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Lebanon: What would Pepe do?

Lebanon: What would Pepe do?

Hawkers try to sell me Hezbollah T-shirts bearing the party symbol but I am more interested in the party in Beirut, where I dance until dawn.

The Temple of Bachus, Baalbeck

‘We are Phoenicians by habit – merchants and travellers – and Arabs by language. Arabic is a language, not a culture and people get confused between Arabs and Muslims – they are not the same thing. There are 11 religions in Lebanon, all with Arabic as a language.’ My guide at Byblos, Waad Khalifé, has thoughts running out of him faster than the words can sometimes form. He is passionate about Lebanon – and Byblos.

Even so, he remains objective. Some say Byblos is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. We can never know and Khalifé points out that most cities in the region, from Damascus to Jericho have some claim to the title. The Roman columns from which the Crusaders formed the castle walls of Byblos show that many civilisations have come and gone, without paying great heed to the question.

Pepe's wall of fame

Down at the fishing harbour, the Byblos Fishing Club is much as I last saw it before the recent war with Israel apart from the absence of Pepe Abed, the owner, who died in 2007. The walls are still covered in photos of Pepe with celebrities from its Sixties heyday: Sinatra, Brando, Bardot, Ekberg, Niven, and a string of identikit beauty queens. His philosophy was to live life for the moment, although the restaurant is full of priceless artefacts from the town’s archaeological sites and the seabed around.

In Beirut, living for today is a way of life, with the nightclubs heaving until dawn. I am struck by the energy along the partying Monot Street and in the trendy bars and clubs that have sprung up in the Gemmayzé district next to it. The Lebanese are less impressed. ‘Of course, everyone is away skiing,’ I am told.

Enjoying the warm Mediterranean sun during the day, having come from a bitter London February, that seems hard to believe. But, driving up to the Bekaa valley, which lies at 1,500m, snow is what I see around me. Soldiers at checkpoints huddle into themselves, cold and bored, as a stream of traffic flows to and from the border with Syria. Trucks labour up the inclines as oncoming drivers somehow find gaps in the traffic to overtake on blind bends.

A stiff drink is welcome after that, so a wine tasting at Chateau Ksara hits the spot (www.chateauksara.com). As I am not driving, little is spat out. A massive recent investment aimed squarely at the UK market has brought French expertise, barrels, corks and bottles to the vineyard here. The wines are not yet world class but are still very drinkable, some capable of repaying a decade or so in your cellar. The vineyard’s cellars themselves stretch for miles underground and date back to Roman times, with stacks of bottles covered in dust that look equally ancient: a priceless hoard.

Wine is also celebrated at the nearby Temple of Bacchus, the most complete temple remaining of the Ancient Roman world. Baalbeck, its town now a Hezbollah stronghold, is also the site of the Temple of Jupiter – the largest the Romans ever built. Its foundation stones weigh 800tons, or the weight of two Jumbo jets. I can’t imagine how they moved them but I have no doubt they needed a drink afterwards.

Hawkers try to sell me Hezbollah T-shirts as I leave, bearing the arm waving an AK47 that is the party symbol. I’m more interested in the party still going on in Beirut, where I find a salsa bar to dance in until dawn after being turned away from B108, the hip underground bunker where the tables resemble coffins. I made the basic error of not turning up in a Ferarri with two slim, scantily clad blondes on my arm and flashing a thick wad of dollars. Pepe would not have been impressed with me. I buy my three sexy salsa partners a drink in his honour.

Eat: Pastries at Rafaat Hallab – www.hallab.com
Stay: Riviera Hotel – www.rivierahotel.com.lb; Four Seasons Hotel – www.fourseasons.com/beirut/
Fly: BMI – www.flybmi.com

Travel: Exodus – www.exodus.co.uk

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