Beautiful Beiteddine

Abu Nasser pulled the taxi into the empty car park and made a theatrical swerve across the concrete. “Busy, isn’t it.” He joked. There were only two other tourists strolling around Beiteddine Palace when I visited. In any other country a tourist site like this would be swarming with camera-clickers. But Beiteddine is in Lebanon. And with no end in sight to the conflict across the border in Syria,  the glorious caramel and honey tinged stone and marble architecture of this peacock pile in the Chouf Mountains sits empty of admirers.

Beiteddine was built by the Ottoman governor Emir Bashir Shihab II in the 19th century. Today it positively drips with the memory of opulence that defined the interiors and architecture of that era. Walking around pompous rooms of grand mansions and palaces always make me feel uneasy. With the building devoid of tour groups this feeling was magnified. My shoes squeaked on the polished floors. A guard lounged in a doorway frame watching me set up a photo. My shoes scuffed again with a loud nails-on-chalkboard trill. I frowned in embarrassment and silently apologised to the house. The guard walked towards me and I wondered if I was about to be told off for having squeaky sneakers. But no. He just wanted to make me climb over the ropes into the ‘do-not-access’ side of the room so he could take a photo of me reclining on the sofa.

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A snapshot of Byblos

I found Roger Abed in the garden of the Hacienda Cafe. He was picking grapes which swung from the trellis in juicy green bunches ready to burst. “Back in my father’s day,” he said as he offered me a grape, “Byblos was the centre of the world.” Roger’s dad of course was Pepe Abed; Lebanon’s famed maverick bon vivant who turned this sleepy Mediterranean village into Hollywood’s favoured port of call.

These days it’s hard to believe that Byblos was once the centre of anything. I followed Roger down the cobblestone path that led to the harbour where long ago Egyptian and Greek sailing ships had docked to tussle over commerce. Byblos controlled the papyrus trade between Egypt and Greece during the 3rd millennium BC, long before Brigitte Bardot and Marlon Brando decamped from their yachts to play with Pepe. It was from here that the famed Lebanese cedars set off on course to Egypt to be used in the Pharaoh’s ship and temple building. This tiny town had seen much more than razzmatazz divas and prima donnas passing through its port.

We sat on the restaurant terrace of Pepe’s old playpen, the Byblos Fishing Club, and stared out to sea. “My father was a born entertainer. That’s what he did best.” Roger said as he showed me the photos of silver screen royalty, weathered and faded by sea air and time, which still graced the back wall. “It all ended with the war of course,” he added. The glamour-puss jetsetters, Hollywood starlets and assorted hangers-on high tailed it pronto at the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war and Byblos hasn’t seen their ilk since.

I looked out at the harbour. Upon the old Phoenician wall a family lined up for a photo while two teenage boys sat smoking cigarettes on the stones. Roger shook my hand and told me he had to leave. After all, he had grapes to pick in a quiet garden and I had wine to drink on a gloriously sunny afternoon in the town that was twice the centre of the world.

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