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Heading North to start our trek

May 19, 2010
Shuttered window

Fading and decaying grandeur in Beirut

When we reached our hotel in Beirut after our visit to the refugee camp I was itching to explore, so relishing the freedom just to head out the door without telling anyone (fellow Mum’s will know what I mean) I walked down towards the sea.  There were many buildings that told of the past glories of Beirut when it was known as the Paris of the Middle East; 1920s style with sleek, elegant lines and shutters with fabulous views of the Med.  They were all in various states of disrepair or actually collapsing.  I had expected bullet holes in a few places but the extent was shocking making the impact of the 25 year civil war very real. The corniche had shades of Miami, lined with palm trees, with people strolling and jogging in the early evening sun.  Crossing the road was pretty difficult due to the crazy driving and purely ornamental function of the traffic lights.  Next morning we joined that traffic and visited downtown Beirut (that’s the city centre for UK English speakers).  The monument in Place des Martyrs was riddled with bullet holes, evidence of it being on the Green line during the war.

Rafik Hariri's grave

The grave of Rafik Hariri – Prime Minister who was killed along with his bodyguards in 2005

An incredible mosque – the Mohammed Al-Amin, dominates the area now, built by Rafik Hariri, a magnificent building and we donned abayas (the girls) to experience the equally splendid interior.   A shrine to Hariri is next door adorned with huge wreaths and displays of white flowers, it’s hard to guess how many thousand, which are changed every day.  St George’s cathedral is next to the mosque, its outer walls still bearing scars but peaceful within and the retail area adjacent has been meticulously restored.  We went past an armed checkpoint to enter and strolled down empty streets lined with pavement cafes towards the Place d’Etoile – very French.  It was luxurious, elegant, peaceful but strangely soul-less.  After marvelling at the gleaming icons in the Orthodox church we were keen to be on our way; everyone was impatient to get nearer to the start of our trek (but who could refuse a doughnut courtesy of Joseph).  Our driver, Charbel, chose an interesting ‘zig-zag’ route to beat the traffic – sort of two steps forward, one step back.  As well as street hawkers approaching the cars, fresh-faced Lebanese youths were out in force in Red Cross t-shirts.  They stood in the middle of the traffic and stopped cars for donations – this even happened on the motorway – it was a chicken and egg situation!  We stopped in a supermarket to get our water supplies for the week but couldn’t resist the fresh fruit and vegetables including sweet cherries, peaches, peas in the pod and sour, green plums which Mustapha and Gemma said are called jenEric (not sure of spelling, see them here).

Byblos

View from the Crusader castle in Byblos

We had lunch in a restaurant called Cookery in Byblos. I always wondered if people actually ate the enormous plate of whole vegetables that are usually served in Lebanese restaurants or if they just go in and out of the kitchen.  I got my answer when Gemma grabbed a knife and chopped it all up, offering it round the table.  Byblos (known as Giblet by the crusaders!) is a(nother) town that claims to be the longest inhabited, with a port that was crucial to Phoenician trade.  The Phoenician and Roman ruins and Crusader castle (complete with cannon balls embedded in the walls) were extensive and picturesque, right by the sea.  A French archeologist, Ernest Renon discovered the ruins and set about excavating them in 1860, digging a huge area and clearing many people’s houses in the process.  Now as much as I like ruins, I couldn’t help feeling he’d got his priorities askew.

Driving through Tripoli was a contrast – a sprawling town of apartment blocks crowded together; people air their carpets on the balcony wedged on with plastic chairs and I saw some geometric-patterned, brown ones worthy of the mid 70s.  We passed the Nahr-al-Bared refugee camp when many people lost their lives in 2007.  Up and coming elections meant that posters were displayed all over the towns and changed from area to area, ranging from pictures of bearded, Muslim clerics to chubby-cheeked, slicked-haired, smiling politicians.  Finally we entered country lanes and the bus climbed steeper and steeper.

View from chalet

View from our chalet over the hills to the sea

Passing yet another checkpoint with bored looking soldiers in camouflage and a row of ancient tanks we reached the “welcome to Baino” sign. My ‘chalet’, shared with Sandra, was a concrete structure on blocks overlooking the chicken run, countryside reminiscent of Tuscany and, in the distance, the pink gleam of the sun setting on the sea.  A feast, that would become very familiar to us, was quickly delivered to the long supper table.  I ate enthusiastically except for the kibbeh naye (raw lamb with herbs and burghul) and the waiter was genuinely aghast when we asked him to take it away. It was Friday night so the entertainment started – a very enthusiastic and loud drummer who pounded along to the backing music.  Did I mention it was loud?  Thank goodness I could retire to a distance; not so those with rooms under the restaurant and a few were bleary-eyed when we met at breakfast (which overlooked that fantastic view).

Joseph's father

Meeting Joseph’s father

Now we were on the brink of starting the trek, I was suddenly really nervous.  Would I have the stamina to cope with the distance, duration and terrain?  We drove into Qoubaiyat in the Akkar region and Joseph, whose home town it is, proudly pointed out various landmarks.  He said there are 16 churches and if you live there and don’t go to church nobody will talk to you!  We took a detour to visit his centegenarian father – who didn’t look a day over 70.  It was a special moment but we couldn’t stay to drink coffee on his terrace as invited.  We started out from a small monastery built with the stones of a Roman building and strode out into a sunny meadow full of white and yellow flowers and red poppies.  It was soon apparent that this was no stroll in the countryside though and Charmoun led at a very swift pace, doing a detour only to avoid a bee swarm.

Trekking

Enjoying the view after steep ascent

We started to ascend steeply up the hillside, it was very warm and there was no shade, this was going to be tough.  Paths and fields took us higher and higher – the reward being the view.  We passed people working in the fields and a goat-herd.  We had our packed lunch by a spring and hiked through the glorious greenery for the rest of the afternoon, ending at Qammoua plain which acted as a recreation area for local children and youths (some driving across it on a clapped-out motorbikes).

End day one

Near the end of day one of trekking

Karen had instructed us in group stretching exercises in the morning and suggested we do a cool down one.  We positioned ourselves down a lane much to the amusement of a farmer on a tractor and passing motorists.  They weren’t as amazed as we were when, approaching a small checkpoint down the road, our bus had to give way to a Mercedes weaving along driven by a girl who was about 6, her head-scarved mother sitting in the passenger seat holding another small child on her lap.  She had actually driven through the checkpoint and the soldiers were all laughing.  Apart from the bus getting stuck, quite dramatically, at the bottom of the hill, there was a quiet end to the day.  It had been a demanding trek of about 21km in hot and humid conditions but we’d all made it through day one.

5 Comments
  1. Michelle permalink
    May 19, 2010 8:25 pm

    You are a genius………..look forward to the next installment xx

    • May 19, 2010 10:04 pm

      Hi Sally,

      Wow it all looks amazing, what an experience I feel like I am living it with you. Looking forward to hearing of more….
      P & B
      xxx

  2. May 19, 2010 10:15 pm

    Thanks guys – you’ve inspired me – lovely to have such great feedback.

  3. May 19, 2010 10:33 pm

    Another gem – what a wonderful record this will be for all your fellow hikers. Px

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