Moukhtara, the Chouf Mountains residence of Walid Jumblatt, godfather of Lebanon's Druze, may be the home I covet more than any place I've ever seen.
It's a series of square stone buildings built onto the side of a rather steep mountain sometime in the late 19th century. There are patios with formal chairs, fountains, and one landing has a large stone sarcophagus on display.
Stone stairways, some beneath arches, run between the buildings, linking them in all sorts of ways - a perfect place for kids to play hide-and-seek.
Several of the two and three-storey buildings have small balconies built out from the upper floors with panoramic views of the Chouf valley below and mountains so close you'd swear you could shoot across to them (some have tried), but take more than an hour to reach by car.
Through the whole compound, in a concrete and stone channel, runs a bountiful and fast-moving spring, its rushing water adds a soothing natural sound to the place, like camping beside rapids in a stream..
I've only been in two of the six or seven main buildings, but what I've seen is a classic Ottoman layout, with high-ceiling rooms, generous hallways, dark, private corners.
Mr. Jumblatt's office, with a large round table in the middle, houses a superb collection of antique pottery in glass cases.
All the public rooms contain large oil paintings depicting Jumblatt ancestors, rugged landscapes of the Chouf, and Druze battle scenes.
On Saturday mornings, Mr. Jumblatt holds an open house, a diwan, for his people, and a couple dozen show up, many dressed in traditional Druze costume. They wait their turn, are ushered into the presence of the "godfather" by a wonderful private secretary named Nasser, and convey whatever greeting or request they have come to make.
Considerately, Mr. Jumblatt invites a visiting journalist or two to come by as well and they are ushered in ahead of all but the most distinguished of the Druze visitors.
Back in time?
Jumblatt, Hariri, Aoun, Geagea … if the names of Lebanon's political leaders have a familiar ring, and make you think you've gone back in time, you're not alone. The principal characters in Lebanese politics have either been around for a long time, or have inherited the mantle from their fathers.
Walid Jumblatt has been the chief leader of Lebanon's Druze, and head of the Progressive Socialist Party, since 1977. His father Kamal Jumblatt ruled as godfather to his people and party leader until he was assassinated that year.
The Jumblatts, leaders of a minority in Lebanon, have always been versatile in choosing their political partners. That's the only way to survive in these parts, acknowledges Mr. Jumblatt, by making yourself useful, if not indispensible to the ruling power.
Saad Hariri, leader of the governing Future Movement (or party) which has a lot at stake in this weekend's election, is the son of Rafik Hariri, a two-time prime minister of Lebanon, who was assassinated by a bomb in February 2005.
The blast shocked the Lebanese people and its aftershocks led to the departure of Syrian forces in the country, and to the election of Mr. Hariri junior, and his allies.
Michel Aoun, is the same Aoun who was head of Lebanon's military in the 1980s and who tried to take over the government in 1989. He set himself up in the president's residence and declared an alternative government to that of prime minister Salim el-Hoss.
Eventually defeated by the Syrians, he was forced into exile where he remained until 2005, returning only after the Syrians left the country.
Since then, he has embarked on a major, legal campaign to run the country, allied himself unexpectedly with Hezbollah, and stands to gain the most this weekend if the opposition coalition, dubbed March 8, wins.
Samir Geagea, is the same man who ran a Christian militia called the Lebanese forces in the 1980s. Convicted of war crimes committed in the 1975-90 civil war, he served 11 years in solitary confinement until freed by an act of the Saad Hariri-led government to which he then pledged his political party.
In addition to these folks, there still is a Gemayel, (Amin Gemayel, the former president) at the head of the Christian Phalange group, now much smaller and less influential than in the 1970s and 80s. Mr. Gemayel's son Pierre was a member of parliament until assassinated in 2006.
And there is Nabih Berri, still head of the other Shia party, Amal, since 1980. Mr. Berri, the speaker of the parliament, is said to be grooming his son for the job.
Saad Hariri, leader of Lebanon's Future Movement, has taken on a distinctly Saudi look these days. His thick, dark goatee is cut exactly the way you'll find the beards of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal and countless other royal family members. But the Saudi look shouldn't come as a surprise.
Saad's father made his fortune in Saudi Arabia, constructing palaces and other projects for the royals. He brought that fortune to Lebanon, where he funded, as well as built, many of the country's finest football stadiums and mosques.
Son Saad, who took the helm in 2005, when his father was assassinated, also has come to rely on the Saudis for funds.
Throughout this election campaign, enormous sums have been spent on behalf of his Future Party, including bringing thousands of people, sometimes entire families, back to Lebanon from Canada and other countries in order to vote, preferably for his party.
One other device reportedly used to help the cause is to offer money directly to voters.
In some cases, it was described to me, a donor will offer an individual, known to favour the other coalition, $500 for his or her vote. If the person agrees, the donor asks ask for the person's voter card, paying him $250 in advance, with the rest to be paid on voting day.
If they are at all suspicious that the person will not actually vote for their list, the donors will apparently hold onto the card and not return it.
That way, I was told, they can at least be sure of one less vote for the other party, at a cost of $250.
Bureaucracy with a twist
Getting credentials can be tiresome, especially in places that learned from the Ottomans and the French about bureaucracy. But my efforts to get a press card Friday had an unusual twist.
When I first visited Lebanon in 1992, I dutifully reported to the Ministry of Information for a local press card. It took hours, required that I spend a painful time interviewing the minister, soliciting answers I knew I'd never use. And, then, I was never again asked to produce the card. I interviewed countless political figures in and out of office, and people everywhere. What was the point I asked myself, and never again sought press credentials in Lebanon. Until yesterday.
It was at the Hezbollah media relations centre, of all places, that I found myself admitting guiltily that I didn't have a local press card. Without a government press card, I was told, I couldn't complete the application for the Hezbollah press card, without which I couldn't hope to see the people I had sought to interview.
So off to the Ministry of Information I went, fearing a long lineup of journalists like me, in town for the election. There was no one there, but the official in charge and two staff members.
They happily gave me the form to fill in, took two pictures from me, then stopped. Where was the letter from my employer vouching for my bona fides. Without that …
Back to my hotel I went, called up the ubiquitous letter of introduction I had on file from the foreign editor, put in today's date and printed it out at the hotel's business centre.
Back to the ministry, where I was quickly given the completed permit, but then told I had now to take this to the Ministry of the Interior for the special permit to allow me to cover "the election."
Down the road I went, through more security checks, searching for the person to provide me with this document. I ignored the person telling me it was too late to get the permit, and the person who said my company in Canada should have applied for this weeks ago. Who knew?
Finally I found the person who took my hand and led me through the maze, filled in forms in Arabic for me, as I filled in the English.
We went from building to building and finally had things in motion. Only one person remained to be seen, and she was busy with the minister. I was told to wait.
I ducked out for a couple hours to meet with someone from the Hariri campaign down the road, and returned. No one missed me. Eventually I got it, and went happily on my way. But before I left I took advantage of the ministry's fax machine to send Hezbollah my permit. Of course, they then informed me that, permit or no permit, I couldn't see anyone until after the election.
At one point while waiting, I told the Interior ministry official that in the many trips I'd made to Lebanon, I had never needed a permit until now. He was surprised. But he was completely bowled over when he heard it was Hezbollah that followed the law and forced me to abide by the regulations.
A Forrest Gump moment
It was while waiting for the Interior Ministry to provide my credentials that I had a pleasant surprise.
I was on my way out the door of the ministry at one point, when a gaggle of foreign security men and a horde of local television cameramen converged on the porch, heading for the door. There was no escape, so I went back inside, standing a respectful few paces back.
As the cameras backed past me, I could see it was former U.S. president Jimmy Carter that was the centre of attention. He had just arrived in Lebanon to be a monitor of the elections. Close beside him was his wife Rosalyn.
Seeing me, he let go of his wife's hand and reached out to shake mine.
Somehow he had mistaken me for the official Interior Ministry greeter.
As he stopped I said "Hello, Mr. President. I'm Patrick Martin from Canada." Then I turned and shook Mrs. Carter's hand. A little perplexed, the former president looked to his handlers, who shrugged a bit, but then were saved by the arrival of the Interior Minister's emissary, who probably should have been where I was standing when the group came in.
We all had a little laugh and upstairs they went.
The security men were not amused.