2010
01.21

SYNOPSIS:  AN EXCURSION TO BEITEDDINE AND DEIR EL QAMAR

Alhambra of Lebanon is the nickname of the palace complex at Beiteddine, the seat of some “emirs” of Lebanon in the 19th century.  They picked a gorgeous spot in the mountains, overlooking steep hills, deep, forested valleys with a view all the way to the Mediterranean – a tiny sliver of blue at the horizon.

Just as you would expect, there are harems and baths, audience halls, gardens and water.  Water, water, everywhere.  Many Arab nobles were obsessed with water as they traditionally came from deserts.  Water was the equivalent of paradise on earth and it also helped to keep secrets, as I learned from a local guide. The noise the trickling water made allowed secret conversations to take place in the room next door without any chance of being overheard.

Arabic designs, horse-shoe arches, marble inlays, carefully framed vistas – all of this make this palace a joy to observe.  The clever design of an inner courtyard that closes in three sides, but leaves the fourth open allows for the enjoyment of the man-made as much as for nature.

The best of it all was that this is off season and I had the palace almost to myself.  Except, what a pleasant surprise, I ran into the two French men again, who I had met in Byblos once before.  They had joined a tour through an agency and were doing three towns in one day.

I realized how lucky I was that I could do things at my own pace.  Most people only have one week in Lebanon.  The country tempts one to rush through.  It is no problem by car to crisscross the entire country from North to South, even East to West all in one day.  Maximum distance is 222 km!  But then, you cannot stop and smell the roses…  And that’s what I was doing.

I could have taken a taxi from Beiteddine to Deir el Qamar, a town 5 km away and one mountain below.  But I decided to hike.  Lonely planet said it was possible and for the most part (even though I have found several mistakes already) I trust that book.  The weather was good.  I had two hours of day light and so I took off.  About 30 minutes into the hike down serpentine roads, surrounded by orange plantations, cypress trees, with a view to the ocean and nobody in sight; no car, no person I stopped.

It dawned on me that I was hiking down a mountain in Lebanon!  I realized how absurd this was, and how awesome.  I never know when it strikes, but whenever I come to a new country there is usually a moment when it all hits home.  How I grew up in East Germany convinced that I would be locked up in that country until I was retired.  That was the age when free travel was permitted for all…   It think of my friend Antje who could not bear it any longer and took her own life.  If she could have just hung in there…

How the world has opened up for me in unthinkable ways!  I took a deep breath and knew through and through that moments like this are moments of true happiness.   It’s a deep sense of being alive.  I think I was smiling all the way down, until I was huffing and puffing all the way up, for the last kilometer was up hill.  I was thirsty and plucked an orange from a nearby tree.  I had sticky hands and there was stream gushing from the mountains to wash up in.  What do you need more than a mountain, an orange, and some water?

I reached Deir el Qamar from the back entering town via some mossy cobblestone staircases.  I found myself in the most charming medieval market square, void of people.  Almost a bit spooky.  It was four o’clock and I had about one hour of daylight left.

I got out my guidebook to see what it had to say when I noticed a little old man up on the steps of the city museum.  First he looked at me.  Then he followed me around.  Then he started to talk to me in broken English giving me explanations of the buildings I was looking at.  And then he became more animated – I guess, encouraged by the fact that I had not chased him away – and he started to lead.  He grabbed my hand “Come, come” he said taking me around corners, up and down more stairs, into a church, a mosque, a French library.  He bemoaned the fact that I could not speak French, but went on with his limited English vocabulary.  He obviously was proud of his town and must have been bored.  I provided great entertainment.  At every corner he plucked another flower from a bush or tree and presented it to me.  I put them into my button holes, piled them up:  white, yellow, orange, red.  The red one for luck.  I kept that on in my coat.  You never know.

I learned more than I could comprehend.  But one thing was clear.  This town is one of the oldest in which religious freedom worked and was practiced.  There were a church, one of the oldest mosques in the country, and a synagogue, all within one square.  History here went back as far as 1516.  This little town once briefly functioned as the capital of Lebanon, preferred by another emir of the Ottomans for its water supply and the view, I am sure.

Several palaces, a caravanserai, an ancient suq (bazaar) and other medieval public buildings attest to its illustrious past.  This was just the right fit after the wonderful hike down from the mountains.  Quaint, beautiful, quiet, and calm.   I was sad to part.  I would have loved to have dinner in one of the small restaurants there.  But that far off the beaten path, you never know if you still will get home after it gets dark. So I took a serveece to the main road and caught a bus back to Beirut.  Another wonderful day!  And only a few mild rain showers.  Nothing to complain about.

Again, I am sorry that no pictures are available yet.  I am working on a system.  Thanks for hanging in there.

Good night.