Lebanon’s Bekaa valley

by Nori and Scott Brixen
Lebanon's
Kids

Our goal was the Bekaa Valley, on the other side of the mountains, a world away from Beirut’s skyscrapers, beach clubs and liberties. Just beyond the ski resort town of Mzaar, we passed the first of many military checkpoints we would encounter. The soldier was cradling a machine gun and looked shocked to see us.“Too-reest,” I said with a smile. “We go to Baalbek.” “Baalbek,” he repeated, embarrassed by his lack of English. He leaned over and glanced in the back, at our four, smiling boys. He waved us through. For the next thirty minutes we snaked down to the Bekaa Valley through a parched and seemingly lifeless land. We passed ragged, billowing shepherds’ camps fashioned of plastic stretched over joints of wood. Their sheep’s fleeces were as brown as dirt, their children frizzy-haired and filthy. How could animals, much less people, survive here? Even for coastal Lebanese, the Bekaa Valley is different. For a start, it used to be a part of Greater Syria, before the French and British carved up the Middle East like deranged butchers. The Bekaa runs north to south between the Lebanon and anti-Lebanon mountain ranges. Like California’s central valley, the Bekaa is flat and fertile. Unlike California, the Bekaa houses a preposterous mix of Roman ruins, vineyards, Palestinian (and now Syrian) refugees and Hezbollah partisans.

Old

Pot is illegal in Lebanon, though you’d never guess that driving around the Bekaa Valley. Extensive marijuana plantations grew right beside the road. I’ve seen estimates that 10,000 acres of pot grow in the Bekaa, about twice the acreage planted to grapes for wine. There was no attempt to conceal them. No guards with AK-47s patrolling them. I sensed an accommodation between the Lebanese army (who had notional control of the area) and Hezbollah (who actually ran the place). I pinched a bud and rolled it between my thumb and forefinger. The pungent oil released was instantly recognisable. I licked my finger and sighed theatrically.

“Ahhhh! The legendary Lebanese Blonde!” “What are you talking about?” Kiva asked. “Nothing. Just be quiet and smile!” I shouted. I had hurried Nori and the boys out of the car for a cheeky family photo in the marijuana fields. Nobody was around, but it wouldn’t be wise to linger. Posters of Al Sadr, fallen intifada soldiers and Hezbollah slogans (always accompanied with images of raised rifles) peppered the roadway. There were army checkpoints everywhere, most of them unmanned, but ready for the next disturbance. Nori I were cracking jokes, but we were both nervous.“Hello, I’m Scott and this is Nori.

Signal

Today, on ‘Google’s most dangerous shortcuts” we’ll take you through dirt-poor Hezbollah villages, pot farms, refugee camps and armed checkpoints, all because Google Maps thinks this is the fastest way to Baalbek,” I said in my TV announcer voice. The modern (and by that, I mean recent) town of Baalbek barely hinted at the architectural and archaeological wonder hidden within its warren of constricted, convoluted streets. Even the signage seemed designed to mislead and infuriate; we kept looping through the same area. When we finally chanced upon the ruins, we couldn’t find a place to park. Heliopolis, certainly the largest and arguably the grandest Roman temple complex in the world had no parking lot.

Clearly, this was not going to be like visiting the Acropolis. Nori and I paid L15,000 (about US$10) each to enter the ruins. The boys got in for free. After declining the services of a kindly old guide, we ambled down a short path to the base of the propylaea – a monumental entrance staircase and gate with a portico whose long-collapsed roof was supported by massive columns. Once beyond the portico, we entered a hexagonal forecourt that led to the main courtyard – an expansive, arcaded square that was littered with the gear-like drums of tumbled columns. Beyond, reached by another stone staircase was the Temple of Jupiter.

Scott and Kids

Only nine columns and a section of their connecting architrave had been reconstructed, yet their size and grace left no doubt as to the awesome grandeur of the completed edifice. The Corinthian capitals that crowned the columns were twice as tall as Logan. The temple itself sat atop cyclopean stones of such prodigious size (three of them, the so-called Trilithon, weighed 800 tons each) – engineers still aren’t certain how they were moved into place. Though slightly smaller than the Temple of Jupiter, the adjacent and better-preserved Temple of Bacchus was nonetheless colossal.


In design, it resembled Athen’s Parthenon, but its scale was superior. I gaped at the detailed carvings on the entablature and the giant stone lions’ faces from whose mouths rainwater once gushed off the roof. The interior of the temple was just as impressive, its supporting columns bridged by decorative arches and pediments that once sheltered religious statues. Best of all, the boys were allowed to explore, climb and leap between the fractured stones. Or at least, no one stopped us. It was the most epic playground ever. They scaled the walls, scurried through tiny gaps in the rubble and did 360s off everything. If Heliopolis’ ruins had been thronged with tourists, the boys’ screams and laughter would have annoyed everyone. But there were so few visitors that I could just let them play.  

warehouse

Wine was being made in what is today Lebanon over 4,000 years ago, a fact impressive to everyone except the Georgians. It is no coincidence that Bacchus was worshipped here. Today, there are over fifty wineries in Lebanon, most located in the Bekaa Valley. Old Kingdom Egyptians loved wine from Byblos and Sidon. Even the Bible lauded Lebanese grapes and vino: Hosea 14:7 “They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow; they shall flourish like the grain; they shall blossom like the vine; their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.”Most fine wine is made in peaceful, bucolic areas with rolling hills, refulgent rivers, curving roads, vineyard views and stately trees. The Bekaa Valley, in our experience, had little of this classic wine country ‘romance.’ All of the tasting rooms we visited were located in dusty towns strung along the busy Chtoura-Nabatiyeh Highway. Domaine des Tourelles’ next door neighbours were a gun shop and a McDonalds. Chateau Heritage was secreted up a side street on the industrial fringe of Qob Elias. Coteaux du Liban was in a grubby, half-built area east of Zahle.

History

That said, the ‘wild frontier’ nature of the experience made wine-tasting in the Bekaa Valley unforgettable. What other wine region carries a US State Department travel advisory against visiting it? Nobody worries about getting kidnapped in Napa or bombed in Burgundy! For our part, we never felt the least bit unsafe. But knowledge of the Bekaa’s turbulent history and current tensions created a frisson that you could almost taste in the glass. The wines were exciting. Moreover, the friendliness and magnanimity of the winemakers and their staff was incredible. The Bekaa Valley isn’t Bordeaux after all. They knew that it took genuine interest and a bit of foolhardiness for foreign tourists to make it there. We gatecrashed a winery tour at Domaine Heritage and neither the guests nor the staff were bothered.

We tasted through their entire collection over a two hour period and, after I bought three bottles, they gifted us another. Then the winemaker, Dr Touma, stopped in and his first question was “Are they taking care of you?” We replied enthusiastically in the affirmative and he still gave us another bottle gratis. At boutique winery Coteaux du Liban, there was a large group that had reserved a winery tour and tasting, so we waited outside for an hour before deciding to go home. The blameless winemaker was so apologetic that he sent us home with two free bottles of wine! Were there risks to visiting Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley? Of course. But the rewards far outweighed them. Our boys will never forget their parkour sessions at the Temple of Jupiter in Baalbek and the Umayyad ruins in Anjar. Nori and I loved visiting the modern wineries building on an ancient heritage. I appreciated Lebanon’s history better having seen the Bekaa. As long as travel warnings and the Syrian civil war keep most tourists away, this incredible valley will remain a secret.

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