We collected a packed breakfast from the hotel at 5.45 a.m. and were on the road by 6 for the Lebanese border where we had been promised special arrangements and a swift passage through. Neither the Syrian side nor the Lebanese side was quick and the promised support on the Lebanese side did not materialise. We finally got to Baalbek, in the Bekaar valley, at 11.30. where we were met by the mayor and various people from the ministry of tourism, plenty of TV cameras and a rather fine ‘breakfast’. This consisted of a flat bread dough spread with olives, cheese and tomato and then baked on a large dome with a gas burner underneath it.
We had all parked up in a line outside the entrance to the Temple site at Baalbek and our guide, Mohammed gave a very interesting and entertaining tour. What you see is mostly Roman and the Bekaar valley was known as the breadbasket of the Roman empire, so the city was important – and indeed twice the population of today. The special feature of Baalbek is the immense size of the stones used in its construction. The temples have vast columns and are set on top of high platforms. The gargoyles alone – shaped like lion heads with the rainwater coming from their mouths weigh 400 tonnes each. En route for the temple we stopped at the quarry and saw a stone cut for the temple that they did not manage to move. It is 22m long and weighs 1100 tonnes. So even the Romans bit off more than they could chew on occasions.
Well behind schedule, but glad to have seen the site we pressed on up the Bekaar valley to a more northerly border. Sadly this was not a great experience. All the way the road is lined with ugly buildings and we had little feeling of this supposedly beautiful and historic fertile land – part of the great rift valley. To cap it all a lunatic driver, showing off to his mates and having nearly crashed into a concrete block and two other cars, failed to stop behind us and shunted into the rear of the Aston. Miraculously, his old BMW’s impact absorbing bumpers did their job and Charlotte, who was driving had left enough space so that he did not push us into the car in front. It was traumatic all the same and we made a hasty exit as the four chaps and a screwdriver came to discuss the situation..... The biff on our bumper has polished out and we now have one of Dr. Nikki’s ‘ouch’ stickers on it.
Needless to say, the crossing back into Syria was also longer than planned and we eventually arrived in Palmyra in the dark. It was great to have Tim and Helena in their white Porsche to follow for the last stretch of road. This has definitely returned the favour of them following us into Damascus in the rush hour – superbly navigated of course!
We did manage to relax over dinner at the end of a very long day, helped by our hotel being right next to the extensive ruins with fabulous views from the terrace. We went for a stroll around them after dinner, with Tessa, David and Pen. It was full moon and a lovely way to appreciate the site.