BEIRUT, Lebanon - "Are you going to the ruins?" The shopkeeper gestured toward the six massive Corinthian columns a couple of blocks away. "Yes, I replied," wondering how I was going to get there. I'd stopped in front of his shop because the narrow one-way street ended at a concrete barrier just a few feet in front of my bumper.
"Why don't you just park right there and walk?" he asked. "Your car will be fine."
That's how my visit to Baalbek began, and the kindness of strangers was equal to that of my visit to Lebanon last February.
Before I arrived, all the advice I received told me not to rent a car...that I'd have a hard time driving in a country where traffic laws are routinely flouted.
Well, sure. Traffic lights (even in Beirut) were treated with disdain, exceeding the speed limit was de rigueur and lane markings merely suggestions.
That said, it was no worse than driving in Italy (or Los Angeles). Drivers were courteous despite their disregard of the law, waving me into spots in front of their cars when roads narrowed, and watching to be sure the way was clear before barreling through intersections.
In towns, streets that were nominally two-lane morphed into five or six lanes as necessary and back again to two without leaving a scratch on a bumper. Road construction sometimes eliminated pavement all together, leaving just dirt and gravel, and traffic just slowed to allow for dodging obstructions. I quickly learned that if I saw half of a tire sticking out of a road, that meant the other half was stuck in a pothole.
Lebanon is a small country - less than 140 miles (225km) long and between 20 and 55 miles wide (32-88km). The only airport is in Beirut. There's no train transportation (the tracks were destroyed during the warfare of the late 20th century). Intercity buses are slow and often overcrowded.
My conclusion: The only way to see the country is by car. When I arrived, I thought I'd be hiring a car and driver to get around. For my first excursion - to Byblos - that's exactly what I did.
I was staying at La Maison de Hamra in Beirut. The desk clerk at my hotel called one of his friends with a taxi, and off I went. It was about four hours (an hour each way along the coast north of Beirut, and a couple of hours exploring the ruins. We agreed on an $80 fare for the entire journey and he threw in a side trip up the mountains to stop at the shrine of Our Lady of Harissa.
The other "must" destination for my journey was Baalbek. This town at the highest point in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley has been considered a sacred site since ancient times. Temple after temple was built here, with some of the most impressive ruins dating from Roman times, when it was called "City of the Sun".
If I hired a taxi to take me, it would have to be a day trip: six hours there and back, with just a couple of hours actually in Baalbek. The cost? $150. Having someone else do the driving meant cutting down on time on the ground. Time to reconsider my options.
An internet search turned up Advanced Car Rental. I could have a small automatic Hyundai for five days for $145 including insurance. The decision was easy, and I ordered a vehicle delivered to my hotel.
I wasn't even out of the city before I was the recipient of the first act of random kindness. Another motorist pointed out that I'd left part of my coat hanging out the bottom of the driver's side door as I made my way out of Beirut.
The Beirut-Damascus Highway (the main east-west road) was my first challenge. It crosses the mountains from the Mediterranean coast to the Bekaa Valley. Even though commerce with Syria was somewhat affected by that country's ongoing civil conflict, there was plenty of truck traffic to make driving interesting. The road is mostly up to Western standards, but once I headed north, through Chtaura and Zahle toward Baalbek, things deteriorated. Quite literally.
The road surface ranged from OK to nonexistent (here's where I saw my first vertical tire in the road). Further north, closer to Baalbek, the roadway became a tidy four-lane highway divided by a median - probably because each post in the median held a massive photograph of a Shiite cleric (most often Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei of Iran). Yes, even though the shooting has stopped, the Bekaa Valley near Baalbek remains an administrative locus for the Hezbollah.
I had a roadmap for Lebanon, but it was somewhat useless in the cities and towns and that's how I ended up at the barricaded end of a one-way street in Baalbek on my way to the ruins. After my visit, I returned to find my car exactly where I'd left it. As I started to maneuver my way out, a man came running out of a nearby building. He motioned me out of my car, got behind the wheel and backed it up a block, turning it so I could leave. He gestured me back into the driver's seat with a flourish.
Because I had a car, I could wander the country at whim. I checked out an ancient tower outside Hermel, wandered the Umayyad ruins at Aanjar, visited the Château Ksara Winery and stopped in Sidon, Tyre and Beiteddine -- all places I never would have seen otherwise.
IF YOU GO...
I used the Footprint Lebanon Handbook by Jessica Lee as my primary guidebook. Published in 2011, it's the most current one I could find and the information I used was spot-on. The map I carried was the Lebanon Travel Map by Globetrotter.
Yeah, the U.S. Department of State (and other political entities) have current travel warnings in place for Lebanon. However, I never felt threatened. At each military checkpoint (and, yes, there were at least a dozen, mostly in the Bekaa Valley), the uniformed and heavily armed soldiers would merely look at me and wave me on.
I was traveling solo in Lebanon, and never felt as though I was a "target". I walked throughout Beirut on my own, wandered small towns alone, and drove from one end of the country to the other by myself (without incident).
Because it's a crossroads country, slightly more Muslim than Christian, but with significant minorities of Armenians, Druze - and foreigners - I didn't stand out as a tourist. Because I was there in February, I wasn't tempted to wear shorts or sleeveless blouses (and nobody else did either; it was jacket or coat weather).
A minority of women wore traditional Muslim headscarves; most were dressed as you'd see in any European capital, with miniskirts, jeans and the latest fashions on display.
There were just a handful of beggars in Beirut, and few touts, even at the tourist sites. A quick shake of the head, and they moved on.
Susan McKee is an independent scholar and freelance journalist specializing in history, culture and travel.