Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lebanon: The Chouf Mountains - Home of the Druze

Chapter Seven - The Chouf Mountains - Home of the Druze

The next day I left the Palmyra Hotel in Baalbek. I took a minibus to Chtaura (LL 3000; to Zahlé is strangely enough only LL 1000). I wanted to go to Beiteddine directly (I really hated having to go via Beirut), so had to take a taxi. I asked several taxi drivers but not one wanted to negotiate the 30 bucks they wanted for the ride. They didn't come down one penny !

The ride through the Chouf mountains was extremely nice. The Chouf are a region with lots of water and hence lots of green. They're also the home of the Druze, that odd offspring of the Muslim religion. The Druze were involved in fierce fighting for the mountains during the war. They were outnumbered, but being the dedicated partisans they are, they were victorious regardless.

The Central Courtyard of Beiteddine PalaceThe village of Beiteddine is situated in the Chouf. It's famous for the extensive palace complex, built by a Lebanese emir. I first saw the palace from the other side of the valley it overlooks. The Lonely Planet guide says : "The palace almost looks like a vision from a fairy tale." I think that's highly exaggerated. I found it rather plain on the outside from a distance; I almost didn't notice it. I passed a barber's and enquired on how to get there. The guy there promptly gave me a lift.

I paid the LL 5000 entrance tax to the rather unfriendly guys at the reception and entered the Outer Courtyard, a vast empty area flanked by buildings on three sides. I visited the Joumblatt Memorial Exhibition and the Ethnographic Museum, but found neither of them too interesting. I then climbed the main staircase and entered the Central Courtyard. This is extremely beautiful, and so are most of the buildings surrounding it, also on the inside. There's a nice fountain, the views over the valley are good and the colours used in the construction of the quarters are warm and make things very cosy. I had to descend to the lower terraces and the rest of the complex by another, but plain, staircase. The entrance to the Third Court was closed, and I also couldn't visit the extensive kitchens, bathhouse and Tomb of Sitt Chams. Luckily the lovely gardens and the views from them make up for a lot of that loss. There's a mosaic museum in the former stables, but although the atmosphere inside is good (especially because of the good choice of light), I found the collection only very average.

A visit to the Palace of Beiteddine can take quite a while, especially if you want to be thorough. Personally, I found the palace nice but nothing to rave about. The complex's exterior is beautiful and so are some of the interiors (it is forbidden to take photographs inside of those). Unfortunately, most interiors are very plain, and filling the empty space with just some average museum really doesn't make up for that. The palace was occupied by the Israelis during the war, and allegedly they've stolen a lot of its treasures, so it's fortunate that we can still visit it at all.

I grabbed my backpack which I'd left at the palace's entrance and walked the five kilometre down the road around the valley to Deir al-Qamar. The first thing in Deir I came across was Castle Moussa, a very artificial looking building. And artificial it is. It's the product of the mind of a certain Mister Moussa. He wanted to realise his dream of life by building this castle and filling it with wax figures showing traditional Lebanese life the way he saw it.

Entrance is LL 5000. The displays are IMHO pretty crappy, and the whole thing is nothing but a tourist trap of no real interest. At the end of the 'tour', there's an unfriendly souvenir shop and a guy who - if you show enough interest - will serve you a cup of coffee; he grinds the beans in a traditional grinder, making music in the process. Would be nice if it wasn't so 'plastic'; a tip is also expected.
This castle really looks as if it comes out of a fairytale book, contrary to Beiteddine Palace, so it's hard to resist going inside. However, I'd be tempted to recommend to do just that, were it not for the fact that this Mr Moussa built everything with his own bare hands !

Further down the road, I walked into Deir al-Qamar centre. The village is situated more or less 'round a central square with a fountain, a lovely place. Most of the beautiful buildings I saw upon arriving, were definitely old and I understood why all of Deir is rightfully preserved as a national monument. I had to get rid of my backpack. I had a couple of tasty (and cheap enough) hamburgers at Snack Antoun's. The place is located at the corner of the main street, just behind the mosque and is run by Georges Antoun Bassem. He's a really nice guy, and didn't mind at all that I left my pack there until I had finished my visit.

Dominating the square was the Musée Marie Baz, housed in the former palace of Emir Fakhr ad-Dine. Since 1925 it's the property of Baz family, and in 1995 Samir Baz decided to open it to the public and turned it into a wax museum depicting in Lebanese history since 1512. The museum was inaugurated in July 97.

The museum is only small (actually the restaurant inside is bigger than the exposition), but the staff are extremely friendly and helpful. The wax figures are well-executed and the whole gives a pretty good insight in the 'who's who' of Lebanon's history. Entry is a bit steep at LL 6000. There's a guidebook available for LL 3000, but is only a photocopied affair. Still, it can be handy to understand who exactly you're looking at if you're not exactly well-informed about the country.

I decided to look around the rest of the historical buildings but didn't know exactly where to start. My help appeared as if out of nothingness : an older chap approached me and told me he was a guide in Deir al-Qamar. If I wanted to see all the places I just had to follow him. He spoke excellent French and a bit English, and was a great source of information. That guy really knows everything about his village; he already was a guide years before the war, but still does his job with as much love and attention as 25 years ago. His name is George Bustani and you can find him in one of the base rooms of the Palace of Fakhr ad-Din Maan I. Everybody knows him, so you shouldn't have to look around for long.

He showed me all the interesting places, including the old mosque, synagogue, the church containing a miraculous painting and the serail. Everything was well-explained. He's a modest chap and expects only a small tip. LL 2000 should be fine.

After this tour I spent some more time looking around on my own. Then I went to pick up my backpack and took a service taxi to Saida (LL 5000; to Damour (where you can change to another taxi) would have been LL3000).

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