The ancients knew modern day Lebanon by the seductive name, Phoenicia. The Phoenicians were a great ancient trading nation combining seafaring ability with great natural produce predominantly purple dye, cloth, cedar wood and wine. Of these the oldest continually inhabited city of Byblos which was first settled in 7000 BC is one of the most important.
I arrive there early morning. The first stop today is a visit to the Jeita Grottos which has to count as one of the most spectacular caves I have ever visited. Sadly and inexplicably there is no photography allowed therein. The Byblos harbour, renowned in history is more like a tiny marina. I try to imagine in my mind’s eye the Phoenician ships moored here rather than the modern day fishing vessels.
The Byblos castle dates from the 12th century AD and is what remains one of the many Crusader Castles here. Entering one is transported to the big chunky Anglo Saxon castles dotted around England. All around the footings of the castle are Roman ruins with a particularly beautiful column set on site. A wander through the old town and the local souk completes the visit.
From Byblos it is up to Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city. It is a sprawling complex straddling the hills and the sea. It is clearly much poorer than anywhere else in the country and most of it looks like slums. High atop the town is an 11th century crusader castle that is largely intact. Its high strategic position commanding much of the city ensured its survival as it was used by successive rulers of this town over the centuries.
Guess what bobs up in Tripoli? Its the Orient express again. The Orient Express used to go beyond Istanbul down to the Syrian city of Homs. In the 1920s through to the second world war a single track line connected Homs with Tripoli. Heavily damaged during the civil war of the 1970s the station terminus and a couple of ancient German locomotives sit in ruins in an unmarked paddock. Ever so slowly the metal is being reclaimed by nature.
Sunset was at Jounieh up the gondola with magnificent views down the coast to Beirut. At the top there is a further climb to the statue of Our Lady of Lebanon. Think Christ the Redeemer in Rio but on a smaller scale. Unlike Rio this is set up with chapel, spiritual music and has a spiritual vibe to it. The sunset is ordinary and the mood here is so enticing I decide that I will come back again before I leave.