Although we had a night of sleep jammed with interruptions, thanks in no small part to my Austrian friend, my companion and I set off in a service taxi from the Cola bus station in Lebanon for the Bekka Valley. Almost immediately we were bombarded with text messages from the girl who’s Lonely Planet we had ‘borrowed’ partly in retribution for the disturbed night sleep, but mostly due to having done no prior planning as to how we would travel to Baalbeck.
Getting from Beirut’s Cola bus station to Baalbeck involved the same hair raising drive through the mountains that we took on our way from the Syrian border to Beirut the previous morning. This was made more bearable by listening to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds as we drove over the mountain pass at speeds which were quickly becoming ridiculous. The journey only cost 3000 Lebanese Lira (about $2) and took about two hours. We made the decision to stay the night in Baalbeck, one we would soon regret taking, and checked into a hotel room which cost $10 each. The hotel was like something out of a horror film, think in the vein of Hostel. We were welcomed by a very old man who without saying even a word took us up to the empty, smelly, dirty, and extremely run down hotel which he owned. The room we were given contained two uncomfortable beds, four pairs of well used slippers and an open bottle of water which seemed to have been in the room for a considerable amount of time. In spite of all these problems finding A room for $10 a night in Lebanon is something which cannot really be turned down. There are also plenty of other options on the main road of the sleepy town of Baalbeck for people who are travelling on a larger budget than we were.
The Roman ruins in Baalbeck are worth any travel and accommodation inconveniences, although the impact they had on me has been slightly dampened due to having just recently visited Petra in Jordan at the time of writing this article. We were lucky enough to arrive at the ruins before the main tourist coaches had dropped people off. This meant that we were free to roam the ruins and take photos without hordes of tourists filling the site. Set to the backdrop of the mountains surrounding the Bekka Valley the beautiful architecture of the site is made even more spectacular. The fresh air and quiet in the mountainous region was very welcome after spending almost five weeks constantly amongst the pollution and noise of Damascus. As is common with tourist sites all over the world there were groups of Americans wearing very little clothing, in this case made even more shocking by the fact that we were in a conservative Shia area. To see everything at the main site we needed little more than two hours. After stopping to buy a token ḥizbullāh t-shirt from one of the many vendors outside the ruins we took a short amount of time to explore the ‘new town’ of Baalbeck. Although there is hardly anything noteworthy to see we did make it up to the park just outside the town which was crammed full of locals having picnics. Whilst we were enjoying a narguila (shisha) on the grass we could hear sporadic gunfire in the distance, the locals did not seem bothered at all so we guessed that this was a normal occurrence in the area.
We returned to the hotel room to recharge phones and take what was meant to be a short nap and ended up sleeping for five hours. With Baalbeck having been transformed into a bustling and lively town due to the start of the international festival which the town was hosting, we headed in a taxi to the nearby town of Zahlé. The Lonely Planet says that this journey takes less than 45 minutes; we soon discovered that this was one of the many outrageous claims that are made in the Syria and Lebanon guide. The journey took about 1 hour and 15 minutes, and this is still a conservative estimate. The taxis from Baalbeck drop people on the main road just at the bottom of the hill that Zahlé is built on. For 4000 Lebanese Lira ($2.50) we saved ourselves the hassle of walking uphill for 30 minutes to the centre of Zahlé and hopped in one of the many waiting taxis on the main road. Zahlé is a predominately Greek Catholic area and a popular destination for holidaying Lebanese people. There is a huge amount of choice of restaurants in the town; we decided on a busy one which sat on the river which runs through the town. Although expensive the food was fantastic. We enjoyed probably the best muttabal since we had arrived in Syria five weeks ago, and Olivia and I had become somewhat connoisseurs as we had eaten it everyday after university for four weeks. The dinner was extremely relaxed, and we paid little attention to the time and made little consideration as to how we would get back from Zahlé to our hotel room in Baalbeck.
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