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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Into the Mountains

Checked out of Beirut hotel yesterday morning; took some pictures from the roof for Steve. He remembers being up there with a bunch of fellow journalists after the Feb. 6, 1984 Moslem uprising that drove government troops out of west Beirut. (He was the UPI Beirut bureau chief and is now a colleague of mine at the bank.) I am pasting from what he emailed me about that night before the trip: "That was the event that precipitated the withdrawal of the Marines and other Western forces. We were up there at night, and I could see three battles going on simultaneously. Christians and Moslems were firing at each other across the Damascus highway a couple of miles away, while traffic roared down both lanes. The tracers almost looked sublime. Nearby, up in the Shouf, the Druze were exchanging mortar fire with Phalangists up in the mountains of east Beirut. Then all of a sudden, the USS New Jersey opened up with its 16-inch guns a few miles off shore, firing into the Shouf in defense of the Christians. The whole night sky was lit up -- have never seen a sight like it. We were mezmerized. I was standing alongside our photographer and we saw tracers coming at us from the Damascus highway battle. They seemed to be arcing up lazily. We thought they looked beautiful, then realized we'd better duck! Bullets were hitting the side of the hotel. It was insane ...

I was asleep in my room the next morning when a fighter jet from the Lebanese Air Force (they had about 5 planes) roared right over the hotel and broke the sound barrier, heading for a landing, no kidding, on the coastal highway north of the city."

I think there was more, but it got truncated. Perhaps Steve will write a special guest column for my blog after he reads my travelogue. His perspective and reflections were invaluable during my trip preparations.

Drove into the Mt. Lebanon range and visited Chamoun's home. Was at least 10 degrees cooler -- a welcome change. Met his mom and dog Caesar. His family had to flee during the war in 1975 and remained in Byblos for about 15 years. I had skipped breakfast but ate fresh cherries and mulberries and plums from his garden. Sublime!

Dropped by a monastery built in the 1840s and met the one priest still in residence. Upstairs bunks used to sleep at least 20 monks. Would be a great place to stay if you were backpacking. The priest let us into the secret cellar where the monks used to hide when Christians were being persecuted; we entered through a trap door in the floor and went down a short staircase. The cellar stays cool in summer and warm in winter. They still grow grapes there for wine, but now the priest has to hire laborers to help with the farming. View from the bell on the roof reminded me of how I imagine Tuscany looks.

Walked a bit in the Cedars Reserve, the country's largest protected forest. Chamoun is an expert hiker and nature guide and explained the Lebanese cedars are the shorter, fatter ones while the Moroccan cedars are taller and more slender. They call the Lebanese trees Cedars of God because the pine cones grow up toward heaven, unlike most coniferous species. The purple and gold wildflowers are gorgeous amid the dark green trees.

Lunch was one of the coolest eating experiences we've had. We stopped at a local bakery, and the owners (a couple in their 70s) fired up the oven and rolled out dough to make us a sort of thin, crispy flatbread pizza -- one with lamb and spices and one with cheese. It was served with fresh mint, cucumbers, tomatoes and onions. We wanted something light, and it hit the spot.

Visited Beittedine Palace, built in the 1700s by Emir Bashir, who ruled Lebanon during the Ottoman empire. Reminded me a bit of the Alhambra -- unbelievable mountain setting looking down over a lovely valley with rose gardens in full bloom and courtyard fountains. Highlight was probably the elaborate bath rooms -- wish we'd had a guide to learn more about how they worked, but one was not available. It looked incredibly sophisticated for the era, complete with some sort of enormous water heater.

Visited the village of Deir al Kamar, which was largely created during the rule of Fakhreddine, the first ruler to unitfy Mt. Lebanon with the coastal cities in the late 1500s. He was exiled to Tuscany in the early 1600s for creating an alliance with the Medicis (threatening the Ottomans' hold on Lebanon) but brought back much of what he learned in Italy, including ways to enhance silk and olive oil production.

Side note: we are currently driving on a two-lane road and just got passed on both the left and the right simultaneously. Traffic fun continues.

Watched the sunset and had a light dinner of mezze in the courtyard of a smaller palace built for one of the emir's sons. It is now a hotel with rooms for the bargain price of $300 and $600 suites. Lots of what looked like wealthy Saudis watching their kids in the pool. Gorgeous setting, but we checked out the rooms and thought the price was a bit steep.

Then again, Frank and I both had evening showers that we ranked as some of our worst ever -- an odd handheld contraption in a corner that was basically just a drain and a shower head. Thank goodness I tried it again this morning with hot water and figured out how to hang up the handheld spout on the wall. Scratchy, crunchy towels completed the experience. But it was a quaint, clean family-run inn and a nice place to spend the night.

We are now in the Bekaa Valley, the nation's major farming region. Just made an unexpected stop at a Jesuit monastery and farm where they produce dairy products distributed all over Lebanon. Bought some olives and eggplant in oil (grown on the farm) and and cherry liqueur. Snapped a quick pic of the Syrian border. Now we are headed to a winery and two sets of ruins -- Roman at Baalbak and Umayyad (Muslim civilization) at Anjar. Another awesome day is unfolding!

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