A Travellerspoint blog

September 2010

Cracs and Crumbles

We left Lebanon via the north and thought we'd squeeze in a little more of Syria.

There's a castle just north of the lebanese border called Crac de Chevalier which is supposed to be one of the most intact and most like you'd imagine a castle to look like castles you're ever likely to see. And it was. It's not a pretty fairy tale castle, it's more like a tank of a castle: perched on top of a hill, inpenetrable, guarding the only break in the mountain range that links the east of the middle east to the coast. Only problem is if you surround it for three months you starve out the people inside which is exactly what the arabs did to the crusaders. obvious really.

We indulged in a really good guide, went in every one of the many many guards rooms rooms, ran about the place taking silly pictures of us in all positions. Castle thoroughly done. tick.

Arrived that night in Palmyra which is one of those places you have to visit in Syria. It's an old ruined roman city plonked in the middle of the desert. And like all the historical sites (sights?) here there are no attendants watching your every move, in this case there wasn't even a fence or entrance fee. We ate in a restaurant overlooking the ruins and thought we'd check out the edge but ended up wandering through the whole ruins by the light of the moon and lights of the central colonnade.

When we got back we booked a taxi to take us to the top of a nearby hill to watch the sunrise over the ruins but the taxi never turned up (grr) so we just walked there and walked around again by sunrise instead. The light and the softness of the colours of the soft beige sandstone ruins and pastels of the sky was so calming, and the temperature and breeze at that time of the morning was just perfect. One upside to exploring the ruins again was that we managed to walk over to the nearby oasis. There is a old old village integrated with the oasis and it looked idyllic.

We left that afternoon and on our way to a new country - Jordan. Better get the new book out :)

Posted by rachndave 10:12 Archived in Syria Tagged ruins Comments (1)

What do you think this is: some kind of holiday??

Our last stop in Lebanon was Byblos and neither of us wanted to leave :(

Contender for one of the oldest inhabited towns in the world and seat of the written word you wouldn't really know it now because in the 60s Byblos was a hang out for the rich and famous who would come and party in the harbour. All because of a man who owned the super chilled "fishing club" bar/restaurant who was famous for "knowing how to throw a party". What a briliant thing to be remembered for. There are photos of him all over the walls with all the film stars of the day (bardot etc.) to royalty!

There are also sandy beaches, streets of bars, upmarket souks, some prehistoric and roman ruins, fish restaurants in the harbour and a little campsite just out of town where we had planned to camp but decided to upgrade to permanent tents/bungalows called tengalows which just 3 metres wide contain two beds and a little bathroom pod between them and nothing more but I would happily have moved in.

We had a view of the med and palm trees from the seats/table outside our little tengalow and access to a private entry to the water. Next door were Steve and his fiancee Sam from London who we had met briefly in a restaurant in Baalbeck (guess who has the same guide books ;)). Steve has just spent a year cycling round the world - through Iran and Afghanistan, Mongolia and all the stans...i can't even remember all the places. Very interesting and lovely people.

Nothing interesting to report really because we spent the whole time doing "holiday" things like blowing the budget a little on yummy fish platters and messing about in waves. We had meant to move on the next day but we were so relaxed here and the view was so amazing we decided to stay another day.

We had a great last night playing cards with Steve and Sam, talking travel, drinking arak and watching the moon turn orange as it set over the sea.

Could have stayed there for a week.

Posted by rachndave 08:50 Archived in Lebanon Tagged beaches sea ruins lodging Comments (0)

A monk's picnic

Like everywhere we have been so far the summer months are hot and dry but the winter months bring snow and lots of it. Iran gets 10 moetres we were told and everyone in Lebanon and Syria are also proud of their four seasons. Bcharre, in the north west of Lebanon, is a skiing village which serves the nearby Cedars resort during the winter but in summer it is the best place to explore the Qadisha floor which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful areas in Lebanon. After the hot and dusty yellow sandstone landscape of Baalbeck we were ready for some green again.

After making a plan to meet up in the same hostel 4 hours away we left Amy and Daun in Baalbeck to wander round *our* ruins ;) for the morning while we made our way straight to Bcharre

The hotel and taxi drivers assured us that the best way to get there was to get a shared taxi to a nearby town and hitch the rest of the way. So we jumped confidently out of the first taxi only to be laughed at by the locals in the sleepy little village we were dropped in. But we soon had a team of children flagging down cars (to no avail) and eventually a passing australian-lebanese man said he fancied a drive anyway and took us most of the way there and from there we managed to flag a shared cab for the short final hop. And I had a chance to practice my school girl french with a softly spoken and smiley local man in the back. I just can't get to grips with Arabic so it's been lucky for us that everyone here speaks French.

I mention these moments really because catching shared taxis and stopping in smaller towns is the main way that we meet local people and get to swap our countries stories - this is how I get my flavour for the country but it's difficult to share that with you precicely but it'll be a reminder for me when I look back on this when i'm old, so bear with these little bookmarks :)

We climbed into the mountains and wound our way round the side to see a cloud sitting in the valley below - a very pretty sight - and under that cloud was Bcharre. The town itself has a very seasidey feel partly due to the fog/cloud I think and the fact that the houses are built up the steep sides of the valley and so as you look out you cant see anything on the other side for the fog and so it could easily be the sea. It was so cool up here that I had to use my jumper (hooray for packing it!). We pootled about the town, had dinner with the girls, and got an early night ready to start our hike at 8am sharp.

Fortunately the cloud stayed away the next day and revealed the sights that were hidden the previous day. Wow. The valley is steep, and full of green orchards and vegetation. There is a river in the bottom and the odd little houses dotted on the other side...heaven knows how they get bread and milk because there were no roads on the other side that we could see. Dave, James-the-Australian-teacher-eight-months-into-his-year-sabatical and I scrambled down the valley side to join the donkey tracks and then footpaths along the side of the valley. The valley is famous for harbouring persecuted religious minorities throughout the centuries, mostly of the christian maronite order, all that is left now are old monasteries and cave hide-outs you can explore. However some of the monasteries are still working and have been since the 11th century. We spent the day scrambling up hills to check out caves, visiting the old hermitages (these maronites like to be left alone), monastery museums (we saw the first printing press built in the whole Middle East...and lots of wine making paraphenalia...no wonder these monks like to be left alone) and scrumping apples, grapes, walnuts, figs and blackberries from the orchards, monastery gardens and even those provided legally by nature, like, just out in the open. We resisted the urge to climb into the little steel cables transport box to cross to the other side...so *that*s how they get their milk and bread.

We were making our way back on the road, pestering local goats and watching the sun sink behind the rock speckled valley, happy but weary, when our dream finally came true....!! a pick up truck stopped to give us a lift!! so we rode back home along the top edge of the valley with the glowing sunset behind us, waving like idiots at all the groups of old men sitting outside shops. James didnt quite get why were were so excited but we grinned like loons the whole way home :-D

I was still smiling when we finally fell into bed (after the walnut-tasting competition of the monk's spoils, a beer, a shower and a good meal). Good day.

Posted by rachndave 07:58 Archived in Lebanon Tagged food hiking religion transportation valleys Comments (0)

A ruinous proposal

After our usual street falafel for breakfast (a treat i dont think i'll ever get bored of) we took the short cab hop to the Ksara Vineyard in the Bekka Valley. My uncle, who is a bit of a wine fan, had tipped us to the wine in lebanon and so i'd been looking out for it in the guidebook. And since we've been in Syria and Lebanon we've been served the local lebanese house wine which has been, without exception, yummy.

We had a tinker with the old fashioned machinery, watched the dvd of the more modern techniques, took a tour of the old roman cellars (which according to the story were discovered after the Jesuit monks who owned the original vineyard chased after a fox who'd been stealing the chickens - who disappeared down this mysterious hole and lo... instant kilometre long, perfectly conditioned wine cellar), had a few tastings and bought a couple of bottles to take with us to Baalbek to drink in the roman ruins there, should we have the chance.

Fortune was smiling on us and we made it to Baalbek in super fast time, found a dirt cheap hostel with a view of the ruins from our dorm's balcony no less and just chilled out with a beer feeling lucky.

Baalbek is one of the best preserved roman temple sites you'll find (and the small town of the same name is also the administrative centre of Hezbollah which means there is the strange only-in-modern-times situation which mean in front of the ruins there are chancers selling hezbollah tshirts to tourists on the streets...most strange). That evening the guide lead us through grand courtyards and temples dedicated to Jupiter, showed us where the human/animal sacrifices were made, let us soak up the enormity of the still standing columns and staircases, and then left us in the shadow of the temple dedicated to Baccus the god of Funtimes to spend the rest of our time to explore until sunset.

Which we did like children in an crumbling, limestone adventure playground for there are no red cord ropes of denial here! So we were still scrabbling around with the place pretty much to ourselves when we noticed the sun setting and we thought we'd better get our cheeky glass of wine in hiding behind some huge fallen column piece. And here we stayed until the sun went down and he lights started coming up wondering if we had been locked in until we saw other tourists and attendants paying no mind so we stayed sat there on the steps (feeling bold enough to drink our glasses in plain view) and watched the sun go down, the soft ruin lights come up and watched the few other tourists, the bats and even an owl play among the columns. It was so perfect I even made dave propose but had to turn him down on account of him forgetting my middle name :p The guard eventualy decided we should probably leave but I dont think they minded too much. I think they love that place and are happy to let people stay there who love it too.

When we got back to our hotel we were just getting stuff together to finish off our bottle on the balcony when there was a knock on our door and two girls stood there looking for the manager: Amy and Jaun from Beirut. looking a little travel weary but cheerful as ever. So the four of us swapped overlapping travel stories on the balcony and polished off the second bottle. Making a parting bedtime pact to continue on the road together for a few days rather than trailing half a day behind as we seemed to have been doing :) road trip!

Posted by rachndave 00:27 Archived in Lebanon Tagged ruins wine companions Comments (3)

Inspiration seedlings

The reason we chose this whole adventure destination was because of the inspiration-seed planted by Beirut and it's nearby cedar reserve. Lebanon used to be famous for it's cedars - when I say used-to-be I mean in the middle eastern sense of time eg. Soloman-from-the-bible's temple was apparently made from lebanese cedar. As were the roofs of roman palaces etc. A cedar leaf is in the centre of the lebanese flag. But unfortately, as is the way of these things, there are few cedars left now (greedy romans) but there is one reserve left covering 5% of Lebanon's land and more trees are being planted all the time.

En route we stopped at a pretty and very french feeling mountainous village of Dier al Qamar. Being an upmarket and small place there wasn't any affordable accommodation here so in the end someone suggested asking up at the convent for a camping spot. The super kindly, smily and multinational nuns didnt bat an eyelid and offered us the ahem...carpark of their school. Not that we needed it but even had the affectionate guard of the young dog who had followed us all the way for he stayed the night and trot and frolic at our heels back to town the next morning only to disappear without even a bark goodbye. I shall remember you fondly Swivel (named after the french for "to follow" = suivre)

The chouf cedars cover hills and hills of space although we only skirted the edge for 10k basking in the views over the valley and breathing deep the clean cool air which was tinged with the piney scent of the cedars. Exeactly as we'd imaginge. The only shame is that without a guide you aren't allowed to go off road so we didnt get to wander as we leased but we did manage to sneak down one track for a bit and take in the vastness of the reserve on the other side of the valley. We hitched a ride back to town on a leaving tour bus (by hitch i mean we asked at the ranger's hut for a taxi and the ranger dashed out to stop it and bundled us on)

We finished up in Zahle in a small faded-elegant hotel which would have been the perfect setting for an Agatha Christie film, including tea in the drawing room drawing room with a nature loving american couple and their grown son and shuffling maids :) Zahle is well situated for the Bekka valley... a name that should be familiar to you Uncle Gary (hello Uncle Gary!). More later.

Posted by rachndave 00:01 Archived in Lebanon Tagged trees nuns Comments (1)

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