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Day 3 in Lebanon (day 1 being our date of arrival) was our day to hang out in the city of Beirut itself, which meant a morning of shopping at an artisanal shop and walking around a bit followed by lunch by the sea at a restaurant where the patrons at other tables looked like they walked out of the sets of Miami Vice or Scarface or well, a James Bond flick. Guys in slicked-back hair and ponytails and girls in golden/snakeskin bikinis (okay, I exaggerate but there were a couple clad thusly). We split ways in the afternoon, Tiff and I to the museum which was manageable and had some real interesting artifacts, a few familiar sights (we met a version of our old friend Ramses) and a touching history of its own trying to save the collections in the face of war. Met up with Frances and her lovely mother that evening at a bar named for the Lebanese dialing code for a mellow round of drinks and dinner, very pleasant.

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Francois arrived bright and early on Sunday to take us to Baalbek, which out-Romans Rome in the grandeur of its ruins.  Some 80 kilometers north of Beirut on the way to, but a healthy distance yet from the recently bombed town of Tripoli, Baalbek offers a good contrast to the modernity of Beirut, with an atmosphere that appears to keep it in the Middle Ages even now. The change in atmosphere was obvious driving out there , not only in the quality of roads, but also the way in which people, especially women, dressed. Nary a woman without a hijaab (to give the phonetics of the way Arabic is spoken everywhere except in Egypt) except for the tourists, and an increasing number of posters with slogans praising the various early figures in Islamic history. We had a few Hezbollah guys thrust pamphlets at us through the car window, which our driver had to pay a few thousand Lebanese pounds/lira (Their currency worked in increments of thousands 1500 local to a dollar or thereabouts) for the privilege of not keeping! Keeping would have cost more I was given to understand. Foreign country…recent war… poor command of local language… So did we linger to argue or discuss the  issue or for that matter even pull over when they motioned for us to? The canny Francois, more savvy to their ways than us, wisely never stopped, threw some money at them and kept driving.

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Surely the temple complex in Baalbek has to be the largest I’ve ever visited. Just the “small” temple, often identified as one dedicated to Venus – the larger one is a Jupiter (or Jove) temple – by itself is larger than the Parthenon!!! And as old as these ruins are, they stand on the base of an even older structure, whose exact history is shrouded in mystery, being that there is no evidence, archeological or otherwise. The guidebooks and local signage claim that the standing pillars there are some of tallest in the world, and though my first instinct was to disbelieve (after all, I said to myself, I’ve been to Karnak!) the pictures and my second visit to the big K have me convinced. These pillar were enormous, and situated as they were along the rim of a rather high base to begin with, they really intimidate. Impressive structures and blocks aside, the temples also had some beautiful carvings – I was especially taken with the ceiling/gateway renderings of Bacchus (included in my slide show).

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Lunch (and we were extremely hungry by the time we’d finished wandering the temple and looking at the museum space) upon Francis’ recommendation (bless her heart she never once led us astray) were freshly made sweehas (Lebanese meet pies) which we bought by the kilo and assiduously finished, washed down with various drinks of choice including water, ayraan, juices etc. Stopped at the Ksra vineyards on the way back for a tour of the cellars and some (free) tasting. I will admit to being disappointed in the latter – the wines just didn’t live up to all that I’d heard from others. Granted they were better than the stuff we get in Egypt (what isn’t?) but nothing wowed me. Ho Hum and not very inexpensive at that. The deals we got at the Lebanese groceries were more impressive. Speaking of which, we stopped at one before heading back to our hotel that eve and I got myself some local wines and lots of good dark chocolate, the last of which bars I’m finishing up now just in time to restock when I go to Switzerland.

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