Slowly, the dust fades and the Beirut skyline disappears into the smog of the city. It gets greener, hillier. They say that Lebanon is the only country on Earth where you can swim and go skiing in one day. This is partly due to its small size, but also because of its perfect natural conditions: the Mediterranean on one side, the mountains on the other.
Harissa and Batroun: Enthroned above Lebanon
The northern route is simple and indispensable when travellers visit Lebanon. It is a long road towards Tripoli, running directly along the sea without any turnings, occasionally interrupted by military control points. One quick, grim look from a soldier in a car, then we can continue. We can barely feel that Syria, the country next door, is just a stone’s throw away. More dominant is what Lebanon can offer us as travellers. The first stop is Harissa, a place that travellers, who visit Lebanon never leave out, not just because of its view over all of Lebanon, but also the statue regally standing 650m high over the Mediterranean. Her name is Our Lady of Lebanon and she’s been a model for years. Even the fashionably dressed, stilettoed women taking selfies with her seem to fit right in – contrasting images that sit side by side so comfortably, ias if they spent years perfecting the technique.
We go through one more military control point, the main road reflected in the back mirror. It gets bumpy, the potholes larger and the curves sharper.
A road trip through Lebanon is anything but a straightforward drive. This is real road trip land, which, to make matters worse, is wedged right between the fire points of Israel and Syria. What’s more, it’s a country that fluctuates so often between the Mediterranean and the Eastern that it can be easy to forget where you are. This is the case in the Batroun region, where beach resorts rub shoulders with mountain resorts.
Batroun is just 15 minutes from the sea by car. A coastal city known not for its rugged sea, but for the rock zone that lies behind. Here, time seems to have stood still. The gravel road trails past typically Lebanese houses, built so meticulously and minimalistically from single stones that they look indestructible. Together with the olive trees and vineyards, it exudes a Lebanese/Italian/Francophone flair. At the end of the street are the Abdelli Terraces, an authentic homestay sitting 600m high over the sea, with a clear view of the water on one side and of the surrounding vineyards on the other. This is where Lebanon is really tangible. From Batroun, the road leads further inland. The actual tourist trail is even further away – the Roman ruins of Baalbek are still 40 minutes’ drive off, along a street through the Beqaa Valley, which has become a temporary place to stay for a large number of Syrian refugees over the past few years.
Beqaa Valley: Through the present towards history
Living space in big cities is hard to come by and the Lebanese resistance to refugees persists, which is why this has become an improvised – and illegal – camp for many Syrians. Running from north to south, the fertile valley sits just east of Mount Lebanon, its foothills 900-1000m high. As we drive, the potent stench of urine fleets into the car via the air conditioning. Tents, meagrely crafted together from cleared-out truck tarpaulins, are all around on the land. Many are emblazoned with oversized lettering from Pepsi, Michelin and Coca-Cola.
The tent camps slowly disappear from view only once on the car park of the Baalbek excavation site. Suddenly, the refugee crisis also seems to have blown away. This is where multilingual guides leads groups of tourists from all different countries through the massive temple grounds.
Since 1984, the Temple of Bacchus and the old city of Baalbek have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, drawing in most of Lebanon’s annual visitors. Many of them are making a quick side trip from the glittering Emirates, while others are retirees finally fulfilling their dream of a guided trip around Lebanon. Only a small number of visitors travel independently through the country, searching for what’s outside the hype.
The site at Baalbek is enthroned above the Beqaa Valley, ample and grand. Surprisingly, it is mostly well-preserved. Today, it’s not just the workplace for tour guides, but also for people selling jewellery, clothing and souvenirs, always trying their luck again and again. Here, at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, is where a large part of the country’s history was written – and still is being written. If you climb right to the top of the Temple of Bacchus and gaze into the distance, you can see what Lebanon’s present amounts to.
A day in Lebanon is like travelling in time through the country’s history. It begins where a new form of tourism is emerging, where travellers actually visit Lebanon, in the plateaus of Batroun and homestays run by locals who want to share a piece of Lebanese life with visitors. Then there is the country’s current political impact, demonstrated by the enormous Syrian refugee tent camps. And then it ends where it all began, at Baalbek, right before the bright lights of Beirut draw nearer and bombard you with new contrasts. Oh Lebanon, you tainted child with all your potential and your problems.