News: Valleys and Vineyards of Lebanon

Posted: 4 June 2019

Valleys and Vineyards of Lebanon

My journey to Lebanon starts with a very pleasant flight on Middle Eastern airlines from Heathrow to Beirut. I was surprised to see that the airline had quite an extensive network stretching as far afield as West Africa. The flight time from Heathrow is around 4.5 hours and after a tasty meal and a glass of Lebanese red all served with a friendly smile, we touched down in Beirut.

The visa on arrival process was very straightforward, but do ensure there are no Israeli stamps in the passport as your document will be well scrutinised. The journey from the airport into downtown Beirut proved to be quick and efficient. Our nights in Beirut were spent in the well located Hamra area in the  west of Beirut city at the Commodore Hotel. The hotel offers well-appointed rooms and a nice pool area to cool off in during the oppressive summer months. The hotel is around an easy 10 minute walk to the Corniche, an excellent place for a stroll in the early morning or late afternoon to observe the local fishermen or perhaps join the locals for a jog.

Our first evening in Beirut was spent enjoying fabulous hospitality courtesy of our excellent hosts. We enjoyed a sumptuous feast of local cuisine. Food surely has to be very high up on a list of many reasons to experience Lebanon from a visitors perspective. We tucked into  fresh Tabbouleh, fattoush, hummus, kebab and fresh bread. Wine accompanied the meal. Lebanon actually boasts one of the world’s most ancient viticulture traditions, consisting now of over 70 wineries, although production is still relatively small scale compared to Western European producing nations.  It would be remiss to also ignore the local beer Almaza, which is most refreshing and welcoming on a sultry evening and well worth a try.

Our morning was spent on an insightful walking tour of Beirut. This is a city emerging from the trauma of the infamous and devastating civil war which destroyed much of the city from the mid 70’s until the early 90’s. During this time the city was split between the Muslim west and the Christian east and the downtown area became the scene of utter carnage. Reminders of the horror of war are ever present, no more so than at the fascinating Barakat building also known as the Yellow house , a once grand property situated directly on the ‘green line’ between East and West, now transformed into a sobering museum and cultural centre where battle was played out year after year and the scars of war are visible throughout the bullet ridden structure. Our walk continued through the charming quartier des arts, where we took time to chat to local artisans about their creations and projects. One such place was a small boutique where local people generate income from making clothes and furniture from unwanted fabric. The products on display were intricate, ornate and very impressive, certainly to my untrained eye. Another small gallery was mapping the changing face of Beirut through aerial photography and also contains powerful images from the war.

Our walking tour continued to include attractive Nejmeh Place, complete with a wonderful Ottoman clock tower and the nearby extensive remains of well-preserved Roman baths. The walk finishes at Martyr Square, scene of a mass Lebanese protest in 2005 leading to the end of military interference by Syrian troops occupying the country. From here one also gets a striking view of the impressive Al-Amin mosque with its bright blue dome contrasting against the towering sandstone minarets.

Our time was limited in the city, but a visit to the national museum is recommended and also perhaps the world renowned American university of Beirut, which as well as being a pillar of academic excellence, has immaculate grounds to wander and admire the architecture. In addition, if time allows, consider spending time in the narrow atmospheric streets of the Armenian quarter, whose people came to Lebanon in great numbers during the genocide in 1915 and created a community still very much thriving to this day.

After lunch we took the journey North along the coast for around 1 hour to the ancient town of Byblos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth with a rich history dating back 7000 years. The town is notable for the creation of an alphabet to which the modern version we use today is based upon. Byblos is a place of great charm, with a small but beautiful harbour where one can easily wile away the hours enjoying the views and sea breeze whilst indulging in some fresh seafood. 

The archaeological site is excellent, in particular the 12th century Crusader Castle and the Roman ruins including a small amphitheatre with a knockout location overlooking the shimmering Mediterranean. It is also well worth exploring the recently restored Souk where shady lanes are adorned with beautiful bright flowers leading to attractive cafes and bars. For those wanting a more upmarket boutique experience, the Byblos Sur Mer property is recommended and has a pool right on the edge of the sea. The tourist class Hotel Ahiram has clean rooms and a lovely airy terrace overlooking the pleasant beach. Our day ends with a great sunset followed by another culinary extravaganza, this time showcasing fruits of the sea including succulent prawns, calamari and baked fresh fish. Simply delicious.

An early start greets us the next morning, and we ascend up into the green hills of the Mt Lebanon region and the Chouf Mountains. Lebanon is quite different to many countries in the Middle East, in that it has no desert. As soon as you leave the coast one is immediately struck by the greenery as the topography changes. We happen to be travelling during a heatwave for May with temperatures easily up into the mid 30’s by late morning, so there is some slight relief to be travelling today up to an altitude of around 1000m. This is just as well, as our morning activity is a 3 hour hike starting with a visit to Niha cave fortress, the remains of which are built within the cliffs which drop off into the abyss of the Bisri valley below. The views are thrilling and enhanced by the sight of a large raptor gliding effortlessly on the warm thermals.

Our hike (a small section of the near 300 mile length Lebanon Mountain trail) is delightful and generally an easy ramble over mildly undulating terrain to the town of Jezzine. As well as the fine scenery, one is taken by the peace and tranquillity all around, no interference from the sounds of modern existence, just the calming company of the warm zephyr whispering through the trees and the occasional crisp crack of pine cones expanding in the heat. Even more stark was the wonderful aroma of wild herbs everywhere, in particular oregano, which our guide Daniele (Dan) encourages us to taste. Before reaching Jezzine, we stop for a wonderful picnic of pasta salad liberally coated in verdant Olive oil proudly sourced from Dan’s grandmother, and finished with a robust squeeze of some of the hugest lemons I’ve seen to date. The descent into Jezzine requires some care with some loose shale where walking poles could be useful, but particularly in Spring, the reward is a picturesque waterfall at the trail end.

Next stop is the exquisite Beiteddine Palace dating from the late 18th century with superb examples of Italian and Lebanese architecture. Entering into the main courtyard, the eye is immediately drawn to a fabulous fountain adding to the overall splendour. The site has many ornate mosaics and carvings and the highlight for me being a fantastic hammam with marble floors, fountains and basins where natural light pierces through a domed ceiling. The beautiful grounds and panoramic views make the visit all the more memorable. Beiteddine is well worth lingering for a couple of hours.

Our stop for the night is the picturesque mountain town of Deir Al Qamar (meaning monastery of the moon), a predominantly Christian town which was the capital of Mount Lebanon in the late 16th century. We enjoy a short but fun bike ride from the palace to the town, a predominantly flat and downhill 5km or 15 minute ride made even more pleasant by the late afternoon warm sunlight in our faces as we approach our destination. After handing over our trusty steeds, we take to leisurely exploring the small town on foot, liaising narrow cobbled lanes and admiring the many attractive traditional houses adorned with colourful flowers. We arrive just in time at a beautiful church to listen to the bells ring out and enjoy the singing voices from the service within, whilst sat in the adjacent square.

Our accommodation for the evening is the homely La Bastide. The rooms are clean and comfortable and some have magnificent balcony views. Dinner is at the stunning Deir Al Amoura, a wonderful old property with more boutique and upmarket style rooms, although retaining a quite traditional feel. The food and setting was quite special, overlooking the gorge and I would recommend a dining experience here even if not staying the night.

The next morning starts with a lovely home cooked breakfast around the dining table at La Bastide. Home-made quince jam served with croissants and hot Lebanese coffee is a great start to what will be a long but rewarding day. Out of Deir Al Qamar we press on further up into the Chouf Mountains snaking our way around numerous hairpins, at each turn admiring the vistas. At around 1500 meters we arrive at the Chouf Cedar reserve. I was most looking forward to this visit. I really love trees, so to visit some of the last remaining precious Cedar forest in the world was an absolute privilege. Cedar is highly symbolic in Lebanon, and is part of the national identity and also forms part of the national flag. The reserve is now thankfully a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 2005 and as well as the magnificent trees, is an important site for many bird species and mammals such as wolves and the Lebanese Jungle Cat, although of course you are unlikely to come across these elusive creatures. There are a few different trails to enjoy in the reserve and as our time is limited we take a beautiful 30-45 minute circuit to see the best of these magnificent trees, some of which may be over 1000 years old. To be close to such a dignified and robust symbol of nature is truly humbling. At the entrance of the reserve one can purchase local goods such as Cedar honey.

Further we continue into the mountains and eventually over the pass at close to 2000 meters where the last remnants of winter snow clings stubbornly to the northern facing slopes, resisting the current heatwave. As we cross the pass, the Golan Heights comes into view, and as we start to descend, the wide expanse of the fertile Bekaa valley reveals itself,  just a stone’s throw from the troubled nation of Syria. As we stop close to the pass, our driver Salim proudly points out his hometown in the valley below. As we arrive on the valley floor the prominence of vines becomes apparent. This is where much of Lebanon’s excellent wine is produced, as the climate is ideal with hot sunny summers and relatively cool and wet winters.

We head through the valley to the town of Baalbek, site of one of most impressive set of Roman ruins anywhere in the world and justifiably UNESCO listed. The site is a tribute to the gods of Jupiter, Mercury and Venus and is a wonder to behold, comprising the tallest Roman columns in the world. Our time was limited, but even in a short time one can imagine the splendour of the place at the height of the empire. A couple of hours exploring the site is easily worthwhile, and particularly in the early morning or late afternoon where softer light would undoubtedly enhance further the atmosphere of this exceptionally special place.

We continue back up the valley for our next experience, a  Lebanese cultural institution. Wine has been produced here since ancient times and we are honoured to meet Jean- Paul, the owner of Chateaux Khoury founded in 1992 and a relatively small scale producer in the Bekaa Valley situated at an altitude of 1300m, surprisingly high for a vineyard, and we are told there are only a handful of other places where wine is produced at such altitude, mostly in Argentina and Chile. We enjoy an informative tour of the cellar and production areas followed by a quite superb tasting session including Lebanon’s only Pinot Gris, followed by a mouth-watering lunch.  After lunch, we spend time admiring the views out of over slopes of the vineyard and down the valley and also chat more with Jean-Pierre about his journey in wine production which has been clearly rewarding but not without much hard work and many challenges along the way.

We leave the Bekaa Valley and traverse the mountains once more, this time via a different route to the capital, and as we cross the pass, observe remnants of the old railway which sadly no longer exists since the war. Before long the skyscrapers of Beirut are once more visible, their shiny peaks boldly emerging from the city haze. Back in Hamra we have a couple of hours of rest before a night out in Beirut.

The evening starts with dinner at a lovely restaurant in a lively area of town. After dinner and my first experience of the national drink Arak (like ouzo), we listen and clap along to traditional music before spilling out to a vibrant bar and enjoy a cold Almaza in amongst the lively local crowd. We move onto another bar with a great atmosphere and sing and dance until the small hours with new Lebanese friends.

Our last days travel in Lebanon begins with a trip down to the Corniche in Beirut, a  Curious area where lavish yachts sit in a marina against a background of the bullet ridden shell of the old Holiday Inn hotel, scene of the infamous Battle of the Hotels, where high rise hotels were vital strategic battlegrounds during the brutal civil war. It was said during the war that if one side gained control of the hotels, they were gaining the upper hand in the war.

Wandering along the corniche we observe many fishermen attempting to land a catch and one daring soul acrobatically diving into the somewhat choppy Med. Passing the light house, we reach Pigeon Rocks which have become detached from the mainland due to a massive earthquake in the 17th century. An attractive natural cave has been carved through the larger of the rocks and it is certainly worth a photo or coffee stop.

The last stop in our journey is the ancient Phoenician city of Sidon around 40km’s south along the coast from Beirut. Before arriving in the city we pass through a checkpoint, as we are now only 30 km’s or so from the Israeli border. We visit the interesting 12th century crusader sea castle before spending a good hour or so wandering through the superb old souk. The souk here has a really authentic feel with workshops galore, and as we stroll through the food souk I am struck by the kaleidoscope of colours on display, particularly the fruit and veg, including possibly some of the biggest tomatoes I’ve seen! Sidon soap museum is also an interesting stop, tracing soap production in the region through the centuries. The site is thought to date back as far as the 13th century and contains examples of soap from around the region and a short guided tour allows the visitor to see how olive oil soap was produced and see the clay pipes dating back from the Ottoman era.

It was fitting that our last experience in Lebanon involved a special culinary experience. We were treated to a wonderfully fresh falafel wrap packed full of juicy tomatoes and tangy pickles coated in a delicious sauce, and all expertly prepared by the owner of the establishment and clearly a master of his craft given the remarkable speed in which all the ingredients were married together.

There can be little doubt that Lebanon is a superb and varied destination with proud, resilient and very hospitable people. The historical and archaeological sites are outstanding, the food and wine delicious and as good as I have experienced anywhere, and there is also no little in the way of beautiful scenery to be enjoyed. There is plenty on offer for nature lovers, birders and hikers alike. On top of this you have the vibrancy of Beirut, emerging from its troubled past. The accommodation is also good and offers good variety for all budgets. Despite the challenges in the region, Lebanon is currently a very safe, welcoming and rewarding destination and all within a short 4 1/2 hour flight from London.

Mark Huggins visited Lebanon in May 2019 and travelled on Middle Eastern Airlines direct to Beirut from Heathrow.

Undiscovered Destinations will soon be offering small group tours and both private and tailor made tours to Lebanon.


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