Katherine Butler: A historic relic – and that's just the hotel

Baalbek Notebook
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The Independent Online

It’s not all Gulf money and party-central nightclubs in the new post-conflict Lebanon. True, the bit of Beirut they call “downtown” could be, if not exactly the Paris, then at least the Luxembourg of the East, with its carefully restored streets, gleaming new office blocks and Bulgari jewellery stores. And you know a city has really arrived when it has a farmers’ market. Beirut’s is near the old the Green Line that ripped through the city during 15 years of civil war.

But history is never far away. A couple of hours east of the capital on the road to Damascus, Baalbek, ancient Heliopolis, has the best preserved Roman ruins in the Middle East, if not the world. I defy anyone to behold its splendour and scale and not gawp in wonder. And at this time of year, you can have the place virtually to yourself.

Almost as thrilling, to me at least, as the colossal columns of the Temples of Jupiter and Bacchus, was the chance to check in to a hotel for which the term faded grandeur might have been invented. The Palmyra has, according to the most up to date brochure (written in French and judging by the pictures quite a few years ago) that the manager could find for me, played host to “emperors, kings, princes, thinkers, writers and artists” since it opened in 1874, just as the first European tourists were discovering the stunning remains across the road. It's not an empty boast. The Empress of Abyssinia once reposed her head on the Palmyra’s now lumpy pillows; General de Gaulle slept in No. 30 (I was around the corridor in the only slightly less grand No. 24); the German army passed through at one point and the British military based itself here during World War 11. Stepping into the Palmyra’s dimly-lit front lobby I got the feeling the last guests before me had checked out some time ago, possibly 1945. The old man who serves breakfast might have just lifted the dust sheets and creaked open the elegant French shutters. There’s an element of comedy discovering if the plumbing has rendered your high ceilinged room as cold as a glacier or hot as a furnace and whether you have stone cold water from both taps or, in my case, only scalding. But the air of decrepitude only adds to the mystique, character and charm. And what hotel room have you ever spent the night in that has an original drawing by Jean Cocteau (he swore by the Palmyra it seems) above your bed? “You’re not planning a major renovation?” I asked nervously next morning. From behind a large desk on which sat two telephones so ancient looking they might have been just decorative, the manager looked up and smiled politely in a way that reassured me the Palmyra is safe in its present atmospheric condition for another while.

Success in numbers

Baalbek, capital of the Bekaa Valley, is in solid Hezbollah territory and the Party of God can’t be faulted for its spirit of enterprise. Canary yellow Hezbollah T shirts adorned with green guns are on sale for $3.00 near the Roman ruins. If they hold no appeal, the hawkers are quick to offer you Palestinian scarves or “ancient” Roman coins instead. A giant mosaic of Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran meanwhile beams down from the side of the small town’s imposing mosque while billboards bearing the pictures of local fighters line the roads. One particularly striking sequence of sad faced youngsters in black caught my attention. Some of the posters were stamped with the boast “100%” . “Martyrs?” I asked, wondering to myself if the percentage ratings represented a macabre “success” rate in whatever military operation was being honoured. “Oh no”, said my guide, “these are young people who have done exceptionally well in their studies.”