, as it was not good, he said. I had a Seven-Up, which cost $1. Not cheap ! The view from the bridge was lovely : the water which runs down from the grotto reaches the bridge and there, from right underneath you, tumbles down in a azure blue and green small lake. Beautiful. The old lady showed me the way to a spot where you can have a spectacular view of the whole thing. Amazing; I was much more impressed than when I first arrived at the place !

After having taken sufficient time to marvel at the scenery, I decided it was time to hike up to the cave itself. The Lonely Planet guide I was carrying, stated that "you can walk up a flight of steps on the left bank of the river (steep but not too difficult)". Well, I can tell you, forget that ! There are no steps (anymore). Getting to the grotto involves a rather difficult climb over big boulders and over a narrow, slippery irrigation pipe. It's not at all easy, I can tell you, and you will inevitably get dirty, perhaps even wet. The first part can be walked, but then the path suddenly ends and you have to climb. Once inside, the cave is very big. It was October, so there wasn't much water inside. It was quite impressive, but for most people the difficulties involved in reaching it, will certainly outweigh the rewards.

Nearby are the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Venus. It could not be visited, as it is completely fenced off and the gates are locked. Not a great loss, as it's primarily a pile of rubble.

On to Laklouk. This is a pleasant area to drive around in. Looking for the Bala Gorge, we passed the Bishop's House, which as the name would suggest is not the residence of a chief pastor, but a small collection of houses carved from the living rock, which in its own right is very distinct, slightly reminiscent of Cappadocia in Turkey. There are several spots in the mountains of Lebanon which, if you've been to Cappadocia, immediately look familiar.

Finding Bala Gorge was a big problem for my driver. No matter how I tried, I couldn't get him to understand what I was on about. We both asked some people, but nobody caught my drift. I think I saw the gorge, but couldn't confirm it.

Elie told me he still had family living in a small mountain village nearby. At a certain point, we left the main road and drove up a very narrow track. I noticed a very beautiful, young woman making her way up as well. We only briefly had eye contact, but I noticed something friendly, fascinating in her look. The track was a dead end, and we arrived at a simple house, beautifully located, overlooking a valley below. A woman in her mid-40s welcomed us. She was overwhelmingly friendly. I also met some other people. In the meantime, the woman we had passed, had made her way up too. She told me her name was Claudine and that the woman who had welcomed was called Madeleine. She was the aunt of Claudine. Madeleine only spoke Arabic, but that was no problem since Claudine spoke French quite well. Much better than me for sure... These two women were so friendly, and we talked about life in Belgium, and in Europe as a whole, who I was, if I was married, what job I did, etc. This and that. I must admit I was quite fascinated, both by the extraordinary welcoming, and by Claudine; she was kind, calm, very beautiful, sexy and intelligent. I'd never thought finding someone like her in this tiny mountain village...

I enjoyed my visit very much, and I gladly accepted the invitation to lunch, especially since this meant a nice walk to the grocery store with Claudine. She truly was interesting and told me about her life, hopes and dreams.

Madeleine really went out of her way. In no time a table was set up with a whole assortment of foodstuffs : stuffed aubergines, tabouleh, chips, chicken and rice, tomatoes, different salads, hummus,... Really too much to name it all. Everything - literally everything - was delicious. I was full after such an extensive meal, but Madeleine treated me to melons, grapes, apples, bananas, and many other fruits. After that we enjoyed a nice cup of tea.

Time flies if you're enjoying yourself, and it was only by the arrival of Madeleine's son and his mate that I realised it was already late afternoon. I stayed another twenty minutes or so, but then I had to say the inevitable good-bye, although under different circumstances I could've easily stayed a whole week with this tremendous family.

We took a final snap in front of the tiny local church. Madeleine embraced me and gave me lots of kisses; she had tears in her eyes because I was leaving. Honestly, these folks' hospitality was unbelievable. I shook hands with all the others, also Claudine. We both felt pity this had to end so soon.

I thanked the family for everything, and then we left. Madeleine and Claudine were waving to us until we were out of sight. But not out of heart, that's for sure !

We now headed for Douma, a traditional village which is allegedly famous for being built in the shape of a scorpion. I was quite fascinated by that story, but somewhat disappointed by reality. Not that the place itself is disappointing. It's beautiful and quiet, but I just couldn't make out a scorpion shape. Probably more and more houses had been built outside the original shape, destroying the original plan.

We returned to Byblos, but made a stop at Anaya, where the convent, tombs, church and hermitage of St Charbel can be visited. The place is full of pilgrims, but everything's peaceful. I heard every Sunday (tens of) thousands of people flock here ! Yes indeed, St Charbel is very revered by the Maronites of Lebanon.

The place is pretty and well-kept. The convent has a serene atmosphere. It contains the tomb of Charbel, as well as the caskets in which he rested in peace before, including one he clearly, err, disintegrated in, to use a civilised term; this can clearly be judged by the big stains. There are also some relics of the saint, like some of his garments, and there's some sort of tableau vivant which shows the man as a child. The convent church as well as the bigger church outside are more than worth a visit. Photography is allowed everywhere inside and out. A short ride away, on top of a nearby hill, is St Charbel's former hermitage, which is also worth a look.

Moussalayha CastleOnce back in Byblos, Elie invited me over at his house. I met his wife, two daughters and three sons, and was again offered coffee and fruits. His house was up on a hill and offered nice views of the town by night. I had happy memories of a great day when I said good-bye to Elie and his family !

The next couple of days I used Byblos as a base to explore some places in the vicinity, some interesting, some not so interesting.
Qubba is only a short trip away. The Crusader Church of the Saviour is set on a hilltop and is down a back road which dead-ends at a barrier. It's only a short walk from there. The church cannot be visited and is rather plain on the outside. Therefore I think it can easily be skipped.
Much better is Moussalayha Castle, set in a quite romantic setting only just off the main Beirut-Tripoli highway, from which it can be seen. I had seen the pictures of this place on postcards and in guidebooks, and was somewhat disappointed by the real thing. The reason for this is that I visited in October and not in spring. In spring the whole place - and the whole Lebanon as a matter of fact - is much greener and more beautiful. I recommend everyone to visit in spring; if you can't right now, postpone your trip until later ! Anyway, back to the castle... it's an impressive construction, built atop a rocky outcrop which stands in the middle of a small plain. The approach is by an old stone bridge which spans a small river, dry in this case.
Steps cut in the rock lead up to the castle. It's only small, but there are quite a few rooms for such a tiny place. There's not a great lot to see inside, and there are some dangerous drops.

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