Sitting in the shade of a walnut tree in the mountains of Lebanon, I’m reading to my hiking companions David Cameron’s statement on Tory MPs’ expenses. In the glare, I squint at the BlackBerry. Birds sing – goldfinches, cuckoos, larks.
“…George Osborne’s particularly expensive car journey… pipe under Oliver Letwin’s tennis court…”
The sky is a particularly intense blue and, from a pipe under our cart track, a spring-fed mountain stream gurgles; there is snow on distant peaks.
“…David Willetts’s electrical bill..” It’s no use. My companions aren’t listening. The pass from Maaser el Shouf to Niha calls.
Lebanon is friendly and (now) safe. By Middle East standards, it’s a clean and organised country where you are not pestered, crime is low and the food exceptional. We flew cheaply to Beirut and our four-day hike was arranged easily enough: you start by Googling “Lebanon mountain trail”.
Before that, though, we took a taxi to Château Musar, where Lebanon’s best wine comes from. To our surprise, Gaston Hochar, scion of the third generation of wine producers at Musar, took us through cool, cobwebbed cellars on a wine-tasting tour. I’m not very good at all this: “Hm, I’m picking up strawberries and chocolate… good heavens! Compost and cigar butts are coming through…”, but I must say this stuff was rich, deep and delicious. These days, only wars and political crises can interrupt the advance of the label. “In 1985,” Gaston told us, “the trucks bringing all our grapes up from the valley were held up by the fighting. Only three got through – after five days – and the juice had already begun to ferment.”
On our way from Château Musar to the start of our walk, we stopped in Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley. Here are some of the finest Roman ruins in the world. Sitting in the temple of Venus, it was hard to feel indignant about John Prescott’s claims for three mock-Tudor beams. You should see the beams at Baalbek. Massive stone things, some bigger than John Prescott’s house, many fallen and lying among the crimson poppies. And great, intricate stone friezes, some still perched on pillars in the sky: the remains of the largest temple in the Roman Empire. Bigger than the Acropolis and more extensive than St Paul’s Cathedral, these are easily the most impressive ruins I have seen in my life. And, beyond impressive, beautiful. But the poppies were the loveliest of all.
Arak and ruin
In Baalbek, we stayed at the Hotel Palmyra. Let’s avoid guidebook cliché because the famous old place is in a melancholy state of disrepair. Though the sun-bleached shutters are now broken, you can still sip arak on the upper balcony and look out across the crazy Lebanese traffic at the sun setting behind those stupendous ruins and imagine how it was when Kaiser Wilhelm II, who came on horseback from the Mediterranean, stayed here; or the visit of General de Gaulle. Within, amid the fine old carpets and teetering balustrades, you will find on peeling walls the photos of both gentlemen’s visits – and signed letters of appreciation from another visitor, Jean Cocteau.
Scents and nonsense
Our walk started across – reader, help me here, I’m trying to escape the hackneyed travel brochure description of “carpets of flowers”. Rugs? Well, anyway, the mountains of Lebanon are ankle deep in them in May: poppies, anemones, clover, geraniums, lavender. The perfume is heady as you tramp along. Then you reach the cedar forests; reforestation is under way, but there’s nothing to beat the curiously lugubrious drooping shade of a 1,000-year-old cedar. Then out on to the bare ridges where – weep, Simon Barnes – we were ankle deep, not in flowers, but cartridge shells. No, not war, just the beastly male Lebanese habit of blasting off at the annual streams of birds migrating between Africa and Europe – straight over these ridges. Millions must be shot. Shameful.
No shotgun wedding
Did I mention the wedding? On finding a restaurant in the Bekaa Valley, we were settling in when a wedding party arrived. Soon, we were part of it. Muslim wedding party. Hezbollah country… we peered anxiously through the dusk sky for an approaching drone and prayed that nobody started firing rifles into the air.