“Will you not gasp like that, Mum?” says Z. “You’re embarrassing me.”
Even after over two years of travel, the Jeita Grotto quite literally takes my breath away.
We’ve taken the cable car up to the higher of two caverns, over a turbid river fringed with cedars, and, from the dank entrance, a vista more fairy cathedral than fairy castle has opened up: delicate filigrees of stalactites dropping like curtains, a walkway spiralling across the endless chambers over a void below, cavern after cavern opening, almost trompe l’oeil style into the distance.
Even after the caves of Mulu in Borneo and Diros in Greece, the Puerto Princesa underground river in the Philippines and Konglor in Laos, Jeita is – well, awe-inspiring.
“Wow!” I say again.
“Stop saying ‘Wow!’”, Z says. “You’re embarrassing me…”
As my son heads gradually, yet unstoppably, towards puberty and adolescence, and I head towards the big 4-0, I notice I am embarrassing him more and more.
“Well,” I say, defensively. “It is a wow, isn’t it? Have you seen any more beautiful cave than this?”
“No, Mum,” he says. “I don’t think I have…”
We navigate the walkway, some stalagmites shattered and stained, a memory of the civil war, when the caves were used for storing weapons – in Lebanon, I’ll learn, conflict is a constant, silent memory, unspoken, yet ever-present.
Z throws a coin into a standing pool. “I wonder how long it will take for stalagmites to grow over it?” he says.
“God knows,” I say, overcome by the sense of archaeological vertigo that always strikes me when confronted with caves, the unimaginable swathes of geological time captured in their creation. “Maybe in ten million years archaeologists will find a layer of coins…”
“Alien archaeologists?” he asks.
“I reckon so,” I say. “Don’t you?”
“Yes,” he says. “I think the chances of the human race surviving another thousand years, let alone a million, are pretty thin. We need,” he continues, “To become more like The Culture…”
And he segues into an especially boyish soliloquy on Iain M. Banks, whose oeuvre he has been discovering lately.
It is, I think, eyeing my growing lad, a step up from Memebase, MineCraft or, for that matter, Family Guy as conversational topics go. Adolescence, I think, will have many pros, as well as cons.
Outside, for the Lebanese, despite their aesthetic sense have a fondness for the kitsch that makes Austrians look like minimalists, a Disney style toy train awaits, our transport to the lower cave system.
Although we’re into May, the snow in the mountains has barely melted, and up above the ski season is not long finished — “Hmmph! They have SKIING in Lebanon? You didn’t tell me about THAT…” — so the water level inside the cave is high.
We bundle into pontoon boats and embark on water illuminated from below until it’s bright as the Blue Grotto in Capri and swirl below a perilously narrow archway.
We wind with the water through high canyons, round perilous rocks, the roof opening above us into another cathedral vista…
… And then, too soon, it’s over.
“Well, THAT was a bit quick,” says Z.
“So beautiful,” I say, rather feebly. We amble back towards our little hire car, where I will commence battle, yet again, with the road warriors of the Levant…
“Oh My GOD!” I say. “Will you look at that?!”
“What?” says Z. “The guys on the Segways?”
“No,” I say. I’ve got used to the eccentricities of Lebanese traffic by now and doing battle with inebriated Segway jockeys in Byblos is no weirder than avoiding horse and carts in Lombok, Indonesia. “The castle! The port! Will you look at that?”
“I think you should park here,” says Z. “I think the town is pedestrianised.”
“It CAN’T be!” I say. “We’re in Lebanon!”
Byblos (its Greek name: in Arabic, it’s Jbail) is a candidate for the oldest continuously inhabited human settlement on earth, and, like Plovdiv, another candidate, is quite ridiculously chocolate-boxy cute, with its narrow, winding, Ottoman era streets, its Crusader castle, and a Roman colonnade fringed with jacaranda and bougainvillea running down towards the sea.
“What’s with the golf carts?” Z asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “This is like Lebanon’s answer to Saint Tropez!”
“It reminds me,” he says solemnly, “Of Santorini. It’s really very beautiful indeed. And it feels much more Mediterranean than Middle Eastern… What’s with the golf carts?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I guess that’s a Palm Springs thing?”
“What did you say about St Tropez?” he says.
“Shhh,” I say. I am beginning to realise that it’s coming up to 5pm and I have yet to find our hotel, or even a place to park. Further, the town looks busy. There appears to be only one nice cheap hotel in all of Byblos, and I am beginning to fear that it may be booked. “Last time I was in St. Tropez, you weren’t even able to walk.”
I don’t think it’s possible for somewhere as pretty as Byblos to lose its charm, but on about our fourth loop around the one-way system, and our fifth request for directions, and my sixth or seventh three-point turn, I am overcome with intense and passionate longing to be somewhere else. Or at least out of the car.
“OK,” I say, bowing to the inevitable and turning down to the parking lot on the harbourfront, in the shadow of an absolutely dinky little sea-fort. “Let’s just put it in this car park here.”
“Valet parking,” says a guy in a T-shirt.
“Ah!” I say. “We’re going to Pepe’s…”
“Free parking!” he says.
That can’t be right, I think. No hotel in our price range can CONCEIVABLY offer free valet parking.
I hand over my key and take a ticket.
“Why do you think they have valet parking?” asks Z.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m guessing to stop pissed Lebanese engaging drive instead of reverse and ending up in the harbour on their way back from dinner?”
We wander up to Pepe’s Fishing Club, an iconic harbourfront restaurant from Lebanon’s glory days half a century ago, where Marlon Brando and Brigitte Bardot used to eat and where I intend to splurge, touristically, on a set lunch for two, to ask about their cheap bungalows.
“Complet!” says the lady. She is, in a very French fashion, desolée.
B*gger, I think.
“There’s a place, Camping Amchit,” she says in French, sizing up our budget more or less correctly. “They have rooms for 20 dollars a night.”
She gives us directions. I stick my head into the pretty place on the corner, which looks firmly out of our price range, but I’m thinking if it’s only $150 or so I can probably talk them down to a hundred bucks for the night and have a splurge.
Rooms start at $220.
I will skim over the next half hour, pausing only to observe that a GPS is a great investment when hiring a car in Lebanon, and will pay for itself in blood pressure in about 20 seconds, and that rubbish Egyptian Arabic doesn’t work nearly as well as rubbish Levantine Arabic might do when asking directions.
“Right,” I say, taking our lives into my hands and turning into the driveway, which is positioned, Lebanese style, dead centre on a very steep and entirely blind bend. “I don’t care what this place is like! We’re staying here. If they have rooms, we are staying here.”
“Oooh!” says Z. “A friendly dog!”
And he’s off, with the Alsatian, leaving me to wonder what happened to his fear of dogs and negotiate a room.
A room, as it proves, with a view.
“I like this place,” says Z. “It feels really homely.”
For $40, we have a little mini-apartment, with a balcony, a sofa, a kitchenette, a bathtub – complete with plug! – a seaview, and a telly that plays Tom & Jerry at irregular intervals on one of several kids’ channels, a show that has my oh-so-sophisticated tween happily chortling away.
“OK,” I say. “I think we should stay here two nights.”
“I want to stay a week,” says Z. “They have a kitten, as well! Did you see the kitten?”
“We don’t have a week,” I say. “You’re off back to the UK to see your dad in no time flat, and we’ve got all of Lebanon to see.”
“Damn,” he says. “We should have come for a month. Lebanon is lovely… “