Holidays with veterans to Lebanon
By: Siem Kersten
On 24 November 2019 and 19 January 2020, we attend two meetings in Schalkhaar, where Bert and Jeannet discuss the possible holiday trip to Lebanon in March 2020 with fellow travellers. It soon becomes clear to us that this will not be a standard trip. Of course we will go into the UNIFIL area, because as veterans we would like to see that again, but we will also see other parts of this beautiful impressive country. After 41 years, it's finally going to happen. A long-cherished wish comes true. We go there with 11 old UNIFIL commarades. Some with partner, some with one of their children. In total we travel with 19 people. A nice easy to overlook number.
Lebanon holiday 2020 in collaboration with George Farah Travel.
from 1 March to 8 March
Day 1 Sunday morning
From home we drive at leisure to Amsterdam Schiphol, where we park the car. Slowly everyone trickles in and the atmosphere is immediately good. Especially when the jackets with the print 'Lebanon 2020' and t-shirts are handed out and at the first '11 o'clock' ritual we toast on a beautiful trip to come. The first group photo is soon a fact.
We leave at 14:00 from Schiphol and after an uneventful flight we land at Rafic Hariri airport, Beirut at 19.00. When we finally pass customs we head towards the exit where we meet our guide George Farah and our driver Afif Fakhrdin. A mini coach takes us through a still chaotic Beirut to the Commodore Hotel. After checking in we can sit down for a delicious dinner. The mood is immediately good while enjoying a refreshing Almaza beer.
Day 2 Monday
We start the day with a joint breakfast at 07.30 am and then check out, before leaving by coach to Baalbek (Heliopolis). We first need to cross the Lebanon Mountains through the snow. During a toilet break at SeaSweet on the International Highway Beirut - Damascus, we meet three Lebanese women who are very surprised to encounter Dutch people. It turns out that they also come from the Netherlands and are also on their way to Baalbek.Once we have passed the highest point we drive into the sunny Bekaa valley. Before we arrive at Heliopolis we first visit the largest stone (1200 tons) ever carved by humans.
We then drive to a very impressive and large archaeological site where we see three temples, namely those of Venus, Jupiter and Bacchus (the God of Wine). Thanks to our excellent guide Georges, everything is vividly explained in great detail.
After several hours of wandering around among the archaeological temples, we walk back to the coach and drive to the village of Douris, where we enjoy a delicious lunch at El Jawhary Sweets.
After lunch we drive to the town of Zahleh, where we visit the winery Chateau Ksara with a tour through the old wine caves. It is the oldest winery in Lebanon. It was founded in 1857 by Jesuit priests who discovered the caves and dug them out further for wine storage. The Chateau is located at an altitude of +/- 1000 mtr, against the mountain slopes of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains.
After the enjoyable wine tasting tour, we return to Beirut. From there we drive via the coastal road over the River Litani, into the UNIFIL area to Tyre (Sour). There we check in at the Platinum Hotel and again enjoy a delicious dinner.
Day 3 Tuesday
After our joined breakfast, we first practice standing to attention for the honour salute, this morning. With a patient Fred it comes to an acceptable performance.
The coach takes us via the coastal road to the UNIFIL Headquarters in Naqoura, where Major Helga, at that time Dutch gender advisor of UNIFIL, organized quite a few surprises for us. After coffee we receive from her an extensive presentation in the conference room of the UNIFIL headquarters. there is also an opportunity to salute all unifil soldiers who died during the more than 40 years that this mission has existed.
It turns out to be more emotional for everyone than first thought. After the salute it is time to enjoy a fantastic lunch, which is offered to us by the Dutch Ministry of Defense. We find it most enjoyable. After this, Helga has another nice surprise for us: A visit to Italair. We are welcomed in the briefing room, where a presentation is given about Italair's tasks, within UNIFIL, over the past 40 years. It is an amicable, impressive and totally unexpected visit which ends with a group photo for which one of the helis is taken out of the hangar. After Naqoura we drive to a number of old upper posts in the Charlie area: Post 7-1 close to the village of Al Bayyadah. Then on to Post 7-2, at the ruins of the Crusader castle Sha'ma. There is nothing left of both posts, except for the beautiful and impressive views.
We also try to reach Post7-6 in the village of (Shihin) Chihine, about 3 km from the Israeli border, but a local Hezbollah sympathizer is not happy about that and unfortunately we need to turn around. In 1992 the civil war ended, and since then Hezbollah has been in charge here. Post 7-17 is still there. It stands on the west side of the village of Al Mansouri near the coastal road. We have a lovely and spontaneous meeting with the son of the then Mukhtar who still knows how to tell wonderful stories from that time. This is one of the many unexpected encounters we have throughout the week. Partly because of this, the trip becomes very special. On the way back to the hotel in Tyre (Sour)we buy sandwiches (McDonalds) and snacks, beer and wine at an adjacent supermarket. Once back at the hotel we drink and chat until the small hours.
Day 4 Wednesday
Today we visit the UNIFIL area again, on the way to the village of Cana (Qana). The village of Cana is located outside the Dutch UNIFIL area and is still of the Fiji Detachment. Before we end up there we first look at various old sculptures (AD 100) and we visit the cave where Jesus, Mary and his followers are supposed to have been. Later this became a place of pilgrimage. We then walk to the spring 'Site of the Miracle' where Jesus would have turned water into wine. After this we drive to the former headquarters of Fiji, which has become a ruin after the shelling by the Israelis in 1996 and in which more than 160 people were killed, of which many were civilian casualties. The headquarters had been used by the civilians as a shelter during the many shellings, hence the many deaths.
We drive on to the area of the PaostCie, to visit Post 7-9. This post is located on a hill near the village of As-Siddiqin along the road to Haris, just before the exit to Zibqin. This post is still there, but the building is very dilapidated after 40 years of standing empty. On to Post 7-8. This too is still there, but inhabited. It is located on the main road from Qana (Cana) to Haris, a few Kilometers south of As Siddiqin. We then drive to the area of the StCie, where Dutchbatt had its headquarters, just before the village of Haris, where we visit Speedy. At the time, Speedy was our ‘Royal’ supplier in Haris for just about everything and anything, which went from Shampoo, to Radios, Cassette tapes and everything else you could think of. Of course there the inevitable groups photo in front of the large garage / petrol station of Speedy before we drive back to the village of Haris, where the former headquarters of Dutchbatt, Post 7.14 was located.
After our visit to Haris we drive up to Post 7-16. This post was near Al-Yatun. The buildings have been demolished and there are now a lot of houses, which once was a bare mountain top with one farm. Then on to Bent Jbayl. At the time, this village was located in the Irischbatt part of UNIFIL. Again we enjoy a delicious 'light' lunch. After lunch and a rest, we drive back to the area of the Paost-Cie to Post 7-7. This Post consisted of two buildings on either side of the road and was located on the north side of the road from Jbal el Botm, just before the village of Zibqin. We have to search quite a bit, but with the help of the locals we find both buildings. They are also still inhabited, but have been renovated considerably and have actually become unrecognizable.
On to the area of the Alpha-Cie to Post 7-13. This post is located at the junction to Haris and the village of Srebbine. From Post 7-13 we drive to the Charlie area and visit the place where Post 7-4 was once located in the village of Majdal Zoun, right opposite post 7-2 (visited yesterday). There is only the wadi in between.
After the meeting with the schoolmaster (Haidar dor Haidar) and the exchange of various gifts, we are invited to come and drink tea with his family. His mother of 93 years young is also present. This woman used to wash the clothes of the boys of post 7-4. She was happy with Unifil because we made her feel safe during that time and there was also a doctor who treated one of her sons when he broke his arm, who is now chief of police. Very special that we are invited to the tea ritual.
After tea we get on the bus towards the village of Al Mansouri where we have an appointment with the former headmaster (Hassan Taki) there. We are invited to his family home. After giving the necessary gifts again, everyone gets something to drink and many memories are relived.
Then we are spontaneously invited to eat together. Another happening that you can't think of in advance, but nevertheless happens. After dinner we drive back to our hotel where we talk about this special day while enjoying 'a few drinks'.
Day 5 Thursday
Today to the Hezbollah resistance museum. This museum is located on top of a mountain peak near the village of Mleeta about 25 km east of Sidon. We are provided with a lot of propaganda. The outdoor museum is nicely set up, naturally with a lot of weaponry, apparently all captured from Israel during the last war in 2006. After this visit we enjoy a 'light' lunch in the village of Nabatiye.
After the ‘light’ lunch we drive to the impressive crusader castle Beaufort. This castle is currently being partially restored. After the viewing we continue to the village of Adaisseh on the Blue-line (Israeli-Lebanese border). There we have a surprise meeting with Indonesian UNIFIL soldiers. A photo opportunity should not be missed.
On the way to our hotel in Tyre another visit to the McDonalds. And in the hotel again an extensive chat while enjoying a drink and a snack.
Day 6 Friday
After checking out of the hotel we travel towards an archaeological site in Tyre; the Hippodrome, right beside the old town and cemetery. After this visit, it's time for a serious moment,; the commemoration at the monument in Tyre for all unifil soldiers who died. We remember the Dutch soldiers especially.
it is again an emotional moment and because it rains,fortunately only on this day, we decide to drive back to the hotel for our '11 o'clock' moment.
The rain has stopped and we drive to the second archaeological site in Tyre. This very old Phoenician city (332 YEARS BC) used to be on an island off the coast. Alexander the Great had a dike built, so this city could be attacked and destroyed. After centuries of sediment washing ashore, it finally became a peninsula. On the ruins of the Phoenician city, a Roman city was later built. This city has now been partially excavated. After the viewings with again the clear explanation by George, we walk to the old port of Tyre where the influence of the Ottomans can clearly be seen in the architectural style of a number of houses.
Afterwards we drive out of the UNIFIL area towards the north, to the city of Sidon, where we first have lunch before visiting the beautiful crusader sea castle.
Then via the coastal road to Beirut, where we check in again at the Commodore Hotel. After finding a nice restaurant, we take an evening stroll through the famous nightlife area Hamra, a part of Beirut.
Day 7 Saturday
After breakfast we leave by coach to the famous Pigeon rocks.
Then on to the National Museum. During the civil war, this museum was in the line of fire, the so-called Green-line. The Museum was therefore largely destroyed, but fortunately it has been fully restored. After this beautiful and interesting visit, thanks again to George’s wonderful explanation, we drive along the Green-Line. After the war, the center of Beirut was completely in ruins. About 400 buildings have been demolished and hundreds of buildings restored. As a reminder of the civil war, they left a number of heavily damaged buildings. The center of Beirut is now full of new buildings and construction is still in full swing. Thanks to the war and the demolition of many buildings, many archaeological sites have been discovered.
After our walk, we drive to the city of Harissa, located above Beirut where the statue 'Our Lady of Lebanon' stands. Once there, we first have lunch. Then view the statue and enjoy the magnificent view over the bay of Jounieh. Harissa was founded in 1904 and is a sanctuary of Mary and a place of pilgrimage in Lebanon. It is an impressive and very peaceful place, on top of a mountain. Leaving that mountain can be done in a special way, by cable car, and that is what we do.
After this spectacular conclusion we drive to the beautiful town of Byblos (Jbeil). This is a historic Phoenician port city, its history goes back to the third millennium BC.
We drive back to Beirut after this beautiful unexpected visit, and eat outside a restaurant, while it is only early March! After dinner we talk for a long time in the hotel. After all, it is our last evening in Lebanon and we don’t get bored of talking about our experiences.
Day 8 Sunday last day and return trip Beirut to Schiphol
The day starts with our last breakfast. We then check out of the hotel, and place our luggage in the back of the bus. We still want to do a lot of things today, so we'll be on our way soon. First we go to 'our' well-known hotel ‘Riviera’ on the boulevard.
After this we leave Beirut behind us and drive to Nahr el Kalb (river of the dog). Near the mouth of the river there are more than 20 special reliefs, carved into the limestone rock formation. Further on there is also a Roman bridge. After this we quickly drive to the caves of Jeita with its impressive stalactite formations. Water flows into the lower cave and we go through it on a boat. We end up in Beirut in the afternoon, where we look for a restaurant together for our very last meal in Beirut. Having a bit of time left after a walk, we lounge about in the marina of Beirut, where the difference between rich and poor is clearly visible. Then Afif takes us safely back to the airport through the city by coach. It still remains a special experience to drive through this chaotic busy city.
Day 9 Arrival 9th of March Schiphol 00:30 am. After saying goodbye to each other, Bartina and I pick up the car and drive back home.
Bert, Jeannet, George and Afif, and of course our travel companions, thank you for this amazing impressive journey through truly breathtaking Lebanon.