“I drop you here. Too dangerous to go any further.” We looked at our taxi driver enquiringly. “Al-Qaeda is in souk. But don’t worry, they might not know you are tourists”.
I glanced at my fellow travel companions. We resembled a Nordic tribute band; lashings of blonde hair, ruddy cheeks and sapphire-hued eyes. I suspected he might be offering empty assurances just to get us out of his car.
He made a last effort to remove our backsides from his shredded leather seats. “There is great baklava shop. Very tasty.” It was a cheap, and yet extremely effective shot. We unloaded ourselves onto the pavement burdened by over-stuffed day bags and the slight metallic taste of dread in our mouths, although that could have been dehydration.
We were travelling around Lebanon, by taxi, in a day. If this sounds preposterous then please refer to this blogs strap line. All of us have jobs and very limited holiday time so often resort to drastic measures for weekends away.
Initially the taxi driver had welcomed us assuming, perhaps, that we would want to visit one or two roman ruins, spending a few hours at each one broken by a leisurely lunch, and then back to the hotel. He clearly hadn’t reckoned for a full day of driving at breakneck speeds around the entirety of his country.
We had begun, as one invariably does, in the capital. Beirut really is quite extraordinary and brought to mind an ageing actor with an edgy past. That is to say, you can’t – and shouldn’t – ignore everything that’s happened over the years but the reconstruction work (or, if we’re staying with the actor analogy, excellent plastic surgery) is so well done that you almost believe these streets were never destroyed…almost because the colour of the brickwork is just a little too bright and the lines just a little too smooth. If, however, you stray from downtown, the physical scars etched on the buildings are still very much in evidence.
But this is a city with a revitalised energy. The boutique hotels all have rooftop pools and complicatedly-named DJs, with the young and the beautiful (seemingly synonymous with each other) spilling out onto the streets every Friday night to sample the achingly hip bars which open and close at a frequency akin to the number of times cats seem to want to enter and exit a house when you are furthest away from the door.
I liked it. I also liked Byblos with its pretty waterfront and faded photos of film stars who had once visited pasted across the walls of restaurants and the Roman ruins of Baalbek with the elegant graffiti of 19th century travellers etched in Copperplate Gothic font into the soft stone.
We passed fluttering green and yellow flags denoting Hezbollah strongholds, ancient hills studded with olive groves, armoured vehicles huddled in shady nooks and a spattering of Roman ruins in Tyre.
Now we were in the far north in Tripoli. Home to the souk seemingly infested with Al-Qaeda.
Reader, we survived. Not only did we survive, but we managed to purchase scarves seemingly woven from the night sky itself such was the intensity of the indigo-dyed threads. And, of course, we bought baklava; baklava so flaky, so buttery, so saturated with syrup that it ran down our chins and stuck to everything we brushed past.
We bought the taxi driver a box as a thank you. He thought we were trying to bribe him and said he wouldn’t be able to take us anywhere else. “Not even the airport?”
“Yes, I will be happy to take you there and then you will never ask anything else of me again.”