BYBLOS, Lebanon (Reuters) - The Fishing Club in Byblos port, where the Mediterranean slaps against boats moored off Crusader ruins, offers one of Lebanon’s most enticing views.
But two things are missing from a restaurant renowned as a jewel of Lebanon’s tourist industry for four decades — its creator Pepe Abed, who died in December aged 95, and visitors from overseas, scared away by last year’s war with Israel.
The wooden tables awaiting red snapper, sea bass or squid from the day’s catch are all but deserted on a rainy Saturday afternoon, in contrast to the glory days when film stars and presidents were among the patrons beguiled by Pepe’s roguish charm as he mingled with them in his trademark sailor’s cap.
Fading snaps of Marlon Brando, Brigitte Bardot, Frank Sinatra and Jacques Chirac jostle for wall space with dozens of other celebrities who happily posed with Pepe over the decades.
Pepe’s 62-year-old son, Roger Abed, said his father’s secret was to put his guests at ease in natural surroundings and to value friendship over profit: “Forty years ago, he told me: ‘I want you to earn friends before money’,” he said.
Abed, who has managed the Fishing Club for 20 years, is determined to keep his father’s legacy alive for the day when Lebanon’s political turmoil subsides and tourists return.
“We are waiting,” he said by a log fire warming the thick 12th-century walls of what was once a Crusader store room.
“We are suffering. We are waiting for a miracle to save this country, to save the Lebanese people from this nightmare.”
Foreign tourists and Lebanese expatriates fled hastily when the July-August war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas erupted without warning. They have yet to venture back.
Byblos escaped the fighting, though Israeli bombs destroyed nearby highway bridges and fuel tanks at a coastal power station to the south, fouling the little harbour’s stone walls with oil.
A painstaking clean-up has removed the black sludge, but it has proved harder to wash away Lebanon’s postwar conflicts.
A power struggle between the Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition has shaken the country and provoked violent outbursts that evoke memories of the 1975-90 civil war.
As fighting consumed Beirut in that conflict, Pepe lost his downtown jewelry business, a hotel and his Acapulco beach resort, which was occupied by squatters who remain to this day.
A playboy businessman who joked that beautiful women were his “vitamins”, Pepe pioneered Lebanon’s tourism industry. He set up a string of ventures after returning in 1955 from his second homeland Mexico, where he was brought up.
“My father had a vision of promoting tourism in Lebanon,” said Abed, recounting the origins of the Fishing Club.
“It began in the 1960s when he came here with his boat and fell in love with that beautiful harbor, which was more or less completely abandoned except for a few fishermen’s boats.”
Pepe bought seven caves from their fishermen owners and turned them into a restaurant serving traditional Lebanese fare of fish and mezze, washed down with local wine or arak.
Appetizing dishes of chickpea hummus, eggplant mashed with garlic and lemon, and tabbouleh salad precede the fish you choose from the catch of the day. Fried red snapper or grilled sea bass stand out in a menu favoring the simple and familiar.
“It became simply an institution. Coming to Lebanon without visiting Pepe or the Fishing Club? It was a must,” Abed said.
Its attractions include a private museum Pepe created in two rooms to display the antiquities he plucked from the sea bed in decades of diving excursions off the Byblos coast.
Barnacled earthenware amphorae from Greek, Roman and Phoenician times nestle alongside ancient coins and marble busts in a collection that won Pepe the nickname “Pirate of Byblos”.
Unlike most pirates, Pepe kept his treasures for the public, not for sale, in a museum that was recognized by UNESCO.
In the twilight of his life, Lebanon had begun emerging from its bloody past to regain its allure as a tourist destination — until last year’s war with Israel let loose fresh instability.
“I’m leaving this world and until now Lebanon never had peace,” Pepe told his son on his death bed in December.
“He told me: ‘I want you to love this country like I did and never leave it’,” Abed said. “I told him I would do that.”