As regular readers will know, Lebanon is one of my favourite places to be. Friendly, vibrant, relaxed, fascinating, with great traditions of cuisine and hospitality, and a rich depth of history, it’s a place I could easily and happily live. Not only that, from my point of view, the Lebanese are great lovers of the outdoor life. To cap things off, I think it’s a fair comment to suggest that the Land Rover and its siblings are the favourite vehicles of the Lebanese!
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that following my trip through Syria this summer I visited Lebanon. This was my first visit following my trip there during the 2019 Revolution when I was in the flag-waving crowds in Martyrs’ Square in Beirut – and also my first trip there since the huge explosion in 2020 at the Port of Beirut.
My first port of call was Aaliyah’s Books on Rue Gouraud – a fantastic bistro/bar/bookshop with real ale, lovely meals and books, books, books. Aaliyah’s had been very badly damaged in the 2020 explosion and I was relieved to find they had completely rebuilt it – no mean feat in these days when the Lebanese economy is not in a good place at all. Aaliyah’s, like the Clachaig in Glencoe, Scotland, and Abu El Sid on Zamalek in Cairo, is one of those places that never seems to change – always unyielding in the friendliness of its welcome, the quality of its food and drink and the sense of well-being that seems to emanate from it. The explosion showed why not to take these places for granted!
Most importantly I also caught up with old friend, local historian and Land Rover afficionado Patrick Adaimi. Patrick and I are working on a project to document the history of the Long Range Desert Group in Lebanon (to be fair, Patrick is doing most of the work!) and I wanted to visit some sites he had found following diligent research – old British/Australian training camps at Laqlouq and Sannine. Not only that, Patrick had very kindly planned a trip to Baalbek, the vast Roman town in the Bekaa Valley followed by a spectacular drive along the Mount Lebanon mountain range and an ascent of Qurnat as Sawda – at over 10,000 feet the highest mountain in Lebanon. To say I was overwhelmed by this is an understatement!
Allied forces in WW2 were predominantly based at the Cedars camp in the north of Lebanon – mainly used for mountain warfare training before an expected invasion of the Balkans. We had visited the beautiful Cedars region on a previous trip (and the remains of the iconic Hotel des Cedres, used by Allied officers as a billet and owned by Patrick’s wife’s family, sadly demolished as part of a government drive to reduce human impact on the area) but on this trip we went to Laqlouq, a small camp between the Cedars and Sannine, where Allied troops underwent rock climbing and mountaineering instruction. Subsequently we visited the remains of the major camp at Sannine which was the end of the Cedars-Sannine ski traverse that was the “graduation” from the Mountain Warfare course. The walls of the Nissen huts still remained of what was once a sizeable camp.
We were also able to visit a Roman site I’d long wanted to see, the spectacular vast temple complex at Baalbek in the storied Bekaa Valley. It really is an amazing place. The Temple of Jupiter was once enormous, but sadly fell during an ancient earthquake. The neighouring beautiful Temple of Bacchus, smaller but very similar, has survived however. Next to these the diminutive Temple of Venus is rather bijou by contrast! Baalbek is awe inspiring.
In time we moved on from our historical research to a more adventurous trip. We set out to drive the length of the Mt Lebanon range, the backbone of the country, with a couple of wild camps along the way. We used Patrick’s 110, a Stage 1 109 owned by Ghoussoub and his family, and a 90 owned by Carl. Also with us for part of the trip was Jean-Pierre in his ambulance-bodied camper 110. The route was spectacular, especially the ascent into and above the clouds and thence to the summit of Qurnat as Sawda. It was surreal to be in the snows of the high mountains after being in the heat of Beirut.
Sadly after a few glorious days the ever-looming constraints of time beckoned and I had to fly back home to the UK. So very many thanks to Patrick, as ever, for a wonderful trip in beautiful Lebanon and also to his wife Rita for a fabulous farewell meal. My love of Lebanon needed no renewal but received a burnish – it won’t be long before I’m back there!