Round The World by Bike: Lebanon (24 November 2001)

Lebanon

What do you know of Lebanon and Beirut? Let’s be honest: you’ve probably
only read this far because you thought the title was ‘Lesbians’. What I knew
(or thought I knew) was a place ripped apart by fighting – tanks and rubble
in the streets, concrete shells of buildings Emmental-ed with bullet holes.
Fanatics draped with AK-47s. And if you should be foolish enough to enter
the country… well you are sure to be taken hostage a la Terry Waite and
John McCarthy. More like Front Page than Travel Page. A travel page should
be telling you about places like this:

A tiny nation combining natural beauty with some of the juiciest history in
the world. The best food in the Middle East. A buzzing, invigorated capital
city. Skiing, sunshine and the ocean…

The history of Lebanon is jaw-dropping. Byblos is the oldest continuously
inhabited city in the world (over 5000 years old). A beautifully preserved
Roman street runs alongside relaxed cafes and restaurants in the heart of
Beirut. In a nearby square are 2000 year old Roman baths, the under-floor
heating system clear to see. The baths were built, in turn, on the site of
Phoenician baths 4000 years old. Today they are smack bang in the middle of
Beirut city centre.

And then there is Baalbek, a site for which the superlative must have been
invented. Its construction was a startlingly ambitious political statement
made by the Romans at the heart of the vital Fertile Crescent between the
Nile and the Euphrates. The largest Roman temple ever constructed, far
bigger than anything in Rome or Athens. The temple of Bacchus is the best
preserved temple on the planet. The mightiest building block ever cut lies
nearby. Measuring 20x5x4 metres it weighs 1500 tonnes. The ‘vast monoliths’
of Stonehenge are a mere 50 tonnes. 40,000 people would have been needed to
shift the ‘Rock of Fertility’.

The Lebanese are proud people. They are proud of their hospitality and proud
of their food and rightly so. Pepe’s ‘Fishing Club’ restaurant in Byblos is
legendary, a frequent haunt of the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Frank Sinatra
and Marlon Brando in the 1960’s. Hundreds of photographs testify to its
glamorous clientele. In restaurants you are bombarded with endless plates of

mezze (starters): hummus, tabouleh and fatoush salads, spinach and cheese
pastries, flat hot bread and the fabulous baba ghanouj – a smoky blend of
aubergines, tahini, lemon and olive oil. And then they bring the main
courses! Ouch. A cornucopia of decadently sweet pastries and cakes to finish
with.

The wines of Lebanon are a hidden jewel. The vines of Chateau
Kefraya, Chateau Musar and Ksara are beginning now to be praised
internationally, for Lebanon has an ideal climate: both Mediterranean
sunshine and 3000 metre mountains gathering snow and keeping the land
fertile.

How about this for a day in a holiday? A morning’s skiing at Faraya or The
Cedars, the afternoon at one of the most exquisite and important ancient
sites in the world, sunset in a café watching the sun slide into the ocean
before strolling around beautiful and friendly downtown Beirut as you select
the restaurant of your choice from the myriad of high quality options
available.

And then, when your friends boast of Rome’s history or Greek sunshine or
skiing in Austria or Parisian cuisine, allow yourself a little smug smile at
having found all that rolled into one special little country. Welcome to
the horrors of Lebanon!

Daily flights from London to Beirut. 4½ hours. Major carriers including BA.
Flights approx £450. Trailfinders 0207 938 3366

Car hire available (though Lebanese driving is rather crazy!), including Avis,
Hertz, Europcar etc. Europcar $180 per week upwards. International Driving
License needed.

Many tour companies to Lebanon, including:
Cox and Kings (0207 8735003)
Jasmin Tours (01628 531121)
Bales Tours (01306 885 923)

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